Chapter 22- Insurgency

Two days later, Kryska called again at Kayto’s office, saluting crisply as she entered.  “Captain.”“Kryska, what can I do for you?” asked Kayto, looking up from his holo.

“I’ve been meaning to speak with you, Sir.  Permission to speak freely?” asked Kryska.

“Always,” Kayto gestured to a chair.  “There’s no need to be so formal either, Kryska.”

“Thank you Captain,” Kryska settled into the offered seat, avoiding his glance awkwardly for a moment before squaring her shoulders and meeting him head on.  “I understand that you have some concerns about the Alliance.”

Kayto nodded.  “Word spreads fast on this ship, huh?  Well I suppose there’s no use denying it.  Even with all the support the Alliance has been giving us, Sunrider will always be a Neutral Rim ship and I’ll always be a Neutral Rim captain.  You could say a healthy dose of skepticism is part of our way of life.”

“I understand Captain,” said Kryska without rancor.  “Winning trust is something the Alliance is not unaccustomed to.  That’s what I wanted to talk about today.  If you have time, I’ve taken the liberty of petitioning for and receiving clearance from the Admiral for you to inspect our efforts on Ongess personally.  No restrictions, no filters.”

“Hmm,” Kayto thought about it for a moment, unenthusiastically eyeing his holo and the mountains of paperwork and intelligence reports he had yet to comb through.  “We’re still in the middle of resupply operations and Ava has the CIC; things have been quiet for a while.  I’d be happy for a chance to stretch my legs.”

Kryska broke into a smile.  “I’ve arranged for a shuttle to take us to one of the Ongessian orbital colonies.  Once you’ve seen the work we’ve been doing, I’m sure your opinion of the Alliance will begin to change.”

“Alright, it’s a plan.”  Kayto rose from his desk with Kryska.  “Let me stop by the CIC and let Ava know I’ll be leaving the ship for a few hours.”

“Of course Captain,” Kryska’s hand was halfway up to a salute before she remembered Kayto’s request and lowered it, smiling sheepishly.  “Thank you.  I’ll be waiting in the hanger bay with the shuttle.”

******

Kayto sat back in the cushioned seat of the Alliance shuttle as it ferried him and Kryska towards Ongess’s habitation belt.  As opposed to the cramped and spartan interior of the Ceran shuttle Sunrider’s hanger housed, the green Alliance shuttle’s interior was sumptuous and lined with leather upholstery, clearly built with comfort rather than function in mind.

“Would you care for a drink, Sir?” asked a spindly drone in a polite, clipped voice, silently creeping up behind him.

“Uh… no… thanks,” said Kayto, eyeing the monocular drone with surprise.

“Very good, Sir.  Please let me know if there is anything I can do to make your flight more comfortable.”  The drone noiselessly retreated with an almost comical bow at its midsection.

“Wow, the Alliance spares no expense for its senior officers, doesn’t it?” asked Kayto, turning to his traveling companion.

“The Admiral insisted,” said Kryska, squirming in her seat, clearly uncomfortable with the shuttle’s luxurious interior as well.  “This shuttle is normally reserved for Alliance VIP’s and high ranking politicians.  I assure you our military shuttles are far more similar to the Sunrider’s own.”

Kayto laughed, cutting the tension.  “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to sound judgmental.  Please remind me to thank the Admiral personally when this trip is over.”

“Yes Captain.” Kryska relaxed significantly.  “We’re close enough to see the orbital now.”

Gesturing, Kryska summoned a holoscreen in the middle of the shuttle’s large passenger compartment.  A large cylindrical orbital station came into view, utterly unremarkable compared to the hundred other orbital habitats which circled the planet.  As the shuttle burned closer, Kayto could see dozens of green Alliance ships docked to the side of the habitat, their boxy hulls identifying them as civilian cargo haulers.  On closer inspection, the entire habitat appeared to be in a state of extreme disrepair; only emergency exterior lights glowed dimly, the station’s reactor apparently unable to supply enough power to maintain proper exterior lighting.  Impact craters lay fallow, only millimeters of hull separating the pressurized interior beneath it from the vacuum of space.  The rest of the hull was a slapdash affair; quick fixes, gleaming epoxy caulks, and broken pipes wheezing steam and atmosphere into space marred the habitat’s exterior from pole to pole.

“Welcome to habitat P4X-684, Captain,” said Kryska grimly as Kayto looked at the state of the habitat with disbelief.  He’d grown up hearing stories of how miserable life on Ongess was, but seeing it first-hand drove the point home in a way he’d never appreciated before.  “This habitat is one of dozens just like it, built during the occupation of Ongess by the New Empire.”

Kayto watched the habitat grow larger on the screen, still astounded that people lived aboard it.  Up close, the habitat looked even worse, as though it were on the verge of tearing itself apart from its own gentle rotation.  As the shuttle drew closer to the station, a crack formed on its outer hull, widening.  For a moment, Kayto couldn’t tell whether the hull had simply given up holding itself together, but, fortunately, it became apparent that the opening was intentional.  Rusted and poorly maintained blast doors ground opened to admit the shuttle into a dim hollow filled with refuse and junk from centuries of neglect, some of which drifted out carelessly into the vacuum of space.

The shuttle flew through the open maw, pausing as the chamber sealed from space, pressurized, and admitted the shuttle to the station interior.  As the interior airlock doors opened with the tortured squeal of rusted metal and grinding gears, a dim, weak light struggled to penetrate the veils of dust that obscured the shuttle.  It took Kayto a moment to realize that the station’s artificial sunlight was not simulating dawn or dusk, but was simply barely able to illuminate the station interior from a lack of power.

