Chapter 23- Wounds

“Captain…” Kyoko’s blank eyes stared at him in accusation.  Blood trickled from the corner of her mouth and ran thick over her clothes from torn flesh and shattered bone.  “You killed me…”Kayto’s eyes opened a crack to bright lights and a blurred world.  Beeping pounded incessantly in his head and he felt mounting panic grip his chest.  The beeping intensified.

“Damn it, he’s waking up,” a muffled voice said, sounding far off.  “Captain, stay calm, you’re safe, everything is alright.  Up the gas, put him back under.  Push another five of midazolam.”

“No…” Kayto became aware of a plastic mask over his face, forcing air into his lungs.  The mounting panic and nausea crashed into him in waves; everything was not alright.  Something had gone horribly wrong.  He tried to raise a hand to his face, to tear off the mask before he vomited.

A gloved hand pushed his leaden arm back down firmly.  “Captain!  Stay still.  We’re going to help you!”

The overhead light seemed to get brighter and closer, whiting the world out into empty oblivion.

******

Kayto blinked his eyes in confusion.  The world came into focus and he found himself strapped to a gurney, its gel padding conforming to his body.  Groaning, he lifted his head slowly and looked around to find Kryska sitting next to him on a fold out chair from the wall.

“Captain.”  The Lieutenant’s voice was gentle.  “Take it easy.  We’re on a medical shuttle going back to the Sunrider from the Alliance medical cruiser.  You’re just waking up from the drugs they used to put you under.”  The bruise Kryska had sustained on the habitat was now miraculously gone, as were the other lacerations and contusions she’d suffered during their capture and escape.

Kayto groaned, letting his head drop back onto the pillow behind him.  “What happened?”  He’d expected to feel a world of pain, but felt… normal, for the first time since their capture.

“Cosette broke about three of your ribs and gave you a tension pneumothorax to boot,” said Kryska.  “Never mind the hit to your head and just about every soft tissue contusion you could imagine.  Delta team extracted us and brought us straight to the medical cruiser for medichine submersion.”

Kayto nodded, the mystery of their miraculous recovery explained.  The memories of their hellish captivity and escape came roaring back to him.  For a moment, the sounds of gunfire, explosions, and screaming filled his ears before fading away to a ring in the background.

Kryska undid the straps on his gurney and handed him a small paper cup with water as he sat up unsteadily.  Kayto gratefully gulped it down, the spinning sensation in his head clearing up.

“Captain.”  Kryska’s face was a mask of remorse and regret.  “As your Liaison Officer, I offer you my humblest apologies, Sir!  It was my responsibility alone to protect you during the inspection and, in that regard, I have failed.  I’ll happily accept any punishment you deem fit.”

“Kryska…”  Kayto shook his head.  “It’s not like that.  I told you before, no one could have known ahead of time.  Besides, without you… I’d have never… I have you to thank that I’m alive.”

“Sir!” Kryska protested.  “If it were not for me, you would never have been in such danger in the first place!”

“No, I… needed to see that.”  Kayto felt the pieces fall heavily in his mind, clicking together with clarity.  “Seeing everything has made things apparent for me.”

“Sir?” Kryska looked at the expression on his face apprehensively.

“There’s no side in this that can claim the moral high ground.”  Kayto’s voice was bitter.  “All of us… our hands are all tied by the interests we carry and our eyes are clouded in the judgment we render.  We share the blood of the innocents equally.  The Alliance… Cosette… me… we’re all guilty.”

“Captain!” Kryska’s eyes were wide with shock.  “Sunrider, her crew, and you have done nothing to wrong the people of Ongess!  We only arrived days ago.  As for the Alliance… We’re doing everything we possibly can for the Ongessians!  I do not know of any other power in this galaxy that would gift more in humanitarian aid.”

Kayto said nothing for a moment, staring at the floor.  “A gift, by its very definition, means you seek nothing in return.  The Alliance wants something from Ongess.  Something it can’t get anywhere else the same way.  Tell me, what’s the difference between Ongess and a dark world like Tautenia?”

“I-I’m not familiar with…” Kryska said uncertainly.

“Of course not,” Kayto looked up, interrupting her.  “Tautenia’s a remote planet in the middle of nowhere in the Nomodorn Corridor.  Ongess is located on major shipping and traffic lanes between Far Port and Cera.  Tautenia’s nothing more than a chunk of ice; there’s nothing worth digging for or exporting on the entire damn planet.  Ongess is the galaxy’s single largest source of warp drive and Ryder fuel.  How many aid ships do you think the Alliance has dispatched to Tautenia?”

“Captain.”  Kryska shook her head.  “Even the Alliance’s resources are not infinite, we need to concentrate our efforts on the worlds where it will do the most good.  Ongess has thirty eight billion human beings killing each other for food and water.  We have no intention of robbing Ongess; we only wish to establish trade routes.  Food, water, medicine, technology, a chance to better their lives, all at a fair market price for their Ongessite.”

