Chapter 27- The Mask of Arcadius

Kayto walked to the CIC, striding to his command station with grim determination on his face.

Limping to the fallback coordinates, the Sunrider had successfully rendezvoused with the Alliance Combined Fleet at the edge of the Helion system.  Illuminated under scores of brilliant blue starship drives, the Sunrider’s wounds were bare for all to see, a testament to their harrowing escape from Helion and the PACT.  Ever since the Sunrider had rendezvoused, there had been a tension, a palpable electricity to the air, the gravity of the coming battle weighing on everyone’s shoulders.  The CIC crew hushed with Kayto’s entry but recovered quickly, snapping to with the efficiency and dedication he’d come to count on them for.

“Commander,” he said, dropping into his station and bringing up his screens without a sideways glance.  “Status Report.”

“Repairs completed to our hull and systems,” answered Ava tersely, forwarding the relevant details to his station from her screens.

Kayto saw that the Sunrider’s readings were miraculously restored across all sectors.  Chigara, her engineering team, the Sunrider’s repair drones, and the Combined Fleet’s assistance had worked nothing less than a miracle bringing their ship back from the grave on such short notice.

“We’re green for combat operations, full functionality,” continued Ava.  “Barely.”

“Good work; give me the battle plan one more time,” ordered Kayto, nodding appreciatively, tapping his screens and manipulating his command controls.

“Aye,” Ava brought up schematics of the Legion on the main screen.  “Our Chief Engineer has analyzed all combat data and scans of the Legion to date and believes she has found a weakness inherent to the design of the ship itself.”

The schematic zoomed out, showing diagrams of the Legion’s hull.

“The Legion is plated with enough heavy armor to render most conventional weapons moot.  However, there is one aspect of the ship that lacks this heavy armor; the primary laser shaft running down the spine of the ship.  A Vanguard shot directly down the primary laser shaft of the Legion could, in theory, penetrate unimpeded all the way to its primary reactor core.  The destabilization and destruction of the core by a Vanguard shot would create an ensuing chain detonation sufficient to destroy the entire ship from inside out.”

Kayto watched as the simulation showed the Sunrider flying straight at the Legion’s primary weapon, firing a shot along its midaxis and destroying it.

“So…” he felt his pulse quicken.  “The only way to kill this thing is to fly right in front of its biggest gun and shove a Vanguard down its craw.”  He snorted softly.  “Absolutely insane.  Operation Approved.”

“Sir.”  Ava saluted but her voice was flat, devoid of emotion.  “The Alliance Combined Fleet has been made aware of our intentions; they’ve agreed to the operation.  Admiral Grey and the bulk of the Alliance fleet will engage the PACT forces in the Helion system.  Once there, the Combined Fleet will feed us tactical data of the battle for a pinpoint warp transition.  The Second Fleet has volunteered to act as our escort; once the rest of the Combined Fleet has entangled the PACT defense fleet, we will jump as close as we can to the Legion’s position.  The Second fleet will assist us in breaking through PACT lines and screen our approach to take our shot at the Legion.  The operation will commence in ten minutes.”

“Very good, Commander.”  Kayto triggered the PA on his chair, addressing the Sunrider’s crew on the precipice of battle and imminent death once again.  “All hands, this is the captain speaking.”

“Momentarily, we will engage the PACT super-dreadnought Legion and the Paradox Core.  This coming battle will not be easy.”  Kayto looked around his CIC fixing each officer with a steely glare.  “I will not mince words with you.  We all lost people close to us because of that ship.  In a flash, a split second, it took away our homes.  Our families.  Our lovers.”

Kayto swallowed.  “I know this mission has not been easy.  It has not been easy for me.  It has not been easy for any of you.  But there is one thing the Legion will never take from us.  Hope.  Hope that we will rebuild what we lost.  Hope that we will live another day to love one another and rise from the ashes of this war to be stronger than before.  Because of this hope, we Will Not give into despair.  The PACT may destroy our cities and raze our homes, terrorizing us with weapons the galaxy has never known, but we WILL rebuild what we have lost.”

Kayto took a shuddering breath, feeling every eye on him and his entire crew hanging on his every word.  “We WILL win this battle for Cera.  For the memories we hold dear of our home.  For those who we lost, just so that we could make it to this day.  Together, we end the terror that the Legion has wrought upon us.  We send that monstrosity back to the hellfire from which it came.”

Pounding his arm rest and feeling emotion well up in his chest, Kayto finished his speech.  “So that the galaxy will see a new day dawn.  A day free of the terror of madmen and tyrants that we have known.  A day when we go home, to rebuild and reclaim our lives.  A day as bright as our memories of Cera.”

The bridge crew slowly stood, applauding, solemnly at first, but with increasing strength and determination.  There was no cheering, no jubilation, only cold focus and resolve etched on each and every crew member’s face.

“Engineering, we’re at your command, Captain!”
“Weapons, awaiting orders, Captain!”
“Navigation, the helm is yours, Captain!”
“Damage Control, standing by, Captain!”

Every department and branch of the ship called in, their chiefs speaking over the solemn applauding of crew in the background as they affirmed the ship’s readiness and determination to see the act done.

******

“That’s our Captain!” cheered Asaga, punching a fist into the air as she led the Sunrider’s Ryder pilots down the hall towards the hanger.

“Eh-heh…” Chigara put a hand on her bosom, feeling warmth well up in her chest as she heard Kayto’s voice, strong, overhead.

“Heh…” Icari gave a gallows grin, tossing her long hair over her shoulder with a glimmer in her eyes.  “He hasn’t lost it yet…”

“ATENNNHUT!”  Kryska saluted the nearest PA speaker in a show of respect, pride shining in her honey eyes.

“Captain~!” Claude swooned unabashedly.

“…Captain…” Sola’s closed a fist delicately over her chest, feeling her cheeks heat as she spoke so softly it was doubtful anyone could hear.

******

All around the Sunrider, the emerald ships of the Alliance powered up, their bright blue engines pulsing with power as their warp drives spooled up.

“Captain,” Ava’s hands danced over her screens as she coordinated the CIC.  “The Alliance has commenced their attack!  The Combined Fleet is jumping to warp!”

