Chapter 6- The Alliance Job

 

Kayto sat at his office, glumly considering the growing mountain of paperwork that had been accumulating on his holo.  For the last two weeks, Sunrider and her crew had been wandering between some of the less traveled paths in the Neutral Rim, chasing after minor criminal gangs for bounties and launching hit-and-run attacks on the PACT’s overstretched supply lines.  Neither entailed particularly exciting or glorious work, although it was, on occasion, dangerous.  Primarily, the missions served to keep the crew focused and alert while awaiting another opportunity, either to deal a decisive strike to the PACT like Ava’s assault on the communications spire, or to make contact with some new recruits or other independent elements.

Unfortunately, no such opportunities had presented themselves; the PACT continued their encroachment on the Neutral Rim, having accepted the voluntary surrender of six additional major Neutral Rim planets and forcibly conquered two others, utilizing the same, barbaric orbital bombardment techniques they had visited upon Cera.  In the span of just two weeks, millions of additional civilian and military deaths had been added to the grim toll of the PACT’s war against the Neutral Rim; testimony to the fact that their occupation fleet had completely embraced indiscriminate slaughter, drawing no distinction between combatants or unarmed civilians.  Although Sunrider had yet to witness such an atrocity, whispers of PACT attacks on any vessel, up to and including refugee ships, filled any ear that cared to listen.  Grimly, Kayto scanned the news holos each standard day, fearing that the end of the Neutral Rim’s independence was fast approaching in the wake of the PACT war machine.

Bing Bing; Kayto’s door chimed.

“Come in,” he said, grateful for the distraction from the monotony of paperwork.

Ava entered his office, all business as usual.  Unfortunately, despite Kayto’s hopes otherwise, the thaw in her personality over the slaves’ rescue had been temporary.  Except for the brief moment they had shared in the immediate aftermath of the rescue, Ava had returned to her usual cold exterior.  Some aboard the ship were even starting to joke about her rigid adherence to regulations, referring to her as Sunrider’s “seventh Savior,” for her unerring accuracy in nailing and obliterating any regulation offense or offender.  At least Kayto hoped it was a joke; nobody seemed to be laughing.  For the last two weeks, she had been completely in her element, enforcing day to day routines aboard the ship.  Whereas Kayto found himself increasingly mired and frustrated with the lack of change, Ava seemed to take comfort in the predictability of the last two weeks.

“Captain, incoming transmission for you on the FTL beacon.  It’s the Solar Alliance; Admiral Harold Grey wants to speak with you,” she said without so much as a greeting.

Kayto’s mind did a double take at the name; even out in the Neutral Rim, the Grey family name commanded renown and respect.  “An audience with the Admiral?  I didn’t realize we were so important.  Looks like we’re moving up in the galaxy, Ava,” he joked.

Ava’s face remained impassive.  “Feel free to answer the call anytime you like; I’m sure he’ll hold,” she bit back, turning to leave.

“Ava,” he called out, “Stay.  Let’s hear what Admiral Grey wants with us.”

Keying the FTL transponder, he accepted the call, Admiral Grey’s image coalescing from a hundred motes of light.  Tall and classically handsome, the Admiral had aged gracefully.  Although his hair and short, neat beard were white, and his face lined, he looked remarkably fit with sharp, penetrating eyes.  One look at the Admiral and Kayto knew the other man was not someone to be taken lightly.  Dressed in the white and green colors favored by the Alliance Navy, his uniform was perfectly pressed and stiffly starched, emblazoned with a plethora of medals and awards, as well as an insignia of his rank as an Alliance Admiral.

“Greetings, Sunrider.  This is Admiral Grey of the Alliance Space Force,” said the Admiral in a deep, clear voice, inclining his head politely.

“A pleasure to meet you, Admiral.  I’m Kayto Shields, Captain of the Sunrider; Cera Space Force, and this is my First Officer, Commander Ava Crescentia,” introduced Kayto.

“You must accept my condolences for the tragedy that has befallen your great planet,” offered Grey, “It pains me each time I hear a Neutral Rim world’s sovereignty has been crushed underfoot by the PACT war machine.”

Although the Admiral’s tone was sincere, Kayto and Ava both accepted the condolences with a grain of suspicion, true Neutral Rim citizens to the core.  Although the Solar Alliance had never pointed guns at the worlds of the Neutral Rim, the citizens of the neutral worlds harbored no less suspicion towards the Solar Alliance than they did the PACT.  More than one neutral world had been “invited” to join the Alliance under almost coercive terms in exchange for economic bail out or humanitarian aid.  To both Ava and Kayto, the Solar Alliance walked around the galaxy with a stick almost as big as the one the PACT used; they just insisted it was a walking cane.