“And what started as a gift becomes leverage for negotiation.”  Kayto saw as Kryska squirmed uncomfortably.  “As noble as the Alliance’s intentions could be, as fair as the trade, do you think the people of Ongess were truly offered a choice?”

“Ongess is of strategic importance for this war,” Kryska said, without much conviction.  “Perhaps once it is over…”

“The Alliance will never stop being interested in the Ongessite on this planet, Lieutenant.”  Kayto said firmly.  “But…” his tone softened.  “I hope I’m wrong.  If everyone in the Alliance were like you, I’d rest easy.”

“Captain…” Kryska’s eyes flooded with emotion.

“The Infinite Emperor help me… I hope the Alliance proves me wrong.”  Kayto closed his eyes.  “Cosette and her gang need to be stopped.  Their actions, even if they take them in the name of independence, have led to nothing but the maiming and slaughtering of their own people.  They’re as much responsible for the suffering on Ongess as anyone.  Independent or as part of the Solar Alliance, the people of Ongess will never have peace or prosperity with people like her at large.  I want her stopped; dead or alive.”

“With pleasure, Captain.”  Kryska’s voice turned cold and hard.

Clanging from the outside of the shuttle indicated that the vessel had reached Sunrider and started its docking procedures.

“Ava will want a detailed report of the incident.  You are to report to her; that will be punishment enough I expect,” sighed Kayto as the shuttle entered Sunrider’s hanger bay.

******

Kayto and Kryska’s safe return caused a fair amount of commotion in Sunrider’s hanger as they descended from the ramp of the Alliance medical shuttle.  Applause and cheering filled the hanger as Sunrider’s crew breathed a collective sigh of relief at the sight of the two of them walking down the ramp unaided; Kayto and Kryska both blushed at the warm reception, smiling with embarrassment.

“All right, all right,” Ava’s voice snapped like a whip.  “All crew, back to your duties,” she said, dispersing the crowd.

Unsurprisingly, the Ryder pilots failed to heed her words, converging on Kayto and Kryska over Ava’s protests, pushing her to the rear.

“Capt’n!” Asaga grinned, coming up to him as Icari and Claude hugged Kryska.  “Glad to see ya up and about!  Ya had us worried for a second, ufufufu!”

Kayto laughed.  “A hundred PACT warships couldn’t make you worry, Asaga.  You didn’t let a little whelp like Cosette scare you, did you?”

“In your dreams, Capt’n!” Asaga punched his arm.  “Like I said, it was only for a second!  But if she laid a finger on you, next time we tangle, I’m gonna give her a piece of mah mind!”

“Eh…” Kayto shrugged, not wanting to make much of the ordeal.  Although the memories were still raw and fresh, physically, his wounds were no more than a minor discomfort after the Alliance nanite treatment.

“That scumbag!” Asaga seemed to guess the worse, hissing and leaning forward with a glare.  “I’ll be sure to get you some payback next time, Capt’n!”  Asaga continued, issuing a stream of filth and insults that would have impressed even the most hardened of Ongessians.

“All right, settle down,” Kayto decided to contain Asaga before Ava had her tossed in the brig for the verbal assault.  “Cosette’s actions are unforgivable and misplaced, but, fundamentally, she’s fighting for her people.  I can respect that, if nothing else.”

“No, no, no!” Asaga stomped her foot, unwilling to yield on the issue.  “Don’t listen to her propaganda!  She’s an evil pirate and that’s all there is to it!  I’m gonna pound her face into the dirt for everyone she’s hurt, including you!”

“Heh… thanks.” Kayto gave her a tired smile.  Eyeing the lift at the end of the bay longingly, he made to step around her.

“Captain.”  Asaga grabbed his arm for a moment, holding him back and looking somber.  “Seriously… don’t do that again.”

“Asaga…” Kayto’s eyes widened slightly with surprise as the redhead pilot dropped her gaze to the deck, her bangs hiding her eyes.  A faint glow from her cheekbones gave her away, however.  “I’m sorry.  It won’t happen again.”

“Good!” Asaga looked up again, a grin returning to her face.  “Alright!  I gotta get back to mah Black Jack.  Got a big fight comin’ up and I bet anything Cosette’ll show her ugly mug again.  Gonna tear her Havok a new one!”

Kayto snorted softly, Asaga’s bright attitude never failing to hearten the moment.  “Carry on, Asaga.”

Turning towards the lift, he found himself suddenly in the middle of Icari, Kyrska, and Claude’s conversation.

“Heh, I still can’t believe you got yourself captured by a little runt like her,” sneered Icari, striking a smug pose.  “What happened to all your Spec Ops training, eh, Spy?”

“I repeat,” Kryska snapped, nettled.  “There were forty armed gunmen.  The Captain and I had no choice but to surrender!”

“Oho!” Icari snorted in delight.  “First it was a dozen, now it’s forty.  That’s Alliance editing for you.”