Kayto steeled himself, sweeping aside any doubts or apprehension as he assumed command of his ship.  “Spool up our own drives, prepare for pinpoint warp on my mark!”

Hundreds of Alliance cruisers and frigates divided into wolf-packs of twelve, dozens of the largest  Machiavelli-class battleships the Alliance had in service, an equal number of carriers, each representing hundreds of Ryders, all tore holes into the fabric of space as they eased into warp, disappearing from sight in the blink of an eye.  They would reappear as close to Helion as their warp drives would allow, undoubtedly immediately coming under fire from the waiting PACT defenders for one of the fiercest battles of the campaign so far.

Grimly, Kayto awaited the crucial information the Sunrider and her escort ships were depending upon.  The seconds ticked past on the combat clock with agonizing slowness.

“Captain!” Ava’s head snapped up as communications received a transmission several painful minutes later.

On the main screen, a static filled image of an Alliance captain he’d never made acquaintances with came into focus.  Blood wept from a gash on his forehead and his entire CIC was obscured with smoke and showers of sparks.  He clutched a hand against the spreading darkness on the green of his uniform, struggling to be heard over the alarms and explosions aboard his ship.

“Sunrider, be advised, heavy PACT resistance…” the image dissolved into static for a moment before snapping back.  “-been fully engaged.  We’re embedding coordinate data on the PACT fleet and transmitting now.  Good-” A brilliant flash cut off the Alliance captain and the transmission broke up again, refusing to come back.

“Tell me we got the data!” barked Kayto, a cold, heavy feeling settling in the pit of his stomach.

“Yes, Captain!” cried the CIC officer at the communications station.  “Feeding to engineering and the Second Fleet now!”

“Drives spooled, Alliance ships indicate ready, we are green for warp on your mark,” said Ava grimly as the main screen brought up a tactical view of the battle based on the late Alliance ship’s telemetry.

The entire PACT fleet had become entangled with the Alliance forces, both sides having completely broken formation as they engaged in a bloody melee with one another.  The Legion held back slightly from the bulk of the PACT fleet, undoubtedly aligning itself to deliver devastating laser strikes against vulnerable Alliance ships at range.  Although a reserve PACT fleet guarded it, it seemed the majority of their front line forces had been successfully pulled away by the Alliance offensive.  It was as close to favorable conditions as they could have ever hoped it would be.

“Engage warp drives, MARK!”

The Sunrider pushed into darkness, reappearing moments later with Helion’s harsh light pouring in through the main screen.  Around her, the Alliance cruiser escorts also dropped out of warp, pulling into formation and establishing a perimeter around the Sunrider.  Behind them, space teased apart as the rest of the Second Fleet came crashing through to join the fray.  The fleet’s heavily modified Machiavellis dropped out of warp surrounded by attendant cruisers.  Unlike their sister ships, their hulls showed signs of extensive and emergency refit; the entire front of the ship had been converted with an oversized spinal kinetic cannon that ran the entire length of the ship unlike the twin cannons their more conventional sister ships utilized.  Firing black ore tipped slugs, the modified Machiavellis were probably the deadliest ships the Alliance had ever fielded, capable of even penetrating the Legion’s armor to some degree.  Unfortunately, the modifications rendered them even less maneuverable than the already ponderous conventional Machiavellis.

Kayto’s entire main screen was dotted with explosions and flashes and alarms immediately began to shrill as the Sunrider’s sensors went wild with the readings of the battle.  Thermal traces laced back and forth across the entire battlefield as the PACT and Alliance fleets traded thousands of missiles at each other.  Hundreds of proximity and targeting contacts flagged on the tactical screen as both fleets registered the appearance of the Alliance Second Fleet and the Sunrider.  Alliance and PACT Ryder wings gunned after one another across the battlefield, soaring and tumbling past the larger ships, plowing through the maelstrom of flak and missile fire in deadly games of chase.

Kayto winced as off to the Sunrider’s port side, an Alliance Machiavelli fired its kilometer long spinal guns in a bright actinic flash, targeting a PACT battleship thousands of kilometers away.  The PACT battleship returned fire a split second later; both massive vessels taking hits head on, reeling with the impacts.  The PACT ship slowly broke apart as the Machiavelli’s deck guns opened fire as well, emptying their kinetic payloads into the stricken ship.

The Machiavelli’s victory was short lived, however, as a deadly red laser streaked across the main screen, cutting deeply into the wounded ship and slicing it apart deck by deck.  The Alliance’s proudest and largest battleship cleaved apart, wreathed in fire before it detonated, taking two nearby cruisers with it.  The laser beam slowly faded from the main screen, but not before cutting through and vaporizing nearly a dozen other Alliance ships in its line of fire.  Dozens of smaller explosions also dotted its path; Ryders that had not managed to dodge the destructive beam’s path.

“Captain!” Ava’s voice was strained.  “The Legion’s fired her primary laser; she’s decimating the Alliance forces!”

Kayto’s fists clenched.  Each minute they allowed the Legion to remain in play exacted a terrible blood payment on the Alliance forces which continued to valiantly hold the line and maintain pressure on the PACT defense fleet, throwing their might forward with terrible courage.

“Ryders, you are clear for launch,” barked Kayto.  “Form up and stay close!”

On screen, the Sunrider’s combat Ryders blasted past the ship as they dropped out of their launch tubes, racing to take escort positions and establish their flak network, their thrusters flaring brilliantly as they pushed into the night.

“Alliance Ryder wings incoming from rear carrier groups,” reported Ava.  “They’re taking position with the Second Fleet now.”

Almost a hundred Alliance Ryders deployed from the Combined Fleet’s carrier groups at the relative safety of the edge of the battle streamed towards the Second Fleet, joined by what Ryders that were based from the fleet’s cruisers.  The dozens of Alliance Ryder wings blasted past the Second Fleet in standard wedge formations, forming a forward picket and taking support positions with the Second Fleet’s forward cruisers.

Taking exception to the sudden appearance of Kayto’s fleet, the PACT reserve fleet tightened formation and arrayed themselves in front of the Legion as the behemoth’s lateral thrusters flared to push it onto the proper firing axis.

“The Second Fleet’s assembled,” announced Ava, “They’re clearing a path!”

