Chapter 25- Memories

 

Kayto sat alone in the Sunrider’s mess hall, a steaming cup of coffee next to his holo, putting together a report of Sunrider’s latest mission for the ship’s logs.  The Mining Union had contracted the services of the Sunrider, ostensibly for the escort of a civilian freighter carrying “Ryder and starship parts.”  Kayto had accepted the job, anticipating a boring, uneventful mission that would give him and his crew time to recover from the events at Ongess.  Unfortunately, the job had gone FUBAR, trapping the Sunrider and her crew between the freighter and an entire PACT fleet determined to stop it.  Battleships, cruisers, carriers, and even assault carriers had thrown themselves into the fray with dozens of Ryders, coming at Sunrider and her charge in no fewer than four exhausting waves.

How they’d managed to hold off the PACT long enough for the freighter to warp out, Kayto suspected he’d never remember, having repressed the memory of their harrowing adventure.  Likewise, the ashen-faced crew of the Sunrider and his Ryder pilots had also chosen to pretend like the incident had never happened, except to storm his office and demand that the ship never again accept an escort mission.  Kayto was all too happy to oblige.  In the end, they’d never even figured out what was aboard the freighter, although the Mining Union had paid a generous bonus to shut them up.

Reading over his report, Kayto sincerely hoped no eyes would ever lay sight on the rambling morass he’d cobbled together.  It was almost like a narrative of one of the second rate simulation games he’d played in high school where enemy ships would throw themselves against the protagonist vessel, heedless of casualties with the game developers pressing the quaint notion that a single ship could somehow trounce an battle-hardened war fleet outnumbered twenty-to-one.

Kayto sighed heavily, trying to not to become depressed at the thought of the sheer number of hours of his life he’d wasted saving and loading move after move in those outrageous games.

“Hey Captain,” Icari plopped into the seat opposite to him with a fruit juice.  Grinning, she leaned back in her chair and put her feet up on the unoccupied seat beside him.

“How’s it going?” Kayto hit the save button on his holo and deactivated the device.

“Just catching a breath after all that… you-know-what,” Icari said with a smirk.  “I swear, you really know how to pick a fight, Captain.”

“Wasn’t my choice, Icari,” Kayto rubbed his eyes and sipped his coffee with a shudder.  “It was supposed to be a milk run.”

“Well let’s just say you’re getting quite the reputation,” Icari’s green eyes glinted as she measured him up.  “Word has it you’ve got your eyes set on big game hunting and you’re cooking up some kind of plan to take down the Big Ship once and for all.”

“It’s easier said than done,” Kayto muttered.

“Hey,” Icari bumped his shoulder with her hand.  “Take it from someone who knows… don’t be so bunched up all the time.”

“Hm?” Kayto paused, slightly taken aback.

“Look,” Icari put her feet down and leaned in, fixing him with a serious stare.  “You’re all smiles with the crew and when you’re being watched, but I’ve seen that look in your eyes before.  I can see the dark clouds gathering over your head and some of the others can too.  Honestly, it’s making me feel uneasy.”

Kayto said nothing for a moment.  “I won’t let it affect my judgment,” he said finally, avoiding her gaze.

“You know…” Icari looked at him sadly.  “When it happened to me, I was five.  The Alliance helped me out a bit, but as soon as I turned sixteen, I was out of the system.”  Icari sighed heavily and looked down at the table.  “It messes you up… seeing something like that.  I turned to crime.  Experimented with some stuff I shouldn’t have.  Killed a man for my eighteenth birthday.  Figured out I had a talent for it.  Ran with this boy and his gang of pirates.  It was fun for a while; made some quick bucks.  Last I saw of him, he was ramming his flaming skiff into the side of an Alliance cruiser… didn’t even dent the armor, stupid bastard… heh…”

Kayto looked up at Icari and saw that the mask she wore had dropped off.  Underneath the hard exterior, behind the jokes and bravado, Icari’s life was as scarred as any of the Ongessians’ lives.  It was a side of her he’d known was there, but had never seen, soft and vulnerable.  “You regret all of that?” he asked, finally breaking the silence.

“Regret, huh?”  Icari looked up to the ceiling, breathing out explosively.  “…Yeah.  It always feels like if you can just get the bastards who did it, everything will fix itself up.  But, at the bottom of it, there’s not a goddamn thing in this universe that can bring them back.”

Kayto nodded and the two of them stared at their drinks morosely for a minute.  “Well…” Kayto shook himself from the thought and pulled himself together.  Icari was right.  He needed to stay strong and in control of himself or the crew would worry.  Slapping Icari on the shoulder, Kayto gave her a smile, this time only half forced.  “Don’t get so down, Icari.  Plenty more Reds to kill.”

“Heh…” Icari grinned back, the slipping her usual face back on.  “Weren’t you even listening, Captain?”  Sighing with mock frustration, Icari kicked him underneath the table.  “You’re hopeless…”

“Be seeing you,” Kayto stood and left as Icari watched his back, swirling her drink thoughtfully.

******

As Kayto passed through the crew quarters, he almost ran headfirst into Asaga as she charged down the corridor, undoubtedly on her way to another marathon session with the Ryder simulators.  “A-Asaga!” Kayto had to practically restrain her to get her to stop.  “What’s the rush?”

“O-oh, you know…” Asaga squirmed loose.  “Got a whole mess of simulations to run Capt’n!”

“I’ve actually been meaning to talk to you,” Kayto said, frowning at her near manic level of energy.  “Is everything alright?”

“Eh?!  Uwah-hahaha!” Asaga threw her head back and laughed boisterously.  “No need to worry about me, Capt’n!  Everything’s in tip-top shape!  Leave it to me, I’ll smash up the PACT and the Legion like I smashed up Porkchops at Far Port!”

“Chigara tells me you’ve been acting differently,” Kayto said, deciding to take the most direct route with Asaga.  “You’ve been avoiding me too.”

“O-oh…” Asaga deflated slightly.  “I guess you noticed huh?”

Kayto only arched an eyebrow.  Not noticing the change in Asaga’s personality would have taken more than being deaf and dumb; the difference in her behavior between now and when she’d first come aboard was startling as day and night.

“Eh-heh…” Asaga rubbed her neck awkwardly.  “I guess I just realized… Maybe I haven’t been taking things seriously enough, you know?  I’m not just some random girl anymore… There are a lot of people who are counting on me back home.  I know it’s a long way off, but one day, we’re gonna liberate Ryuvia Prime.  And then I’ll have to lead everyone, just like my father and mother before me.  I’m not exactly cut out for that kind of stuff, but… I gotta try my best!”

“Wow…” Kayto ogled at her with surprise.  “I’m impressed, I suppose.  You’ve come a long way.”  Kayto threw his arm around her shoulder fondly and messed her hair.  “Just don’t forget to relax every once in a while.”

