Chapter 21- Ongess

It felt strange at first to be doing paperwork while sitting virtually on top of one of the most priceless Ancient Ryuvian artifacts discovered in the last decade, but over the next few days, the novelty of the wishall seemed to fade and Kayto barely noticed the subdued black case which now sulked in the corner of his office unobtrusively.Bing BingKayto’s door chimed as he struggled through yet another morass of Alliance paperwork, almost looking back upon his Cera Space Force administrative duties with envy.  “Come in.”“Sir!”  Kryska entered his quarters and saluted stiffly.

“Lieutenant.” Kayto gestured to a chair.  “What can I do for you?”

“The Admiral wishes to speak with you, Sir.”

“I see,” Kayto gave his Liaison Officer a strange look.  “I guess I’ll just call him up on the FTL comm then.”

“Negative, Sir!” Kryska hurried to clarify.  “The Admiral wishes to speak in person this time.”

“Solaris is a long way off,” said Kayto with a frown, unsure if he liked the idea of being dragged so far from the front lines for a simple meeting.

“The Admiral is at Ongess, Captain,” Kryska let pride enter her voice.  “He is leading our campaign from the front lines.”

“I should have known,” Kayto smiled.  He and the Admiral may have had their differences, but the man was a consummate soldier with courage and will to see his duty done as few men could.  Kayto could see how a rank and file soldier like Kryska would come to admire him almost reverently.

“The Admiral would be delighted to tour the ship and to give the Sunrider further instructions.”

“Very good Lieutenant,” Kayto nodded.  “I guess I’d better clean my office then.  We’ll make for Ongess right away.”

“Captain.”  Kryska rose and saluted, standing tall and staring straight ahead.

“O-oh,” Kayto struggled to keep a straight face, unaccustomed to a Ryder pilot adhering to strict military protocol.  “You’re dismissed Lieutenant,” he said, making a mental note to encourage Kryska to have a less formal attitude aboard the Sunrider.

As the Alliance officer left, Kayto keyed the comms for the CIC.  “Ava, are you there?”

“Captain.” Ava’s avatar formed in his office.

“Have navigation plot us a course to Ongess.  The Admiral wishes to tour the ship and speak with us in person,” said Kayto, updating Ava of the change in plans.

“I’ll have the crew prepare for inspection immediately,” said Ava seriously, frowning at the wrinkles in Kayto’s uniform pointedly.  A distant groan could be heard from one of the CIC crew.  “Stow it, crewman!” barked Ava.

******

Ongess was the class 7 planet all class 7 stereotypes derived from.  With an estimated human population of 38 billion, a rocky, inhospitable and toxic surface, and no shortage of human misery and impoverishment, Ongess’s reputation was as dirty as the fumes which pumped out of the thousands of Ongessite refineries that dotted the planet’s surface and space habitats.  Both on the surface and on its orbital stations, life on Ongess was characterized by the disease-ridden and overpopulated slums and shantytowns which extended as far as the eye could see with a lack of even basic civic infrastructure, technology, healthcare, and education that condemned its population to living more akin to animals then civilized man.  A popular saying on the planet went, “If Hell had a sewage pit, it would be Ongess on a good day.”

Ongess was unique in the galaxy for its vast quantities of naturally occurring Ongessite ore, for which the planet was named.  Although Ongessite ore could be found in limited quantities on several other notable worlds, there was no doubt that Ongess was the crown jewel of the Ongessite industry, accounting for nearly a third of the total galactic production alone.  Not valuable in of itself, raw Ongessite ore could be refined through incredibly toxic and contaminating processes into liquid Ongessite, which had applications ranging from warp engine and Ryder reactor fuel, to starship alloy processing, munitions manufacture, and even medicine.  Always limited in supply and forever in demand, liquid Ongessite was a commodity with higher market value than most precious metals and jewels.  For this reason, Ongess had a long and dark history of brutal occupation and exploitation by virtually every spacefaring power since the discovery and application of Ongessite itself.

In the days of the Holy Ryuvian Empire, Ongess was operated as a penal colony for the galaxy’s undesirables, the entire planet’s population of political dissidents, criminals, and low-lives filling the incredible demand for slave labor imposed by the Ryuvian Lords.  With the dissolution of the Holy Empire, the New Empire quickly seized Ongess and continued the tradition of brutal exploitation and general neglect for human dignity established by the Ancient Ryuvians.

