Chapter 9- Tea and Royalty

“Captain…” Admiral Grey’s tone was clipped but superficially polite.  “My staff said you wanted to speak with me.  Was there a problem with the funds forwarded to your account?”“Not at all,” Kayto’s fingers drummed his chair’s armrest as the Admiral’s avatar gave him a cool look.  “I merely wished to offer the courtesy of giving you a report of the events at Versta personally.  It’s not every day our humble ship receives a contract from the mighty Alliance Space Force.”

Grey gave him a forced, hollow smile.  “I already read the reports; you give yourselves far too little credit, Captain.  Four PACT cruisers and an entire wing of Ryders eliminated by your Sunrider and two Ryders while defending a civilian ship.  Miraculous, some would say.”

“My crew just did what they needed to do to keep those kids safe, Admiral,” Kayto’s voice could have frozen helium as he leaned forward.  “I shudder to think what kind of tragedy would have resulted if we had been too late… six hundred children, nothing could possibly have been worth it.”

“The PACT are monsters, Captain, never forget that.”  The Admiral chose his words carefully, loading them with as much meaning as Kayto’s.  “Every day this war in the Neutral Rim drags on is another tragedy for those who fall to their machinations.”

Kayto nodded, “I’m with you on that Admiral.  The PACT’s disregard for human life borders inhumanity itself, how fortunate the Alliance places greater value on the lives of civilians and children.”

“They’ll be seen to with the best the Alliance can offer them in their time of need,” the Admiral tersely replied, his jaw clenching with barely suppressed anger.  “We’ll make sure they’re taken care of until the day they can return to Versta and their parents.  Now… Captain, I’m sure you can appreciate that I’m a busy man, was there anything else you wanted to trouble me for?”

“Nothing at all,” smiled Kayto.  “Pleasure doing business with the Alliance.”

******

Ava sat on one of the sofas in Kayto’s quarter’s lower personal section, trying to relax as he puttered about making tea.  As she watched his back, he turned around suddenly, giving her a smile. Quickly looking away, she cast about her mind for a casual conversation piece, failing miserably.  Fortunately, Kayto returned to his tea set, giving her the dubious luxury of sitting in awkward silence.

Finally, he brought the set to the table, handing her a steaming china cup and saucer before taking a seat opposite to her.  Bringing the cup to her lips, she blew gently before sipping the tea, hot and strong, and nodded appreciatively at the fine china and brew.

“I’ve been meaning to use this set at some point,”  started Kayto, taking a sip himself and breaking the silence.  “It’s fresh out of the box; what do you think?”

“I didn’t know you were into tea,” remarked Ava.  “That time I gave you an Alliance made tea set for your birthday seemed to have gone over your head.”

“I’m still not nearly sophisticated enough,” said Kayto with an embarrassed smile and shrug.  “This one was a gift from my family for this commission.  I’m afraid I left your set back on Cera…”

“It’s been a while since we could just talk like this,” offered Ava, even though in all honestly, very little talking had been had yet.  She settled deeper into the sofa, a fraction more at ease.

“Reminds me of old times, like how we used to play cards in the student council office.”

Ava’s lips curled in a small smile, “I’m honestly surprised you even remember.  It’s been so many years since we last did that.”

Kayto looked even more embarrassed, turning slightly pink.  “I guess seeing you again made me all nostalgic.  You know, you really haven’t changed much since then.”

“Things are different now, Captain,” Ava sounded equal parts stern and nostalgic.  “Back then, you were the one following me.”

“It was only natural, I suppose,” said Kayto, pensive.  “How long have we known each other?  We practically grew up as family… I guess I just wanted to be closer to you and see you in action.”

Ava arched an eyebrow over her cup of tea.

“I mean, you were always in motion back then, getting things done… Honestly, I guess I was a bit awed.  I guess I just wanted to be with you and to learn from the best.”

“That’s odd,” Ava’s tone was light.  “You’d have think I’d have taught you better than this…”  She sighed softly, “It’s funny hearing you say that now.”

“Do you…” Kayto hesitated before finishing his question.  “Do you ever think about what it’d be like if you were sitting in the Captain’s seat instead?”  The thought had been on his mind since he stepped aboard Sunrider but he had never had the occasion or courage to ask her directly.

“No,” Ava’s tone was flat.  “I’m your First Officer now, Captain, there’s nothing more to it than that.  I’ll execute and relay your orders to the crew, and that’s all there is to it…”  Ava sipped her tea thoughtfully.  “Honestly… I’m not sure how it would have worked out.  Deciding to go after those slavers, rescuing the Agamemnon… you made the decision to do those things without knowing any of the details or knowing what repercussions your decision would have.  All I can say is that if I were Captain, Sunrider might have made some very different decisions.”

