Chapter 24- Fontana’s Stratagem

Kayto sprinted for the CIC, having been called by Ava on one of his off-hours.  The PACT interlopers had continued to harass Alliance patrols, but Ava would not have summoned him merely for a PACT scout ship tiptoeing along their defense cordon; something was afoot.

The instant he stepped into the CIC, Kayto could feel the tension thick in the air.  The entire CIC was abuzz with activity with crewmen manning their stations with grim determination and focus.  Reports from numerous ships streamed in through the Sunrider’s communications suite and Ava worked furiously at the XO’s station on the command dais, calling out orders and tapping at her screens so fast her hands seemed to blur.

“Captain, we have a situation,” Ava said without looking up as he settled into his command station.  “We’ve detected no fewer than two hundred warp signatures.  Telemetry reads no registered transponders; it’s a pirate fleet.”

“Pirates?” Kayto arched an eyebrow.  If what Ava was saying was true, it was the single largest organized pirate incursion in remembered history.  “Hard to believe they’ve managed to stop killing each other long enough to organize into a fleet.”

“Alliance intelligence is reporting the ships come from no fewer than fifteen known organized crime rings and syndicates operating from here to Far Port.”  Ava looked at the scans coming in from long range sensors and wrinkled her nose in distaste.  “Looks like that fleet’s made of any hulker with a half working engine and cannon strapped to it.”

“Red Alert, power all weapons.”  Kayto ordered with a frown.  The pirate ships, although numerous, posed limited threat to the Sunrider and the Alliance ships protecting Ongess.  Pirates outfitted their ships to outrun authorities rather than face them head on.  The Alliance vessels, with their vastly superior armor and weapons, could probably hold their own against the pirates three-to-one on a bad day.  There had to be more to the situation than the obvious.

“Alert, PACT signatures inbound!” cried Ava as the crimson hulls of the PACT appeared out of warp beside the pirate fleet.

By PACT standards, the invasion fleet was small.  Fewer than a fifty cruisers and only half a dozen battleships and carriers dropped out of warp.  Suddenly, the presence of the pirate fleet made sense, if only to serve as cannon fodder for the true warships of the PACT.  Kayto had been expecting the PACT to attempt the recapture of Ongess with a far more substantial fleet, but, perhaps the last engagement with the Alliance had given their fleets pause.

“We’re being hailed, Captain,” reported Ava.  “It’s the PACT flagship.”

“Let’s have it.”

Veniczar Fontana’s avatar appeared in the CIC, although Kayto saw that the mugshot Alliance intelligence had obtained of him did little justice to the man’s appearance.  He could almost have sworn that Ava and the other female crew on the CIC gave a tiny sigh at the sight of his silken locks and smoldering, intense eyes.

“Captain Shields.”  Fontana inclined his head a fraction of a degree, speaking in a soft and refined voice.  “A pleasure to finally meet you.  I am Veniczar B. Fontana of the Crimson Fleet.  I’ve come to retrieve the Princess and end the Alliance occupation of Ongess.”  Fontana spoke as though the two were smoking cigars over brandy.

Kayto smirked, refusing to allow the other man’s confidence and suaveness undermine his own conviction.  “I’m afraid the wedding was annulled.  Something about shooting the father-in-law dead at the ceremony.  As for Ongess, if you’re planning on liberating it the same way you ‘liberate’ the other worlds of the Neutral Rim…”  Kayto left the rest for his glare to communicate.

“Unfortunate.”  Fontana whipped out his pocket watch and clicked it open, consulting its face with interest before snapping it shut.  “It appears I will have no choice but to take both by force.”

“Wait, wait,” Kayto held up a hand mockingly.  “I think I’ve heard that one before… that’s right!  Your friend was saying that right up until the Princess held a private pig roast on the bridge of his flagship.  And you’re coming at us with less than half of the ships he had; most of them pirate.”

“Cullen was a mere fool and a stain to our cause,” Fontana brushed Kayto’s remarks aside as casually as the imaginary lint off his shoulder, bored.  “His Imperial decadence made him weak-willed, careless, and cowardly.  You will find my fleet to be quite different.  Numbers are irrelevant where tactics are concerned.”

“That’s… my line,” said Kayto with disappointment.  Kayto made a mental note to approach the battle cautiously.  Everything about Fontana so far had confirmed the intelligence dossier about him; he would likely do his best to keep Kayto and the Alliance off-footed during the battle.

“Heh,” Fontana blew a stand of violet hair out of his face and put a hand on his hip, giving Kayto the smile of a stalking predator.  “I admit I am eager to cross cannons with the Vanguard of Far Port.  I hope you live up to the reputation, Captain.”

With that, Fontana’s avatar dissolved.

“Ava,” Kayto snapped his fingers at his First Officer.  “Hey, Ava!”

Ava jerked out of her glassy eyed trance.  “Stop yelling, I’m right next to you!” she snapped back.

“Did you get enough of Veniczar Fabulous, or should I give him another call?” demanded Kayto as Ava turned pink.

“D-don’t be ridiculous!” Ava crossed her arms and looked away as though his comment were beneath response.

“Put the situation on screen, give me a tactical update,” ordered Kayto, annoyed.

“Aye Sir.”

The main screen showed a tactical view of Ongess.  Alliance forces were arranged in a circular defensive perimeter centered around their Ongessite depots and repair and resupply docks.  Meanwhile, the PACT and pirate fleets had laid in converging courses for the Alliance lines in a classic spearhead maneuver.  As the Alliance had spread its forces to maintain the perimeter, a coordinated attack on a focused area of the perimeter would give the PACT and pirate forces their best chance of a breach while minimizing the amount of firepower the Alliance could bring to bear without compromising the rest of the perimeter.

Once through, their target was obvious; the Ongessite depots would blow the Alliance Combined Fleet apart more effectively than a hundred ships in addition to denying them an important repair and resupply center for their continued operations in the Neutral Rim.

