Chapter 7- Icari

 

Sunrider’s brig was located on deck 1 with the ship’s security command station and armory, guarded by the ship’s marines on the few occasions when it was occupied.  Although it was a part of the ship Kayto would have rather not existed, the brig was undeniably a necessity for incidents like this one.  The brig was divided up into four sparsely furnished cylindrical cells, completely unused since the slavers had been packed into them for the short ride back to Tydaria.  Brightly lit with a large transparent one-way view secure door and wall, the cell offered zero privacy or modesty for its occupants.

Kayto met with Ava at the brig twelve hours after pulling the pilot out of her Ryder, deciding the interrogation could wait no longer as the rendezvous deadline with the diplomats on Versta fast approached.  “How’s our guest holding up?” he asked Ava as the two of them eyed the cell’s languishing occupant.

“Hasn’t said a word since she arrived according to the guards,” said Ava.  “Per protocol, we’ve performed a thorough search for weapons and contraband.”  Gesturing at a table set to the corner of the brig, she indicated an impressive collection of weapons and devices the marines had missed on their first pass.  “There’s enough there to topple a small government.  I’d say we caught ourselves a professional assassin, judging from her toolkit.”

“Looks nasty,” observed Kayto, looking over the evidence with interest.  Hacking modules, explosives, two concealed firearms, at least a dozen knives of various shapes and sizes, and…  “A keychain?” inquired Kayto, examining a little whale-shaped trinket.

“Sonic grenade according to our scans,” cautioned Ava as Kayto quickly put the innocuous appearing device down.

“But nothing to identify her employer, I’m guessing.”

“We’ve scanned her profile, Ryder, even her equipment through the major databases; nothing.  They’re all custom built without any evidence trail,”  Ava glared at Icari through the glass.  “Whoever she is, she’s no amateur.”

“Looks like we’re not going to learn anything else from just watching her,” remarked Kayto as the mercenary gave a large yawn and stretched out on the bed like a cat.  “Let’s go talk to her.”

Kayto punched in the door’s security code, entering with Ava once the door slid open silently.  As soon as they had entered, the door whisked close behind them quickly, immediately shutting off the outside world.  The room seemed deaden all sound, cutting off almost everything except the sound of their own breathing; furthermore, bright lighting and tight confines gave the room a nerve wracking and claustrophobic feel; undoubtedly intentional on the part of the designers.  Sniffing, Kayto fancied that the stench of the slavers lingered on just at the edge of conscious perception.

Hearing their entrance, Icari turned to eye them, remaining supine on the cell’s cot and regarding them with a studied, bored expression on her face.  “Let me guess… good cop, bitchy cop,” she said, pointing to each of them in turn.

Ava crossed her arms angrily and stalked over to the far corner of the prison cell, flanking Icari with Kayto.

“At the risk of sounding cliché, you’re in a heap of trouble,” he said sternly.  “Why don’t you save us all a lot of pain and start talking to us?”

The assassin rolled her eyes, all the answer he needed; clearly, the half a day she had spent locked up had done nothing to loosen her tongue.  “First Officer Crescentia, what are Cera Space Force protocols regarding the search and seizure of contraband?” asked Kayto, deciding to play dirty.

“Page fifty-eight paragraph four clearly states that Cera Space Force vessels have the authority to perform search and seizure operations on any vessel deemed reasonably suspicious at the discretion of the commanding officer,” answered Ava, pinning the mercenary with her glare.

“Well… since our guest here isn’t giving us anything to work with, have our crew power up the cutting torches.  You never know what’s hidden behind all those panels on a custom Ryder like that,” shrugged Kayto, turning to leave.

Icari turned pale, sitting up finally and giving Kayto her full attention.  “Keep your paws off my Ryder!” she growled dangerously at his back.

“Give me a reason not to chop it to pieces then,” offered Kayto, pausing and turning his head around.

“Heh,” Icari chuckled softly, fixing him with her piercing gaze, amused at the game of hardball.  Sizing him up, she decided to play the game.  “What do you want to know?”