“Thank you, Admiral.  The PACT must be stopped at all costs, of this, I’m sure,” said Kayto, choosing his words carefully.

“I understand your ship has been operating as a freelance vessel since the fall of your government,” said Grey, lacing his hands in front of him and leaning forward towards Kayto and Ava.  “It should be unsurprising, then, that I’m calling you regarding a proposal for work.”

Kayto nodded; being Captain of an assault carrier, without a doubt, made finding work a fairly easy affair.  “Go ahead, you’ve got our attention.”

“Our government dispatched an envoy of diplomats to the neutral world of Versta quite some time ago to discuss the possibility of their joining the Alliance,” explained the Admiral, conjuring up a wireframe model of the planet complete with details and coordinates scrolling down an information window.  “Unfortunately, it would seem that negotiations did not prove fruitful and Versta is now directly in the path of the advancing PACT invasion fleet.  My government would like to contract your vessel for the safe extraction and return of our diplomatic mission before the PACT invasion fleet arrives and executes them.  We are, of course, prepared to reward your crew handsomely for the service.”

Kayto chewed on the story for a moment.  “Surely the Alliance has any number of starships available for duty,” he pointed out.  “Why even bother hiring us?”

“Because the Alliance is not in the business of violating the sovereignty or neutrality of the Neutral Rim worlds,” replied the Admiral smoothly.  “Versta has declined to negotiate for free passage of Alliance military vessels and we believe the situation is too dangerous for our diplomats to leave Versta without an armed escort.  We are, therefore, obliged to contract the services of a neutral third party,” he concluded, inclining his head towards Kayto and Ava once more.

“You’d think that the Verstans would be more flexible in this regard,” pressed Kayto, smelling something fishy.  Despite the Admiral’s impression of reason and transparency, Kayto could not shake the specter of suspicion that hung over his shoulder.

“Unfortunately, with the imminent arrival of the PACT fleet, the Verstans have become… agitated.”  The Admiral sighed wearily.  “They’ve taken to blaming the Alliance for involving them in the conflict; unfairly, I might add.  Suffice it to say, the last thing the Verstans wish to see at this point is a heavily armed Alliance patrol in orbit over their world.”

“These diplomats must be important; your government seems to be going to lengths to secure their safe return,” observed Ava, equally suspicious.

“Not per se, they occupy relatively minor government posts from what I understand.”  The Admiral’s voice grew more serious.  “The reason why the Solar Alliance is so insistent in this instance is due to the current political climate.  As you know, our Senate is deadlocked with indecision with regards to a proper response towards the PACT’s aggression towards the Neutral Rim.  If, however, these government officials were to be captured and executed by the PACT, my government will view the incident as a declaration of war.  The Solar Alliance will have no choice but to declare war on the PACT if that should come to pass.  These orders come from the honorable President Alythe, himself, who has made it clear to my office that intergalactic war with the PACT over a, forgive me, minor Neutral Rim world would be an unacceptable outcome.”

“A war between the PACT and the Solar Alliance would end up claiming billions of lives, at the very least,” mused Kayto.  “I can appreciate it’s not a decision one rushes into; perhaps there will be a better time and place for the Alliance to provide leverage against the PACT.”

“A matter for our fearless politicians to decide, I’m afraid, hmph.”  The Admiral let loose with a derisive snort, revealing for a moment his personal feelings on the matter.  “At any rate, those are your directives; straight from the Presidential Office.”

“You’ve got a deal, Admiral,” agreed Kayto, coming to an executive decision.  Regardless of what wasn’t being said in the briefing, the job was too good of an opportunity to pass up.  If things went well, the entire affair would be a milk run; a very well paid milk run.  Ava nodded her assent beside him.  “An operation against the PACT is a good operation in my books.”

“Excellent.  My staff will forward the relevant details to your First Officer, Captain.  Your services and capacities to… judge the situation come highly recommended; I expect results.  Grey out.”

The Admiral’s hologram dissolved and Kayto turned to Ava, “A job from the Solar Alliance; I wasn’t expecting that when I woke up today.”

Ava shrugged, “With all the chaos the Neutral Rim’s been in, everyone wants a hired gun these days. It helps that Sunrider is one Big gun.  We could be seeing a new golden age of privateering out here.”

“We might want to swap out your uniform for something more eye catching then,” suggested Kayto in a serious voice, squinting one eye and miming several measuring gestures over Ava as she sat with her limbs crossed, unimpressed.  “I’m thinking something with a bit more skin…  And heels.  High heels.”