“Urk…” Asaga’s cheeks turned bright with Kayto’s embrace.  The tearing feeling in her chest exploded outwards as she tried to extract herself from him.  “Stop it, Captain… if you do that, I’ll…” Asaga muttered, vision blurring as she struggled to regain control.

“Huh?” Kayto let her go, worried.

“Eaahhh, nothin’!”  Asaga took a quick step away from him and gave him a giant, toothy smile, hands on her hips.  “I’m the Queen of Ryuvia, ya know!”  Pointing at Kayto with a finger of accusation, Asaga’s voice was serious.  “Laying hands on me like that would ordinarily be a capital offense!  But since you’re my captain… I suppose I’ll let you off with a warning this time!”

“My liege…” Kayto gave a mock bow, relieved that she did not seem to have taken his presumption as offense.  “I’m grateful for your generosity!”

“Uwah-hahaha!”  Asaga took the opportunity to wave goodbye and carry on.

As she turned, the hearty smile she’d worn for Kayto’s benefit slipped off.  With a sigh, Asaga felt her shoulders drop as soon as she rounded the corner, alone.

******

With an air of resignation, Kayto steered himself towards the medical bay.  Despite his reluctance to submit to Claude’s medical attention, his insomnia had gotten markedly worse since leaving Ongess and he felt he was nearing his physical and mental breaking point with exhaustion.  As he walked into the serene and immaculate medical bay, Kayto nearly bumped into Sola.

“Ah.” Sola looked as surprised as he felt as the two stared at each other for a moment, wondering what the other had come for.

“Err…” Kayto shuffled awkwardly before pulling Sola to the side, whispering.  “Sola!  What are you doing here?”

Sola looked at him with a taken aback expression at his intrusion into her privacy.

“I-I mean…” Kayto fumbled as he tried to explain himself.  “Has Claude done anything… unusual to you?”

“Unusual?” Sola’s fine eyebrow arched up.

“Well, you know…” Kayto turned red and dropped his voice even further.  “She’s not… She’s wanted on a bunch of planets for… Has she touched you anywhere she shouldn’t have?  Embarrassing places?”

Sola’s pale complexion tinged pink.  “C-captain…”

Kayto practically slapped his own face as he berated himself for coming across completely wrong.  Never mind Claude, the way things stood, he was the creepy one.

“C-Captain!!!” Claude’s voice was dramatic as she laid eyes on the two.  “S-s-shock!”  Trembling with indignity, Claude crossed her arms over her revealing medical uniform.  “I was simply giving Sola the finest medical attention this ship could offer, yet you feel the need to lob these scandalous accusations at a hardworking professional like myself!”

Sola also turned to Kayto, who withered under her gaze.

“W-wait!” Kayto backpedaled desperately.  “I-I didn’t mean to sound weird or anything, Sola!  Claude’s been arrested for malpractice more times than you can count; I just wanted to make sure-”

“Oh Captain…” Claude cut into his hasty explanation dramatically, gushing with emotion.  “I still remember the day I came aboard your ship… You led me to this sickbay… forced me to do this and that for you as payment for taking care of those pirates… I became a shamed woman that day!  I’ll never forget it!”  Giving a huge sniff, Claude buried her face in her hands, making a hugely unconvincing show of modesty and stolen virtue.

The entire fabricated story seemed to backfire on her as Sola’s eyes narrowed suspiciously at Claude.

“See Claude?” asked Kayto, triumphant.

“Uuuu…” Claude cringed, defeated.  “Betrayed by my own comrade in arms…”

As Claude retreated slightly, Sola turned to Kayto.  “Claude has been assisting me.  I wished to investigate further into my awakening in this time.  While the simplest explanation would be to accept your theory that I was held in suspended animation for two millennia, I have always harbored doubts as to whether that would have been possible, even with the technology of my time.  Therefore, I had the doctor perform some tests to determine the exact duration I was in cold sleep.”  Sola paused for a moment, looking slightly uncomfortable.  “According to the latest results… the doctor believes I was suspended for a mere three months.”

“Three months!?” asked Kayto, incredulous, suddenly wondering whether Claude’s mathematics were as poor as her bedside manner.  “But…”

“The findings have baffled me as well.”  Sola mused on the thought with detachment.  “The circumstances around my survival are inexplicable in the first place.  I should have been vaporized the moment the Final Tear was activated.  The mere fact I survived to be put in cold sleep is an anomaly, now compounded by the duration of my sleep.”

“Hmm…” Kayto chewed the inside of his cheek, unable to fathom the implications of Sola’s revelation.  “Well… whatever the case may be, it doesn’t change the fact you’re with us now.  No matter what, we’ll take care of you and handle this together.”

“Ah…” Sola blushed faintly.

“Eeehhh!” Claude raced back, no longer able to stay out of the conversation no matter the indignity.  “You’d better stop that, Captain, or you’ll have an entire Ryder squadron of jealous girls after you!”

“I remember my timeline clear as day,” said Sola calmly, ignoring Claude with Kayto.  “Further, this world is as foreign to me as mine would have been to you.  Yet… I have no memories of how I was put into cold sleep mere months ago or how I arrived in your time.”

Kayto shrugged.  “Ryuvian Lost Technology we’re familiar with have almost magical properties.  Maybe that has something to do with it?” he suggested.

“It seems possible,” Sola agreed with a nod.  “I will continue my investigation before I draw any conclusions, however.”

“All right.  Let me know what you discover,” requested Kayto.  “We’re in this together now; feel free to talk or ask for help if you ever need it.”

“I will, Captain.”

With that, Sola departed, a look of mixed expression on her face.

******

“My apologies, my Veniczar,” said Fontana, his head bowed deeply as he knelt on the ground before Arcadius.  Anger bled into his shaken voice as his hand curled into a fist on the cold metal decks of the Legion.  “Admiral Grey was a far more treacherous villain than I could have imagined.  Had it not been for his vile guile, we would have liberated Ongess, rescued the princess, and sank the entire Alliance Combined Fleet in one fell stroke.”

“Fontana,” Arcadius’s voice betrayed a measure of anger on his part as well.  “You are still but a boy.  You do not know the evil which lies in the hearts of these Imperialists.  They are but a maelstrom of greed and perversion bubbling in the guises of man.”

“Forgive me,” Fontana fought the desire to pound his fist into the metal deck plating beneath him.  “The responsibility of the failure rests upon my shoulders.  I will accept any punishment you deem fit and will not fail you again.”

“Rise.”  Arcadius opened his arms magnanimously.  “Your idealism is a virtue to our cause.  We will forgive any mistake which arose out of a desire to see our creed fulfilled.  Although you accomplished none of the tasks we set before you, you have dealt the Alliance fleets a serious blow.”

