novel art


SUNRIDER: THE NOVELIZATION

Written by WoolyShambler

Table of Contents

Chapter 1- Cera’s Fall
Chapter 2- Asaga
Chapter 3- Chigara
Chapter 4- The Moralist and The Prince
Chapter 5 – Pirate’s Nest
Chapter 6 – The Alliance Job
Chapter 7 – Icari
Chapter 8 – Agamemnon’s Flight
Chapter 9 – Tea and Royalty
Chapter 10 – Skirmish at Tautenia
Chapter 11 – Claude
Chapter 12 – The Abyss
Chapter 13 – Sola
Chapter 14 – Wedding Planning
Chapter 15 – You May Now Rescue the Bride
Chapter 16 – Brewing Storm
Chapter 17 – Kryska
Chapter 18 – First Arrival
Chapter 19 – Beached
Chapter 20 – Artifact
Chapter 21 – Ongess
Chapter 22 – Insurgency
Chapter 23 – Wounds
Chapter 24 – Fontana’s Stratagem
Chapter 25 – Memories
Chapter 26 – Promise
Chapter 27 – The Mask of Arcadius


CHAPTER 1 – CERA’S FALL

 

The sun beat down, hot on the black of Kayto Shield’s Cera Space Force uniform.  Some found the summer of Cera too warm for comfort, but Kayto preferred the summer’s warmth to winter’s grasp.  Of course, many of the core worlds of the Solar Alliance had their major cities housed under climate controlled domes, allowing residents to live in perpetual comfort all year round.  Cera had never gotten around to placing such a dome around Cera City, although there was constant talk of such a project.In truth, although Cera enjoyed its status as one of the most technologically advanced and prosperous Neutral Rim worlds, its resources were still finite.  Since the fall of the New Empire, Cera had been content to withdraw from the sphere of galactic politics, focusing on internal development and the creation of an independent navy designed to keep Cera safe from pirates and any overly ambitious neighbors.  Weary of war and wary of the government, however, most Ceran citizens frowned upon proposals to expand their naval capabilities, arguing that neither the Solar Alliance nor the People’s Alliance for Common Treatment (PACT) would tolerate a breach of the sovereign rights of the Neutral Rim planets which had, since their inception, maintained a tense peace between the two major galactic powers since the end of the Solar-Imperial War over a hundred years prior.  To that end, the Ceran Space Force operated fewer than a dozen battleship class starships, three times as many battle cruisers, and a host of support frigates, which served as little more than launch platforms for Cera’s modest Ryder wings.Scanning the city line as a welcome, refreshing offshore breeze gently fingered his white hair, Kayto’s pale, blue eyes took in Cera City’s serene beauty one more time before what he expected would be a lengthy deployment.  With PACT’s recent aggression towards a number of Neutral Rim planets immediately bordering PACT controlled space, Cera Central Command had ordered all forces to return from their patrols and muster at Cera for possible defensive action.  Although they were impossible to see with the naked eye, dozens of Cera’s warships held defensive positions above the planet’s atmosphere, keeping a watchful eye for any PACT interlopers.  All ships not at one hundred percent combat readiness were ordered to achieve combat readiness ASAP, including the Sunrider, the Cera Space Force’s newest prototype warship and Captain Kayto Shield’s first command.

*******

While still in training at the Naval Academy’s officer school, Kayto was approached by Admiral Koris’s staff regarding a “unique opportunity.”  Without any additional details, his curiosity outweighing his misgivings, he had been whisked up to orbit to Central Command’s orbital command station, Tyr.  From there, the Admiral offered Kayto what was likely the quickest and least deserved rise in chain of command any commissioned officer in Cera Space Force’s history had ever been given.“I want you to captain the Sunrider,” stated Admiral Koris bluntly, gesturing at the “window” of his office, from which Kayto could see a massive orbital dry dock cradling the frame of a starship unlike any other he had seen.  “This is not a joke.”Without cracking a smile and remaining deadpan as ever, the Admiral went on to explain that the Sunrider was an experimental prototype ship being introduced to the Cera Space Force that would have the potential to revolutionize Cera’s military forces once completed.  Built around the Vanguard Cannon, the product of decades of research into and the refurbishing of a defunct Ryuvian warship found in low orbit of Cera’s moon, the Sunrider could potentially outgun any existing ship in the Cera Space Force, if the Vanguard Cannon worked.  Combined with a novel design paradigm, the Assault Carrier, the Sunrider would be one of the most versatile and flexible ships in active duty.  Although intrigued enough about the potential asset the Sunrider represented, the Admiral was a careful man and unwilling to bet the entirety of his already strained resources on a project with no guarantee of success.