“No.” Ava’s voice was humorless as she glared at him, suggesting he was on extremely thin ice.  “Idiot,” she muttered under her breath.

Giving a theatrical sigh, Kayto continued the conversation.  “What’s the political situation between the Alliance and the PACT these days anyways?”

“Remind me again how they let you captain the Sunrider without passing modern history?” nipped Ava, still nettled over his previous comment.

“Ouch, ouch…”

Rolling her eyes, Ava launched into a succinct summary, her voice switching to lecture mode.

“The Solar Alliance is widely recognized to be one of the major powerhouses in galactic politics.  It’s a military, economic, and research alliance between Solaris and over a hundred other worlds, some big, some small.  They’re structured as a galactic democracy, each world nominating representatives based on population to the Solar Senate on Solaris to lobby on and vote on issues affecting the entire Alliance.  Of course, since each senator represents close to a billion constituents, whether the Alliance is an actual democracy depends on your definition.  Recently, the Solar Senate’s been paralyzed by debate and infighting, just like the Admiral said.  The United Universalists are pushing for a military response to the PACT incursion on the Neutral Rim; they believe war is inevitable and that the Alliance needs to act before allied worlds can be threatened directly.  On the other hand, the Progress Party believes it can negotiate a political solution with the PACT, in essence, trading the Neutral Rim for peace between the two powers.  With all the debate, practically nothing is getting done in the Solar Alliance, leaving President Alythe as a lame duck.  So far though, he doesn’t seem like he has any stomach for war; without the support of the Senate, he’s been trying to avoid war with the PACT at all costs and has been keeping the Alliance Navy from getting involved in border disputes by withdrawing them from the frontiers of Alliance space.”

“I grew up hearing some not-so-great things about the Alliance,” reflected Kayto.  “Most of it from you, mind.”

“Not every world wants to join, as much as the Alliance would want you to believe,” said Ava.  “Some worlds are too far away to benefit, others, like Cera, just want to be left alone because they’re doing fine as it is.  When the Alliance sets its sights on something, it usually tries to buy what it wants, but that doesn’t mean every world has joined their ranks completely voluntarily.  Either way, being a part of the Solar Alliance comes with benefits and downsides.  For Cera, the advantages simply never outweighed the disadvantages, what with the encroachment upon our political freedoms and planetary industry.”

“What about the PACT?” inquired Kayto, impressed at Ava’s substantial political knowledge.  Sometimes he wondered if she wouldn’t have made a better career out of politics; Foreign Minister, perhaps.  If Cera had any government to speak of left…

“The People’s Alliance for Common Treatment, which we call PACT for short, started as an independence movement within the New Empire.  When the New Empire was still around, they ruled numerous star systems from New Eden, defeating the remnants of the Holy Ryuvian Empire and taking the galaxy for themselves.  Although they portrayed themselves as enlightened demi-gods, carrying the torch of civilization to the worlds lost in the dark age after the fall of the Holy Ryuvian Empire, the truth was that the New Empire was a brutal, imperialistic dictatorship.  Even though New Eden was practically a paradise in of itself, the Imperial navies wrested the treasure, resources, and labor of a hundred worlds to empower and enrich New Eden, building their so-called “Golden Age” from the suffering of their citizenry and forcing the masses to live in poverty.  Eventually, they reached a tipping point in their distribution of wealth and resources and the masses revolted, ending the New Empire after years of civil war and bloodshed, establishing the PACT in their stead, a system where all the worlds would share their wealth and resources equally and strive for economic independence and sustainability,” instructed Ava, clearly enjoying herself.

“They sound like the good guys when you put it that way; what the hell are they doing in our backyard?” asked Kayto, playing right into her history lesson.

“The independence movement went horribly wrong shortly after the PACT revolution took New Eden and toppled the New Empire for good.  During the revolution, the masses were led by a visionary who they called ‘Veniczar Arcadius.’  Nobody knows who Veniczar Arcadius was before the PACT revolution, but he quickly became a symbol for the people to rally behind.  He always wore a mask and spoke through a computer, giving up his identity to represent an idea.  The people grew to love him and elevated him to the level of a messiah figure during the revolution. After overthrowing the New Empire, they clamored for Veniczar Arcadius to lead them to a new way of life; creating a government where his word is as much law as that of the emperors they used to serve.”

