Chapter 2- Asaga

 

Ava sat at a table in the Sunrider’s mess hall alone, save for the company of a glowing holo and a steaming mug of coffee; her third that shift.  Since initiating an emergency warp to flee the destruction at Cera, the Sunrider had been traveling slowly at sub-light speed, scanning endlessly into the night and making for the last fallback coordinates issued by Central Command at the beginning of what the crew was now calling “Cera’s Last Stand.”

Part of the issue was the massive damage Sunrider had sustained during the battle, the other part of it was the nature of warp travel itself.  Virtually all interstellar travel depended on the warp engine, a relic of humanity’s distant past that likely predated even the Holy Ryuvian Empire.  Every ship capable of such travel mounted an extremely large and elaborate series of drive rings, proportional to the mass of the ship being taken into warp.  Hull design differed among the different manufacturers and time periods of the galaxy, but the Sunrider’s design with internalized warp drives was currently the most prevalent kind of ship hull observed.  Transitioning to warp was not an effort undertaken lightly, as any number of disastrous outcomes could be precipitated by a botched jump.

Most commercial and civilian vessels would take the time to clear any strong local influence from gravity, plodding along at sub-light speeds with conventional fusion drives until reaching open space.  Jumps any closer to gravitational bodies typically resulted in increased “drift” or inaccuracies in navigation that could land a ship weeks away from their original destination, necessitating either another costly warp jump or weeks drifting along at snail’s pace using sub-light engines.  It was due to this particular quirk of warp travel that the Sunrider had exited warp several days away from the fallback coordinates, having initiated an emergency jump while still trapped in Cera’s gravity well.

Once clear of any strong gravitational influences, civilian ships would slowly begin to accelerate their warp rings, a process informally referred to as “spooling up” the drive, either to maximize the longevity of their warp drives or because of their lower tolerance specifications.  Military and other high performance spacecraft, however, incorporated drive designs with far higher tolerances and performance than the typical merchant cargo ship, allowing for much more rapid, if not near instantaneous warp transitions at the cost of additional maintenance and the inherent risks of suffering catastrophic warp drive failure.

Due to the strain on her systems, both from combat and the emergency warp, for the last week, the entire crew of the Sunrider, officers included, had been pulling double shifts to shore up the ship’s integrity, bypass damaged systems, and restore the ship to something almost like combat-ready status.

Lifting the mug of tar-black liquid to her lips, Ava took a sip, half-appreciatively, half-apprehensively, shuddering as she swallowed.  At least the coffee was hot; the first two days after the Sunrider dropped out of emergency warp, so many of her systems had been compromised that all non-essential ship functions were suspended, so as to devote full resources towards the repair of their vessel.   Compared to the stone cold coffee that they’d had when they first arrived, her current beverage was an improvement… marginally.  The situation had improved in other aspects of ship function since as well, although Sunrider remained questionably combat-ready; there was only so much repair the crew could attend to in deep space without the assistance of a space dock’s infrastructure.  So desperate were some of their repairs that the crew had even taken to dismantling certain munitions and drones for spare electronics and parts to replace every manner of overloaded, fried, or simply destroyed starship component.

Flicking through her holo as the coffee blasted away her fatigue into a foggy discomfort somewhere in the back of her mind, Ava assessed the Sunrider’s increasingly dire supply and munitions stocks, tenuous tactical situation, and complete lack of support or orders from Central Command.  Although they had all been initially hopeful of regrouping with what remained of the Cera Space Forces, no other ships had arrived at the coordinates since the Sunrider arrived.  Harrowing as their escape from Cera was, it appeared the Sunrider had been uniquely fortuitous in avoiding destruction or capture at the hands of the PACT, for better or worse.  With each day that passed, Ava’s hope for finding other survivors of the battle diminished as her fears of falling afoul a PACT patrol grew.  Combined with the fact that the Sunrider had been outfitted with only the minimum of supplies and munitions in the rush to launch, Ava was not optimistic about their odds of survival if the PACT came calling.

Looking around the canteen, she sampled the general atmosphere.  Most of the men and women of Sunrider looked exhausted, but the entire crew was calm and focused.  Judging from her observations and hearsay from some o the other ship officers, Kayto’s stunt in orbit over Cera seemed to have won him the confidence of his crew.  Overloading the shield emitters had arguably saved their lives during the Legion’s onslaught, however, Kayto undoubtedly knew the risks of doing so.  Half their systems were fried by feedback from that particular trick, a lucky outcome considering Sunrider could have as easily melted herself, electrocuted her crew, or simply vaporized all of them if the overload had managed to become self-feeding from the ship’s central power and reactor systems.  In retrospect, however, the gamble had paid off, allowing Sunrider to avoid the fate of the rest of Cera’s fleet.  The possibility of death weighed against certain death… Kayto’s assessment of the situation had been spot on and he had shown the backbone to gamble on an unorthodox, albeit effective maneuver that had saved the ship.  Ava shuddered; it wasn’t the kind of decision she envied, but, perhaps, that was why he was Captain and she was his First Officer.

Even with their damaged ship and the fall of their entire world, the crew continued to attend to their duties, confident that the Captain had some other idea up his sleeve that would set things right.  Ava wasn’t as sure.  Swirling her coffee, she braced herself and knocked back the remainder in two rapid gulps.  Rising and walking out of the mess hall, she tucked her pad under her arm and dropped her mug onto a conveyor belt carrying the dishes back into Sunrider’s robotic kitchens.  Time to find out whether Kayto really did have a plan for Sunrider.  In retrospect, she thought, he probably did have one; just one she wouldn’t like.