The shuttle eased into the station proper and flew down the open middle of the cylinder, giving Kayto a dizzying view of the slums which completely encircled the entire exterior wall of the habitat, stretching into the distance to the other end of the station before ending in the forbiddingly large structures of the station’s Ongessite refineries.  Ramshackle building after building slouched against its neighbor, their corroding walls and roofs patched up with all manner of scrap metal, tarp, and industrial refuse.  A dark, sticky grime seemed to cover nearly every surface, giving the entire station interior a sickly appearance.  Smoke rose in a thousand thin, curling columns, settling over the entire habitat as a hazy film; with a start, Kayto realized the inhabitants of the station were cooking on outdoor open flames, burning whatever trash they had scraped together to cook their evening meal.

A green patch in the middle of the sea of brown and rust came into view; an Alliance camp, the only thing remotely clean or new they’d seen since entering the habitat.  The shuttle jazzed its belly jets as it set down on an empty landing pad among towering palates of Alliance supply crates and temporary structures.  With a heavy thump, the shuttle announced its arrival and the side hatched opened as a ramp dropped down to deliver its two passengers.

“Holy…” Kayto covered his nose with his sleeve as his eyes watered.  The smell of smoke, raw sewage, and stale air slammed into him like a physical wall as the habitat’s atmosphere mixed with that of the shuttle.  “Are the life support systems defective?”

“In a manner of speaking,” said Kryska as she rummaged through a supply crate at her feet.  “We were all shocked when we first arrived here.  According to the original blueprints for the station, this habitat was meant to house ten thousand workers and the orbital refineries they’d operate.  It was never meant to be luxurious, but there was something almost like a standard of life when it was built.  As you can tell, the New Empire exceeded that population limit outrageously during their occupation; nearly half a million people live here now; the station’s infrastructure simply cannot keep up.”

“That’s… unbelievable,” muttered Kayto, stepping out onto the station’s dirty surface.  Dust and ash swirled around his boots, revealing dull metal plating underneath.  What Kayto had initial construed as an attempt to replicate a terran surface on the station’s “ground” was actually two centuries of accumulated filth and pulverized debris.

Kryska followed him out of the station, offering him a respirator.  “These masks should filter out the worse of it,” she said.

“No,” Kayto declined the breathing apparatus.  “I… want to experience the real thing.”

Kryska nodded sagely, tossing the devices back into the shuttle.  “Of course.  Believe it or not, Captain, we’ve already installed new air purifiers throughout the station and made repairs to the station’s ventilation systems.  I doubt the life support on this station would have lasted another five years; we had to practically replace the whole thing.  Come this way, let me show you what else the Alliance’s been doing here.”

Kryska and Kayto walked together through the Alliance camp as the former pointed out the numerous healthcare clinics, power generators, and water filtration units, and ration distribution tents the Alliance had set up.  Lines of Ongessians, all dressed in the same patched, frayed, and filthy smock-garments formed a giant, heaving mass of groaning humanity as the Alliance relief camp struggled to maintain order and distribute aid.

“Please be patient and proceed in an orderly fashion.  We have enough food, water, and medicine for everyone,” a loud voice broadcasted over the PA system every few minutes.

“The food and medicine situation was just about as bad as you could imagine,” said Kryska as the two watched a hoard of Ongessians descend upon a newly opened crate of rations as Alliance marines did their best to herd them into a line for the relief workers to start passing out the foil wrapped meals.  “Even clean water is a luxury on this station.  The cargo ships you saw outside are some of the biggest relief vessels we have in the fleet; dozens of them come and go around the clock, but even so, it’s been a struggle for us to keep up with the demand.”

Kayto watched wordlessly as some of the Ongessians who’d received meals immediately tore into the foil wrapped contents with almost animal expressions on their faces, devouring the nutrition-fortified protein-based rations with tears streaking down from their eyes.  In less than three minutes, the mob had swelled to the point where the Alliance marines seemed to give up on maintaining the queue, focusing on maintaining the semblance of a perimeter around the food crate.  Shouting started and the Ongessians began squabbling and fighting each other for the food that had already been distributed.  More marines began to arrive to restore order and resume the food distribution, pushing through the crowd and breaking up confrontations with the fatigued air of men and women who’d seen it a hundred times before.

Shaking her head and leading him further, Kryska and Kayto left the tragic scene behind, passing dozens of medical shelters, each with nearly fifty cots placed closely together; not a single bed was unoccupied.  Ongessians of all ages lay groaning as medical personnel moved between them, starting medical drips or performing procedures in mini-sterile fields at the bedside.  “Decades of Ongessite refining without the proper industrial safeguards have spread toxic chemicals throughout the station,” said Kryska, gesturing at the impromptu hospital.  “The health toll’s been appalling, but that’s not all.  Diseases that have been eliminated throughout the rest of the galaxy run rampant here; virtually no one is immunized with even the basics.  As you can imagine, violence and crime are also responsible for a large percentage of our most critical patients,” she finished, nodding back in the direction of the mob jostling for rations.

