Chapter 26- Promise

“Captain, we have a situation.”  Ava’s voice crackled urgently over his quarters’ comm, interrupting his thoughts.Kayto gave his head a quick shake, checking his bracelet; it’d been almost an hour since his last conscious memory.  Blinking, he pulled himself from his memories and back to the present, disconcerted by the increasingly frequent lapses he seemed to be experiencing.  “I-I’ll be right down,” he replied, a bit hoarsely.

He could practically hear Ava’s frown and grinding teeth on the other side of the line, but, thankfully, his First Officer declined to comment, merely terminating the call.  Straightening his uniform, Kayto hurried to the bridge, striding with purpose through the Sunrider’s dimmed and silent halls.

“Report,” said Kayto crisply as he strode into the CIC.  As stealth operations constituted an active combat situation, none of the crew bothered with more than a nod of respect at his entrance, continuing to man their stations.

“Bogies detected,” answered Ava grimly, swiveling her tactical screen to show him as he settled into the captain’s chair.  “PACT and pirate transponders detected at the edge of our sensor range and entering our AO.”

Kayto cursed.  If the Sunrider had run afoul a standard patrol, it was a stroke of ridiculously bad luck… unless it wasn’t coincidence.  “Did they find us?” he demanded.  “Tell me we’re still dark.”

Ava crossed her arms, glaring at the approaching PACT and pirate ships on her screen.  “We don’t know yet.”

“Did anything happen to break our cover?” asked Kayto, calling up the last few hours’ engineering reports.  “Electrical or thermal discharges?  Equipment malfunction?  Ongessite leak?”

“Negative Captain,” answered Ava, chewing her lip.  “I had engineering run a comprehensive diagnostic on our systems as soon as we detected the enemy signatures.”

Kayto’s hand balled into a fist.  The PACT and pirate ships were on an oblique course bringing them closer to the Sunrider, but appeared to be moving relatively slowly, as though they genuinely were on an ordinary and boring patrol route.  If there had been no equipment malfunction or engineering failure that had revealed the Sunrider’s position, there was no reason to believe the PACT and pirate ships had detected their presence given the massive interference from Helion.  As it was, the Sunrider’s passive sensors could barely make out the PACT and pirate transponders and engine signatures through the noise of Helion’s magnetic and radiation discharges even though their ships were fully powered and not even bothering to mask their approach.

To light up Sunrider’s main engines and thrusters would be tantamount to announcing their presence to the enemy ships, leaving Kayto with very little in the way of options to avoid confrontation except to hope the Sunrider remained undetected as she was.  “Kill all non-essential systems.” he ordered.  “Drop our power consumption as close to zero as we can go.”

“Aye Captain,” answered Ava.

Kayto’s screen shifted as he watched entire sections of the ship drop off the power grid.  Unfortunately, so long as the ship’s fusion reactor remained online, there was still the possibility they would be detected by a detailed scan.  Taking the reactor offline, however, would mean committing Sunrider to hours of shakedown before they’d be able to safely activate it again, a risk no captain would ever take with enemy forces so close.  “Now we wait,” he breathed.

The PACT and pirate forces continued creeping forward with the nerve wracking appearance of actively searching for the Sunrider.  A bead of sweat dripped down Kayto’s neck and soaked into the collar of his uniform as he watched the ships drift even closer.

“Enemy ships closing distance.  60,000 kilometers… 50,000 kilometers,” announced Ava.  “Wait, course correction in enemy fleet; they are now on an intercept course with us.”

Kayto gritted his teeth; more bad luck?  “Fire maneuvering thrusters, adjust our course point niner by five-three.”

“Firing thrusters,” responded Ava.

Kayto watched with bated breath as the Sunrider nudged onto a new course trajectory.  For a moment nothing seemed to happen and Kayto dared to hope the Sunrider would slip past the patrol unnoticed.

“Alert!” Ava cried.  “Enemy craft adjusting vectors to intercept; distance: 40,000 kilometers!”

“Damn!” Kayto punched his command console and started tapping in orders rapid fire.  “Red Alert, all hands to battle stations,” he barked.  “Activate all systems, bring our reactor to maximum output, power shields and weapons!  Navigation, prepare for emergency warp to fallback coordinates!”

The CIC went red as alarms blared over the overhead PA system.  “Alert, all hands to battle stations!  The enemy has detected us, repeat, all hands…” Ava’s voice sounded overhead.

The Sunrider’s systems powered back up one at a time, restoring the background hum Kayto had gotten so used to for the last several months that he’d barely even noticed it until it was gone.  “How the hell did they find us?” he demanded, still punching orders into his console.  “The odds of running into a patrol out here are-”

“We’re being hailed,” said Ava, cutting across Kayto’s train of thought.

“Heeheehee…” a very familiar voice sounded beyond smug.  “I ffooouuuunnnddd you!”

Kayto felt the entire situation slowly, and a curious sensation of pitching forward slammed into him, as though he’d been punched in the gut.  In an instant, the voice brought back a nightmarish mash of flashbacks, causing his breath to catch and his knuckles to go white as he griped the arm rest of his chair.

“Cosette!” Kayto tried not to sound like he was forcing himself to choke out his words.

Cosette’s tiny frame materialized in the CIC, pointing a finger triumphantly at him.  She looked, perhaps, a shade madder than she had at Ongess, her barely suppressed fury lashing behind her gray irises.  “Captain… you look surprised.  Did you really think we hadn’t realized you were here?  Heh…” Cosette leaned forward, pushing a strand of blonde hair out of her eyes.  “Talk about a slip up; losing your edge?  Ongess has a way of doing that to people…”

“You’re fighting for the wrong side, Cosette,” said Kayto, forcing calm on himself and gathering his strength for one more appeal.  “That structure the PACT’s building, the Paradox Core, it isn’t going to bring galactic peace.  The PACT will use it as a weapon of terror-”

“Save it, Captain.”  Cosette’s voice cut across Kayto as she shook her head, clearly unswayed.  “I didn’t come here to listen to your sniveling; this is the end for you!”

“Ava,” Kayto turned to his First Officer as Cosette’s avatar swirled away.  “How much longer until we can warp?”

Ava consulted her screens.  “Spinning up our drives is the easy part, but the gravitational and electromagnetic interference from Helion is going to delay our warp calculations.  Engineering is projecting at least 15 minutes until we’re ready to warp.”

“No choice then,” said Kayto, gritting his teeth and bringing up his tactical display.  “We’ll have to hold off the pirates and PACT long enough to jump.  Ava, overlay scans of Helion on the tactical screen.”

A second later, the tactical screen became an order of magnitude more complicated as the screen populated with sensor data ranging from temperature ranges, to magnetic field readings, to coronal ejections and solar weather patterns.  Even a million kilometers off the surface of the star itself, Helion’s corona was a veritable maelstrom of charged particles and magnetic fluxes, to speak nothing of the heat or radiation bombarding the ventral side of the ship.

Although Helion’s interference was preventing them from spooling their drives and warping out immediately, ironically enough, it was also their greatest protection against the PACT patrol closing in on them.  The storm of radiation, plasma, heat, and magnetism that held them captive would also scramble any of the PACT fleet’s attempts to pinpoint their coordinates, making a firing solution for their lasers and cannons nigh impossible at their current range.  Furthermore, their ships would be denied use of “smart” weaponry; any missiles with on-board guidance and governing computer systems would be fried as they approached Helion’s proximity.

“Captain,” Ava’s hands blurred as she managed dozens of reports streaming in from all over the Sunrider.  “All systems powered, awaiting your command.  PACT and pirate silhouette profiles paint three PACT battleships, one carrier, two pirate ironhogs, and six cruisers.  Shall I scramble our Ryders?”

Kayto eyed the tactical screen.  The Sunrider was currently holding steady at one million kilometers above Helion’s photosphere while the PACT and Pirate fleet slingshot around Helion “above” the Sunrider, relative to Helion’s surface.

“No,” he answered with a frown.  “We’re too close to the corona, there’s practically atmosphere out there with the solar wind coming off Helion; it’s too risky.”

Kayto drummed his fingers as he mulled over their remaining options.  If the Sunrider stayed to fight, they might win, but the intelligence on the PACT’s Paradox Core was too valuable to risk.  If the Sunrider was sunk, the Alliance would lose it’s only warning about the PACT doomsday device.   “We’ve got no choice but to turn tail and run from this one.  Slew us around at to six four by zero two.  Drop our axis two degrees relative to Helion’s surface.”