The Machiavellis prepared to fire, aligning with several PACT capital ships guarding the Legion.  Glowing brightly at their forward tips, the Machiavellis’ mass drivers let loose with brilliant flashes like muskets firing.  White hot black ore slugs flew through space, cutting brilliant lines across the darkness before finding range on the Legion’s escort fleet.  The PACT ships impacted by the shots immediately fractured, breaking apart as the shells tore through them from prow to stern.

“Holy Ryuvia…” muttered Kayto, watching a PACT battleship practically fold inside-out from the impact before detonating.

In retaliation, the remaining PACT ships and the Legion let fly with a barrage of missiles numbering in the thousands.

The sky around Helion lit up as the Second Fleet’s cruisers fired their assault guns desperately into the wall of missiles; hundreds of the Alliance’s own missiles blasted loose from their silos on the cruisers in sequence to intercept, but the weight of the PACT onslaught was simply too much.  Kayto winced as dozens of explosions blossomed on the front screens, the Second Fleet’s forward cruiser and Ryder lines disappearing as the PACT missiles hit home, burning through armor and blasting the Second Fleet’s forward position to pieces.  Even in the face of the sheer slaughter, the Second Fleet’s ships continued to push forward valiantly, throwing wolf-pack after wolf-pack of ships forward to reinforce the crumbling formation.

Kayto fought a wave of nausea as he watched dozens of Alliance ships sink in an eyeblink.  “All ahead forward,” he barked as the Alliance Machiavellis began accelerating their massive hulls forward towards the slaughter at the front lines.  “Keep us in formation!”

The Sunrider’s engines flared blue as she drove towards the Legion and her attendant fleet.  Having stomached the devastating initial losses wrought upon them by the PACT missile barrage, the Alliance lines had crashed into the PACT fleet, engaging them at knife fight range.  Alliance ships skated past PACT counterparts, both blasting each other like ancient ships of the line in a deadly close quarters melee, hulls flashing as their deck guns and laser banks flensed into one another as Ryders wove desperately in between, gunning at one another.  Pod after pod of missiles blasted off, filling what little space there was with even more death and destruction as the Alliance fully entangled with the PACT.

Even as they closed the gap, Kayto watched the Legion let loose with another devastating barrage of lasers, spearing an Alliance wolf pack leading the charge with devastating consequences.  The Alliance ships fractured apart, hulls on fire, plunging towards the surface of the sun as they suffered catastrophic engine failures.  From behind, some of the Machiavellis fired again, this time targeting the Legion itself, emptying their black ore tipped slugs into its heavy armor.  Although the slugs were enough to tear an entire PACT battleship in half, the Legion simply absorbed the projectiles, its heavy armor caving in, but halting the shots from reaching any of her vital components.

With the Legion and the Alliance’s newly retrofitted Machiavellis, the Battle of Helion had turned into a space battle of proportions hitherto unseen; thousands of lives extinguished in mere moments as the titanic ships tore into one another’s fleets.  The sheer scale of the battle was incomprehensible, almost inhuman, leaving nothing behind except the numb of death and destruction.

“Captain, the Legion is dead ahead!” announced Ava.

“Uwaahhh!!” Claude’s voice gasped over the pilot chatter.  “Look at the size of that!”

“Tsch!” Icari’s voice grated harshly.  “What a monstrosity…”

“Stick together everyone!” Asaga’s loud voice boomed over the comms, instilling a measure of confidence and hope in the others as they stared down the largest, deadliest ship in the galaxy.  “We can do this!  Work together and we’ll sink it like any other ship!”

“The Legion is preparing to fire again!” warned Ava.  “She’s targeting the Alliance Machiavellis!”

“Get us out of its line of fire!  Hard to port!” barked Kayto.

The entire ship shuddered as its lateral thrusters answered, pushing the Sunrider off course as the Legion’s laser fire streaked past close enough to send feedback and resonance rippling through their shielding, sinking cruiser after cruiser behind the Sunrider and gouging devastating wounds into one of the Second Fleet’s Machiavellis.

“New course bearing puts us on intercept with a PACT assault carrier,” announced Ava, her hands working furiously over her console.  “Entering weapons range in ten seconds.”

“Bearing two-eight by seven-seven,” ordered Kayto, laying in a course to navigation to correct for their evasive maneuver and continue their approach to the Legion.  “Drop our nose two degrees and target the assault carrier; get me a firing solution!”

“Firing solution achieved,” answered Ava moments later.  “Weapons locked, missiles hot!”

“Fire Saviors; launch all Hell Dart missile pods!” barked Kayto.

The CIC rocked as the Sunrider’s heaviest guns fired in rapid succession and row after row of Hell Dart missiles launched from their pods.  The recoil of a full weapons launch was enough to stagger even the Sunrider’s engines, making for a precipitous and noticeable drop in forward acceleration as the ship absorbed the momentum and recovered, shaking with each weapon discharge.

“Assault carrier returning fire, initiating evasive maneuvers!” announced Ava.

If the Sunrider had one advantage over the larger assault carrier, it was mobility.  At half the length and mass of its larger PACT counterpart with a minimized forward profile, the Sunrider made for a nimble and difficult to hit foe.  The assault carrier’s kinetic weapons let loose in a series of bright flashes along the vessel’s dorsal deck.  The slugs streaked past the Sunrider by mere meters, punching into the dark of space.

On screen, the PACT assault carrier’s hull lit up as the Sunrider’s Saviors found range, tearing long rends into its lateral hull and punching through to the decks below.  The Sunrider’s Hell Darts hit a wall of flak, detonating as the computer aimed rounds nailed one after another, preserving the wounded assault carrier’s combat presence.

“Hell Darts intercepted,” reported Ava grimly, “No hits.  PACT assault carrier is preparing to fire again!”

Kayto gritted his teeth; at this range, the assault carrier could not possibly miss; this was going to hurt.

“Alert; proximity warning!  It’s the Alliance Machiavelli Fairlight!” cried Ava

Kayto watched, eyes wide as the Machiavelli speared by the Legion’s lasers raced between the Sunrider and the PACT assault carrier, engines heaving dangerously as she pushed her reactor past meltdown limits.  The vessel was leaking atmosphere and sported gut-wrenching rends in her hull, some still on fire; evidence of the Legion’s fearsome anti-ship weaponry.  As the Fairlight raced closer, Kayto could see that her deck guns had been slagged and her missile silos were open and empty, having been exhausted at the outset of the battle.  Defiant to the last, the Fairlight plowed forward, assault guns blazing away as her lateral laser banks fired into the PACT assault carrier’s shields, refusing to give in.