Ava shook her head, continuing, “The power must have changed him, because the Veniczar became a different man from the one who had inspired his people to break their chains and live their own lives.  He cultivated a sense of paranoia and extreme nationalism, urging the PACT worlds to annex their neighbors to secure the ‘everlasting endurance of the Revolution.’  Today, the PACT’s entire economy is devoted towards the pursuit of ‘the Enduring Revolution,’ and the ‘liberation’ of worlds that border their space.  That’s exactly what you see going on right now in the Neutral Rim; they’re annexing us one planet at a time to bring us under the PACT banner, fueling their revolution farther and farther.  The men and women who crew the invasion fleets are true believers, borderline fanatics who won’t hesitate to sacrifice resources, ships, or even their own lives to carry on the revolution.  Where, when, and how the revolution stops is anyone’s guess at this point.”

“Hard to imagine there’s any way around another galactic conflict,” observed Kayto, absorbing the facts Ava had laid out.

“Exactly; most people think it’s only a matter of time before the Solar Alliance and the PACT square off against each other.  Personally, I think it’ll happen as soon as the Neutral Rim’s completely conquered.”  Ava’s tone was bleak, “You can’t just end decades of expansion suddenly, and once the PACT’s done with the Neutral Rim, there will be nowhere to turn but Alliance space.”

“That would explain the Admiral’s opinions about the Alliance and PACT,” said Kayto, connecting the dots in his mind.

“He probably thinks it’s inevitable as well.  So far, President Alythe has been bending over backwards to avoid open conflict with the PACT, but my sense is that the Alliance Navy is gearing up for the day he falls over,” confirmed Ava grimly.

“Well,” said Kayto, rising and stretching, “It won’t be tomorrow if we have anything to say about it.  Thanks for the history lesson, Ava; let’s chart a course for Versta and get underway before Alythe falls on his butt in this ridiculous game of limbo.”

“What’s limbo?” asked Ava, confused by his metaphor.

“How could you be so smart and not know what limbo is?”

******

“Arriving at planet Versta,” declared Ava as Sunrider dropped out of warp over the blue-green planet.

Rich with breathable atmosphere, ocean, and land, Versta was a prototypical Terran planet.  Likely settled during the ancient expansion and colonization efforts of early humanity, Versta had originally owed allegiance to the Holy Ryuvian Empire, like so many other worlds at the time.  Following the decline and eventual defeat of the Holy Ryuvian Empire, Versta’s return to independence had been marred by a series of long, bloody civil conflicts which had embroiled the planet, leaving blood stains splashed across their modern history.  The people of Versta were fiercely independent, having fended for themselves for generations, too involved with their own civil conflict to play a greater role in galactic politics and too far removed to be of interest to any other powers.  In the last two decades, however, Versta had known a relative peace under the leadership of President Zefiris, the world’s first global leader since the days of the Ryuvians.  Through sweeping economic and political reform, Versta was in the midst of an industrial and population boom, seemingly destined to become a prosperous, productive world in the near future. Such success, however, had resulted in unwanted attention from both the Solar Alliance and the PACT, both of whom had proven to be a tremendous headache for the struggling world.  Now, however, with a full PACT occupation fleet bearing down upon them and little orbital military presence save for rudimentary orbiting observation habitats, Versta’s fate to join the PACT seemed virtually sealed.

Proximity alerts blared through the CIC almost immediately, startling the crew.

“Alert!  Drop point is hot!” yelled Ava in shock, “Multiple PACT signatures detected in orbit over Versta; moving to intercept!”

“Red Alert, all hands to battle stations!  Scramble our Ryders this instant!” barked Kayto as the CIC dropped into red.  With a sinking feeling in his stomach, Kayto suddenly realized the job offered to Sunrider came with some pretty significant fine print.  What had initially promised to be a simple retrieval and delivery mission was quickly spiraling into something far more dangerous.

“Black Jack and Liberty launching,” panted Asaga through the comms, clearly sprinting for her Ryder lift.

“One hell of an entrance,” muttered Kayto.  “Charge all weapons, prepare to fire on PACT forces!”

******

Asaga and Chigara raced towards the hanger deck, breath ragged as they struggled against the weight of the Ryder suits they wore.

“Next time, we should quit before we drop out of warp!” admonished Chigara as the two of them threw themselves onto the main lift.

“All right, all right,” grumbled Asaga, humbled.

Together, the two Ryder pilots piled out of the lift, running all out to their respective bays.

“Launching now!” reported Asaga over the comms as she overrode all the pre-flight checks and activated Black Jack’s thrusters.

On the other side of Sunrider, Chigara opted to take the thirty seconds she needed to be sure Liberty wouldn’t blow up the moment it was turned on prior to igniting her thrusters and pushing out of the docking tube, hard on Asaga’s trail.