Rather than commit veteran crew from active duty ships to years of potentially fruitless training, the Admiral had elected recruit directly from newly enlisted candidates.  “Your file caught the attention of my staff,” said Admiral Koris, bringing Kayto’s personal dossier up on the holo projector.  Kayto winced at the burning red “C” evaluation next to his personal information and picture.  “Your formal test scores are entirely average to sub-par,” stated the Admiral bluntly, no pity in his voice whatsoever.  “However,” his tone softened slightly as the corners of his mouth twitched upwards in a brief expression of amusement, “Your simulation scores are at the top of your class. You strike me as a man who can think on his feet, if not always with his brain.  With a competent XO, you might just make a good captain.”

Dazed and not entirely sure how to read the situation, Kayto said the only thing that seemed appropriate, “Sir, Thank You, Sir!”

*******

Nearly four years later, against all odds, the Sunrider had achieved completion.  With the PACT breathing down their necks, the news could not come soon enough.  Despite the tense situation, today would mark the Sunrider’s maiden voyage.  The Sunrider’s crew left yesterday to relieve the engineering crews who were putting the finishing touches on Sunrider’s systems and to acclimate to their new ship.  Officially, Kayto’s captaincy had been kept under wraps by the Admiral’s office for fear of the political repercussions of promoting a green naval officer to the position of Captain, aboard Cera’s newest prototype warship no less.  The Admiral, however, remained true to his word, presenting him with insignia bearing the winged four gold bars of his rank at a small, rushed ceremony that very morning.

“Captain!  Control has cleared us for launch, but we can wait a moment if you like, Sir!” barked a nervous young shuttle pilot, barely younger than himself, saluting aggressively.

“Thank you, ensign,” smiled Kayto as he turned, walking towards the shuttle’s bat-like form as it crouched over the landing pad.  “That won’t be necessary, my sister did say it was unlikely she’d make it to see me off.  Let’s not hold anyone else up.”  Ducking under the overhead door of the shuttle, he strapped himself into a crash seat in the empty passenger compartment behind the pilot’s seat.

A moment later, he heard the engines of the shuttle scream to life, ponderously lifting the craft off the landing pad and into the air.  As he looked out the holoscreen masquerading as a window of an atmospheric craft, a white haired teenage girl burst onto the landing pad, squinting against the sudden bright of the sun, laughing and waving at his shuttle as it screamed away into the distance.  Kayto smiled, touching the screen gently, sending distortion ripples through the holographic projection.

Take care of yourself, Kayto, we’ll talk when you get back!

Although it was impossible to tell what, if anything, his sister had yelled as the shuttle peeled away, some intuition in Kayto’s mind let him know exactly what she had meant.

*******

Cera hung in the blackness of space, a brilliant, blue pearl of breathtaking beauty on the holoscreen next to Kayto.  After breaking atmosphere, the shuttle’s journey became eerily smooth, as though the craft were gliding atop liquid mercury towards its destination.  Beside the planet, individual starships, although in excess of 700 meters each, appeared as tiny, shining splinters.  One of those splinters grew larger with each passing minute of their approach; the Sunrider.

Leaning forward, Kayto spoke to the pilot, “What’s our ETA ensign?”

“Twelve minutes, give or take, Sir.  Bet you can’t wait to see your girl, right Captain?” replied the pilot, a smile to his voice.

“I haven’t seen Ava since high school…” said Kayto, “I bet she doesn’t even remember me…”

Coughing, the pilot hastily covered a snort of laughter, “I meant the Sunrider, not… the Commander.”

“Oh.”  Kayto felt immensely grateful that his pilot was unable to turn around to see the crimson that crept into his light complexion.  An awkward silence fell between the two men for a minute as Kayto took in the silhouette of the Sunrider.

Shaped like an arrowhead, the Sunrider’s rear was heavy with her four primary drive cores which provided her with sub-light and warp propulsion.  Engineering and the Sunrider’s reactors added to the bulk of the ship’s rear.  Moving towards the prow of the ship, the Sunrider tapered gracefully, her twelve Ryder launch bays, six on each side, spilling bright light from underneath her armored sides.  During combat, blast doors would slide down from the armored sections once the Ryders had launched to prevent anyone from taking an easy shot at the Sunrider, but when the bay doors were open, as they were now, their bright illumination revealed her shining, virgin hull, casting breathtaking shadows over the flak and pulse cannons studding her sides and her primary ship-to-ship Trinity laser banks.  Atop the ship, the Sunrider’s six forward rail guns, the Saviors, pointed forward proudly, each of their 150 meter long barrels capable of accelerating a kinetic slug to 1.7% the speed of light.  Although their accuracy dropped off precipitously at long range combat, any ship sustaining an impact from a full “broadside” from the Sunrider’s saviors was likely a dead ship.

Finally, at the prow of the ship, the Sunrider’s crowning achievement, the Vanguard Cannon, became apparent.  A focused plasma weapon of devastating potential, the Vanguard Cannon used a series of magnetic “bubbles” to suspend super-heated plasma before accelerating it to relativistic speeds.  According to the engineering specs he had received from the development team, the weapon had the potential to not only gut a single ship, but any other ships on the same vector of the cannon’s discharge, at least until the plasma dissipated once released from magnetic containment.  Powered an entirely separate secondary power plant, the Vanguard Cannon added to the Sunrider’s already fearsome combat prowess, although it’s firing was limited by the long charge times between shots and limited supply of plasma.