“Alliance Command is ordering all non-essential ships from the far side of the perimeter to reinforce our coordinates,” reported Ava.  “Even so, current projections show over half our ships won’t be able to fire before the PACT and pirate fleets hit our lines.”

Kayto nodded grimly.  Although Fontana’s forces were few, not counting the rag-tag pirate fleet, his strategy put the Alliance at a severe disadvantage, giving him full initiative in the fight.  If even a dozen of his ships slipped past the Alliance lines, the damage they would inflict upon the Combined Fleet would be devastating.  “We’ll just have to hold out until reinforcements arrive then.  All hands to battle stations, scramble our Ryders,” he ordered.

“Enemy forces will enter our AO in two minutes,” reported Ava as the tiny ships in the distance grew larger with each passing second, bright halos around their hulls signifying their engines’ fierce burn.  “Ryders launching now.”

Sunrider’s Ryders launched together, taking up positions around Sunrider as the Alliance fleet waited for the PACT and their pirate allies to draw within firing range.

“Captain,” Chigara’s avatar appeared in the CIC with a look of concern on her face.  “I’m detecting some strange readings coming from the PACT fleet…”

“What is it?” asked Kayto, wondering what kind of trick Fontana had up his sleeve.

Claude’s avatar also appeared, serious for once.  “I’m getting the same… wait a moment-” Claude and Chigara dissolved into static.

“-aptain… -work intrusion detected…” Chigara’s avatar glitched, stuttering.

“Captain!” Ava looked up from her displays in shock.  “The Alliance battlenet’s in complete disorder; communications across all channels are being blocked.”

“Initiate full ECM,” ordered Kayto.  “Don’t let them interfere with our systems.”

“Captain; I’ve secured a channel for local communications,” Claude’s avatar returned to life.  “Chigara’s working on shoring up the Alliance battlenet’s defenses.  I’ll give her a hand in a moment.”

“Good work,” Kayto was impressed.  Although Claude frequently seemed vacant and incompetent, it seemed times of duress brought out an entirely different side of the woman.  “Can you trace the origin of the hack?”

“The attack’s happening on multiple fronts simultaneously,” answered Claude, typing furiously at Bianca’s controls.  “I’ll have to track down each intrusion individually.”

“Do it,” ordered Kayto.  “Sola, come in.”

“Seraphim, reporting,” Sola appeared beside Claude.

“Bianca will feed the Seraphim targeting data,” explained Kayto.  “I need you to take out whoever’s trying to hack our network.”

“Confirmed, acquiring target now.”  Seraphim linked to the Sunrider, allowing the main screen to project a view based on her sensors.

Ancient Ryuvian symbols scrolled in arcane text over Sola’s display, gibberish to Kayto, but likely conveying all manner of information for its pilot to enhance her already formidable sniper abilities.  The view magnified as Sola zoomed in on the coordinates Bianca had extracted from the digital war engulfing the fleet invisibly.

“It’s a Ryder!” Ava looked at the PACT unit in surprise.  The red Ryder was thin with knife-like appendages and an utter lack of armor or weaponry.  Two large rings, however, spread out like wings from its back, broadcasting powerfully to interfere with and hack into enemy electronic systems.  Although Ryders capable of engaging in such electronic warfare were not, in of themselves, a novel concept, case in point Liberty and Bianca, the prohibitive cost of manufacture and skills required to operate them were such that no major navy fielded such units en masse.  Apparently, the PACT had found a way to cut down on manufacturing and training costs, likely accepting the reduced efficiency in exchange for sheer weight of attack.

A moment later, Seraphim’s long range weapon discharged, nailing the PACT support unit head on and shattering the fragile Ryder and its broadcast rings into a hundred pieces on impact.

“Target neutralized.”  Sola’s voice betrayed not a hint of smugness despite the fact her shot had landed on a nimble Ryder half a light second away.

“Give any coordinates Bianca sends you priority,” ordered Kayto.  “Black Jack, Phoenix, Paladin, let’s get the show started.”

Sunrider gunned forward with her three combat Ryders, Saviors belching fire as they targeted the oncoming enemy ships.  The pirate fleet threw itself towards the Alliance fleet and Sunrider as a disorganized horde, crashing over their lines and swarming angrily in front of the slower PACT fleet.  Some pirate ships even pulled alongside Alliance ships, firing tow cables and other equipment to initiate hard docks for boarding.  Although individual pirate ships and Ryders were no match for the Alliance ships, the chaos created by their frenzied attack in conjunction with the attack on their battlenet gave the PACT fleet the perfect cover as they advanced slowly.  Kayto watched grimly as three pirate space whalers fired harpoons into an Alliance cruiser, literally shredding and pulling it apart before the rest of the Alliance squadron blew the deplorable ships away with kinetic cannons and missiles.

“Contact all local assets,” he ordered Ava.  “Inform their captains that the PACT fleet is the priority target.  Move us to intercept the nearest PACT battlegroup.”

“Aye, Captain, course laid,” answered Ava.

Sunrider pushed ahead with its Ryder wing towards a knot of PACT cruisers escorting a battleship and carrier as they tried to sneak past Alliance lines.  Kayto bristled as he watched the PACT battleship fire its powerful spinal guns into an Alliance cruiser, sinking the unfortunate ship with a single salvo.  Two pirate ironhogs closed ranks in front of the Sunrider, pointing gleaming harpoons and missile racks at them.

“Ava, get those whalers out of our line of fire,” ordered Kayto, voice cold.

“With pleasure, Sir.”  Ava tapped her screens.  “Arm Trinity laser banks, fire as soon as we have a targeting solution!”

A moment later, Sunrider’s Trinities cut bright blue swaths across space, melting into the pirate hulls and slicing their ships to pieces.  With almost insulting ease, Sunrider pushed past the still glowing hull fragments towards the PACT battleship.

“Fire Saviors!” barked Kayto as Sunrider reverberated with the discharges.  “Arm all missile pods and get me a firing solution for the carrier!”