“Aye, Captain, preparing for emergency slew” answered Ava, paling.  “Be advised, new course heading also puts us dangerously close to the Sunrider’s limits.  A single solar flare at the wrong time would be catastrophic.”

Kayto nodded grimly.  “No choice, those battleships have us outgunned.  If they get a lock on us, it’ll be over even faster.  You have your orders Commander.”

Ava keyed the ship PA.  “All hands, brace for emergency slew.  Repeat…”

Turning an entire starship around was not an affair any captain took lightly.  The sheer tonnage and inertia of a ship such as the Sunrider made slewing safely a slow process by the very nature of momentum and physics.  Ships that attempted to slew too fast risked literally fracturing along their amidship line as the angular momentum of rotating the bow and stern sections of the ship exceeded the tensile strength of the ship’s super structure.

Kayto felt his stomach flip as the Sunrider’s engines and thrusters fired, making the entire ship’s super structure groan.  Bracing himself against the acceleration, Kayto felt his body being shoved to the left by the slew as the Sunrider’s artificial gravity attempted to compensate with only minimal success.  On one of his screens, sections along the ship’s spine began flashing a warning yellow, indicating stress levels approaching maximum tolerances.

“Lateral thrusters at maximum!” cried Ava.  “Stress levels within tolerances… slew successful!  The Sunrider is now coming about at six minutes of arc per second!  Permission to cut slew thrusters?”

Kayto gritted his teeth.  At that rate, the Sunrider would barely have turned around halfway before the PACT got within shooting range.  “Denied.  Continue slew acceleration!”
The Sunrider continued to groan ominously; several sections along the amidship line flashed a menacing red.

“Captain!” One of Ava’s hands gripped her crash harness, white at the knuckles.  “Exceeding maximum stress tolerances!  We’ll break apart if we continue accelerating!”

Kayto’s own hand held his armrest with a vice-grip.  More sections began turning red; the amidship sections began flashing urgently.  “Flood our emergency hydraulics, maximum pressure!”

“Slewing twelve minutes of arc per second!  Hull and ship integrity failing!”  Ava’s fingers danced over the commands to cut acceleration.

“Just a little more…” Kayto muttered, praying to whatever deity might be listening that the Sunrider would pull through one more time and prove the engineers wrong.  Each passing second, however, made the statistical probability of catastrophic failure more likely.

A heartbeat later, his screen suddenly screamed at him in shrill alarm.

“Hull breach detected in sections eight and nine!” screamed Ava.

“Cut slew!  Kill all thrusters!” barked Kayto, beads of sweat trickling down his neck, willing his ship to hold together with bated breath.

The uneven acceleration cut out immediately, although the Sunrider’s groaning and creaking continued for several nerve-wracking moments.  Kayto’s screens showed the flashing red sections of his ship stabilize, blinking with a hair less urgency than when their thrusters were still firing.

“Report!”

“Final slew rate of eighteen minutes of arc per second.  Ship integrity… holding,” Ava let her breath out explosively, swallowing against the pounding of her heart.  “Hull breaches isolated, no additional damage detected.”

“Holy Ryuvia…” Kayto tried to control his own heart rate and wiped the sweat off his brow.

“Coming about on new heading, axis dropping… Captain, PACT ships will enter missile range in three minutes.”

Kayto cleared his mind; surviving the risky slew maneuver would be for nothing if the PACT ships managed to let loose with their missiles.  Although they would not be able to rely upon a precise firing solution, their sensors would be sophisticated enough to identify the Sunrider’s rough location; after that, it would simply be a matter of filling space with as many missiles as they could fire.  The Sunrider would use her flak guns to nail as many missiles on intercept trajectories that they could, but it came down to a gamble either way; if chance had it that the PACT fired enough missiles in the right region of space, the Sunrider’s flak cannons would only delay the inevitable.

“Capt’n!” Asaga’s hologram popped up in the CIC as if she could hear his thoughts.  “Permission to launch!?”

“Pilot,” Ava’s tone was irate.  “You’ve already been ordered to remain on standby.  Was something unclear?”

“Capt’n,” Asaga appealed to Kayto, ignoring Ava.  She stabbed a finger at the tactical screen on her end.  “Those PACT battleships and pirate ironhogs have enough missiles to nail us if they were blind.  There’s no way the Sunrider’s flak can handle it alone; let us sortie and help!”

“We’re less than a million kilometers from the surface of Helion, Asaga,” said Kayto, shaking his head.  “There’s no way to fly safely out there.  One newton of thrust the wrong way and you’ll end up tumbling right into Helion itself.  And don’t even get me started on the heat and radiation.”  Kayto spared a glance at the Sunrider’s hull sensor feed.  Even on the other end of their shielding, the ventral hull facing Helion was heating to its limit.  Everyone aboard the ship was probably getting more than a healthy tan as well, even through the dozens of meters of hull and radiation shielding.

“We won’t be flying, not much anyways,” explained Asaga as Kayto quirked an eyebrow.  “We’ll secure ourselves to the Sunrider’s dorsal side.  That should block the worse of Helion.  Liberty and Bianca will form a concentrated shield bubble for the rest of us.  We’ll be fine; more importantly, we’ll be able to add to the Sunrider’s flak network.”

Kayto’s fingers drummed a beat on his armrest as he considered Asaga’s plan.  Like some of his own, it sounded insane at first, but on second thought…

“Sunrider’s launch tubes are on the ventral side.  Your Ryders would fry before they even got halfway to the dorsal side,” objected Ava.

“They’ll have to use the stern hanger doors, like an emergency landing in reverse,” mused Kayto.

“Captain!” Ava’s eyes were wide.  “We’re undergoing emergency slew in extreme environmental conditions.  If our pilots are a single degree off their launch windows…”

“We can do it, Capt’n!” insisted Asaga.  “Please!”

Kayto hesitated.  He’d be risking the death of one or all his Ryder pilots, but denying the sortie and relying solely on the Sunrider’s flak would risk the death of all two hundred crew aboard.  As usual, the decision came down to nothing more than a gut instinct gamble; Kayto resisted the urge to curse under his breath.

With a world-weary and explosive sigh, Kayto made his decision.

“Sortie approved.”

******

“All systems go, Black Jack online,” called out Asaga on the Ryder chatter channel.  All around her, the Black Jack’s cockpit screens activated, enveloping her in a 360 degree holo simulation of her surrounding environs.  Apart from her control consoles and the two control sticks on her left and right, it was an almost felt like she was floating twenty meters above the ground in air.  The chatter channel filled with confirmations as the rest of the Sunrider’s Ryder wing checked in.

An alarm blared overhead, signaling the impending depressurization of the hanger and transition to zero gravity; hanger technicians, looking like miniature action figures, ran for their lifts, clearing the floor.

“Detaching from cradle,” called out Asaga as the hanger lights turned green to signal free movement for the Ryders.

With a solid thump, the Black Jack released from its docking berth and fired its maneuvering thrusters, drifting out and into the hanger proper.  Around her, the other Ryders did the same, roughly lining up into two parallel columns behind her and Icari.

“Alright, listen up girls!” Asaga called out over the comms, smothering the butterflies in her stomach; the others undoubtedly had already grasped the extreme conditions they were about to sortie under and it was her job as CAG to bolster their confidence by example.  “The Capt’n needs us to do the dirty work and keep this boat together long enough to warp out.  Hope you girls put on sunscreen already.”

“Heh, let’s get this over with already,” said Icari, her avatar grinning in spite of herself.

What traces remained of the hanger’s atmosphere flashed away as the chamber depressurized and the hanger doors cracked open.  Black Jack’s optical filters immediately kicked in, toning down the intense white light from Helion that spilled in as the crack widened.  Even through the Sunrider’s shield filtered the worse of it, Black Jack’s radiation and heat sensors immediately jumped into the red, and they hadn’t even gotten outside yet.  As the doors widened, the superheated wake of the Sunrider as she plowed through the very edges of Helion’s corona whipped into the hanger like a ferocious squall, jostling the Ryders slightly.

“Alright, don’t hesitate and you’ll be fine!” shouted Asaga through gritted teeth.  “Just like this!”