Although the collapse of the New Empire and the establishment of the Neutral Rim should have been a boon for the planet’s population as Ongess gained its independence, the societal impact of millennia upon millennia of slavery was too profound to change overnight.  Ongess quickly descended into a pit of squabbling criminal syndicates and vying corporate interests which left the general population no less enslaved or impoverished than under their old masters.  With the PACT incursion on the Neutral Rim, Ongess made for an obvious target, ripe for the occupation of yet another indistinguishable galactic power seeking to hoard their Ongessite for their own purposes.

Not two weeks ago, the Alliance and the PACT fleets had clashed in the largest battle of the war thus far in the Ongess System.  Nearly nine Alliance fleets faced an equal number of PACT ships in a protracted 5 day battle with both sides throwing fleet after fleet into the slaughter, unwilling to back away from the strategic system.  All told, the battle had resulted in several hundreds of thousands of casualties on both sides and over one thousand ships sunk in total.  Although victory had been bloody, the Alliance fleets had managed to stomach their losses and the bloodshed with a straighter face, forcing the no more-or-less exhausted, battered and bloodied PACT fleets into retreat.  Although Ongess was now officially under Alliance occupation, it was clear to everyone that the victory was merely round one in a larger battle for the system, the PACT likely to launch a new offensive once their forces had regrouped.

As the Sunrider dropped out of warp, a proximity alarm rang out almost immediately, sensors painting a vast debris field that had practically formed an artificial ring around Ongess itself.  Hundreds of gutted ships, Alliance and PACT alike, and innumerable Ryders drifted dead, slowly tumbling and crashing into one another in a grisly ballad as their orbits stabilized.  Radiation levels were near maximum safe limits as breached reactors dumped their toxic contents into space and thousands of tiny robotic drones picked through the graveyard like ants, some stabilizing wrecks with decaying orbits while others started on the long process of salvage and retrieval of the dead.  Beyond them, easily a thousand Alliance ships, some military, some civilian, went about their business, drenching the entire orbit of Ongess with heat and engine signatures.

“Warp complete, Captain,” said Ava with a hushed tone.  “We’ve arrived at Ongess.”

“Holy Ryuvia,” Kayto shook his head at the grim aftermath of the battle.  “This wasn’t a fight… it was a meat grinder.  Makes Far Port look like a skirmish in comparison…”  Sighing, Kayto gave himself a mental shake.  “Alright, that’s enough sightseeing, we’ve got a timetable.  Take us in slow and keep us clear of the debris.”

“Aye, Captain,” Ava also stiffened her resolve.  “Engines slow to one-tenth power!  Make ready to dock at star gate 32-B!  Communications, contact Alliance Control and request permission for approach and docking.”

The CIC crew sprang into action with Ava’s commands, piloting Sunrider deeper into the system and towards the forbidding and dark orbital platforms in the distance.

******

Kayto stood in the Sunrider’s hanger bay with Ava and Kryska at his flanks, wearing his Cera Space Force best to receive the Admiral.  Behind him, a detachment of Sunrider’s marines in full combat suits and several dozen naval officers, all in dress uniforms, stood at attention as an emerald shuttle slid gracefully into the hanger.

Sighing, Ava ran a micro lint remover on one of Kayto’s shoulders, removing a microscopic flaw on his back.  “I thought I told you to make yourself presentable!” she hissed.

Kayto would have retorted, but at that moment, the Alliance shuttle’s engines powered down and its lateral hatch opened, revealing Admiral Grey and his two marine bodyguards.

“ATEEEEN-HUT!” Kryska called out, saluting crisply.  In unison, the Sunrider’s crew followed suit.

Ava and Kayto also saluted as Kryska walked forward to meet the Admiral, standing between him and the Captain.  “Admiral, allow me to introduce Captain Kayto Shields and Commander Ava Crescentia.  It has been my privilege to serve under them aboard the Sunrider.”

“Captain Shields.”  The Admiral was an impressive man in person, emanating an aura of authority and supreme confidence.  Kayto could immediately see why election polls were swinging so strongly in favor of his candidacy for presidency during the turbulent and dangerous times.  “A pleasure to finally meet you in person.”

“The pleasure is ours, Admiral,” said Kayto pleasantly, both men subliminally agreeing to bury the hatchet.  “Welcome aboard the Sunrider.”

“And you, to Ongess,” the Admiral gave a tight smile.

