Chapter 5:  Pirate’s Nest

 

Sunrider plowed forward, it’s arrowhead shape picking a path between the larger planetary fragments of Tydaria’s asteroid field.  All around them, microasteroids showered the hull, sounding for all the world like rain beating down on a tin roof.  Any rocks large enough to actually inflict hull damage were blasted aside or into pieces by Sunrider’s flak guns as she picked her way through the obstacle course between the planet and the pirate nest they intended to raid.Kayto watched the gentle, tumbling ballad of the asteroid field as the helmsman expertly dropped the Sunrider underneath an oncoming planetoid.  Although holodramas frequently portrayed asteroid fields as death traps filled with rapidly moving, colliding rocks the size of mountains, the truth was far more mundane.  Having bled out the kinetic energy initially imparted to them millions of years ago during the formation of the Tydarian system from cosmic gas, the asteroids in the asteroid field had long ago stabilized into regular, predictable orbits that did not involve smashing into each other or into passing ships.  With any standard navigation computer, a starship would be more than capable of plotting a safe course through the asteroid belt, making the helmsman’s job as simple as following the dotted line; at least until combat maneuvers ensued.“Captain; we’re getting close to the target coordinates,” said Ava nervously; so far, their voyage into the  “pirate infested” asteroid field had been remarkable quiet, no doubt intended to lure the Sunrider further in.

“Keep scanning those rocks,” ordered Kayto calmly.  “I’m a hundred twenty percent sure Cosette’s got her goons positioned for a surprise attack; Ryders, are you ready for launch?”

“Just waiting on your command, Capt’n!” came Asaga’s bright voice.  “Don’t worry, we’ll give it to ’em twice as hard as soon as they poke their ugly mugs out of their hidey holes.”

Ava sighed, “It’s always the same with that one… I- contact!  Directly ahead; Captain, I’m reading multiple pirate Ryders on an intercept vector with Sunrider.”

“Go to Red Alert,” ordered Kayto.  “Launch all Ryders and brace for combat.”

“Going to Red Alert,” confirmed Ava as the CIC’s lights turned a blood red and alarms sounded throughout the ship.  “Captain; they’re undoubtedly trying to draw us in; why else would they come straight at us instead of launching an ambush?”

“Probably,” smiled Kayto.  “My guess is they want to make sure we don’t get out alive; for that, they’ll need some heavy weapons, probably the kind they’ve got on their asteroid base.  We’ll just have to spring the trap if we’re going to take them out.”

Ava grunted unhappily.

“Hey, show a little confidence, Commander,” poked Kayto.  “They can’t possibly know about our upgrades.  Plus, we’ve got a pretty neat trick up our sleeves with Chigara on board.”

“Incoming transmission; it’s Cosette,” said Ava, ignoring Kayto.

“Let’s have it.”

“Hmph,” Cosette’s tiny frame appeared on the bridge of the Sunrider in her purple child-sized Ryder armor.  “You’ve got some balls coming out here, Captain, I’ll give you that much.  I didn’t think anyone would be brave enough to attack our base, but maybe you’re just that dumb.”  Sneering, the pirate leader’s expression burned with cold fury.  “Boys, show these whelps what happens when you cross Cosette Cosmos!”

“Scramble Ryders,” ordered Kayto, tapping orders into the tactical screen in front of him.  “Hold position here, let them come to us.  Fire Trinities at the closest Ryder once it’s within range.  Have our autocannons fire at these coordinates, give me a full burst.”

Sunrider’s engines dimmed as she slowed; Black Jack and Liberty taking positions around the ship.  With Ryders leading their formation, the pirates would be forced to try to close the gap quickly or risk being picked off by laser fire one at a time.  Of course, doing so would leave their destroyer support behind, giving the Sunrider a few valuable minutes to even the numerical odds.  As the pirate Ryders, four infantry class and two bomber class, drew within laser range, Sunrider let loose with her Trinity lasers, spearing the head infantry Ryder.  Spinning out of control, the pirate Ryder plowed right into the hail of autocannon fire, shredding itself to pieces.

“Black Jack firing!” Asaga cried out over the comms, putting her Ryder dead ahead of Sunrider and taking point.  Laser light nailed the next closest infantry Ryder, slowing it down, but failing to destroy the target.

“Chigara, you’re up.  Take out their support,” ordered Kayto.

“Roger that, Captain,” answered Chigara, tapping at her Ryder’s consoles feverishly.  “Electronic warfare suite operating at full capacity, boosting signal and uploading data.”

Ahead, the pirate’s asteroid base began to shift, armored plates pulling aside to reveal row after row of missiles and long range laser weapons pointed at the Sunrider.  Ordinarily, the pirates would have been able to take potshot after potshot at Sunrider as she engaged the enemy Ryders, unable to advance without sustaining heavy damage.  However, as Chigara’s digital attack began its warpath through their systems, it quickly became clear the pirate base would be experiencing problems of its own.  Lights flickered on and off at random, the armored panels began to slide forward and back over the missiles, and the base’s cannons began craning wildly, pointing every which way but the Sunrider.

