Chapter 20- Artifact

Kayto sat at his office chair surrounded by a new set of holo screens that had been installed during Sunrider’s shore leave.  Other memorabilia and souvenirs filled his shelves and decorated his walls, making the office look far less impersonal than when he had first received it.  Flicking through the day’s holo feeds, Kayto performed his usual cursory examination of the latest galactic news.  Now that the Alliance-PACT war had started in earnest, the entire Neutral Rim had turned into a bloody battleground for the two powers.

Reports of various skirmishes, supply and aid convoy attacks, massive refugee influxes, and worsening piracy splashed across the daily headlines, vying for the attention of the Alliance public for whom war was a distant and alien experience.  With their primary offensive fleet defeated at Far Port, the PACT had been forced to take the defensive for the intervening months, fighting the swelling Alliance Combined Fleet over nearly a dozen worlds on a constantly shifting front.  Reading between the blandly optimistic headlines of the Alliance media, however, Kayto had little doubt the war was far from over and victory, uncertain.  The PACT fleet continued to occupy the majority of the Neutral Rim and were, more or less, evenly matched with the Alliance, taking an eye for an eye in just about every skirmish and engagement they fought in.

For her part, Sunrider had participated in a number of small skirmishes, as well as one larger operation.  After their conquest of Versta, the PACT set up a large number of resupply and repair bases in orbit.  Alliance spies had managed to gain the maintenance and fleet deployment schedules for PACT ships in that sector, allowing the Sunrider and an Alliance fleet to warp in and sink four battleships that were in for repairs, their escorts, and several repair and supply stations before retreating.

“Captain,” Ava entered his office with her holo.  “Alliance Requisition Manifest for your approval.”  Swiping across the screen, she sent him a stack of digital paperwork for supplies and munitions that would have likely crushed his desk under its weight had it been physical paper.

“The Alliance loves its red tape, doesn’t it?” frowned Kayto.  Now that Sunrider was operating as an independent mercenary ship within the Alliance Navy, they were dependent on said paperwork for Alliance manufactured munitions, rations, ship parts, and all the other supplies necessary for daily ship and combat operations.  Kayto looked over the summary sheet at the head of the document.  “A GameStar Seven?” he asked, eyebrows raised.

“A personal request from a certain pilot,” Ava bit her tongue.

“I’m surprised, Ava.”  Kayto gave her a big grin.  Come to think of it, since their trip to the beach, Ava’s frown lines and perpetually sour expression had lifted; it was as though Sunrider had gotten a new XO entirely.

Ava sighed, giving him a small, embarrassed smile.  “I suppose you’re right… I’m getting soft.  Removed.”  Ava deleted the GameStar Seven from the requisition form.

Kayto motioned for Ava to sit as he perused the rest of the forms.  “Did you read about the Ceran Pirates in the holos?” he asked, making small talk.

“Of course,” Ava crossed her arms.

Earlier that week, a major criminal ring operating out of Tydaria and the nearby sectors had been broken by Alliance forces.  It seemed Sunrider’s actions in Tydaria in removing Cosette from power had only left a power vacuum, turning the entire area into a vacant throne for several vying gangs.  After a period of infighting and bloodshed, three of the major pirate gangs fused into a powerful triumvirate, crushing the opposition and bringing a new wave of brazen piracy to the Tydaria and its neighboring sectors.  With the increasing demand for starship grade alloys, the Alliance had heeded Tydaria and the Mining Union’s calls for action and swept in to purge the pirates from the system.

One of the triumvirate gangs captured in the aftermath turned out to be no less than the crew of the Atlas, one of Cera’s heavy cruisers.  According to testimony in open court, the crew had turned to piracy following the events of Cera’s Fall with ample evidence to link their ship to a number of brutal and deadly pirate attacks on civilian ships in the sector.  Ship logs also revealed that the Atlas had never even attempted to reach the rendezvous coordinates, although her Captain argued that she believed the fallback coordinates would likely have been compromised with the defeat of Cera.  Additional arguments on the crew’s behalf hinged on determining which members of the crew had led and which were forced to follow.

“They’re pirates, Captain,” Ava gave him a hard look.  “They made their choices knowing the risks.  If we had been the ones to capture them, we’d have given them the airlock ourselves.”

“Agreed,” Kayto sighed.  “As far as I’m concerned, the Atlas was lost with all hands the moment they turned their guns on civilians.”  Even so, the thought that between the loss of their homeworld to the PACT and the razing of Cera City, more than enough Ceran blood had been spilled, enough to give him pause and wonder if the justice served was truly worth its price in blood.

“Anyways, Captain,” Ava moved on from the unhappy topic.  “Have you seen the latest about the upcoming presidential elections in the Solar Alliance?”

“O-oh!” Kayto tried to stifle his surprise.  “Of course, it’s election year in the Alliance already…”

Ava gave him an amused look, not buying his reaction for a second.  “I was so busy I nearly forgot myself,” she said kindly.