******

Kayto set down his stylus, sighing deeply and shaking the weariness out of his wrist, looking out at the large holoscreen that simulated a two story window in his quarters.  Spacious and tastefully furnished, the Captain’s quarters appeared more like a luxury apartment in Cera City’s central district than a warship’s accommodations.  The entrance to his quarters lead to an upper level balcony that doubled as his office and study.  Behind his desk, a series of stairs descended to his personal space, opening into an efficient minimalistic parlor and bedroom.

“Computer, save Captain’s report.”

“Report saved,” affirmed the computer.

Leaning back in his chair, Kayto closed his eyes, rubbing at the puffy skin beneath them.  Sleep had been nigh impossible, a series of nightmares and an exercise in tossing and turning.  Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on perspective, the sheer amount of work and responsibility over the last week kept his mind completely occupied, without a moment’s rest for self-pity or self-recrimination.  For this, Kayto was grateful.  One day, he knew the pain of the fall of Cera, the destruction of his home city, and all the rest would come for him with a vengeance, but, today, all that mattered was that his crew needed him and that his duty remained the protection of the sovereign people of Cera.  With those two duties on his shoulders, Kayto had all the reason he needed to continue pushing ahead, rather than to look back.

‘Bing Bing’ chimed his quarter’s doorbell.

“Come in,” answered Kayto, straightening and pushing his weariness to the wayside.

Ava stepped into his quarters, the door hissing shut behind her.

“Captain.”  Ava saluted crisply.

“Have a seat, Ava,” offered Kayto, too tired to fight her on the first name basis argument again.  As his First Officer sat, Kayto studied the dark circles under her eyes, surmising that her fatigue likely exceeded his own.  “Any news of the fleet?”

“None,” answered Ava, characteristically blunt.  “It may be dangerous to continue holding our position at these coordinates.  If a PACT patrol were to find us… let’s just say they might finish the job the Legion set out to do.”

“You’re suggesting we give up our search?” asked Kayto, arching an eyebrow.

“Long range sensors have shown no Cera transponders since we arrived at the fallback coordinates.  What’s left of Cera’s government surrendered and was dissolved six days ago.  Most likely, whatever remains of the fleet has either been impressed into service for the PACT or gone rogue.  Sir, we have no standing orders from the fleet or government since the fall of Cera and we’re unlikely to get any no matter how long we wait here.  Also, our contingency plans may no longer be secure after the PACT took over.  Waiting here becomes more dangerous by the day.”

“So you would have us go rogue too?” asked Kayto, staring out at the simulated stars on the holoscreen.

Across the desk, Ava only shrugged.  “The entire crew is looking to you for direction now.  That was some quick thinking back at Cera, overloading our shields on one side and rerouting our systems.  The crew knows who to thank that this ship is still in one piece, but that trust will erode with fear and uncertainty.  We can’t just sit around waiting for orders that may never come… for better or worse, we’re no longer bound to the Cera Space Force by any authority remaining.”

Kayto mulled over her words for a minute before replying.  “Ava, tell me, what’s a ship without a flag?”

Crossing her arms, Ava answered, “A pirate ship.”

“This isn’t a pirate ship.  And I’m no pirate captain.”

Sighing, Ava rolled her eyes.  “I’m not suggesting we turn to pirating, Kayto!” she said in an exasperated tone, feeling he was missing the point.

“I know,” he reassured her, “But so long as I’m Captain, Sunrider will fly Cera’s flag.  So long as we keep that transponder active, we’ll always be men and women of Cera Space Force.”

“That’s fine, but it doesn’t really solve any of our immediate problems out here in the middle of nowhere in PACT controlled space,” pointed out Ava, cutting back to reality.

“The PACT won’t get away with what they did to our home…” Kayto balled his hand into a fist on the bureau between them.  “We’re going to take the fight to them.”

“With respect, we’re one ship.”  Ava’s tone was blunt and skeptical.

“We’ll find allies,” insisted Kayto, trying to sell his plan.  “We’re not the only neutral world conquered by the PACT.  We’ll find others like us, regroup and build a fleet, and, when we’re ready, liberate our worlds, one by one, from the PACT.”

Ava tapped her thin lips thoughtfully.  “It sounds like you’ve already given this… ‘plan’ some thought.”

Kayto smiled wryly, “I gave it a shot.  Hey come on, it’ll be like old times.”

Ava sighed, raising a hand to her brow, half-amused and half-exasperated.  “If it’s going to be like back then, it’s a good thing they made me your First Officer.  I don’t even want to think about what kind of trouble you’d cause without me to clean up your messes.

“Just a minute!” laughed Kayto, “Is that all you can remember of me from high school?”

“What I remember is that you were one of the most frustrating people I had to deal with as student council president,” bit back Ava, although her tone lightened half a shade.  “I’ll thank you to remember the time you installed that anti-gravity device in the student council office.  I don’t think we ever got things to look like before again.”

Kayto chuckled appreciatively, “Oh that little thing.  Come on, you had a good laugh about it afterwards didn’t you?”

“No.”

Kayto closed his eyes happily, indulging in revisiting their shared past for a moment while the mood, at least on his end, remained light.

Shaking her head, Ava brought them back to the topic on hand.  “It’s not a bad idea, I’ll give you that.  But Sunrider needs a little more than deep space repairs before we’ll be in any shape to seriously take on the PACT again.  We’re going to need repairs at a space dock.  We’re also bone dry on missiles and munitions for our flak cannons and the Saviors, never mind virtually every other kind of supply this ship needs.”

