Chapter 2: Family

Icari groaned with relief as a stream of hot water ran over her body, spending several minutes soaking through her long, dark hair and reveling in the unexpected luxury of privacy in the crew showers. With the pilot's private showers damaged in the battle, using the general showers until they were repaired was a necessity, albeit one she admittedly had more than a few reservations about. She'd even briefly considered twisting Kayto's arm into letting her use the shower in his quarters; on the balance though, that would probably be even more awkward than just biting the bullet and showering with the rest of the Sunrider's female crew.

Slowly, under the water's gentle caress, she felt the taut knots in her muscles begin to relax and to loosen as her fatigue and aches began to ease away. Between the fevered combat during the entire battle and the double shift she'd pulled on rescue and recovery afterwards, she felt as though she'd aged five years in the last two days. Still, despite everything, here she was, alive, or close enough to it, to even enjoy the shower in the first place. As bad as it was, she'd gotten off light compared to any number of crewmen and Ryder pilots counted among the casualties of the largest engagement in the war so far.

"Tsch…" Icari glopped shampoo into her hands and began working the lather into the roots of her hair, closing her eyes and firmly setting her mouth; dwelling on the battle and the cost of victory wasn't going to help anyone. Shoving the thought from her mind, Icari willed herself to just enjoy the sound of splashing water and the warm breath of steam as she took a deep breath.

The sound of the shower room door sliding open signaled the unwelcome end to her privacy, causing her back to stiffen instinctively as her emerald eyes flew open to track the newcomer. Old habits and all.

"Guck!" Icari's eyes widened with surprise as Kryska stepped into the showers, a wry, amused expression on her face as she boldly strode straight at Icari with a casual comfort and confidence in her body.

"Permission to enter!?" Kryska mockingly saluted as she took the shower immediately next to Icari despite the otherwise empty room, utterly ignoring Icari's thinly veiled discomfort.

"U-uck…" Icari spluttered slightly. "Well I guess it's fine! W-we're both girls after all!" Icari mumbled the last bit seemingly more to herself than for Kryska's benefit.

"HAH! Hahaha!" Kryska put her hands on her narrow hips and belted out a peal of laughter. "What's the matter, Mercenary? Civilian life never prepare you for a communal shower?"

"S-shut it!" Icari fiercely resumed lathering her hair, taking out her frustration on a few tangles of hair. "I've got nothing to hide, especially from you!" she declared, puffing out her chest to make her point.

"That's the spirit," Kryska chuckled as she began to shower too. "Nothing beats the first shower after a battle! That wasn't an easy fight, but we gave those Reds a beating back that they won't forget anytime soon. Nothing can stand up to the courage and dedication of the Alliance Navy!"

"How about we give the propaganda campaign a break for once?" grumbled Icari, shooting a sideways glare at Kryska. Sighing, she felt a small twist of regret as the sound of running water filled the silence between the two for a moment. Less rhetoric, perhaps, than the Alliance pilot's way of coping with the price of their victory. "Well… uh…" Icari relented. "Despite everything, we managed to keep the Sunrider in one piece… mostly. So I… uh… well whatever, Soldier Boy! Here's the soap!"

Kryska grinned as Icari slapped a bar of soap into her hand. "With this victory, it won't be long before the fleet rallies at Cera. The PACT bit off more than it could chew; their posture in the Neutral Rim was overconfident and their ships are no match for the might of the Alliance! They'll be suing for peace in no time! Once they're willing to sit down and talk, the war will be over!"

"S-seriously," Icari rolled her eyes. "It's too early for victory speeches already… who knows what'll happen next time. But anyways, you flew well out there… so uh… thanks."

"HAH!" Kryska barked out a laugh. "You're not as bad as I thought either, Mercenary. Still have a few tricks up your sleeve I see. Good work with that nuke. I'm proud to be your comrade." Grabbing Icari's hand, Kryska shook it firmly, grinning. "When this is all over, let's grab drinks on Solaris!"

"C-comrade!?" Icari grumbled, struggling to avoid letting a scathing retort drop from her lips. "S-seriously… Well you'd better prepare yourself! I'm not gonna be out done by a choir boy like you at the tap!"

"Ha!" Kryska's eyes glittered with challenge. "They call me 'Stonewall' for more than one reason. You'd better hope your liver holds up longer than your Ryder's armor!"