Black Jack’s throttle opened up for a moment, launching the Ryder towards the open hanger doors and into the maelstrom of heated plasma.  As Asaga cleared the doors, she immediately brought the Black Jack one hundred and eighty degrees about, firing twin grapple cables towards the dorsal surface of the Sunrider and hauling itself up and over towards the safety of Sunrider’s shadowed side.  Although her alarms shrilled warnings on almost every one of Black Jack’s systems, they dropped off to somewhere between dangerous and unacceptable as it entered the protection of Sunrider’s shadow.

With a click, the magnetic surfaces of her Ryder’s legs secured Black Jack, allowing it to walk somewhat slowly and deliberately, but also reasonably safely.  Black Jack took a heavy step forward, sending a thudding clang throughout Asaga’s cockpit.  Two more grapples fired out, securing Black Jack before the first two released and pulled back in, allowing the Ryder to crab forward.  “Heh… What’d I tell ya’ Capt’n?” she said gleefully over the comms.

******

“Unbelievable…” Ava pinched the bridge of her nose.  “Our Ryders are getting into position now, Captain.”

Kayto watched the main screen with bated breath as his other five Ryders performed similar maneuvers with varying degrees of grace.  Phoenix and Seraphim ascended with a fluid comfort than even the Black Jack had not managed, but Bianca was a different story.  As the pink Ryder attempted to hook itself over, one of its grapples misfired, missing the Sunrider’s hull entirely and sending the Ryder spinning.  Were it not for its own shield projectors and a timely hand from one of Paladin’s grapples, Claude and her Ryder would have probably been torched before they could even blink.

“D-damn…” Kayto almost had to clutch his chest as all six Ryders confirmed their safe attachment to Sunrider’s dorsal side.

“Capt’n, we’re in position,” said Asaga, voice and avatar crackling with interference from Helion.  “Shields up and safeties off!”

Apparently it was not a moment too soon.  “Thermal spikes detected from PACT fleet.  They’re firing!” cried Ava.

“Flak safeties off!  Weapons free!” barked Kayto.  “Give me all ahead forward on engines!”
Sunrider’s flak cannons let loose with a blaze of gunfire as the PACT and pirate missiles and torpedoes streaked towards their rough location.  With the interference from Helion, even the Sunrider’s flak targeting computers were nearly useless.  Their advantage, however, was the fact that they needed only to intercept missiles and torpedoes on a predictable intercept path; the rest they could allow to pass given the disabled guidance systems of the PACT and pirate ordinance.

“Seven minutes until warp Captain!” announced Ava, putting up a countdown timer on the main screen as the Sunrider began accelerating, drawing a furious streak of displaced plasma across the outer layer of Helion’s corona.

Kayto’s fist clenched on his arm rest as he watched the PACT and pirate missiles punch forward, detonating as they hit the Sunrider’s flak field.  On screens, the Sunrider’s Ryder wing had formed a rough semicircle on the dorsal side of the ship.  Black Jack, Paladin, and Phoenix fired into the sky, nailing any missiles that slipped through the flak fire and came too close for comfort.

As the Sunrider dived closer to the surface of Helion, the interference and radiation from the star became exponentially more intense, lashing against the ship and Ryder shields mercilessly.  Fortunately, the scrambling effect was so profound on the PACT and pirate missiles that Kayto estimated he’d be able to call the Ryder pilots back in no more than a minute or two.

“This isn’t so bad,” quipped Asaga, letting loose with a short burst from her autocannons.  “I was beginning to think-“

“Warning.” Sola’s blunt voice cut across Asaga remorselessly.  “Inbound enemy Ryders.”

“Ryders?” Kayto furrowed his brow.  “That’s insane; Helion’s corona… there’s no way they’d be able to fly.”

A visual uplink from Sola’s Ryder opened up on the main screen, showing six PACT Elites burning hard towards the Sunrider.  Rather than approach from directly above, however, the PACT Elites banked and overshot them, dropping in behind the wake of the ship as it carved through the super-heated plasma of Helion’s outer corona.

“Bastards, they’re using our own ship to shield them!” muttered Kayto.  Although the Sunrider’s stern did mount autocannons, the PACT Elites’ laser weapons far outranged them, opening up the unpleasant possibility that they would take potshots at the Sunrider’s engines.  If their engines were to lose power so close to Helion, the Sunrider wouldn’t so much as be destroyed by the PACT as be sunk into the star itself.

“Incoming fire!” warned Ava.

“Brace for impact!”

The Sunrider shuddered angrily as the PACT lasers splashed across its crackling shields and penetrated, lancing into their stern and boiling away plates of armor.  It was clear from the shots that the PACT pilots were doing their best to nail one of the Sunrider’s engine boosters; a single solid hit could potentially be enough to send the entire ship crashing into the sun itself.

“Section twenty three breached, sealing, damage control initiated,” reported Ava grimly.  “Engines intact.”

“Seraphim, moving to engage,” said Sola calmly, releasing the Seraphim’s grapples and turning towards the stern of the ship.

“Sola!” Kayto activated a private channel with the pilot, realizing her intention.  “Sunrider’s still accelerating, it’s too risky!”

“…” Sola ignored Kayto as she launched the Seraphim from the Sunrider’s hull, sweeping towards the stern of the ship with terrifying speed and rising to within a hairbreadth of the deadly coronal plasma that violently churned overhead.

“Damn!” Kayto slammed his fist down on his armrest.  “SOLA!”

Seraphim’s weapon discharged brilliantly in midair as the Ryder fell backwards from the ship towards its stern.  The single shot streaked towards two of the PACT Elites who hit their thrusters to dodge.  With the superheated and uneven wake from the Sunrider, however, the maneuver proved to be deadly; both PACT Ryders immediately sheared apart as they pulled too far away from the slipstream, dashed against the veritable wall of plasma and charged particles.

Kayto felt terror seize at his chest; if Seraphim made one wrong move, it would wind up the same as the PACT Ryders.

“I am… a Sharr…” Sola said through gritted teeth, her avatar’s face alight with flashing red warnings.  Blue light flared from one of her eyes as she uttered the word “Sharr.”  Firing again, Sola nailed one of the PACT Elites on a stabilizer fin, causing the Ryder to careen into its neighbor, dragging both of them out of the slipstream.  For a moment, the two Ryders tumbled before flash vaporizing.

Seraphim’s thrusters stuttered in micro-bursts, maintaining its suicidal altitude and adjusting its flight to adapt to even the minutest plasma eddies with inhuman skill.  Were it not for the supernatural piloting abilities of the Ancient Ryuvian Sharrs, Kayto knew the Seraphim would have been swept off and destroyed in the Sunrider’s chaotic wake the same as the PACT Ryders she’d just dispatched.

“Captain, Seraphim’s systems and Sola’s vitals are completely red-lining,” warned Ava, showing him a screen of Sola’s Ryder in virtual shut down, her biomonitors erratic.  “There’s no way she can keep this up!”   As if on cue, Sola’s biomonitors shrilled, indicating that the Seraphim’s pilot had fallen unconscious.

“Chigara!” Kayto shouted over their comms.  “Override Seraphim’s systems, get her grounded, now!”

“Yes Captain!” answered Chigara, frantically hacking into Sola’s Ryder and taking control over the Seraphim.

Seraphim’s grapples fired downwards, anchoring it to the Sunrider’s hull and dragging the struggling Ryder out of the slipstream.  With a crash, the Seraphim impacted on the Sunrider’s hull and bounced upwards slightly, buffeted by turbulence as it trailed from where its grapple cables had embedded into the hull.

“All Ryders, secure yourselves,” ordered Kayto with iron in his voice and one eye on the Sunrider’s warp clock: three minutes remaining.  “Have engineering make ready to pulse our engine output irregularly between full forward and flank speed on my mark.”

“Captain, PACT Elites preparing to fire again!” shouted Ava.

“Now!  Stutter our engines!” barked Kayto.

Sunrider’s engines began to pulse with an irregular rhythm, adding additional turbulence to the wake of the ship.  The remaining two PACT Elites shook as their frames attempted to compensate for the extreme flight conditions, but it was too much.  Their stabilizer fins tore off and both Ryders quickly tumbled away from the ship, out of control, before smashing into the solar corona with twin explosions.