Kayto nodded, opening his eyes and turning serious again.  “I know, I read the same reports you do… we’re not exactly flush with options are we?  Our best bet is probably to lay into safe harbor at one of the Neutral Rim worlds off the beaten path and look for repair and resupply once we get there.  Tydaria is only a day’s jump from here.  Maybe we can trade some of our tech schematics for services rendered…”

“That won’t be necessary,” said Ava, a smile breaking across her face for once.  “Galactic powers and governments, Tydaria included, place bounties on anyone they’ve got beef with; pirates, rivals, whatever.  Ever since the PACT began pushing into the Neutral Rim, some pretty big bounties have been posted for their ships too.  We’ll be paid a lump sum for each ship we sink; fast cash for the supplies and services we need to keep operating.  I’ve already put together some preliminary dossiers for bounties that align with our mission.  So long as we start small, the Sunrider should be more than a match for anything out here in the sticks.”

“I thought we decided we weren’t taking the pirate route,” said Kayto with a straight face.

Ava flushed slightly.  “This is different, it’s more mercenary or privateer work- Hey!  S-shut up!” she demanded as Kayto broke into snickers.

“I like it,” smiled Kayto as Ava’s cheekbones flushed crimson.  “Any operation against the PACT we can pull off is a good one for now.”

Ava nodded, steadying her composure.  “There’s also the matter of personnel and equipment.  As you know, none of our Ryders or pilots transferred before Cera fell, severely limiting our capabilities as an assault carrier.  We’re also short one ship doctor and a chief engineer; we’ll need to find some people with the qualifications we need, preferably sooner rather than later.”

“I guess Tydaria is as good of a place to look as any,” shrugged Kayto.  “Wherever we find those people, it won’t be out here, that’s for sure.”

Ava nodded and stood, saluting.  “Any additional orders, Sir?”

Kayto stood and walked around his desk, stopping at a respectful distance.  “Ava… are you holding up alright with all this?” he asked, eyeing the dark circles under and the fatigue behind her eyes.  Clearly, she was sleeping no better than he was.

“I’m… fine.  There’s no reason to worry about me, Captain,” she said stiffly, avoiding eye contact.  Kayto said nothing as her hand dropped down and she relaxed from her salute, still firmly looking away from him.  “Kayto… we’ve got more immediate problems to worry about; let’s make sure we all pull through this in one piece first.”

Kayto nodded, “Use my door anytime you need to.”

“Understood,” she replied, turning and walking towards his door.  “I’ll see you in the CIC when you’re ready to lay in our course to Tydaria.”

******

“Dropout from warp without incident, all expected systems read green.  Navigation confirming coordinates… confirmed.  We’ve arrived at Tydaria, Sir,” announced Ava as forward screens activated, showing a massive, ringed, rust colored world hanging in front of them.

Not every planet colonized by humanity looked like or even remotely resembled Cera; the vast majority of worlds were a good deal less hospitable.  Tydaria was one such world where humans had been drawn to establish a permanent presence out of industrial necessity rather than comfort.  Although the planet’s surface was lashed with high winds, sandstorms, and the occasional toxic rain, its crust composition and planetary rings were rich in ores demanded across the known galaxy for applications in high quality starship manufacturing.  Most Tydarians were, either directly or indirectly, employed by the mining industry and shared the same ascetic, dry, humorless and occasionally dangerous attitude of their homeworld.  Among the local Neutral Rim worlds, Tydarians were famed for their ability to nickle and dime a trader within a centimeter of his or her life, fiercely bargaining every penny’s worth out of the ore they wrested from the planet.  Perhaps it was the inhospitably of the planet and/or its inhabitants, but neither the Solar Alliance nor the PACT had much interest or luck in swaying their allegiance one way or the other, ore prices and quantities having the final say in all of Tydaria’s business and political dealings.

Kayto regarded the rusty planet on the main screen, noting the healthy sprinkle of orbital habitats and factories encircling the planet with swarms of cargo freighters puttering to and fro on their regularly scheduled runs.  In some ways, Tydaria and the hard bargains they were bound to find made for a less than ideal port to trade for repairs and resupply, but their strict neutrality towards galactic politics and the fact that their technology level was on par with Cera’s made it a more attractive option than at first glance.

“Lay in a course for the planet’s rings,” ordered Kayto.  “There’s bound to be an open repair dock somewhere in that mining operation.  We’ll be able to get things straightened out and some resupply at the very least.”

Ava leaned forward, examining her screens carefully.  Explosively breathing out, she spoke grimly, “You might want to hold that idea, Captain.  We’re detecting a number of unknown contacts on an intercept vector.  We’re being hailed and I don’t think it’s an invitation to sit and chat over tea and biscuits.”

“Open the channel,” ordered Kayto.  “You’re always so pessimistic…” he muttered.

Ava sniffed, “Woman’s Intuition.”

The holo projector hummed to life between them and a blonde haired child with gray eyes wearing a violet armored Ryder suit materialized on the deck exactly where Kayto expected, but at least three heads too short.

“HaaHaaHaaa!”  The unknown Ryder pilot’s peels of mirth rang out on the bridge.  “This is pirate Ryder Havok.  Lower your shields and surrender your ship!” she demanded in a menacing and surprisingly low pitched voice, pointing threateningly towards Kayto and Ava.  Small and child-like, the avatar shattered every pirate trope from the holodramas, but Kayto was not one to judge the peculiar fetishes of Tydaria’s local pirate gang.  For all he knew, a burly, fat, hairy pirate lord was hiding behind the projection in the opposing Ryder’s cockpit.

“OK, looks like you were right after all,” whispered Kayto to Ava from the corner of his mouth.

“Captain; unknown contacts are flying no registered transponder signals.  Looks like they actually are pirates,” announced Ava, rolling her eyes.

“Red Alert,” said Kayto calmly, looking down at the holographic avatar of Havok’s pilot, “All hands to battle stations.  Pirate; stand down.  This is the warship Sunrider of the Cera Space Force.  We will not hesitate to open fire with deadly force if you do not deviate from your course vectors and turn tail immediately.”