“Who are you and what have you done with Ava?” demanded Kayto.

Ava crossed her arms and gave him a glare far more reminiscent of her former stiffness.  “Look who’s running on the Univeralist ticket,” she said, ignoring him, playing an election ad on her holo.

A montage of PACT ships firing on civilian vessels and stations, several Progress Party big wigs, and Arcadius’s looming mask played while a serious voice narrated the images to grating music.  “Division… Politics… Corruption… Deadlock… While the Veniczar has been conquering the galaxy, the Solar Alliance did nothing but play politics.”  A heroic image of Admiral Grey rose on the screen, blocking the fading image of Arcadius as a rippling Solar Alliance banner provided backdrop.  The Solar Alliance’s anthem played loudly.  “Vote Admiral Grey and throw those crooks out of office!  Honesty.  Integrity.  Courage.  Only the Admiral can save us from the Veniczar!  Not some politician!”

Admiral Grey turned to look at the viewer as the music built to a crescendo.  “I’m Admiral Grey, and I endorse this message.”

“You think he has a chance of winning?” asked Kayto, grateful when the overly patriotic holo advertisement ended.

“People are scared,” Ava shrugged.  “The Progress Party’s appeasement of the PACT was disastrous; Far Port was a real wake up call for the Solar Alliance.  It’s not hard to imagine that the Universalist are going to have a very strong upper hand in this election.”

“Hmm…” Kayto frowned.  “It’s not that I have anything against the Universalists, but if Admiral Grey is their candidate, it’s bad news for us.  Militarization of the Alliance is only going to mean fewer freedoms for Cera and the rest of the Neutral Rim.”

“Prudent observation,” nodded Ava, impressed.

Ava loved galactic politics; on some days, Kayto wondered what pushed her into a military, rather than a political career on Cera.  Inwardly, he sighed; life would have probably been a lot simpler if she’d stayed after graduation to pursue politics.  “I’m not liking this turn of events,” said Kayto, continuing his thought.  “The Admiral’s good at fighting the war, I’ll give him that, but removing civilian control over the military and putting an Admiral in charge is dangerous.”

“People are scared,” Ava pointed out.  “During times of war, people seek a stronger leader.  The niceties of democracy sometimes give way to the promise of security.  It’s no surprise the Alliance military is starting to play a larger role in policy.”

“It’s a slippery slope,” argued Kayto.  “One moment you’ve got an Admiral for president, the next you’ve got a military junta.  What’s the point of fighting a war against the PACT if we’re just going to replace one dictator for another?”

“Sometimes you need to fight fire with fire.”

“That just leaves the whole galaxy scorched, Ava,” Kayto smiled, realizing that Ava was arguing simply for the sake of debate, enjoying the tête-à-tête.

“Well here’s the bottom line,” Ava stabbed a finger at his holo screen.  “The Alliance is the one filling this requisition order.  We’re totally dependent on them for now, regardless of the election results.”

“True enough,” Kayto scrawled his signature across the digital files with a deep sigh.  “Here, order approved.  Anything else, cup of tea?”

“Not this time, Captain,” Ava stood and shook her head. “There are a hundred other fires to put out before my shift starts.  Unfortunately.”

Kayto smiled.  Ava really had softened over the shore leave.  “All right, see you.”

******

About an hour later, Kayto’s bracelet beeped.

“Oh Captain~”

“Claude?” Kayto asked, surprised.  “How’d you get access to a priority channel?”

“I’m the Chief Medical Officer, silly!” Claude gushed over the communication line.  “Come over to the sickbay!”

With a sinking feeling, Kayto jumped out of his chair, cutting comms.  If Ava even caught wind that Claude had even stepped foot in the sickbay…

Skidding to a halt outside the sickbay, Kayto braced himself for impact, memories of his last visit rising from his memory unbidden.

“Captain~” Claude’s voice invited him inside.

“W-what are you wearing…” Kayto covered his eyes with his hands as he caught a glimpse of Claude’s reveal outfit once more.

“Professional medical attire, Captain!” answered Claude with a dazzling smile.

“It’s professional all right,” muttered Kayto, thinking of an entirely different profession.

“Now, now,” Claude wagged a finger in admonishment at him.  “Is that any way to speak to your Chief Medical Officer?”

“Claude, seriously,” Kayto steered her away from the sickbay’s front doors lest Ava glimpse the scene in passing.  “What are you doing here?  Ava’ll throw you in the brig and toss the keys out the airlock if she catches you playing doctor again.”

“Ah-ah-ah~~!” Claude pulled herself free, looking extremely pleased with herself.  Pulling out her holo, she showed him an official looking certificate.  “Ta-da!!! I’ve been reinstated!”

“W-what!?” Kayto grabbed the holo and scrutinized the document.  It was from the Alliance Medical Association, the largest and most widely recognized licensing body for medical professionals.  “Claude, did you bribe someone to get this?” he asked skeptically.