Outside, Asaga and Icari rocketed across the battlefield, shooting down and hacking apart any PACT mook foolish enough to even consider making an approach on Sunrider.  Paladin’s shoulder cannons discharged repeatedly, firing into the PACT battleship’s lateral side to devastating effect, punching holes into its armor almost as large as Sunrider’s Savior slugs did.

“Captain.”  Sola reappeared in the CIC, utterly calm despite the raging fight around them.  “PACT targets neutralized.”

“Communications are clearing, Captain!” reported Chigara, beads of sweat rolling down her forehead from the frantic defense of their electronic network from the PACT support Ryders.  “I detect no additional intrusion attempts!”

“Warning!” Ava shouted as the PACT battleship finally succumbed to Sunrider and Paladin’s attack.  “PACT carrier is launching additional Ryders into the AO!”

Kayto watched as two PACT Ryders mounted up onto their respective launch platforms on the carrier, engines burning bright blue as they accelerated down the runway with the ship’s assistance.  “Slew us about, maximum rate!  Bring our Saviors to bear!”

Twin balls of light flashed on Sunrider’s main screen as Sola fired twice at the carrier.  Kayto watched in astonishment as the twin explosions blasted up from the carrier’s launching platform.  Sola had managed to correct for not only the motion of her Ryder and the carrier, but also for the launching PACT Ryders, blowing the launching apparatus apart under their feet and causing both Ryders to crash catastrophically.  To say those were impressive shots would have been almost insulting to the skill and grace Sola had shown herself capable of.

“Don’t waste the opportunity!” ordered Kayto as PACT drones swarmed across the launch platform to clear the debris for another emergency launch.  “Target that carrier with everything we’ve got!”

Lasers cut through space ahead of the slower kinetic slugs and missiles launching from Sunrider, crackling against the carrier’s shields before scoring deep rends in her armor.  The slugs came next, slamming into the carrier’s thin hull and blasting apart its lateral hull.  From within, Kayto saw dozens of PACT Ryders fall into space as the Savior slugs flew into their hangers, blowing up their docking berths on impact.  Streaking through what remained of the carrier’s flak capacity, Sunrider’s Hell Darts flew straight into the hull breaches created by the other attacks, igniting the carrier from within.  Flames blasted out from the launch bay and a dozen other weak points in the hull as the PACT carrier listed starboard, a flaming wreck of its former self.

“Alliance ships incoming!” announced Ava as the reinforcements from the far side of the defense perimeter drew into attack range.

“Upload targeting data, now!” barked Kayto.

Moments later, the fresh Alliance forces fired their kinetic guns like a line of militiamen.  Dozens of remaining PACT and pirate ships were torn apart by the armor piercing rounds, venting atmosphere and fire as they sank.  The PACT fleet staggered under the brutal assault, unable to continue their advance under such heavy fire.  PACT cruisers were torn apart as their defensive line crumpled, exposing their capital ships to similar fire.  The remnants of Fontana’s small battleship and carrier group began to reverse thrust as they came under fire from all sides; the entire spearhead formation blunting and spreading out, rebuffed by the Alliance lines.  Eagerly, the Alliance fleet began to scatter as they made to rout and pursue Fontana’s broken fleet.

“Hail the PACT flagship now,” ordered Kayto, watching the pirate forces scattering in the wake of the Alliance push, panicked by the Alliance offensive and the stymied PACT advance.  “Fontana!”

Fontana appeared, apparently not the least bit concerned at the failed attack.

“Even you can’t turn the tide of this battle,” Kayto tried not to sound like he was gloating.  “Why don’t you use your ‘tactics’ and perform a tactical retreat back to New Eden while you still have some ships left?”

“You overestimate yourself, Captain,” Fontana gave him a cold smile.  “You have quite an interesting vessel, very formidable.  I believe it was instrumental to your victory at Far Port, was it not?”

“Captain!”  Ava’s eyes widened.  “Additional warp signatures detected at close range!  It’s not a signature that matches any profile in the database…”

“An assault carrier…”  Fontana said, caressing the idea with his voice.  “Swift as a battlecruiser, powerful as a battleship, complemented by Ryders like a carrier.  Capable of lightning strikes and long range operations.  I must admit, I am impressed that a single neutral world was capable of producing a ship like that; but do not think for an instant Cera was the first to conceive of such a vessel.”

Kayto watched in astonishment as space teased apart and a new PACT vessel, unlike any he’d encountered previously emerged from the folds of warp.  The ship was almost twice as large as the Sunrider, triangular in profile with a prow sharp enough to cut through steel.  The entire vessel resembled a boat for planetary ocean sailing.  Line after line of missile pods and flak turrets studded the ship’s hull and powerful deck guns completed the ship’s armaments, pointing menacingly towards the Alliance fleet.  Unlike standard PACT carriers, the new ship lacked any apparent launch ramps.  As armored plating began to slide back, however, Kayto realized the new PACT carrier even shared the Sunrider’s Ryder launch philosophy, exposing half a dozen internalized launch tubes.

“I don’t believe it…” Ava also sounded awed.  “Apart from the Vanguard Cannon, it’s as though they’ve copied the Sunrider…”

Kayto swallowed.  “A single knock off of our ship won’t save you Fontana!”

“Indeed,” Fontana gave a tight and infuriating smile.  “The greatest flaw in your world’s military capacity was not ingenuity, but rather a lack of scale.  If a single prototype warship could change a battle’s outcome so dramatically, imagine what a whole fleet could do.  Behold, the fruit of years of naval modernization!”  Dozens of additional rends in the fabric of space appeared, allowing an equal number of identical ships to pour through into the battle.  “The most advanced fleet in the entire PACT navy, built with the resources and sacrifice of all the worlds of the People’s Alliance!”