“Cera huh?” smirked the pirate. “That explains a lot; looks like you’re ship’s ready to fall apart, even without my help.  It’s a fixer-uper, but it’ll do nicely as an addition to my pirate fleet, once we’re done taking care of your crew, of course.”  The pirate’s voice was casual.  “Boys, rough ’em up!”

The pirate’s avatar dissolved as they cut the communications link.  “Ava, what’s the tactical situation?”

“Two pirate Ryders inbound on fast-burn intercept vectors, standard Imperial surplus infantry models, likely refurbished.  Scans are reading them as Mark II’s.  One additional Ryder, bomber class, custom configuration, designation ‘Havok.’  We’ve also got two pirate destroyers five minutes behind them pushing to intercept from separate vectors; they’re trying to box us in.”

Kayto nodded.  The Ryders represented the most immediate threat to the ship.  Quick single-pilot space superiority fighters, Ryders were nimble, agile opponents capable of mounting starship grade weapons.  Ancient legend from the days of the Holy Ryuvian Empire spoke of Ryders as having ceremonial and ritualized functions in addition to their military applications.  For a time, their actual existence had been heavily debated among academics, the art of their manufacture and operation having been lost during the Dark Ages after the fall of the Holy Ryuvian Empire.  The nascent space faring powers of that time returned to traditional single-pilot fighter starships to fulfill the space superiority niche until the rediscovery of Ryder technology circa the year 398 when Solar Alliance archaeologists retrieved a fully operational Ryder from an ancient Holy Ryuvian Empire ruin.

Locked in a desperate and gridlocked war against the New Empire, the Solar Alliance gambled it’s not-insignificant scientific and industrial resources on large scale reproduction of the Ryder.  Although Imperial scientists and spies quickly allowed the New Empire to reproduce the technology as well, the Alliance had already found it’s advantage, winning several key engagements with the re-introduction of Ryder technology to space warfare.  Outmatching traditional single-pilot spacecraft in nearly all regards, Ryder technology quickly became the staple of space-superiority in space-based conflict, forever replacing the now obsolete concept of single-pilot spacecraft.  The only domain in which traditional fighter craft continued to play a role was in atmosphere, where the Ryder’s light frame and lack of aerodynamics spelled certain suicide for any pilot foolish enough to fly that close to a planet.  If the atmosphere didn’t kill them, the gravity would, dragging the vehicle down into a flaming, deadly embrace.

Now, slightly over one hundred years since their rediscovery, Ryder technology had become significantly more refined, with all major space-faring powers operating their own Ryder programs.  Such was the proliferation of Ryder technology that even independent powers, such as criminals and pirates, had managed to secure and learn to pilot the craft, albeit heavily modified older models, mostly left over from the Alliance-Imperial War or PACT revolution.

Painted an anonymous shade of green, the Mark II Imperial Ryder had once been a staple of the Imperial Navy, produced en mass by their factory worlds, although it seemed that the pirates had splashed all manner of gaudy holograms and neon-painted war symbols across the once spartan hull.  Wielding a standard semi-automatic 70mm autocannon directly integrated into its right armature and long range laser weaponry on the left armature, the Mark II Imperial Ryder was equipped for almost any job imaginable, although it traded performance for the versatility.  Some of the Ryders had even been equipped with missile pods, allowing the Ryder to carry a limited number of guided missiles as a one-off supplementation to their offensive capabilities.  Aside from a large shield integrated onto the left armature, the Imperial Mark II’s lacked any defensive capabilities beyond their pilot’s skill, completely lacking modern shielding or additional hull armor, making them relatively frail targets against large-caliber kinetic weapons or laser weaponry.  Of course, since the pirates were vastly more interested in outfitting their Ryders to appear intimidating than actually paying attention to the maintenance of their craft, Kayto suspected their machines would fall short of even the sub-par specifications of the Mark II Imperial Ryder.

Completely composed of standardized parts, Imperial Ryders made ideal black market merchandise, allowing less scrupulous dealers to buy, sell, refurbish, chop, etc. with the minimum of hassle.  The Ryders moving to intercept the Sunrider had been obsolete the day the pirates had bought them off the black market, but, despite the poor attention paid to maintenance, were apparently more than enough to strong arm the local trade vessels.  Behind them, two of what passed for the pirate equivalent of a destroyer shuddered towards the Sunrider.  Eyeballing the ships, Kayto marveled at their ability to remain in a single piece through the strain of the acceleration.  Little more than a fusion powered frame mounting the biggest, flashiest guns and engines they could scrape off the black market, the pirate destroyers were a used starship salesman’s worse nightmare potpourri of decommissioned and salvaged starship parts, all wrapped up with the pirates’ unique taste in decoration to boot.

Likely, the pirates’ relative success in Tydaria had emboldened them to the point of recklessness; a lone warship, clearly wounded, was too tempting a target to simply ignore.  Even so, Kayto mused, their leader either ambitious and confident, or simply foolhardy to approach even the crippled Sunrider with a fleet like that.

“Let’s focus on taking those Ryders out before those destroyers close range.  Give me full forward on engines, bring us about bearing five-five and ten-six, drop us three degrees down relative to horizontal axis.,” ordered Kayto.

“Aye, Sir,” replied Ava, relaying the orders.

Sunrider’s engines responded, pushing the crew into their crash seats as she accelerated in-system.

“Pirate Ryders maintaining present intercept course, removing weapon safeties; we are ready to fire on your command, Captain,” reported Ava.

“Target lead pirate Ryder,” instructed Kayto, tapping a series of commands into his tactical screen.  “Fire our missiles and take him out before we get within range of their laser weapons.”

“Understood,” nodded Ava, “Be advised; Sunrider’s missile munitions will be exhausted after this action.”

“Do it,” confirmed Kayto.

“Missile pods hot.  Launch all missiles now!” barked Ava.