“Captain!” Claude gasped dramatically, feinting outrage.  “I’m shocked at the suggestion!  I stayed up night after night studying for months to take the licensing exams, all because I wanted to help your ship!”

Kayto handed back the holo dumbfounded.  Claude’s initiative and determination to rise to the role of Chief Medical Officer was laudable, but he was certain she had done it to help herself to the ship in a rather different way.

“By the way,” Claude stuck her tongue out at him and wiggled it suggestively.  “It’s time for your checkup…”

“No.” Kayto said firmly.  “And if I get any reports of inappropriate behavior, don’t come looking to me for a third chance.”

“Don’t worry,” Claude brushed his warning aside with another brilliant smile.  “I’ll be the perfect image of a professional.  Oh!  You should also know that the Alliance has fully restocked our medical supplies.  I’ll be able to provide state-of-the-art treatment now.  We even have medichines!”

Kayto arched an eyebrow, impressed.  Medichines were a recent development in the medical field.  Nano-machines capable of repairing tissues and healing injuries at greatly accelerated rates, medichines were revolutionizing emergency and trauma medicine, although their expense and difficult manufacturing process limited their use to only the richest core worlds.  Apparently, the Alliance military funding was sufficient to stock their starship medical bays with the advanced machines.

Claude led him to a long upright tube that had been installed in one of the exam bays.  “This tube contains a high density fluid with billions of broad spectrum medichines.  If anyone gets hurt, we can submerge them and repair the damage quickly.  The Alliance developed it as a way of getting injured Ryder pilots back into action without delay.  Sometimes we can get the pilot fixed up even faster than their Ryders!”

Kayto nodded; the addition of the medichine vat put his mind at greater ease, although he sincerely hoped its operation would be unnecessary for some time to come.

“Just remember though,” Claude warned.  “Our medichine stock is extremely limited.  We should reserve this tank for emergency treatments only; traditional medicine for everything else.”

“Agreed,” Kayto nodded.  “All right, I suppose you’ve earned the position.  I’ll make sure Ava knows.”  Kayto turned to leave the medical bay.

“Come back right way if anything aches!” Claude called after him.

“Right…”

******

Two days later, Ava handed Kayto a report.

“Captain, we’ve received some interesting intelligence from Alliance Central Command.”

“Hmm…” Kayto read the major points of the report with curiosity.  Apparently, an entire squadron of Alliance cruisers had gone silent investigating rumors of lost technology on the far side of Far Port’s moon.  Any additional ships and probes to enter that region of space had also fallen silent.

As with previous galactic conflicts, the need for every tactical edge and advantage had spurred great interest in recovering Ancient Ryuvian technology once again.  As the discovery of the Ryder had tipped the Imperial-Alliance war in the Solar Alliance’s favor, neither the PACT nor the Alliance could afford to not investigate reports of troves of lost technology which still remained to be found and exploited.

“I’ve also run an analysis of the last twelve months of commercial starship activity,” reported Ava, showing him her holo.  “It looks like a number of civilian vessels attempting to pass the far side of the moon have also gone missing.”

“What were they doing out there?” mused Kayto.

“Smugglers, probably,” Ava shrugged.  “No one gave it much thought since they were probably risking uncharted space to avoid Alliance patrols, but after the cruiser squadron…”

Kayto nodded.  The disappearance of so many warships at a single time spoke volumes about the potential power that lay on the far side of the moon.

“We should look for survivors, of course,” said Kayto.  Far Port was along their patrol route and the Alliance appeared unwilling to commit any further assets to investigating the disappearance of their cruisers.

“Whatever wiped out those cruisers is probably still out there,” Ava said with warning.  “Advise we warp in, scan at extreme range, and warp out if there are no survivors.”

“Or we could do some digging of our own.”  Kayto’s eyes were bright with curiosity and adventure.  “If there really is lost technology-”

“It’ll probably mop the floors with us,” grumbled Ava, knowing the look on his face all too well.

“Well, let’s go get it,” grinned Kayto.

“I was afraid you’d say that.”

******

“Dropping to normal space,” announced Ava.  “Transition successful, main screens on now.”

Far Port’s moon was an unremarkable chunk of rock and ice that was perpetually locked with one side facing the planet as it rotated around.  Almost nothing about it suggested anything of interest, much less danger.

“Switch to active scanners,” ordered Kayto.  “Scan for Alliance signatures or lifepods.”

Sunrider gently entered high orbit, her course curving with the moon as she drifted away from the light and into the darkness beyond.

“Captain,” Ava broke the silence after several minutes of sailing.  “We’re picking up scanner contacts… it’s debris, Alliance made.  I detect no active lifepod transponders.”

Kayto sighed unhappily as Sunrider’s floodlight activated, illuminated a tumbling cruiser wreck, emerald green barely visible beneath a layer of soot and ash.  All around them, torn hull plating and wrecked machinery filled the void of space, giving testimony to an apparently one-sided battle.  Several suspicious craters on the surface of the moon also showed the final resting places of no fewer than a dozen warships and civilian craft, sunk by the same power which had wiped out the ship Sunrider now passed.