"Y-You!" Icari flushed, wrenching her hand back from Kryska. "Leave the Ryders out of it!"


Kayto peered through the harsh lights of the Sunrider's brig, looking into one of the occupied cell blocks with a frown on his face. Beside him, Chigara darted a nervous glance between the cell's occupant and the Captain while Claude hummed absentmindedly, playing with her cuffs and primping the ribbon on her uniform.

Behind the thick plexiglass walls and forcefields which penned in the prisoner, the now diminished and hardly intimidating prototype glared back, dressed in the featureless orange prisoner's smock, arms crossed. It was almost laughable, in a way, that the young woman in the cell had once been Veniczar Arcadius, one of the galaxy's most powerful and enigmatic figures.

"So, who is she?" Kayto turned to Claude, snapping his fingers for her attention.

"I've performed a preliminary medical workup," purred Claude, waving her hand and bringing up a number of holographic reports on the wall next to the cell. Imaging, lab values, and other esoterica scrolled, more or less meaningless to anyone but the doctor. "For all intents and purposes, she seems to be a human, at least superficially. There are signs, however, of extensive genetic engineering; there are significant alterations to hundreds of genomic loci and dozens of sequences with no homology to any known evolutionary branches of humanity in our database. I can say definitively that these changes are deliberate and artificial. The sequences that are most recognizable are…" Claude nodded towards Chigara as the other woman gulped nervously. "The closest analogy might be that she's Chigara's sister. A heavily modified and artificially created sister."

"Except…" Kayto's eyes turned to his Chief Engineer. "Chigara doesn't have sisters."

"No," Chigara shook her head, a look of confusion swirling behind her eyes. "I don't have sisters. This is the first time I've seen an artificial human, much less a sister…"

Kayto nodded firmly, letting his gaze reassure Chigara that he believed her entirely. "So she's not your actual sister. Any ideas about her origins then?"

Chigara shook her head. "I'm sorry."

"Only one choice then," Kayto turned back to the cell in front of them and tapped his bracelet, activating the cell's intercom system. "Looks like we'll have to ask her directly." Stepping up to the glass, Kayto looked the prototype in the eye, ensuring that he had her attention. "I'm Captain Shields. You're aboard the CSF Sunrider."

"Peh." The Prototype snorted, tossing her short hair back and fixing him with a penetrating look, a hint of amusement playing at the corners of her lips. "What do you want?"

"You're a prisoner of war under Article Seven of the Cera Military Code," Kayto folded his hands behind the small of his back. "My crew and I will treat you fairly and respect your basic human rights to the extent required under that code. If you cooperate, we can discuss expanding that respect to the extent allowed by that code. Do you have a name?"

"Prototype L7NN." The prototype seemed utterly disinterested in Kayto's words, offering no change in demeanor or voice as she gave her name in a bored, deadpan tone.

"That's hardly a proper name," Kayto shrugged as his words provoked no further elaboration or substantiation. "I suppose you can hardly complain if I call you 'Lynn' then. It's part of Chigara's name, coincidentally. Didn't you mention your relation earlier?"

"Of course." Lynn smirked and leaned forward until her nose was almost touching the glass and forcefields of her cell. "We are all sisters. Together, we are Legion. But the others are silent now. The ones nearest us are dead. But there are more. There will always be more."

Kayto returned the gaze coolly, making a mental note. The prototypes had alluded to the capacity to communicate between one another, now an ability more or less confirmed by Lynn's boast. Although he'd assumed they were coordinated by the technology in their Ryders, what Lynn was describing sounded almost like telepathy, bordering on the realms of fantasy and myth. Of course, that was precisely what the Ryuvian's Lost Technology seemed like until their scientific principles were unraveled. Could the prototypes be the product of more Lost Technology?

"So you can't hear your sisters now?" Kayto arched an eyebrow. "You've been cut off. You must be scared, maybe even terrified. Is this the first time you've been disconnected?"

Something shifted in Lynn's eyes and she looked away, her arms wrapping tighter around herself as she stepped back and glared at the corner of her cell.

Bingo. Kayto felt a weight lift from his shoulders as Lynn's silence told him everything he needed to hear. "If Chigara's one of yours, why can't you hear her thoughts?" Kayto asked rhetorically, smugness in his voice.