Along Sunrider’s lateral fins, one dozen missile silos on each side slide open, allowing her remaining stock of Hell Dart missiles to take flight.  Trailing clouds of vaporized propellant which flash froze in the vacuum of space, the missiles streaked towards their lead target, making minor course adjustments as their micro-computer systems tracked the incoming Ryder.

“Hell Darts away, contact with target in ten; on main screen now.”

Kayto looked up, watching as the pirate Ryder held its course in the face of the missile salvo in a deadly game of chicken.  As the missiles were semi-autonomous and capable of limited target tracking, Ryder pilots always waited until the last moment possible to initiate emergency course corrections with the hope of throwing the missiles off.  As the missiles drew closer, the pirate Ryder let loose with an extended burst from it’s 70mm autocannons, spent casings drifting off into space in a cloud of metal.  Two missiles detonated from the incoming fire, but the rest streaked forward, unharmed.  Kayto grinned; clearly pirate Ryder pilot training left something to be desired.

Too late, the pirate activated his lateral thrusters, kicking his Ryder to the left.  Two missiles clipped his frame, one blowing a hole his right armature, the second, blowing off the sensor suite which made up the “head” of the Ryder.  Blind and wounded, the pirate Ryder tumbled from the impact, wildly firing retrothrusters in a desperate attempt to regain axis stability.  The remaining missiles shot past the Ryder before banking and homing in on their wounded prey.  Impacting one after another, the missiles jerked the pirate Ryder’s frame around like a rag doll before a critical shot caused its reactor containment to shatter, consuming the entire Ryder in a ball of flame and metal vapor.

Heedless, the other Imperial Mark II blasted through the remnants of his partner Ryder, its glowing holograms depicting various gang signs and women in anatomically questionable positions turning a blood red.  Raising it’s left arm, the Ryder leveled its laser cannons at the Sunrider, letting loose with twin crimson beams.

“Laser hit on our port side, Captain,” reported Ava, as Sunrider’s monitors beeped in consternation.  “Lateral armor intact, no hull breaches reported.”

Kayto smiled.  Although laser weapons were effective and accurate at range, the nature of space warfare made it difficult to concentrate fire on a single location to maximize the chance of a hull breach.  Less than effective laser attacks simply gouged ugly grooves along starship armor, unable to penetrate to core systems or into the hull itself.  “Charge Trinities, let’s show them the difference between our training and theirs.”

“All Trinity laser banks, lock target and fire on my mark… mark!” ordered Ava as the computer achieved a firing solution for the target.

Blue laser light erupted from Sunrider’s lateral laser banks, her six laser cannons on each side discharging asynchronously.  Boxed in from all sides by multiple laser shots from the different laser cannons, the pirate Ryder found itself unable to escape and hunkered down behind its large, legionnaire style shield.  The shield glowed bright orange for a moment before sloughing off, allowing the deadly laser strike to melt the Ryder behind it like a wax candle.  Deformed and damaged, the molten Ryder began to flash freeze as the laser lost coherence, fusing the entire machine into a useless chunk of glass and metal.  Doubtless, the pirate pilot inside the Ryder did not survive the transition.

“Open a channel, the same frequency the pirates hailed us on,” requested Kayto.  “Pirate; turn back now before things get messy.”

“Hah!” the pirates’ leader materialized on the bridge once again, her purple Ryder suit festooned with holographic symbols and marks on its armored plates, although hers were a good deal more understated than her flunkies’.  “Those grunts are a dime a dozen, just a distraction to get my Havok in range.  Take this, Firestorms away!”

“Incoming missile fire, Captain!” called out Ava, the calm around her voice cracking microscopically.  “All hands, brace for impact!”

Sunrider shook angrily as her flak cannon gunners fired into the oncoming ordinance, their computer-assisted aim nailing several of the incoming missiles.

“Not enough!” squealed the pirate happily as Sunrider rattled under the barrage of missiles.

“Damage report!” grunted Kayto through gritted teeth as the ship stabilized, muting the comms system.

“We’re venting air in four sections, multiple hull breaches.  This is putting a pretty hard strain on our systems, Captain,” replied Ava grimly.  “No fatalities… yet.”

“Who let that many missiles through?  Are our gunners blind!?” demanded Kayto, only half-serious, breathing out in relief despite Ava’s pessimism.  “What the hell’s in them anyways?  They burned through our armor like it wasn’t there!”

“No idea, Captain, but our systems, sensors and computer-assist for the flak cannons included, were barely hanging on by a thread before we even got here.  Sunrider’s giving it all she’s got.”

“And this one,” gloated the pirate girl.  “Is for your engines.  Get ready to be boarded, Captain!  We’ll cut your crew into pieces!”

“Play nice, pumpkin,” admonished Kayto in a mock sweet voice.  “Why can’t you just be a good little girl and save us both a lot of trouble?”

“Hurk…” the pirate girl’s eyes contracted to pinpoints, her voice strangled by sheer rage.  “Did… did… you just call me…”

“Don’t worry sweetie, the grown ups will let you stay up next time.  Why don’t you run along and head to bed now?”

Y-YOUUU!”  Kayto arched an eyebrow as the girl’s eyes bulged alarmingly.  “KILL THEM ALL, BUT LEAVE THE CAPTAIN FOR ME!  HE’S… MINE…”

Beside him, Ava buried her face in her hands.  “Captain… provoking the enemy… IS ONLY GOING TO GET US SKINNED ALIVE!!!”

“Actually, I think the plan was to only do that to me; the rest of you have it easy,” dismissed Kayto as Ava rolled her eyes and sighed explosively at him.  Although he passed it off as good fun, spitting in the enemy’s eye had bought him and the crew a few precious moments to reconsider their tactics given Sunrider’s reduced capabilities.  With any luck, having been goaded into attack, the pirates’ lack of discipline and tactics would give the Sunrider the advantage it needed to turn things around.