As the two reached the end of the Alliance camp, Kryska turned to Kayto and pointed to another supply-laden shuttle as it touched down.  “In just the few days since we arrived, the Alliance has delivered over fifty metric tonnes of fresh food and twice as much clean water to this station alone.  Similar relief efforts are underway for the other orbitals as well.  An entire medical cruiser is docked on the far side of this station to take the most critically sick and we’ve diverted more than a dozen additional medical cruisers from the front lines to tend to the civilians on the stations.  Engineering crews are working around the clock to shore up what infrastructure already exists here; we’ve also built six water filtration stations around the habitat and organized neighborhood patrols for safety.  In a few weeks, we should see the first schools and hospitals in the history of Ongess being built.”

Turning around, Kryska nodded towards the end of the Alliance camp and the heaps of rubbish and dilapidated buildings as far as the eye could see beyond the camp’s fortified walls.  “What you see out there is the result of tyranny and exploitation of innocents, Captain.  The Alliance is a force of good in the galaxy; we’ve sent the tyrants packing from this system and brought change for the people of Ongess, all at the cost of our own blood and sweat.  Our compassion and technology will make the galaxy a better place, starting with Ongess.”

Kayto said nothing for a long time, watching garbage blow in the sour breeze of the habitat and the endless waves of Ongessians mournfully drifting into the relief camp.  “Do you really believe that, Kryska?”

“Captain.”  Kryska turned to him and smiled.  “Do you want to know the truth?  I wasn’t born on Luna and I apologize for saying so when I first came aboard.  I was actually born outside Alliance space.  I saw firsthand what corruption and dictatorship could do to innocent people.  My family lived in constant fear of a government that demanded the entirety of our livelihoods from us.  The same government that did nothing to protect us from pirates and criminals, yet somehow always found money for more secret police and surveillance drones to terrorize us with.  When the Alliance liberated my world… it was the happiest day of my life.  For the first time I could remember, I was free… free to do whatever I wanted, free to live as a human being.”

Kryska looked to the distance, eyes shining with pride.  “The Alliance has stood for freedom and individual choice since the day of its birth.  Even at the end of the New Empire’s guns, the Alliance formed not out of fear or oppression, but from the universal truth that all of humankind has the right to freedom, equality, and opportunity.  Every man, woman, and child in this universe deserves that right.”

Kayto said nothing but felt his misgivings against the Alliance start to wear thin.  What Kryska spoke was the truth; the Solar Alliance had enacted great change throughout the galaxy for numerous worlds.  More than that, when he looked at the Alliance relief camp, he could not help but feel relieved that someone had shouldered the responsibility for Ongess.  Although Cerans were all acutely aware of the poverty that pervaded Ongessian society, his own government had never lifted so much as a finger to provide relief as the Alliance had done.  Out in the Neutral Rim, planets had cultivated a self-centered view of the galaxy, seeing only to their own local needs and concerns without regard for their neighbors.  Perhaps such an arrangement had been doomed to fail from the start.

A pale, sickly looking girl with lank, dirty pigtails shambled up to them.  Her clothes were little more than a roughspun tunic and she was not even wearing shoes.  Beneath the grime and dirt that caked her skin and hair, Kayto saw several weeping skin lesions.  With dull, turquoise eyes, she watched them warily and paused before coming any closer, clearly unwilling to come within arm’s reach.

“Little girl,” Kryska crouched down to her height and gave her a warm smile.  “Come here.  What’s your name?”

“Kyoko.”  The girl took a cautious step forward towards Kryska.

Kayto also knelt.  “I’m Kayto, and this is my friend Kryska.”

“Kyoko, Kayto, and Kryska?”

Kayto laughed with Kryska.  “We make quite the trio.”

“Mommy says I shouldn’t talk to strangers,” Kyoko shuffled anxiously, giving the two a wary glance, but coming closer all the same.

“She’s right,” said Kryska.  “But don’t worry; we’re not going to hurt you.”

“Are you… one of the star people?” Kyoko’s eyes were round as coins.

“Star people…” Kayto shook his head in disbelief, pity for the girl tearing at his heart.  “I guess you could call us that.”

“Please!”  The girl sudden balled her fists and closed her eyes as tears began streaming and cutting tracks through the dirt on her cheeks.  Kayto and Kryska jumped in surprise.  “Please take me away from here!  I don’t care where!  Just take me away on your spaceship!”

“Kyoko…” Kryska’s eyes moistened.

“I-I’m sorry…” Kayto felt his heart breaking.  “We can’t… your mommy would miss you too much if you left.”

“I don’t care!”  Kyoko stamped her bare foot on the ground.  “Mommy doesn’t care!”

“Kyoko,” Kayto softened his voice and tried to keep it steady.  “I know this place isn’t as fun as a spaceship… but do you see my friend here?”  He pointed to Kryska.  “She’s Lieutenant Kryska Stares, of the Alliance Navy.  She and her friends are going to make this a nice place for you, all right?  They’ll bring you good food and help you if you ever get sick.  They’ll plant trees, build schools, maybe even playgrounds for kids like you.  But it’ll take a little time.  You just have to be patient.”

Sighing deeply, Kayto held his hand out towards the girl, fingers trembling.  “But always remember: stay with your family.”  His voice choked slightly as his throat thickened.  “Because once you lose them… you never get them back.”

“Captain…” Kryska’s voice was sad as she set a comforting hand on his shoulder.

“Okay…” Kyoko sniffled but nodded, turning and running back to the slums.

Kayto stood with Kryska, swallowing hard against the dust and emotion.

“Shall we continue?” asked Kryska quietly after a moment.

“No,” Kayto shook his head wearily.  “I’ve seen enough.  Let’s go back, Kryska.”