“She’s beautiful,” remarked Kayto to himself, instantly taking a liking to his new command.

“Initiating docking protocols.  We have green lights from the Sunrider,” announced the pilot

Banking gently, the shuttle pilot took his passenger towards one of the Sunrider’s open landing bays on the hanger deck, passing underneath the Sunrider’s armored lateral hull.  As none of the ship’s Ryders had been transferred yet, Sunrider’s command and control directed the shuttle to bay 01.  In combat situations, Ryders would launch via magnetized launch tubes and return via the same tubes, their magnetic systems allowing for braking and combat landings.  In non-combat situations, however, the magnetic tubes would be powered down, requiring the shuttle to slow to almost a crawl as it passed from the freedom of open space to the confines of Sunrider’s interior.

“Docking complete, Sir,”  announced the pilot.  “Launch tube doors closing… Hanger Bay 01 pressurized.”

“Thank you, Ensign.”  Kayto dawdled for a moment.

“Was there something else, Sir?” asked the pilot.

“No need to mention what I said earlier to Commander Crescentia or any of the crew.”

“Copy that,” said the pilot, grinning ear to ear.  “Don’t worry, I’m based out of the Bohemian Princess, just giving you a lift on one of our supply runs.”

“Oh… it’s my first day,” sighed Kayto, mentally burying his face in his hands.  Smooth, Kayto, now you’ll be the laughing stock of the Bohemian Princess too.

******

“Captain on deck!” a stern woman’s voice barked out.  Immaculately dressed without a single wrinkle in her uniform, Ava Crescentia saluted crisply as Kayto’s boots touched the steel deck of the hanger bay.  “First Officer Commander Ava Crescentia, presenting for duty!  Welcome aboard the Sunrider, Captain Shields.”

Kayto returned the salute, although his was a good deal more casual.  Frowning slightly, he looked awkwardly at Ava, who remained firmly at attention, her back ram-rod straight, eyes boring a hole through the side of the shuttle he had just exited.  “Uh… at ease…?”  Slim of frame, Ava was almost as tall as he was.  Her hair was soft and straight, falling down to her elbows in the back and framing her cherry eyes in the front.  Although she had often complained in high school that her looks were plain, everything about her appearance was harmonious, each feature accentuating her beauty as opposed to outshining some other aspect.  Were it not for her unfortunate tenancy to glare with alarming regularity, Kayto was certain she would have been one of the most sought after girls from their days in high school.

Apart from putting down her hand in salute, Ava remained unchanged.  For a moment, he flashed back to the Ava he remembered from high school; true her hair was shorter then, but Ava looked almost unchanged otherwise.  Of course, back then, as Student Council President, she was his immediate superior.  A spasm of guilt and awkwardness writhed through his stomach, but he swallowed the sensation; whatever reasons the Admiral had chosen him to be captain over her, both of them needed to respect that decision and perform their duties.

“It’s been a while, Ava,” said Kayto, testing the waters gingerly.  For a moment, it seemed a flicker of conflict passed behind his first officer’s chestnut eyes and Kayto could have sworn the corners of her lips twitched upwards on her otherwise porcelain features.

“Same to you… Captain,” replied Ava tersely.

Same old Ava… thought Kayto, sighing inwardly. “The last time we saw each other was at your graduation in high school.  Funny how life works sometimes…  I didn’t think we’d be meeting again like this…”

“Neither did I, Sir.”

“Listen,” said Kayto, throwing caution to the winds, “let’s not make this awkward.  I’ll be counting on you from now on Ava.”

“Understood, Captain,” said Ava with a salute.

“I’m not sure you understand…” sighed Kayto.

“Sir?”

“The whole ‘Captain’ thing… it’s bizarre hearing you call me that.  Call me Kayto, I’ll call you Ava.  It’ll be just like old times.”

“It’s proper protocol for a First Officer, is it not?” asked Ava, glaring at him.

“I… uhh… fine.  Look, don’t you think it  would be weird if I called you ‘Ava’ and you called me ‘Captain’ all the time?”

“I…”  Ava’s lips pursed, “I… suppose first name basis would be fine so long as there are no crew and we’re off duty.”

“That’s fine,” agreed Kayto, taking what he could get.  “I’m glad you skipped the welcoming ceremony, by the way.”

“Since Central Command issued Condition Orange, I ordered the crew to continue readying Sunrider’s systems for her test runs with all haste,” explained Ava.  “Section 14, article 5, exceptions to standard naval protocols.”

“Uhh…” Kayto scratched his head, bemused, “If you say so.  I’m just glad I didn’t have to make a speech or anything.”

“Hmm,” grunted Ava with a frown.