“Eh?!” squealed the pirate girl, her hologram suddenly rippling from interference.

“Captain!  New contact, coming up from behind on our port side on intercept vector with the Havok.  Multiple laser impacts on enemy Ryder detected!” relayed Ava, her composure returning.

“The cavalry has arrived!” announced a free-spirited female voice.  On the bridge, a redheaded woman with sea-green eyes materialized on the open channel, wearing a Ryder suit with matching red armored plates.

“What the-?  Who are you?” demanded Kayto, thrown, but impressed.  Landing multiple laser hits on another Ryder at that range and while accelerating spoke volumes of the pilot’s skill.

Flashing a roguish smile, the Ryder pilot stuck a pose in front of her camera.  “A HERO OF JUSTICE!!!”

Next to him, Ava pinched herself through her uniform, muttering, “Too much coffee, too much coffee…”

“Looks like you guys could use a hand,” continued the Ryder pilot.  “Don’t worry, my Black Jack can take care of those guys in a flash!”

“Scans complete, Captain,” cut in Ava.  “She’s piloting a privately owned custom Ryder, licensed through the United Mining Guild.  Probably private security or mercenary hired for the mining operation here.”  With a sideways glance, Ava’s real thoughts were clear; Can we trust her?

Kayto shrugged to her, meaning clear as day: Not much choice.

“Alright Black Jack.  Let’s see what you’ve got.  Keep that Ryder off us and let us handle those two destroyers inbound.”

“Roger that!” answered the Black Jack’s pilot as the Ryder flashed past the Sunrider on the main screen, it’s blue engines flaring brilliantly as it barreled towards the Havok recklessly.

“All ahead forward, give me a firing solution for those destroyers; we’ll fire the Saviors once we get in range,” ordered Kayto, steel in his voice.  “And keep an eye on that Ryder,” he added as an afterthought.

As Sunrider pushed towards the pirate ships, Kayto watched as the Black Jack engaged the Havok.  Having recovered from the sudden attack, the pirate Ryder leveled a massive Gatling gun at the Black Jack while what appeared to be a chainsaw powered up, spitting sparks menacingly as it came to life.  Hitting her maneuvering thrusters in rapid succession, the Black Jack dodged and weaved, dancing recklessly around the heavier Havok’s machine gun bursts while chipping away at the other Ryder’s armor with bursts from her own autocannons.

“Fire Saviors!” ordered Kayto.  Sunrider’s heavy deck guns fired in succession, sending satisfying reports throughout the ship.  Having never been built to withstand that kind of fire, the slow moving pirate destroyer’s hull broke apart like a ripe fruit, Sunrider’s kinetic slugs gutting her and exposing the insides to vacuum.

Angrily, the pirate destroyer’s sister ship let loose with a laser cannon barrage, causing Sunrider to pitch unexpectedly.

“Captain!  Saviors offline, multiple systems failures.  Our hull integrity is below acceptable limits!” called out Ava, dispensing the bad news with professional detachment.

“Black Jack, time to wrap things up,” said Kayto, biting his lip and watching the main screen where the Black Jack kept its one up on the Havok.  Without the Saviors, Sunrider would have difficulty sinking the remaining pirate destroyer without receiving unacceptable punishment to her fragile hull as well.  “Uploading firing solutions to you now; coordinate with our weapons and fire any long-range anti-ship ordinance you have so that we target the last destroyer simultaneously.”

“Roger that, Capt’n!” came the Black Jack’s pilot’s cheery voice as her Ryder broke away from the dazed Havok.

“Fire Trinities!  Kill thrust and use our remaining power to overcharge!” ordered Kayto.  “Target the remaining pirate destroyer!”

“Imma firin’ mah lazers!!!” called out Black Jack’s pilot as shoulder mounted anti-starship laser weapons deployed from the flat of the Ryder’s back and angled at the pirate destroyer.

“What… the HELL was that?” demanded Ava, blinking in surprise the strange proclamation as Sunrider and Black Jack’s laser beams converged on the destroyer.  Shaking her head, she consulted the ship sensors.  “Catastrophic damage to pirate destroyer, looks like what isn’t on fire is in vacuum,” she said, satisfaction thick on her voice.

“Pirate Ryder Havok coming around,” called out Kayto unhappily.

“Don’t sweat it, Capt’n,” said the Black Jack’s pilot.  “Fly my pretties!”  Missile pods opened up all over the Black Jack’s armor, sliding back armored plates to reveal row after row of missiles.  Launching rapidly, one after another, they chased after the Havok, detonating and shearing armored plates from the Ryder and damaging it’s internal systems.

Sparking and covered with impacts and other damage, the Havok gave Sunrider and Black Jack one last glowering look before turning tail and slinking away, rapidly accelerating out of their weapons and sensor range.

The bridge breathed a sigh of relief and Kayto motioned to stand down from Red Alert.  As normal bridge lighting returned, Black Jack’s pilot re-materialized on the bridge.  “That sure was exciting!” she laughed, pumping an armored fist into the air.  “I wish I could have seen the look on their faces!”

Kayto nodded appreciatively as Ava put a hand to her brow.  “Thanks for the assist Black Jack, we’d be happy to give you a lift back to Tydaria.  We’re opening our hanger bay; you have permission to dock.”

“And to explain yourself,” added Ava skeptically.

“Roger that, coming aboard!” said the pilot happily as she cut communications.

On the main screen, the Black Jack’s engines flared and the Ryder dropped down, vectoring towards hanger bay 01’s entrance as the Sunrider dropped the scarred armored port to the docking tube, lighting up to guide the Ryder’s docking approach.

Standing and stretching his stiff legs, Kayto straightened his uniform and breathed deep, unwinding some of the tension of the battle from his back.  “Well,” he said, turning to Ava, “Let’s go meet this ‘hero of justice.’”