“Black Jack and Phoenix,” called in Asaga, straining at her controls.  “Retrieving Seraphim!  All other Ryders dock immediately.”

“Come on… come on…” muttered Kayto as the clock dwindled down and he watched his Ryders detach from the Sunrider’s hull, leaping into the wake of the ship like leaves peeling off a tree branch in a storm.  “Open stern hanger bay!”

One at a time, Liberty, Bianca, and Paladin flitted into the Sunrider’s hanger, braving the turbulence and heat in its wake and grappling to safety.  Black Jack and Phoenix came next, carrying the stricken Seraphim between them.  Severed tethers trailed behind the Seraphim where Black Jack and Phoenix had literally cut Sola’s Ryder loose from its moorings in order to retrieve it.

“Tsch… this turbulence…” grunted Icari through gritted teeth as she fought to keep Phoenix’s light frame from being torn apart like the PACT Elites.

“On my count,” cried Asaga, steadying the Black Jack as well, “Launch tethers and overload thrust output for half a second.”

“Roger!”

“Now!”

Black Jack and Phoenix both fired their grapplers into the hanger bay simultaneously.  Jamming their control sticks forward, both pilots pulsed their engines throwing their three Ryders forward and into the Sunrider’s hanger.

“Ryders retrieved, Captain!” shouted Ava.  “One minute to warp!”

“Seal our stern hanger.  Alert Medical; get Sola to the sickbay immediately!  Prepare to warp on my-“

“Captain!”  Ava turned pale.  “Additional PACT warp signatures; these readings… i-it’s-“

Space twisted apart spectacularly as the distortions from warp transition clashed with Helion’s radiation and particle discharge.  Kayto felt the entire world slow and a sensation of being slammed backwards, as though punched, an all too familiar ship silhouette teasing out from the rift.  “Legion…” he breathed.  “Not again!”

“Energy spike detected, she’s firing!” cried Ava as alarms began to shrill on the command console.

“HARD TO PORT,” bellowed Kayto.

The Sunrider’s chemical sidekick activated, brutally slapping the entire ship aside to dodge the Legion’s fire.  Merciless red laser light scythed towards the Sunrider, most of it missing by mere meters.  The Sunrider was not, however, lucky enough to dodge every one of the dozens of anti-ship laser banks the Legion fired upon her with, suffering multiple hits which punched through the armored hull in gouts of flames and vaporizing metal and gas.  Consoles and conduits throughout the entire ship overloaded, exploding in showers of sparks and fire.  The entire ship shook and groaned, threatening to shatter with the violence of the maneuver and multiple laser impacts.

“EAH!” Ava gasped as the restraints on her command station bit into her shoulders and ribs mercilessly against the turbulence.

“Ugh!” Kayto couldn’t help but grunt in pain as his harness pulverized his bones underneath its iron grip.  “R-report!”

Ava cradled her right arm to her body at an odd angle, fumbling at her screens clumsily with her left.  “Warp drive non-functional, that last shot disabled our nav uplink!” she called out, pale. “Engineering reports fires and catastrophic damage!  Loss of atmospheric integrity in sections 32 to 41; unstable vitals from over twenty crew transponders, three missing.”

“Damn it,” groaned Kayto.  “Have damage control bypass; the warp drive is our top priority!  Chigara!  Get down to engineering immediately; get our warp drives back up now!”

“Yes Captain!” Chigara’s voice was strained and panting, audio only, undoubtedly already racing for the Sunrider’s engines from the hanger.

“Captain!” Ava’s voice was on the edge of cracking.  “Additional energy spike detected from the Legion!  She’s firing again!”

The main screen whited out in a brilliant glare that drowned out everything.  Kayto felt the entire ship pitch forward and back, explosions rocked the deck, showering the entire CIC with debris as the Sunrider began to come apart around them.  With an ear splitting groan, something above Kayto’s station gave way and blew up, driving a steel rod downwards in the blink of an eye; his entire right leg suddenly went cold and numb.  Before the pain could even reach him, another explosion ripped through the ship, slamming his head into the back of his command station’s seat and sending him adrift on an endless sea of white.

******

Kayto shivered against the chill radiating from the class room window and plunging its icy fingers through his old fashioned school uniform like it wasn’t even there.  Snow fell so thickly outside he could barely make out the lights from the school field through the velvety curtains of snowflakes.

“Ugh… we’re in trouble now,” grumbled Kayto as he eyed his holo.  It was almost eight o’clock and he and Ava had, yet again, stayed beyond any reasonable measure of time or reason to fill out mountains of their academy’s seemingly endless troves of paperwork.  Given the weather outside, the city’s transits had probably even stopped working.

“Idiot.” Ava didn’t even bother to look up from her holo.  “Get back to work.”

Kayto peered out the window once more; it looked like most of the school’s building lights had been turned out, everyone having gone home ahead of the storm.  In fact, he wouldn’t have been even surprised if the student council room was the only one still lit in the entire academy.  With just the two of them and the janitor drones, the entire academy had an abandoned feel to it; even the heat had dialed down to an uncomfortably chilly setting, saving power when no one was even supposed to be in the school.

“Kayto.” Ava’s voice snapped like a whip.  “If you were going to just waste time, why didn’t you go home with the others?  I told all of you: I don’t need slackers.”

“Pres,” Kayto rolled his eyes, exasperated.  “Did it ever occur to you that we’d all have been home by now if you just asked for help from the rest of the council?”

“Help!?” Ava snorted with derision.  “They would have just slowed me down.  None of them can stop talking long enough to even work for five minutes.”

“Well,” started Kayto diplomatically.  “They’re excited about graduation, you can’t blame them for that!  Speaking of which, why are you even bothering with this stuff?  It’s not like anyone will read it before you graduate at the end of the week.”

“Because Kayto,” Ava slammed her hands down on her desk, finally looking up and glaring at him.  “We have a duty to uphold the responsibility the student body placed on us no matter how close we get to graduation.  The students are counting on us to do our jobs.”

“We’re supposed to make this school a better place for the students,” shot back Kayto, now feeling rising frustration.  “How is filling this paperwork out going to do any of that?  You know it goes straight from our holos to the principal’s trash folder!”

“That’s his problem, not mine,” answered Ava coolly, looking back down at her holo and getting back to her pointless paperwork.

Kayto sighed explosively.  Staying late at school, freezing his backside off, and getting into an argument with Ava; not a great combination.  Still, when he looked at her, hunched over her holo, going through the pointless motions of student council presidency, and looking every bit as cold and cranky as he felt, he couldn’t help but feel something warm inside him.  Whatever else she said, he knew she would be twice as miserable if she were here alone.

“Where are you going?” snapped Ava as he walked to the student council room’s door.

“I need a break,” said Kayto with resignation, knowing she’d take it as a sign of weakness.

Letting the door close behind him, he walked down the darkened hall of the school towards the vending machines on the other side of the floor.  In the silence of the hall, he heard his stomach growl loudly, practically echoing.  Of course; typical student council night, they’d forgotten all about dinner.  Sometimes, Kayto really wondered what kind of life Ava was leading and whether she was taking care of herself; probably eating instant meals and the like.

Coming to a stop in front of the vending machine, Kayto perused the choices.  If the cafeteria were open, he’d at least be able to get them both a hot, cooked meal.  The vending machine was a different story.  Selecting two instant noodle options, one “beef stew” and one “seafood,” Kayto swiped his credit chip, hoping he had enough balance to cover the two meals.  Apparently so; the machine chirped pleasantly and whirred, dispensing hot water into the instant noodle bowls with a gurgle before pushing them out on a retractable tray.

Kayto picked the two bowls up, walking back awkwardly, trying not to spill any of the boiling hot soup, but feeling the heat building up on his fingertips with each passing moment.

Aarrrgghhh! Kayto could swear his fingers were blistering carrying their dinners back to the room.

“Hot, hot, hot!” he gasped, barging back into the student council room and causing Ava to jump.

“W-what-?” Ava’s eyes were wide as Kayto practically threw down the two bowls of noodles, somehow managing not to spill any of their contents on the desk they were working on.

Shaking his hands furiously, Kayto rubbed his burned fingertips which had turned an angry shade of red.  Still, it seemed like the damage was minor at best; he gave Ava a huge grin, inexplicably proud of having made it back with their dinners intact.  “Dinner is served!”