The two Ryders popped out of Sunrider’s launch tubes, Black Jack on her port side and Liberty on her starboard side.

“Ryders in position,” confirmed Chigara, activating Liberty’s long range scanners and uplinking to the Sunrider.  “Looks like we’ve got a small detachment moving to intercept; four PACT infantry class Ryders and two cruisers.  Sunrider, I’m feeding additional information to your targeting computers now.”

Inheriting the factories and technology of their defeated masters, PACT Ryders continued to betray traces of their origin.  Though an order of magnitude more advanced than the old surplus Imperial Ryders the pirates operated, PACT Ryders were ever bit as standardized and mass produced, even retaining the rough original shapes of their predecessor Ryders.  Originally conceived as a scouting unit, the PACT infantry Ryder quickly became the staple of their Ryder forces due to their versatility and low cost.  The PACT infantry Ryder carried heavier weapons, a fusion reactor with increased operational capacity, and improved thrusters in comparison to the Imperial Ryders they were based off of; a step up in terms of firepower and maneuverability, although they continued to sacrifice the protection of armor or shields in exchange.  Instead, PACT infantry Ryder pilots were trained to engage in squad tactics, taking down larger targets with coordinated attack patterns, and to depend on their support and capital ships for protection in the form of flak and shields.  Their swarm tactics and general disregard for self-preservation had resulted in the crew taking to nicknaming the PACT infantry Ryders as “Mooks.”  Given the extremely limited maintenance needs of the Ryder, almost all PACT ships larger than a frigate carried at least one or two of the Ryders for reconnaissance and fire-support.

Behind the Ryders, two PACT cruisers provided escort for their lighter forces.  PACT ship design differed tremendously from the ship architecture employed by the Solar Alliance or Cera, opting for a uniquely home-grown design that had since become iconic for the PACT navy.  With a knife-shaped, asymmetric prow, the PACT cruisers were a collection of odd angles and flaring modules, giving the entire ship the geometry of a particularly unusual crystal shard.  At the ship’s aft section, the massive spools of their warp drives ringed their main engines, adding to the PACT cruiser’s distinctive profile.  As its primary armaments, the PACT cruiser sported a respectably dangerous series of laser embankments along its lateral sides and numerous assault auto and flak cannons.  At the “top” of the ship, spinally mounted kinetic cannons topped off the cruiser’s offensive capabilities, making them dangerous opponents if they were allowed to close distance with their enemies.

Like the other parts of the PACT navy, the PACT cruiser had been designed for maximum production value, suffering in terms of individual specifications, but overcoming any inherent weaknesses through coordination and superior numbers.  Employing the very latest in shield technology and mounting heavier than normal armor for the ship class, PACT cruisers made for extremely durable targets when encountered in number.  Operating under the PACT doctrines of group tactics, each ship supported its neighbor with a series of overlapping shields and flak like an ancient infantry phalanx.  Together, PACT cruisers could advance under the cover of missile frigate and Ryders, impervious to long range assault until they had closed enough distance to engage in ship-to-ship combat at knife range.  The one underlying weakness of the PACT cruiser design was its general sluggishness; the shield systems and heavy armor putting a heavy strain on their reactors and engines and making it difficult for the PACT cruisers to close large distance gaps quickly or engage in any rapid evasive maneuvers.  Like everything the PACT navy operated, the cruisers and the Ryders were all painted the same shade of sanguine to represent the sacrifice borne by their people.

At the present distance, the PACT Ryders made for difficult, if not impossible targets, even with the Liberty’s targeting assist.  The PACT cruisers, however, were an entirely different story as they lumbered towards the Sunrider ponderously.

“Engines ahead at full, fire Saviors!” ordered Kayto, bringing the Sunrider just close enough launch a long-range salvo against the PACT ships.  With the funds from their previous job against the slavers, Kayto had instructed Chigara to make improvements to the Sunrider’s reactor and Saviors, boosting their accuracy and lowering their power consumption.  Thanks to the recent upgrades, Sunrider now had the option of moving ahead at full power and firing simultaneously or firing two salvos in rapid succession, diverting all power from engines to speed the cooling and reloading of the main deck guns.

Luck appeared to be with the Sunrider’s crew as the long range shots landed on target despite roughly equal chances of missing at that range.  Undaunted, however, the PACT cruiser shrugged off the impact, heedless of the new gaping holes in its thick armor and continuing its steady advance forward.  Kayto made a mental note for caution; although sub-par to Sunrider’s specifications, the PACT cruisers were a far cry from the fragile pirate destroyers they had faced earlier.  With their substantial armor and heavily redundant systems, the PACT cruisers would take more than a single salvo to bring down.