“Maybe you would have felt differently if you were Captain,” refuted Kayto, trying to cheer Ava up.

Ava laughed, suddenly much more girlish than he had seen since coming aboard.

“I’m sorry… it’s just… I was still thinking about high school.  Back then, it felt like I had so many problems.  Some days it felt like they were insurmountable.  But now, looking back… how to deal with the principle who wouldn’t even look at our budgets, what clothes to wear for the student assembly address, planning for the winter festival… it was nothing compared to the kinds of decisions we have to make out here, a one ship army against the whole of the PACT empire.  Kind of makes high school seem like a joke, right?”  Ava’s tone took on a note of bitterness.

“Well we were just kids,” dismissed Kayto with a grin.  “Back then, the principle was almost as bad as the Veniczar, himself.  Probably just as pig-headed and fat too.”

Ava laughed out loud, her eyes bright.  Looking at Kayto with surprising fondness, she shook her head.  “You’re too kind Kayto…”  Sighing, she continued, a little sad.  “Considering the situation… I wonder if it’s time for you to drop the optimism and make some of the hard calls.”

Taking another sip of tea, Ava continued, growing serious again and fixing Kayto with her cherry eyes.  “This isn’t high school anymore, Kayto, no matter how much we want it to be.  There’s a war going on out there and compassion on the battlefield can mean death.  As Captain, you have the responsibility to  put everything, including our lives, in danger to fulfill our duty.  Personal feelings don’t come into it; you have to do what has to be done.”

“I have a duty to keep all of you safe as well,” said Kayto, meeting her deadly serious gaze.  “If I didn’t consider my personal feelings, I wouldn’t be able to do that.

“It’s your ship,” answered Ava, deflecting his rebuttal.  “It’s just something to keep in mind, that’s all.”

Pausing for a moment and swirling her tea, Ava stared at the amber contents of her cup before voicing a thought that had been weighing heavily on her since Kayto had stepped off the shuttle onto Sunrider for the first time.  “Kayto, those days when we were in high school are gone… and we can’t ever go back to them.  It’s time to move on.”

Kayto was silent as he dropped his gaze into his own cup of tea, a pit of disappointment forming in his stomach.  Everything about the way Ava had been behaving since their reunion had suggested, without much subtlety at times, that such was the case, but hearing it in words from her own mouth drove the message home.

“Everything’s different now,” insisted Ava.  “Even our home is gone; Cera’s nothing more than a PACT colony now.”

“They’ll pay for what they’ve done to our home, Ava,” Kayto said softly, the pain and suffering of his planet overshadowing his own personal conflict for the moment.

“To be honest, I’d rather not think about it.”  Ava’s tone flattened again.  “All the people lost… All the memories destroyed… It’s too much to think about and stay functional at the same time.”

Kayto said nothing, not trusting himself to speak after last night’s lapse, but his silence was all the agreement Ava needed.

“I’m sorry, it’s hard to talk about.  Pretty much everyone in the crew’s lost someone close to them.”  Ava looked at what remained of her tea morosely.

Like him, Ava likely feared the worse for her own family, although the odds for her were likely even more bleak than his own; her father had been serving as the XO of the Gallant before she went down with all hands at the Fall of Cera.  Was it more painful to know that your loved one had departed with no hope of return or to hope against all odds of their survival?  Kayto could find no answer, although he doubted Ava’s torment was any less raw than his own.  “We have to stop the PACT.  So that what happened on Cera never happens again,” he declared, as much to Ava as to himself.

“Understood, Sir,” answered Ava crisply, coming back to the present and nodding her approval.  “I’ll be right behind you every step of the way.”

Their spirits rising, Kayto refilled their cups, pouring the last of the tea from the pot.  “Give me your thoughts on our pilots,” he asked Ava, curious as to her opinion on the latest additions to the Sunrider’s crew.

“A motley bunch, that much I’ll say,” answered Ava with a facial expression that couldn’t be sure whether it wanted to be a smile or frown.  “Asaga’s been stirring up just about any sort of trouble you can imagine with the rest of the crew.  Just the other day, I caught her gambling with a few of the others.”

“I can’t imagine it’s a regular occurrence, we keep her too busy for that,” shrugged Kayto.  “Besides, it’s not like a wager for chores or dessert ever hurt anyone.”

“Captain,” Ava’s tone was cross.  “Cera naval protocol mandates that gambling be strictly forbidden.”