“It was a chaotic situation!” protested Kryska, reddening.  “You cannot expect me to recall every last detail!”

“You two…” Kayto shook his head wearily.  “You argue like a married couple.”

“E-eh!?” Icari blubbered.

“S-she started it!” Kryska pointed an accusing finger at the blushing mercenary.  “Sir!” she added as an afterthought.

“W-well it’s not my fault Soldier Boy here got herself captured,” Icari crossed her arms, playing it cool and pointing her nose in the air.

“Ah, ah, ah, Icari…” Claude’s eyes sparkled maliciously.  “Don’t you remember?  You nearly burst out crying when you found out they’d been captured.”

“I-I was not CRYING!” Icari shouted, eyes shut and trembling with indignity.

“And then,” Claude continued mercilessly.  “You marched down to the armory with Sola and strapped so many guns to yourself you nearly fell over.  What was it you were saying, oh right… ‘We got to rescue the Captain and Soldier Boy before it’s too late, damn it!’”  Claude parodied Icari’s voice, puffing out her chest and shaking her fists in the air.

“T-that’s not what happened!” Icari’s face could have fried an egg.

“Oh no?”  Claude tightened the noose.  “Tell it to the six marines you put in the medbay when they tried to relieve you of the weapons.”

“I-I have n-no idea what you’re talking about, hahaha!” Icari’s voice was strangely high-pitched.

“So,” Claude draped her arms around both Kryska and Kayto’s shoulders.  “Which of these very single and available officers did you do it for?  Ufufufu…”

“EAAHH!” Icari shrieked. “S-shut up, shut up, shut up!  I didn’t do it for anyone!  I don’t care about anyone!  I-In fact, I’m too experienced for to care about relationships.  N-not that I’m interested in that kind of stuff.  ‘C-cause I’m not!”

“Captain, we’re detecting a thermal spike from the Tsundere Cruiser!” laughed Claude.

“I-I’m going!” Icari stomped off.  “T-the Phoenix needs… calibrations…”

Kayto shook his head and extracted himself from Claude’s grasp, walking past her and Kryska.

“Ava…” he said, coming up to his First Officer.  Ava’s eyes were bloodshot with dark circles underneath.  Her hair seemed lank and oily; even her uniform was rumpled.

“C-captain!”  Ava saluted.  “Welcome back, Sir!”

“Stop that,” Kayto grabbed her hand and pulled it down to her side.  “I’m glad I’m home…”

“E-eh…” Ava’s cheeks turned pink as she pulled her hand away.  “E-everything’s nominal aboard the Sunrider, Captain!  N-now that you’re back… I mean.”

“Are you alright, Ava?” asked Kayto, concerned.  It was not like Ava to be so frazzled.  He tried to think of the last time he’d seen her like this, failing miserably.

“I-idiot!” Ava crossed her arms angrily, looking anywhere but his eyes.  “O-of course I am… I-I just haven’t been able to sleep… running the ship, of course!”

“I see…” Kayto gave her a big smile and an unexpected hug.

“E-eh?!” Ava’s eyes shot wide with surprise.  “Mmoouuu…  Kayto… the crew… they’ll see…”

Not wanting to push his luck, Kayto let her go.  Ava immediately sprang back, almost as red as Icari, looking around wildly, daring a crewman to make eye contact.

“Get some rest, Ava,” Kayto winked at her before moving along.  “You look like you could use it.”

“I-idiot,” Ava covered her burning face with a hand.  “I should be the one saying that to you…”

Kayto retreated to the end of the hanger, walking towards the lift when he saw a swish of short white hair dart behind Seraphim’s docking berth.  “Sola?” he asked.

“Captain.”  Sola’s amber eyes peered out at him from the shadow of her Ryder.

“What are you doing lurking over there?” he asked, trying to coax her out.

“So many people…” Sola gave the busy hanger a look of profound concern before steeling herself to come out into the light.  “I’m… relieved you have returned unharmed.” she said quietly before allowing her lips to quirk up slightly.

“Thanks, Sola,” Kayto said warmly, now almost used to her deadpan expression.  For Sola, the flicker behind her eyes and the tiny smile was her equivalent of an emotional outburst.  “I hear you and Icari got into some trouble.”

“…” Sola turned pink.  “I realize now that our behavior was irrational.  The statistical likelihood of our success weighed against Alliance intervention was laughable.  I apologize for my lapse in judgment.”

Kayto gave a bark of laughter, Sola’s serious tone making the situation even more amusing.  “It’s not like that Sola.”  He looked at her fondly.  “I appreciate it even more because it was irrational.”

“You are a strange, troublesome man,” Sola turned away, still pink.  “I shall let you rest now.  Farewell.”  Sola faded back into the shadows before Kayto could say anything else.

******

“C-Captain!!!”

Something slammed into Kayto’s chest as the door to his quarters hissed open.  “C-Chigara!?”