Pushing their engines to the maximum, the two PACT cruisers met, bearing down on the Sunrider side by side, sending their four Ryders forward in a tightly knit squad in front.  Giving up the chance to launch long-range laser strikes, the PACT Ryders came alarmingly close to Sunrider and her two escorts, apparently intent on settling things up close.

“Overconfident bastards,” muttered Kayto grimly, “Let’s give them-”

“Captain!  New warp signature detected!” interrupted Ava.  “Unidentified Ryder has just entered our AO!”

“A… Ryder?” asked Kayto, thrown and unsure if he had heard correctly.

A shockingly yellow Ryder dropped out of warp, space-time twisting and flashing around it as it disengaged its warp drive.  Attached to its back, the Ryder seemed to be carrying a ring shaped weapons platform, answering the question of its warp capabilities.

“It appears to be some kind of booster pack…” observed Ava, interested in the unusual Ryder.

“Flag?”

“No matches in our database, Captain,” said Ava, shaking her head.

“W-whoa!” shouted Asaga over the comms as the booster module on the back of the yellow Ryder suddenly let loose with a barrage of laser fire in her direction.  Putting Black Jack into a wild spin and diving suddenly, she managed to dodge the unexpected fire.  “Whatever it its, I don’t think it’s friendly!”

“Damn it,” Kayto muttered.  If the PACT was bringing in special forces, things at Versta were about to get significantly more complicated.  “Take it down with the rest of them,” he ordered grimly, “Weapons free, you have permission to engage if it gets any closer.”  Special Ryder aside, something still needed to be done about the immediate threat the regular PACT forces represented as they stared down the Sunrider, practically nose-to-nose with them.  “Asaga, get these mooks off us; we’re going to try to take one of those cruisers down!”

“Roger that, Capt’n!” shouted Asaga, throwing the Black Jack towards the four oncoming Ryders.  Guns blazing, Black Jack took down one of the mooks, shredding its unarmored hull apart and damaging its neighbor before blasting past their formation and leading the remaining Ryders on a chase.

“Fire Saviors!” ordered Kayto, indicating the wounded cruiser on his tactical screen.  At that range, Sunrider’s gunners couldn’t miss if they tried, emptying the deck guns straight into the PACT cruiser’s already strained hull.  It was testament to the PACT’s engineering prowess that the ship remained intact, lights flickering, but still determined to come at them.  “Fire autocannons, aim for the holes in their hull!  Use any remaining rounds to provide cover for Black Jack.”

Sunrider’s autocannons roared to life, tearing apart the exposed decks of the PACT cruiser, finally managing to inflict enough damage to dispatch it from the battle for good.  Turning their guns from the gutted hull of the dead cruiser, Sunrider’s gunners managed to nail the damaged PACT Ryder trailing behind its comrades, struggling to compensate for its damaged systems.  Unable to dodge, it rammed into the wall of bullets from the Sunrider, spinning uncontrollably until it blew up spectacularly.

Unfortunately, the remaining PACT cruiser and Ryders had Sunrider and her two Ryders right where they wanted them; at close range and dead in their crosshairs.

“Liberty, see what you can do about the cruiser,” ordered Kayto, resigned to the fact that the PACT was about to exact payback for the damage he had dealt to their comrades.  At this point, the best he could hope for was to minimize the damage they could inflict, and the PACT cruiser’s deck guns represented the single greatest threat in their present situation.

“I’m trying, Captain!” Chigara’s nervous voice chirped over the comms.  “Breaking firewalls… overriding safeties…”

As the PACT cruiser’s deck guns swiveled and locked onto the Sunrider’s open profile, Kayto gritted his teeth.  “All hands, brace for impact!”

A second passed, then another.  Although the cruiser’s guns remained pointed at Sunrider, no muzzle flash ever came to herald the kinetic impacts Kayto had expected.  Slowly, the running lights on the outside of the cruiser flickered and turned off and her engines cut out, leaving the ship dead in space.

“Captain, I’m detecting no shields from the remaining PACT cruiser, looks like Chigara managed to take their entire electrical system down,” reported Ava, impressed.  “Incoming fire from PACT Ryders!”

Both PACT infantry Ryders opened fire with their laser rifles, having given up on Black Jack and closing in to target the Sunrider.  Laser fire splashed over her hull, diminished by the Liberty’s shielding, but still powerful enough to carve deep lines through Sunrider’s armor.