“Everyone needs to blow off steam once in a while, Ava.  Don’t be so strict,” Kayto urged.

“If that’s your order, Sir.”

“No,” Kayto shook his head firmly.  “What I’m trying to say, Ava, is that protocol means less now that Cera’s been overrun by the PACT.  We’re in a situation which no protocol ever trained us to handle.  We need to stay flexible and think about what makes sense and what doesn’t anymore.”

“That’s all fine and well for you,” shot back Ava.  “You get to play nice-guy if you want, but someone has to enforce discipline on this ship, especially because there’s no protocol for our situation.”

“Alright, alright,” acquiesced Kayto, taking her point.  Even though her policies were heavy handed, her frustration was real; he needed to support his First Officer, even if it meant a slight dip in popularity, to make sure balance aboard the Sunrider was maintained and conflicts minimized.  If the two of them met halfway, everything would probably work itself out.  “Just… don’t push yourself or the crew too hard OK?  Take a break and relax every now and then.  I’ll do my part to keep this ship together too, deal?”

“Deal,” agreed Ava, although Kayto was still unsure whether she had fully accepted his point of view.

“How’s Chigara doing?” he inquired, continuing their discussion about the Ryder pilots.

“Things are much better with that one,” Ava’s tone was approving.  “I’m really impressed with her; she totally turned Engineering around.  Sunrider’s never been smoother and the entire engineering crew seems to really respect her.  I’m glad we brought her aboard.”

“Me too,” agreed Kayto.  “Sunrider wouldn’t be the same without her.  How about Icari?  Did everything go smoothly with her moving in and joining the crew?”

“As smoothly as possible,” sighed Ava, still clearly holding onto some reservations about her character.  “Still, I can’t complain; she’s just started with the crew, but she was up at 0600 sharp to start patching holes in our security systems and to get started on fixing up her Phoenix with Chigara.  If she keeps it up… well, maybe I was wrong to judge her so harshly.”

“Great, keep me posted,” said Kayto, satisfied.

The conversation having wound down, both Ava and Kayto set down their cups, neither sure how to end the sit-down chat.

“I… should get to the CIC,” muttered Ava.

Kayto nodded, “I should get back to work too.  Thanks for the chat, Ava.  You should come by more often; I could put this tea set to good use.”

Ava half-smiled, half grimaced, rising from the couch and saluting.  “We’ll see, Captain.  Maybe next time we have a free moment.”  With a swish of her long chestnut hair, Ava turned and ascended the staircase, showing herself out of Kayto’s quarters as he stood and took the tea set away to be cleaned.

******

Ava splashed water on her face at the basin of her sink back in her XO’s quarters.  Although not as large as the Captain’s quarters, her room was large enough for a bathroom, small study, and personal space.  Most importantly, it was, thankfully, private.

Staring at her reflection, Ava breathed deeply, suddenly developing a pounding headache.  Tea with Kayto had brought up all manner of unwelcome thoughts and feelings in her chest, first and foremost, her father’s passing.  Ava held no doubt the man had perished aboard the Gallant as she went down before her very eyes.  Even if her fusion core had not detonated and blown the ship apart, Ava knew her own father too well to ever imagine the man crawling to an escape pod.  If there was anyone whose pride and duty demanded that he go down with the ship, it would be her father.

A strange feeling welled up in her breast.  Honestly, she had been so busy making sure the ship didn’t fall apart physically or into anarchy that she had never given herself any time to grieve for her father, although… now that she thought of it, what she found in her chest was nothing like the grief she expected.  It should hurt, shouldn’t it?  Losing your only family?  But as Ava stared into her reflection, she saw no remorse behind her cherry eyes, no sadness or grief on her face.

Curling a hand into a fist and slamming it down on the cold porcelain of her sink, she gasped and tried to force a tear out for her father, not out of sentiment, but because she felt that she ought to as his daughter.

‘What the hell is wrong with me?!’  Ava thought, wanting to scream at her reflection.

Her father had been a hard man, but a good one.  He had taught her the meaning of responsibility, duty, and honor.  He had made her strong enough to stand on her own and hold herself to higher standards than the mediocrity she was forced to endure from the softer, weaker individuals around her.  It was because of him that she had left everything and everyone behind to join the Cera Space Force; it was for him that she had devoted the last four years of her life singlemindedly to her duty and training, to live up to the family name Crescentia.

And now?  Ava gritted her teeth, wondering what her father would have thought of her if he were still alive.  Frittering away time and discipline on a drunken celebration of what amounted to a minor, insignificant moral victory against yet another PACT occupation of a Neutral Rim territory?  Taking tea with her superior officer and attending to something as insipid and selfish as her personal life and relationship?

