Chapter 8- Agamemnon’s Flight

 

“Status report,” demanded Kayto as he and Ava entered into the CIC.  “What’s going on with the Phoenix?”

“Hanger bay safeties are being overridden!” called out a crewman, tapping furiously at his console.  “We’ve lost all controls over docking mechanisms and doors!”

On the main screen, the Phoenix blasted out of Sunrider’s disabled hanger, taking off into the night sky and dropping out of view.

“Damn it!” Kayto jumped into the Captain’s station.

“Scramble all Ryders,” ordered Ava.  “Pursue and intercept the Phoenix!”

Moments later, Asaga’s and Chigara’s voices came up in the CIC as they patched into their communications.

“Chigara, did you save?” asked Asaga as they ran to the hanger deck.

“Is now really the time?”

“Great, just great.  Now we’ll have to start from the beginning!”

“What the hell’s going on down there!?” yelled Ava.

“Yikes!  We’re on open comms, Chigara!” yelped Asaga.

“Sorry, Sorry!” Chigara apologized profusely.

“Uhh… I guess they were on break,” said Kayto suppressing a laugh despite the situation.

“Unbelievable…” muttered Ava, rubbing her brow.  “Just… get out there ASAP, pilots.”

Alarms blared out suddenly throughout the CIC.

“Alert!  Massive energy spike detected!  Multiple PACT signatures dropping out of warp, Captain!” yelled Ava over the proximity klaxon.  “Looks like the PACT invasion fleet got here early!”

“More good news,” grumbled Kayto, having the sense that the mission had gone awry in just about every way possible.  “Red Alert, all hands to battle stations!  Asaga, come in,”

“Black Jack here, whatdaya’ need Capt’n?” Asaga’s hologram appeared in the CIC, slightly flattened as Black Jack’s acceleration crushed her into the crash seat in her cockpit.

“Change of plans,” announced Kayto.  “Abandon pursuit of rogue Ryder for now and focus on protecting the Agamemnon.  We’ve got multiple PACT signatures inbound.  Keep your eyes peeled for her though, I have a feeling she might be back to interfere with the mission.”

“Roger that, Capt’n!”

“Where the hell is the Agamemnon?” he demanded.  Calling up his tactical display, Kayto watched as multiple red contacts lit up; ships dropping out of warp all around and practically on top of the Sunrider.

“They’ve just made it into orbit,” Ava replied, “Incoming hail from the Agamemnon.”

“Put her through.”

The Agamemnon’s captain, a thin, balding middle age man materialized on deck, giving Kayto a nervous salute.  “I wish there were more time to chat Captain, but it looks like the PACT is going to try to complicate our evacuation.  We’re glad to have you with us, Sunrider.”

“Likewise, Agamemnon.  Leave the fighting to us and stay in our shadow.  Sunrider will provide cover for the Agamemnon.  Do not break cover unless we specifically instruct you otherwise.  Once we’re out of Versta’s gravity well, spool up your drives and get out of here as fast as you can, with or without us.  Do we have an understanding?”  asked Kayto, his tone leaving no room for discussion.

Sweating, the man moped the shining top of his head and nodded.  “Of course, Captain; we defer to your orders entirely.”

“Is that big ship going to protect us?” asked a young girl’s high pitched voice over the channel as the Agamemnon’s captain turned around in shock.

“Who let her on the bridge?  Take her back to the passenger section, now!” he demanded, clearly agitated.

Feedback blared through the comms and Kayto reeled back and winced, his world blurring suddenly.  Through the din, he heard a voice; an impossible voice.

Kayto! Kayto!

Heart pounding, Kayto blinked and shook his head, a cold sweat breaking out over his body all of a sudden.  The feedback washed away and the ringing in his ears cleared.  Shaken, he looked around quickly, but everyone else was busy at their stations, paying him no heed.  Raising a hand to mop the sweat from his brow, Kayto shifted uncomfortably; had he really imagined the whole thing?

“Agamemnon, what the hell was that?!  You have children aboard?!” demanded Kayto, his training overriding the surrealism and grounding him in the here and now of the mission, steeling his nerves.

“We… didn’t want to trouble you with that information, Sunrider.”  Agamemnon’s captain’s tone was pleading.  “We didn’t have space for all the refugees trying to flee the PACT invasion, but we couldn’t say no to their children!

The new information suddenly made it clear why the Alliance diplomats and ship crew had declined to leave via shuttle so vehemently.  “Copy that, Agamemnon.  How many do you have aboard?”

“Just a little over six hundred, Sunrider.  We’re over full capacity, but it was the only way to get them off Versta before the PACT arrived.  Please, we had to do what was right!”