Kayto gasped as an entire fleet of assault carriers appeared, pushing past the scrambling and retreating pirate forces.  Nearly a hundred fresh Ryders poured out of the PACT assault carriers simultaneously.  Even those seemed to have been upgraded; the new PACT Ryders had additional stabilization fins and mounted powerful engines, oversized shoulder autocannons, and a wide-bore laser rifle glowing with energy.  As their armored plating slide aside, Kayto also saw the Ryders had been outfitted with internalized missile pods.  Together, the new Ryders nimbly joined the fray ahead of the assault cruisers with a speed far surpassing that of the standard PACT Ryder.  Helplessly, Kayto watched as entire Alliance Ryder wings were annihilated by the formidable PACT Ryders in a head-to-head attack, unable to cope with the radically improved PACT Ryders.  To make matters worse, the assault carriers opened fire with their deck guns, smashing into the forward Alliance battlegroups with devastating effect.

“This is the end for you, Captain.”  Fontana’s eyes seemed to glow with delight before disappearing once again.

“Captain, the initial fleet was merely a decoy!” Ava scrambled to update their tactical situation.  “Alliance forces pursuing the pirates have been annihilated!  Alliance Command is ordering all ships to regroup and hold the line!”

“Damn!”  Kayto gritted his teeth.  “Rally any local Alliance ships to us.  Re-arm our missile tubes and get ready to re-engage!”

“Aye, Captain.”  Ava took a deep, steadying breath.  “Nearest PACT assault carrier will enter weapons range in thirty seconds.”

“Asaga, what’s our status out there?” asked Kayto as he watched Sunrider’s Ryders streak across the main screen trailing boogies.

“These guys sure are tough…”  Asaga grumbled through gritted teeth as she threw Black Jack in reverse, giving the PACT elite behind her the slip and turning the tables on its pilot.  In one smooth movement, she sliced into its back with her melee weapons, cleaving the Ryder apart.

Moments later, Phoenix blasted over Black Jack, chasing after another PACT Ryder, guns blazing.  “Fast too…”

“Keep them off us,” ordered Kayto.  “We’re going to focus on the assault carriers.”

“Roger that, Capt’n, we’re trying,” answered Asaga grimly.

“Assault carrier in range!” announced Ava as the PACT ship loomed on the main screen.  “Incoming weapons fire!”

“Return fire!  Take evasive action!” Kayto shouted.  Sunrider’s engines heaved, throwing everyone in the CIC starboard as she tried to maneuver.  The entire ship shook as their Savior cannons fired and shots from the PACT ship connected.

“Kinetic impacts on C-deck!” screamed Ava as alarms started wailing.  “Multiple missile breaches in sections eight through twelve.  Hull integrity at seventy percent!  Damage control struggling to contain the damage!”

“Initiate a ten degree per second roll starboard!  Fire all missiles, point blank!” answered Kayto, grunting as additional vibrations shook his ship, hoping to spread the damage over a greater surface area of the Sunrider’s hull rather than expose any of the Sunrider’s wounds to a second hit.  On his monitors, multiple damage reports streamed in from the ship’s nervous system, showing entire sections of the ship in blinking red, indicating non-functionality in a sea of yellow.  Only a handful of compartments remained undamaged.

As Sunrider and the PACT vessel glided past one another, they continued to trade fire, pounding into each other’s hulls and tearing into each other’s armored sides.  Pod after pod of Hell Darts blasted loose from Sunrider’s hull, rocketing straight into the PACT carrier before its flak cannons could even respond.  Outgoing fire from the PACT ship slackened as the missiles detonated, slagging hull turrets and severing essential data trunks running up and down the ship.  Pressing her advantage, Sunrider’s weapons continued to discharge, digging into its wounded side and gouging punishing holes through its internal decks and structures.  Unable to withstand the attack, the PACT assault carrier finally cracked, breaking along its weakened hull and shearing apart under the stress of its own acceleration.

Kayto breathed a sigh of relief.  Sunrider’s triumph over the enemy vessel had not been as much due to skill as it was luck; simply more of Sunrider’s missiles had connected with vital ship components than their opponent’s had.

“Captain,” Ava’s face was pale with the close call.  “Another fight like that might be our last; recommend we retreat behind Alliance lines and provide support from the rear.”

“What’s the fleet’s status?” asked Kayto.

“Sir, the entire defense fleet is engaged.  The Alliance fleet’s taken substantial losses, but reinforcements are continuing to fill the holes in our line.”  Ava surveyed the battle with a grim look on her face.  “They must be trying to overwhelm the assault carrier fleet by sheer number.”

“And the PACT fleet?” asked Kayto.

“They’re strung out along the entire front and engaging multiple ships simultaneously,” Ava put the tactical display up on the main screen.  “Scans show moderate damage to their structures, but so far, nothing to stop them from fighting.”

Kayto absorbed the facts with a frown.  As it stood, the PACT ships were far too likely to break through the weakening Alliance lines.  For every ship the assault carriers sunk, Alliance morale dropped and it would only be a matter of time before the fleet was routed by Fontana’s new weapons.  There was no choice except to play Sunrider’s trump card.

“Prepare for pin-point, short range warp,” ordered Kayto.  “Power the Vangaurd Cannon.”

“Sir!?”  Ava’s eyes were wide.

“The fleet’s on the verge of route,” Kayto said, stabbing a finger at the tactical display.  “If the Alliance line breaks and they get close enough to hit the Ongessite, we’ll all be blown back to Far Port.  Those ships might be tough like the Sunrider, but they’ve got nothing on the Vangaurd Cannon.  Time to give the Alliance a hand.”

“A short range warp will leave us behind enemy lines,” protested Ava.  “With the damage we’ve sustained, the chances of us surviving long enough to warp out are unacceptable.”

“Let’s hope you’re wrong, Commander.”  Kayto set his face with determination.  “You have your orders.”

“Aye, Captain.”  Ava punched the commands into her station without further hesitation, accepting the chain of command.

“All hands, prepare for short range warp on my mark!” Kayto announced.

“Engineering reports ready, Vanguard charged!” reported Ava.

“Mark!”