Ava stared at the noodles and his hands for a full minute as Kayto’s silly grin began to slide off with uncertainty.  Her face suggested she was either about to laugh or… explode at him.
Fortunately it was the former.  Ava’s face split into a grin of her own and she laughed, the stress and hardness falling from her face like a crumbling mask.

As he watched her shoulders shake and the glow return to her eyes, Kayto knew he would have suffered burns far worse just to see her like this again.

“Idiot…” Ava wiped a single tear of mirth from the corner of her eye, saying the word with unmistakable affection.  “…Thanks…”

Kayto nodded and the two picked up their chopsticks and dug in, slurping and eating in silence for several minutes before they looked back up at each other.

Ava’s cheeks flushed, and not entirely from the heat of the meal, but she held his gaze nevertheless.

“Hey Kayto?”

“Hmm?”

“There’s a heater in that cabinet, top shelf,” she said, pointing to one of the storage units in the room.

Obediently, Kayto walked over to the unit and opened it up.  Sure enough, a miniature space heater sat at the top.  “Why didn’t you say something earlier?” he demanded.  “I’ve been freezing this whole time!”

Ava merely shrugged as he plugged the unit in beside them, pulling a seat up next to her so they could both sit in front of the heater.  The two sat next to each other in silence for a few minutes, watching the unit’s heat coils warm, slowly drifting closer.  When her shoulder touched his, he expected her to spring away, but, this time, the gentle pressure stayed.

“Kayto?”  Ava turned and looked up at him with her cherry eyes.

“Y-yes?” Kayto’s mind seemed to jam; he couldn’t remember the last time she’d been so close without her pulling back with a look of anger.  He drank in the details of her face, the intense cerise color of her irises, the open, soft expression on her face, his own scared reflection in her eyes, seeing everything and nothing at the same time.

“Do you want to kiss?”

Kayto blinked in surprise.  Part of his brain, the more impulsive and, in this case, arguably smarter half, was practically screaming at him to utter one simple word: “Yes.”  The other half raced in panic, feeling a rising sense of un-reality.  What kind of question was that anyways?  A trick, surely.  Yes, that had to be it.  Once again, the brilliant and untouchable Ava Crescentia outmaneuvering her dim-witted and slow companion; messing with his head one final time before shipping off to space.

As if she could see and hear the conflict swirling behind his eyes, Ava rolled her own.  “Idiot.”

Without waiting, she reached up and put a hand to the side of his face, guiding him down as she surged upwards, firmly planting her lips on his own.

Kayto’s eyes widened in shock; her hand caressed his cheek gently as she pushed against him harder, deepening the kiss.  Her warm scent enveloped him and the tenderness and softness of her lips pushed all doubt and thought from his mind.  Kayto wrapped his arms around her, drawing her closer as he parted her lips with his tongue.

Ava seemed to resist for a moment, but ultimately relented, opening and allowing his tongue to probe deeper.  “Mmoouu,” Ava made a satisfied sound most unlike herself before pulling back and fixing him with a stare.

“Ava…” Kayto tried not to sound too breathless or hoarse.

Before he could say anything and without warning, Ava got up and sat on him, straddling him at the waist and grabbing his face with both her hands, kissing him fiercely and deeply, refusing to allow him up longer than a split second, even for air.

How long the two of them remained locked together drinking in each other’s scents and tastes, neither of them knew nor cared.  Eventually, however, Kayto came back to his senses somewhat, finding himself experiencing a very specific sensation of pressure and longing.  With some distant sensation of horror, Kayto realized Ava could probably feel it too; but it was far too late to stop it.

Ava broke their kiss, pulling back and blushing deeply as he gave himself away.  But it was a hesitant delight that crept over her face rather than the fury Kayto had half-expected.  She ground her hips downwards into him mercilessly, smiling coquettishly as he groaned.

Unable to restrain himself, Kayto’s hands began scrabbling at Ava’s school uniform.  Ava’s own hands swiftly caught his wrists and pinned them down.

“Here?  Really?” she whispered.  “We’re still in school, idiot.”

“You want to walk back home in that blizzard?  Be my guest,” he shot back, not missing the hungry expression on her face.

Ava looked embarrassed.  “Fine.  But at least put down some blankets.”

“We had blankets!?” Kayto felt a fresh surge of annoyance until the more simple minded part of his brain beat the whiny half into submission.

“Left cabinet, middle,” answered Ava, somewhat breathlessly as she climbed off to let him up.

Sure enough, Kayto found a stack of thick, cozy blankets mocking him as he opened the storage unit.  Grabbing them, he spread them out over the floor as makeshift bedding.  “Not bad,” he commented, sitting down on the blankets, “I-“

“Shut up,” Ava pushed him down and got back on top, grinding down on him with a pitiless expression on her face as he strained beneath her.  Swooping down, she smothered his groan of pleasure with her mouth and ran her fingers through his light hair.

Gasping and fumbling in their rush, the two tore at each other’s school uniforms untidily until they were bare before one another.Ava’s cheeks flushed crimson as she watched Kayto drinking in the sight of her body hungrily.  “Still cold?” she whispered, still straddling him tightly.

Kayto moaned gently, feeling the creamy texture of her bare thighs against his skin.  Enraptured, he stared at her smooth and firm breasts, struggling to hold himself back from attacking her nipple which had hardened, perking up invitingly in the cold air.

Ava smirked, still holding him down, before obliging him, lowering herself down teasingly as she held herself just out of reach of his tongue.  As she came a millimeter closer, Kayto’s tongue tip flicked out, sending a shiver along her back as she gasped with the sensation.

As she pressed down deeper, Kayto felt himself attacking her desperately, drowning in her scent and the warmth of her body as she rubbed herself against him, hesitantly at first, but with increasing want and firmness.  Although it was probably mere minutes, the moment seemed to stretch to infinity as his hands ran down the ivory skin along her entire length, desperately committing every tingle and sensation they shared to memory.

Finally, Ava pushed herself downwards.  As his tip rested upon her threshold, it took every ounce of restraint for him not to simply thrust into the inviting wetness that tantalizingly brushed against him.  Ava’s hands entwined with his and she pressed her chest down upon his; their hearts beating as one.  Kayto looked up into her cherry eyes and crimson cheeks, seeing his own desire mirrored in her eyes.  Ava gave him a bare, vulnerable smile, one he would never forget as she pushed herself lower, sinking down along his shaft.

“U-urk!”

Kayto gasped as she enveloped him in a silky tightness that set every millimeter of his skin on fire.

“A-ah!”

Ava cried out as she brought him into herself fully, blinking tears away as her virginity gave way.

“A-Ava?” croaked Kayto hoarsely.  He’d played enough eroge games to know what to expect, but seeing her face contort in pain and discomfort brought anxiety rushing to the surface.

“S-shut up…” gasped Ava, steadying herself.  “Just give me a moment…”

Kayto stroked her hair as she recovered, black regret threatening to cut into the dream.  He’d wanted this… for so long… And now, practically on the eve of her departure…  He’d wasted everything; their youth, their time, everything on frivolous chases and false leads, allowing himself to be rebuffed from her when he should have persisted.  Kayto’s mind raced.  He would lose her; he would lose her forever if he did not do something to atone for his mistakes.

Ava’s warm scent interrupted the thought as she came close, planting small kisses on his lips before rocking her hips, gently at first, but with increasing speed and need, driving everything away except the moment.

Kayto felt himself wash away adrift a sea of pleasure as Ava’s hands clenched around his, riding him at a brutal pace in an attempt to sate her want.  She clenched tightly around him, so hard it was almost painful, causing him to gasp and writhe as he struggled to hold himself for her.

“A-AAAHHH!”

Ava’s back arched as she thrust downwards explosively, her face completely lost to an expression of bliss as she cried out with all manner of sound Kayto never thought she would or could let slip past her lips.

Kayto’s own face contorted as Ava continued to squeeze him rhythmically, riding her orgasm from one wave to the next, keeping him pinned on his back as she slid up and down his length with smooth, long strokes.  Slowly, she picked up speed once more, seeming to impossibly tighten as she bent forward, gasping and crying out, her lips exquisitely and torturously brushing against his ear.

“AARRGH!”

Kayto’s head shot back as he let loose, unable to contain himself any longer.  Thrusting madly, he drove into Ava again and again as he emptied, determined to force every last cry and whimper of pleasure he could from her before he was finished.