Kayto nodded, “Of course.  Do whatever it takes to protect them, even if it means leaving us behind.  Sunrider out.”

“Thank you, Captain,” said Agamemnon’s captain as he bowed gratefully and cut the communications.

“Attention all Ryders and crew,” barked Kayto, keying shipwide transmissions.  “Sunrider will provide cover for the Agamemnon and the six hundred children aboard her.  I repeat, six hundred civilian children refugees.  Defend her at all costs, don’t let the PACT take a single open shot at her; those kids are depending on you.  Shields out.”

The CIC erupted into a cacophony of cheers, applause, and roars as crew from all over the ship yelled their approval through their speakers in a spontaneous, protocol-bending show of solidarity.  Kayto felt his heart lift and his resolve solidify; his crew was depending on him to make the right decisions now.

Ava pinched the bridge of her nose, squeezing her eyes shut for a moment, unmoved by the display.  “What a nightmare…”

“Bring us alongside the Agamemnon, put us between her and the PACT” he instructed her, ignoring the pessimism.  The civilian craft’s engines were far more modest than the Sunrider’s, which forced Kayto to use his own ship as a shield as the Agamemnon slowly pulled away from Versta.  “A civilian liner won’t last thirty seconds against them without cover.  Weapons free as soon as the PACT enters laser range.”

“Aye, Sir, Sunrider coming about, moving at flank speed,” confirmed Ava.

Outside, four PACT infantry Ryders deployed from the two nearest cruisers, picket and recon forces for the larger PACT invasion fleet undoubtedly preparing to exit warp.  The Ryders rocketed off ahead towards Sunrider, forming a line against them.  Black Jack and Sunrider both fired their lasers into their ranks, Liberty providing a targeting uplink to Sunrider.  The PACT Ryders spun and dodged, their small profiles and superior speed granting them protection at range.  One of the Ryders took a full blast by chance alone, injured, but still fully capable of continuing onward with the rest of its pack.

Together, three of the PACT Ryders took ranging shots of their own, landing a hit on Black Jack’s frame.  Under the cover of his comrades’ fire, the squad leader of the PACT Ryders burned in to engage the Black Jack in close quarters combat.

“Give Black Jack some cover fire!” ordered Kayto.

“Aye, Sir.  Firing all assault cannons!” confirmed Ava.  On screen, Sunrider’s assault cannons swept across the enemy line, destroying the wounded Ryder and the one next to it.  “Multiple impacts; two enemy Ryders down, Sir!”

“Black Jack, holding steady,” reported Asaga, confirming that the Black Jack’s armor had kept its vital systems safe.  “Leave the closest mook to me!”

“Copy that,” agreed Kayto, “Liberty, provide aim assist to Black Jack.”

Black Jack’s lasers discharged with extreme prejudice at close range, searing the squad leader’s Ryder.  Without missing a beat, Asaga thumbed her autocannon controls, dispatching the Ryder with a hailstorm of bullets.

“Additional PACT reinforcements!” cried Ava as three additional PACT infantry Ryders dropped in from their more distant carrier group.  Slightly behind them, two slower Ryders with bulkier silhouettes accompanied the sortie.  “Scanners read two additional PACT bomber Ryders behind them.”

Kayto grunted his acknowledgment unhappily.  The PACT bombers were essentially larger, better equipped infantry models with additional armor that mounted missile and rocket pods at the expense of mobility and maneuverability.  Abandoning their short range assault cannon for a body shield, the PACT bomber represented a significant threat, especially when coupled with other missile launching PACT ships and units and when facing fleets without overwhelming flak defenses.  Furthermore, their presence at Versta signified the arrival of the PACT’s main invasion fleet, as the larger, more complicated Ryders were almost exclusively deployed from carriers, as opposed to cruisers.

As he weighed his options of engaging the new Ryder wing versus opening fire on the closing cruisers, Black Jack and Liberty penned in the final PACT Ryder, dispatching the unfortunate pilot with a coordinated pincer attack.  “Liberty, Black Jack, stand by to fire on nearest PACT cruiser,” he decided.  “Discharge your lasers after the Sunrider takes out their armor.  Fire Saviors, give them all we’ve got!”

Sunrider’s Saviors fired two salvos, emptying their payloads directly into the oncoming PACT cruiser.  It was a testament to the focus of the Sunrider’s crew defending the Agamemnon that not a single projectile missed at that range, punching devastating craters into the PACT cruiser’s hull.  Not moments after, Liberty and Black Jack discharged their laser weapons, lancing the stricken ship, which shuddered and exploded, tearing itself apart deck by deck.