Ava unconsciously touched the fabric on the back of her uniform, running her hand down her back.  She could almost see his glare in the mirror, reflecting behind her own eyes.  Tearing a towel off the rack on the wall, she patted her face dry forcefully, chiding herself mentally.

Her face hardening, she tossed the towel back onto the rack and spun on her heel, sweeping out of her quarters and back to her duties without another look back, afraid of what she might find.

******

“Ughhh…” Asaga glared at the robotic dispensary through a groggy slit, trying to avoid the bright lights of the mess hall.  “What’s do you have for for headaches?”

“If you require medical attention, please report to the sickbay,” suggested the machine cheerfully.

“No ship doctor, remember?” growled Asaga.

“I’m sorry, please repeat your query.”  The programming governing the dispensary was not designed to hold extended conversation no immediately related to the menu on hand.

“Forget it, just give me some food.”

“Coming right up, ma’am.”

The dispensary’s slot ejected out a the standard crew breakfast tray, having defaulted to general settings in the absence of additional instructions.  Reconstituted eggs and ersatz sausages steamed on a plate, along with a small serving of preserved fruit, an unbelievably dark roast coffee, and a nutrition supplement.

“Ugh… I think I’m going to puke,” grumbled Asaga as she held the tray at arms length, trying to avoid the smell.  Sitting down at a table, she gulped the coffee as fast as the scalding liquid would go down her throat.  After a minute, the world swam back into focus and she took stock of her surroundings fully for the first time that morning.  “C-Capt’n!”

“Rough morning, Asaga?” Kayto asked serenely, smiling as she recoiled in horror.

“N-no!  But keep your voice down… please.”  Asaga did her best to straighten up, draining the last of her coffee before turning to poke at the rest of the breakfast unenthusiastically.  “Did you need me for somethin’ Capt’n?”

“Just making the rounds,” he answered breezily.  “Looked to me like you and Icari buried the hatchet last night.”

“Ah, just ’cause we were drinking doesn’t mean we’re buddies!”  Asaga stuck her nose in the air.  “I’m glad we got those kids out, but I’m still not sure keeping Icari on board was the best thing to do.  I don’t want someone on my team who won’t think twice about shooting at civilians.”

“Give it a rest, Asaga,” said Kayto, rolling his eyes.  “The only reason those kids got out in one piece was because she gave it a second thought.  Icari had her reasons for doing what she did, even if it was misguided.  The universe isn’t always black and white, Asaga; we have to remember that.”

“Well, shooting kids seems pretty darn black to me, Capt’n,” said Asaga, not letting the issue drop.  “After what she almost did, I’m not sure she deserves to call herself one of the good guys anymore.”

“You’re on the same crew now, Asaga,” admonished Kayto.  Cranking up the volume deliberately, he insisted.  “You two are to work together.  That’s an Order!”

Asaga winced, pale, and cupped her ears, “Alright, alright!  Jeez.  No need to play hardball, Capt’n.  She’s a good pilot, I’ll give her that, so we’ll fly just fine.  Just don’t order us to hold hands or be best friends, OK?”

“Done,” agreed Kayto.

“Ugh,” Asaga sighed in relief as his voice returned to a subdued level.  “What happened to those kids anyways?

“We got a brief update from the Admiral’s office this morning.  They’ve reached Alliance space.  Since Versta’s been occupied by the PACT, those kids are going to be set up in Alliance custody.  With all the press surrounding the orphans, you can bet they’ll be well taken care of,” shared Kayto with a smile.

Asaga gave a genuine smile through her hangover.  “All right!  I guess that’s for the best right now.  Let’s hurry up and kick the PACT outta the Neutral Rim so those kids can go home!”

“Slow down champ,” laughed Kayto.  “You might want to sober up a bit first.  Anything else you need?”

“Nope,” Asaga shook her head and immediately regretted it.  “Sunrider’s got it all, Capt’n.  I got a warm bed and good food and this ship’s a whole lot cleaner and nicer than Chigara’s workshop, no offense.  I just wish the Commander would lay off my case a bit.”

“Ah…”

“So I tried hooking up my GameMaster to the holovision in the crew lounge, right?  No big deal, but all of a sudden, she shows up and starts yelling about ‘unsanctioned electronics’ and ‘security breaches.’  You should’ve seen how red her face got Capt’n!” Asaga whined.  “Then!  Chigara and I go back with some folks to play some Duel Creatures, and she’s back again!  No cards, she says.  Man…”

Asaga looked put out to the extreme.