Sunrider blinked out of existence for a moment and reappeared half a second later behind the PACT Ryder screen.  Perpendicular to the PACT battleline, Kayto looked down the end of the Sunrider’s Vanguard Cannon at their targets.  Slowly, several of the PACT assault carriers slewed uncertainly, caught off guard by the Sunrider’s sudden and unexpected appearance.  Too late, some of them began emergency maneuvers to avoid Sunrider’s firing arc.

“Fire Vanguard!” shouted Kayto.

Brilliant red light spilled onto the main screen as Sunrider’s Vanguard Cannon discharged its full strength against the PACT ships.  Boiling plasma lanced forward in an eye blink, smashing into the PACT assault carriers with devastating force.  The nearest carrier took the worse of it, reeling with the impact momentarily before the entire forward half of the ship flashed into vapor.  The Vanguard shot continued forward, boring into additional carriers caught in its path and melting through layer after layer of armor.  Slewing, Sunrider swept her beam to maximize the number of ships caught in the wake of the Vanguard cannon before exhausting her plasma supply.

On screen, the devastating results of their fire were clear.  Four PACT assault carriers had been gravely wounded, the Vanguard Cannon having drilled ragged holes from one lateral hull to the other.  Fires burned on their internal decks as the ship’s crew struggled to regain control over their damaged vessels.  Emboldened, the Alliance forces pressed the advantage before the PACT ships could regain their footing, pummeling them with barrage after barrage of kinetic slugs and missiles aimed for the new weak points in their hull.

“Alert!”  Ava’s voice cut through the moment of triumph, bringing him back to reality.  “PACT Ryders inbound!”

A wall of PACT Ryders converged on Sunrider, intent on exacting revenge for the devastating attack while Sunrider’s systems were still in the process of recovering from the massive energy expenditure of firing their Vanguard Cannon.

“Tsch…” Kayto gritted his teeth, knowing their options were limited against the inbound Elites.  “Rally our Ryders, divert all available power to warp drives; get us to the fallback coordinates as soon as our capacitors are charged!”

“We’ll need at least two minutes for full charge,” answered Ava grimly.

Two minutes was too long; enough time for the PACT Elites to turn Sunrider into scrap metal.

“Incoming transmission!” Ava cried out.  “It’s the Adamantine!”

“Captain, I commend you for your crew’s bravery.”  Grey’s avatar appeared, his eyes hard.  “Allow my fleet to return the favor.”

Kayto watched, impressed, as the Admiral’s flagship, a massive Machiavelli-class battleship, plowed through the PACT Ryder formation, scattering them in its wake with a hailstorm of flak and missile fire.  Under its cover, four Alliance cruisers charged forward, engines at maximum, adding their own fire as they passed and took escort positions around the damaged Sunrider.

“Admiral,” Kayto inclined his head gratefully.  “My thanks for another timely rescue…”

As the Admiral’s flagship drew up to the Sunrider, it fired from its axial gun, slamming one of the remaining assault carriers with one of the largest and heaviest hitting guns produced in the galaxy.

“All ships in our local AO sunk,” reported Ava.  “Fontana’s remaining ships are still engaged with over half of the Alliance fleet, but the remaining ships can now begin to flank and encircle his fleet.”

“Fontana!” Kayto hailed his adversary’s flagship.  “It’s over!  Even your new toys aren’t a match for us.  Surrender now while you still have some ships left!”

“No.”  Fontana’s avatar gave Kayto a disappointed sigh.  “It is our victory.”

“Excuse me?” Kayto demanded.

“Heh-heh-heh…”  Another all too familiar voice joined the communications line.  “Did you forget about me already, Captain?”

“Cosette!” Kayto gripped his chair’s arm with a sweaty palm.

“Alert!” Ava’s cool professionalism began to crack at the edges.  “New pirate signatures detected!”

“What!?” Kayto was completely thrown.  Did the pirate fleet come back for a second round?  “Where?”

“From the Ongess habitation stations!”  Ava projected a long range view of the situation on the main screen.  “Enemy Ryders are flooding out of the orbital habitats!  They must have been laying low this whole time.  They’re after the Ongessite tanks!”

Kayto’s blood ran cold as the main screen showed dozens of Ryders laden with missile pods burning towards the practically unguarded repair and refueling stations the Alliance had set up for the Combined Fleet.  What few ships were left behind from the main engagement were quickly overwhelmed and overrun as Cosette’s pirates blasted them into oblivion.

“Fontana and the pirate fleets were just decoys!”  Cosette pointed at Kayto with the cold delight of revenge.  “Now the Combined Fleet are a bunch of sitting ducks!”

“Fall back!” barked Kayto.  “All ships fall back and intercept Cosette’s forces!  We need to defend those docks at all costs!”

“Negative!” Ava punched at her controls desperately.  “The fleet’s still entangled with Fontana’s fleets.  We’ll never make it!  Simulating damage report now!”

Kayto watched in horror as the simulations of the Ongessite tank detonations projected.  Hundreds of ships in the Alliance Combined Fleet, both active and inactive, were well within the blast radius that would be created from the Ongessite detonation, hemmed in by Fontana’s fleet which now clearly only had to keep the Alliance ships from retreating.

“Hahahaha…” Fontana’s quiet chuckling struck fear into Kayto’s heart as nothing else had.  “How disappointing Captain… outmaneuvered so easily.  I admit I had rather expected more from the victor of Far Port.”  Fontana leaned in, cyan eyes smoldering with conviction.  “In one fell swoop, every Alliance ship of the Combined Fleet will be cast into the hell fire of the very Ongessite they sought to steal from Ongess.  Poetic justice, is it not?  A fitting end to their imperialist ambitions for the Neutral Rim!  Just as the Imperials before them, the Alliance will fall not to cannons, but to the fruit of their own greed.  Their systematic exploitation of the poor and weak is a cancer that will consume their very body, a disease I will cleanse with fire.  Behold, Captain!  I, Veniczar B. Fontana end the age of imperialism today and bring about a new galactic order!”

“Ongessite tanks in range, targets locked.”  Cosette’s voice dripped with anticipation.  “This is for you, Captain.  You were always my favorite… ehehehe… HAHAHA!!!”