“Slew the ship forty degrees to port; give them our lateral side.  All hands, brace for impact,” warned Kayto.  Having decided to concentrate their fire on the lead cruiser, missile salvos from the PACT bombers were all but certain; they would have to rely upon their flak defenses and the Sunrider herself to keep the Agamemnon safe.  On screen, the remaining cruiser continued driving forward with the three new infantry Ryders, apparently intending to overwhelm Sunrider’s position.

As predicted, the bomber Ryders let loose with their missiles as soon as they drew into range, dozens of white vapor trails streaking from their frames.  Explosions dotted the sky as Sunrider and Black Jack opened fire, their overlapping fields of fire shredding the oncoming missiles.  Even so, the sheer number in the volley allowed five missiles to weave their way past the flak guns, their targeting micro-computers adjusting their trajectory with telemetry from destroyed missiles to avoid the oncoming fire.  Slamming into Sunrider’s hull, they blasted craters into her armor, spraying molten metal away from the ship.  To Kayto’s relief, none of the missiles found their way past to the Agamemnon.  Because of the Ryder’s relatively small frame and capacity compared to a PACT missile frigate, their missile capacity was fairly limited, necessitating that the Ryder either withdraw from the fight to reload or switch to its secondary laser rifle, dramatically reducing its threat.

“Sections 32, 16, and 2 breached!” reported Ava as the CIC rocked with the impacts.  “Sealing emergency bulkheads!”

“Damn it, always the same sections; we should get them reinforced or something… Fire Saviors again!” ordered Kayto as soon as the guns had cooled and reloaded.  On screen, Black Jack took after the lead PACT infantry Ryder, closely pursued by the remaining two.  Firing her guns, Asaga nailed the lead Ryder, tearing it asunder and flying through the cloud of flame and debris as she tried to shake the other two Ryders on her tail.  Diving over then under the Sunrider’s prow, she clipped one of the pursuing Ryders with a burst from her machine gun as the Saviors discharged over their heads, narrowly missing them as they targeted the remaining PACT cruiser.  With Liberty’s added laser fire, the oncoming PACT cruiser paid dearly for its enthusiasm, crumpling on impact and splitting down her prow as she took slug after slug head on.

“Cruiser neutralized, Captain,” reported Ava.  “I’m detecting two additional cruisers and a missile frigate on intercept!”

Kayto gritted his teeth as the remaining Ryders took two potshots at Sunrider, scoring direct hits against her armor and setting off alarms in the CIC as additional external sections were breached.  “Black Jack, we need you to keep those mooks off us!”

“I got mah hands full over here, Capt’n!” came Asaga’s strained voice as the Black Jack pulled into a severe arc, trying to shake a second barrage of missiles launched at her as the bomber Ryders emptied the last of their missiles.  Sunrider and Black Jack did their best to intercept with flak cannon fire as Asaga led the missiles on a chase, but ultimately fell short of downing them all.  “Frame integrity starting to weaken…” Asaga’s voice was slightly more concerned than it had been a second ago as Black Jack suffered several missile impacts to its rear.

“Fire pulse lasers, take them out!” ordered Kayto, the Sunrider bringing her lasers to bear and torching the remaining infantry Ryders.  “Liberty, sabotage their flak network, we’re going to take out that missile boat before it gets a chance to launch!”

“Virus uploaded,” confirmed Chigara.  “PACT cruiser flak neutralized.”

As neither the remaining bomber Ryders nor the missile frigate itself carried any point defense weapons, Black Jack and Sunrider were free to let loose with missiles of their own.

“Missile pods running hot, fire all Hell Dart missiles,” ordered Ava to the crew.

A dozen ports on the Sunrider’s hull opened in sequence, letting loose with her full complement of anti-ship missiles, quickly joined by their smaller counterparts from the Black Jack.  Unimpeded, the missiles streaked forward and detonated on the missile frigate’s lightly armored frame, setting off additional internal explosions and sinking the ship as a lucky missile flew straight into their armory.  Likely stung, but undaunted, the PACT commanding officer threw both cruisers forward at maximum engine output.  The two remaining bomber Ryders, closed distance slightly, firing their laser rifles and scoring a lucky hit on the increasingly battered Black Jack.

“Uhh… Captain… I’ve got a lot of red lights turning on here,” warned Asaga.  “What the-?”

Icari’s voice burst over their communication frequency as she hacked into their secure channel, startling Asaga.  “Sunrider, get out of my way!  This is your last warning!” her voice sounded frustrated.

“Triangulate her signal, now!” ordered Kayto, muting their end of the comm channel.

“Oy!” Asaga yelled indignantly back at the mercenary.  “Don’t you see what’s going on here?  There are children aboard that ship; six hundred of them.  If you go through with this, those kids are goin’ to die!”