“Why did you attack us and are you working for the PACT?” asked Kayto, starting at the top, turning around to face her properly.

“I already told you, I don’t work for those fanatics,” said Icari with a grimace.  “Weren’t you even listening?”  Brushing something off her knee, she continued.  “I attacked your ship because I thought you were PACT freelancers.  Can’t really blame me, can you?  Last anyone heard, the entire Cera Space Force had either been sunk, gone pirate, or gotten themselves pressed into service for the PACT.”

“Yeah, the PACT’s subtle paint jobs can be hard to miss,” shrugged Kayto sarcastically.

“Look,” Icari snapped.  “The entire Neutral Rim’s practically in anarchy now.  Plenty of guns for hire running around, selling their services and throwing their lot in with the PACT thinking that’s the way the galaxy’s going to spin.  You don’t need to fly their flag or colors to be working for them anymore.  Not that it stops me from shooting anyways.”

“Seems like you’re no friend of the PACT,” said Kayto.

“Well spotted, Captain,” Icari bit back acidly.  “I hate ’em.  Would’ve burned down their whole fleet if your crew hadn’t gotten in the way and smashed up my booster.”

As she clenched her fists bitterly, Kayto decided that she was telling the truth about the PACT, if nothing else.  The look of hatred in her eyes was the genuine article; not too different from the flicker behind the eyes he saw in the mirror each morning.  “I guess we’re on the same side as far as that goes then,” he said.

“What about you guys?” asked Icari.  “What’s a renegade starship from the Cera Space Force doing all the way out here?”

“We’re asking the questions here, not you,” pushed back Ava with one of the most classic law enforcement lines in history, glaring at Icari and playing the bad cop role admirably.

“Relax,” said Icari, giving Ava a cold smile.  “We were just getting friendly.  Listen, Captain,” she said, turning back to Kayto, “Give me something to go on here.  Weren’t we going to figure a way to work this out?  I answered your questions, don’t you think you could answer one or two of mine?”

Kayto paused deliberately, drawing the moment out as long as possible.  “Fine, maybe we can talk this out.  We’re here doing a bit of freelancing ourselves; Alliance business.”

“Interesting,” said Icari, a twinkle in her eye that hadn’t been there a second ago.

“You’re going to have to explain to me why.”

Icari looked at him sideways, clearly thinking hard.  “Look… I’m a professional.  I’m not in the habit of ratting out my employers; bad for business and retirement planning.  But I could make an exception in this case for you, Captain.  You don’t seem like a half-bad guy.  Give me your word that no one lays a finger on my Phoenix.”  Icari’s face split into a mischievous grin as she cocked her thumb towards Ava.  “And tell your damned housewife to get her scowl out of my face.”

“You-!” started Ava, her temper flaring up around the cracks in her composure.

“That’s fine, Commander,” restrained Kayto, although he worked hard to keep his face straight.  Icari’s brashness had a certain charm he found likable.  “You’ve got my word, Icari.”

“Don’t make me regret it, Captain,” she warned.  “Now… you guys wouldn’t happen to have been hired by some Admiral, would you?  Tall, dry, kind of looks like a gray statue?”

“Well he certainly was gray.” answered Kayto, deciding to test the waters with a little play on words.  “In more ways than one.”

Ava groaned, burying her face into her hands, but Icari gave a predatory smile.

“That bastard,” she said almost as a compliment.  “He hasn’t changed a bit.  I should know; worked for him for ages,” laughed Icari humorlessly.

“Public relations?”

“You could call it that,” smirked Icari.  “Oh it’s nothing too terrible; Admiral Grey is a pretty principled guy, all things considered.  Escaped criminal outside of Alliance jurisdiction?  Still within mine.  Sleazy dictator getting out of hand?  I can fix that too.  Ongessite prices too high?  I carry the stick while the Admiral holds out a carrot.  You catch my drift.”

“Right… a principled man who hires the services of a contract assassin,” commented Kayto, although he wasn’t entirely surprised.  People in power like the Admiral had always required the more unsavory services provided by Icari’s type.