Taking exception to the sudden change in plans, the pirate Ryders immediately angled towards the Liberty, the two undamaged infantry Ryders rocketing in for a close shot while their crippled comrade sluggishly raised and fired its laser rifle.  Although the shot connected, Liberty’s shielding absorbed the brunt of the attack, the remaining energy of the laser hit dissipating on Liberty’s full body shield, leaving scorch marks where they landed.  Behind them, the bomber class Ryders let loose with their missiles, both dumping full salvos at the Liberty.

“Cover the Liberty, fire all flak cannons!” called out Kayto as Sunrider and Black Jack both nailed missile after missile out of the sky as they streaked past on a perpendicular vector.

“Minor damage sustained,” Chigara’s voice was steady despite several missile impacts on her Ryder.  “All systems still green; I’m continuing to broadcast.”

“Kill those Ryders before they get in close enough to take a shot at Liberty,” ordered Kayto.  Without Liberty’s continued electronic assault on the pirate base, the lot of them would be sitting ducks for the heavy weapons on the rock, however, the power consumption of Chigara’s computer systems and signal broadcast rendered the Liberty completely inert and reliant on the Black Jack and Sunrider for protection.

Simultaneously, Sunrider and Black Jack opened fire with their autocannons, sending a storm of bullets hurtling towards the three unarmored infantry Ryders, shredding their frames to pieces before they could even open fire on the Liberty.  One of the pirate bombers drifted a little too close to Black Jack, allowing Asaga to spear the unshielded Ryder with a laser blast from her shoulder cannons.  As it tumbled, engines damaged, Surider let loose with her pulse lasers, pelting the Ryder with fire until its core detonated.

“Pirate destroyer entering combat range,” announced Ava.  “Incoming laser fire, all hands brace for impact!”

Laser light splashed over the prow of the Sunrider, some of it absorbing into the projected shielding from Liberty while the remaining beams vaporized chunks of her ablative armor.

“Hull remains intact,” reported Ava.  Although the lasers had found range, the armor on Sunrider, once vaporized, provided a cloud of dispersing, high albedo vapor cloud that would scatter the laser light, rendering it harmless once coherence was lost.

“Return fire, give them our Saviors; Black Jack, the last Ryder is yours.” ordered Kayto as Sunrider’s guns let loose.  Newly upgraded, courtesy of Chigara’s expertise, Sunrider’s Saviors had never been so accurate nor powerful.  The six kinetic slugs raced towards the pirate destroyer, smashing into its hull with deadly force, tearing through its decks like tissue paper.  One of the slugs must have found its main reactor, as the entire ship exploded violently, scarring the nearby face of an asteroid with a new crater.  Meanwhile, Black Jack hosed down the final Ryder with a generous stream of pulsed laser light, slagging the Ryder’s external parts.  On fire, thrusters non-responsive, the Ryder careened into the side of an asteroid, smearing itself and its pilot across a kilometer long impact streak.

Gunning forward, the final pirate destroyer let loose with its deck guns, trying to score a hit against the Black Jack, apparently having decided Sunrider’s armor made for too tough of a target.  The fired kinetic projectiles whizzed past Black Jack with barely a scratch as Asaga’s piloting skills gave the pirate gunner the slip.  Unforgiving, Sunrider closed the distance to knife-fight range and retorted with its own deck guns at point blank, her Saviors eviscerating the ship, spilling open her hull to the deadly grasp of vacuum.  With a clear line of sight and no further distractions, Black Jack took a long range shot with its laser cannons at the heavily armored pirate base, drawing a line of destruction against its surface installations.

“Fools!  What are you doing!?” screamed Cosette’s whiny voice over an open channel.  “Kill them already!”

“Not this time, Cosette,” gloated Kayto, unable to resist provoking the pirate.  “Your days in this sector are over.”

“Captain… you’ve got guts, but you’re naive,” hissed Cosette.  “You won’t kick us out of our homes that easily!”

“Warp signatures detected!” cried Ava, “Multiple new pirate contacts!”

Kayto chewed the inside of his cheek, studying the tactical screen.  Dropping out of warp in an asteroid field was a risky proposition; a single miscalculation and a ship could drop out on top of an existing mass, triggering an explosion resembling nuclear fusion’s violent cousin as their atomic nuclei overlapped.  Even under optimal conditions, the drift one expected from dropping out of warp made the prospect too risky for any sane captain.  It was a mark of Cosette’s desperation and the pirate’s dedication that she had ordered her forces to perform such a maneuver.  Apparently the gamble had paid off however, as her reinforcements arrived without incident, although the warp drift had positioned her Ryder platforms behind the base, rather than in front to support the destroyers.  “Same strategy applies,” announced Kayto.  “Liberty, keep that base offline; Black Jack, fire on that base as fast as you can cycle those heavy laser cannons and launch all missiles at destroyer D.”