“If I don’t go through with it, a million other children will die as the PACT conquers their planets, one at a time!” Icari’s voice trembled slightly as she retorted.

“You don’t even know if that’s true!” yelled Asaga, pounding her console with a solid thud.  “Letting them die right now doesn’t guarantee anyone’s survival in the future.  Screw thinkin’ about what might happen tomorrow!  ‘Cause you got innocents to protect right here, right now!”

“You’re naive.” Icari’s voice stiffened with resolve.  “It’s ugly and maybe no one wants to admit it, but war’s always involved sacrifice.  You’re just blind to reality and passing it off as righteousness.  I’ve made up my mind… if you won’t stand aside… I’ll just have to take matters into my own hands.”

“Y-you’re crazy!” shouted Asaga as Icari’s hacked signal cut off abruptly.

“Captain, we have a fix on the Phoenix,” reported Ava, “The mercenary is behind PACT lines, likely just outside their sensor range.  Advise we mop up what’s left of their advance forces before she gets a chance to engage.”

Kayto nodded, accepting Ava’s plan.  “Make it happen, Commander.”

“All Saviors fire!  Take them out!” barked Ava.

Sunrider’s Saviors fired again, landing devastating blow after blow on the closest PACT cruiser, breaking the ship’s spine and gutting her straight down the mid-line in some of the finest shooting Kayto had seen Sunrider’s crew let loose with yet.  As she detonated, Black Jack and Liberty poured laser fire at the now lame PACT bombers, cutting one to pieces and leaving the other one struggling to continue.  The remaining PACT cruiser and Ryder returned fire, Sunrider shuddering angrily as their lasers cut through to her internal sections, causing them to depressurize explosively.

“Rerouting systems and sealing emergency bulkheads!” cried Ava, “Don’t let them get another shot in; fire Saviors as soon as they’re ready!”

“Watch the Phoenix,” warned Kayto as the yellow Ryder came into visual range, streaking towards the Sunrider from behind the PACT cruiser at alarming speeds.  The PACT ship’s turrets strained to track her yellow frame as it flashed over them to no avail.  “Damn, that girl’s got guts…” he muttered, admiring the mercenary’s impressive piloting skills.  For speed like that, the Phoenix undoubtedly mounted some of the galaxy’s most powerful thrusters on what probably was the lightest Ryder frame Icari could get away with.  Studded along the Ryder’s rear for main propulsion and arrayed outwards from its back like a pair of angel wings, the Phoenix’s thrusters boasted an unprecedented speed and maneuverability specs, even by Ryder standards, approaching the near suicidal limit of Ryder technology.  The fact that she was still alive piloting an unbalanced Ryder like that was a mark of her extraordinary piloting abilities.

Sunrider let loose once again with her powerful deck guns, slugging the PACT cruiser into submission before a final kinetic slug knocked out enough ship-critical systems to leave the vessel dark and dead.  Taking exception to the threat the Phoenix posed to the Agamemnon, Asaga took off towards her in the Black Jack, firing her pulse lasers as fast as the weapon would cycle and leaving the wounded bomber to Liberty.  As Liberty delivered the finishing touches to the PACT Ryder, Asaga and Icari played a dangerous game of chase.  The Phoenix’s speed made it a tricky target as it pulled a number of hair-raising maneuvers, dodging Black Jack’s fire from the rear with inhuman ability.

Kayto gripped the arms of his chair with sweaty palms; if the Phoenix managed to dodge past the Sunrider, there would be no way to protect that Agamemnon from a direct shot.  Already, Icari had ducked under the firing arcs of the Sunrider’s flak cannons, rendering the larger ship unable to provide assistance for the Black Jack’s pursuit.

Flying at reckless speeds, the yellow Ryder’s only disadvantage was that Black Jack knew exactly where it was headed; towards the Agamemnon.  Choosing a more direct path to avoid Sunrider and minimize the time Black Jack had on her tail, Icari unfortunately opened up the Phoenix’s rear to the possibility of a crippling, well placed shot from the Black Jack in an all-or-nothing bet for the fate of the Agamemnon.

“Come on, come on…” ground out Asaga as she mashed her weapon controls repeatedly, pouring all her concentration into scoring a hit on the flighty Phoenix.  Sweat dripped down her brow, stinging her eyes as the distance counter towards the Agamemnon dwindled down insanely fast.  Laser light flashed in her eyes from the Black Jack’s main monitors as her weapons flared repeatedly and the entire frame groaned as Black Jack struggled to keep up with Phoenix.