“Condition Orange, huh?  Shoot first, questions later… Command must be getting worried.  Alright, Ava, let’s do our part.  We’ll start the test runs as soon as engineering reports ready.”

Ava nodded, “They’ll still need a half hour or so.  We can tour the Sunrider in the meantime.”

******

“Saved the best for last, huh, Ava?”

Kayto and Ava stepped out of the lift onto Sunrider’s observation deck, silent and abandoned.  Kayto was grateful for the moment of peace; the interval time had been spent touring Sunrider’s other facilities, including the Combat Information Center, crew quarters, engineering, and the sickbay, and meeting his new crew.  The Sunrider’s crew had been working double time to clear the ship for launch from orbital dry dock, giving the entire ship a generally hectic and claustrophobic atmosphere.  Even with all crew present, the Sunrider seemed as though it was being manned with barely more than a skeleton crew; roughly ninety naval officers of varying ranks and duties, essential to the running of the ship and its operations, triple the number of engineers and technicians, three dozen marines, who saw to ship security, and a host of civilian contractors and other ancillary staff.  With less than half of the crew of a vessel of equivalent tonnage, the majority of Sunrider’s advanced systems were designed for autonomy, with menial or hazardous duties such as waste management and hull repair left to semi-autonomous drones under the supervision of only a handful of human crew members.

Mind abuzz with dozens of names and new faces he was sure to forget, Kayto found the silence and ambiance of the observation deck welcoming in the extreme.

The highest point on the ship relative to its artificial gravity settings, the observation deck overlooked the prow of the ship, opening into the wide expanse of space.  Subtle lighting, almost to the point of non-existence allowed the reflected light from Cera to handle most of the illumination, creating one of the most breathtaking views of the Sunrider Kayto had seen since leaving atmosphere.  Walking out to the center of the deck, Kayto felt a sudden surge of disequilibrium and panic, exhilarating and terrifying in equal parts, as he felt his balance swept away by the wash of starlight and the emptiness of space before him.

“Wow…” he whispered as he closed his eyes.

“It’s something else, isn’t it Sir- Kayto?”  asked Ava, advancing towards the view more cautiously.

Kayto nodded, “They say humanity once sailed the oceans of our birth world in tiny vessels of wood, no larger than one of our atmospheric fliers.  This… must have been what it felt like for them too.”

“Perhaps,” said Ava, clearly humoring him.  “At any rate, the observation deck serves as a last resort navigational platform should the Sunrider engage in silent-running or if she sustains catastrophic systems failure to navigation.”

“Cheerful,” remarked Kayto.  “I’m glad they didn’t put the actual CIC up here; the view is spectacular, but something tells me this isn’t the safest part of the ship during combat.”

Ava shrugged, “The price of an actual view of space.  All of the other ‘windows’ we passed are holoscreens that project the view based on external telemetry.  They’re more for psychological health than anything.  Anyways, it’s not like anyone could see anything other than several meters of metal plate out of an actual porthole with Sunrider’s hull and armor between us and the sky.  This deck is the exception.”

“Please tell me the windows are armored; I’d hate for the view to get spoiled by any action we see.”

Ava sighed, “Of course they are; when the ship goes to Red Alert, armored plating will automatically shield this deck the same way as our launch tubes seal once the Ryders have launched.”

“Speaking of which, I didn’t see any when we docked.  This is an assault carrier isn’t it?” frowned Kayto.

“We’re expecting our Ryder wing to transfer in two days; seems like some of the more distant patrols had some engine trouble on their way back home.  Since the Sunrider hasn’t officially received its commission, all available Ryders were tasked to combat ready ships on the defense cordon.  For that matter, a ship doctor and chief engineer will probably also need to wait until we receive our commission.”

“Makes sense…” sighed Kayto.  As he gripped the hand rail of the ship and watched Cera spin beneath them, he eyed Ava out of the corner of his eye.  Although her expression remained hard as ever, it seemed like there would be precious little time for quiet and privacy in the coming days and now seemed as good of a time as any.  A dozen questions he had for her jockeyed for priority as he tried to sort through the general confusion of his feelings.  Here they were, reunited after almost five years of complete silence; clearly she still remembered him, but how she felt was a different story entirely.  It had been completely impossible to read her since he had come aboard and, although their reunion had not gone as spectacularly bad as some of the scenarios he had imagined, what had transpired gave him no indication of her feelings or intentions at all.  Whatever Ava thought of him, she had chosen to hide it behind a cold wall of professionalism and detachment; in other words, typical Ava.

“Hey… Ava…” started Kayto, locking eyes with her and fumbling slightly, but deciding to say something, even if it was the wrong thing.

Beep Beep

Ava held his gaze for one and a half heart beats, inscrutable in expression, before raising her cuff to her lips.  “This is First Officer Crescentia, go ahead.”

“Ma’am, engineering reports reactor shakedown is nearly complete.  All other systems are green, we’ll be ready for launch in half an hour,” buzzed one of the bridge crew.