“Listen, Ava needs to keep the Sunrider working at tip-top.  She’s a military ship and we need the crew to be focused,” started Kayto.

“I know!” interrupted Asaga.  “But doesn’t that mean we should make the most of our downtime?”

“That’s right,” nodded Kayto.  “Which is why I asked Ava to turn a little blind eye to the smaller things, so… just keep it low-key and in your rooms, alright?  And give Ava a break, she’s got a hundred things to do without playing babysitter.”

“You got it, Capt’n!” grinned Asaga.  “The Commander won’t hear a peep!”

“Great, stay out of trouble,” winked Kayto as he rose from the table and continued on his tour of the ship.

******

“E-eah!  Captain!”

Kayto froze as he walked past Engineering, apparently having inadvertently surprised Chigara once again.

“Uhh… just passing through,” he said, bemused by her strong reaction.

Chigara sighed deeply, giving him an embarrassed smile.  “I’m sorry; I didn’t see you behind me.  What is this, the third time?”

“You really get focused with your work, don’t you?” asked Kayto warmly.

Chigara nodded, “When I work with machines, I just kind of get lost.  Everything else fades away and I don’t really notice anything anymore.”

“Maybe having a mercenary on board put you on edge,” Kayto said half-teasingly.

“Mmm… I don’t think so,” Chigara gave a bright smile.  “I haven’t spoken to her much since Versta, but I think she regrets what she did.  We’re on the same side now, so I don’t think it will be a problem.  I’m just glad those kids got way safely…”

Kayto nodded approvingly; apparently Chigara was a more forgiving spirit than Asaga.  “I was actually going to go down to the hanger to see how she was doing; do you need anything?”

“Oh no,” Chigara beamed.  “I’ve got everything I need and the Sunrider’s been a wonderful vessel.  I don’t think I’ve been on anything this advanced since I left Diode.  In fact, I was running some energy conversion models yesterday,” Chigara’s voice grew quicker and more excited as she pulled out her datapad, showing Kayto a mind-boggling series of scrolling numbers and wiggling lines.  “I can definitely say that Sunrider’s core drive is one of the most efficient in the galaxy!  Even better, she’s powered by a fusion core, so we don’t have to worry about radiation emission.  If we were to upgrade our fuel feeders with-”  Chigara’s blue eyes danced with energy as she looked up at Kayto before quickly being chased away by a look of panic.  “O-oh!  I’m sorry!  I didn’t mean to bother you with all the techno-babble,” she said quickly, kicking herself for the slip.  “You already said you were busy and… I… what were we talking about again?  C-can you repeat the question?”

“Paraxium?”

“Huh?” Chigara looked stunned and bewildered.

“You wanted to upgrade the fuel feeders with a paraxium coating to reduce Ongessite reflux right?  That would boost our engine speeds significantly.  I like it!  Next time we’re at port, we’ll look into it together,” said Kayto, nodding decisively.

“Y-you know about the Mark II designs?” stuttered Chigara, her confusion giving way to delight.  “I- I had no idea you were a gearhead like me!” her cheeks turned pink as she looked at him with interest.

Kayto laughed, rubbing the back of his neck.  “Always the tone of surprise… Well… I suppose I had to know a thing or two before they gave me the keys to the ship.”  Handing back her datapad, he gave her a nod, “Keep up the good work, Chigara!  We’re counting on you.”

“Yes Captain!” Chigara’s face split into a wide smile.  “Please come back sometime!”

******

Arriving at Sunrider’s hangers, Kayto did not have to look far before he found Icari on the ground floor of bay 03, wrestling with a burned out servomotor on the Phoenix’s “foot.”

“Captain.” Icari gave up on the slagged machinery, wiping her brow and leaning up against the Ryder’s sloped foot, barely taller than the foot itself.  Unlike Asaga, she seemed entirely unaffected by the evening before.

“You look pretty good in that uniform,” Kayto commented, “Especially for someone who downed that many shots last night.”

“Oh,” Icari’s eyebrows arched with the compliment as she looked somewhat self-conscious.  “Heh… it’ll take more than that to put me down for the next morning.  Your crew could learn a thing or two about how to really throw a party, Captain.  Those drinks last night were like water compared to some of the stuff I’ve had on the outskirts of the Rim.  Next time we pass by a good bar, I’ll let you know.”

“Only if you’re buying,” warned Kayto.

“Hah, it’s a deal,” Icari gave him a cocky smile.  “I’d pay good money to see you drink yourself under the table.”

“Looks pretty smashed up,” commented Kayto, talking a look at the Phoenix’s battered frame and deciding to switch topics.  “You sure it’s safe for you to fly this thing again?”