“You guys are here about the Alliance diplomats on Versta, right?” Icari went out on a limb and took an educated guess.  “It’s not like there’s any other reason to be sailing to this backwater planet.”

“That’s why we’re here,” answered Kayto, figuring the cat was out of the bag already and emphasizing the pronoun.  “But that doesn’t tell us why you’re here.  Versta’s a rescue mission; nobody needs to get shot by a contract assassin here.”

“Is that what the Admiral told you…” Icari’s smirk deepened.  “Rescue mission, I like that old son-of-a-bitch.”

“If you know something, you’d better spill it,” snapped Ava, growing tired of the assassin’s roundabout game and smugness.

“Not so fast,” Icari waggled an armored finger at them.  “That information’s going to cost you more than just a promise.  Nothing big, mind you.”

“This is a jail cell, not a spa,” growled Ava.  “You can’t just pick and choose options you want.”

“Hey, all I’m asking for is a little security in exchange for client information.  Confidential client information.  And trust me, Captain, that I think you’ll need my help if you poor sods still think this is a rescue mission.”  Icari’s arms crossed as she dug in her heels.  “I’ll clue you guys in and level with you if you let me out of here and give me my Ryder back.”

“How do we know you’ll deliver?” asked Kayto.  “You’re already going back on your previous word; not the best way to earn trust around here, Icari.”

“I’m simply renegotiating our terms,” sniffed Icari.  “I might be an assassin, but I’m no scoundrel.  You can count on my word, Captain.”

“Level with us and I’ll do the best I can; you have my word on that,” proposed Kayto.  “Final offer.”

“Ugh,” grumbled Icari.  “I guess that’s as good as it gets.  Fine.  Listen, war between the Alliance and the PACT is pretty much inevitable.  Everyone with half a brain knows it, but nobody wants to say it out loud.  This galaxy’s just waiting to break out into all out galactic war, the kind and scale we haven’t seen in a hundred years.  The politicians in the Solar Alliance are too comfortable on their fat asses to admit reality, but not everyone has their heads stuck in the sand like they do.  There’s a faction that understands that war will break out sooner or later between the PACT and the Alliance and they want to intervene before the entire Neutral Rim becomes PACT’s back yard.”

“Frankly,” Icari continued, her verdant eyes flashing, daring either of them to contradict her.  “I’d rather not bow to some Veniczar, so I think they’ve got it right.  The only problem is that President Alythe is too big of a pussy to have a spine; that man would have a hard time fighting an angry duck if his life depended on it, never mind  rally the Alliance to take on the PACT.  The Alliance needs a push in the right direction and this crisis is the opportunity everyone’s been waiting for to get the Alliance serious about the PACT.”

Kayto and Ava listened to Icari, disbelief and surprise etched on their faces.  “So… you’re telling us that someone in the Alliance hired you to hover over Versta and make sure the PACT captures those diplomats.  All in the name of sparking the biggest galactic war in over a century,” summarized Ava, her interest in Icari’s story thawing her demeanor slightly.

“Now you’re catching on,” nodded the assassin gravely.  “You let me out of this cell and back to my Ryder, and I can promise you those diplomats will never make it out of Versta’s gravity well before the PACT gets their hands on them.  After that, well, it shouldn’t be long before you have the Alliance’s full backing in your fight against the PACT.  Think what that means for worlds like Cera.”

“It’s really not that simple,” frowned Kayto with crossed arms.

“Sure it is,” rebutted Icari.  “I take off, you hang around until you’re satisfied, this diplomats get captured, and you go running back to Admiral Grey to tell him the news.  Once it’s all over, they’ll probably pin some damn, shiny medal to your chest for saving the whole Neutral Rim too.