“Roger that, good work.  The Captain and I are on our way to the CIC now,” said Ava into her cuff before lowering her arm back to her side.  Wordlessly, she turned and strode back to the lift, her chestnut hair swishing behind her.

Sighing, Kayto followed suit, stowing his questions for the moment.  Behind him, the stars twinkled serenely as ever as the lift doors whisked shut.

*******

Nestled deep within the armored core of the ship, Sunrider’s CIC was a hive of activity.  Various bridge crew operated a number of computer consoles and tactical displays set along the walls of the circular room.  Kayto and Ava stepped off the lift, Ava announcing “Captain on deck!”

Returning the bridge crew’s salutes, Kayto said, “At ease, carry on,” gesturing for them to return to their duties.  With Ava, he walked to the center of the room, taking in the array of holoscreens and projectors that dropped down from the ceiling around his crash seat that constituted the Captain’s station.  To his right, Ava took her seat at the XO’s station, a near identical mimic of his own.  In front of them, towards the ship’s prow, a massive holoscreen projected the view of space in front of the ship, coming close to, but not quite the same as the view as the one they had on the observation deck.  Before them, Cera hung serenely with her entire navy maintaining high orbit.  Dozens of capital ship engines burned a bright blue, ready for combat maneuvers at a movement’s notice.  Suddenly, Kayto felt extremely self-conscious; it appeared nearly the entire Cera Space Force would be present for their trial run.  Given the fact that the Sunrider had already generated a degree of interest and controversy within the fleet, a failed trial run would have impact for months to come.

“Captain,” Ava’s voice interrupted his thought, “I think it would be appropriate to address the crew before we undergo the Sunrider’s maiden voyage.”

“Of course, put me through Commander,” answered Kayto, swallowing and trying to suppress his apprehension.  First words often set a lasting impression and Kayto realized his captaincy, though officially recognized by the chain of command, had little weight or respect beyond formalities until he could prove to the crew that he deserved their trust.

“Attention all hands, the Captain would like a word,” Ava’s voice boomed loudly through the entire ship’s PA system.

Lifting his cuff to his mouth, he muttered a quick command to be patched through to ship-wide PA.

“This is Captain Kayto Shields speaking.  I want to first say that it is my privilege to serve aboard the Sunrider with all of you.  The maiden voyage of Cera Space Force’s newest ship deserves more than we can afford today at Condition Orange, but I know all of you will perform your duties admirably.  Nearly the entire fleet’s gathered here and we’re about to sail right past them and show off what we’ve got… Let’s not mess this one up people.”

The bridge crew erupted into snickers and chortles of good humor, quickly silenced by Ava’s glare as Kayto cut his link with the ship’s PA system.  “What?  Come on, Commander, a good laugh and high spirits aren’t against protocol.”

Ava only shook her head.  “All hands, this is Commander Crescentia.  Prepare for-”

A shrill alarm klaxon rang out through CIC, interrupting Ava’s orders.

“Captain!  Sensors are picking up multiple contacts; warp signatures, bearing zero-eight by nine-nine!” called out one of the bridge crew.

The cheerful atmosphere of the bridge dissolved instantly as the crew sprang into action, manning their respective stations.  While Ava fielded incoming reports and barked orders in rapid succession, Kayto’s head snapped towards his tactical display as two dozen contacts resolved on screen.

“Sensors confirm, Captain; new contacts are flying PACT transponders!” announced Ava, turning towards him.  “The bulk of their forces are on intercept vectors with our fleet in orbit, but it looks like two of them are breaking off towards us!”

“Red Alert!  All hands to battle stations!” ordered Kayto coolly, his training kicking in and overriding any panic or disorientation he might have felt otherwise.

The CIC plunged into red and a wailing siren reverberated through the ship as Ava spoke overhead.  “All hands, report to battle stations.  This is not a drill.  I repeat; not a drill.”

“Those ships are moving too quickly to be PACT battleships, do we have sensor readings on them yet?” asked Kayto to one of the bridge crew.

“Captain!  Sensor silhouette matches PACT frigate class ships, getting visual now.  I’m… I’m detecting a thermal spike from both contacts!” came the reply.

“All ahead, give me flank speed now!” barked Kayto, his heart pounding.  On the forward view screen, the PACT missile frigates came into view, their crimson hulls unmistakably identifying them as PACT naval warships.  The PACT navy relied heavily upon such vessels, barely 300 meters in length and little more than a warp engine with as many missile launchers that could be fitted to the ship.  Cheap and expendable, the missile frigate was an appropriate embodiment of the PACT naval doctrines, which emphasized superior numbers and coordination to overwhelm any technological edge.  Although individual missile frigates were vulnerable to more heavily armed ships of similar tonnage, their light armor and explosive ordinance made them nimble foes which could overwhelm superior enemies by sheer number and weight of attack.