Chigara buried her face into his chest before pulling him into his quarters without another word.  As soon as the door hissed shut, she began sobbing into his uniform, grabbing fistfuls of the fabric as she let loose with a torrent of tears.  “I-I came here as soon as I heard you were back… I was so scared… so scared.”

Kayto smiled and held Chigara tight, stroking her soft, mauve hair and breathing in her sweet scent as she continued to sniffle.  “It’s alright.  I’m back now.  I was only gone for a few days.”

“T-they hurt you!”  Chigara’s crying intensified again.  “I h-hacked into the medical cruiser’s systems… Don’t pretend like nothing happened!  They hurt you…”

“Nothing the Alliance couldn’t fix,” Kayto said, trying to reassure her.

“Don’t ever do that again!”  Chigara looked up at him, eyes swimming with tears and red.  “Ever!  I’ll never forgive you if you make me worry like that again!”

“It’s alright… It’s alright…” Kayto muttered, holding her until she calmed again.

Chigara pulled away with a wet gulp, looking embarrassed.  “Ah… Chigara’s a mess… I need to clean up…”

“Take a shift off,” urged Kayto, looking at his distraught Chief Engineer.  “You look like you haven’t been sleeping well.”

“Mhm,” Chigara nodded gratefully.  “I’ll let you rest too, Captain… good night…”  Looking calmer, Chigara left his quarters for her own.

******

Kayto had just let down his guard when the comms chimed on his desk, causing him to jump.

“Captain, the Admiral for you,” came a crewman’s voice apologetically.

“Thank you, put him through,” sighed Kayto, rubbing the fatigue from his eyes.  Even though he’d spent the better part of the last day asleep under the auspices of the Alliance medical staff that had treated him, his body still screamed out for rest.

“Captain,” Admiral Grey’s avatar materialized, a look of profound concern and apology written all over his face.  “You have my sincerest apologies and that of the entire Solar Alliance for the lapse in security.  It was our responsibility to see to your welfare during your inspection and we have failed miserably in that regard.  I can only say that I am relieved beyond words that you and Lieutenant Stares were successfully rescued and treated for your injuries.”

“Admiral,” Kayto nodded.  As the Admiral said the words “successfully rescued,” he felt anger bubbling up from his stomach in a toxic wave.  “How many civilians were killed during our rescue?” he asked, struggling to keep the fury from his voice.

“I do not have an exact figure.”  The Admiral’s face hardened.  “You’ve seen it yourself.  On Ongess, the line between combatant and civilian are not always clear.  I’ve read some disturbing reports alleging that children as young as seven are being recruited to fight in Cosette’s pirate gangs.  What I do know is that thirty two insurgents were neutralized; six of our own men were wounded during the action.”

“As young as seven…” Kayto struggled to suppress his rage.  “Do you count them among the insurgents?  Did you count that girl among them!?”

“I-I have no idea what you mean.”  The Admiral’s tone was startled by Kayto’s sudden question.

“I saw your men gun down a girl, no older than ten in front of my own eyes…”  Kayto felt his vision blur.  “All because she picked up a knife…”

“I’m sorry you had to see that, Captain.”  Grey’s voice was sincere.  “Urban conflict invariably leads to collateral damage.

“Collateral damage…” Kayto spat the words out.  “Words like that make you sound like an oppressor, not a liberator, Admiral, and the people of Ongess will see you as such.  You can offer them as much food, water, and technology as you like.  You can promise them rights and democracy, but so long as you continue to mine their Ongessite and enforce peace at the end of a barrel, you’ll always be their enemy.”

Grey sighed wearily.  “Very well Captain, you’ve made your point.  I shall personally open an internal inquiry into the incident.  I will not have it said that either I or the Alliance will tolerate gunning down a young girl.”

“That’s it?” Kayto asked with disbelief.  “No… we… we have to do more.”

“Captain.”  The Admiral leaned forward, drilling into him with a somber expression.  “I will be frank with you.  Not everyone in the Alliance agrees with what we are doing out here.  The Progress Party is doing everything in its power to run ads and campaigns that paint and accuse me of being an emperor.  Of plundering Ongess for its minerals.  ‘What’s the difference between a Veniczar and the Admiral?  One’s running for office,’ they say.  The Progress Party has been playing on fears that I mean to end civilian control over the military and government and many people are starting to listen.  If negative press regarding our actions on Ongess were to get out, the fallout could be catastrophic.  Our relief and aid programs would be jeopardized, as well as this war effort.  If the Progress Party were to win the election, we might see even worse.  The results would be devastating for both Ongess and our war, Captain.  It would be devastating for Cera as well.  You must understand that the situation is delicate and must be handled with due caution.  You have my word that those responsible will be dealt with swiftly and justly, but internally by my office.”

“You want to cover this up,” said Kayto in disbelief, seeing the Admiral as if in new light.  “No… I cannot allow that.  If you won’t go public with this, Admiral, I will.”