As disturbing as the mercenary’s allegations were, her agenda against the PACT appeared genuine; in all likelihood, the woman was telling the truth.  Kayto’s thoughts churned unhappily; the Versta situation had suddenly become much more complicated than the Sunrider’s crew had bargained for.  “Alright, you’ve held up your end of the bargain, but we’ll have to perform our own investigation of the situation once we reach orbit over Versta.  You’ll get your Ryder back, that’s a promise, but for now, you’re going to have to stay on the ship.”  Looking around at the cell’s unpleasant interior, Kayto made an executive decision.  “You’ll be confined to one of our Ryder pilot quarters for now.  Don’t complain,” he warned, seeing Icari’s expression sour.  “It’s one hell of an upgrade from your current rooming situation.  Besides, you’re not going anywhere without your Ryder’s booster pack unless you were planning on setting up shop on, what did you call it?  That ‘backwater planet?’  Just enjoy the warm bed.”

“Tch, fine,” agreed Icari reluctantly.  “Just get me outta here.  And bring me something to eat; I’m starving!” she snapped at Ava, whose temple started throbbing again.

******

Back in the CIC, Kayto roused himself from thought as Ava returned from escorting Icari to her improved accommodations.  “Everything go alright with Icari?” he asked.

“Other than the fact she grabbed all the pudding she could carry from the mess hall?  I imagine she’s making herself comfortable as we speak,” Ava grumbled, clearly having taken a disliking to their involuntary guest.  “Captain, about what she said…”

Kayto shook his head, “Even if we trusted her completely, which we don’t, I don’t think we can just twiddle our thumbs and wait here to see how it plays out.  We’re going to finish our mission and save those diplomats.”

“Captain; I agree we should be careful with her, but, given the situation, we should consider what she said seriously,” advised Ava.  “Something’s been off with this mission since we got here; the Alliance Navy sitting on its hands, the hot drop zone, a freelance assassin… I’m starting to think we were never meant to complete this mission.  Besides, what she said was true, this really could be the Alliance’s wake up call to intervene in the Neutral Rim before it’s too late.”

“I won’t have the blood of civilians on my hands, Ava, no matter how convenient it is,” said Kayto firmly.  “We’re not going to just sit back and watch those diplomats die for our own gain.”

Ava ground her teeth, staring at him for a moment before dropping her gaze and shaking her head.  “Noble of you, Captain; but war between the Alliance and PACT is inevitable.  It’s not that we’re sparking a war between the two; we’re just not going to put this particular flame out.  Every day the PACT gets away with their aggression, another Neutral Rim planet falls and the death toll rises.  The PACT grows stronger, which is only going to lead to a bigger war when it does break out.  How many lives do you think we could save in the end by staying our hand today?”

Kayto closed his eyes, rubbing his temples firmly with the tips of his fingers.  As cold as Ava’s assessment was, she was, as usual, right.  Even if the PACT and the Alliance didn’t go to war today, the possibility of peace seemed more remote than ever.  The Neutral Rim’s chances of surviving the oncoming storm intact seemed like an even more distant possibility, particularly if the PACT managed to completely occupy it before open conflict against the Solar Alliance.  “We’ll keep our options open for now; keep the Sunrider on course to make orbit over Versta as quickly as our engines can manage,” ordered Kayto, unwilling to commit to a particular course of action just yet.  “What’s the situation on the ground?”

“We’ve made contact with the Alliance diplomats on the frequency the Admiral’s staff gave us.  They’re getting ready to make a break for it as soon as they can.  Estimated time of departure in 3 hours; they’ll be departing on the civilian liner Agamemnon.  She’s a civilian liner affiliated with the Alliance.” reported Ava.  “We’re going to have to provide escort in case things get hairy while they escape Versta’s gravity well and prep for a jump back to Alliance space.”

“A civilian liner?” asked Kayto, thrown by the sudden change in plans.  “I thought the diplomats were going to take an HALO shuttle and dock with us for extraction.”

Ava shook her head unhappily.  “Apparently Alliance international law forbids their officials from coming aboard a foreign military vessel in any openly contested conflict zones.  They’ve insisted that we provide escort for the liner instead.”

Kayto’s headache grew more pressing with the latest wrinkle to their plan for extraction.  “And why didn’t the Admiral’s office mention this little thing?”

“Like I said, Captain; I don’t think they ever intended for us to complete the mission.”