“It’s good to hear about the liberation of Ongess,” said Kayto, emphasizing the word “liberation.”  Dropping his salute, Kayto gestured for the Admiral to walk with him.  Kryska and Ava trailed behind them.  “The Alliance’s progress in the war has been impressive thus far.  Please accept my condolences for the men and women your fleets lost in the battle.”

“They died in defense of freedom and liberty; thank you, Captain.”  Admiral Grey inclined his head graciously.  “The war is far from won, but, for the moment, we seem to have the upper hand, in no small part to your tactics at Far Port.  Still we must not be overconfident; the situation remains… precarious and the Veniczar has withheld his greatest fleets and the Legion from battle thus far, undoubtedly waiting for an opportunity to strike a decisive blow should we make the mistake of arrogance.”

“We can speak more of business in my office,” offered Kayto.  “I was given to understand you were interested in a tour of our ship?”

“Indeed,” the Admiral looked around with curiosity at the Ryders in their massive cradles.  “Please do show me around; I hear Sunrider is one of the finest ships in the Neutral Rim.  I would be loath to miss an opportunity to tour your ship, Captain.”

******

Fifty light years away, the Legion sailed through the night, illuminated by the glow of hundreds of starship engines at a PACT fleet staging area.  Dozens of ships dropped out of warp each day as the PACT mustered its forces.  Although the setbacks at Far Port and Ongess had been disappointing, the mere sight of the Legion was enough to restore confidence to the PACT fleets.  Hardship had been their cold mistress since the days of the New Empire and the PACT fleets would continue to fight as they always had; against all odds and paying for victory in blood.

The Legion’s war room was empty, save for Arcadius and Fontana, the other PACT Veniczars and officers having departed at the end of their latest war council.  At the center of the room, a holographic map of the Neutral Rim showed PACT forces slowly being pushed back from the edges of Alliance space and deeper into the Neutral Rim with each passing week.  With the loss at Ongess, the PACT navy had divided into three primary fleets, two in defensive positions over Ryuvia and Cera and the one currently mustering with the Legion.

“Veniczar,” Fontana bowed slightly as Arcadius summoned him closer.

“Fontana,” Arcadius’s blank eyes turned to him.  “You were quiet during the war council.”

“I apologize, Veniczar,” Fontana’s bow deepened.  “I admit the loss of Ongess has pained me.  The people have long suffered under the boot of imperialism and now they find themselves enslaved yet again.  I had hoped our Revolution would mark a new dawn in their history.”

“Stand tall, Fontana,” Arcadius’s voice was high and cold as ever.  “The war is far from over yet.  In chess, the sacrifice of smaller pieces is unavoidable if you are to achieve victory.  The Alliance fleets outnumber our own; we cannot afford to meet them head on any longer.  But they are not united in purpose as our fleet is; their greed and selfishness have made them weak and will be their undoing.  The people of the Alliance are strangers to the necessities of war.  Like the Imperials, they are addicted to their own opulence.  Like the Imperials, our Revolution shall triumph and bring swift justice to their numbers.  In the coming months, the people of the Alliance will realize the sacrifices war demands.  An unruly mob content to live their lives in the riches of the core worlds, it shan’t be long until their ranks break with dissident and dissatisfaction.  We will take away their luxuries.  Their wealth.  Their comfort.  And once we have, the Alliance will fall, not from our cannons, but from within, destroyed and consumed by the greed which pervades the very fabric of their society.”

“And our own citizens?” Fontana asked, the specter of war hanging heavy in his eyes.  “The war taxes our resources as heavily as it will the Alliance.”

“Behold our proud fleets, Fontana.”  Arcadius gestured out the simulated windows at the dozens of PACT warships sailing alongside the Legion.  “Our hulls are painted crimson to remember the sacrifice our people bear for the cause.  We are forged in blood and by singular purpose; do not underestimate the resilience and strength of our people.  Fontana,” Arcadius turned to look at his understudy.  “You have long been our loyal advisor.  To think you were a mere slave boy when we met, yet you are now our Right Hand.  The true power of our Revolution was never measured in ships and guns, but in the resolve and determination of each and every man to rise to his greatest potential and to do his utmost for our victory, as you have done.”

“Veniczar,” Fontana fell to his knee, head bowed.  “I am ashamed; I beg your forgiveness for my lack of resolve.  It shall not happen again.”