“Captain…” Ava’s voice was hushed.  “They’re taking the hit for us… Incoming transmission, text only: Sunrider, give them hell.  Fairlight.”

Kayto gritted his teeth and his eyes blurred as he watched the Fairlight shudder, absorbing a full salvo from the PACT assault carrier at virtually point blank ship-to-ship range, cleaving apart and detonating; not a single escape pod having launched.

Balling a fist, Kayto felt the weight of the Fairlight’s crew’s sacrifice upon his shoulders; more than five hundred men and women had died; choosing to go down with their ship to buy the Sunrider a chance to take a shot at the Legion rather than withdrawing for safe harbor; a microcosm of the greater sacrifice being borne by the entire Combined Fleet that same moment.

Swallowing hard, Kayto barked his orders as the fragmented hull of the Fairlight smashed into the PACT assault carrier, sending explosions rippling across her hull, tearing into her lower decks in a final act of defiance, “Fire Saviors and Trinities!  Target that assault carrier’s hull breaches!”

The Sunrider’s weapons let loose again, smashing into the wounded PACT ship and avenging the Fairlight as the crimson vessel shuddered with each impact, explosions dotting its lateral hull as the Sunrider advanced.  One of the Savior slugs flew straight and true, soaring into a gaping breach and touching the heart of the PACT assault carrier and shattering the reactor containment, allowing hellfire to engulf the entire vessel in a flash.

“Captain, the path to the Legion is open!” said Ava grimly, plotting their path to the PACT flagship as the PACT assault carrier and the Fairlight burned on a funeral pyre in embrace, sinking slowly towards Helion’s gravitational pull.  “The Alliance has managed to weaken its systems, but they’re taking heavy losses; they can’t keep this up for much longer!”

“Engines at flank speed, maintain intercept course” ordered Kayto with steel in his voice.  “This ends now.”

“Aye Captain!”  Ava answered.  “Locking in our approach vector!  The Second Fleet’s rallying around us!  Distance, 10,000 kilometers!”

Leaving the death and destruction behind them, the Sunrider flew straight towards the Legion’s open maw, surrounded by the core of the Second Fleet and what ships had pulled past the slaughter of the entangled Alliance and PACT lines.  Even as the Sunrider flew at her, the Legion absorbed another salvo of shots from the Alliance Machiavellis as they fired from behind.  The devastating rounds dug into the titanic vessel’s hull, punching their way through her surface systems and further disabling a number of the missile pods and laser banks that studded the behemoth’s outer hull.

Even so, dozens of active laser banks flickered to life along the length of the Legion, tracking the incoming ships of the Second Fleet and letting loose with a flurry of devastating crimson lances.

The Sunrider’s CIC exploded with shrill alarms as the Legion’s fire punched through their shielding as though it were not even there, burning into their hull to the decks below.  On the main screen, Kayto dimly registered several cruisers and Machiavellis beside the Sunrider also take hits, the smaller ships detonating or sinking almost immediately from the brutality of the attack.

“Multiple impacts!” screamed Ava as the entire ship shook.  Her eyes were wide with shock as their ship struggled to hold itself together around them.  Sparks flew from overhead as circuits across the ship exploded, straining to divert the immense currents from their overloaded shields.  “Hull breaches across C-deck, all sections compromised!”

“Steady as she goes!” grunted Kayto, straining to keep up with the damage reports streaming in from every section of the ship.  Miraculously, the Sunrider’s engines and core systems were still reading in the green.  “Hold course and charge the Vanguard Cannon!”

Additional laser impacts slammed into the Sunrider’s hull, slicing deeply into her inner decks.

“Massive damage reported,” cried Ava as the CIC drowned in screaming alarms and flashing red warnings.  “Distance: 6000!”

The ship shuddered again; a steel beam came crashing down from the other side of the CIC, smashing into the CIC’s beleaguered damage control console and blasting the crewmen working it aside in a shower of sparks and flying glass.

“Distance: 3000!” gasped Ava.

“Prepare to fire!” shouted Kayto.

Smoke and fires filled the CIC, another console exploded, sending a crewman flying across the room, but Kayto’s eyes were fixed on the main screen and the Legion’s terrifyingly huge maw as it grew, seeming to swallow everything in front of it into utter darkness.  The pandemonium of the CIC as the Sunrider’s marines burst in, dragging the wounded bridge crew to safety and spraying retardant foam at the fires, the wailing alarms overhead, and the shaking death throes of his command; everything seemed to fade from awareness as Kayto stared down the Beast with hate in his eyes.

“1000!” Ava counted down the Sunrider’s distance through gritted teeth.  “800!”

The entire CIC groaned with the sound of the Sunrider’s hull giving way as though the entire ship were dying in agony around them.

“400!”

“FIRE!”

Kayto’s heart pounded in his throat as the entire universe dropped into slow motion, each beat a painful, torturous throb as he waited for the Sunrider’s cleansing light to lance forward from his ship and burn away the loss he’d suffered the day the Legion arrived at Cera.

Nothing happened.

Kayto fought a rising sense of unreality.  “FIRE!”

“The Vanguard… it’s not responding Captain!” Ava’s voice was stunned with disbelief.

“Goddammit!” Kayto slammed a fist down on his armrest, crashing back to reality and the devastation around him.

“Bridge controls to Vanguard firing controls severed!” Ava shouted, consulting her screens.  “Remote fire offline!”

“Break off the attack!”  Kayto fought the rising nausea.  All the bloodshed, all the death… for this?  “Relay a message to the Maiden’s Grace!  We need the Machiavellis to take the shot!”

“Negative Captain!” cried Ava.  “The Machiavellis don’t stand a chance at making the approach; only the Sunrider can make the shot!”  Another shrill alarm rang out on both their consoles.  “Energy spike!  The Legion is preparing to fire her main cannon!”