“Captain.”  The Admiral spoke tersely through gritted teeth.  “You think I like playing these games?  You think I would not rather hold my head high like you?  You are a noble man, and I respect that, but think!  Will going public bring food, water, and medicine to the people of Ongess?  Will it fuel our starships and give us the push we need to win the war?”

“I saw…” Kayto struggled as Kyoko’s face flashed in front of his eyes.  “Damn it, Admiral!  She was young enough to be one of your granddaughters!”

“Captain, in war, atrocities occur!” the Admiral practically shouted, giving into frustration as well.

“Only when good men fail to act.”  Kayto’s voice could have frozen helium.

“You…”

The two men stared at each other, refusing to back down.  The Admiral looked livid.

“Every Grey since the High Admiral has dedicated his or her life to serving the Alliance… So many of us have thrown down their lives to protect the ideals of the Alliance throughout the galaxy… Only to see it torn apart by the squabbling and weak politicians of the Solar Congress!  I will not let them end me here!  Not after everything I’ve accomplished!”  The Admiral’s chest heaved.

“Listen to yourself, Admiral!” Kayto’s temper flared as he glared at the older man.  “This isn’t about the people of Ongess anymore… it’s about you getting elected!  Face it, Admiral!  You’ve become a politician, yourself.  While innocent children are being murdered, you’re playing politics instead of standing for what’s right.  You’d rather sweep this under the carpet and score a few more votes than stick to the ideals and integrity of your family and the Alliance.  Your ancestors would be ashamed!”

Grey crumpled like a cruiser hit with a full salvo of Savior slugs.  Dropping his head into his hands, he ran his wrinkled hands through his short, white hair.  When he looked back up, he looked older and wearier than ever before.  “…You… are right…”  Sighing deeply, the Admiral seemed to swallow his anger and straightened his back.  “I did not enlist in the military and take up the mantle of the Solar Alliance to cover up atrocities.  Neither did my ancestors.  We, the Solar Alliance, are… and will continue to be honorable people.  I shall open a public investigation and make amends to the Ongessians.”

Kayto let out the breath he’d been holding, feeling respect for the man returning.  “Thank you, Admiral.”

The Admiral gave him a glare, but spoke without rancor.  “That concludes this call then… I am about to be a very busy man for the next few days…”  Shaking his head, the Admiral reached out to terminate the call from his end.  Pausing just as his finger rested upon the button, the Admiral looked at Kayto once more.  “Captain.”

“Sir?”

“You are an honorable man.  But if you are to survive this war…”  The Admiral left the rest unsaid.

“I know…”

With one final nod, Grey terminated the call, leaving Kayto to his own thoughts.

******

On one of the hundreds of dilapidated orbital habitats ringing Ongess, Cosette and her gang retreated to yet another one of their infinite safe houses.

“Tsch…” Cosette paced the filthy courtyard, kicking garbage out of her way as her goons studiously avoided any eye contact.  Her foul moods had a reputation as being even less healthy than working in an Ongessite refinery… and more painful.  Twirling a knife in her hand, Cosette muttered angrily to herself.  “Should have cut up that bastard when we had the chance…”

“B-boss…” one of her lackeys shuffled up apologetically, bowing and shuffling.

“What is it?!”  Cosette screeched at him.

“F-FTL transmission for you, boss,” said the pirate, turning pale.  Trembling, he set down a portable communications unit by her feet.

“Cosmos.  How are things?” Fontana’s avatar popped up, crackling with static.  The Veniczar’s immaculate clothing stood out as a far cry from the surrounding filth as he put a hand on hip, looking at Cosette as though she were a moderately interesting museum curio.

“Piss poor.”  Cosette spat in the dirt.  “The Captain gave us the slip and the Alliance has dug in deep.”

“Unfortunate.”  Fontana’s cyan eyes flashed with annoyance with the news.  Flicking a stray strand of purple hair back, Fontana gestured at someone off screen.  “No matter, we simply proceed with our other plan.  I am forwarding you instructions for the coming battle.  Study them carefully.”

“Oh?” Cosette smirked as the backpack beeped with the receipt of encrypted information.  “I thought you guys had left us for dead after the ass whooping the Alliance fleet gave you last week.  Coming back for seconds?”

“Hardly.”  Fontana studied his nails deliberately.  “This is a… personal mission, shall we say?  Not that the two objectives are mutually exclusive, as I think you’ll see.”

“Lone wolfing, huh?” Cosette’s eyes twinkled with interest.  “I’d have never thought I’d see such individuality from a Red.”

“Hmph.”  Fontana merely looked bored.

“So what’s in it for us?” demanded Cosette, cutting to the chase.

“I can give you what you’ve wanted for all these years.”  Fontana’s eyes seemed to glow as he leaned forward.  “Independence for Ongess, once and for all.”

“Heh heh…” Cosette’s shoulders started to shake.  “Eheheh… AHAHAHAHA!” Cosette’s insane laughter echoed alone through the deserted slums.  “Deal.”