Without the flak support of the Ryders, the old surplus destroyers the pirates had scraped together were easy prey for Black Jack’s missiles, one of them taking a full salvo to her starboard side to devastating effect.  “Fire Trinities at the damaged destroyer, target the other one with our Hell Darts!” ordered Kayto.

Sunrider let fly with her weapons, executing the damaged destroyer with a quick sweep of her lasers.  As Sunrider’s Hell Dart missiles contained significantly higher payloads than the Ryder class missiles Black Jack fired, her salvo’s impact on the remaining destroyer literally burned the ship into a husk of its former self.

Almost pitifully, the pirate Ryders threw themselves forward at the Sunrider in a show of defiance, two of them falling as Black Jack and Sunrider speared them from afar with their laser weapons.  The remaining two infantry Ryders hurtled forward, pumping away with their laser weapons at Sunrider, scoring multiple hits along her starboard side.  From behind, the bomber Ryders let loose with missiles targeted at Sunrider, their warheads detonating viciously on the already damaged hull armor.

“Hull breaches!” yelled Ava as Sunrider pitched and alarms blared.  “Multiple sections compromised on Deck 1 and 2, sealing emergency bulkheads and re-routing systems.  No reports of fatalities.”

Pressing forward, Sunrider and Black Jack batted the two infantry Ryders aside with a hailstorm of bullets, paying the favor back tenfold before torching one of the bomber Ryders with their lasers.

“Take this!!!” screamed Asaga, gunning forward at the final pirate Ryder.  As Black Jack’s close quarters weapons activated, the pirate Ryder blazed away with its machine guns, the rounds bouncing ineffectually off Black Jack’s armor.  A super high-tensile strength blade deployed from its protective sheath on Black Jack’s left armature as its pulse lasers folded away.  Likewise, Black Jack’s right autocannons retreated while a plasma cutter ignited, forming a flattened blade of super heated plasma.  Hacking and slashing at the enemy Ryder, Asaga could almost feel the other pilot’s panic as the blades disassembled the Ryder effortlessly, rending through its armored plates with no more difficulty than through the vacuum of space.

“All weapons, fire!” ordered Kayto.  “Target the pirate base!”

The asteroid shuddered with impacts as Sunrider’s Saviors and Trinities dug into the rock, shattering and burning through armor, literally shaking the entire base apart.  As Sunrider’s Savior cannons reloaded and fired yet another salvo into the bedrock of the pirate base, the entire complex broke apart as the asteroid crumbled into several pieces moving away from the impact site.  Steel girders twisted and snapped like rubber bands as fire and flash-frozen atmosphere blasted out of the damaged base’s hull.  As fires consumed what was left and secondary explosions chained through the base, several smaller pirate ships jetted out of the rear of the base, flames roasting their tail feathers.  Without hesitation, the ships immediately performed emergency warps almost as soon as they cleared the base, disappearing to some other godforsaken pirate haven.

“Stand down Red Alert,” said Kayto with a smile as the CIC burst into cheers.  “Black Jack, Liberty, come on back to base.”

As the crew laughed and cheered, emotions running high, Kayto sat back in the Captain’s chair with satisfaction before turning to his right to Ava.

The woman’s face split into a tiny grin as they locked eyes, the atmosphere in the CIC proving to be infectious.  “Nicely done, Captain.  That was… that was really good,” she said, her cool failing her as she rode the waves of jubilation.  “If you keep those tactics up, I guess we do stand a chance against the PACT.

“Of course we do, Ava,” reassured Kayto.  “Thanks for your hard work; I couldn’t do it without you.  This is just the start of our story; we’ve got a long ways to go.”

“And I look forward to seeing how it plays out,” answered Ava, smile widening.  “Now, get out of here before I make a fool of myself and go to the hanger to meet Asaga and Chigara.”  Waving her hands in a “shooing” motion, Ava chased him from the bridge.  “Go on, I’ve got things covered here.  Go celebrate with those girls before I change my mind.”

******

As Kayto reached the hanger deck of Sunrider, Black Jack and Liberty had just finished docking and powering down, hanging in their frames like massive statues.  Although both Ryders bore the wounds of their battle against the pirates, neither machine looked to have any damage that Chigara wouldn’t be able to set right.

“Capt’n!” Asaga came barreling out of lift 01, bursting with energy and cackling wildly.  “AH-HAHAHA, we did it!  That’ pirate nest is history!” Beaming happily, she straightened her back and faced him directly.  “And as promised, I hereby accept your offer to join the crew of the Sunrider.  If you’ve got a war against the PACT, sign me up.”