“Roger that, Captain,” answered Ava, drawing the small pistol at her hip and checking the cartridge and chamber before returning it, safety off, to its holster.

“Such a pessimist,” said Kayto with a shake of the head.

“Woman’s intuition.”

******

Sunrider’s Ryder hanger occupied the single largest contiguous space within the ship, also serving as a reservoir for atmosphere when various other parts of the ship required emergency pressurization.  Since departing Cera, the hanger bay had largely been ignored due to the lack of Ryders aboard the ship.  Although twelve berths were available for docking, only a single one, bay 01 was fully lit, the rest having been powered down due to damage to the electric system, giving the entire hanger the mostly accurate impression of disuse and borderline neglect.  The hanger was structured so that a central catwalk, suspended several stories above the ground floor, stretched into the dark from the lift connecting the hanger to the rest of the ship.  Here, pilots or maintenance staff could access the Ryders through a series of individual airlocked lifts that granted access to the individual bays.

As Kayto and Ava stepped off the lift into the hanger, their footsteps echoed morosely, the hanger quiet save for the occasional oiled whir of a passing drone, the only sign that the ship had made itself ready for the docking Ryder.  At Kayto’s insistence and observation that Ava was armed, the two had come to the hanger alone, without a security detail in tow.  Beyond the see-through walls of the upper catwalk, the two could see the Black Jack drift into the docking berth, its engines powered down to a minimum as a series of powerful electromagnetic tractors affixed to standard hardpoints on the Ryder frame guided it into position into a docking cradle.  As the far door to the launch tube closed, atmosphere hissed into the berth, appearing as jets of snow white vapor until the room heated to normal temperature.  On the catwalk, at the level of the Black Jack’s “head,” Kayto and Ava jumped reflexively as sound of the Ryder’s disengaging thrusters and heavy machinery from the active bay returned suddenly with the re-pressurization of the berth.

Kayto and Ava positioned themselves opposite to the lift marked “01,” Ava’s hand casually close to the butt of her pistol.  Raising his cuff to his lips, Kayto spoke through the bracelet on his wrist.  “Activate Ryder hanger lift 01.”

Several moments later, the lift returned to the catwalk level, hissing open and revealing the pilot of the Black Jack.  Clad in the red armored Ryder suit she had appeared in earlier, the pilot stepped off the lift, her armored magnetic boots clinked gently as she walked, making the additional weight of suit apparent the way holograms never could.  Lean with short red hair and bright green eyes, the pilot’s youthful and curious expression lent the air of immaturity to her, completely at odds with the piloting skill she had demonstrated against the pirates.

“That’s close enough, pilot,” said Ava firmly before Kayto could open his mouth.  “Put your hands in the air for a weapons check.”

The pilot’s jaw practically dropped to the ground, “Seriously?!  Come on lady, I just did you guys a solid.  Why do I have to get groped by you?”

“L-Lady?!” spluttered Ava, turning red, “We’re almost the same age!”

“Listen,” Kayto raised his voice and hands before the situation got out of control.  “Ava, she’s right, if she wanted us dead, she’d have helped the pirates.  Maybe we could let her off the hook this time.”

“Captain, naval protocol section 9-32B clearly states-”

Kayto sighed, turning to the pilot, “Listen, could you just put your hands up and do a quick spin?  I already convinced her to leave the security team behind, so let’s all just meet halfway.”

Rolling her eyes, Black Jack’s pilot did as he asked.

“Great,” said Kayto as Ava looked equally dissatisfied with the perfunctory weapons check.  Stepping forward, he offered his hand.  “I’m Kayto Shields, Captain of the assault carrier Sunrider.  This is my First Officer, Commander Ava Crescentia.  Welcome aboard.”

Black Jack’s pilot grasped his hand with her armored gauntlet firmly.  “Asaga Oakrun, pilot of the Black Jack.  Nice to meet you two.”

“Thanks again for the help out there.”

“No problem,” said Asaga flicking her short hair back over her shoulder.  “Those guys were nothin’.

“Maybe you could tell us what you were doing out here in the first place,” asked Kayto, nodding towards the Black Jack.  Like the vast majority of other Ryders, Black Jack most likely operated from a base or some other form of infrastructure, having no warp capabilities or ability to operate without frequent resupply of fuel and munitions.  “Hard to imagine a lone Ryder just happened upon us like that without a reason.”

“Oh, nothing, just keeping the space ways safe!” answered Asaga jovially.  “Coming to the rescue wherever the weak are oppressed; it’s the hero of justice, the vanguard of the innocent!  For love, freedom, and just a little money on the side, it’s Asaga Oakrun, pilot of the Black Jack!”

Ava simply stared at the pilot as she finished her introduction with yet another pose and smile, although Kayto fancied he could practically hear his First Officer’s teeth grinding.

“So… you’re basically a freelancer?” prompted Kayto.

“Ehh, I suppose you could call me that,” admitted Asaga, the wind leaving her sails slightly.  “The space around here is pretty dangerous with the pirate gangs and all.  The Mining Union pays pretty well for any pirate skulls I crack, although it’s harder than it sounds.  Those guys bug out faster than cockroaches, especially when they see the Black Jack.  I just figured that we could help each other out a bit when I saw your predicament, and I was right!  We got ’em pretty good that time!”

“How long have you been in the business?” asked Kayto, interested.

“Oh, just a little while,” answered Asaga breezily.  “I’ve traveled all over the Neutral Rim, picking up odd jobs here and there.  I guess you could call me an adventurer.”

“You do that all alone in a single Ryder?”  Ava sounded skeptical.

“No, no.” Asaga shook her head.  “I’ve got Chigara helping me out!  She built me the Black Jack, here.  She’s an absolute genius when it comes to tech; fixes and builds anything mechanical you can imagine!”