******

Kayto had expected the unrest in Ongess to increase with the Admiral’s public inquiry into the death of Kyoko and a number of other child casualties in a dozen other Alliance-Insurgent confrontations, but it seemed the average Ongessian was so numb to such headlines that the news barely marked any change in day-to-day life.  The impact in Alliance media, however, was the exact opposite.  The Progress Party had seized upon the scandal to push back against the Admiral’s candidacy and had forced his campaign team on the defensive.  For his part, the Admiral had countered the Progress Party’s accusations with guile, using Kayto’s own words to urge that the issue remain one of morality and honor, rather than politics.  For the moment, at least, it seemed that the Admiral’s tactics had worked; the scandal passed in the news after a few days, leaving the Admiral’s camp somewhat weathered, but no less determined or capable of continuing in the general elections.

Over the next week, Sunrider’s crew joined the Alliance ships on patrol while they searched every available data stream and security report for any clues as to Cosette’s current location or planned targets.  The search had been largely fruitless, the local insurgents having gone to ground after the Alliance stormed Cosette’s compound during Kayto and Kryska’s rescue.  Alliance reinforcements arrived daily, bringing platoons of marines to bolster the defense of Alliance facilities everywhere.  Each passing day meant the pirates would have a more difficult time striking at the Alliance, but Kayto’s gut told him that the lull in pirate activity was that of a patient predator, biding its time to strike, rather than that of a group cowed into submission.  The fragile peace which had afforded the Alliance time to rest, resupply, and regroup over the last week had been, therefore, almost more nerve wracking than if the insurgents were in full and open uprising.

To make matters worse, it seemed an impending PACT counter-offensive was all but inevitable.  PACT scout ships had been making regular warp jumps at the edge of Alliance sensors and patrol space to monitor the system, warping back to their main fleet before any forces could engage them.  In the last week alone, fifteen such interlopers had visited the Ongess system and retreated before a single shot was fired.

With the bulk of the Alliance’s Combined Fleet stationed at Ongess for refueling and repairs, it made sense that the PACT would monitor their activity closely.  Kayto suspected the PACT was simply trying to play a game to lure enough Alliance ships from their standard patrols in pursuit of the scouting vessels to allow a larger strike force of ships to slip behind Alliance lines and attack the Alliance ships while they were vulnerable refueling or undergoing repairs.  With the sheer number and proximity of refueling and repair docks and liquid Ongessite depots, such an attack would be devastating.  Were the liquid Ongessite reserves to ignite, Kayto suspected the entire Combined Fleet would be annihilated in one of the most violent explosions in recorded history.

Bing Bing.  Kayto’s door chimed as Ava entered his quarters.

“Ava,” Kayto looked up from his holo as his First Officer took a seat opposite to him.  “Anything to report?”

“Not much.”  Ava shrugged and forwarded him a report nearly identical to her last on her holo.  “Another PACT scout, same story as the other ones.”  Ava scrutinized him more closely, her cherry eyes slightly narrowed.  “How are you feeling, Captain?”

“We’re chasing after a ghost while the entire fleet sits on top of a powder keg that could blow us all back to Far Port with the PACT breathing down our necks.  No big deal,” Kayto did his best to grin.  “Business as usual.”

“Hm.” Ava frowned at his nonchalance, clearly not buying the act.  “It might interest you to know that Alliance Intelligence has forwarded us a personnel dossier on Veniczar Fontana.  It’s believed that he is leading the fleet responsible for these incursions.”

“Fontana, huh?”  Kayto flicked open the dossier on his holo, scrolling through the Veniczar’s profile.

“He’s probably the youngest PACT Veniczar,” reported Ava.  “Despite that, he’s at the very top of the PACT chain of command.  Most see him as Arcadius’s right hand man.  Details are few, but from what we do know, he’s as brilliant as he is deadly.  During the PACT Revolution, he routinely trounced larger and better armed Imperial fleets with unorthodox tactics and maneuvers which kept his opponents off balance and obscured his true intentions.  At the Siege of Neume, his flagship sank five Imperial battleships alone in a single engagement and his forces held out against hundreds of Imperial ships for nearly two months before PACT reinforcements came.  This is not a man to be trifled with, Captain.”

Kayto looked at the man’s holo still.  Intelligence and cunning glinted dangerously in the man’s eyes as he stared out at whatever camera had captured his likeness.  “Crushing on the enemy commander is a punishable offense, Commander,” he said to Ava sternly, flipping his holo around to show Ava Fontana’s handsome features.

“Very droll, Captain.”  Ava shoved his holo back at him, scowling.  “It may also interest you to know that Asaga met the man while she was being held on the Legion.”

“Oh?” Kayto arched an eyebrow, curious.  “What did she say about him?”

“You can imagine,” Ava sighed with resignation, imitating Asaga’s voice.  “Oh right, that guy.  He was actually pretty good lookin’… you know, for a Red.”

“He’s pretty good looking for just about anyone,” laughed Kayto, not in the least surprised with the details which had remained salient to Asaga’s memory of their encounter.