The Legion’s gaping maw began to glow with the same hellish red Kayto had seen engulf Cera City what felt like a lifetime ago; a color he would never, could never scrub from his eyes.  His breath caught as his chest heaved, knowing that the light spilling from the Legion’s maw would yet again visit death upon him.  Building up, the Legion’s primary laser lit up its innards with deadly energy, lancing out unstoppably at the Second Fleet.  Slicing past the Sunrider, the laser flickered over the hulls of the Second Fleet’s Machiavellis, cleaving cleaning through two of them, including the fleet’s flagship, the Maiden’s Grace.

“The Alliance lines are falling apart!  At this rate-” Ava’s voice broke as the hard crimson light faded from the main screen, replaced by explosions and flying shrapnel as the massive ships broke apart and detonated, sunk with all hands aboard.

“It’s a bloody massacre…” whispered Kayto as he watched dozens of Alliance cruisers run through with lasers sinking as the PACT fleet closed in for the kill.  “Get me the Vanguards,” he said, his voice turning cold.  “Now.”

“The manual override at auxiliary control station C still appears to be functional!” answered Ava a heartbeat later as she stabbed at her screens.

“C?” Kayto’s felt the universe slow.  “Didn’t you say all C-sections were damaged?”

“Aye Captain!”

“Get a repair crew down there immediately!” ordered Kayto.

“Impossible; deck access cut off by the damage, the crews will never make it in time.  The only way down there is the CIC service corridor.” Ava’s voice was soft in the wailing din of the CIC, but Kayto caught each and every word with mounting fear in his breast, instinctively knowing what she was about to say before the words even let slip past her lips.  “This is our only chance to destroy the Legion; I’m going down there my-”

“NO!”

Kayto slapped the quick release on his crash harness, surging up and staggering to his feet, unbalanced by the shaking of the Sunrider around him, as Ava did the same.

“It’s too dangerous; you can’t go down there!” Kayto shouted as he grabbed onto the sleeve of Ava’s uniform.

“You said it yourself!” Ava wrenched her arm free of him, her cerise eyes glaring at him, burning with duty and conviction.  “We have to sink the Legion or it’ll be a massacre!”

“And I’m saying it now,” Kayto staggered over to his first officer properly, grabbing her by her elbows, consequences be damned.  “It’s. Not. Worth. It.”

Ava struggled against his grip, looking up at him furiously.  “What’s the matter!?  We’ve come too far to back out now!  It killed Maray, didn’t it!?”

Kayto stared deeply into her eyes, wordless for a moment.  The moment, but a split second as the battle for Helion raged around them, dragged on for what seemed like an hour as she glared into his gaze, explosions and death reflected in her cherry irises.

Trembling, Kayto felt a rising emotion well up deep from within, something he’d not felt since the two of them lay entwined, bound by the promise he made years ago.  At that moment, he knew; she could hate him for it, she could abandon him forever for this one act, but no matter what she did, no matter what pain he would later bear, he would not lose her like this.

“You’re still the only person left, Ava.  The only person I have left.”

“NO!” Ava’s eyes widened and tears gathered in the corners of her eyes.  One of her arms broke free and delivered one stinging slap after another to his face as she screamed at him.  “NO!  We can’t wait any longer!  We have to destroy the Legion before we lose the entire fleet!  One life!  One life for-”

“ENOUGH!”  Kayto roared.

The ship rocked again as the Legion and the PACT struck down ship after ship, turning the Alliance lines into an utter bloodbath, but Kayto was past caring as he caught Ava’s hand at the wrist, pulling her in towards him and refusing to let go as the two stared into one another’s eyes, the battle and his dying ship forgotten.

“The whole of the Alliance can burn!  The galaxy can fall to its doom!  The end of humanity can come!  But I will NOT throw you away to die!”

A single tear tracked its way down Ava’s face.  “Y-you’re… emotionally compromised…” she whispered.

“I know.”

Kayto held her for a moment longer as her body went limp, their two hearts pounding against one another as they had in another life.  “I know.”  Letting her slip from his grasp slowly, Kayto watched as Ava took half a step back, conflict swirling behind her beautiful eyes.  “Sit down, Ava.”

Ava’s face fell as more tears rolled down from her eyes.  Bowing her head, she let her hair shield her face, burning red, from his gaze.  “…Idiot…” she whispered tremulously.  Fiercely, she wiped a sleeve across her face and straightened, saluting with wet eyes and a pink flush across her cheeks.  “Sir!”  The barest shadow of a sad, sorrowful smile flitted across her features as she met Kayto’s eyes once more.

Kayto nodded, breathing hard as the two of them once again took seats at their command stations.  Even with the ship falling apart around them, the CIC crew seemed to have frozen, staring at their two commanding officers.

“Hit our engines!  Bypass the Legion!” barked Kayto, shattering the moment, the crew snapping back to their stations and struggling to bring the damaged Sunrider away from the Legion’s forward firing fields.  “The mission critical objective is the Paradox Core!  Send a message over FleetComm to all able Alliance ships to converge and concentrate fire on the Core!”

******

Fontana swept into the Paradox Core’s control chamber, his greatcoat billowing in his wake.  The control chamber was almost monstrously large with a vaulted ceiling so high it disappeared into inky darkness above.  The massive holo screens adorning the far walls showed a panoramic view of the space surrounding the Core and the battle beyond.  Brilliant flashes dotted the sky as hundreds of ships clashed, periodically punctuated by the red lances emanating from the Legion as she devastated the Alliance fleets.

As he strode closer to the holos, a large throne-like chair turned from the screens to face him.  Arcadius sat upon the imposing seat, his small frame utterly dwarfed by the enormity of everything in the room.  Falling to one knee, Fontana struggled to stifle the rising revulsion he felt.  The throne, the room itself… the grandeur and utter decadence of such a space were things befitting the imperialists they’d fought tooth and nail against, not the PACT.

“My Veniczar,” Fontana kept his voice even.  “As you can see, the battle goes well.  The enemy is being slaughtered at the gates.  However, the Sunrider and a small force of Alliance ships has bypassed our fleet’s defenses and are en route to the Paradox Core as we speak.  As a precaution, we should evacuate you further behind our lines.”

“Coward.”  Arcadius’s high voice dripped with fury and condescension.  “We have no further need for your fleet’s interference or incompetence.  We shall deal with the Sunrider.  Personally.”