“There is nothing to forgive, Fontana,” Arcadius loomed over Fontana.  “We shall entrust the destruction of the Sunrider to you and your fleets.  While it is only one ship, we fear it will interfere with our plans again.  It has just arrived at Ongess.  Take your best ships and draw it out.  Bring us the Princess, but kill the rest.  Like yourself, Captain Shields is young, but an unexpectedly formidable opponent.  Take care not to underestimate him or the same fate that befell Cullen will be your own.”

“Understood, my Veniczar!”

Arcadius’s hologram disappeared from the room, leaving Fontana alone in silence.  As he rose and straightened his uniform, Fontana allowed a frown to betray his inner turmoil.  The Arcadius he remembered from the Revolution had fought tooth and nail against the Imperials for the protection of the hungry and poor.  Even during the darkest days of their Revolution, never had he spoken of sacrifice with the casual dismissal he did now.  With a prickle of discomfort, he could not deny himself a single, consuming question which now burned brighter than ever.  “Was the war in the Neutral Rim and the destruction of the Solar Alliance what Arcadius truly would have wanted?”

******

Kayto and the Admiral sat in his quarters as he poured two glasses of scotch from a special liquor cabinet reserved for just such occasions.  The tour had been a great success, the Admiral proving to be quite charming and interested in the differences between the Sunrider and the Alliance vessels he was accustomed to.

“You have a fine vessel, Captain, thank you for the tour,” said the Admiral, accepting a glass from Kayto graciously.  “Lieutenant Stares’ reports document the camaraderie you and your crew share, but I can see what she wrote does no justice to what you’ve accomplished here.”

The two clinked their glasses together before sipping.

“We’re the last vessel of the Cera Space Force, Admiral,” said Kayto, savoring the smooth burn of the drink.  “We’re the only family we have left.”

The Admiral nodded gravely.  “The Alliance is honored to count you among our allies, Captain.  I hope you have received the supplies you requested.  Contact me personally if your ship requires any additional resources.”

“Thank you, Admiral,” said Kayto, inclining his head.  “Commander Crescentia tells me that resupply operations have been smooth.”

“The Alliance is a great and benevolent power, Captain.”  Admiral Grey sat back in his chair.  “I used to grow up hearing stories of my ancestor, High Admiral Madeline Grey.  She was a hero who rallied the fleets of a hundred worlds to defend Solaris from the Imperials.  The Alliance was thus born of an agreement between free worlds to unify against the tyranny of the New Empire.  Protecting freedom from dictators is at the very core of our founding.  Now, it is our duty once again to take up arms, this time to protect the galaxy from the madman Arcadius who would see it burnt to ash in front of him.  Yet, even in the midst of war, we hold true to our belief in freedom and representation; the Solar Alliance is preparing for elections as we speak.”

“My best wishes for your candidacy,” offered Kayto politely, raising his glass slightly.

Grey sighed deeply.  “I have no desire to be a politician, Captain.  I had hoped to serve honorably in the Alliance Navy to the end of my days, but my duty to the Solar Alliance is clear.  As President of the Alliance, I will catalyze the government reform we have been long overdue for.   Too many people and worlds, like your own, have fallen because of the inaction of the Solar Congress.  Our politicians are no longer the bold statesmen of the past, but rather children on a playground, squabbling over irrelevancies and petty interests.  I have no wish to see the best and brightest of our Alliance die simply because of a lack of political will on Solaris; we cannot afford not to end this war quickly and decisively.”

Both Kayto and Grey paused, letting silence stretch as they contemplated their glasses.  Although Kayto’s deeply held suspicion of the Solar Alliance remained, he had no wish to further inflame the healing rift between himself and the Admiral over what was an academic discussion.  Regardless of politics, Kayto could agree on one thing wholeheartedly; a quick end to the war would be in everyone’s best interests.

“But in any matter,” said the Admiral, breaking the silence and leaning forward, serious.  “Let me get to the real reason why I called your ship to Ongess.  Your combat record against pirates is… extensive and speaks for itself, particularly with respect to a certain pirate leader.  That experience is precisely why I have requested your presence now.”

“That’s true I suppose,” said Kayto modestly.  Cracking a smile, he continued.  “It almost seems a certain pirate girl has a thing for me.”

“A happy coincidence then,” said the Admiral smoothly.  “She is here at Ongess right now.  I cannot afford to have Cosette and her… associates jeopardize our mission at Ongess.  Their continued presence and operations are a threat to our military and humanitarian goals.  You are to find her and eliminate her.  For good.”