“Irrelevant,” Ava said with an annoyed twitch.  “What’s important is that he’s unlikely to be like any PACT commander we’ve ever faced.  We should not underestimate his abilities.”

“Agreed, thanks for the advice.”  Kayto nodded, showing Ava that he was serious.  “Let me know if anything changes.”

******

Hungry, Kayto drifted to the mess hall, taking a detour through Sola’s favorite corridor for a glimpse of the stars on his way to dinner.  With the ship in high orbit over Ongess, half the view was occupied by the rust-colored planet, curving gently into the distance, a shore in the sea of stars.  From orbit, Ongess could almost be misconstrued as having a barren, desert-like beauty.

“Captain.”  Sola’s voice came from the darkened corridor as he approached.

Kayto gave a faint smile as he saw her holding a half-eaten sesame ball with her dainty fingers, chewing slowly.  “Did you just finish eating, Sola?”

“Yes.”  Sola paused.  “Regrettably.”

“Next time,” said Kayto reassuringly.  “I never thanked you for recommending that I come here a while back.  I think I understand why you spend so much time here now; thank you.”

“Ah.”  Sola looked away.

“Have the stars ever answered your questions?” asked Kayto.

“You wish to talk.”  Sola turned back and fixed him with a stare, seeing straight through his small talk and getting to the crux of the matter.

Kayto nodded.  “The Ryuvian Empire of your time ruled Ongess.  Tell me, as the Sharr, would you have given them independence?”

Sola was silent for a minute as she contemplated the question.  “You misunderstand the duties of the Sharr.  The Sharr did not influence policy; rather, she was subservient to it.  Therefore, I have never given such matters serious thought.”

Kayto frowned, looking at the dusty world beneath them.  “The Ongessians have suffered under the hands of foreign powers since the settling of their planet.  It’s not the sort of history you recover from overnight or without careful intervention, the sort the Alliance is trying to provide.  To make matters more complicated, their Ongessite is a vital strategic resource in this war.  Our ships and Ryders need it to fly.  We can make superior arms and armor with it; thousands of lives could be saved with Ongessite armor plating on our ships.  Yet occupation of their system as we are doing now only perpetuates the cycle of suffering on their planet.”

Sola popped the rest of her sesame ball in her mouth and chewed thoughtfully and deliberately before swallowing.  “Such dilemmas come with power, be it the throne of Ryuvia or at the head of your fleets.  Men in my time and your time crave it; kill for it.  But you are different.”  Sola’s gaze made Kayto feel as though she was staring straight through him, seeing something deeper within.  “You were thrust onto the stage, not by choice, but by circumstance.  Perhaps that makes you the one most fit to decide.  In my time, the Emperor decided who lived and who died, such was the power inherent to the throne.  I was denied it in my past life, but I had always hoped the man who took the Star Palace would be a fair ruler who would make decisions for the good of the Empire.”

“The good of the Empire…” Kayto shook his head.  “Terms like that are hard to define.  It’s even harder to predict the consequences of the decisions we make.”

“Nevertheless.”  Sola turned her gaze outwards again.  “I am sure of one thing; that you will make your decisions for others before yourself.  If men in my time had thought like you, our Empire may have remained intact.  But I speak out of turn.  I am merely a simple peasant girl.”

“Hahaha!”  Kayto laughed.  Although Sola had determined his qualifications to make decisions based on his disinterest in doing so in the first place, she had, ironically, decided that her humble background somehow diminished her words.  “Perhaps that makes you the one most fit to speak,” he teased, reflecting her words back at her.

Sola turned pink but remained silent.

“Thanks Sola, I’ll come back to you whenever I need advice.”

******

Most of the crew had already left the mess hall by the time Kayto entered.  Kayto walked up to the meal dispensary without even needing to wait, a welcome change from the line that was usually in front of it.

“I have Far Port Sea Bass sauteed with vegetables over rice pilaf or a Ryuvian curry, also served over rice, with your choice of protein,” announced the dispensary in a polite voice.

“I’ll have the fish,” requested Kayto, impressed.  The standard of food had certainly improved dramatically since the Alliance began filling their supply requisitions.  Whereas the Ceran and Tydarian supplies Sunrider had stocked previously were essentially re-hydrated and fortified bulk protein and carbohydrate reconstituted into something resembling food, the Alliance supply lines robust enough to accommodate the shipping of fresh food, a luxury most Alliance military ships took for granted apparently.

“Excellent choice.  Coming right up, Sir.”

A minute later, Kayto’s meal popped out of the kitchen’s slot, the steaming fish laying on a bed of rice, its fresh aroma making Kayto’s mouth water.  Picking up his tray, Kayto scanned around the mess hall for a moment before finding a familiar headband sitting at one of the tables.

“Ah.  Captain.”  Chigara smiled warmly as he sat with his tray across from her.  Her meal was already half-eaten, but she seemed happy enough for the excuse to dawdle.