Kayto could only watch as the Pirate Ryders let loose with their missiles, white vapor trails streaking towards the vulnerable Ongessite tanks with deliberate and inevitable arcs.  The main screen whited out with the force of the explosion.  Entire docks with up to three Alliance cruisers apiece were swallowed in the firestorm created by detonating Ongessite reserves.  Battleships, carriers, cruisers, and Ryders burned alike as the fierce explosion billowed outwards, consuming everything in its path.

“Captain!” Ava gasped.  “The Combined Fleet is being sunk!  Catastrophic losses are being reported!  Pirate Ryders are reloading and preparing for a second salvo!”

Shrapnel and entire ship hulls flew out from the explosion’s epicenter, impacting on the rear of the Alliance lines and sinking nearly as many ships as the initial explosions had.  Entire starships were rammed through and gutted by jagged metal plating from their own sister ships.  Escape pods began ejecting from the crippled Alliance ships while others simply detonated, adding to the devastation.

“FONTANAAA!” Kayto’s fists clenched in anguish as he watched the tens of thousands of Alliance soldiers and sailors die around him helplessly in a sea of burning Ongessite.

“It is over, Captain.”  Fontana’s voice was calm and assured.  “The Alliance fleet is lost.  Your ship will be seized and the Princess returned to Arcadius.  As for you… I will see to it that you stand trial for your crimes against humanity.  Cosmos tells me that you are directly responsible for a number of civilian deaths on Ongess.”

“No.”  The Admiral’s gruff voice announced his presence.  Back straight with fury in his eyes, mirroring the hell fires which consumed his fleet, the Admiral radiated a furious energy.  “We’re not done yet.”

“So, the great Admiral Grey of the Emerald Fleet deigns to speak.”  Fontana’s voice dripped with condescension he had not even shown Kayto.  “Have you come to discuss the terms of your surrender, Imperial?”

“You little punk.”  Grey’s voice was deadly.  “Don’t think you’re the first commander to raise a sword against me, thinking he’s won.  You damn schoolboy; you think a clever answer or strategy is all that you need for victory.  You have no idea what war is, let alone even to have the stomach for it.”

Fontana flushed, but continued to look defiant.

“Sit down boy, and let me show you War!” Grey motioned for someone off camera.  “This is Admiral Grey.  Execute contingency plan Obsidian.  Authentication Tango Three Theta!”

“Captain!”  Ava’s voice was shocked.  “I’m detecting multiple radiation signatures from all remaining Alliance ships in the Combined Fleet!”

“I’ve just ordered every ship in the fleet to arm their nuclear warheads and target Ongess and the orbital habitats.”  Admiral Grey stared straight into Fontana, whose eyes betrayed a flicker of disquiet.  “My terms are simple.  Tell your pirate friend to turn tail and scurry back to whatever rat hole she crawled out of.  Then, take your ships back to New Eden.  Shore up your defenses as best you can; you’ll need them to escape my wrath for what you’ve done here today.  And if not… I’ll drop enough nukes on and over Ongess to make the entire planet glow brighter than the sun for the next millennia.”

The blood drained from Fontana’s face.  “You cannot be serious, Admiral…”  Fontana swallowed hard, beads of sweat forming on his brow.  “Even a man of the Alliance would not murder forty billion civilians in cold blood.”

Admiral Grey’s face did not budge a millimeter from the ugly expression that suggested he would do just that without a second’s hesitation.  “Try me, boy.”

“Tsch…” Fontana’s expression was uncertain.

“Don’t listen to him!” Cosette screamed on the comms.  “He’s bluffing!  We can wipe out the entire Alliance fleet here and now!”

“You have the count of three to withdraw your forces,” growled the Admiral.

“DON’T LISTEN TO HIM!” Cosette shrieked, hair in her face like a mad woman.  “He’s too much of a coward to fire!”

Fontana’s confidence, all but unshakable a moment ago was crumbling with each passing moment.

“One…”

“FONTANAAAA!!!!”  Cosette pounded her fists on her Ryder in frustration.  “All their ships are gathered here!  We’ll never get another chance!  We can end the Alliance military supremacy in fifteen seconds!  As soon as my Ryders reload, we’ll end the Alliance and usher in a new era!”

“TWO!”

“We can end it!” Cosette kept screaming desperately.  “Just give us ten more seconds!!!  We can do this!  INDEPENDENCE OR DEATH!!!”

“ADMIRAL!” Kayto shouted, leaping to his feet as he saw the Admiral raise his hand to signal the order.  “Stop this madness, now!  Nothing is worth the lives of those innocents!”

His words had no effect on the Admiral, whose pitiless resolve remained firm as ever, but Fontana recoiled as though shot.

“All ships, hold fire!” he barked, making a cutting motion with his arm to one of his crew.

Immediately, the remaining PACT fleet ceased their attack, the battlefield finally quieting with an uneasy standoff between the ships of the Alliance and PACT.  Without hesitation, the surviving Alliance ships and Ryders peeled off and shot off towards the flaming docks to engage Cosette’s pirates.

“All units, warp to fallback coordinates immediately,” Fontana’s voice burned with anger and hatred as he glared at the Admiral.  “Cosmos.  Withdraw your forces.”

“You COWARD!”  Cosette’s scream was one of pure anguish.

Upon seeing the PACT fleet’s retreat back to warp and the dozens of Alliance ships roaring towards them, the deep seated survival instincts of Cosette’s rag-tag forces kicked in.  Scattering in all directions, Cosette’s pirates dispersed like motes of dust in sunlight, breaking rank and fleeing for the safety of their orbital docks without a second look back.

“A victory at the cost of Ongess is no victory at all.”  Fontana breathed hard, swallowing against the revulsion and nausea he felt.  “It would be a catastrophic defeat for the People… we’ve hurt the Alliance enough for now.  We will reserve our forces for another opportunity.”

“Another opportunity like this won’t come!” shouted Cosette, her Havok now alone save for a handful of diehard believers.