“You are too kind, my Veniczar,” answered Fontana as he rose to his feet.

“There is a project we have been working on,” announced Arcadius, turning to look out at the PACT warships sailing alongside the Legion.  “You will accompany us to oversee its completion.”

Fontana stifled his surprise.  “You will leave New Eden?” he asked, incredulous.

“We have already left,” answered Arcadius impassively.  “Four days ago.  Tell us… do you know of the Paradox Project?”

“Of course,” Fontana’s eyes were confused.  “A failed laboratory experiment which crushed the planet and inhabitants of Diode inside a black hole.”

“A failure?”  Arcadius’s computerized voice took on an amused quality.  “Nay.  They say the greatest scientific achievements are found through accident.  This is no different.  Come with us.  We shall unveil a new weapon against the Alliance.  One that secure our victory in this war and strike terror into the hearts of every fat Imperialist from Solaris to Far Port.  Take the Legion and your fleets to these coordinates.  We will be waiting.”

******

Kayto reached out to Maray’s holo, which lay face down, with shaking hands.  Ever since his nightmares and sleepless nights had become dominated by visions of her, riddled with bullets or screaming, on fire, he’d not had the courage to look her in the eye.  Yet the sorrow and emptiness she’d left in his heart demanded to be filled.  He wanted desperately to just take the holo, stand it back up, and look once more into Maray’s bright and shining eyes, if only to give himself the illusion she was still there for him.  Every time he tried, however, the action filled him with such dread that he could not even bear to touch the holo’s frame.  Instead, he’d found himself staring at the holo, face down, reaching out for it like a drowning man, paradoxically riveted in fear as though all the universe’s curses and maladies would rush out at him from within, screaming and clawing until he was no more.

Bing Bing.

His quarter’s doorbell shook him from his trance.  Before he had a chance to collect himself, however, Ava had already entered, now accustomed to his open door policy.

“Captain.”  Ava looked at his pale, wan face with a flicker of concern and uncertainty.  “Am I interrupting something?”

“N-no.”  Kayto swallowed.  “No…” he said with more force.  “What is it?”

“The latest battle reports from the Alliance,” said Ava, handing him a small data chip.  Her cherry eyes looked him over and pinned his own with her gaze, clearly seeing through his feeble dismissal.  “The Alliance has made further gains against the PACT since the Second Battle of Ongess.  The Glecayama and Plion systems are both under Alliance control now.  The latest intelligence shows that the PACT has retreated to their final defensive lines in the Neutral Rim; Arcadius means for his forces to take a last stand at Cera to turn the tide from PACT territory.”

“Cera…” Kayto’s lips tightened.  “So it appears Cera will be the decisive battle of the war…  If the Alliance liberates Cera, they’ll be poised to launch strikes into PACT territory, a threat Arcadius cannot take lightly.  If the Alliance makes enough gains into PACT space, Arcadius will be forced to sue for peace or risk total annihilation.”

“The Alliance has never fought a war beyond the Neutral Rim in its entire history,” rebutted Ava less enthusiastically.  “It seems inconceivable they plan to conquer all of PACT space.”

“Grey doesn’t fight a war unless he intends to win,” said Kayto darkly.

Ava gave a weary sigh.  “It’s been a long fight… but it looks like we’re getting close to the end.”

Kayto nodded.  “I… I had this idea…” he muttered, confessing.  “That we’d be back in time for her birthday.  I…”  Kayto sighed explosively, the universe crushing down on his shoulders.  “Doesn’t look like we’ll make it in time… it was a stupid idea anyways…”  Involuntarily, he turned back to stare at the face down holo.

Ava walked up behind him, stopping one stride away from his side.  Frowning, she took note of Maray’s holo, the dark circles under Kayto’s eyes, and the grim set to his jaw.  “Captain… Kayto…” Ava put a hand on his shoulder, surprisingly gently.

“Ava?” Kayto asked, surprised.

“…These shoulders have carried much,” she finally said after a moment of silence.  “Isn’t it time to let some things go?”

Kayto stiffened, his fists balling, an indescribable sensation that transcended any rage or ire rising in him.  “No…” he whispered.  “Not yet.  Not while a crimson flag still flies above our world.”

******

Kayto groaned and fell face first into his holo.  The sun was already setting, the last of its brilliant, orange rays streaking across the Ceran sky and bathing the empty classroom in its rosy glow.  Aside from the occasional tap of a stylus or huff of frustration, the room had been nearly silent for what seemed like hours now.  The afterschool clubs had long since ended practice for the day, giving liberty to the remaining students, save for two.

“Pres…” Kayto moaned weakly, his throat hoarse and raspy from hours of disuse.

“What is it?” snapped Ava, peering over her holo critically.

As Kayto looked into her cherry eyes, framed by her shoulder length hair, he found no pity in her expression.  “Pres… everyone’s been gone for hours.  We should go before they lock us in here too,” he pleaded, wondering what he and Ava would do if they were actually locked in for the evening.

“Tsch…” Ava glared at him critically.  “If you want to bail like everyone else, go ahead.”

Kayto shook his head in exasperation.  No matter how many hours he poured in at Ava’s side, filling out endless stacks of paperwork, she still treated him with the same contempt as usual.  “You know…” Kayto said, treading lightly.  “You really should ask for help and stop trying to do everything by yourself.  It makes you look stuck up.”

Ava gave a small huff of derision.  “If I needed help, I’d say so.  I don’t need those other dead weights from the student council.”

“Are you sure about that?” Kayto nudged Ava in the ribs playfully as she scowled and pushed him away.  “Come on, admit it.  Deep down, you wanted me to stay here.”  Kayto pointed a mock-accusatory finger at Ava.  “Because there’s nothing Ava Crescentia likes less than having to fill out paperwork by her lonesome!”

Ava glared at him until he put down his finger.  “Idiot,” she muttered predictably before turning back to her holo.

Kayto turned back to his own, hiding a grin behind the screen.  Ava had been like that their entire shared childhood.  Always older, always smarter, and always aloof.  And yet, Kayto couldn’t help but to stick by her side, thick or thin, case in point the paperwork they’d been embroiled in since the unofficial resignation of every other student council member.

Another mind-crushingly dull hour went past before Kayto finally powered off his holo, stretching and groaning as he got up from his seat.  By then, the setting sun had gone below Cera’s horizon properly, leaving him and Ava sitting in the dusk.  “That’s it; good enough for today.”

“But…” Ava dithered over her holo, looking anxiously over document after document of pointless paperwork and bureaucracy.  “I should double check…”

“Don’t worry, I’m sure you filled them out properly!” said Kayto, hitting the power button on Ava’s holo for her.  “Come on! I have to pick Maray up from her lessons!”  Watching Ava, Kayto realized with a horrible sinking feeling she was seriously considering turning the device back on.  Desperately, Kayto grabbed her arm, risking his own limb to drag her away.