Kayto made a mental note to ask more about Asaga’s partner later.  Building a custom Ryder from scratch was no mean feat and, clearly, the Black Jack was no amateur job.  From what Kayto had seen, the custom Ryder easily outperformed anything he had ever know the Cera Space Force to field.  Someone like that could, at the very least, help shore up their starship.  “Tell me a little bit about those pirates, sounds like you have some experience dealing with them.”

“Well,” said Asaga, dragging out the word as she tapped her chin thoughtfully.  “Seems like you’ve already met their leader, the one piloting the Havok.  Her name’s Cosette Cosmos.”

“We’ve had the pleasure,” replied Kayto, deciding to skip over the words they had exchanged on the bridge.  “What’s a little girl doing leading a gang like that anyways?  Don’t kids have anything better to do around here?”

“She looks like a brat, but don’t underestimate her Capt’n; she’s a nasty piece of work.”  Asaga’s face grew more serious as she crossed her arms.  “She’s feared for her ruthlessness in a number of sectors, including this one, kind of a de facto pirate queen by some standards.  One of the stories has it she slit her own Pa’s throat on her fourteenth birthday for not buying her candy.  Plenty of other stories too.”

Kayto’s face must have conveyed his skepticism as Asaga threw up her hands defensively.  “What I can say for a fact is that I’ve had a few run-ins with her and the Havok and they’re not to be trifled with.  I got the one up on her this time, but she’s had me in a pickle more than once too.  For your sake, you’d better believe in her Havok’s anti-matter missiles; those little beauties will do more than dent your starship hull, but you probably noticed that already.”

Kayto rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly, “Yeah, well… tell us about the Mining Union, what’s your deal with them?” he said switching topics.

“Not much to say, Captain,” answered Asaga, shrugging.  “They mine ore and pay me to take out as many pirates as I can.  My contact with them is a lady by the name of Sophita, she’s the person to talk to about work around here for freelancers like me.  Of course, since we both worked the last job, we can split the fee, fifty-fifty.”

Kayto nodded, “Fair’s fair.”  Even though Sunrider had taken out the first two Ryders and a destroyer on its own, he figured the likelihood of their collecting the bounty without the Black Jack’s sudden appearance was limited at best.  On top of that, Asaga’s introduction to her contact with the Mining Union would likely be useful to say the least in securing the funds the Sunrider needed for her repair and resupply.

“So what now?” asked Asaga, sizing Kayto and Ava up.

“We’ll give you a ride back to Tydaria like I promised,” replied Kayto, pushing the ball back into her court.

Asaga’s lips quirked up slightly into small smile.  “You guys are Cera Space Force right?”

“That’s right.”

“Sorry to hear about your planet and the PACT, it’s been all over the feeds,” offered Asaga.  Neither Kayto nor Ava said anything, although Kayto felt his chest tighten at the mention of his homeworld’s fate.  “Look,” continued Asaga.  “It looks to me like you’re an assault carrier without Ryders.  That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  We make a good team, so I’ll tell you what; help me take out the pirates here and I’ll join up as Sunrider’s first Ryder.”

“Captain!” protested Ava before Kayto could say anything.  “We can’t just conscript locals on a whim!  How can we trust someone we’ve just met?”

“Not much choice, Commander,” said Kayto with a frown after a moment’s thought.  Truthfully, he considered Asaga’s offer a stroke of luck; her piloting skills were clearly polished and the Black Jack would undeniably improve the Sunrider’s capabilities.  Ava’s point was, however, well taken.  Even though Asaga seemed straightforward enough, her offer to join the Sunrider seemed a little too quick and Kayto wondered what other motivations were at play.  “Sunrider was always meant to have a Ryder wing; we’re fighting with our arms tied behind our back without Ryder support.  Plus, she’s already saved our necks once; I think we can work together.”

Ava sighed, slumping slightly as she raised a hand to her brow again.  “I knew you were going to say that.  Why do I even bother?”

Asaga laughed, “Glad we could agree, Capt’n!”

Turning to Asaga, Kayto said seriously, “This is a military vessel.  If you join Sunrider’s crew, you’ll be putting on a uniform with the rest of us.  That means following orders and protocol, just to make that clear.  You don’t have to answer now, but make sure you know what you’re getting into.  For now, we’ll work together as partners.”

Asaga nodded thoughtfully.

“Also,” continued Kayto, “Sunrider needs repairs and resupply.  We’ll set a course for Tydaria and figure out a plan once we get those things taken care of.”

“Best place to go for that is Chigara’s place, Capt’n!” said Asaga cheerfully.  “She’ll get your ship sorted out in no time and at a fair price!  I’ll give you the coordinates to her workshop!” she offered, retrieving and holding out a data chit with her partner’s repair dock information on it.

Kayto shrugged and accepted it; it wasn’t as though they had any other recommendations for local talent.  “Pretty slick; you probably offer these to any ships shot up by the pirates, huh?”

Asaga merely grinned.  “Hey, we all gotta eat!”

“Ava and I are going back up to the bridge,” said Kayto with a smile.  Beside him, Ava turned and called the lift.  “It’s probably best if you stay here with the Black Jack.  I’ve have a crew member come by to show you areas of the ship you’ll have access to while you’re here; if you need anything else, give us a call on your comms.”

“Aye, Aye!” affirmed Asaga, turning back towards her Ryder.

“Oh, Asaga?” Kayto called over his shoulder as Ava stepped into the waiting lift in front of him.  “Don’t do anything that’ll make Ava beat me for later.”

Asaga giggled, waving for him to catch up with Ava.

“I heard that,” Ava muttered as Kayto stepped in with her, whistling innocently.

 CHAPTER 3 >>>>>>