“Enough.”  Fontana’s tone stiffened, allowing no further debate on the matter.  “If you truly care about the plight of your people, Cosmos, pull your men out.”

“ARRGHH!” Cosette’s look could have killed a man through a foot of steel.  “FUCK YOU FONTANA!”  Chest heaving, she signaled for her Ryders to join the flight.  “As for you, Captain…”  Cosette spat as the Havok pulled away as well.  “You’ll regret ever throwing your lot in with the Alliance!  They’ll plant their flag on every damn world in the Neutral Rim, sucking them dry to fatten Solaris.  You think you’re doing the right thing and winning this war… but wait until the day the Alliance shoves a knife in your back.  Then… then you’ll realize what you’ve done today…”

A profound sadness seemed to enter the pirate’s eyes as she held his gaze for one last moment before cutting the communications, fleeing back to the orbital habitats as the last of the PACT ships withdrew.

Kayto let out the breath he felt like he’d been holding for the last ten minutes.  “Stand down Red Alert and recover our Ryders,” he ordered wearily.  “Cease all combat operations and prepare to assist with recovery of survivors.  Alert medical to receive wounded.”  Dropping into his chair, shaking, Kayto tried to hold himself together.  “What’s the status of the fleet?”

“Substantial damage to Alliance docks,” answered Ava, skimming the damage report, dazed.  “Uncontrolled Ongessite leaks from forty percent of remaining depots.  Altogether, an estimated loss of one hundred forty cruisers, twenty five battleships, and a dozen carriers.”

“That’s nearly forty percent of the fleet…” Kayto’s voice was stunned by the enormity of the damage and death which surrounded the Sunrider.

“This attack was grave, but we have avoided the worse of it,” Grey’s voice was terse and tight.  “The fleet will regroup and reorganize; more ships are due in for reinforcements from the core worlds in days.  Fear not, Captain.  This attack changes nothing; we will continue to push into PACT occupied territory as planned.  I believe Cera is not far now, is it?”

Kayto took a deep breath.  “No.  No it isn’t…”

“Then we had best get to work.”  The Admiral nodded and killed the communications channel, leaving Kayto with nothing but the sight of destruction and death all around.

******

For the last several hours, Sunrider joined the rest of the Combined Fleet in retrieving escape pods from sunken ships and providing assistance to the myriads of disabled ships on the battlefield.  Just about every available Ryder was also engaged in search and rescue missions, sniffing out any survivors holding out among the hundreds of wrecked ships.  It was essential, but not terribly difficult work; ideally, he should be taking advantage of the lull to rest after the day’s arduous events.  Unfortunately, for the last half hour, Kayto had been pacing his office, unable to relax even after he and Ava had been relieved in the CIC by the backup crew.

“Captain.”  Ava stepped into his quarters from behind him without ringing, apparently also finding it difficult to rest after the day’s events.  “Word of the battle has just hit the holonets.”

“I see…” Kayto turned to look at Ava.  “What’s the response?”

“Virtually every Progress Party affiliated news agency is calling the occupation of Ongess a massacre of Alliance personnel and Ongess civilians alike.  The numbers vary between sources, but most of the reliable news outlets are reporting between three hundred to fifteen hundred civilian casualties in the last battle.”

Kayto was not surprised by the Progress Party’s use of the battle as additional political firepower against the Admiral’s candidacy.  Although the number of civilian deaths paled compared to the number of Alliance personnel who had been killed in action, Kayto knew that the number made for a powerful and discrediting headline.

“It might interest you to know that the latest opinion poll published by All Alliance News shows Admiral Grey lost 4 points of approval in a matter of hours.”  Ava showed him the relevant report on her holo.  “He now trails the Progress Party candidate, Frandall, by three points.”

“It’s all reactionary,” said Kayto wearily.  “Those numbers don’t mean much until the actual election.”

“True.”  Ava gave him a shadow of a smile, engaged by the political discussion.  “The Progress Party has also introduced a new bill to the Solar Congress calling for the immediate withdrawal of all Alliance ships from Ongess.  It doesn’t have a chance of passing right now, of course, but the Progress Party wants to send a message.  They’ve also vowed to bring legal challenges against Grey in the Solar Court if he’s elected to presidency.”

Kayto stayed silent, lost in thought.

“Are you alright, Captain?” asked Ava, looking at the haggard look on his face with some modicum of concern.

“Do you…” Kayto hesitated.  “Do you suppose Cosette’s right?”

Ava crossed her arms firmly.  “Captain, Cosette is a madwoman and criminal.  Please don’t tell me you’re taking her position seriously?”

“A madwoman?”  Kayto squared his jaw.  “What does that make the Admiral?  I nearly watched that man glass an entire planet and over thirty billion civilians today.  We can call ourselves heroes or liberators, we can point all we want to the fact that the PACT are aggressors and that we didn’t start the war.  But after today… we’re no better than Arcadius.”

“Captain,” Ava shook her head.  “Threatening the use of force and actually using it are two things very different things.  A threat coupled with the capacity to act on the threat is merely a diplomatic tool.  Every civilized government in this galaxy recognizes the use of threats as a means to achieve policy without bloodshed.  The Admiral violated no laws or morals simply through his use of words.”

“It’s a very fine line between the two, Ava.”  Kayto tried to keep the bitterness out of his voice.  “Humanity has shown, over and over again, that it cannot appreciate the distinction.  I’m not even sure there is one.  What else will we be forced to do?  How will we even know if we’ve crossed the line?”

“This is war,” Ava’s voice was hard and cold.  “It’s us or them.”

Saying nothing, Kayto merely turned away to stare at the holoscreen on his far wall, watching as the burned out husks of sunken ships drifted past grimly.  He felt the brush of Ava’s fingers on his sleeve as she reached out for his shoulder for a moment before thinking twice and dropping her arm.

“Captain… Kayto,” Ava’s arm fell limply to her side.  “You need to get some rest.”