Kayto nodded.  “Hunting for pirates is something of a specialty for my crew.  We’ll take care of it, Admiral.”

“Then I wish you the best of luck,” said Grey.  “Ongess is her home turf, Captain.  Do not underestimate her; she knows this system like the back of her hand.”

Rising, the two men finished their drinks and returned to Sunrider’s hanger.  Kryska was waiting for the two of them by the Admiral’s shuttle.

“Well, that concludes our meeting,” said the Admiral, turning to face the two before boarding.

“It was a pleasure having you aboard, Admiral,” answered Kayto.

“The pleasure was mine,” Admiral Grey turned to look at Kryska.  “Lieutenant, please take care of the good Captain for us; you are lucky serve aboard a vessel as fine as this.  Wear that Ceran uniform with pride.”

“Sir!  Understood!”  Kryska saluted, eyes shining.

Turning, the Admiral began to ascend the shuttle’s ramp when the entire ship shook suddenly, sending everyone sprawling.  Overhead alarms started wailing.

“Argh!” Kayto grunted in pain as he and Kryska fell to the floor together, his body slamming into the metal deck of the hanger as he cushioned Kryska protectively.

“Admiral!” Kryska immediately wrestled free from Kayto’s grasp, staggering towards Grey as the ship continued to rock.  “Are you alright!”

“I’m fine!”  The Admiral sounded winded, but otherwise unharmed, struggling to his feet as two Alliance marines rushed out of the shuttle to his aid.

“Captain!  We need you in the CIC immediately!”  Ava’s voice shouted over the ship-wide PA system.

“Damn!”  Kayto clambered to his own feet as the Sunrider’s artificial gravity fluctuated suddenly, making for the lift.  “Kryska!  Secure the Admiral!”

“I’m fine, dammit!”  Grey waved off the marines and Kryska as he held onto the ramp strut for support.  “What the hell is going on?”

“That’s what I’m about to find out,” muttered Kayto, running for the lift without a backwards glance.

******

“Report!” Kayto skidded into the CIC, already in Red Alert, and dropped into his seat on the command dais.

“Massive explosions from within the Alliance station, Captain!” reported Ava, throwing up a damage report of the torus shaped station on the main screen.  Multiple flashing red and yellow markers showed a dozen explosions of varying severity across the torus.  “No damage to Sunrider to report; the station’s artificial gravity generators are offline, but our own are compensating!”

“Power up all our weapons and put our Ryders on alert.  Bring our reactor to full power now!” ordered Kayto as the CIC crew snapped to.

“Damn!” the Admiral’s avatar materialized, transmitting from inside his shuttle.  “Captain, this station houses a number of fuel tanks filled with liquid Ongessite.  If they ignite-” The Admiral left the rest unsaid, but Kayto knew the results would be breathtaking, to say the least.

“Emergency dust off!  Release all docking clamps and feed lines immediately, override all safeties!” barked Kayto.

“Aye, Captain!” Ava answered.  “Thrusters at full, we’re pulling away now!”

Another massive explosion rocked the Sunrider as she pulled away from the Alliance station’s docking apparatus.

“Report!” demanded Kayto as Sunrider continued to shake, more explosions reverberating through their hull.

“Several fuel tanks have detonated,” said Ava grimly.  “Massive damage to the Alliance station.  We’ve avoided the worse of it, but I don’t think any other ships were as lucky.”

“HAHAHAAAA!” a high pitched cackling scream of laughter filled the CIC as Cosette’s diminutive avatar appeared.  “This is Cosette Cosmos, terror of the stars!  To the Solar Alliance Pig Imperialists, leave this planet at once or suffer the consequences!  Our Ongessite belongs to no power and we will fight to the last man and ship to defend our home from your pilfering empire.”

As Cosette’s avatar faded, Ava announced, “Captain, signal analysis complete.  That was a pre-recorded message; she’s not here.”

“Psychological warfare, huh?” muttered Kayto, disappointed.

“No Captain,” Admiral Grey’s avatar trembled with barely contained rage.  “An act of terrorism.  Unfortunately, this is not the first time a similar incident has occurred.  Now that you’ve seen firsthand the threat this women presents to our operations here, I expect her to be dealt with summarily.”