“AAARRRGGGHHH!” Asaga screamed as she slammed her thumbs down, exhausting the last of her laser weapon’s reserve.  The laser pulses streaked forward, miraculously scoring hits on Phoenix’s delicate frame and exposed engines.  “HHAAHAAAA!!!!” her scream seamlessly transitioned to whoop of exhilaration as she watched the Phoenix’s engines short out, sending the slim Ryder into a desperate tumble as it desperately tried to correct with its damaged “wings.”  Blasting past the damaged Ryder at top speed, the Black Jack slowly began to arc back, unable to overcome its inertia the same way as Phoenix could.

******

From inside the Phoenix, Icari’s jaw clenched and her eyes flashed as she wrestled with her Ryder’s controls, its uncontrolled spin putting an almost unreal amount of centripetal force on her body, threatening to black her out.  Detecting unacceptable gee-forces, her Ryder suit’s internal fabric automatically tightened like a vise, clamping down on her legs to prevent blood from pooling away from her head.

Shaking violently, the Phoenix screamed out in protest with a dozen shrill alarms.  Fighting the darkness creeping into her vision and barely able to breathe, Icari lifted a struggling hand, every effort feeling ten times normal, tapping a series of flashing red symbols on the touch panel to her left.  What was left of the Phoenix’s thruster capacity flickered to life as her computer did its best to compensate and protect its pilot with the limited resources and damaged systems at its disposal.  Gradually, the strain and pressure on her body lifted as the Phoenix’s retrothrusters engaged, allowing her to breath deeply again as the Ryder righted itself and stopped its uneven spin.

Utterly exhausted, Icari rebooted her systems, face long with the number of damaged functions the computer read out to her with a cracked, glowing red screen.  Aside from the most limited of engine and thruster capacity, the only remaining intact systems were the autocannons mounted into each of the Phoenix’s armatures.  Everything else, including life support, had essentially ceased to function.  As her breath panted out, beginning to condense in front of her as the cabin cooled dramatically, Icari gritted her teeth.  Hair shielding her eyes, face down with grim determination, she put her hands on Phoenix’s controls one more time.

“-enix… -ome in… Phoenix!” Asaga’s voice burst through the static of her crippled communications array.  “Surrender now, it’s over!”

Icari’s breath quickened, “You haven’t won yet… All that you’ve accomplished here today is letting the PACT have their way with the Neutral Rim and its people… I won’t allow that!”  Icari yelled the last bit with conviction.  “With my own hands… I’ll rid the galaxy of the PACT… I’ll do whatever it takes, for everyone they’ve murdered!!!”

“-cari, stop!” Kayto’s voice burst over the static of the channel as well.

Pointing the Phoenix’s autocannons directly at the hull of the Agamemnon, nothing could stop her in time from completing her mission.  One push of her firing controls and her autocannon rounds would tear through the civilian liner’s thin hull without any measure of difficulty.  “This… this is for everyone I lost…”

As she dropped the targeting reticle over the Agamemnon, her hands froze as her screen automatically zoomed in on her target.  A child, brown haired and no older than 8, peered out the liner’s large viewport, mouth agape at the starships and Ryders chasing after one another during the battle.  Tear tracks from her large brown eyes showed clearly on her face, evidence of the fear and apprehension the passengers of the liner had felt while Sunrider and her Ryders fought against wave after wave of PACT intercept forces.  As the child looked out at her Ryder, Icari felt her eyes drill into her, even though it was impossible that the girl could know she was directly in between the Ryder’s crosshairs.  Slowly, the child raised a hand to the window, pressing it against the transparent hull, refusing to look away from the barrels of the guns pointed at her.

Icari’s thumbs trembled over the firing studs as a tear of her own slid down her cheek.  “D-damn…” she whispered through gritted teeth.  For a second, the girl’s hair turned black and her eyes green.  Flames devoured the Agamemnon’s hull as the girl pulled away, hands pressed against her view port in horror, screaming and crying, alone and adrift.  The view turned blurry as additional tears pooled in Icari’s eyes, streaming down her face and splashing down on her armor and controls.  “W-why…?”  Icari dropped her controls, allowing the Phoenix to stand down, before pounding the console with her fists, inadvertently triggering her microphone.  “WHY!?”

“Because you’re nothing like the PACT, Icari.”

Kayto’s serious voice crackled over the communications array, somewhat garbled, but filled with kindness and warmth despite everything she had done.  Clutching onto the sound of his voice as a lifeline thrown to her in the storm of despair welling up in her chest, she grabbed on and hung to it, drowning in the sea of conflict and sorrow within her.

“Don’t ever forget that.”

“I-I… damn it…” sobbed Icari, switching off her comms before letting loose with the torrent of emotion.  Tears streaming and gasping for breath, she cried for an entire minute before steadying herself, trying to calm down before checking her Ryder controls to confirm that her end of the channel remained muted.  Gulping, she wiped tears from her face and chin before opening the channel, speaking wetly, but as close to normal as she could manage.  “…So uncool…”

“Captain, we’ve escaped Versta’s gravity well.”  Ava’s voice was tiny in the background.  “Agamemnon is warping out, Sir.”