They walked back together, the silence hanging heavily until Kryska spoke up again.  “Captain, I know things look grim now, but, perhaps one day, with Alliance intervention, the people of Ongess will live in prosperity.”

“How long do you think it’ll take to restore a civil society?” asked Kayto.

“With the war still going on, our resources are limited.  We’re doing the best we can for now, but imagine how things will look once the war’s finished and the Alliance can dedicate its full strength towards reconstruction and relief.  We’ll be able to make long-term sustainable changes to Ongess instead of simply relieving their most immediate problems.”  Kryska put her hands on her hips and looked around the Alliance camp with pride.  “Captain, I enlisted with the Alliance Navy to do good.  Perhaps we are distrusted in the Neutral Rim, but our intentions are peaceful.  I truly believe we can accomplish great things together.”

“Mmm.”  Kayto nodded.  Kryska was right.  He’d grown up on a planet blessed enough to stand on its own and provide the luxuries and comforts of technology, liberty, and stability.  The soft life his people led on Cera allowed them to ride on a high horse and proclaim everlasting independence, but for worlds like Ongess, perhaps the Alliance was truly their path to salvation.  At any rate, Kryska was also right on account that the Alliance had always respected, if grudgingly, a planet’s right to decline joining; a courtesy that the PACT had never shown.  “Kryska, thank you for bringing me here today.  I… apologize for my bigotry.  The Alliance has done more here in a week than my planet has done for Ongess in decades.”

“Captain.”  Kryska’s eyes shone with happiness.  “I’m glad to hear you say that, but I do understand.  It’s hard for people in the Neutral Rim to trust us.  Honestly, we’re merchants first and foremost.  The Alliance has never had militaristic-”

A series of explosions rocked the ground and an alarm shrilled in the camp as two pillars of smoke rose from the far end of the camp.  Spinning, Kayto and Kryska watched in surprise as dozens of Alliance marines streamed towards the explosions, weapons drawn, fighting to push past the waves of screaming civilians fleeing from the commotion.

From behind, a smaller, far more subdued blast blew dust and rubble at the two, knocking them flat on their faces as a dozen masked men with machine guns poured into the Alliance camp through the hole they’d just blown through the wall.

“Captain!”  Kryska coughed from the dust, crabbing blindly towards him.

Staccato bursts of machine gun fire and the whine of lasers filled the air for a moment before the dust cleared.  Looking up, Kayto and Kryska found themselves staring at no fewer than a six machine gun barrels, some of them still smoking slightly from recent discharge.  The Alliance marines who’d stayed behind to guard that segment of wall slumped from their posts, blood dripping from dozens of holes in their armor.

“Shit…” Kayto raised his hands slowly as Kryska did the same.

One of the gunmen grabbed Kryska’s pistol from her holster and kicked her in the side for good measure.

“Hey!” Kayto shielded her protectively as she curled up with a groan of pain and made to rise and confront the aggressor.  A heavy, cold metal feeling pressed against the back of his head, pushing him back down to his knees.

“Hehehehe…” a very familiar laugh came from the breach in the wall with the sound of crunching rubble drawing closer.  “Welcome to Ongess, Captain.”

Kayto ground his teeth in frustration and anger as Cosette’s tiny body materialized from the dust cloud, her goons parting quickly to give her full view.  “Cosette!  How’d you find us?”

Cosette’s iron eyes sparkled maliciously.  “A little bird told us everything we needed to know and pointed us in the right direction.”

From behind her, Kyoko also emerged, pointing excitedly at Kayto and looking at Cosette with pleading eyes.  “It’s him!  That’s the star man with white hair!  She called him ‘Captain’!”

“So he is,” Cosette took a silver piece out of a slot on her violet Ryder armor, flipping it towards Kyoko.  “Good work little bird.  You’ve earned this platinum.”

Kyoko snatched the oblong coin out of the air and scampered away excitedly.

“Damn…”  Kayto thought to himself as his mind raced furiously.  More explosions and gunfire erupted from the far end of the camp, making rescue by the Alliance marines seem unlikely.  “You should have never brought children into this, Cosette.”

Cosette spat into his face, kicking him in the midriff for good measure.  “You arrogant prick. Don’t you dare lecture me.”  Grabbing his hair as he doubled over and forcing him to look up, Cosette’s grey eyes flashed with borderline madness.  “When I was her age, I had already killed men twice your size.”  Dropping him, she let him crumple into the dust next to Kryska.  “This isn’t your cozy little core world, Captain.  This is Ongess.  The pit of the galaxy on the wrong side of hell.  Bag ‘em, boys.  I’ve waited a long time for this…”

Before Kayto could say anything, he felt several pairs of rough hands haul him to his knees.  A split second later, a blinding blast of pain and nausea hit him from behind as his world went dark.

******

“Captain!  Captain!”

Kayto slowly swam back to something resembling consciousness, following the sound of Kryska’s voice through a sea of nausea and vertigo.  Flashing scenes of blurry light, the harsh grating of metal on metal, a sensation of racing motion and the sound of his own pained screaming meshed together in a nightmare tableau as the world slowly stopped spinning and resolved.

Groaning, Kayto coughed and groaned, tasting bile in his mouth.  Every inch of his body felt like it had been beaten… twice.  Looking up and focusing, he saw Kryska’s face swim out of the darkness, pale and concerned, a brilliant violet bruise under one of her cheekbones.  “K-Kryska…?”  His voice was hoarse, barely a whisper, and his entire throat felt like sandpaper.  Swallowing, Kayto gagged and coughed again before running his rough tongue over his cracked, parched lips.