Kayto sighed deeply, “This job just keeps on getting more interesting… Well, we’ll just have to roll with the punches, I guess.  Let me know right away if something else comes up,” he requested as Ava saluted.  “I’m going to go weigh our options.  You have the CIC, Commander.”

“Aye Sir, I have the CIC,” confirmed Ava, settling into her command station without another glace at Kayto.  “Don’t take too long, Sir.  The Agamemnon will be lifting off as soon as she’s ready.”

******

Almost immediately after exiting the CIC, Kayto stood aimlessly in the ship’s corridor, unsure where he had planned to go in the first place.  Forcing himself to walk somewhere, anywhere, it wasn’t long before his feet had taken him full circle on Deck 1 and then some.  Coming to outside Engineering, as though he were in a fugue for the last ten minutes, he decided to walk in and pay Chigara a visit; clearly, walking around stewing with his own thoughts was not going to be the solution to their current predicament.

Ever since Chigara had taken charge of Engineering, the ship’s functioning had never been better.  Her reactor giving off an almost purring hum, it seemed that the ship itself wholeheartedly agreed.  Buried deep behind armor and reinforced bulkheads, engineering was a sprawling jungle of conduits, pipes, and feedlines, all of which carried some aspect of the ship’s most essential lifelines.  Even Kayto, who had studied the ship’s systems and designs over his four year training period, had difficulty keeping everything straight, but Chigara seemed to have dived head first into her position as Chief Engineer, showing an almost intuitive grasp of the ship’s underlying architecture.

Picking his way towards the back, where Research and Development was located, he spied Chigara’s distinctive hair and hairband through a tangle of pipes as she consulted a hand-held unit’s screen, undoubtedly checking one of Sunrider’s hundreds of system maintenance points.  As he walked up behind her and cleared his throat, Chigara gave a huge jump, wheeling around and inexplicably grabbing the hairband off her head again.

“E-eah!!!  O-oh…”  Chigara flushed crimson as she saw Kayto’s amused expression.  “I’m sorry Captain, I didn’t see you coming…”

“Sorry I keep startling you like that,” grinned Kayto, looking her up and down; the girl looked good in one of Sunrider’s uniforms.

“Ehh…” Chigara gave a small, good humored smile, still pink at the cheeks.  “It’s not your fault, I do that every time someone finds me when I’m in the middle of something.  I-it’s good to see you here; did you need something?”

“Actually… yes,” said Kayto, launching into an explanation of what Icari had revealed to them.  Chigara listened seriously and thoughtfully through his monologue, her aqua eyes fixed on his.  “So… what’s your take on the situation?” he finished.

Chigara played with her fingers nervously, clearly put on the spot by the question.  “Oh, ummm…  Well… I’m not very good with these kinds of decisions, Captain.  I think you’re much better suited to thinking about this sort of thing than I am,” she said apologetically.  “Whatever you decide, I know it’ll be the right decision.”

Kayto felt his spirits lift slightly at her confidence, even if it felt misplaced.  “Don’t sell yourself short, Chigara.  You’re the smartest person I’ve ever met.”

“Oh!” Chigara turned pink again, looking extremely pleased by the compliment.  “I don’t know, Captain.  I’m good with machines and technology, but when it comes to people… I feel like I don’t really understand them like everyone else does.”

“Well, we’ve all got strengths and weaknesses; but you do just fine,” said Kayto reassuringly.  “Thanks for lending me your ear; I feel a bit better now.”

“It was my pleasure, Captain,” smiled Chigara happily, “Feel free to come by anytime.  Just… maybe call out my name next time.”

******

Taking the lift up to deck 0, Kayto walked to his quarters for a moment of quiet reflection, Chigara’s thoughtful listening having soothed one or two frayed nerves, but still leaving him no closer to a decision.

“What do you mean you ran out!?!” demanded a loud, recognizable voice from the ship’s mess hall as he passed by.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” apologized the robotic voice of the mess hall’s dispensary.  “All pudding supplies have been exhausted at the moment.  It will be approximately eight hours and eleven minutes before I am ready to serve another batch.”