Icari smirked, “She’s seen worse, Captain, and I’d sooner die than scrap the Phoenix.  She’ll need more than a few repairs though; Asaga was pretty thorough with taking the hatchet to her.”

“You’re lucky you didn’t get spaced,” remarked Kayto.  “Asaga might seem like a loose cannon, but she knows how to fly a Ryder.”

“Maybe so,” admitted Icari.  “I’d give myself pretty good odds on a rematch though… on a simulator of course…”  Sighing, she looked up at the Phoenix wistfully.  “It’s actually not as bad as it looks.  Most of the damage is superficial now; your girl in engineering came down here and helped me patch up the important bits.  I’ve never seen anyone as talented as her.  What would’ve taken me days to fix took her less than three hours, and I’ve been doing my own repairs and upgrades on the Phoenix since the day I got her.”

“Chigara’s probably one of the best engineers in the galaxy.  She built the Black Jack and Liberty from scratch.  We’re lucky to have her on this ship,” said Kayto.

Icari nodded, blurting before she could stop herself,  “You’ve got a pretty good crew here, Captain.”  Eyes widening, she crossed her arms furiously and looked away.  “Tsch… I can’t believe I said that out loud… This is your fault, Captain!”

“You’ve just been working alone for too long,” jabbed Kayto as Icari’s cheeks flushed even redder.  “Admit it, you like being part of a bigger crew.”

“Did you come down here just to embarrass me?  Or did you want something in particular?” demanded Icari, pointing an accusing finger at him.

“Just wanted to check in,” he said, moving on to placate her.  “How are you adjusting to the Sunrider?”

“I’m satisfied.  Sunrider’s much nicer than the accommodations I’m accustomed to, thanks for the concern,” answered Icari perfunctorily, shuffling uneasily, clearly uncomfortable with the attention.

“Tell me about your Ryder,” queried Kayto, deciding to switch to a topic she might be more apt to opening up to.  “What’s the deal with the swords?”

“Phoenix is a stealth Ryder, a custom job,” said Icari proudly, “This armor actually uses active electronic camouflage to help me evade enemy targeting systems so that I can get in close with my engines.  Once I’m there…” Icari left the rest unsaid.

“You seem to like swords; when we first pulled you on board, you had a whole collection of knives with you,” observed Kayto.

Icari nodded, “You don’t see a lot of them; they say the advent of firearms long before we came to the stars ended the days when we used swords as weapons, but personal shielding technology brought them back.  Now, it makes more sense, at least for me, to kill someone with a sword rather than plug away at their shields with lasers.”

“Hmm…” Kayto wasn’t entirely sure he agreed.

“I get it,” Icari cut in, already ahead of him.  “You, like most of the civilized galaxy, think it’s barbaric don’t you?  Well… real life’s way different than the clean theory of officer school.  Out on the Outer Rim, the person who draws their weapon fastest wins.  I don’t have to mess around with pulling triggers or anything when I use a knife or sword.  Plus, I have to look everyone I kill in the eye before I do it; to me, that’s a hell of a lot less barbaric than pulling a trigger and blowing away some poor Joe you’ve never met.”

“Huh…” Kayto was taken aback by her argument.  “I guess I never really thought about it that way…  Sounds like you’ve lead a colorful life out there.  What was being a mercenary like?”

“Well I wasn’t just some goon for hire,” she sniffed.  “I only took contracts against the PACT.  Mostly blowing up refueling stations, sank a few stranded PACT ships before help could arrive.  Hit and run, deep cover stuff.  Even impersonated a low level Veniczar once.”

“This I have to hear,” prompted Kayto, intrigued.  “You don’t exactly have the look for one.”

Icari snorted, “I had to order a custom latex suit that made me look about eighty pounds fatter.  I’ve got some holos stored on Phoenix’s database; I’ll crack ’em out the day we go drinking.”

“Wow,” snickered Kayto.  “I’m guessing it wasn’t for cosplay.  What were you doing with all that?”

“Slave sale bust,” answered Icari, sticking her tongue out at him.  “The Alliance hired me to bust a deal that was going down between these slavers and this Veniczar.  The PACT was trying out a policy of ‘liberating’ slaves, see?  They’d pay the slavers and the men and women they bought ended up serving on their ships, whether they wanted to or not.  Anyways, this was one of the biggest deals that had ever gone down between the PACT and the pirates, around 200 adults.  The Alliance got involved when one of their citizens was picked up by the slavers and was included in the sale.”

“So… you impersonated the Veniczar, bought 200 slaves, and came home?” asked Kayto skeptically.