“Steady as she goes,” cautioned Kayto as his crew exchanged nervous glances.  “We’re not going to be caught by surprise like these ships.  Power all weapons and put our pilots on standby.”

“Already done, Captain,” Ava continued to consult her scanners.  “There’s something else out there…  boost scanners, resolve that contact!”

“Aye, Ma’am!” answered one of the bridge crew.

“Alert!” Ava’s brow furrowed as she deciphered the incoming sensor data.  “Captain, we’ve got inbound contacts; assume hostility!”

“Red Alert,” ordered Kayto.  “Launch our Ryders and get ready for a fight!”

******

“Aww…” Asaga grumbled as she and the rest of the Ryder wing launched.  “I was hoping we came to Far Port for some more R&R…”

“Captain!” Chigara’s voice broke through on comms.  “Liberty’s reading multiple contacts!  Ryuvian signatures!  Giving you visual now.”

“More ghost ships?” Kayto asked.

“Captain,” Ava’s voice joined the conversation.  “Perhaps we should retreat.”  Clearly, the memory of their last encounter with Ancient Ryuvian ships had left a lasting impression.

“Negative,” Kayto’s voice was determined as he consulted Chigara’s visual feed.  “We can handle this; those ships look barely half-functional.  I’m betting they’re guarding something valuable… we might be able to turn the tide of the war if we discover the right kind of lost technology.”

Six Ancient Ryuvian warships emerged from the darkness, their silver and blue arrowhead hulls cutting through the velvety darkness on the far side of the moon.  Sunrider’s active scanners flickered over their hulls, analyzing them with a battery of sensors.

“Sola, what are we looking at?” asked Kayto, hoping the Ancient Ryuvian would be able to shed light on the mysterious ships.

“Shikire-class cruisers,” Sola answered without emotion.  “In my time, we had fleets of thousands of them… they appear to be in poor repair, although I suspect they still pose significant threat to the Sunrider.”

Sunrider’s sensors confirmed Sola’s intuition, showing Kayto that the ships approaching Sunrider were no more than quarter powered.  Age had worn mercilessly on the ships, rendering their shields and armor at a fraction of what they had used to be.  Additionally, Sunrider detected virtually no active scanning from the Ryuvian ships, making it unlikely their flak systems were active.  Instead, the ancient warships were operating mindlessly, simply moving towards and destroying any interlopers they detected with no more reason or thought than a simple beast.

“Concentrate forward batteries on the lead ships,” ordered Kayto.  “Seraphim, Paladin, time to put those guns to good use.  Uplink with Sunrider’s targeting systems and coordinate with our Saviors.  Liberty, Bianca, run interference as best you can.  Black Jack and Phoenix, stay back and cover us.”

Sunrider’s Ryders sprang into action, vectoring towards the coordinates Kayto specified on his tactical screen and forming a protective ring around Sunrider.  The CIC rocked as Sunrider’s Saviors let out a series of barks, hurtling kinetic slugs towards the lead Ryuvian cruisers.

“Hits confirmed,” called out Ava as the two cruisers absorbed the salvos without slowing.  “Seraphim, Paladin, weapons free!”

“Firing!” Paladin’s shoulder cannons leveled at the nearest cruiser, firing powerfully as its engines pushed to max to keep the Ryder from flying backwards.  Kryska’s shots were dead on, tearing through the ancient ship’s hull and punching into the dark interior.  From the gaping wounds in the ship’s side, it was clear that no more than a handful of conduits still carried power or plasma, the rest of the ship having succumbed to the weathers of time.

“Target acquired,” Seraphim’s rifle charged, a brilliant light forming at its muzzle as the ancient Ryuvian weapon prepared to let loose.  A moment later, the light slug streaked towards the other Ryuvian cruiser, slamming into the tip of its hull and plowing through to its deep interior.  Unseen to anyone, Sola’s shot punched through dozens of layers of corroded armor before slamming straight into the ship’s struggling reactor, silencing its ailing heart definitively.  The results, however, were more than obvious as the ancient ship broke apart and blasted into pieces.  “Target neutralized.”

“Alert!” Ava cried.  “Detecting multiple power spikes from hostiles!”

Dozens of ports on each remaining cruiser slid open with difficulty, revealing rack after rack of missiles.  Somewhat haphazardly, the missiles launched, some of them remaining firmly stuck to their silos, their launchers having suffered some kind of mechanical failure long ago.  Those missiles that did launch streaked forward, racing towards Sunrider and her Ryders.

“Multiple detonations detected,” reported Ava.  “Looks like some of those missiles are just too old to work.”

Although reassuring on some level, the premature detonations also served as a reminder of just how powerful the ancient missiles were.  If even a single salvo made it through their flak net, the mission would turn deadly.