His vision seemed to burst into white as Ava’s climax continued and peaked, simultaneous to his own, her nails digging into his skin as she let loose with a wordless scream of pleasure.  His entire body went numb and a sense of unreality stole over him as the intensity of the moment came to its acme and faded, letting him fall back down to reality as he gulped for air like a drowning man.

Finally spent, Ava gave one final twitch before collapsing on Kayto’s chest, the two of them panting heavily and covered in a sheen of sweat, content to simply lay in silence as they recovered, still joined.  As the world settled, Kayto reached up, stroking Ava’s hair and pushing a stray strand out of her face as she finally lifted her head, giving him a soft smile of genuine happiness with a hint of playfulness.

“Av-?” Kayto’s words were cut short with a yelp as an intense sensation threatened to steal what little breath he’d regained.  Painfully slowly and still grinning, Ava slid herself off him before rolling over and collapsing by his side with trembling legs, snuggling into the crook of his arm as Kayto went limp once more, breathing hard.

The heat of the moment bled away and as he continued to run his free hand over her every curve, unable to get enough, the unwelcome sensation from earlier crept back into his chest.  Suddenly, the cruelty of her departure to space intensified an order of magnitude worse than he’d ever felt it.  He pushed himself up onto his elbows as Ava made a small huff of annoyance, adjusting her bare body to fit alongside his more comfortably.

More than anything, he wanted to say something, to find a combination of words that would make her stay.  The words were almost on the tip of his tongue, but… destiny.  As much as Ava denied destiny, he knew with absolute conviction at that moment, that there was no stopping her from leaving.  And in that instant of clarity, his own destiny seemed to sear into his soul, equally absolute.  He could not stop her from leaving Cera, but he would be damned if he let himself lose her now.

“I’ve made up my mind.  I’m going to enlist too,” he said, not sure if she could still hear him.

“Hmm?” Ava mumbled sleepily, although one of her eyes opened and fixed him with a mixed look of affection, sadness, and conflict.

“This isn’t the end.  I’ll enlist next year for the CSF,” Kayto declared more firmly.  “No matter where you go, I’ll be one step behind you.  We’ll meet each other again in space one day.  I promise.”

Ava’s eyes were fully open now as she looked up into his face as though unsure whether or not to take him seriously.

“Captain Crescentia and First Officer Shields; it’ll be just like things are now.  I promise I’ll never stop following you until we’re together again.”  Kayto felt her heart pounding against his chest through her breast, beating in unison with his own.  He etched the moment into his memory forever; no matter how long it took, he’d never go back on this promise.

“Heh…” Ava snorted gently, pushing him back down beside her and wrapping herself around him, pulling a blanket over their bare skin.

“Idiot…” she whispered, entwining her fingers in his all the same.

******

The scene swirled away until he was standing under the bright glare of the Ceran sun.  He looked to the skyline one last time as the shuttle behind him powered up its engines, whipping the air around them into a frenzy.

‘It’s beautiful’ he thought, taking in the modern grace and aesthetics of Cera City.  Taking a deep breath, Kayto filled his lungs with the crisp morning air, as though to take the memories and experiences he’d made in that city with him to space.

It had been longer than he’d expected he’d need to keep the promise he made years ago, but today, despite everything else that was happening around him, he was as thrilled as he was anxious about his reunion with Ava.  After so long, it was hard to tell what would change and what would remain the same, but the promise, his promise, that was the one thing he knew was still the same.

“Captain!  Control has cleared us for launch, but we can wait a moment if you like, Sir!” barked a nervous young shuttle pilot, barely younger than himself, saluting aggressively as he walked up from behind.

Kayto felt a sinking feeling.  His holo had chirped an hour ago, reading: “Kayto, traffic coming into the city is unbelievable; I don’t think I’m going to make it to see you off.  You’re a hero now.  You always have and will always make your little sister proud.  Maray.”  Even so, he’d held onto the thin, gossamer hope that she might through some miracle arrive with enough time for him to give her one final embrace before going into space.

“Thank you, ensign,” said Kayto, smiling artificially as he turned, and following the pilot towards the shuttle’s bat-like form as it crouched over the landing pad.  “That won’t be necessary, my sister did say it was unlikely she’d make it to see me off.  Let’s not hold anyone else up.”  Ducking under the overhead door of the shuttle, he strapped himself into a crash seat in the empty passenger compartment behind the pilot’s seat.

A moment later, he heard the engines of the shuttle scream to life, ponderously lifting the craft off the landing pad and into the air.  As he looked out the holoscreen masquerading as a window of an atmospheric craft, a white haired teenage girl burst onto the landing pad, squinting against the sudden bright of the sun, laughing and smiling with tears in her eyes, waving and reaching out to his shuttle as it screamed upwards, whipping her long hair backwards in its wake.  As her azure eyes found his, Kayto felt his vision blur slightly, throat thickening.  Kayto, smiling in equal parts happiness and sadness, touched the screen gently, sending distortion ripples through the holographic projection.

Take care of yourself, Kayto, we’ll talk when you get back!

She was his beloved sister, his oldest and closest friend.  He would miss her with all his heart.

Maray…

******

Hellfire spilled forward, drowning out everything else as the Legion’s laser scythed across the remnants of the Ceran fleet and towards the bright blue jewel that was Cera behind them.  Cera City, no more than a gray-silver smudge at their distance, vanished in a single burst of brilliant, hard red light.  Kayto watched in horror and slow motion as the largest metropolis on the planet caught fire and vaporized before the Legion’s might.  As the red light burn a crater that would forever mark the planet below, Kayto felt a part of himself die, his soul no less permanently etched and scarred by the same laser than his home below.  A cloud blasted upwards into the atmosphere as the beam flickered away, the ash and dust of the entire city and its ten million inhabitants thrown into the wind in a single, paralyzing moment of horror.  Molten rock and metal jetted hundreds of feet into the air as the entire peninsula was reduced to nothing more than a glowing, cherry-red crater marking the death of everything Kayto had ever held dear.

Memories, unbidden, came flashing forward.  Maray pelting a snowball at him.  The first time he’d heard her perform in a concert hall, his heart tearing with pride as she serenaded hundreds.  Ava sitting with one leg up on a desk, radiant in the setting sun.  The dark and cold they’d staved off together in the student council room, wrapped in each other and the blankets.  Waking to find that Maray texted his holo to let him know she’d fibbed to their parents and covered for his absence from home that night.  Maray waving to him one last time, tears in her face.  All of it vanishing and crumbling into dust and ash in a single moment as the Legion scorched the planet and people he’d sworn to protect with his own life.  Everything.

Slumping forward in his chair, Kayto felt his hands shake and tasted bile in his mouth.

“What are your orders, Captain?  CAPTAIN?!” screamed Ava.

As her wild gaze locked his, he saw a single tear tracking its way down the side of her face.

No… not everything…  He still had her.

******

AVA!

Kayto bolted upwards, gasping and breathing as though he’d been underwater for the last hour.  The bright lights in his face seemed to dim as the world came rushing back; dimly he realized he had been laying on a bed and registered the sound of voices too indistinct to understand.  As his scattered mind pulled itself back together, recognition that he was in the Sunrider’s medical bay filtered in and the rest of the world came into focus.

“He’s awake!” Icari’s voice came from his left.

Kayto turned to look at her; the mercenary looked haggard, but relief brought some life back to her emerald eyes.  Behind her, Claude’s pale face swam into focus, looking shell-shocked and fatigued.

“You did it, doc,” said Icari, not bothering to hide the surprise from her voice, putting a hand gratefully on Claude’s shoulder.

“Heh…” Claude stuck her tongue out and mashed a fist into the side of her head, regaining some of her usual absent-minded charm.

A huge sniffing sound came from his right; Chigara, tears streaming down her face, gripped the railing of his bed so tightly her knuckles were marble white.  “C-captain… you’re alive…”

Kayto blinked and looked around.  The medical bay was a complete mess.  Medical supplies and tools lay scattered on bloody trays.  Drops of blood on the floor led to and from Claude’s operating theater; all of the medical bay’s medichine treatment tubes were a dark shade of crimson, testifying to severity of the injuries they had been used to treat.  The other beds in their recessed berths in the bay seemed to be occupied; with a sinking feeling, Kayto saw several white cryo-caskets next to some of the beds.