“No hull breaches detected, Captain.  Watch that other Ryder,” cautioned Ava as the mysterious yellow Ryder roared past the PACT cruiser straight towards Sunrider with impressive speed, even by Ryder standards.  Whoever was piloting the Ryder, they were undoubtedly an expert; flying at those speeds would be suicidal for anyone less qualified.

“Don’t waste the chance Chigara gave us; fire the Saviors, maximum cycling rate, get them while they’re down!”  ordered Kayto.  Unlike a fistfight or brawl, there was no such etiquette about kicking a man while down in space naval warfare where a single misstep could result in your crew’s not-instant-enough and grisly death in vacuum.

Sunrider’s Saviors fired twice in rapid succession, their barrels glowing red with the heat of the discharges as the new cooling systems strained to keep them in operational parameters.  Satisfied with the havoc she had inflicted on the PACT cruiser’s electronic systems, Chigara fired with her laser rifle as well, adding to the grievous injuries inflicted on the cruiser by Sunrider’s Saviors.  Unable to cope from the onslaught, the cruiser broke apart, shattering from the impacts.

Throwing the Black Jack into a tight 180 degree turn, Asaga tailed the two PACT Ryders, hard on their thrust trails as she cut loose with all of Black Jack’s weaponry, missiles included.  The two PACT Ryders were helpless as bullets, laser pulses, and guided missiles rained down around them, one detonating immediately while the other barely pulled through, trailing smoke and fire as it came around for what the pilot likely knew would be the final pass of his or her life.  Opening fire, the PACT Ryder scored a direct hit on Sunrider’s weakened armor, cutting through her hull and setting off alarms in the CIC.  To make matters worse, the yellow Ryder arrived as well, bringing its weapons to bear and adding fuel to the fire.  Blue lasers discharged from the ringed module on its back, inflicting damage to Sunrider’s hull equivalent to something a destroyer class ship might have mounted.

“Alert!  Multiple hull breaches on decks zero and two!  Initiating damage control measures now!” said Ava frantically, her fingers a flurry over her command station’s controls.

Outside, the PACT Ryder vectored towards the Sunrider, pushing its crippled engines as hard as it could, clearly intent on impacting the ship.  “I don’t think so,” roared Asaga, taking aim with the Black Jack’s machine guns before firing a burst at the Ryder’s left engine.  The engine exploded, blasting the Ryder off its trajectory.  Unable to balance thrust, the Ryder spiraled off into space before detonating.  “That’s the last mook, Capt’n!  Targeting Yellow!” she reported, letting loose at the unknown custom Ryder with her shoulder laser cannons.

“Fire assault cannons!” ordered Kayto, using the Sunrider’s smaller guns blast away at the nimble, but lightly armored yellow Ryder’s position.

Swerving wildly, the yellow Ryder dodged and weaved, shaking an impressive amount of laser and autocannon fire before sustaining damage.  Unable to withstand the barrage, the yellow Ryder was engulfed in an explosion.

“Did we get ’em?” demanded Asaga.

“Negative!” reported Ava, “Detonation was from the Ryder’s booster pack, Captain.  It appears the Ryder was damaged, but survived the blast; it’s dead in the water, Sir.”

Kayto tapped his lips thoughtfully.  Judging from the state of the Ryder, it was very likely the pilot had survived, even though the Ryder itself no longer presented a threat, stunned by the explosion.  With any luck, the pilot aboard the Ryder would know a thing or two of interest with regards to the Sunrider’s mission, at Versta or otherwise.  “Black Jack, hold fire and provide cover for Liberty.  Liberty, tow the PACT special Ryder to Sunrider and prepare to dock.  If either of you detect anything suggesting reactivation, use your discretion.”

“Copy that,” Asaga and Chigara said together as their Ryders burned cautiously towards the yellow one.

“Ava, alert the marines and get a full security detail down to the hanger.  Let them know we’re taking a prisoner.”

“Roger that.  Captain…” Ava’s tone was cautionary.  “That PACT fleet was too small to be their invasion fleet.”

“I know,” sighed Kayto, “You’re right, they’re probably just a recon flotilla.”

“And now they know we’re here,” Ava said, crossing her arms unhappily.

“One thing at a time, Ava,” he said with resignation.  “Let’s see what our prisoner has to say first.”

******

“Looks like we got ourselves a prisoner, huh, Capt’n?” asked Asaga smugly as Kayto and Ava exited the lift to Sunrider’s hanger deck.