In front of the Phoenix, space and time twisted apart before the civilian liner as her warp drives spooled up at emergency speed.  With a pulse of her engines, the Agamemnon eased into the tear, disappearing in the blink of an eye and carrying its passengers towards the promise of safety.

“Mission accomplished, people,” Kayto’s voice announced.  “Spool up our own drive, get us out of here before the rest of that invasion fleet comes around Versta.  All Ryders, come back home.”

Icari slumped in her seat and drew her legs up, shivering suddenly as she realized how cold and dark the Phoenix’s cockpit had become.  Alone, only the beating of her heart and the sound of her crystallizing breath kept her company as the Phoenix drifted.  With a small, sad smile, she pressed her forehead against the cold metal of her Ryder suit’s thigh plates, curled up against the harshness of the universe.  After the life she had, after all the close calls and suicidal risks… dying in the peace and quiet of interstellar space, adrift in her prized Ryder, didn’t seem so bad.

“That means you too, Icari.  Bay 03 is ready and waiting for the Phoenix.”

Icari jumped at Kayto’s order, almost certain she had misheard him.  An unwelcome flush in her cheeks crept to the surface.

“Do you need a tow or do you still have enough functionality to dock?” asked Ava.

“I… Understood; Phoenix returning to base,” called in Icari, a warmth rising in her chest against the cold.  Ignoring the smug note in Ava’s voice, Icari resolved to use the Phoenix’s own engines, even if it killed her in the process; anything to avoid the humiliation of being towed back in addition to having to face the First Officer again.

Grabbing Phoenix’s controls, she dumped every last watt of power the Phoenix had left into the thrusters to push the Ryder towards the Sunrider pitifully slowly compared to its usual flight speed, limping towards the warm lights and safe harbor of the ship’s Ryder bays.

******

As soon as the Ryders had safely landed in Sunrider’s hanger bay, the assault carrier warped, jumping away from Versta and the PACT fleet bearing down on their coordinates, eager to avenge their comrade’s deaths.  Confirming that Sunrider had successfully evaded pursuit, Kayto left the CIC with Ava in tow.

“HaHa!  That’s two for two, Capt’n” hooted Asaga, flashing a “V” sign with her fingers in his face as she charged out of bay 01’s lift.

Kayto met her high-five as she bounced past, wincing slightly as her armored gauntlet slapped into his hand unforgivingly.

“Ah… I’ve come back too, Captain,” Chigara’s quiet voice drifted towards them as she walked closer from 02’s lift, smiling nervously and holding a hand up awkwardly.

“You two did great out there,” affirmed Kayto as the two pilots beamed at him.

“Captain.” Ava’s tone was serious as she nodded towards bay 03’s lift, from which Icari had emerged, lingering uncertainly by the door frame as she watched the reunion in front of her.  As she took a step in their direction, Ava set a hand on her pistol’s butt.

Kayto ignored Ava, taking a few steps forward towards the yellow-clad pilot as she eyed them warily.  “Well…” his tone was light.  “Feels better to be one of the good guys, huh, Icari?”

Icari crossed her arms and stood akimbo, looking somewhere to the left of her boot.  “I-it’s not like I was helping you or anything… I just… felt bad about those kids, that’s all.”

Kayto said nothing, watching her face soften as she took a deep breath.

“…But I guess… I guess I was wrong.  For a moment, it felt like I was really ready to do it.  I would have killed all those kids, every last one, just to get even with the PACT.”  Icari shuddered slightly as she forced herself to look up into the eyes of everyone watching her.

“The PACT killed my whole family when I was twelve.  We were just space explorers, pushing out where no one had ever gone before.  We had no money, no treasures… just our ship and each other.  But they came aboard anyways, demanded charts and information we knew nothing about.  I… watched their leader shoot my mother between the eyes. Just because we couldn’t give them what they wanted.  I ran, ran past them killing the rest of my family.  When it was over, I barely made it to an escape pod before they blasted the ship.  Drifted in space for five days, no food, water, or heat until an Alliance patrol picked my signal up and brought me aboard, half dead.”  Icari’s face crumpled as the memories surfaced, driving unwilling tears down her face as her shoulders shook.  Bowing her head and hiding her shame from the others, she finished her story.

“Just me.  No one else made it.  After that, I traveled the galaxy, ran with some of the wrong people for a while, trying to get even with the PACT and avenge my family.  I’ve never done anything else with my life and… I’m not about to stop now.”