******

Several days later, Kayto sat in his office, plowing through report after report and sifting through terabytes of data.  Somewhere, buried in all the junk, some vital clue as to Cosette’s hideout or next plan was waiting to be found.  Ever since the daring attack on the Alliance station, the pirates had been relatively quiet, undoubtedly biding time until their next operation.

His door chimed, interrupting his thoughts.

“Come in,” said Kayto.

“Captain.”  Ava walked in a saluted.

“Any leads as to Cosette’s whereabouts?” asked Kayto, rubbing fatigue from his eyes.  Like him, Ava had also been pouring through the local data networks and Alliance intelligence.

“Not yet,” Ava shook her head and took a seat opposite to him.  “But I wanted to inform you that the Alliance salvage and forensics teams have finished their work at the site of her last attack; no leads unfortunately.”

“What’s the full extent of the damage from that attack?” asked Kayto.

“It’s slowed the Alliance down,” answered Ava, pushing her hair back to reveal her intense cherry eyes.  “But that was one out of six stations the Alliance has set up in orbit.  Security’s also been tightened on the remaining five; Cosette won’t be able to pull anything like that again.  Not for a long time.”

Kayto sighed deeply, poking at his holo without much enthusiasm.

“Captain,” Ava frowned, her eyes raking over his appearance and lingering on the dark circles beneath his eyes.  “You’re worried about something.”

“Is that concern I hear?” Kayto broke into a weary smile. “Do I really look that bad?”

Ava turned pink but glared at him.  “The crew needs you at one hundred percent, Captain.  It’s not just Cosette that’s on your mind, is it?”

“The Alliance has gotten awfully comfortable here,” observed Kayto, gesturing to the holo screens showing dozens of Alliance frigates hauling cargo and the Emerald fleet’s ships on patrol.  “Those space stations in orbit that the Alliance set up aren’t temporary.  They’re precursors to space elevators; in a month they’ll be dropping tethers down to the planet’s surface to haul Ongessite ore to orbital refineries.  The Alliance means to establish a permanent foothold here in the Neutral Rim.”

“Why wouldn’t they?” asked Ava.  “The Battle of Ongess cost the Alliance more than a hundred thousand lives and many times that much in credits.  No sane person would just leave that much Ongessite alone after expending that kind of energy and resources to obtain it.”

“This isn’t liberation,” insisted Kayto, scowling at the Alliance ships.

“Pretty political ideas, eloquent speeches, and good feelings don’t win wars, Captain.”  Ava’s face tightened.  “Fuel and munitions do.”

“Cera’s not far from here,” said Kayto after a few seconds of silence as the two considered one another’s words.  “We’re fighting to liberate our home.  Planting an Alliance flag right outside our doorsteps doesn’t figure well for Cera’s independence.”

“Ongess is a conflict-ridden dustbowl that’s been oppressed by one foreign power after another since we invented the warp engine,” refuted Ava.  “Cera’s a free, advanced blue world.  We have a history of independent government, civil rights, and economic diversification.  None of those things exist on Ongess.  They couldn’t handle independence even if it were an option.  The Alliance has no choice but to intervene.  There’s no such precedence in Cera’s case.”

“I hope you’re right,” muttered Kayto.  “Thanks for the report Ava, was there anything else?”

“No Sir.”

******

Later that evening, Kayto took a stroll down to the Ryder hangers, trying to clear his head, mind abuzz and unpleasantly cluttered.  Most of the crew had already gone to the mess hall for dinner, but the thought of joining the general din at peak hours was enough to kill his appetite.  Walking in the cavernous hanger bay, footsteps echoing in the quiet, was entirely more appealing.

“Ah.  Captain.” Sola’s quiet voice made him jump slightly as she melted out of the shadows by Seraphim’s docking berth.

“Sola,” Kayto tried to give her a smile, almost succeeding.  “I didn’t realize anyone was still here.”

Sola nodded slowly, gesturing to the Seraphim.  Several access panels had been opened on the Ryder itself and the unusual weapon it carried.  Glowing blue shone from only a handful of circuits and conduits.  “I was having some difficulty repairing the Seraphim,” confessed Sola, her voice completely devoid of frustration or fatigue.  “It seems a number of the parts provided by the Alliance are not compatible with my systems.”

“That’s definitely an issue…” Kayto chewed the inside of his cheek as he regarded Sola’s exotic looking Ryder.  “We can repair the hull, but most of the gadgetry inside is beyond our ability or technology.  I’ll see if Chigara can come take a look at the Seraphim’s systems.  Even if we don’t understand the technology in your Ryder, we might be able to fabricate replacement parts for the Seraphim and restore some of its function.”