“Ava?” he croaked, trying to sit up.

Ava came into view from behind Chigara, her arms crossed and face pale.

“Your arm?” he asked.

“Just a dislocation,” said Claude soothingly, making way for Ava and turning to check his vitals on a monitor.

Ava sighed as she came closer, nodding her thanks to Claude, her usual scowl towards the doctor replaced with something almost like respect, albeit grudging.

“What happened?” asked Kayto, struggling to pull his fragmented memories together and failing miserably.

“Massive damage reported in all sectors, Captain,” Ava said grimly.  “I honestly thought they had us, but…” Ava nodded at Chigara.  “Chigara somehow managed to get our warp drives back online.  We escaped.  Engines are shot and our drift was significant, but we’ll limp back to the fallback coordinates in time to rendezvous with the Alliance.”  Ava took a deep steadying breath before she gave him the bad news.  “Twenty three wounded, six dead.  Fortunately, it appears you were not amongst them.”

Kayto expected to feel horror and sorrow for the loss, but Ava’s words barely seemed to penetrate the numb of his body and mind.  Slumping back into the bed, he stared at the ceiling, refusing to meet anyone else’s eyes.

Claude straightened, a look of worry on her face as she regarded him.  “Alright, all of you, out.  This man’s just been through five hours of intensive surgery and medichine submersion.  He needs rest.”

Shooing them out and pointing a finger of surprising authority at the medical bay’s door, Claude ushered the others out of the room before coming back and pulling the curtains shut on Kayto’s berth.

“…Thanks,” muttered Kayto.

“Captain.”  Claude’s voice sounded uncharacteristically serious.

“I’m sorry; it must have been hell here.” said Kayto, grimacing as he pushed himself up on his elbows again.

Claude sighed.  “As the Commander said, twenty-three casualties of varying severity.  Mostly burns and lacerations, a few more serious,” Claude took a deep breath, “Six dead on arrival… and you.”

“How bad was I?”

“You had a steel rod five centimeters in diameter going through your common femoral artery,” answered Claude bluntly.  “By the time they cut you free and brought you down here, you were almost in cardiac arrest from the blood loss.  I had to operate manually to remove what was left of the rod, which was the only thing keeping you from bleeding to death, and stabilize you before we could submerge.”

Kayto lifted the sheets to see a fresh welt of raw, regenerated tissue over his upper thigh.  The margins were razor straight and clean; perhaps he’d misjudged Claude’s medical expertise after all.  “Thanks… Doc.”

With a deep sigh, Claude put on a goofy face in an almost convincing show of carefree happiness.  “Oh! One more thing, Captain~” Claude reached down her front.

“Claude…” Kayto said with warning in his voice, not in the mood for any of her antics.

Ignoring him, Claude pulled out a folded piece of paper from between her breasts, holding it out to him.  A huge grin was spread across her face, but did not quite make it to her lavender eyes which remained disconcertingly grave and serious as she stared at him.

Kayto plucked the paper from her fingers as though it were radioactive.

“Doctor’s orders,” said Claude, turning and flaunting out of his berth to attend to her other patients.

Kayto unfolded the paper, an old fashioned prescription print out from Claude’s holo.

RX: Talk to Someone.

******

Kayto walked back into his quarters after being discharged against medical advice from the medical bay.  Claude had protested, pointing out that he’d just been through more than five hours of surgery on his leg and medichine submersion, but after the day’s events, Kayto was in no mood for argument.

As the doors opened, he walked in with only a hint of a limp, looking at the mess and chaos of his office and quarters with dismay.  Books, papers, the models and souvenirs he’d collected lay strewn all over the floor with shattered glass and pieces of the ceiling.  Sighing heavily, Kayto crunched through the mess, too exhausted to do anything about it for now.  Even if he felt like it, it would probably take the better part of a day to get the mess sorted out.  Giving up, he gave his office chair a half-hearted brush to clear the worse of the debris off it before collapsing into it with a groan.

Pain shot from his leg, coursing upwards through his spine and joining the throbbing at his temple.  Rubbing his temple and gritting his teeth, Kayto waited for the pain to subside into a dull pounding discomfort in the background.

Bing Bing

Kayto’s door opened, admitting Ava to his office.

“Captain,” Ava’s eyes took in the wreckage of his office without surprise.  Marching up to his desk, she swept aside some pulverized glass and dust before setting her holo down and turning it to face him.  “A full damage report from our last engagement.”

Kayto accepted the holo with a long face, banishing the pain from his awareness as he flicked through the report.  Engineering reports, combat reports, he scrolled past all of it until he found what he was looking for.

“Lynu KIA, Enicridge wounded, Arturia KIA, Von amputated…” he muttered, scrolling through the list of casualties and forcing himself to try to remember each and every one of their faces.  Clenching his teeth, he fought against the temptation to throw the holo.  “Overtask our repair drones and crews.  I want everyone working around the clock.  Get this ship operational ASAP,” he ordered, struggling to keep his voice calm.  “Once the Alliance gets here, we’ll hit the Legion with everything we have.  We’re going to sink that ship and end this.  Once and for all.”

“Captain,” Ava’s tone was blunt as she crossed her arms, looking at him as though he were delusional.  “You cannot mean to take the Sunrider into battle again.  More than half our systems are offline, the hull’s barely holding together as it is.  We’re in no condition to fight and you know it.  We can sit this one out; let the Alliance handle it.”

Kayto rose from his chair suddenly, violently throwing it out of the way.  Pain shot through his leg again, causing him to stagger and clutch the corner of the desk for support.  “No,” he gasped through the pain as Ava started, looking shocked.  “No!  We sink that ship…”

“Captain.” Ava glared at him as he breathed hard.

“I’m ordering you, Commander.  We. Sink. That. Ship.”  Kayto said in a dangerously calm voice, straightening as best he could, his leg still smarting and trembling.

Ava looked at Kayto with defiance and anger in her eyes.  “What’s come over you, Kayto?” she demanded.  “This isn’t like you!”

Kayto felt his blood boiling; his hands trembled and he curled them into fists.  Pounding one on the table, he felt himself shout, “Every Time!  When it appeared over Cera, we retreated!  When it chased us on Ryuvia Prime, we retreated!  When it came at us on Far Port, we let it go!  I Have Had It.  We will not retreat this time.  We will not let it escape.  That ship… killed ten million of our people.  Sank our entire fleet.  Destroyed Our World.  NO MORE.  Even if we die doing it, We Will Sink It!”  Kayto gulped air like he’d just run several miles, letting his burning gaze find Ava’s.  “It’s taken everything from me!!  And I will not let it take more!!”

“KAYTO!” Ava’s voice snapped like a whip as she delivered a swift, stinging slap across his cheek.

Kayto staggered, holding a hand to the burning sensation on his cheek as he reeled.  He stared at Ava’s furious gaze for what felt like a full minute, the two of them breathing hard with emotion, before crumpling, the fight draining out of his body.

“I-I’m sorry.”  Kayto felt himself regain control.  “I was wrong… it hasn’t taken everything.”

“Kayto…” Ava started with warning in her voice.

“I still have you.”  Kayto looked up into her face, ignoring the warning.  “Don’t I?”

Ava said nothing, still glaring.

“Heh…” Kayto closed his eyes and took a deep breath, steadying himself.  “I remember the real reason why I never left our old student council.  It wasn’t because of something stupid like wanting to help the student body or getting new uniforms.”  Opening his eyes again, Kayto looked to Ava with sincerity in his gaze.  “It was… because I couldn’t stand the thought of being away from you.”

“I know, Kayto.”  Ava’s eyes flickered away as her face softened.  “I knew the whole time.”

“And here we are again,” Kayto said, walking around his desk to her.  “Side by side.  Fighting for a good for nothing cause to nowhere…”  Kayto stopped as he and Ava stood facing each other an arm’s length apart.  “You are the only family I have left.”

Ava crossed her arms, still refusing to make eye contact as she looked away.  “Stop it…” she said quietly, face hardening with each passing moment.  “You’re the captain of this ship!  You can’t afford to let your emotions control you!  You… We have a duty!  The preservation of this ship!”  Ava’s voice turned cold.  “This isn’t the time.”