“Captain!”  The relief in Kryska’s voice was obvious.  “Thank goodness!  Are you alright?!”

“U-ugh…” Kayto’s vision sharpened and widened, showing the full extent of their predicament.  Kryska sat opposite to him, her uniform crumpled and filthy.  The two of them appeared to have been tossed into what looked like a dead end of a sewage pipe.  Tiny and cramped, the air was humid and stagnant with human filth and rot.  The hard, curving surface of the pipe was unforgiving against his back and a stream of the filthiest imaginable water flowed between their boots, soaking in through their uniforms.  He also became aware of an aching numbness in his arms, bound behind his back by plastic fasteners that cut deeply and painfully into his wrists and elbows.  “Y-yeah… I think…  What about you?”

“I’m fine.”  Hands bound in front, Kryska managed to clumsily wipe the cold sweat from his forehead, her hands surprisingly soft, eyes worried.  “It was you they beat the hell out of… I… was afraid…” her voice caught.  “Damned pirates… this station was supposed to be secure…”

“Thanks,” Kayto felt slightly better as she wiped her hands “clean” on her uniform carelessly.  “It’s no one’s fault… like you said, there are nearly half a million people on this habitat.  It’s the perfect hideout for Cosette and her goons; there was no way you could have known.”

A screeching sound of tortured metal made both of them wince as light suddenly flooded into their prison, a burly guard mercilessly flashing his electric torch in their faces as he unlocked and opened the barred door.  Stooping into the dank and filthy cell he pointed the bright light at Kayto’s face.  “Boss wants to speak with you.”

“Fine,” Kayto stood unsteadily as Kryska did the same.  “We won’t cause trouble.”

“Not you.”  The guard shoved Kryska back down into the filth with a splash.  “Just him.”  Without another word, he grabbed Kayto by the lapels and half-dragged, half-threw him out of the cell.  Kayto crunched against the far wall, winded as the guard slammed the door shut on Kryska, who peered out at Kayto helplessly.

“It’s alright, Lieutenant,” Kayto said, trying to catch his breath.  “Do as they say.  If Cosette wanted us dead, she’d have done it already.  She’ll probably try using us as leverage or something…”

“Sir.”  Kryska nodded, swallowing hard.  “Understood.  Be safe.”

“You too, I’ll be back,” answered Kayto with more confidence than he felt as the guard grabbed him once again, hauling him along.

******

Kayto did his best to remember the way out as his escort brought him up to the surface.  About five minutes later, the guard shoved him through an armored door into the blazing brightness outside.  Blinking and blinded, Kayto waited for his eyes to adjust, even the station’s stale air feeling like a welcome breeze compared to the confines of the cell he shared with Kryska.  Rough hands guided him and plunked him down on a chair.  A moment later, the world came into view and he found himself sitting at a small table across from Cosette in what appeared to be courtyard of sorts.  Dozens of heavily armed, tattoo-ridden pirates scowled all around, smoking cigarettes and comparing the sizes of their guns with each other while others swapped bundles of cash and packets of drugs.

“Caapptaiin…” Cosette leaned forward, grinning.  “My favorite person in the world.  You look like hell.  I hope my boys didn’t rough you up too badly.”  Laughing remorselessly, Cosette slammed a canteen down on the table, its contents sloshing.  “You thirsty?  You’ve been unconscious for more than a day after the beating we gave you.  Have some water.”

Kayto stared at the canteen wordlessly, desperately trying not to lick his lips.  Looking up, he glared at Cosette.

“Ah, you pussy.”  Cosette opened the lid and took a long drink from the canteen, some of the water running out from between her thin lips.  “See?”  Getting up and walking around the table, she lifted the canteen to his lips and tilted.

“Mrph!”  Kayto choked and spluttered as he tried to spit the sludgy, burning, acidic and rancid water out as Cosette tilted the canteen even further.

Cosette and her goons all laughed unkindly until she relented, pulling the canteen back.  Kayto gagged and coughed, spitting as he tried to rid his mouth of the foulness.  “What’s the matter, pretty boy?” Cosette gave him a slap to the face and threw the canteen down on the table.  “Our water not pure enough for you?”  Putting a finger under his chin, she lifted his head to her gaze.  “A lifetime of drinking water laced with Ongessite and refinery toxins fucks you up big time.  Makes some of us go crazy.  Babies born with one eye.  Six fingers.  Sometimes you vomit blood for no reason.  Lucky for me… it just made me stop growing since I was eleven.”  Cosette fixed him with her pale gray, pitiless eyes.  “How old do you think I am, Captain?”

“It’s not kind to guess a woman’s age,” he shrugged, still breathing hard.

“Heh,” Cosette took her hand off his chin and ran a finger down his cheek.  “Smooth talker.  You must be real popular with the women on your ship.”

“Sorry to disappoint,” Kayto pulled away as best he could.  “My personal life’s not even boring; it’s non-existent.  What do you want, Cosette?”

Cosette slinked around the back of his chair and pulled a knife from a recessed slot in her suit.  In a single deft movement, she grabbed his hair and pulled his head back, pressing the cold edge of the blade against his Adam’s apple with practiced ease.  Kayto felt a warm trickle roll down his neck as the knife pressed down.