Kayto walked over to Asaga as she continued to bicker and plead with dispensary interface, which was completely unmoved by her plight.  “Uhh… Asaga?  I don’t think it’s programmed to care if you throw a temper tantrum at it.”

“Darn it!”  Asaga stuck her tongue out at the fish eye lens of the dispensary.  “Fine… I guess I’ll just have to eat a slice of strawberry cake.”

“Coming right up, ma’am,” said the machine obligingly.

“This is your fault Captain!” said Asaga, rounding on him as machinery hummed behind the mess hall walls and her cake appeared from a slot beside the machine.  “What kind of Captain would send his Ryder pilots out for a fight without proper food and nutrition?”

“I didn’t realize vitamin D stood for desert,” joked Kayto.  “Besides, the person you’re looking to blame isn’t here right now.  I think Icari might have taken the last of the pudding before we confined her to one of the open Ryder pilot quarters.”

The two sat down at one of the tables, the mess hall almost entirely deserted during between-meals hours.  As Asaga dug into her strawberry cake, she continued the conversation thickly around a mouth full of pastry.  “So, what’s the deal?  Did she crack?”

Kayto nodded and told Icari’s story for the second time while Asaga polished off the cake remorselessly.  Wiping a stray smudge of icing off the side of her face and licking her fingers, Asaga didn’t seem remotely bothered by the dilemma.  “So we’re going to rescue those diplomats anyways and beat up anyone stupid enough to try to stop us, right?”

“I don’t think we’re going to be able to beat an entire PACT invasion fleet by ourselves, Asaga,” argued Kayto, smiling in spite of himself at the pilot’s unsinkable attitude and clear-cut morals.

“Ah, pshhh,” Asaga waved at him dismissively.  “Leave it to me and mah Black Jack; We’ll have that invasion fleet in full retreat before you know it.”

“So you think we should go ahead and try to complete the mission anyways?” he clarified.

“Well… duh!” Asaga’s tone was disbelieving.  “Don’t tell me you were even thinkin’ about doing anything else!”  Kayto’s facial expression must have given him away as Asaga balled her fists on the table and stood up, towering over him.  Almost nose to nose, she stared him down with her large eyes.  “No, no, no, no!  Captain!  You can’t just let those innocent people die!  You gotta stand for what’s right!  We’re going to win this fight no matter what, even if it’s the hard way, we gotta do it the right way!”

Kayto smiled at the passionate, hard look etched on Asaga’s face.  Looking into her eyes, he could see the woman harbored zero doubt about what the right call for the situation was.  “Don’t worry, Asaga,” he said, making up his mind. “You’re right.  We’re going to win this war with our principles intact; otherwise we’d be no better than the PACT in the first place.”

“Hell yeah, Capt’n!” Asaga pounded the table.  “Now I’m pumped!  I’m gonna tear those PACT ships a new exhaust port, if you know what I mean!”

“Uh yeah… thanks.  I’ll keep that in mind,” said Kayto as Asaga abandoned her dishes in her excitement and charging out of the mess hall with a jaunty wave.  Sighing and carrying her plate to the return slot, Kayto ordered himself a coffee before making his way back to his office like he originally intended.

Once inside, he had no sooner sat down to start a brief Captain’s log than the power suddenly cut out, leaving the entire room in pitch darkness.  “What the-?”

“Boo,” came a voice next to his ear.

Kayto almost jumped out of his skin as a hand landed gently on his shoulder, firmly pushing him back into his seat.  With a sinking feeling, he took note of the yellow gauntlet.

“Sorry, Captain,” Icari’s voice continued softly next to his ear.  “Since your security systems were so lax, I couldn’t help but to hack my way out of that room once I was done with all the pudding.  Looks like you and your crew need to upgrade your systems, unfortunately for you.”

“I don’t suppose there’s any use in calling security,” remarked Kayto as he consulted his bracelet and the dead controls at his desk.

Slinking around the desk like a tiger, Icari plopped herself into a chair opposite to him, putting her armored boots up on the desk.  “Give me a little credit, Captain, I’m a professional.”