Kayto’s chest tightened, squeezing the breath out of him.  He felt her slipping from his outstretched hand, falling further away.  No.  He had to do something.  He had to say what he’d meant to say all those years ago, before it was too late.

“It’s… you.  You’re the one I’ve always loved, Ava.”

“I…” Ava’s eyes came back to his, shining with moisture and her cheeks tinging pink almost imperceptibly.

Kayto held his breath, daring to believe for a moment that they would finally be together again; just like old times.

“………”

The silence stretched, looming over the two.

“I-I’m sorry, Captain.”

Something broke in Ava’s voice and her eyes closed off to him like a door slamming shut in his face.

“W-what?” Kayto could barely force himself to utter the word hoarsely, staring at Ava with wide eyes.

“I cannot.” Ava’s voice was now cold and firm.

“But…” Kayto felt mounting desperation well in his chest.  “Our promise…”

Tears gathered in the corners of Ava’s eyes, but she kept her arms crossed and met his pleading gaze with her hard eyes.  “I have no recollection of what you may be referring to, Captain.”

“I…” Kayto felt something in his chest crumble away, spilling a torrent of numbness throughout the rest of his body.  “I see.”  He stared blankly at Ava, her words echoing endlessly in the hollow silence of his heart.  “Very well, Commander.  Ready our battle plans; we strike the Legion.”

“Kay-…” Ava struggled with herself for a moment before swallowing hard and blinking fiercely, clearing her eyes.  She snapped her arm up in a salute.  “Understood, Captain.”

Without another word, she turned on her heel, walking straight past him and out his door, the plaster and glass on his floor crunching underneath her soles.

As he watched her brown hair whip around the corner and disappear, Kayto crumpled, staggering down the stairs and into his living space.

“Computer, play audio media: Maray_Concert4-12-498.mus.”

The sound of Maray’s last concert filtered into the air, a lone violin playing plaintively and sorrowfully in the background.  Silver Rain.

Turning one of his chairs upright and sinking into it, Kayto tilted his head back, staring at the ceiling, unseeing as Maray’s final performance carried him away.

******

“…Captain?”

Chigara stuck her head into Kayto’s quarters, a hopeful expression on her face.  “Are you there?”

No reply came and she crept in tentatively with mounting worry.  Claude had said he’d returned to his quarters, had he left since?

Continuing inwards, her sapphire eyes found him, slumped in the chair in his living space, staring blankly at the ceiling.  “A-are you alright?” she asked hesitantly, stopping atop the stairs.

“…Yeah… I’m sorry.”  Kayto snapped back from wherever he’d been, his eyes clearing marginally as he blinked and saw her.  “Come in.  Sorry about the mess.”

Chigara walked down the stairs slowly as Kayto picked himself up off the chair.

Instinctively, Kayto went to the tea set they’d shared previously.  Opening the cabinet, he merely watched as a shower of porcelain shards and fragments poured out, smashing onto the floor and splintering even further.  The tea set, one of the last keepsakes of his family that he had, lay shattered in a million pieces.

Kayto felt tears spring to his eyes, clouding his vision.  Shoulders shaking he took a deep, shuttering breath, face burning with humiliation as he fell to his knees on the floor beside what was left of the tea set.

“NO!!!”  Kayto yelled in anguish as he picked up a handful of fragments, past caring as their sharp edges cut into his palm with a warm, wet feeling.

He threw the fistful of fragments away, the sound of the fine china shattering a distant sound to his ears.  Curling his bloody hand into a fist, he punched the floor as hard as he could, feeling his knuckles split with burning pain.

“C-Captain!?” Chigara’s voice came from afar, frightened sounding, but her soft hands took his shoulders, turning and pulling him back upwards to the light.

Kayto felt his eyes burn as she took him into embrace.  With a tortured gasp, he let her pull him close, his arms coming around and holding onto her as he drowned in sorrow and loss.

Chigara brought her hands together, pressing them to his chest and finding the beating of his heart.  Tears welled in her eyes as she leaned in, holding her head to his chest and willing him to share his burden, to take what he needed from her.  As a hot tear splashed down on her hair and his arms gripped her tightly, she knew she would give him anything, anything at all.  “What’s the matter?” she asked plaintively.

“It’s taken everything…!” Kayto’s shoulders shook as much as his voice.  “Absolutely Everything…!”

Chigara felt her heart splitting open as she nuzzled into his chest.  She was not fool enough to think that he was only referring to the tea set at this point.  Even after losing so much, this man, her Captain, had carried the burden of their safety and duty without fail, without complaint.  But even now, as he fell to pieces, broken and clutching her like a dying man, she thought no less of him.  He was her Captain.  “Shhhh…”

“…Nothing’s left…”

“Everything’s alright, Captain…” whispered Chigara, reaching up to cup his face and wipe away a stray tear on his cheek with her soft, dainty hands.  “Chigara’s here…”

“No…”  Kayto gasped, the pain raw in his voice.  “I… abandoned her…  I watched it kill her before my very eyes… and I ran…!  I fled!  I… It’s my fault!  I failed her… when she needed me most…”

“Shhh…” Chigara pulled his head down to her, cradling him protectively as she pushed him down on the chair, joining him at his side, their two bodies pressed together.  “Your order that day saved the lives of everyone on this ship… You gave the only order you could to save lives that day.”

If her words had any impact on him, they seemed lost to the sea of suffering and guilt he’d been swept out to.  “Now… I have nothing left…”  Kayto went limp in her arms.  “No home to return to… no family to care for… Everything in my past, turned to ash…”

“No.”  Chigara let some firmness enter her soft voice as she stroked his hair. “You have your ship.  You have your crew.  We’re your home and family now.”  Chigara felt the pounding of his heart begin to slow as she held him, comforting him.  “You have me.”

Chigara watched a flicker of life come back into his eyes as she caressed him tenderly.  “You… never cried when your sister died…” she said, her heart ready to rend as she thought on the burden he’d carried for so long behind the smiles and confidence for their sake.  “It’s alright Captain,” she said with love in her voice.  “You don’t have to hide with me anymore.  Your secret’s safe with me.  Let yourself cry.  Let yourself grieve.  I’m here now.”

Kayto’s arms clutched hers as his squeezed his eyes shut, letting the tears flow free for the first time and letting the sobs wrack his body unfettered as Chigara held him to her breast, wrapped around his shoulders.  “Chigara…!”

Chigara simply held him as he grieved, letting the pain and poison flow freely.  She held his hands in her own, letting what comfort and warmth she could give flow to him.

“I… I know I’ll never be able to replace everything you lost…” she said as Kayto’s tears and emotions began to finally exhaust themselves.  “But… I’ll always be here for you.  Whatever you need, whenever you need it.”

Chigara turned him to look into his eyes.  “I promise.”

******

Ava stood at the sink in her quarter’s washroom, clutching the cold porcelain sides with her hands as she hunched over it, trembling.  She retched, tasting bitterness, but nothing came from the dry heave.  Trembling, she looked up at herself, seeing a stranger staring back at her.

“Why?” she whispered.  “Why now?”

A sharp, burning pain seared across her back; almost causing her knees to buckle in agony. Crying out, she held onto the sink to keep herself from falling on the floor.

Eyes swimming with tears, she kept staring at her reflection, seeing the scared face of a teenager looking back down at her.  Behind her, a man, back rigid and straight, powerful, radiating purpose and duty.  The man who’d taught her the only way to live that she’d ever known.  Her father.

Ava felt another sting across her back between her shoulder blades, branding itself deep into her.

“I didn’t…” she ground out through clenched teeth.  “I didn’t…”

Pulling herself up, she forced her legs to steady and bear weight once more.  “I didn’t.”

Fiercely, she wiped her eyes and spat into the sink, as though to rid herself of the moment of weakness.

She’d done it for his own good.  So that he’d put duty first.  So that he’d put Cera and the millions on it first.  Single lives weighed against millions.  She’d done the only thing she could to ensure the needs of the many outweighed their own.  It was the right thing to do.  The only thing to do.

‘When there are over a trillion of us, no one individual matters,’ her father’s voice was absolute, allowing no argument.

Wiping her lips, Ava washed her hands and dried them on a towel before hurtling the towel at her own reflection.  Turning away and swallowing against the thickening of her throat, she walked out and slammed the door behind her.

She had her orders.  And right now, that was all that mattered.

CHAPTER 27>>>>