“If it were up to me, I’d cut you up into a hundred pretty little pieces, starting with your fingers and toes, maybe work our way up to something a bit more interesting after a week or so, and mail you piece by piece back to your pretty lover on the Sunrider,” Cosette said dreamily.  “What was her name again?”

“F-fuck you…” grunted Kayto, feeling the cold bite of Cosette’s knife as he uttered the words..

“Non-existent personal life my ass,” Cosette pulled the knife away and threw his head forward in disgust.  “Unfortunately, it so happens you’re worth a little more to me alive than dead.  Business before pleasure, I’m afraid.  Besides, I was always more of a businesswoman than a killer.”

Kayto chuckled grimly.

“What, you think something’s funny?” Cosette flared up, brandishing the knife.  “Believe me, Captain.  I’d relish slicing a very choice part off for your lover to keep, so don’t fuck with me.”

“You’ve killed too many civilians to not call yourself a killer,” spat Kayto, glaring at the diminutive pirate.  “You attack civilian ships, execute their crews, and steal their cargo.  How are you anything but a killer?”

“Foreigners have been stealing our Ongessite far longer than I’ve been pillaging the galaxy!” snapped Cosette.  “Our infants are born monsters.  Our fathers die in Ongessite refineries like dogs.  Our livelihoods are taken from us the moment we’re born.  And those responsible call themselves Emperors, Presidents, CEO’s, general managers… businessmen.”

“Stop this, Cosette,” Kayto said firmly.  “We can help you.  We can help Ongess.”

“Well, well… look who bought the whole Alliance dog and pony show,” Cosette sneered at him and continued in a mock high-pitched voice.  “They just want to give us food, water, and medicine!  Oh my, what benevolence!  What generosity and charity!  I’m going to start crying!”  Cosette spat in the dirt by his feet, returning her voice to normal.  “Help us my ass.  They’re here for the Ongessite, nothing more.”

Kayto gritted his teeth.  “What about the medical cruiser they’ve docked?  What about the dozens of ships carrying as much food, water, and medicine as the Alliance bring?  Take a look at their camps, Cosette.  The Alliance is doing more for Ongess than anyone ever has.  People are smiling, for the first time in generations I bet.”

“Nothing but tricks!” Cosette glared at him.  “You don’t think the Imperials offered us the same when they ‘liberated’ us from the Holy Ryuvian Empire?  They promised us rights that never came.  Brought food which spoiled and poisoned our people.  Gave us technology that broke.  Fresh water that became tainted with Ongessite as they forced us to refine it right atop our homes.  No!  The only truth is that greed runs the galaxy.  All you pig imperialist bastards are the same, it doesn’t matter what you call yourselves.”

“No.”  It was Kayto’s turn to glare.  “Don’t you ever call me one of them.  I’m from a Neutral Rim world, just like Ongess.  I want independence for my world, just like you.  Unlike you, I have the Admiral’s ear.  We don’t have to fight, we can work together, Cosette.  We’re in it together.”

For a moment, Cosette’s fierce attitude seemed to waver.  Kayto almost dared to believe there was some way they could come to a mutual understanding but Cosette crossed her arms and shook her head, dashing those hopes in an instant.  “It’s too late for that, Captain.  Independence or death.  I want those Alliance dogs to take their ships and their tricks out of the Ongess system within forty eight hours.  That is my only demand.”

“You know that won’t be possible,” Kayto said, feeling the situation slip from his grasp just as a way forward came within reach.  “The Alliance would never give into a demand like that.”

“Then we’ll hit them until they can’t bear it any longer.”  Cosette’s steely eyes hardened with determination.  “They’ll have to burn every habitat around Ongess to get us all.  Every death they inflict on our people will only strengthen our cause.  They’ll never win against us.”

“You’re… mad.”  Kayto looked at Cosette with horror and disgust, realizing that the pirate queen intended to see her entire world burn and its people slaughtered in her crusade.  “It doesn’t have to be like this.  There are still innocents out there… children.  Don’t involve the children… at least the children,” he finished, thinking of Kyoko and the desperate look in her eyes as she begged them to take her from the life she lived.

Cosette’s face contorted with a mixture of fury and disgust.  “Innocent children, huh…?  You really have no idea, Captain.”  Leaning down to his ear and cradling his head like a lover, she whispered so that only he could hear, her thin lips barely brushing against his skin.  “When I was a child, my own, dear, sweet mother sold me to entertain some Imperial soldiers overnight.  For a bottle of water.  When I became a teenager, she forced me to keep pretending to be a child, easy for someone with my… condition.  The market for teens was saturated, see?  Supply and demand.  She was a businesswoman too.”

“Cosette…” Kayto struggled to find words for the horror and pity he felt for the life she’d led.

Cosette’s hand clamped down on his shoulder, vice-like.  “So don’t pretend like you understand a thing about life on Ongess.  I killed my mother like the bitch she was.  I’ll kill anyone who gets in my way.  I’m Cosette Cosmos, Terror of the Stars.  Nobody fucks with me, Captain.  NOBODY!”  Cosette screamed the last word in his ear, sending pain exploding through his head.

“Y-you’re making a mistake!” Kayto said through gritted teeth, his ear ringing.

“Enough with him, I’m bored.”  Cosette kicked Kayto’s chair over furiously and delivered a brutal kick to his ribs.

“ARGH!”  Kayto felt something crack; breathing suddenly became hard.