In docking bay 03, Liberty had just finished maneuvering the captured Ryder into the docking apparatus, which configured itself quickly before locking onto the Ryder.  The security team Kayto  requested had already arrived, fully equipped with armored suits and pointing all the manner of machine guns and laser rifles at bay 03’s lift, from which the Ryder pilot would have no choice but to exit.  Although it was extremely doubtful that a single Ryder pilot would require six marines with enough weapons to subdue the entire crew, Kayto appreciated their initiative and enthusiasm in dealing with this unknown variable.  At any rate, as the marines had little to do since the extradition of the slavers; it was probably just their way of blowing off a bit of stir-crazy.

“Looks that way,” answered Kayto, amused that Asaga found the whole situation so exciting.

“So…” Asaga grinned eagerly.  “You gonna interrogate the pilot?  Toss ’em into the airlock until they spill their guts?”

“Uhh… not exactly,” said Kayto, somewhat put off by Asaga’s idea of appropriate POW treatment.  “We’ll probably ask some questions ourselves and turn them over to the Alliance once we finish the mission.”

“Aww…” Asaga’s face was crestfallen.  “So much for how they do it on holovision…  Can’t we scare ’em just a little?  There was this great scene in Solar Surfer Academy where…”

“Isn’t that an eroge game?” asked Kayto, interrupting before he could stop himself.

“Capt’n!” Asaga practically squealed as Ava’s teeth ground loudly, pretending not to hear them.  “I could tell you were a gamer, but I didn’t know you were into that pervy stuff.”

Kayto coughed loudly, cringing inwardly at the reminder of his sad, squandered youth.  “I uhh… it was for a friend.”

“We’re secure here, Sir,” reported the squad leader, her voice coming from somewhere just below her chin from a speaker on the outside of the helmet as Kayto walked to bay 03’s lift without encouraging Asaga any further.

Keying the intercom, Kayto addressed the Ryder pilot, his voice on the hanger loudspeakers overhead and being transmitted directly into the Ryder through its hull.  Even if the Ryder’s external sensors were completely down, his voice would still sound like he was standing next to them.  “Unidentified Ryder pilot, we are docked to your external hatch.  Exit your Ryder and enter the lift with your hands in the air.  We will not shoot if you comply with our instructions.”

Everyone shifted nervously as the lift hummed to life after several seconds of silence and hissed open, revealing the unidentified Ryder’s pilot.  Wearing a yellow set of Ryder armor that matched the color of her Ryder, the pilot stepped from the lift with an air of reticence, her head held high and her arms only halfheartedly raised.  Her long black hair was held back in a ponytail which reached down to the small of her back, the Ryder pilot’s emerald eyes raked over the welcoming party from underneath her bangs, unimpressed.  “Kind of an unusual look for a PACT vessel,” she sniffed, eyeing her surroundings with suspicion.  Her face was young, but the hard look behind her eyes immediately betrayed a life not unaccustomed to hardship.

“This is Sunrider; she’s a vessel of the Cera Space Force.  I’m Captain Kayto Shields, welcome aboard,” replied Kayto, figuring common courtesy wouldn’t go amiss.  The pilot’s question appeared to be genuine, suddenly making the likelihood that she was PACT special forces a good deal less likely.

“Cera?” the pilot’s tone was surprised although she relaxed almost imperceptibly.  “I thought you guys got conquered by the PACT.”

“Not all of us; clearly,” said Kayto coolly.  “Who are you?”

“Icari Isidolde, private mercenary.”

“Hired by the PACT?” probed Kayto.

“Nothing of the sort,” shot back the pilot, crossing her arms.  “I was on a job, can’t tell you any more than that,” she said, giving a wry smile.

“See, that kind of attitude isn’t going to work here.  Security; relieve our guest of any weapons and take her to the brig.  We’ll continue our conversation there,” said Kayto sternly, snapping his fingers at the marine team.  As four of them kept the pilot dead in their crosshairs, the other two began to pat her down, pulling an impressive array of weaponry off the woman’s armor, hidden in just about every imaginable nook of her Ryder suit.  Having removed the most obvious threats, the marines gestured her forward with the barrels of their guns, escorting her to the waiting lift.  As they departed, Kayto frowned.  The mercenary’s presence complicated the situation, implying some other faction interested in the outcome of the Versta situation, if her word could be trusted.  The truth was that the pilot could very well make up any story she wanted to and they would have a difficult time validating it without any collateral information.

“Let her stew for an hour or ten,” advised Ava.  “Once she’s had a chance to think things over, we’ll try to get down to the bottom of things with her.”

Kayto nodded, it was a solid plan.  The only way they’d be able to test the authenticity of her word was by talking at length, trying to catch her out and doing their best to gauge her body language and cues.  Far from a science, but if there was something else at play at Versta, the mercenary was their quickest way of finding out.

CHAPTER 7 >>>>>