“Well I’m still alive,” Kayto said, stating the obvious.  “That means you came here for something.  Looks like I can’t do much except listen.”

“Smart man,” smiled Icari.  “Most people I know… knew… would have pissed themselves about now.  But you’re right, I’m not here to slit your throat or anything gory like that, I just wanted to chat.”

“I think a phone call might have sufficed.”

“Last ship standing, huh?” said Icari, ignoring the jab.  “I never imagined I’d find myself aboard a Cera naval vessel, one still flying its original flag anyways.  Must be hard.”

“We’ve got each other,” shrugged Kayto.  “It’s not the end for us yet, so we get by, one day at a time.”

“How many people do you supposed died at Cera on that day?” asked Icari, twirling a lock of hair idly.

“Too many.”  Kayto’s tone was blunt.  The assassin’s play to appeal towards his emotions was obvious, but the truth was the truth.

“I couldn’t help but notice while I was waiting for you here; who’s the cutie in that portrait on your shelf?” she asked gesturing to a holo still of a young girl with long, platinum hair tied by two blue ribbons into pigtails, holding a raccoon from Cera’s petting zoo.

“None of your business,” Kayto said pointedly, warning in his voice.

“The family resemblance is obvious,” continued Icari, apparently enjoying his reaction.  “You don’t seem like the fatherly type, so I’m guessing she’s your sister.”

“You’re walking on thin ice, mercenary,” snapped Kayto.  “I suggest you drop the topic.  Now.”

“What’s the matter, Captain?” demanded Icari, smiling viciously.  Putting her feet down and leaning in towards him, she continued, tightening the vise.  “Did I hit a soft spot?  Are you scared for her?  Scared for what the PACT did or is going to do to her?”

Kayto’s fists clenched on the desk, but he refused to back down from Icari’s intense stare.

“Listen,” her tone and eyes softened.  “I know what it’s like to lose family… the PACT took mine from me, the same as they probably did to you.  I swore, years ago, that I’d get back at them for what they did to me that day and now… I’m so close… Captain, you seem like good man, but that’s why there are people like me in the galaxy to do the jobs you don’t want to touch, but know that have to get done.  We can work together, bring the Alliance into the war against the PACT, avenge the ones we’ve lost.  I wasn’t kidding when I said you seem like a decent guy.  Once this job is done, I’ll even sign up with your ship and fly the Phoenix as one of your pilots, now that my warp booster’s busted.  So long as you’re still planning on getting even with the PACT.”

“You’re presuming a lot of trust for someone who’s got me in the dark on the wrong end of a lot of weapons,” pointed out Kayto, playing for time.

“How about I tell you a secret?”  Icari leaned in even closer, her scent surprisingly warm and soft.  “I’ll tell you about who hired me in the first place.”

“I thought that was bad for business and lifestyle.”

“I’ll make an exception… just for you.”  Icari’s lips parted as she whispered into his ear, her long hair brushing his face gently.  “The man who hired me to take out those diplomats?  Harold Grey, Admiral, Solar Alliance Navy.”

“That’s funny, because he also sent us out here to extract those same diplomats,” said Kayto as Icari drew back, smiling unkindly.

“The only thing funny about it is that you still think this is a rescue op.”  Icari’s expression hardened. “Grey might have contracted your ship to extract the diplomats, but that’s only because he still answers to President Alythe, who insisted that war be avoided at any cost.  As soon as he was done contracting your services through the official channels, he also hired me through… less official channels.

“Sounds like he’s halfway down the path for a coup d’etat.”

“Maybe,” Icari shrugged, uninterested.  “It won’t happen today or tomorrow, but if the Sollar Alliance’s Senate continues to remain locked in inaction while the PACT swallows up the entire Neutral Rim, who can tell what lengths the military will go to to protect the common citizen, with or without the support of the civilian government.”

“Doesn’t inspire a whole lot of confidence, does it?” asked Kayto with distaste.  “The Alliance always plays the democracy and enlightenment card, but when push comes to shove, the sham falls apart and the people with the most guns end up deciding what happens.”