“Captain!” protested Ava, “Reactor shakedown is incomplete; the reactors could destabilize catastrophically!”

“No choice, those are missile frigates,” said Kayto grimly as the crewmen worked furiously to coordinate with engineering.  “Those thermal signatures were probably missile launches, they’re trying to kill us while we’re still docked.  What’s our weapons status?”

“Limited,” replied Ava grimly, “The Vanguard Cannon hasn’t charged yet, but our other systems are theoretically green.”

“Theoretically?”

“Captain, we haven’t even completed our reactor and engine tests, never mind weapon and munitions checks,” retorted Ava.

“No time like the present…”

The entire structure of the Sunrider began to shake, a troublesome sign in a vessel of her tonnage, and her superstructure groaned as her engines roared to life, pushing to overcome her massive inertia.  Kayto gritted his teeth; halting reactor shakedown partway and activating the engines already risked blowing the entire ship to hell, never mind ramping up to flank speed from naught, but the Sunrider had no choice.  Undoubtedly, dozens of PACT missiles already streaked towards their coordinates.  Ordinarily, a single missile salvo, though damaging, would not threaten a ship the size of Sunrider, however, with all the starship fuel and combustible ordinance stored in the dry dock around the ship, Sunrider’s cradle would very well turn into its funeral pyre.

“Incoming missile salvo starboard side!” announced Ava, her voice steady despite their situation.

“All starboard flak cannons, fire!” ordered Kayto, feeling the reverberations through his ship as her flak cannons came to life, filling the space to her starboard side with hundreds of computer-assist aimed explosive rounds.

“Seventy percent intercept!” shouted a crew member.

“Minor hull damage,” reported Ava, scrolling through the automated report generated by the ship’s electronic nervous system.  “See-?”

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” said Kayto grimly, cutting her off.  “Helmsman, get us out of here, now!  If those bastards staggered their salvos, they’ll overwhelm our point defense guns; all they need is a lucky hit to the dry dock; she wasn’t built to take this kind of punishment.”

The Sunrider pulled forward, engines roaring as she accelerated out of the dry dock painfully slowly.  Multiple tethers and feedlines snapped as she tore loose from her moorings, clouds of crystallized gases and fuel billowing from her severed connections.  Not a moment after she cleared the dry dock’s final strut, multiple PACT missiles, their chemical thrusters burning angrily, slammed into the skeletal structure of the dock, detonating ferociously.

Inside the Sunrider, Kayto gripped the arm of the command chair tightly as the entire ship shook like something possessed.  “Aft cameras!”

A blazing inferno belched forward, blasting twisted metal debris towards the Sunrider from the fiery demise of her space dock, although it was impossible to tell how close the explosion was to touching the ship herself.

“Temperature rising on aft sensors,” reported Ava through gritted teeth, her cool exterior cracking slightly.  “Now falling… multiple superficial impacts on aft sections, no hull breaches.”

Kayto breathed out, chest tight and painful, having forgotten to let go of his last breath.  “Bring us about starboard, bearing five-four by zero-nine.  Let’s give them some payback!”

“Trinity lasers report ready to fire, Captain,” said Ava, “Shall I order the attack?”

Kayto thought for a moment.  True, the Trinity laser banks on the Sunrider would be able to land a hit on the PACT missile frigates at this range, however, their firing would divert precious power from their engines.  “No, hold off for now.  Let’s close the gap while they’re still reloading their tubes.  Full power to engines.”

“Distance closing, one hundred kilometers, ninety, eighty…” said Ava, counting down their distance gap.

“Fire Saviors!  Target the lead ship” barked Kayto.  Six solid reverberations echoed through the ship as her massive Savior cannons discharged, sending their kinetic slugs streaking towards the forward PACT missile frigate.

On screens, Kayto saw four of the six slugs land hits, tearing massive holes into the hull of the missile frigate.  With the sheer kinetic energy imparted by their mass and velocity, the entire hull of the frigate seemed to fracture apart as it spun from the force of the Savior slugs’ impact.  Secondary explosions chained through the ship as its ordinance detonated, leaving behind a twisted, flaming wreck.

“Lead missile frigate confirmed sunk, Captain.  Rear frigate firing,” warned Ava.

“Flak cannons on my mark,” ordered Kayto, eyeing his tactical display as the missiles streaked closer.  “Now!”

Multiple explosions lit up the space between the Sunrider and the remaining PACT vessel as her missiles slammed into a wall of flak.

“Missile impacts, minor damage sustained,” reported Ava.

“Let’s tear them a new one,” ordered Kayto.  “Trinity lasers, fire!”

As Sunrider barreled towards the final PACT missile frigate, her Trinity laser banks discharged, blue beams lancing ahead of the ship, literally melting through the other ship’s thinly armored hull.  Venting atmosphere and fire from a dozen wounds, the frigate listed to port before its reactor containment failed, consuming the ship in a miniature nova.