“Tsch, wasn’t that simple,” grunted Icari.  “The Alliance got all cheapskate on me saying they ‘couldn’t fund piracy,’ ended up paying for their citizen only.  Anyways, it didn’t matter in the end because the slavers were planning on a double cross and were going to try to slit the Veniczar’s throat anyways.”

“I’m guessing you found that out firsthand.”

“Sure.”  Icari’s tone was casual as she gave him a sideways smile.  “A couple of their shots even ended up grazing my suit.  That was a sight to see, a fat Veniczar running and dodging… melting.”

“Nice… how’d you get out of that?”

“Switched places with the real Veniczar when she came out of the airlock.  You should have seen her face when they grabbed her… priceless.  Anyways, the whole point of coming aboard their ship was to override their internal security.  By the time I ditched the suit, all the slaves had broken loose already and were rampaging throughout the ship.  It was complete pandemonium.  I tracked down my mark’s implanted ID chip, grabbed him, and hauled ass off that ship.”  Icari’s eyes were distant as she recalled the rest of her tail.  “Good thing too, the PACT and the slavers started shooting at each other’s ships almost as soon as we had undocked, blew each other to hell.”

“The other slaves?” asked Kayto, pointing out the elephant in the room.

Icari shook her head.  “My stories aren’t pretty ones, Captain.  But I got the job done and the galaxy was one PACT Veniczar and ship fewer than when I had started.  That was enough for me,” Icari shrugged.  “That’s pretty much what being a mercenary was like.  The work was dangerous, but exciting and it paid the bar tab… kept me from thinking too much about anything else…”

“Icari…”

Icari shook her head, pushing away Kayto’s sympathy.  “It’s alright, Captain. I don’t regret a moment of it, but… who knows, maybe my luck will change with you calling the shots.  This could be good for me.”

“Count on it,” promised Kayto, although Icari seemed to be talking more to herself at that point than him.

Chirp Chirp.  Kayto’s bracelet signaled for his attention.

“Captain, incoming transmission in the CIC; we’ve got more work,” came Ava’s voice.

“I’ll be right there,” Kayto said, cutting the call.  As he looked back to Icari, the woman was gone, having taken the opportunity to silently slink off.  “Good talk, Icari,.  Let me know if there’s anything else you need,” he said out loud, certain she would hear him, before turning and making his way to the CIC.

******

“Incoming transmission from Ryuvia, Captain,” reported Ava as he stepped into the CIC.

“Ryuvia?” Kayto didn’t bother to hide his surprise.  “First an Alliance Admiral, now royalty?  We are talking about the same Ryuvia right?” he joked.

“You mean the Ryuvia of the ancient Holy Ryuvian Empire?  A culture with a history spanning over ten thousand years, possibly the birthplace of humanity itself?  Yeah, that one,” Ava bit back, rolling her eyes.

“Alright, alright,” Kayto grinned; Ava did not suffer fools lightly.  “Just making sure; let’s hear what they have to say.”

A hunched elderly man materialized on the bridge, his royal finery flowing down to the floor.  Even through the hologram, the dazzling jewel encrusted robe, scepter, and crown on his person made Kayto squint.  “Hail, Sunrider.”  The Ryuvian monarch’s voice carried an unmistakable air of superiority, carefully cultivated through years of diplomacy, not so much as addressing him as deigning to speak.  “You are in the presence of King Jalor di Ryuvia, sole monarch of the Ryuvian Empire, keeper of the proud traditions of our fathers a hundred generations before us, guardian of their legacy and treasures.  I am pleased to hold audience with you.”

Once the mightiest human empire ever documented in known history, the Holy Ryuvian Empire stretched from one arm of the galaxy to the other, encompassing countless worlds and subjects.  Some said that it was during this time that humanity flourished in a golden age of technology and culture, advancing to dizzying heights of power and accomplishment and surpassing any of the wildest dreams of man.  Such was the truth on certain planets, at least.  At it’s core, the Ryuvian royal family held absolute power, the right to dispense technology to entire worlds theirs and theirs alone.  The favor of the Ryuvian Lords could bring wealth and comfort to your people, while their scorn brought fire and destruction.  Commanding such power, the Infinite Emperor of Ryuvia ascended being a mere mortal and rising to the level of a God, worshiped across the galaxy at Ryuvian shrines on every single world.  The shrines remained to this day, a reminder to the galaxy of the power the Ryuvians once held, preserving the legacy of a distant time long since past.