“Get with the program, Captain.”  Icari laughed mirthlessly.  “Everyone, especially the Alliance military, knows that war is inevitable.  Sure, you can save those diplomats today, but the PACT’s going to just keep on conquering world after world.  Millions will die, millions like your sister.  Keep on delaying, and the PACT is just going to get stronger when the war does break out.  When that happens, they’ll just use the resources and the people of the Neutral Rim as fuel for the fire.  Or… you could let the Alliance intervene now, while the PACT is still mustering its strength.  You could end up saving millions of lives, just by sacrificing a few low level diplomats.”  Checking a digital timer display on her wrist armor, she fixed Kayto with an intense stare.  “Time’s up, Captain, we’re probably pulling into Versta orbit right now.  What’s it going to be?  Are you going to bow down to the Veniczar?  Or are you going to take a stand and draw a line in the sand today?”

Kayto sighed deeply.  He understood all of Icari’s motivations and felt the same pain she carried with her.  Everything she said made sense, but he couldn’t let the temptation of an easy way out compromise the principles which differentiated his crew from the PACT, pirates, and even the Alliance.  If he doomed those men and women aboard the Agamemnon to die, he would lose the only things that kept his humanity through the last month.  Whatever the consequence, he knew Sunrider could not idly stand by on the potential of lives saved, rather than act and save the lives immediately in front of them.  Regardless how the assassin would take it, the orders to turn ship would never come from his lips.

“I hate the PACT,” he told her, his gaze burning into hers. For a moment, triumph flashed behind her green eyes.  “I hate the way they don’t hesitate to pull the trigger, no matter how many innocent lives are lost, just to accomplish their goals that much faster.  We have a duty to humanity aboard this ship, not just ourselves and I’ll be damned before I give an order to slaughter civilians in cold blood.  Now, get back to the brig, Icari, before you make a mistake you’ll regret for the rest of your life.”

Icari’s expression was hard, although a flicker of sadness entered her eyes, if only for a moment.  “You just don’t get it, Captain.  The PACT is evil.  They’ll never stop hurting innocents; we have to intervene before it’s too late.  I can’t let you interfere with my mission any longer.  I’m sorry, Captain.  I think I would have liked to get to know you better.”

Before he could even blink, Icari drew a lethal looking sidearm, cleverly folded up under one of her armor plates.  The weapon charged with a soft whine as she pointed it between his eyes, hand steady.

“KAYTO!” Ava’s voice startled both of them as she burst in through the door, the bright lights of the hallway blinding them momentarily.  Eyes widening in surprise at Kayto’s predicament, Ava sprang into action.  Scrambling, Ava dropped her hand to her own pistol, snapping the weapon clear of its holster as Kayto took advantage of the distraction to dive out of his chair and behind his desk.

Bang

The report of Icari’s gun thundered in the room, ricocheting off the door frame an inch from Ava’s head before shattering Kayto’s mug of coffee on the desk.  As Ava dove for cover, Icari cursed and sprinted out of his quarters, her black hair whipping around the corner after her as she disappeared.

“Kayto!  Are you alright!?” Ava practically screamed as she threw her gun aside and scrambled under his desk, cupping his cheek with one hand and patting his torso down with the other.

“I’m fine” said Kayto, surprised by her break in composure, catching the hand that feeling his chest with one of his own and looking into her worried eyes.  “You’re not hurt, are you?”

“No,” Ava pulled back quickly, wrenching herself free of his grasp and avoiding his eyes as she got up and brushed herself off, trying to calm down.  “I ran up here as soon as I realized the mercenary escaped; looks like I was almost too late.”

“Tell me about it,” said Kayto, trying to hide his rattled nerves.  “Get security; stop that mercenary before she causes more trouble!”

“She’s done something to our systems, Captain.” Ava said, shaking her head, “Security’s down everywhere on the ship.  We’re trying to bypass it, but we’ll have to go down to the CIC before we can do anything.”

“Well, let’s not waste time,” said Kayto as Ava nodded, the two of them hurrying back to Sunrider’s CIC.

CHAPTER 8 >>>>