“Fine, fine!” Ava snapped, snatching the holo up and putting it in her bag before letting Kayto drag her out of the classroom.

******

The two walked down the sidewalk, cutting through Cera City’s shopping district to pick Maray up from the orchestra hall.  Throngs of shoppers and diners jostled them as they pushed their way through the crowds.  Cera’s winter was approaching quickly, giving the crisp evening air a bite of unseasonable cold, a warning of things to come.

Neither was wearing more than a standard school uniform.  Although many other schools across Cera had already adopted thermaweave or holoclothing, the academy Kayto and Ava attended remained firmly committed to the hot and itchy in the summer and cold and drafty in the winter synthetic uniforms from hell, despite being one of the top academies in the city.  Something about tradition or, more likely, the Principal was getting a kickback from his friends at the uniform shop for forcing his pupils to purchase obsolete overstock.

“Here, take this,” said Kayto, steeling himself against the nip in the air and unwrapping his scarf from his neck.  Although he knew she’d deny it if he brought it up, Kayto could see the shiver that ran down Ava’s spine every time the wind blew.

Ava looked at Kayto’s offering for a moment before crossing her arms resolutely and powering forward.  “Don’t need it.”

“Don’t be like that,” Kayto said, wrapping his scarf around her neck messily as she rolled her eyes.  “It makes you look stuck up.”

“Mmou…” Ava sighed as he pulled back before adjusting the scarf and tying it neatly, burying her nose into the fabric.  “…thanks.”

“…yeah…” Kayto turned a little pink on the cheeks, the cold air suddenly seeming a little less bitter.

Ava kept her gaze firmly forward, turning a little pink in the cheeks herself and grateful that Kayto’s own embarrassment seemed to be keeping him from noticing her own.  Unbeknownst to Kayto, she breathed in deeply, allowing the scent of his scarf to sooth a frayed nerve or two.

“So…” Kayto looked at her sideways.  “Have you figured out what you want to do after graduation yet?”

“Not really.”  Ava’s voice was quiet as she kept her gaze firmly on the sidewalk.

“Oh.”  Kayto scratched his head.  It was very unlike Ava not to have a plan of action.  “Well… tell me once everything’s decided, OK?”

“Mm.”

Kayto exhaled, watching a plume of vapor rise into the night air.  The two walk in silence for a block before he tries to strike up conversation again.  “It’s going to be tough without you, Pres.  The school’s going to miss you.”

Ava looked at him critically, not buying it for a moment.  “Hardly.”

“Well the first part’s true,” said Kayto with a weak smile.

“Idiot.”

Cera’s concert hall was one of its most recognizable buildings.  Designed with graceful crystalline arcs encircling and orbiting the main building, the concert hall looked almost as though it had been carved out of an enormous gemstone in the heart of the city.  Although professional orchestras and musicians performed almost nightly at the hall, the Ceran government set the building aside for music education during school and afterschool hours.

“Maray’s still playing music, huh?” asked Ava as the two drew closer to the stunning building.

“Yeah, she’s gotten quite good,” Kayto smiled proudly, seeing Maray’s distinctive white hair poke out of the front of the concert hall’s doors.  Waving, he gestured her over.  “You should come to one of her concerts sometime.”

“Mm.” Ava grunted noncommittally.

“Kayto!” Maray ran up to the two as fast as her instrument case would allow.  Seeing her brother standing next to Ava, his scarf around her neck, Maray’s eyes got a mischievous glint.  “Ding, Ding-”

“Ready?” asked Kayto, cutting off her comment abruptly.

“Mmou…” Maray pouted.  “Yeah…”

Together the three continued on to Cera City’s residential district, catching a transit just in time.

“The Maestro scolded me for dozing off again today,” said Maray sourly as the transit glided smoothly along the street, playing with one of her hair ribbons and adjusting a twintail.

“I thought he liked you,” said Kayto.

“No…” Maray sighed.  “I don’t think so.  He always says I slow down too much.  But I think the piece sounds better that way!”

Kayto laughed, ruffling her hair to her annoyance.

Outside, a snowflake drifted down past the transit’s window.  More followed as a sudden snow flurry started.  “Oh!” Maray exclaimed as she plastered herself on the transit window excitedly.  “Look Kayto!  It’s the first snow of the season!”

Kayto shivered just looking at the white flakes drifting downwards.

“Mmou!” Maray stuck her tongue out at Kayto’s lack of enthusiasm, his shiver not escaping her attention.  “You’re so weak against the cold, Kayto.”

Kayto sighed darkly.  “I can’t believe we still haven’t built that dome over Cera City yet… seems like they talk about it every year, but never get around to starting.”

“Aww,” Maray whined.  “That’s no fun!  What about building snow forts and having snowball fights?”

“You could always take a transit out of the city,” grumbled Kayto.  “No need to bother the rest of us with that.”

“Meanie.”  Maray flicked him.

“Ow!”

The transit stopped at their local residential stop, allowing the three of them to exit before continuing along its path.  Row after row of apartments, comfortable duplexes, stretched for several blocks, their warm and bright interiors beckoning to the three of them.

“I bet Ava likes the snow.  Don’t you Ava?” demanded Maray, roping their taciturn companion into the conversation.

Ava held her tongue for a moment, but her features softened.  She’d always had a sisterly soft spot for Maray.  “Mm… it’s not bad.”

“See~!” Maray stuck her tongue out at Kayto in triumph and pranced ahead, spinning in the snowflake filled air.

“You traitor!” hissed Kayto in a whisper.

“Idiot.”

Minutes later, the three found themselves at their apartment building.

“Your dad’s out on deployment again, isn’t he?” asked Kayto as the three of them shook snowflakes off their jackets at the threshold of the building.

Ava nodded wordlessly and shrugged as the three piled into an elevator to their floor.

Ava and her father lived in the unit next door to Kayto’s family.  As an officer in the Ceran Space Force, Ava’s father was seldom home except during his periods of shore leave, no more than a few weeks each year.  For the rest of the year, Ava lived alone.  When she was younger, Kayto’s family treated her as their own daughter and there was seldom a single night she did not spend eating dinner and doing her homework in the Shields’ apartment.  As she grew older, however, Ava started spending less time over, withdrawing to her family’s apartment.  Kayto’s parents attributed it to the growing pains of adolescence, although they always kept an open door for her.

“Come on,” Kayto indicated his family’s door.  “Mom wants you over for dinner.  It’s been weeks since you last came over.”

Ava’s cherry eyes looked at his door with mixed feeling as she brushed a lock of her brown hair behind an ear.  “I… shouldn’t intrude,” she said, not meeting his gaze.

“Mom’s orders,” insisted Kayto with a smile.  “No choice.”