Despite their absolute dominion over the galaxy, the Holy Ryuvian Empire eventually fractured under the weight of internal strife and a series of selfish, greedy, and shortsighted emperors, plunging the galaxy into a new dark age for centuries to come.  Records of this period were scant, majority of the Ryuvian’s technology having been lost to the anarchy and chaos that followed the dissolution of the Empire into a hundred warring clans and small time alliances.  In the end, the Holy Ryuvian Empire survived in the form of the modern Ryuvian Empire, weakened, but still reigning over a respectable number of worlds and territories surrounding Ryuvia Prime, the capitol of their once great holdings.

Ryuvia would continue to play a major role in galactic politics as they and other powers struggled to reclaim a shadow of their previous accomplishments.  Ultimately, what remained of the Ryuvian Empire was eclipsed by the New Empire.  Made strong by the discovery of the paradise planet of New Eden and the unification of all nearby worlds, the New Empire soon set its sights on reclaiming the seat of Ryuvia’s ancient power, thereby affirming their status as the inheritors of their legacy.  The New Empire and Ryuvia fought bitterly, but the decaying and stagnant Ryuvian Empire proved to be no match for the New Empire’s onslaught; one by one, their territories were surrendered and Ryuvia found its existence threatened for the first time in remembered history.

Were it not for the intervention of the Solar Alliance, Ryuvia would have likely been overrun as well.  The Solar-Imperial War and the internal strife from the PACT revolution saved Ryuvia from conquest, leaving the dying embers of their civilization alight against all odds.  The price of survival, however, had been steep; Ryuvia lost its final territory, forced to cede Far Port, a tactical and commercial stronghold that remained Ryuvia’s last shred of dignity as an Empire, to the Solar Alliance.  Cheated and humiliated as such, Ryuvia could do nothing but accept the circumstance, having no fleets or power of its own to challenge the Solar Alliance’s demand.

With nothing left but their pride and traditions, the Ryuvian Empire was a “power” in name only, although their history still commanded a degree of awe and respect in spite of their current situation.

“Greetings, your Highness,” Kayto inclined his head courteously.  “I am Captain Kayto Shields of the Sunrider.  This is my First Officer, Commander Ava Crescentia.  How can our ship be of service to Ryuvia?”

“Word of your deeds have spread through the Neutral Rim, Captain,” King Jalor said solemnly.  “The Ryuvian Empire has taken note of your accomplishments and believes your ship may be of service in a matter we hold very dear to our hearts.  We seek the return of the Crown Jewel of Ryuvia to its rightful owners.  You will track and find this jewel in the Nomodorm Corridor.  Perform this service for Ryuvia and I shall see that you are granted an appropriately generous boon.”

“We might need more to go on than that, your Highness,” said Kayto, frowning slightly at the unusual mission.  “Can you tell us anything else about your crown jewel?”

“The Ancient Empire of Ryuvia holds many secrets dear to its chest, Captain.  Understand that we are paying not only for your service, but also for your cooperation in this regard,” King Jalor said sternly.  “You have our request; I look forward to hearing news of your success.”

The king’s avatar faded as the audience was concluded, leaving Kayto with not so much as a mission as the suggestion of a mission.  “Not a lot to go on…” he mused as Ava consulted the ship database.

“Captain, look,” Ava pulled a display around from her station to show him.  On the screen, a tapered crystal with a description of the artifact was displayed.  Apparently Kayto had misunderstood the nature of the Crown Jewel entirely; it wasn’t particular gemstone as much as a technological artifact from the ancient Holy Ryuvian Empire itself.  “It appears the Crown Jewel wasn’t a decorative gemstone, it was the name given to a crystalline device with which the ancient Ryuvians used to pinpoint those of royal descent across astronomical distances.  In legends, it features prominently as the means by which dynastic succession was established and as a way of distinguishing imposters from the rightful heirs of the throne.”

“So it’s real then?” inquired Kayto, reluctant to send the Sunrider on a wild goose chase on the word of childhood stories.

“Apparently the Ryuvian King things so…” Ava looked thoughtful.  “It makes sense… word on the holonet is that the Ryuvian Princess is actually missing; she hasn’t been seen in public for years now.  The Ryuvian royal family hasn’t commented on the matter, but if they’re sending ships after this artifact, it would make sense.  Maybe it can help them find the missing princess.”

“It’s a stretch…” Kayto thought about the proposal for a moment.  “But it’s not like we’ve got any other job waiting and we could definitely use the money.  Set a course for the Nomodorm Corridor… we’ll take a look around and see if we can pick up any leads once we’re there.”

“Aye, Captain.  Coordinates locked in, spooling up our drives.”

CHAPTER 10 >>>>