“Take him back to his cell,” Cosette turned on her heel and walked off as her goon grabbed Kayto under his arms and hauled him away.  “Time to find out how much he’s worth to the Alliance.”

******

“Captain!”  Kryska looked up as the pirate guard tossed Kayto headfirst into the cell.

Spluttering and spitting the sewage out of his mouth, Kayto struggled to right himself, each breath an agonizing effort and harder than the last.

The door clanged, plunging the two into semi-darkness as the guard slouched off, content in the knowledge that his charges would be going nowhere.

Kayto felt Kryska’s hands pull him, helping him up.  “Kryska… your hands.”

“I think I may have found a way out,” Kryska’s honey colored eyes were clouded with concern for him as she leaned close, whispering.  “It’s not much, but I found this cement chip.  I’ve managed to cut through my restraints.  Give me a moment and I’ll get yours.”

Kryska worked for a minute before Kayto felt the plastic bonds snap.  Blood rushed back into his arms and hands, sending shooting pains throughout as he moved his rock-like limbs for the first time in more than a day.

“Don’t do anything reckless, Lieutenant,” gasped Kayto as she propped him up.  “The Alliance will come for us…”

“You’re hurt, Captain.”  Kryska sounded close to tears as she watched Kayto clutch his side with the pain.  “I’m not going to let you stay here.  This was my fault… I brought you here.  I’ll do whatever it takes to make it right.”

“Hey!”  Steel grated once more as the prison guard wrenched the door open.  Kryska and Kayto hid their hands before the torch illuminated them.  “Boss wants to see you.”

“Again?” coughed Kayto wetly, tasting blood.

“Not you,” the guard leered unpleasantly.  “The girl this time.  Got something fun planned.”

Kayto struggled to push himself towards the guard.  “No… not her… me instead…” he gasped, breaths shallow.

“It’s alright Captain,” Kryska looked pale but stood up.  “I can take care of myself.”

“No… Kryska…” Kayto flailed helplessly as Kryska walked forward.  “Kryska!”

“Shut up,” the guard turned and kicked filthy water over Kayto.

In the moment he turned away from Kryska to deliver the abuse, the Alliance officer moved with sudden speed and agility, looping one of the plastic bonds from Kayto’s arms around his neck and garroting backwards.

“Gurk…”  The burly guard struggled to call out for help, but Kryska expertly crushed his trachea with the improvised garroting wire.  Stomping downwards with her foot, she crushed the guard’s knee, caving it in from the back with a sickening crunch and driving the larger man down.  Without hesitation, she began brutally pounding the guard’s forehead into the concrete wall of the cell, still choking any sound with the plastic bond.  Wet and crunching sounds thudded rhythmically, turning the sewage trickle red, until Kayto heard a final crack, the man’s neck snapping.  With a wet splash, the guard’s limp body fell into the water.

Panting, Kryska got off the guard in disgust and pulled Kayto to his feet, throwing his arm around her neck as she helped him out.

“Kryska…” Kayto wheezed painfully.

“Shh, save your breath.”  Kryska shifted to shoulder more of his weight as his knees buckled.  “We’re going to get out of here.”

Nodding, Kayto pointed towards the exit.

******

Thankfully, it seemed the pirates had left the building to attend to some other activity.  Kayto and Kryska encountered almost no resistance as they staggered towards the surface.  Just before reaching the door leading outside, Kryska set him down, holding a finger to her lips before creeping off.  Mind reeling, his breath coming in little more than short gasps, Kayto sluggishly remembered Icari’s accusation of Kryska’s background as Alliance Spec Ops.  Two sounds came in rapid succession like crunching twigs as Kryska dispatched the remaining guards with brutal efficiency, leaving the coast clear for their escape.

Coming back, Kryska pulled him up once more, frowning at his blue lips and pale complexion.  By the time they reached the outdoors, Kayto’s vision was narrowing, his brain slowly registering Kryska setting him down beside a large crate between two buildings as she watched the patrolling gunmen in the courtyard warily.

“Stay with me, Captain.  Just a little longer,” she urged, rubbing his cheek as his head lolled.  “Cosette’s got this place locked down tight… I think we should make a break for an escape pod.  Once we’ve launched, the Alliance will find us in minutes.”

A siren suddenly wailed throughout the camp.  “Damn!” Kryska jumped, pulling Kayto up, practically dragging him as she tried to make for one of the habitats ancient escape pods.  “They’ve found out we’ve escaped.  We don’t have much time!”

A dozen sets of boots thundered towards them and the clattering of bolts being pulled back on machine guns filled the air as the pirates rushed around looking for them, shouting as they spotted the two’s damning footprints on the dusty ground leading to their hiding spot.  Kryska propped Kayto up with one arm while raising a captured pistol, waiting for the first pirate to round the corner into the alleyway.

“Kryska… go.”  Kayto tried to push her.

“I’m not leaving you, Captain!” Kryska’s grip tightened.  “We’re going together or not at all.”

“The latter I’m afraid.”  Cosette’s cold voice came from behind.

A dozen goons rounded the corner simultaneously at both ends of the alleyway, pointing their guns at Kryska as the Spec Ops officer spun around, pointing her gun hopelessly at the pirates.  Wordlessly, she threw the pistol to the ground as one pirate gestured, his message clear.

Cosette appeared from between her heavies.  “Hehehehe… You don’t look so good, Captain.  I don’t think you’re in any condition to travel.  Pity I have to keep you alive… but the girl’s a different story.  I’ll make her scream good… payback for my guards.”