“I want Ava over too!” interjected Maray, grabbing Ava’s arm and tugging.

“Your dad would have wanted this,” urged Kayto, rolling his eyes and wondering what it would take to entice Ava over for a simple meal.  “He asked us to look after you all those years ago, remember?”

Ava turned red properly and looked down at her shoes.  “I… guess I have no choice.”

Kayto grinned as Maray excitedly burst through their front door and streaked into the family apartment.  “Ava’s here!” she squealed as she ran to the kitchen where their parents were cooking.

“…Thanks…” Ava still kept her eyes averted, but walked into the apartment with something almost like a smile on her face.

******

“Captain.”  Ava’s voice interrupted Kayto’s thoughts.

“Hm?” Kayto jerked up straight in his command chair, wasting a moment to chastise himself.  As the commanding officer of the Sunrider, he could not afford such lapses when he had command of the CIC.

Ava apparently thought so as well, giving him a glare, but holding her tongue, lest the crew overhear.

“I’m sorry,” apologized Kayto.  “What is it?”

“Priority one message from the Alliance,” answered Ava, letting the issue slide for now and forwarding an Alliance intelligence report to his screen.  “An Alliance spy drone has just returned a sighting of the Legion in the Helion system.”

“Helion?” Kayto asked, wrinkling his brow in confusion as he consulted his starchart.  “There must be some mistake, the Helion system’s completely removed from the theater of war.  What would the Legion be doing there?”

“Unknown,” answered Ava.  “But there’s no mistake.  Alliance Intelligence confirms this as a positive sighting.”

“I see…” Kayto tapped his screens thoughtfully.  “Well, whatever it’s doing, it’s not charity work.  Is the Alliance taking action?”

“Admiral Grey has mobilized four war fleets to the Helion system.  We have orders to warp from our current patrol route and perform advance reconnaissance of the system before the Alliance fleets arrive,” said Ava, plotting the proposed course on the navigation screen.

“Give me a brief on the Helion system.”

“Helion is a class O white supergiant,” said Ava, bringing up a summary file on the main screen.  “It’s a young star, extremely hot, with very strong magnetic activity.  No known planets or human habitation in the system.  We should be able to mask our warp signatures with all the interference that star’s putting out, although our own sensors will be impaired by the extreme conditions around the star.”

Kayto nodded, unsure whether to feel apprehensive or eager.  “Very well, lay in our course and warp to Helion as soon as we’re spooled up.”

“Aye Captain.”

******

Ava sat on top a desk, her back pressed against the window behind her.  It was cold, but the cream colored sweater of the academy’s winter uniform deadened the worst of it.  Yet another day, yet another impossible stack of paperwork.  Kayto hunched over his holo in front of her as she took a break from their work.

“Hey Kayto?”

Kayto looked up, squinting a little against the bright winter sun behind Ava.

Ava pulled a leg up on the desk as she leaned backwards, thinking.  Kayto averted his eyes, trying not to stare at her thighs as her skirt rode up slightly.  “Y-yeah?”

“Do you like me?”

“Hurk!”  Kayto’s eyes bulged slightly as he shook his head, dumbfounded, wondering if he’d misheard her.  “W-whhaa?”  Inside his chest, his heart pounded wildly, he felt a little sick and uneasy.  What kind of question was that?  Ava had been practically ignoring him for the last five years, and now?  To just ask that at point blank?

“…”  Ava’s cherry eyes flickered over to him, finally making eye contact.  “I wonder.  Love’s just a chemical reaction.  When certain conditions are met, chemicals are released into our synapses and bloodstreams which simulate the sensation of love.”

Kayto arched an eyebrow at Ava, wondering where she was going with the statement.  If that was her way of coming onto him…

“Are we any different than robots then?” asked Ava, now looking away and at the ceiling pensively.  “Running on chemicals that simulate our existence?  Your eyes transmit electrical information about what you see to your brain.  But how do you know any of it is true?  Would you even know it if something was wrong?  Reality only exists in your mind.  It’s just a simulation of what really exists.  A subjective interpretation of an objective universe.”

Kayto rubbed his brow, feeling the beginnings of a headache which, this time, had nothing to do with the paperwork he’d been bashing his head against.  He wasn’t even sure what to say to Ava’s strange comments.  From romance to universal objectivity?  Where was this going anyways?

Ava turned to look out the window, the setting sun reflecting brilliantly on her silky hair and prismatic eyes.  As she gazed into the distance, her face wore a cold, unfeeling expression on it.  “There are trillions of us out there.  Living on more worlds than we can count.  In the greater scheme of the galaxy, we’re insignificant as individuals.  And yet… why do we each believe we’re special?  That we have some destiny in this universe?”

“Because we’re all free people, that’s why,” declared Kayto after a moment of thought.  Sighing, Kayto turned to face her, putting his arm on the back of his desk’s chair.  “You always have to make things so complicated.  It’s simple.”

“Oh?” Ava sounded unconvinced.

“Of course I like you.”  Kayto looked at Ava seriously.  “You’re reliable.  When I’m around you, I get the feeling you can get anything done.  That things will be alright.”

Ava said nothing for a full thirty seconds, staring at him.

“Idiot.”

Kayto recoiled at her scathing tone.

“I wasn’t talking about that,” Ava glared at him.  “I merely enjoy talking about things that go over your head.”

“Wha-?  Listen here-” Kayto protested.

Ava cut him off with an icy stare.

Sighing, Kayto felt the fight leave his body.  There was a reason why Ava had no friends, other than himself, to speak of.  Not that she would even admit she was his friend…

“Idiot.”

******

“Preparing to disengage warp drives.  Spooling down… now,” reported Ava.  “We’re arrived at the Legion’s last know coordinates in the Helion system.  Sensors are clear; no PACT contacts.”

Kayto let his breath go in relief.  The most dangerous aspect of warping into the Helion sytem blind was the danger of running afoul the Legion, herself, or some PACT patrol.  Fortunately, luck seemed to be on their side as no proximity alerts sounded and Sunrider’s passive scanners pulsed an all-clear signal.  “Power down all non-essential systems.  Give us as low of an EM profile as you can manage.  As of this moment, Sunrider is engaged in shadow operations.  I want us running silent and dark.”

“Aye Captain,” answered Ava, relaying his command.

Moments later, the CIC plunged into a subdued red.  All along the ship, Kayto knew all lights would be powering down to emergency levels, drawing as little power as possible from the ship’s grid.  The Sunrider’s fusion reactor would also slow and cool as much as possible, diminishing its output, but also reducing the likelihood of detection by PACT sensors.  The nearly ubiquitous hum aboard the ship slowly quieted, giving the entire vessel the feel of an ancient submarine.  Kayto suddenly became aware of his own breathing.