Without waiting for his answer, Asaga saluted proudly, raising an armored gauntlet to her brow.  “Asaga Oakrun, at your service, Capt’n!”

Kayto returned the salute and smiled, “Welcome to the crew.  The PACT’s getting stronger each day and we’re going to need every pilot and bit of help we can get to make a difference.”  Turning a bit more somber, he checked one last time, “Asaga, you’re sure about this right?  I mean, we’ll be leaving everything behind and there’s no telling when we’ll come back.”

“An adventurer never stays in one place too long, Capt’n.  So long as I’ve got mah Black Jack, everything’s going to be just fine,” said Asaga with a dismissive gesture.  “Besides, things around Tydaria will get boring without Cosette’s goons bothering the locals.”

Kayto snorted softly, “What do you suppose will happen to them?”

“Who knows?” Asaga sighed, carefree.  “They’ll probably run and dive into another hole they call home.  But they won’t be able to hurt the people here for a while, not until they rebuild their fleet.  When that happens… well they’ll probably come looking for some revenge,” she finished, cheerfully.

“Looks like we made some enemies today…” mused Kayto, thinking about Cosette and wondering if she was one of the survivors who had fled at the battle’s conclusion.

“Don’t worry ’bout a thing, Capt’n!” Asaga’s grin was infectious.  “If they come looking for more, we’ll give ’em as good as they got today, that’s a promise.”

“I suppose you’re right,” said Kayto, deciding to take the victory as it was and worry about the future some other day.  “What about Chigara?  Do you think she’d come along too?”

“I’m sure she’ll let you know,” said Asaga with a knowing wink.  “She said she wanted to talk to you, so I’ll clear out and give you two some space.”

“Alright,” agreed Kayto, “Ava’s up on the bridge; she’ll get you set up to move into one of the pilot’s quarters.  If you need anything, let one of us know.”

“Great!” Asaga’s excitement was barely contained.  “I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to a room and bed; sleeping on board the Black Jack gets old fast!”

As she disappeared down the catwalk, metal boots clinking with each step, Chigara’s head poked out from lift 02.  Catching her glance, Kayto waved her over.

“Great work out there, Chigara,” he offered as she came to stand beside him, looking out at the two Ryders in the hanger.  “Welcome back.”

Chigara’s face lit up and she gave him a sheepish, sideways smile.  “Eh-heh… Really?  I didn’t do much, honestly…”

“We would’ve been toast if the pirate base had gotten a chance to take us on,” reassured Kayto.  “If you hadn’t been there, things might have gone totally differently.”

Chigara said nothing, but broadened her smile, inwardly pleased.

“So what are your plans now?” prompted Kayto.

“Well… things are going to get lonely with Asaga gone… and the bakery isn’t doing too well…” Chigara hinted, tapping one her toe to the deck nervously.  “I… well… maybe…”

“If that’s the case,” offered Kayto, interrupting her as she fumbled for the words she wanted to find.  “Why don’t you join the Sunrider’s crew like Asaga?  I could definitely use another pilot, and, frankly, I’ve got an opening for Chief Engineer I’d like to fill.”

“E-eh!?” Chigara sprang back in surprise.  “C-Chief Engineer!?  And pilot?  Is that even allowed?  Can you just do that?”

“Of course!” Kayto laughed.  “As Sunrider’s Captain, it’s my responsibility to make sure my departments are staffed by the best candidate.  After the work you did on her, I’d say you more than earned the position; the rest of the crew know that’s true too, so you’ll fit right in.  On top of that, you’re one heck of a Ryder pilot; you might just be the busiest person on this boat if you take the job.”

“Hehehe,” Chigara laughed delicately, closing her eyes and smiling with delight.  “If you put it like that, then I don’t really have much of a choice, do I?  I’ll be in your care from now on, Captain.  Thanks for letting me on board…”

“Welcome to the crew, Chief Engineer Chigara Ashada,” saluted Kayto as Chigara blushed and gave him one in return.  “Asaga’s already gone on ahead to the CIC to talk to Ava about moving into the pilot’s quarters.  If you go now, you should be able to catch them.”

“Understood, Captain.  I look forward to working with you,”  Chigara said, giving him a final backwards glance before she hurried after Asaga.

Looking out at the two Ryders in Sunrider’s hanger, the emptiness of the place seemed to diminish.  Although the Sunrider’s crew had lost much in the past two weeks, their latest victories and new found friends were, Kayto hoped, only the beginning of something much bigger.  For today, however, he wanted the crew to celebrate and to internalize some of the pride he felt for their fortitude and accomplishment in the face of insurmountable odds.  “Things are just getting started,” he thought to himself.  “We’re going home… not today or tomorrow, but it’s a promise.  We’re going home.”

 

CHAPTER 6 >>>>