“Contacts… neutralized, sensors clear,” announced Ava as the bridge crew exchanged nervous grins.

“Always the tone of surprise,” grumbled Kayto with a grin of his own.  Following his lead, the bridge crew burst into a brief, but spirited cheer; even Ava cracked a smile which she quickly hid with a shake of her head.

“Incoming transmission from the fleet, Captain,” she declared.

“Captain Shields… I was about to call to see if you boys and girls needed any help, but it looks like you’ve got the situation handled,” said Admiral Koris.  A holographic projection of the man appeared in front of Kayto and Ava, as though the Admiral, himself, stood in front of them.

“Thank you, Sir.  I believe the Sunrider is combat ready,” answered Kayto with a smile.

“Not too bad for a bunch of schoolkids,” replied the Admiral, although his expression was a degree softer than usual.  “At least it’ll put to rest some of the controversy.  Your assessment is duly noted, Captain Shields.  Bring the Sunrider into formation with the rest of the fleet; I doubt those ships were anything more than a scouting party for the PACT.”

“Roger that,” said Kayto as the Admiral’s image dissolved.

As the Sunrider fell into the rendezvous coordinates with the rest of the Ceran Space Force, Kayto rubbed his chin thoughtfully.  If the PACT was sending combat groups with orders to open fire without parlay, it was likely that the engagement was only a prelude to the larger conflict for Cera.  Although the Cera Space Force had performed admirably against the interlopers, Kayto wondered how many victories against the bottomless arsenal of the PACT it would take for Cera to retain its rights to neutrality.  Still, a victory was a victory; Kayto would leave the long term strategies to the Admiral and his staff.

“Two missile frigates down with barely a scratch on the Sunrider.  Not too shabby for a first day Ava.”

“Hmph,” grunted Ava, although a grim, predatory smile graced her lips.  “Don’t get ahead-  Alert! New warp signatures detected just outside weapons range!” she cried.

On the forward view screen, Kayto saw space twist apart as a second PACT fleet dropped out of warp, seemingly appearing out of the vacuum of space.  Nearly five times the number of missile frigates from before suddenly filled the skies, making a beeline for the Ceran ships on their perpendicular.

“Bastards!” muttered Kayto, clenching a fist.  With a rock forming in his gut, he realized the first wave of PACT ships had simply been a distraction, meant to position the Ceran fleet at a disadvantaged stance with their lateral profiles wide open for attack.  “Bring us about starboard, flank speed!”

All around them on the main screen, Kayto saw the other ships begin to break formation, their engines blazing as their captains also maneuvered to minimize the profile of their ships against the forward attacking missile frigates.

“What the hell is that!?” demanded one of the CIC crew as another ship dropped out of warp into the PACT formation.

“Holy Ryuvia…” said Ava in a hushed tone.

On the main screen, the largest ship Kayto had ever laid eyes upon appeared.  Completely dwarfing the missile frigates next to it, the new ship was easily four times longer than any battleship Kayto had ever seen operated.  The same crimson red as the rest of the PACT fleet, the new ship was a monstrosity of armor plate, bristling with laser banks and missile pods.  At it’s prow, the entire ship opened up, exposing a gaping maw that Kayto surmised was the business end of the ship.  Along it’s lateral sides, in massive lettering, the ship’s name summed up it’s combat prowess in a single word: Legion.

“Report!  I don’t remember reading anything about the PACT having anything that… that… huge!” he exclaimed, as Ava scrolled through multiple reports on her view screens.

“Intelligence is reports that the Legion is a PACT super-dreadnought; she’s the personal flagship of Veniczar S. Arcadius!  That ship’s three kilometers in length and armed with enough weapons to take out a fleet three times our size by herself!” answered Ava.  “Captain, Command has ordered a general retreat; all ships are ordered to fall back immediately; the Prime Minister’s office has been advised to offer immediate unconditional surrender!”

Kayto ground his teeth for the nth time since the PACT had arrived in system.  If the intelligence was true, there was little the Cera Space Force could do to protect the planet itself.  Certainly, the monstrosity of a ship that was the Legion left little doubt as to the authenticity of the report.

“All power to starboard shielding, remove all electronic safeties and overload our emitters!  Divert all critical systems from starboard routing, now!” barked Kayto as the behemoth’s weapon embankments glowed a hellish red.

“Sir?” asked a crewman, balking and turning pale at the order.

“NOW!”

Dozens of red laser beams streaked forth from the Legion, catching the Ceran navy in devastating lateral strike.  Kayto felt his entire body shake as the Sunrider sustained multiple laser hits to her starboard side.  The ship rattled and pitched as lights flickered in the CIC; multiple warnings and alarms blared and his entire command station turned a bloody red with reports of catastrophic systems damage and failure.  Sparks flew and a number of Sunrider’s control systems simply froze or turned off.  From the corner of his eye, Kayto saw one of his screens showing the ship’s electronic nervous system having the human equivalent of a massive seizure from the feedback in her shielding.  Clenching the arm of his crash seat, which had automatically deployed a restraint harness around his body, he forced his attention to the main screen as the fleet around the Sunrider took similar hits to their flanks.