“Long range passive scans around the clock,” he ordered quietly.  It was ridiculous, of course.  No sensor would ever detect anything as insignificant as his voice, but human psychology and instinct could not be denied.  In the quiet of the ship, it seemed everyone slowed and took care, speaking in the same hushed tones as though keeping a low personal profile would somehow help the ship.  “If there’s anything suspicious, I want it forwarded to my office right away.”

“Captain,” Kryska saluted as she entered the CIC and approached the command dais.  “Admiral Grey and Alliance Command inform me that the Alliance fleets are forty-five hours out.  In the meantime, he bids you good hunting.”

“Give him our regards, Lieutenant,” said Kayto, nodding.

“Sir.”  Kryska saluted again and left.

“All hands, this is the Captain speaking,” announced Kayto, keying the ship-wide PA.  His voice boomed overhead, uncomfortably loud.  “As of now, the Sunrider is running dark and silent.  Our prey is the PACT super-dreadnought Legion.  The enemy’s firepower far outclasses our own.  We cannot afford another close call with that ship.”  Kayto’s hands clenched white and he fought to keep his voice steady.  “We all saw what that ship did to Cera City.  We watched our homes and loved ones reduced to dust, fire, and ash in the blink of an eye.  The Legion will do the same to us if we give it that chance.  Whatever the Legion is doing out here, whatever the PACT is planning, we will unravel and put a stop to it.  I know you’ll all do your best.  For those we left behind.  Shields out.”

Kayto killed the broadcast, lips pressed into a razor thin line of determination.

“Captain.”  Ava saluted, looking equally grim and focused.  All around him, the Sunrider’s crew steeled themselves and snapped to, working with a furious dedication and single-minded drive for revenge.

“Begin the operation,” Kayto ordered his XO, iron in his voice.  “I’ll be in my office.  You have the CIC.”

******

Kayto sat at his desk, his finger hovering over a file on his holo.

Maray_Concert4-12-498.mus

It was such a trivial thing.  One tap and music, her music, would fill his life again.  But if it was so simple, why could he not bring himself to open it?  Kayto’s finger trembled a hair lower as he forced himself to, wanting desperately to hear Maray one more time.

Bing Bing

Kayto felt a sudden panicking feeling, as though he was falling backwards as his doorbell shattered the moment into a thousand pieces.  Quickly, he dismissed the file directory and tried to marshal his thoughts.  “Come in.”

Ava walked into his office and set her holo down on his desk.  “Long range sensors picked this up,” she reported, swiveling the screen to face him.

An unusual structure appeared, grainy from interference and distance.  Although the resolution was poor, the distance scale on the still’s lower corner showed that, whatever it was, the structure was massive.  Its appearance, however, resembled nothing Kayto had ever seen in space, looking like two rings, joined together at two points perpendicular to each other.  “A space station of some kind?” he asked, judging from the size of the construct.

“Hard to say.”  Ava’s tone was uncertain.  “Definitely PACT from our spectroscopic analysis of hull materials, but it doesn’t match any known blueprints in the database.  I don’t have exact numbers due to the electronic interference from Helion, but the scans also suggest the presence of a large combined PACT and pirate fleet numbering in the hundreds protecting the structure.”

Kayto frowned at the blurry scans.  “The PACT wouldn’t have deployed the Legion and a fleet that large unless that… thing’s worth protecting.  Set a course for it, get us as close as you can without being detected.  Use Helion to mask our approach and continue monitoring the situation until the Alliance fleet arrives.”

“Understood Captain.”  Ava turned on her heel and left.  As her brown hair swished around his door frame and whisked out of sight, Kayto’s hands clenched again.

******

Kayto and Maray walked through Cera City’s downtown commercial district together, the former huddled and shivering behind his coat and scarf.  Maray gave him a condescending look, satisfied with her thinner coat and colorful scarf.  The two had spent the day perusing the shops, checking out the latest imports from the Solar Alliance and spending pocket money at the arcades.  Although Kayto had gotten thoroughly trounced by his sister at their favorite Ryder sim, he’d enjoyed the day to the maximum, savoring the reprieve from school and exams.

“Hey Kayto,” Maray turned to face him.  “Ava seems to come over a lot more lately.  Why’s that?” she asked innocently.

“Well…” Kayto shrugged at her.  “Her dad’s on deployment again.  Being part of the Cera Space Force means he’s usually not home.  We’re her neighbors and family friends.  It’s not that weird to take care of her is it?”

Maray’s face broke into a wicked grin.  “Are you sure you don’t just invite her over because you like her?  Little sister’s so proud of you…”

“I-it’s not like that!” Kayto gave her head a chop.  “Dummy.”

Maray dodged the chop and deftly grabbed his holo out of his bag, taking advantage of his fluster.

“HAHAHA!” Maray gave an evil laugh, surprisingly menacing for a girl of her size, all pretense at innocence lost.  “I KNEW it!”  Maray turned the holo around so that Kayto could see.  “I knew you set a holo of her as your background.  And she’s in a bathing suit.  Ding, ding!  Little sister approves!”

“T-that’s just a photo from our training trip!” retorted Kayto, cheeks burning, making a wild snatch for his holo.

“Tell me, what did you think of her swimsuit?” teased Maray viciously.  “Did you like it?  Were you staring at her the whole time?  I bet you were~!”

“I was with four other people!” protested Kayto, diving for the device again and missing miserably as she danced out from under his arms.

“Why don’t you just hurry and get married already?” Maray asked, only half-teasing now.  “That way, we can all live under one roof and Ava can be my sister!”

“No one wants to live with you, dummy,” growled Kayto, giving up on the fight for his holo, lest the device drop and break.

Maray grinned, taking advantage of his surrender to flip through his text messages.

“H-hey!” Kayto tried snatching for it again, but missed.  “Those are private!  There’s nothing you’d find interesting in there anyways.”

“Then what’s the matter if I look?” shot back Maray, mischief dancing behind her blue eyes.  “Maybe I’ll even send a text or two to Ava, maybe give you two a little helping hand…”

“ARRGH!” Kayto made a wild dive for his holo.  Unsurprisingly, Maray dodged aside, sending him sprawling to the ground.  Several shoppers turned to stare.

“See Ya!”  Maray laughed unkindly before vanishing into the throngs of shoppers, her small size giving her an advantage in navigating the crowd.

“Hold it!”  Kayto sprinted after her, spinning and diving through the scandalized pedestrians that shared the walkway.  “W-whooooaaah!”

A familiar figure exited from a bookshop; too late, Kayto registered the impending collision.

“E-eh!?”  Ava cried out in surprise as Kayto practically ran straight into her.

Twisting his body at the last minute, Kayto felt his balance pitch forward, sending him spinning past her and crashing to the cold pavement for the second time that day.  “Urgh…” he groaned, winded and crumpled on the ground.