“You’re alone today,” pointed out Kayto, unfolding a napkin across his lap and picking up a piece of fish delicately with his chopsticks.  The fish’s flavor burst into his mouth as he bit down, it’s buttery and smooth texture literally melting in his mouth.  It had been too long since he’d tasted real food.

“Yes,” Chigara’s face brightened as she watched Kayto dig into his dinner with enthusiasm.  A moment later, a worried expression crossed her face “Asaga’s been acting strangely lately.  She’s been calibrating Black Jack’s systems over and over again.  She’s even stopped playing her games and spends every spare minute in the simulator.  I’ve been eating alone for the last week…”

“Really?” Kayto was surprised.  Asaga’s free spirit didn’t seem to permit that kind of focus ordinarily.  Kayto suddenly wondered if she was channeling Ava’s spirit or if his First Officer had somehow managed to possess her.  “That is strange…”

“N-not that it’s a bad thing she’s taking her duties more seriously!” Chigara hastily covered her bases.  “But I am a little worried.  I wonder if she’s overdoing things a little…”

“Well,” Kayto swallowed his food.  “Asaga’s not the type to do anything in moderation, you know?”

“That’s true…” Chigara looked slightly reassured.  “We all know there’s a big battle coming up and we’re all doing our best!”

“I know…” Kayto set down his dinner with a sigh.  “But it feels like this time will be different… the PACT’s been acting strangely.”

“Strange?” Chigara cocked her head to the side.  “In what way?”

“The majority of their fleets are currently holding defensive positions.  I would have expected them to mass for an assault to re-take Ongess from the Alliance, just like the battle the Alliance fought to take it from them, but we can’t see any signs of that kind of mobilization.  Still, they keep sending scout ships to monitor our activity and keep us off balance, so we know they’re operating at least a small fleet within warping distance.  It just worries me that I can’t figure what the PACT is after.”

“Could it have something to do with Cosette’s pirates?” asked Chigara.

“They’re definitely a part of it,” answered Kayto.  “The only thing I can think of is that the PACT might be trying to lure enough patrol ships away so that they can warp in a small squadron and strike at our dry docks and Ongessite tanks.  They’ll probably try wearing us down, week after week with feints and ruses until we slip up and they open a hole through our lines.”

“Don’t worry, Captain,” Chigara’s resolve firmed.  “We’ll just have to stay alert so that we don’t make a mistake.  The PACT knows it needs Ongess back, so if we hold out long enough, they’ll be forced to revise their plans.”

Just at that moment, a familiar redhead in her Ryder suit ambled into the mess hall and collected a tray of dinner.

“Asaga!” Kayto waved her over.

“Uck…” Asaga’s face involuntarily made a strange expression as she saw Kayto and Chigara having dinner together… alone.  The funny feeling she’d felt in her chest on the beach fluttered once again.  “H-hello Capt’n!  E-enjoying your dinner with Chigara?!  Uwahaha-hahaha!”

“Umm…” Kayto frowned at Asaga’s odd behavior.  “Yeah, just trying to figure some stuff out.”

“Mhm, mhm,” Asaga nodded vigorously and continued to gabble rapidly, as though manic.  “That’s great, isn’t this food great?  Yesterday we had bulgogi, today we’ve got Ryuvian curry.  Alliance rations sure are generous, huh?”  Asaga put her steaming tray down on the table for a moment, allowing the eye-watering vapors of her super-hot curry to sting Kayto and Chigara’s eyes.  Without hesitating, she grabbed a bottle of chili oil and doused her dinner with it.

“E-everything alright, Asaga?” asked Chigara tentatively, eying her friend’s dinner with concern.

“Listen up Chigara!” Asaga gave her a manic grin, causing Chigara to jump slightly.  “The key to victory is first conquering spicy food.  You’re not a true hero unless you can handle the heat!”

“I… see…” Chigara did her best to smile.

“Well,” Asaga snapped the chili oil bottle shut and slammed it back on the table.  Snatching her tray up, she gave the two a giant, forced smile.  “I’m off, you two enjoy the rest of your meal!”

“Why don’t you join us?” asked Kayto quickly, offering her a seat.  “Take a break.”

“Nonononono!” Asaga’s voice sped up even more.  “I’ve still got more scenarios to run in the simulator.  Can’t let those skills get rusty, ya’ know?  PACT could attack at any moment.”

“Make sure you don’t overexert yourself,” said Kayto as Asaga turned to leave.  “Burning out before the PACT even get here won’t help either.”

“Uwahahaha!” Asaga laughed loudly as she walked off.  “Thanks for the concern, Capt’n, but I never run out of energy!”  Kicking open the mess hall doors, Asaga left the mess hall without a backwards glance.

“She’s been like that all week,” whispered Chigara, even though Asaga had left.  “I can’t help but to worry.”

Kayto agreed; Asaga’s behavior was disturbing, to say the least.  “Don’t worry, Chigara, I’ll talk to her later and find out what’s going on.”

Chapter 24 >>>>