“My Veniczar-?” Fontana’s voice was uncertain.

Arcadius’s fingers danced over the control pad on the throne’s arm rest.  “Prepare our Ryders,” he commanded to someone unseen, ignoring Fontana.  “Soon, our plan will come to fruition!  HAHAHA!”

*****

“All Ryders, form up!” Asaga’s voice boomed out over the Ryder chatter channel.  “C’mon!  This is our chance to get the Paradox Core!”

Of the hundreds of ships in the Alliance Combined Fleet, only the Sunrider, two remaining Machiavellis from the Second fleet, and a handful of cruisers and Ryders had made it past the gauntlet of PACT forces to advance on the Paradox Core.  Fortunately, it seemed the Core itself had no armaments or defenses.  For the moment, Kayto dared to believe the damaged Sunrider and its rag-tag fleet could finish the mission and force the PACT into retreat before the entire Combined Fleet was sunk behind them.

The Sunrider’s Ryder wing, having avoided the worst of the combat to escort the Sunrider, was miraculously intact, managing to steer clear of the death raining down upon them from the Legion to join their mother ship in the final push for the Paradox Core.

“A-ah!” Chigara’s voice broke out over the comms, cracking with concern.  “Liberty’s detecting multiple contacts launching from the Paradox Core!  I-it’s…”

Kayto looked at the main screen as it acquired visual of the incoming targets with shock.  A Ryder, unerringly familiar to the Ancient Ryuvian Ryders they’d faced on the far side of Far Port’s moon, burned towards the Sunrider and her fleet with the speed to match.  As its bright blue engines flared, Kayto saw the new PACT Ryder had been painted crimson and black, but still bore the unmistakable silhouette of the Ryuvian Ryder, copying its oversized shoulder missile pod, wide bore laser rifle, multiple shoulder-mounted pulse lasers, and anti-Ryder blade in eerie replica of the ancient technology.

“AHAHAHA!”  A high, cold laughter filled the CIC as an open broadcast came in from the Ryder.

“Arcadius!” Kayto’s hands clenched over his armrests.

“Welcome, Captain,” Arcadius’s voice dripped with insane mirth.  “Welcome to our Festival!  I trust you enjoyed my initial hospitality.”

“All Ryders, take out Arcadius now!” Kayto’s hands shook slightly.  “We can end this war, here and now!”

“End this war?” Arcadius chuckled darkly with rising amusement.  “Oh no, Captain.  Our body is immortal!  If one falls, another simply picks up the mask and carries on!”

Arcadius’s Ryder suddenly reeled as a brilliant flash slammed into it, leaving a crater clean through the machine before it detonated in a brilliant fusion explosion.

“Target Neutralized.” Sola’s voice was hard and brittle as she spat in fury.  “Even in this era, mad men drone while men and women die.”

“Confirm hit,” demanded Kayto.  “Did we get him?”

“We…” Asaga’s voice sounded almost disbelieving.  “WE GOT HIM!!! Arcadius is no more!” she whooped.

“AHAHAHA!”

“W-what?!” Kayto reeled as Arcadius’s voice continued to speak over the broadcast.

“Fools.” Arcadius gloated.  “You cannot defeat us all.”  A dozen of Arcadius’s Ryders launched simultaneously from the Paradox Core, each identical to the ones flying by its side.  “We are… LEGION!  WE ARE ARCADIUS!  Now, do you see, Captain?  How can you defeat an enemy whose numbers are infinite?  For each you destroy, two will replace it!  Our mind is one, but our bodies are many!”  Even more of the Ryders streamed from the Core, seemingly endlessly.  “This is the end for you, Captain…”

“Not… yet!”

The Black Jack shot forward, breaking formation with the rest of the Sunrider’s Ryder wing.

“I…” Asaga’s voice started uncertainly, but built with power and conviction.  “I know I’m not as reliable as the Commander.  And I’m not as smart as Chigara.  But… I’m the one who’ll defeat you!  You’re a monster of evil!”

“Oh?” Arcadius asked toyingly.

Asaga’s face contorted with fury as a brilliant blue light flared behind her right eye.  “Fall back,” she growled in a deep, menacing voice most unlike her usual carefree personality.  “To the vile pit you came from!  For this is where the line will be drawn.”

“You are but a pathetic girl playing hero,” Arcadius’s voice was deadly.

“No, I’m more than a girl,” Asaga’s left eye flared with a tiny mote of light.

“I’m more than a hero.”  The light grew in intensity.

“I’m…” Asaga’s left eye burst forward with light, both iris’s glowing with a supernatural blue.  “THE SHARR OF RYUVIA!”

“W-what!?” Arcadius’s confidence cracked slightly as the Black Jack’s engines flared brilliantly, burning with the impossible fury and intensity of a supernova confined.

“ARCADIUS!” Asaga’s voice was deep, resonating with a strength and burning anger that Kayto had never even suspected in her as her face twisted into a harsh grimace.  “You will pay for what you did to my father and my people!  There is no action in this universe without cost.  On this day, you reap the just rewards of the blood you have spilled and the suffering you have unleashed.  On this day, I, Asaga di Ryuvia, condemn you to your fate.”

“Impossible!” Arcadius hissed, his Ryders dispersing and flying to meet the Black Jack as it rocketed towards his dozens of copies unstoppably.

The Black Jack’s engines flared as Asaga dodged all the incoming fire from Arcadius with impossible speed.  The Black Jack’s specs should have been physically incapable of such speeds and rapid maneuvers, never mind Asaga’s fragile human body, and yet, the Black Jack continued to move so fast that it was barely a visible blur of flaring blue light on the Sunrider’s forward screens.  Explosions dotted the sky wherever the Black Jack’s shadow passed.  Pulse lasers strobed wildly from the Black Jack as it rocketed past Arcadius after Arcadius, cleaving some apart with the Black Jack’s anti-Ryder blades while flensing others open as its shoulder mounted lasers discharged with an intensity that made Kayto wince from hundreds of kilometers away.

“Tsch…” Icari stared at the carnage Asaga’s Black Jack was wreaking with wide, disbelieving eyes.  “How…?”