If life were an anime, he’d probably have had the good luck to land on top of her with his hands miraculously fondling her cleavage, but alas, the only thing he was rubbing his cheek on was the cold, rough cement beneath him.  Ava’s shoes and stockinged legs came into view as she towered above him, arms crossed with a pitiless glare on her face as she looked down on him with supreme indifference.

“Are you an idiot?” she demanded as he tried to clear his head.  “What were you doing, running down the street like that?  You looked like a madman.  Someone could’ve been hurt!”

“Yeah, me,” thought Kayto ruefully.  “Chasing after a nefarious little imp,” he said out loud.  “I don’t suppose you’re going to help me up?”

Ava glared at him for another moment before grudgingly offering him her hand, pulling him up to his feet with the air of doing him a huge favor.  Sighing, Kayto dusted himself off as best he could.

“Come on, let’s go,” grumbled Ava, leading the way back to the residential district.

As the two walked home in silence, Kayto’s mind wandered, wistfully dreaming of all the ways he could get even with Maray.  A Devorak bug from Ongess in her school bag?  An anti-grav bead clipped to her skirt?  “Accidentally” mailing her BL to her school friends?

“Hey,” Ava shoved him roughly.

“What?” demanded Kayto.

“Your face.”  Ava rolled her eyes.  “You look like a serial killer.”

Kayto said nothing, but let his shoulders slump.  She was right; pulling a prank on Maray would probably bite him one hundred times worse at some time he least expected it.

“Idiot.”  Ava looked at him a bit closer, sighing.  “You’re a mess.”  Reaching into her bag, she pulled out a handkerchief.  “Here.”

With a much softer huff of exasperation, Ava stopped Kayto and dabbed at the scrapes on his face, standing on tiptoe to make it easier to reach, surprisingly gentle.

Wordlessly, Kayto watched as her cherry eyes fixed his scrapes with an intense look, completely focused on them as she dabbed away the blood and dirt, her hair swaying slightly as she moved.  They were so close…

‘Maybe give you two a little helping hand…’

Maray’s smug voice echoed in his mind and for a moment, he swore he could see her grinning face flash before his eyes.

‘Ding Ding!  Little sister approves!’

******

Kayto spent the next several hours pacing his office nervously as the Sunrider drifted close to the PACT structure, carefully directing their thruster emissions away from any PACT contacts and making the most out of Helion’s gravity well to pull in closer.  On the holoscreen in his office, Helion’s brilliant white light seemed to break up as though through a prism, causing the surface of the star to ripple in all colors of the rainbow.  Flares of radiation and super-hot plasma whipped out from Helion, lashing the Sunrider with gamma ray bursts and a veritable storm of ionized particles like an ancient ship passing through a storm.

Biting his lip, Kayto stared out at the harsh light of the star, hoping it would be enough to let the Sunrider slip through undetected.  Finally, his bracelet chirped, summoning him to the CIC.

******

“Captain, we’re within visual range of the PACT structure now,” reported Ava as he dropped into his command station.

“On screen,” ordered Kayto.

The unusual PACT space station resolved on the CIC’s main screen, revealing additional details their long-range scan could not.  It looked just as unusual as from afar, it’s dual, perpendicular rings still defying any logical explanation or function.  Kayto could now see that multiple fins, like heat radiators, stood out on the insides of the rings and, in places, along the outer hull of the construct, again, with no discernible function.

“Any idea what the hell that thing is?” he asked Ava as his XO fed the data into her console.

“Comparing scan data to known PACT designs in the Alliance database.  No hits.  Expanding search to all known designs… no hits.”  Ava furrowed her brow in frustration.  “Wait!  A hit in our database…”  Ava projected her findings to the main screen, showing a smaller, but unmistakably similar space station from a file in the Ceran database.

“Ryuvia’s…” Kayto breathed out in disbelief.  “Get the Chief Engineer up here.  On the double.”

******

Twenty minutes later, Ava, Chigara, and Kayto had retired to his office to avoid being overheard.

“There’s no mistake,” Chigara looked paler than usual and shaken.  “The PACT structure appears to be a replica of the Paradox Core we built at Diode.”  Chigara turned her holo to face Ava and Kayto, showing them her comparison between the two structures.  “The PACT replica, however, appears to have been recreated on a massively larger scale.  These energy readings confirm that the PACT version not only dwarfs the Diode version in physical size, but also in terms of power.  While the Paradox Core at Diode had the capacity to generate an unstable singularity large enough to destroy a planet, I estimate that the PACT version has both the size and power to generate a stable singularity… with the potential to extinguish entire stars.”

“Captain,” Ava was pale.  “This is a PACT doomsday weapon.  One that will not just destroy cities or fleets, but entire systems at a time.  If this weapon becomes a reality, all of our victories thus far would be moot.”

Kayto nodded, swallowing hard.  “The very face of war would change… there wouldn’t even be a point in having a fleet with a weapon of that magnitude…”  Kayto looked up from Chigara’s holo, resolution steeling his eyes.  “We cannot allow the PACT to finish construction on the Paradox Core.  I wish I were exaggerating, but the fate of humanity rests upon our shoulders.”

Ava crossed her arms, shaking her head in disbelief.  “Where did the PACT even gain the knowledge to build something like this?” she asked in an ashen voice.

“I… I don’t know.”  Chigara’s eyes were downcast and her voice quiet.  “Everyone who had knowledge of the Paradox Project was killed in the Diode Catastrophe.  I had always believed that the knowledge to build such a device had died with my people…”

“One mystery after another,” muttered Kayto, rubbing his brow with frustration.  “Chigara, you know the most about the Paradox Core of anyone here.  Help Ava draft a battle plan.  If you can think of any weaknesses we can exploit, now’s the time.  The Alliance fleet’s still about twenty hours out from the rendezvous coordinates.  That gives us exactly twenty hours to come up with an action plan.  As soon as that fleet drops out of warp, I want us ready to hit that Core with everything we’ve got while it’s still under construction.”  Kayto punched a fist into his open palm to emphasize his intentions.

“How do you know it’s not already operational?” asked Ava.  “If that thing manages to activate, our entire fleet would be wiped out before we could fire a shot.”

“The Legion and the PACT and pirate ships are still holding position nearby, guarding the Core.  If they try detonating the Core, they’ll lose the Legion.  And if Arcadius is on board, there’s no way they’d do something like that.  If there’s anything we know about Arcadius, it’s that he’s not into heroic sacrifices.”

Ava saluted with Chigara following suit, the two of them looking grim.  “Understood, Captain,” Ava said crisply.  “We will ready the plans.”

“Dismissed.”