Not every ship was as lucky as Sunrider, if she could be called such a thing.  Kayto watched in horror as Cera’s proudest battleships belched fire and atmosphere from jagged rends in their armored hulls, listing helplessly; more than one ship simply detonated or broke apart, unable to tolerate the devastation visited upon their superstructures by the Legion’s attack.  Still, his own ship appeared to be in one piece, which was a miracle in of itself.

“Damage report!” he yelled over the wailing din of multiple alarms.

“Battleships Gallant and Bohemian Princess have been sunk, all hands lost!  The Fearless has sustained severe damage, all hands abandoning ship!” reported Ava, disbelief in her voice.  Her eyes lost focus for a moment as she skimmed an updated report a moment later.  “…Captain, it’s a complete rout; we’ve lost over 75% of the fleet in that single strike.”

Kayto felt the world slow and as though the wind had been punched out of him.  The nearly the entire Cera Space Force annihilated in a single salvo?  It seemed unreal.

“Captain!  Energy spike detected, more massive than before; the Legion’s charging up for another attack!” yelled Ava.

“All hands, brace for impact!” yelled Kayto as the Legion’s primary laser cannon discharged from it’s prow.

A hellish flared across the main screen, drowning out everything else as the Legion’s laser scythed across the remnants of the Ceran fleet.  Two battleships caught in the path of the attack simply vaporized, their outlines visible for a fraction of a heartbeat before atomizing.  With horror, Kayto realized that the Legion’s true target lay beyond: Cera City itself.  As though in slow motion, the laser beam hit Cera’s atmosphere, refracting downwards towards the peninsula he grew up on.  Although they were too far to see any details of Cera City beyond the gray-silver smudge that represented the planet’s largest metropolis, the laser strike’s effects were anything but subtle.  As the red died from the main screen, Kayto saw a cloud blasting into the atmosphere and away from the impact site, the ash and dust of the entire city and its ten million inhabitants, thrown into the wind in a single moment.  Transfixed in equal parts horror and terror, Kayto saw that the entire peninsula had been reduced to a glowing, cherry-red crater with molten rock and metal jetting hundreds of feet into the air.

Slumping forward in his chair, Kayto felt his hands shake and tasted bile in his mouth.

“Captain!” screamed Ava, her voice sounding as shaken as he felt.

In an instant, he crashed back to reality and to the wailing alarms and red lights of his stricken warship.

“Hull breaches in half a dozen sections, our armor’s practically been stripped off the starboard side, hull integrity poor!  Starboard weapons and defenses inoperable, shields overloaded!  Ship electronic systems are almost completely offline.  Captain, we can’t take another hit like that!” continued Ava, face pale.

“What’s our tactical situation?”

“All contact lost with Command and I’m not getting anything from Cera City.  Captain, what’s left of the fleet is breaking formation, we’ll be overrun if we stay!”

Kayto breathed out deeply, pushing the crashing waves of fear, revulsion, and disbelief aside.  Whatever the situation on Cera’s surface, the Sunrider, and by proxy, he, had no power to provide protection or assistance in the face of such overwhelming odds.

“What are your orders, Captain?  CAPTAIN?!” screamed Ava.

As her wild gaze locked his, he saw a single tear tracking its way down the side of her face.  In that moment, Kayto felt the full weight of his command upon his shoulders, finally understanding the burden of his rank and responsibility.  The lives of his crew against their duty to the people of Cera; Kayto knew what duty demanded, but at that moment, all that mattered was getting his crew out of the situation alive.  However many, if any, lives they might save by staying to face the PACT onslaught, he would figure out another day; for now, it would have to be enough to save the lives of his crew.

Heart pounding in his throat, Kayto yelled his order, damning the consequences for another day.  “Fall back, spool up our warp drive, emergency warp protocols to our fallback coordinates!”

Ava looked stunned for a moment, before discipline kicked in, hardening her features.  “Navigator, enter the fallback coordinates.  Helmsman, spool up our warp dive, prepare for emergency warp on the Captain’s mark.”

As he looked to his burning homeworld, Kayto clenched his fists.  He refused to allow this to be the end; somehow, someway he would find a way to come back.  One day, Kayto swore, the PACT would leave Cera, and the Sunrider would be the one driving them out.  “Mark!” shouted Kayto as his displays confirmed sufficient oscillation velocity in the ship’s warp drive.

Sunrider’s main screen showed a shower of missiles and lasers raining from the PACT fleet, streaking towards what was left of the Cera Space Force, the planet beneath them blazing angrily.  A fraction of a second later, the sensor feed cut out abruptly as Sunrider entered warp, the entire CIC silent apart from the wailing of alarms, as though the ship herself was crying out for the lost on the crew’s behalf.