“Hacking systems now!” Claude’s voice was tense and focused for once as she tapped away furiously at Bianca’s controls.  “Corrupting guidance systems!”  Dozens of missiles peeled off from their vectors, missing their intended targets as Bianca generated hundreds of virtual contacts to confuse the missile’s microcomputers.  Any missiles not scrambled were intercepted by Black Jack, Phoenix, or the Sunrider’s flak cannons.

As Sunrider continued pounding away with her Saviors with Seraphim and Paladin adding their fire to the mix, the ancient cruisers began to falter.  One after another, their ancient hulls cracked and fractured, putting an end to their millennia long vigil.  Kayto felt a moment of triumph as the final Ryuvian cruiser met a fiery demise, but something felt wrong.  If the dilapidated cruisers were all that guarded Far Port’s moon, how could an entire Alliance cruiser squadron have been trounced so definitively?

“Alert!  New contacts, bearing zero-zero by five-eight!” shouted Ava as a proximity klaxon sounded.

With a sinking feeling, Kayto suspected he was about to find out first-hand what had destroyed the Alliance squad.  “Get me eyes on the incoming signatures!”

Sunrider’s sensors resolved three Ryders quite unlike anything Kayto had ever seen racing towards the Sunrider and her Ryder wing at speeds that would have matched even those of the Phoenix.  Unlike the Phoenix, however, the Ryders were extremely heavily armed and sheathed with armor.  An oversized missile pod sat on its right shoulder pauldron housing several dozen missiles in neat rows.  On its other shoulder, a line of laser emitters stood out proudly, barrels gleaming.  A lethal looking blade, almost as long as the Ryder itself hung from one armature, the other armature ending in an equally intimidating wide-bore laser cannon.  In stark contrast to the aged and struggling cruiser fleet, the three Ryders were gleaming and well-maintained, taking advantage of the Sunrider’s distraction with the Ryuvian cruisers to fire first.

“Warning! External armor being breached!” cried Ava as lasers from the Ryders boiled away Sunrider’s thick hull armor like wax in front of a flame.  Sunrider shook and sparks flew in the CIC as multiple missile impacts drilled into their damaged hull, slicing through decks and digging their way deep into the ship before detonating.  “Multiple sections compromised!  We’ve lost atmospheric integrity in sections eight and ten!  Initiating level two damage control measures!”

“What the hell are those things!?” demanded Kayto, gritting his teeth.  The enemy Ryders’ firepower far outstripping anything he’d ever seen, easily matching a modern battleship in terms of damage potential.  Banking, the ancient Ryders arced away from the Sunrider, having finished their first pass.

“They appear to be standard automated Ryuvian Ryders.” Sola’s holographic avatar materialized on the bridge, commenting on the matter as one would comment on the weather on an unremarkable and tepid day.

“Standard?” Kayto’s head spun.  “What part of that is standard?  Those Ryders are packing more firepower than a PACT battleship!”

“Their condition is excellent despite their age,” observed Sola, squinting at Seraphim’s sensor readings on her end.  “I speculate that they are receiving automated maintenance from their base facility, likely on the far side of the moon.”

“Wait a moment!” Icari’s avatar also materialized on the bridge, pointing an accusing finger at Sola.  “How come your Ryder doesn’t do any of that!?”

Sola bowed her head demurely.  “Regrettably, Seraphim is but a humble scout Ryder.  Most of my systems have degraded to non-functionality during my slumber.  Alas, the Sharr’Lac’s automated repair systems were dormant with the rest of the ship.”

Icari’s jaw dropped with disbelief.  “So yours isn’t even a real Ryder?”

Sola said nothing but looked marginally more dejected than before.

“Oy!” Asaga’s avatar materialized as well, hands on her hips.  “Good going ya idiot, you’ve hurt her feelings!”

“Tsch!” Icari stuck her nose in the air.  “W-well if she can’t handle them, I’ll just have to do it myself!”

Phoenix took off from the formation, streaking after the Ryuvian Ryders as they vectored in for a second pass.  One of the three Ryders peeled away from their formation, adjusting its burn to come at the Phoenix.  The Phoenix’s twin blades sprang out from its armatures as Icari threw her Ryder into a loop to dodge her opponent’s laser fire.  Arcing over the Ryuvian Ryder, Icari spun the Phoenix upside down, clashing against the Ryder’s long melee weapon with one of the Phoenix’s shorter blades and swiping with her other arm, nicking the shoulder lasers and damaging them.

“D-damn!” Icari grunted as the Phoenix shook with the impact of crossing blades with her opponent.  “It’s fast!”

Both Ryders’ engines and retrothrusters blazed as they danced around each other, swinging their blades in a close quarters duel of blinding speed.  So fast that its sword was a blur, the Ancient Ryuvian Ryder hacked at Phoenix, lopping off one of Icari’s “wing” struts as Phoenix dodged aside just a little too slowly.