Sighing and nodding, Kayto indicated he’d heard her as she turned and walked out.  Losing track of time, he stared out the holoscreen at the ongoing search and rescue, lost in half formed thoughts.

******

“Captain?”  Chigara’s timid voice called out as she entered his quarters, carrying a tray of food.  “You weren’t at dinner so…”  Chigara caught sight of his shell-shocked face.  “Oh Captain…”  She put the food down on his desk and came to his side.

Wordlessly, the two looked to the view together, Chigara periodically darting looks back at him.

“Come,” she gently nudged him.  “You need some tea.”  Tenderly, she took his arm and led him down to his living space.  “Sit,” she instructed firmly.

Kayto watched as she busied herself with his tea set, her mauve hair framing her face as she stood over the tea.  Seeing the tender expression on her face as she prepared their tea, Kayto felt himself ground slowly once again, almost overcome by a sudden wall of exhaustion.

“Here you go, Captain,” Chigara pressed a cup of tea into his hands, settling across from him.

Kayto sipped the hot tea, feeling life surge back into his numb body.  “Thanks, Chigara.”

Chigara smiled, equal parts happy and sad.  “Do you want to talk?”

“Did I-?” Kayto paused, looking down at his tea.  “Did I let the crew down, Chigara?”

“What do you mean?” Chigara looked taken aback.

“He outmaneuvered me…” Kayto felt crushing disappointment press down on his shoulders.  “Fontana… he’s a foe deadlier than anyone we’ve encountered before.  He predicted every one of our moves before the battle even began.  By all rights… we shouldn’t even be alive right now.  We got lucky this time… but what will happen next time?”

“Next time, you’ll be ready.”  Chigara spoke with quiet confidence.  “He had the benefit of surprise this time.  He won’t ever be able to do that again now.”

Kayto fingered the rim of his teacup, hoping with every last ounce of strength he had left that she was right.

Minutes slipped away as the two sipped their tea in silence.

“Chigara?”

“Hm?”

“Why does war turn good men into monsters?” Kayto sighed heavily.  “Fontana… he’s a good man.  Grey’s no murderer either.  And yet… this war and the lives of those they command have forced them to make decisions they would never had ordinarily made.  The Admiral nearly glassed forty billion human beings today.  Fontana’s fleets have murdered millions in their conquest of the Neutral Rim.  Neither of them would stand for that kind of death and destruction if they had a choice.”

“That’s what separates leaders from followers, Captain.”  Chigara set her tea down and walked over to his side, sitting beside him.  “You bear that weight on your own shoulders so that we don’t have to.  Whatever you decide… I know it’ll be for the greater good.”  Chigara cupped his face with her hand, turning pink but looking determined all the same.  “You will always be my hero, Captain.”

Kayto closed his eyes, feeling her soft, small hand caress his cheek before dropping down to hold his arm.  “Heh… I’m sorry to disappoint.”

“You never disappoint, Captain.”  Chigara muttered, leaning her head against his shoulder.  “No matter what happens… I’ll be there for you.”

Kayto put his arm around Chigara in an embrace, drawing her close as she closed her own eyes and rested against his chest, listening to the beat of his heart.  Eyes still closed, Kayto breathed deeply, the sweet and comforting scent of her hair filling his senses and shielding his heart from the darkness closing in from all sides.

“This will be over soon,” he muttered into her hair, holding her close.  “Once Cera is free… we’ll lay down our weapons.  Then, maybe, we’ll start that bakery of yours.”

“Eh-heh…” Chigara sounded too tired to be properly embarrassed.  “You’re making me blush, Captain…”

Kayto gave a tiny chuckle as he felt Chigara’s warmth filled him and eased his doubts away.  Peace stole over him at last and the world faded away.

******

“Kayto…”

Kyoko’s blank, staring eyes bored into him lifelessly.  Blood dripped from her wounds, glistening and wet.

Kayto’s breath caught.  He couldn’t breathe.  Panic and pressure mounted.

“You killed me.”

Kyoko’s hair turned white and short and her eyes faded to the palest blue.  Kayto found himself staring at his sister.  Blood stained her clothes and poured from the same wounds Kyoko had borne.

“No…” Kayto gasped, suffocating and drowning in his own guilt and remorse.  “No…”

“You killed all of us…”  Maray looked at him with a profound sadness and disappointment.

“Maray… MARAY!”

Kayto bolted awake, still sitting on his sofa, cold sweat dripping down his face and soaking his uniform.  Evidently both he and Chigara had fallen asleep sitting beside one another.  Eyes wide, Chigara pushed off of him.  “C-Captain?” she asked, voice muffled with sleep.

Kayto got up and stumbled to his washroom, splashing cold water over his face at the sink.  Panting hard, he wrenched a towel off its rack and patted his face dry, staring into the mirror at his pale face and wide eyes.

“Captain?”  Chigara stood at the door frame tentatively.  “Is everything alright?”

“I-I’m fine…”  Kayto took a deep, steadying breath.  It was a nightmare, nothing more.  He had not killed Kyoko… he had not killed Maray.  “Just a dream…”

Chigara looked at him uncertainly for a moment before nodding.  “I’d better get back to the crew quarters then…”

Kayto eyed his bracelet; it was almost 0300.

Chigara turned pink.  “I-I don’t want the others to… I hope no one sees…” she muttered, embarrassed.  “Ah… good night Captain!”

“Good night, Chigara.”  Kayto watched as Chigara beat a hasty retreat from his quarters, giving him one last sheepish look before leaving.

Knowing sleep would be an exercise in futility, Kayto peeled off his sodden uniform and stepped into the shower, letting cold water pour over his hair and down his body, wishing the shower could wash more than just the sweat from his body.

“Captain!”

“Your orders Captain!?”

“What do we do Captain!?”

A cacophony of voices shouted at him, merging indistinguishably into an incomprehensible roar.

“I don’t know!”   Kayto gasped, punching the wall of the shower, pain flaring in his knuckles.  “I DON’T KNOW!”

 

CHAPTER 25 >>>>