Icari’s story finished, leaving the hanger catwalk silent as Asaga and Chigara stared at her, wide-eyed.  Even Ava seemed a little sympathetic, frowning and slowly dropping her hand from her sidearm.

“But… something stayed your hand out there,” said Kayto as he took a step closer to Icari.  “Something told you that murdering those children wouldn’t avenge your family.  If you did that, you’d be no better than the men who came aboard your family’s ship that day.”

Icari kept silent, tears continuing to rain down from her chin.  Although she had no words, her silence assented to Kayto’s sentiment.

“I know a better way,” suggested Kayto gently.  Icari gave a twitch and looked up, meeting his gaze.  “Our hanger bay’s awfully empty and we’re looking for skilled pilots.  Play by our rules and bay 03 will always be waiting for you to come home.”

Icari’s clouded green eyes cleared as she reached out to him through the conflict and turmoil within her, wanting desperately to believe in his words, even if she couldn’t admit it.

“We’ll get even with the PACT and kick them out of the Neutral Rim, but we’re going to defeat them the right way, without hurting any civilians or innocents.  That’s going to make the mission a hell of a lot harder, maybe even deadlier, but that’s the cost… I guess I’d rather be dead than forget about who we’re fighting to protect or why we’re doing it in the first place,” said Kayto, shrugging and clasping his hands behind his back.

“You… you’d still have me on the crew?  Even after everything I’ve done?” asked Icari, almost fearfully.

Kayto smiled sadly, “We’ve all lost family to the PACT on this ship, Icari.  Don’t think for a second that you’re alone.”

“I-, Captain…”  Icari gave a wet smile.  “I’m… ashamed… of what I did.  Of the kindness you’re showing me… but, maybe you’re right.  Maybe we can win this war without using the methods the PACT relies on.”  Straightening her back, she drew herself up as the flow of tears staunched on her face.  “I’ll help you defeat the PACT… and I’ll play by your rules.”

“Don’t think that being part of the crew means I won’t have my eyes on you, mercenary,” growled Ava from behind Kayto as he smiled.  “You may have won the Captain’s sympathies, but give me a reason, and I’ll be the one throwing you in the brig.”

“Oy!” Asaga chimed in too.  “Capt’n!  Don’t you think she’s tried to slit our throats one too many times to be crew?”

Kayto turned to them as Icari flinched as though slapped.  “We all make mistakes, Asaga.  Icari could have killed any of us if she wanted to, but she was better than that.  We all want to defeat the PACT, and that means forgiving, forgetting, and trusting each other first.”  Turning to back to Icari, he continued.  “Looks like you’ve got a lot of patching up to do before folks stop locking up at night; are you up to the challenge?”

Icari saluted emotionally.  “Sir!  I swear I’ll use this chance to make things right.”  Looking past Kayto, she looked at Asaga, Chigara, and Ava in turn.  “I’ll win your trust.  We’ll fight together from now on.”

Asaga looked embarrassed as she rubbed her neck, “Fine, fine, I guess an extra wing-mate is fine, so long as you keep your guns on the PACT!”

Chigara smiled timidly with hunched shoulders.  “Ah… w-welcome to the team, Icari! Heh… let’s all get along now, ok?  No more fighting.”

“Hmph,” Ava tried to put on a strong front.  “I’ll make sure we get you some fresh uniforms and set you up with the pilot quarters you stayed in last time.  What are you, a size two?”

“Thanks everyone…” Icari said quietly with a smile.

“Alright, alright, enough mushy stuff!” declared Asaga loudly.  “I’m starving!  Let’s grab some grub!”

“Unbelievable…”

“Everyone’s coming, no buts about it!  That means you too, Capt’n!” demanded Asaga.  “We’ve got to talk, catch up, laugh, cry, and bond like a team!”

Kayto grinned, “Looks like you’ve got me.  Alright team, let’s head on up.”

“S-seriously…” Icari grumbled halfheartedly without malice.  “I guess I don’t have a choice then…”

******

As the evening hours dragged on, Sunrider’s mess hall became a scene of complete chaos and abandonment of the usually strict Ava-enforced military protocols aboard the ship.  Not two hours earlier, Kayto had used his Captain’s codes to release the alcohol lockouts on the mess hall dispensary to thunderous applause and wild cheering.  Now, nursing a vodka and tonic, his second one, he eyed his crew fondly as they spilled their drinks, laughing and singing in the first real victory celebration they had had since the Sunrider had launched.

Across the table, Ava leaned in, practically shouting over the din of the room around them.  “Captain, I’m not certain this was the best idea; protocol regarding on-duty alcohol consumption-”

“Relax, Ava,” interrupted Kayto, noting that his First Officer had conspicuously remained abstinent of drink through the evening.  “Ship morale isn’t something that we can afford to ignore.  Our crew just saved the lives of over six hundred child refugees and gave the PACT a damned good black eye to boot.  They deserve this.”