Sweat poured down Icari’s face as she grappled with her controls, trying to keep up with the brutal pace of combat.  At their current range, the enemy Ryder’s longer blade posed the greatest threat, allowing it to sweep in long, deadly arcs while forcing Phoenix and its shorter two blades to play the defensive role.  The longer they stayed locked in combat like that, the more likely Phoenix was to continue losing systems until the Ryuvian Ryder delivered a killing blow.  “Tsch!” Icari punched her controls forward, going for an all-or-nothing gamble.

Phoenix lunged forward, deftly jetting to the side as the Ryuvian Ryder stabbed forward with its sword, missing Icari’s pilot cabin by millimeters.  Harsh grating metal sounds reverberated through Icari’s cabin as the sword ground past Phoenix’s thin hull.  “AAARRRGGHH!” Icari screamed as her sparks flew from Phoenix’s systems in the cabin and her monitors burst into static, jamming her left arm controls forward and spearing the Ryuvian Ryder’s shoulder, digging the blade through layers of armor and crushing the servomotors beneath.  With Phoenix’s other arm, she dug directly into the Ryder’s sword armature, pinning the deadly blade away from the Phoenix.  Warning lights and shrill alarms sounded as a flashing display of her Ryder’s systems began reading intolerable stress limits on Phoenix’s servomotors as the Ryuvian Ryder struggled to break free.

“ICARI!!!” Kryska’s shouted over the comms.

Something very heavy slammed into the two joined Ryders from the Ryuvian Ryder’s side.

“What the-?”  Icari’s eyes widened in shock.

“Unnghhh!” Kryska grunted as the Paladin crashed into the back of the Ryuvian Ryder, digging into its back with grapples and sending the odd three-Ryder amalgam spinning with uneven rotation.  “Hang on, Icari!”

“A-are you crazy!?” Icari screamed over the comms as Paladin’s shoulder cannons leveled downwards to point straight at the back of the Ryuvian Ryder.  “Y-you’ll get us all killed!”

Ignoring her, Kryska hit her firing controls.  The three Ryders shook as the Ryuvian Ryder soaked up Paladin’s black ore slugs at point blank range.  The slugs transmitted unbelievably loud hammering sounds through both of their cabins, causing the pilots to wince from the volume.

BAM BAM BAM

Armor and shredded machinery flew in all directions as the Paladin pounded into the Ryuvian Ryder which was still struggling against its two opponents, firing thrusters wildly and discharging lasers with abandon.

“Almost… there…” Kryska struggled to keep Paladin’s guns aimed as the shoulder cannons kept firing, unloading into the ancient Ryder enough firepower to sink a cruiser.

“D-damn, damn, damn…” Icari muttered as Phoenix’s systems protested shrilly, her entire Ryder frame shaking almost as much as the dying Ryuvian Ryder.

Finally, the Ryuvian Ryder’s struggles weakened and ceased, twitching slightly as one of Paladin’s kinetic slugs hit something vital and going dead.

“Tsch!” Icari pounded her controls in frustration.  “What were you doing, Soldier Boy!? Trying to get us both killed!?”

“Do you require tow assistance, Ms. Isidolde?” Kryska’s tone could not have been more smug.

“Unbelievable…” Ava sighed, watching the two Ryders detach from the Ryuvian Ryder, Phoenix slapping aside Paladin’s offer of a tow cable, disgruntled.  “Captain, the remaining two Ryders are still on approach!”

“Black Jack, Sola, you’re up!” ordered Kayto as Sunrider’s gunners devoted all computational power and resources to maintaining their beleaguered flak net.

“Piece of cake!” Asaga shouted, rushing headfirst at the Ryuvian Ryders.  As with before, one peeled off while the other continued to rocket towards Sunrider and her support Ryders.  “Hiiii-yah!”

Black Jack’s armor ports slide open, showering its opponent with all of its missiles.  The Ryuvian Ryder did likewise, its missiles launching and intercepting Black Jack’s before any could even scratch the hull.  Fortunately for Asaga, however, the Black Jack’s missile barrage was only meant to help her close the gap before engaging with Black Jack’s melee blades.  Slicing across the Ryder, Asaga’s plasma blade cleaved across the Ryuvian Ryder’s missile pod, chopping it off the Ryder’s shoulder.

Warning lights drowned Asaga’s cockpit in red flashing lights as Black Jack screamed a proximity warning.  “C-crap!”  Asaga’s maneuver had left the entire Black Jack’s flank undefended against the Ryuvian Ryder.  As the Ryuvian Ryder raised its armature to deliver a deadly blow to the Black Jack’s exposed side, a trio of blinding shots impacted on the Ryder’s weapon, smashing into its arm and blowing the weapon clean off.

“So that is how Sharrs are trained to fight in this time?” Sola asked quietly, her voice betraying a hint of disappointment.  “In my time, Sharrs did not simply dive head first into the enemy screaming.”