“I do not wish to cause trouble,” Sola dropped her gaze.  “I must apologize for burdening you with this.”

“Trouble?”  Kayto waved Sola’s apology away.  “The only trouble is our low tech.  The Seraphim and its abilities are beyond anything we have today; I wish we could be more helpful.  We must seem like barbarians to you…”

Sola gave him a small smile, allowing crack of emotion to show through.  Stepping closer, she locked eyes with his.  “You have helped me tremendously, Captain.  Even though I am a stranger to your time, you have welcomed me as a part of your crew.”

“It’s the least we could do for you, Sola,” answered Kayto truthfully.  “I’m glad you feel that way.”

“I do not understand how I survived the Final Tear of the Sharr’Lac, nor how I found myself millennia in the future, but… I am relieved, to have survived and to have met you.  I no longer wish to return to the dark abyss.  I wish to continue to live, to embrace my new life, so that I may continue to make new friends.  I am in your debt.”

“You have yourself to thank for that,” said Kayto, now finding the strength to smile.  “I didn’t do anything.  The strongest form of determination is what comes from your own heart, Sola.  Not what comes from others.”

“I see…  I shall remember that.”  Sola continued to smile for a moment before turning serious once more.  “But a heaviness sits upon your breast,” Sola walked up to him and pressed her small hand to his chest.  Looking up, her amber eyes flickered with concern.  “Your burdens weigh upon you.”

Kayto nodded reluctantly as Sola slid her hand away and stepped backwards.  She turned away before looking over her shoulder with one eye at him.

“The stars have always granted me peace when I felt similarly,” Sola said after a moment of contemplation.  “Perhaps they will share your troubles as well.”

Kayto nodded as Sola returned to the Seraphim without waiting for a reply.

******

Sola’s words stuck with him as he made his way back to the mess hall.  Deciding to give her suggestion a chance, he deviated to the corridor he’d found her in on their previous encounters, dimming the lights as she had done and losing himself to the sea of stars in front of him.  As he drifted, some of the crushing weight upon his chest seemed to lift, a sense of serenity stealing over him as the silence and soft starlight soothed his raw nerves and mind.

“Lookin’ to the stars, Capt’n?”

Kayto jerked to, unsure if he’d fallen asleep or simply lost himself to the view.  Realizing with a start that he was sitting on the floor, Kayto wondered how long he’d been staring at the night sky.  A quick check of his bracelet showed that more than half an hour had passed since he’d come to Sola’s corridor.  Next to him, Asaga put her hands on her hips, leaning forward at him and grinning.

“I didn’t know you liked that sort of stuff!  Usually it’s Sola lurking alone in the dark,” grinned Asaga, looming over him.

“Looks like you’ve stumbled on my secret,” Kayto gave Asaga a contented look.  “Actually, it was Sola’s suggestion that I come here.  That woman knows what she’s doing.”

“No, no, no!” Asaga pointed at him, fire in her eyes.  “You’re the Capt’n!  You can’t afford to skulk around in the dark and brood alone!”

“Heh…” Kayto tipped his head back and closed his eyes.  “Hey, Asaga, a question…”

“Shoot!” Asaga flopped down on the floor with him, drawing her knees up to her chest.

“What do you suppose an ideal starship captain would be like?”

“Super handsome, with princely looks!” Asaga blurted her answer out immediately without a shred of remorse.

Kayto practically fell over.  “Aside from looks, you goof!”

“Hey!” Asaga punched him playfully.  “We gotta have priorities!  Well… I suppose if that’s not good enough… I think an ideal captain would be super good at navigation and other… ship things.  They’d have to be knowledgeable about weapons and Ryder operations too!”

“That… wasn’t exactly what I was asking,” Kayto sighed.  “Forget it, it’s my fault I even asked.  Don’t worry about it.”  Making to stand up, Kayto felt Asaga’s hand on his sleeve, tugging him back down to the ground forcefully.

“And…” Asaga’s emerald eyes twinkled.  “I think my ideal Captain would be someone who stands for what’s right, no matter the cost.  Someone who stands, not for the established order, but on behalf of the weak and poor.  Someone who’s… heroic.  A captain who’ll uphold the truth and fight, not to win, but for justice.  Someone… who’s willing to make the ultimate sacrifice if it means saving the lives of innocents.  A believer in the goodness of humanity who knows that, no matter what happens, everything will be alright in the end.”