******

“My Veniczar,” Fontana bowed deeply, bathed in the subdued, reddish lighting in the inside of the Paradox Core.  Having arrived mere hours before Arcadius, Fontana had been whisked throughout the entire construct by the project engineers on an inspection of their progress.  Fontana had listened to them and toured the Paradox Core barely able to conceal his surprise and awe at Arcadius’s secret project.  “I have been informed that construction is progressing as planned.  Soon, you will have a weapon rivaling the power of the Ancient Ryuvian Emperors.”

“Rise Fontana.”  Arcadius’s footsteps rang on the metal grating beneath their feet.  Fontana stifled another gasp of surprise.  This was no hologram, but Arcadius, himself, in the flesh.  “It bids us pleasure to finally see our creation with our own eyes.”

Arcadius led Fontana as they walked down the Paradox Core’s sullenly lit corridors to a central chamber.  “When we first saw its light when it was born on Diode, we witnessed a new era,” continued Arcadius, gesturing at the Core’s interior.  “A new chapter in the saga of human progress.  A weapon so terrifying it will end all wars.  As brothers and sisters, we shall all be united in our fear of the Core.  Yet…”  Arcadius paused, deliberating.

“My Veniczar?” asked Fontana.

“Victory is not yet assured.”  Arcadius turned his blank-eyed mask to stare at him.  “The Sunrider seeks to foil our plans.  It lurks nearby, hidden, in the shadow of Helion.”

“But Veniczar, our scanners-” protested Fontana, thrown by Arcadius’s sudden declaration.

“We grow weary of repeating ourselves.”  Arcadiu’s voice was pitiless and hard.  “Find it.  And bring the princess to us.”

Fontana stepped back as though physically slapped.  “A-as you command!  I will not fail you again!”

“Good.”  Arcadius turned away from Fontana, clenching a fist in the air.  “Soon, we will have all the keys to unite the galaxy under our cause.  Do this, Fontana, and your place at my side as the successor of PACT will be assured.”

“Understood!” Fontana bowed low again.  “I will depart at once.”  Turning on his heel, Fontana marched away from Arcadius, heart pounding in his throat.

******

Kayto watched Ava out of the corner of his eye.  As with the afternoon the day before and the day before that, yet another precious hour of his youth was lost to the drudgery and fruitless boredom that had come to be his duties on the student council.  Still, the way the last rays of sun hit her eyes and caught her hair made it almost worth it.  Almost.  Sighing, Kayto dropped his gaze and returned to his holo.  If Ava caught him staring at her, even the pain of the paperwork would dull in comparison to whatever punishment she’d dole out to him.

“Hey Kayto.”

Ava’s voice made him jump.  Looking up nervously, Kayto couldn’t help but wonder whether he was about to receive the beating of his life.  Fortunately, Ava’s face was one of neutral boredom, rather than fury; Kayto felt a surge of relief.

“I enlisted.”

“W-wha-?”  Kayto felt the sensation of relief suddenly bottom out and vanish, sublimating in an instant.  He shook his head, almost unsure if he’d heard incorrectly.

Ava gave him an irritated huff, mistaking his shock for incomprehension.  “For the Space Force!” she snapped.

“Y-you did!?” Kayto stammered a little, pinching himself under his desk, just to be sure.  ‘What the hell?’ he thought to himself.  Ava’s announcement was completely out of the blue.  Sure, her father was an officer in the Cera Space Force, but Ava had never once expressed a personal desire to join the ranks of the CSF.  Not that Kayto knew what she intended to do with herself after graduation, but he’d always figured she’d go into politics or upper level management at some large Cera City firm given her personality and interests.

“Well?” demanded Ava, rounding on him.  “What do you think about it?”

“W-what do I think?”  Kayto reflected the question back at her gormlessly, feeling his brain jam for a moment.  “Well… I… uh… I’m happy for you.  Isn’t that what your dad does?” he said, marshaling his thoughts.  “You’re following in his footsteps.  I’m sure your family will be proud to have another Crescentia serving Cera.”

Ava snorted gently under her breath.  “I wonder…”  Without saying anything else, she turned back to her holo and paperwork as though she’d merely commented on the weather instead of sharing a lifetime decision with her childhood friend.

When it became apparent she wasn’t about to talk any more about her decision, Kayto piped up again.  “So… when are you leaving?”

“I’ll be on the first shuttle to orbit after graduation,” answered Ava without looking up.

“That’s quick.”  Kayto tried not to sound disappointed.  “I’m… going to miss you.”  Kayto looked up at Ava, trying to catch her eye.

“Mm.”  Ava continued to plug away at her holo, not bothering to look up.

A storm of conflicting emotions surged in his chest.  It was natural, wasn’t it?  To care for your childhood friend in such a way… But if Kayto was being honest with himself, he wasn’t sure if his feelings towards Ava were so simple anymore.

“Will you be back?” asked Kayto finally.

“Unlikely.”  Ava sighed and finally looked up at him.  “It’s not like I have anything to come back to here.”

“O-oh…”

An awkward silence fell between the two as Kayto looked down at the surface of his desk, face burning.  Taking a deep breath, he steadied his inner turmoil.  Damn it, he’d known Ava since before they’d even learned to talk.  If anyone was going to support her and send her off with a smile on their face, he knew it would be him.

“I always knew you would do something amazing,” Kayto looked up, hoisting a bright look on his face.

“Huh?” Ava looked surprised at his reaction.

“So you’re going to be in space, huh?”  Kayto leaned back in his chair, lacing his fingers behind his head and staring into the Ceran sky with a twinkle in his eyes.  “Sailing through the stars on a mighty spaceship… sounds like a dream.”

“It’s nothing special,” dismissed Ava with a wave of the hand.  “Did you know that on Solaris, there are so many starships coming and going from the planet that if you stare up at the night sky, you can see lines of moving lights?  Like hundreds of glowing ant trails in the sky.  They say that night never truly falls on Solaris because of that.”

Kayto nodded enthusiastically.  “I saw a documentary on the holo about Solaris once.  Who knows?  Maybe you’ll see it in person someday…”

Kayto thought back to their childhood, remembering the warmth of Ava’s hand as she dragged him forward into the dark and up the mountains.  They’d lay out in the open on the soft, springy grass, head next to head, staring up at the night sky.  Shielded from the city lights, the stars on the far side of the mountain would twinkle down on them as they lost themselves in the open sea.  Ava would point to the different stars, telling Kayto their names, what kind of government they had, and any other cultural highlights while he’d lay there, listening more to the sound of her voice than what she said.

It’d been years since they’d done anything like that again… and now, Ava was leaving to swim the same ocean they’d once looked up at together as children.

Kayto felt his eyes sting as he dropped his gaze back down to his holo, staring blankly at the photo of four teens, three smiling and laughing, one grumpy, frozen in time against the bright sun and sparkling waters.

CHAPTER 26 >>>>