“W-WHAT DID I SAY ABOUT NOT FIRING OVER MY SHOULDER!?!?” shouted Asaga, nearly having a heart attack as the kinetic light slugs passed so close to Black Jack that the paint blistered.  Grumbling, Asaga jammed at her controls and Black Jack went to work, taking advantage of Sola’s intervention to continue hacking into the Ryder’s armor.

“Their armor is thinner on their back,” Sola pointed out as Asaga and the Ryuvian Ryder tumbled, laser light flying in all directions.  “Please align the Ryder with Seraphim.  Low probability of kinetic penetration to Black Jack.”

“That’s good to know,” grunted Asaga through gritted teeth as she hit Black Jack’s retrothrusters, sending the pair into a more favorable spin for Seraphim.  “Take the shot already!” she shouted as the Ryuvian Ryder pushed back against Black Jack’s thrust.

“Firing.”

Seraphim let loose with a single shot which flew straight and true, smashing into the Ryder’s back where a human spine would have been located, severing its main computer from the rest of its systems.

“Target neutralized.”

“Final Ryder within laser range!” shouted Ava as the last Ryder grew menacingly large on Sunrider’s main screen, flying straight for them.

“All power to forward shields!” ordered Kayto.

The Ryder let loose with a deadly lance of laser fire from its wide bore rifle.  The burning blue beam slammed into Sunrider’s shield, crackling with energy and distortion as it struggled to push through.  Unlike most lasers, however, the Ryder’s laser rifle continued to fire, showing no signs of letting up as Sunrider’s shield threatened to collapse under the weight of the attack.

“Hang on, Captain!”  Liberty flew in, closely tailed by Bianca.  Together the two Ryders’ shield projectors pulsed, throwing additional layers of shielding under Sunrider’s own shield just as the devastating laser strike punched through, shattering Sunrider’s shield into a thousand fantastic prisms of light.

“Deploying drones!” Liberty’s repair drones launched simultaneously, hurtling away from Sunrider.

“What-?” Ava frowned, confused.

“Ready our Saviors, arm missile pods A through E, get me a targeting solution on that Ryder,” barked Kayto, realizing Chigara’s plan.

“But Captain, it’s moving too fast for our shots to-” protested Ava.

“Just do it!”

Liberty’s drones latched onto the busy Ryuvian Ryder, whatever intelligence governing it apparently having decided the little machines posed no threat to its armor.  On that account, it was correct, but together, the repair drones pushed their thrusters to maximum burn, effectively dragging the Ryuvian Ryder down as though it were dragging three times its own mass.

“Weapons armed!” announced Ava, also realizing Chigara’s plan.  “I-it’s still too fast for us to get a lock on!”

“I got this~”

“C-Claude?” asked Kayto, surprised.

Bianca leveled its unusual left armature at the Ryder as Kayto watched with interest, realizing he’d never even bothered to ask what Bianca’s other arm did.  The device started spinning, picking up speed as it rotated.  For a moment, nothing appeared to happen as the Ryuvian Ryder continued to fire, now breaking through what was left of their shielding.

“Gravitational anomaly detected!” Ava cried out in surprise.  “I-it’s caught the Ryuvian Ryder!  Firing solution achieved!”

“Fire everything!” barked Kayto as the Ryuvian Ryder slowed dramatically, caught by the intense gravitation eddy created by Bianca.

Sunrider’s Saviors pounded away, nailing the sluggish Ryder with hit after hit as rack after rack of Hell Darts fired off as well.  The Ryuvian Ryder fired its own missiles, but the gravity well was too strong, dragging them back and into whatever void Bianca had managed to create, crushing the weapons like tin foil and smothering their detonations.  Engulfed in Hell Dart detonations and staggered under the weight of Sunrider’s Saviors, the final Ryuvian Ryder’s laser finally cut out as the entire frame crumpled and tore apart, detonating as a lucky missile penetrated its fusion core.

“Phhwwaa!” Claude breathed a happy sigh of relief, giving voice to the waves of relief the rest of the pilots and crew felt with last Ryder’s defeat.

“Sensors clear, Captain.  No additional contacts,” reported Ava, breathing heavily.

“Stand down Red Alert,” Kayto collapsed into his seat, shaking his head with Sunrider’s close call.  “Retrieve our Ryders and alert repair crews.”

“Captain,” Sola’s voice came in over the comms as she materialized in the CIC in her stark white armor.  “Those Ryders possessed no warp capabilities.  They must have been housed and maintained at a nearby facility, likely on the far side of the moon.”

“I’m also detecting no life signatures,” reported Chigara, analyzing the data Liberty’s remaining drones were transmitting as they dug through the carcass of the Ryuvian Ryder.  “It appears the Ryders were completely automated and operating on pre-programmed orders.  Incredible…”

“All right, thanks, come on home,” said Kayto as the two pilots winked off.  “Ava, alert the marines to put together a search party.  Once we get the Ryders back on board, we’ll slingshot around that moon and do some detailed scans.  I want the marines ready to launch in a shuttle as soon as we find out where those Ryders came from.”