Kayto let her pull him back.  “We all try to be like that.  But it’s not so easy in real life.”

“Nobody ever said it was!” Asaga thumped him with a giant grin.  “But the only things in life worth having are hard to get.”

“Heh…” Kayto smiled.  “I guess you’re right…”  Rising, Kayto helped Asaga to her feet as well.  “Thanks, Asaga.  For that.”

“Eh-heh…” Asaga blushed but looked extremely pleased with herself.  “Anytime, Capt’n!”

******

Kayto loosened the collar of his uniform, ready at last to retire from the evening.

Bing Bing, Kayto’s door chimed just as he got up from his desk.

“Come in,” he said, trying to not sound irritated.

“Umm…” Chigara’s bow poked in from outside as she nervously looked around.  “Captain, it’s me…”

“Chigara!” Kayto’s annoyance vanished instantly.  “Is something the matter?”

“N-no,” Chigara came in properly, clutching a small bag in front of her with both hands.  “Nothing like that.  Things are going so well, in fact, that I had the Engineering department take a break.  I was just wondering… I-if you had time for another round of tea.”  Chigara turned pink and looked at her feet before hastily holding out the bag.  “I-I baked some extra pastries!  I-I thought they’d go nicely…”

“Thank you,” Kayto gave her a genuine smile and relieved her of the bag.  A delicious, buttery smell wafted from inside, making his mouth water.  As his stomach gurgled, he realized he’d neglected to have dinner.  “Tea sounds wonderful; let me just get the set out.  Come on down.”

Before long, both Kayto and Chigara sat opposite each other in his parlor space, with steaming cups of tea.  Chigara stifled a quiet giggle as she watched Kayto demolish one of the scones she brought, shamelessly helping himself to another.

“Chigara!  These are amazing…” he mumbled around a mouthful of buttery flakes and dried fruit.

“Hehehe~” Chigara covered her mouth with a dainty hand, turning pink at the compliment.  “Captain, it’s rude to talk with your mouth full…”

“I’m sorry,” said Kayto, swallowing.  “I missed out on dinner, I think.  You’re a lifesaver, Chigara.”

“Eh?” Chigara’s smile turned to a frown.  “Captain, you should take better care of yourself,” she admonished.  “Or do I have to bring you meals too from now on?”

“You’re right, you’re right,” Kayto held up both his hands in apology.  “It’s been a difficult week.  Honestly, Chigara… I’m not sure if I was cut out for this.  I thought my command aboard the Sunrider would be for routine patrols.  The Cera Space Force only ever interdicted illegal smugglers and tangled periodically with local pirates and space whalers.  Fighting a war like this… I was never trained for anything like it.  None of us were.  All of our smartest and most experienced captains and crew are dead.  We’re all that’s left, the newest ship in the fleet.  Everything’s so much easier in a simulator in officer school, but now… When it’s time to make a call on the spot, it’s almost impossible.  You never know what will happen next.  You don’t have time to think through the consequences.  It’s just a split second, twitch decision.”

Kayto looked into his tea, hands clamped tightly around its warmth.  “Can I tell you something?”  He looked up at Chigara’s expression of concern.  “It terrifies me to think that the lives of everyone aboard this ship depend on nothing more than my guesses.”

“Captain…” Chigara set her tea down and leaned forward, putting her hands over his, warm against his cool skin.  “You’ve done an amazing job so far.  None of us would have made it this far or long without you.  I remember when Asaga and I were the only ones here.  Now we have an entire hanger full of Ryders from across the galaxy.  Best yet… we’re all one family, Captain.”  Chigara looked into his eyes, light dancing across her sapphire irises.  “And it’s because of you.”

“Chigara…” Kayto closed his eyes and sighed deeply.

“We all trust you with our lives.  I’m sure whatever you do, it’ll be the right thing.”  Chigara held onto him for a moment longer before letting him go.  “I’d better get back to my staff, Captain.  Please try to get some sleep and take care of yourself.”

“Thanks Chigara,” Kayto said as she rose from her seat.  “I think I’ll do that.”

“Umm…” Chigara gave him a bashful look.  “If it’s alright… may I keep coming here?  I… enjoy our tea time together.”

“Of course,” Kayto gave her a tired smile.  “I’d be disappointed if you didn’t.  Come by anytime.”

CHAPTER 22 >>>>