“This power… the true power of the Sharr…” Sola’s voice bordered on reverence.  “I was merely a shadow this entire time…”

“Incoming contacts,” announced Ava.  “The Arcadius clones are going to try to sink the rest of us to isolate Asaga!”

As he eyed the tactical screen, Kayto saw that Ava was right.  A dozen Arcadius Ryders were peeling out of formation, vectoring straight for the crippled Sunrider and her fleet while the rest stayed behind to hold Asaga back from rendering assistance.

“Hold the line,” barked Kayto.  “We need the Machiavellis and the Sunrider if we’re going to take out the Paradox Core.”

“Roger that, Captain,” answered Icari tightly, taking command of the Ryder wing.  “All Ryders, defensive positions, protect the Sunrider!”

“What about Asaga?” called out Kryska.  “We can’t leave her out there alone!”

“She’s got things covered I think!” shouted back Icari as more explosions dotted the sky as Black Jack continued cutting through Arcadius’s Ryders.

Kryska made an unhappy sound in her throat but brought the Paladin in line all the same.

“Incoming missile fire!” called out Ava as the Arcadius Ryders let fly with dozens of high velocity explosives towards the Sunrider.  “All flak, weapons free!”

Sunrider and the two remaining Alliance Machiavellis fired into the incoming missiles, freeing the remaining cruisers to form a perimeter and handle any stragglers that found their way through the flak fields.

“Target Arcadius with our pulse lasers,” ordered Kayto as several of the Ryders charged through the flak network, nimbly dodging through openings created by the missile salvo.  The new PACT Ryders were simply too fast and maneuverable to hit with anything else.

Laser fire strobed from the Sunrider’s Trinity banks as the guns craned to stay on target as the Arcadius Ryders streaked over the Sunrider’s hull, scoring hits with their laser cannons as they flew overhead.

Tearing after them, the Phoenix showered one Arcadius with autocannon fire, the two of them dancing with and firing at one another at close range.  A brilliant crack of light speared another Arcadius as the Seraphim took a shot of opportunity, downing the Ryder craft with a single, clean hit while Paladin blazed away with its autocannons at any passing Arcadius.  Liberty and Bianca were tasked at their utmost providing support, layering what shields they could over the most vulnerable sections of the Sunrider, Liberty’s repair drones desperately attempting to re-route shielding power for the ship while Bianca dragged one of the Arcadius Ryders into a stream of pulse laser fire with a well-placed gravity eddy.  Yet, for each one the Sunrider and its allies seemed to down, more Ryders appeared, threatening to overwhelm them.

“AAARRRGHH!” Icari screamed as the Phoenix locked blades with an Arcadius Ryder, the two of them tumbling as their retrothrusters fired wildly.  Multiple pulse lasers tore through the Phoenix’s thin hull as her anti-Ryder blades swung furiously cutting and stabbing deeply into Arcadius’s Ryder, blasting into its armor point blank with autocannon fire.  Turning end over end, the two Ryders plummeted towards the Sunrider’s hull.

Alarms screamed in the Phoenix’s cockpit as Icari’s hands clenched over her control sticks, dozens of red warning flashing up as the Phoenix reported multiple systems failures and proximity warnings.  “D-DAMN IT!!!”  Wrenching the control sticks so hard she feared they would snap, Icari threw the Phoenix into a vicious roll, black lapping at the edge of her vision as she threatened to black out.

“ICARI!” Kryska shouted as Paladin ducked behind its shield, smashing head-on into another Arcadius Ryder as it flew straight at her, its deadly laser rifle heating the shield to a white hot glow.  Rolling with the weight of impact, the Paladin “threw” the Arcadius Ryder overhead and off axis.  Four brilliant flashes erupted from its shoulder cannons as Kryska blasted the Ryder into pieces.

“Not so fast!” Claude’s voice was strained as Bianca’s gravity gun spun up.  Space seemed to distort right above the Sunrider as Phoenix and its combatant plunged towards the hull spinning wildly.  The Phoenix caught on the edge of the eddy, slowing and sticking unnaturally to the fabric of space like an insect caught by a spider’s web.  Arcadius’s Ryder, however, spun over the edge, slipping off the Phoenix’s blade and plummeting towards the ship’s hull, shattering like china as it impacted still spinning.

“Ugh!” Kayto grunted as his ship rocked with the impact.  “Status!”

“The fleet’s getting torn to shreds by Arcadius!” answered Ava, eyes darting wildly between reports and read outs from the ship.  “We’ve still got seven active Arcadius Ryders!”

Explosions blossomed on the screen as four of Kayto’s remaining cruisers sank, unable to withstand the assault from Arcadius’s Ryders as they fired their powerful lasers into the cruisers’ sides, burning through armor and finding their way to the critical systems beneath.  Even the Alliance Machiavellis were barely able to keep the Ryders at bay, their flak cannons firing desperately as the Ryders scored hit after hit on their damaged hull, igniting atmosphere and fuel lines underneath.

“Captain,” Ava’s face was pale as the CIC shook with yet another impact.  She swiveled a screen to show him the extent of the damage; virtually every section of the Sunrider was pulsing a bloody red as the ship neared the point of non-functionality.  “We’re breaking apart; we can’t take any more of this!”

“Tsch!” Kayto ground his teeth.  They were so close to entering weapons range with the Paradox Core.  If they fled now, the Alliance’s entire sacrifice would have been in vain.  “Redline our reactors!  Get us in range of the Paradox Core, now!”

“AHAHAHA!” Arcadius’s voice echoed with collective laughter as his Ryders converged on the Sunrider determined to strike the finishing blow as Kayto’s war-torn fleet limped towards the Paradox Core.

Kayto felt his heart pounding sickeningly in his throat as he watched Arcadius’s Ryders fly between the Sunrider’s final line of flak and pulse laser cover, weapons charging as they prepared to fire on his crippled ship.

“Warning, energy spike from behind!” cried out Ava.

“The Legion?!” demanded Kayto, his blood running cold.

“Negative! It’s… the Black Jack!”

Brilliant lances of blue light shot across the Sunrider as the Black Jack burned towards them, impossibly fast, its engines a blue nova ringing the Ryder’s silhouette.  Four pinpoints of light formed over the Black Jack’s shoulders, hard and gemlike in brightness as Asaga let loose with the Black Jack’s shoulder lasers.  The laser light slashed painfully across the main screen, spearing Ryder after Ryder with unerring accuracy and cutting Arcadius’s Ryders down one after another.