Two of Cosette’s gorillas roughly grabbed Kryska, tearing her away from Kayto, who crumpled to the ground.  Forcing her to her knees, the goons held her still as Cosette drew her knife from her Ryder suit slowly and lovingly.

“So tall… You have no idea what it’s like being stuck like this.”  Cosette’s eyes flashed with madness.  “You’ll just have to see for yourself once I cut those nice long legs of yours to size… hehehehe… HAHAHA!”

As Cosette picked her way forward slowly, Kryska began to struggle, eyes wide.  One of the goons clapped a hand over her mouth as she tried biting down, immune behind his thick glove, stifling her scream of fear and fury.  Cosette place a hand firmly over Kryska’s thigh and pressed her blade just above her knee.

“Gurk…” Kayto reached out, seeing the world at the end of a tunnel.  The sight of tears streaming down Kryska’s face and her muffled screaming gave him a spike of adrenaline, bringing the world back into focus sharply.  With a start, Kayto saw a laser dot dancing on the forehead of the man gagging Kryska.

CRACK

The man flew backwards, his spine arching and a spray of blood and brains blasting out of the back of his head, slicking the ground behind him.

“SHIT!” Cosette reeled backwards, dropping her knife and narrowly avoiding another shot which drilled into the wall beside her as her heavies spun around, looking for the source of fire.

Summoning the last of his strength, Kayto lunged at Kryska, knocking her loose from the remaining distracted guard and dragging her down to the ground with her.

CRACK CRACK CRACK

More shots echoed through the alley as Cosette’s men dropped like marionettes cut from their strings, falling prey to the sudden and extremely prejudiced Alliance sniper fire.  As Kayto and Kryska clung to the ground, brilliant light flashed around them as dozens of flashbang grenades detonated with deafening sound, disorienting every guard in the pirate encampment.  Explosions sounded as Alliance marine teams breached the perimeter, sweeping in with laser rifles and eliminating the disorganized criminals as they tried to rally or flee.

“ARGGHHH!” Cosette’s scream of fury rang out above the noise and death that swallowed the compound.  “KILL THEM ALL!”  Crabbing backwards, she withdrew to the shadows as an Alliance marine squad charged into the alley, gunning down the pirates that remained standing like animals.

“This is Delta team,” the squad leader’s filtered voice came out of the anonymous full face helmet the Alliance marines wore.  “We have the VIPs.”

Forming a protective perimeter, two marines guarded each end of the alley as the squad leader dropped his rifle and grabbed Kayto’s arm and threw it around his neck, hauling him up.  Another marine tossed Kryska a pistol, who caught it midair and cocked it.

“Get us out of here, soldier,” she barked at the squad leader.

“Yes, Ma’am!  Raven-Five, we are ready for extraction!  Repeat, ready for extraction!”

Together, the marines began to retreat, as a shuttle came roaring in, landing in the middle of the ruined compound.  All around, the sound of machine gun fire and the locust whine of lasers filled the air as other marine teams dispatched the fleeing pirates mercilessly.

As the Alliance marine half-carried him to the shuttle, Kayto suddenly saw movement from the corner of his eye.  With horror, he realized it was the girl he and Kryska met at the Alliance camp, Kyoko.  “Wait!”  Kayto wheezed, using every last bit of air to make himself audible above the battle’s noise.  Pointing a trembling finger at her, he tried willed the Alliance marines to understand and take her from the combat zone as well.  “Help… her…”

Time slowed as his breath caught.  Terror mounted as he saw the girl bend down and pick up Cosette’s fallen knife.

“Put the knife down.  PUT IT DOWN!” screamed one of the marines on rear guard.

Two shots rang out as scarlet blossomed over Kyoko’s filthy garments.  No air left to scream with, Kayto pulled with all his might against the Alliance marine holding him, dimly aware that his helmeted voice was screaming in his ear and of Kryska’s hands on his chest, holding him back and pushing him towards the waiting shuttle.  In that moment, nothing else in the galaxy mattered as much as reaching the girl as Kayto broke free, staggering towards her.

Kyoko’s eyes were wide with shock as she brought a trembling hand to her chest, pulling away with red.  The knife clattered on the ground as her body turned slack.  Locking eyes with Kayto, Kyoko’s turquoise eyes turned dull as something flitted away from behind her irises and her body crumpled to the ground.

All around, pirate machine gun fire stuttered out of the shattered windows of the shanties overlooking the courtyard as Alliance marines fired back.  Explosions rocked the complex as the Alliance and pirates continued trading fire, the situation escalating out of control.

With a scream, three Alliance gunships banked out of the sky, dropping down to the level of the buildings.  Several more explosions blossomed as the Alliance gunships mercilessly strafed the gunman’s positions with laser fire and rockets.  The pirates fired back haphazardly, launching missiles and rocket propelled grenades from long shoulder mounted tubes without aiming.  More than one shanty blew apart like wet cardboard, trapping screaming and fleeing civilians under the flaming wreckage.  Whether it was the Alliance or pirates who had fired the explosives, it was impossible to tell, but the result was devastating.  Combatants and civilians littered the ground alike, bleeding, weeping, staring up with empty eyes.

It was too much to bear and as the scene from hell swirled around him in a whirlpool of color, noise and death, Kayto felt his body crumple and give out, exhausting its final reserve.  As he fell to the ground, he reached out for Kyoko’s limp and bloody hand; darkness swooped in and swallowed him whole.

CHAPTER 23 >>>>