“Hmph,” Ava waved a hand, irritated.  “I suppose… but things are starting to get a little out of hand,” she said, nodding towards Icari and Asaga.

The two were surrounded by a dozen cheering crew members as Chigara hovered nervously over the two, locked in a drunk arm wrestling match.

“SKILL!” bellowed Asaga, her face flushed the same color as her hair.

“LUCK!” roared back Icari, grimacing as she pushed back against Asaga’s arm.

The match continued for a good ten seconds before Asaga’s arm collapsed; the crowd cheered gleefully and began chanting as Asaga pulled a long drink straight from the pitcher next to her, liquor splashing all over the table.  Slamming the drink down, she shook her head and put her arm back on the table, challenging Icari to an umpteenth round.

Seeing Ava’s eyebrow arch critically, Kayto felt himself inclined to agree.  The crew had clearly reached the point of maximum benefit from the celebration and it was, perhaps, time to put a close to things before any brawls erupted.  “I suppose it would be better for morale if they remembered at least part of tonight,” grinned Kayto to Ava’s relief.  Standing up, he felt a pleasant buzz in his lips and fingertips as he headed over to the dispensary.  “Computer,” he said, flashing his identity chip to the device.  “Limit all crew members to one final alcoholic beverage; rescind all unused privileges at 0300.”

Taking one last look around at the crew of the Sunrider, Kayto turned to leave the mess hall.  As he walked towards the exit, he caught Ava’s eye one more time.  Perhaps it was the two vodkas swirling in him that put the thought in his head, but, on an impulse, he changed his route and returned to their table.

“Ava…”

“Captain.” Ava’s tone was open, but unimpressed.

“Come up to my quarters tomorrow,” he offered casually.

Ava arched her eyebrow at him appraisingly, waiting for him to continue.

“Just to talk and catch up over a cup of tea,” said Kayto quickly.  “It’ll only take a few minutes, come on.”

“I- …Alright then,” agreed Ava, the merest hints of a smile at the corner of her lips.  “Tomorrow, 0800.”

“Perfect.”  Kayto got up happily.  “Good evening, Commander.”

“Good evening, Captain,” Ava threw him a lazy salute, not even bothering to rise, perhaps lulled from her usual ramrod attention by the party’s atmosphere.

******

Leaving the noise and dark of the mess hall, Sunrider’s corridors seemed a little too bright for comfort as he retired to his quarters, ears ringing from the noise of the celebration.  Upon entering his quarters, Kayto undid the remaining fasteners on his uniform, breathing out with relief and watching the soothing night sky from the quarter’s simulated window.  As the stars outside twinkled welcomingly, he allowed himself a private smile.  Whatever the consequence, Sunrider and her crew had taken a stand for all that was right, besting the PACT and garnering them a new ally.  Although the path to victory had been difficult, everything that had happened afterwards made the whole thing worth it.

Halfway undressed, he caught sight of his sister’s picture on the shelf behind the desk.  Sadness entered into his features as he picked the holo up, Icari’s words echoing in his mind.  Are you scared for her?  Scared for what the PACT did or is going to do to her?

He flashed back to the day he’d watched Cera City burn, blasted into ash and molten metal by the Legion’s merciless strike.  It seemed insane to continue to hold onto the shred of hope that his sister had survived, yet, the abyss of sorrow and fear that churned behind his denial was too much to bear.  Kayto felt a sickening swoop of abject terror run through his mind, leaving the corrupting stain of despair behind to eat into his foundation.  Hands trembling, Kayto felt a sudden urge to smash the holo, to scream out loud in a primal expression of his pain.

Gasping, he stumbled back from the holo, dropping it on his desk, suddenly feeling nauseous.  Staggering to his quarter’s lavatory, he splashed cold water onto his face, over and over again until his breath slowed and the cold sweat stopped.

Get a grip, Kayto… the crew… think about the crew.

Looking up into the mirror, Kayto watched the color flit back to his face.  For the sake of the Sunrider, he could not afford to have any self-doubt.  Their mission, to return to Cera and liberate it from the PACT, hinged on his unswerving dedication to see it done.  That, in turn, required him to hope; even if it was a hope against any reason.  Swallowing hard, Kayto felt his world steady.

Hope.  The one thing he had left.  The reason the Sunrider had saved the lives of six hundred children that day.  Wherever she was, Kayto knew his sister would be proud of what had transpired above Versta today.

This one was for you, Maray.  This one was for you.

 

CHAPTER 9 >>>>