“How-?” whispered Ava, still unable to believe her own eyes as the Black Jack blasted past the Sunrider’s hull and sliced across an Arcadius Ryder before rocketing off at an oblique angle to flense open another with its pulse lasers, firing at point blank into the Ryder’s chest, melting it like a wax candle down its front.

“AARRRGGHH!” Arcadius’s voice screamed out in fury and frustration as his clones and Ryders were destroyed one after another, Asaga’s newly awakened powers too much to bear.  The seemingly endless waves had finally staunched, dozens having been destroyed in the wake of Black Jack’s retribution, leaving but one Ryder remaining on the field.

“Stay.”

Asaga and the Black Jack slammed into the final Arcadius.

“Away.”

The Black Jack’s laser blade cleaved clean through Arcadius’s Ryder’s right armature.

“From.”

Pulse lasers strobed into the Ryder’s midsection, burning through to the other side and cutting the Ryder’s lower section and legs free from the torso.

“MY FRIENDS!”

Asaga’s eyes flared cyan before fading back to her normal emerald eye color.  Throwing the remnants of Arcadius’s final, crippled Ryder forward, the intense energy around the Black Jack seemed to fade as Asaga’s awakening tapered off.

“You’re still naïve!” Arcadius’s hiss was now less one of fury than of vindication and cold triumph.  “This was but a show; prepare for the true reason you were called before us!  Detonate the Paradox Core!”

“What!?” Kayto felt the Sunrider shake for the umpteenth time as something slammed into its critically damaged hull.  Fear pounded through his veins as Arcadius continued.

“In one moment, four Alliance fleets shall disappear into the great void, along with the great Sunrider and the last vestiges of Diode’s legacy!”  Arcadius’s voice took on a new edge of madness.  “But we shall wake up in new bodies, ready to conquer the galaxy once more!  And this time, nothing shall stand in our way!”

“Arcadius…” Kayto ground his teeth.  “Your own fleet… You’re… inhuman…”

“Precisely.”  Arcadius began to laugh, insane peels of ringing laughter.  “AHAHAHA!”

“No.”

A quiet, clipped voice cut across the transmission.

“W-what!?” Arcadius’s voice sounded stunned.

“Captain!” Ava sounded equally shocked.  “The broadcast from the Paradox Core!  It’s being transmitted to every ship in the system.”

Fontana’s avatar rose on the transmission from behind Arcadius, twisting the PACT leader’s arm behind him and holding him by the neck with his other hand.  “The creature you see before you,” he said, seemingly addressing Kayto, his cyan eyes radiating a cold fury, “Is not the Great Arcadius.”  Turning to look down at Arcadius, Fontana seemed to loom over him as Arcadius turned his head to stare at him from the corner of one of his mask’s blank eyes.  “It’s over Prototype.  My forces have already disarmed the Paradox Core.”

“WHAT?!  FONTANA!!??”  The Prototype sounded livid.  “YOU TRAITOR!”

“A traitor? I?” Fontana snorted softly, blowing a lock of violet hair out of his eyes.  “Would the true Arcadius have used the Compact to spread blood and war across the galaxy?  Would Arcadius have ordered the Legion to fire upon her own ships to sink his enemies?  Would Arcadius have ever considered those who lived, fought, and died for him mere pawns to sacrifice for empty victory?  Would Arcadius have ever sought a weapon designed to wipe out entire star systems and their inhabitants?”  Fontana’s face hardened with every sentence.  “Not the Arcadius I knew.”

“It is now I who must hold the crimson banner of the Revolution, for you have spat against all that it once stood for!  If I am a traitor to our cause, it was only because I fell prey to the same mistake the Great Arcadius did: to allow a monstrosity such as you within our ranks!”  Fontana’s eyes flashed with conviction.  “From this moment forward, it will be I, Vennasar Fontana, who will carry forth the ideals and Revolution of the Great Arcadius.  Hear this, you twisted monster of science; you are no longer fit to bear that name!”

Fontana looked up at the camera, meeting Kayto’s eyes.  “Behold, the truth behind the Mask of Arcadius!”

With a single deft movement, Fontana tore the blank, silver mask from the Prototype’s face.

Kayto gaped as he stared into the face of a woman… with mauve hair and blue eyes.  For a moment he wondered if he’d gone mad, if the insanity of the battle that raged around him had finally smashed his traumatized psyche to pieces, but the utter looks of shock on every other face in the CIC argued otherwise.  Wordlessly, Kayto stared into a face he’d seen almost every day, one in which every ounce of kindness and warmth that ordinarily graced it had been replaced with twisted fury, arrogance, and madness.  Chigara’s face.

“EEEAAAAHHHH!” Chigara’s scream of horror filled the Ryder communications channel, giving voice to the feeling clawing its way out of Kayto’s chest.

“You fool…” the Prototype’s voice was filled with barely contained rage tempered by a paradoxical smugness.  “You will pay for this…”

“This is the secret of Diode,” said Fontana, disgust etched on every handsome feature of his face.  Shoving the Prototype forward and away from him, Fontana continued.  “A race of super humans, manufactured to surpass us in every way.  Until that creation surpassed its creators… the day of the Diode Catastrophe.  Since then, they’ve walked among us, unseen and pretending to be human.  But their goal is clear: the enslavement of the human race.”

“Hahahaha…” The Prototype’s laughter was quiet, grim.  “It’s too late Fontana,” it said with cold triumph, turning to look at him.  “We already number in the hundreds, embedding ourselves throughout the galaxy.  We manipulate ideologies, entire planets, leaders… We already own Everything.”

“No.”

Fontana’s arm snapped up in a blur of motion.  Rather than a pocket watch, however, a matte black compact pistol rose upwards to the level of the Prototype’s forehead.

A single shot rang out, clean and ringing in the utter silence that had fallen over the onlookers.

The Prototype’s head flew rocked backwards as a dark hole blossomed dead center in its forehead, a dark trickle running down from its rim.  With a final look of shock, the Prototype crumpled lifelessly to the ground as the video transmission from the Paradox Core cut out.

“You do not own PACT.”

RETURN >>>>