“Aye, Captain.”

******

It didn’t take long for Sunrider to identify the Ancient Ryuvian ruin, half buried in a collapsed ravine on the surface of the moon.  For the better part of the next day, Kayto waited with bated breath as a squad of heavily armed marines picked their way through the ruined facility.  Since he had received no alerts since their launch, he surmised the surface mission was significantly less exciting and dangerous than their initial approach to the moon.

Finally, as the arbitrary night cycle of the ship was about to start, Ava staggered into his office, grunting as she dragged a large metal case behind her.  The case was one of the armored specimen containers the marines had brought to the surface with them, heavy and designed only to be lifted with the assistance of their servomotor powered exo-suits.  Kayto quickly rushed over, grabbing the handle and pulling with her until the box cleared the door frame, allowing his door to close.

“Captain, the surface team has returned,” she announced needlessly, flopping into a chair opposite to his desk, sweating.

“What did they find?” asked Kayto, his curiosity growing in leaps and bounds as he eyed the black armored case in front of him.

“Most of the facility was in complete disrepair.  Our team was unable to find any intact technology or systems,” answered Ava.

Disappointment filtered into Kayto’s thoughts.  “But what about those Ryders?” he asked.  “Didn’t Sola say they were getting regular maintenance?”

“I expect regular maintenance meant something different for the Ancient Ryuvians than what it does for us,” said Ava with resignation.  “From what we can tell, the automated facilities have been completely offline for at least a century.”

“That’s crazy…” Kayto shook his head, once again astonished and humbled by the heights of technological prowess the Ancient Ryuvians had achieved in their time.  “What’s in the box?”

“The only thing the marines did find,” said Ava, now looking a little more cheerful.

Kayto raised the lid of the container, expecting heap upon heap of precious metal or something, judging from the weight.  As blue light poured out of the box, lighting his face and office with its soft glow, however, he realized the marines had discovered something entirely more exotic.  Nestled within the box’s roomy interior, a single blue cube, no larger than a small kitchen appliance pulsed gently with azure light from within.  The cube had a frosted glass appearance, its surface traced with ornately wrought metal as its depths glowed and seemed to swirl.

“What is it?” breathed Kayto, enraptured by the beautiful artifact in front of him.

Ava walked up next to him, looking at the cube’s serene and breathtaking appearance with a little more caution, for one never underestimated the power of Ancient Ryuvian artifacts.  “I had Sola and Chigara take a look at it as soon as the marines brought it aboard.  Apparently, it’s a device that has the power to phase a user between alternate universes.  Sola said devices like this in her time were called ‘wishalls’.”

“Come again?” asked Kayto, convinced he’d misheard her.

“Chigara gave me a small talk.  I don’t pretend to understand all of it, but apparently the prevailing theory is that our universe is one of an infinite number of alternate universes which encompass every possible probability, no matter how remote, all occurring and existing simultaneously on top of one another, but with no way to interact with or perceive each other.  That is, unless you have one of these.  This device allows a user to phase to a nearby alternative universe or timeline, effectively allowing a user to effect a single change in their personal timeline and live in an alternate universe.”

“So you’re saying…” frowned Kayto, trying to wrap his head around the exotic power of the device, “That there’s a universe where I got up on the left side of the bed and a different one where I got up on the right side and this device would let me re-do that decision?”

Ava rolled her eyes.  “Hopefully, Captain, a device of this power would be used for something a little more… significant than that.  But yes, in essence, you are correct, if small minded.  The potential of this device is fearsome if you think about it.  It can be used to change your reality drastically.  If used at the right moment, this could mean the difference between life and death.”

“Hopefully it’ll never come to that,” muttered Kayto, surreptitiously knocking three times on his desk.

“Agreed,” nodded Ava.  “Sophitia has also put together a list of buyers if you’re interested in selling this device instead of hanging onto it.  We’ve received a generous offer from Lord Dome of Threala.”  Activating her holo, Ava showed Kayto the private offer for sale.

Kayto whistled.  The sum was nearly enough to buy a small fleet of warships in cash.  Whatever decision Lord Dome was interested in re-making, he was clearly willing to part with nearly his entire fortune to do so.  “I don’t know…” he said, feeling a prickle of discomfort.  “That’s a lot of money, but we’re talking about messing with reality here.  What if someone uses it to wish for us to disappear or something?”

“It doesn’t work like that,” laughed Ava, amused by his concern.  “Chigara tells me this device phases the user out of our own universe.  This timeline that we inhabit should, ironically, remain unaffected by any use of this device.”

Kayto shut the lid of the case, which automatically hissed as it sealed hermetically and locked.

“I’ll leave it in your hands to decide what to do with it,” said Ava, standing and making for the door.  “The case is coded to only open for your biometrics for safekeeping.”

CHAPTER 21 >>>>