Only silence met him. The prototype had no more words it seemed and everything about her body language suggested she had no further interest in continuing the conversation. It seemed almost like they had a hivemind, their web of communications almost a prerequisite to normal function. Without it, they were individual, isolated, weak.

Nodding, Kayto switched off the intercom and pulled back from the cell, looking between Claude and Chigara, giving the latter a reassuring smile. "We'll watch her for now. I don't know what, if anything, she can even try in that cell, but be careful anyways. So long as we don't let more prototypes aboard this ship, I don't think she'll be able to do much or give them much."

"Mhm!" Claude grinned and giggled. "Tee Hee! She looks like a small girl now. It's a bit embarrassing that we were intimidated by Arcadius when he was this little girl all along!"

"Eh-heh," Chigara laughed nervously as well, clearly somewhat relieved.

"Anyways, record everything and see if she starts talking again. We'll see what we can learn from her," Kayto massaged his stiff neck. "And speaking of little…" he cast a glance over at the other side of the brig, eyeing the second prisoner the Sunrider had taken during the battle of Helion.

Either Cosette could lip read or she'd guessed at his aside; the pirate queen's face was plastered to the side of the glass with an ugly expression, clearly his act of mercy in saving her life cutting no ice between the two. Kayto swallowed; last time the two had been so close he'd come away from the encounter definitively worse for the wear. It wasn't a pleasant thought, but nevertheless, he wondered why he'd even bothered to take the woman alive. Certainly no worlds or families would have shed tears over the death of Cosette Cosmos, "Terror of the Stars," considering how many she'd butched over the years. Some hope of redemption then? Maybe he he simply needed to prove to himself that despite everything, the torture he'd suffered at her hands or all the times she'd tried to kill him and his crew, he was still better than her; that she hadn't broken him or his principles.

As she pounded on the wall separating the two, Cosette plastered her face against the glass and snorted, fogging the pane and disappearing from sight momentarily.

"Our pirate friend seems to have acclimated well to the brig," remarked Kayto, forcing calm and giving Cosette's display a bored look. Keying the intercom on his bracelet, he frowned as Cosette's voice shrilled over the intercom.


Kayto switched the intercom off again and shrugged, turning away from the pirate's fierce but futile display. "Make sure she doesn't hurt herself," he ordered Claude.

"Sah!" Claude chopped her hand to her forehead in a sloppy salute.

"Chigara," Kayto beckoned to his chief engineer and the two left the brig, both feeling no small relief as the hatch sealed behind them.

Walking down the Sunrider's corridors in silence, the two stepped past collapsed beams and blown conduits, the walls not infrequently scorched with soot or bearing some smear of blood. The crew they passed were no less weathered, their wan faces haggard with exhaustion as they pulled shift after shift to keep the ship afloat and engaged with Alliance rescue and recovery efforts. Finally, they found themselves in a quiet stretch of hall, relatively unscathed by the battle, welcomingly quiet and pensive with the twinkle of starlight, save for the occasional flicker as the hallway screens struggled to keep up with the Sunrider's unsteady power grid.

"C-captain…" Chigara broke the silence hesitantly, a real quality of fear in her voice.

"You're troubled." Kayto cleared his throat, turning to his chief engineer and stopping them in the hallway. "I'm… I'm sorry I wasn't able to be there for you, when you were alone in Liberty. It must have been terrible-"

"No," Chigara cut him off with a sad but kind smile. "There was nothing you could've done or said that would have made it easier. And you were still doing your best to keep us all alive. I'm sorry I let everyone down… it was all I could do to land safely…" Turning away, Chigara let out a world-weary sigh and leaned on the railings, staring out at the holographic projection of space around them. "About Lynn… about the rest of the prototypes. I was completely clueless. I had no idea they existed. Engineered siblings of myself…" Chigara shook her head with an expression of confusion and profound distress.

"Could they have been created behind your back?" Kayto struggled to make sense of the information. Chigara had said she was from Diode; a place of legendary scientific advancement and a repository of knowledge and technology rivaling that of the Ancient Ryuvians if legends were true. With that, was it really that unreasonable that someone could have cloned and manipulated Chigara's genome for their own purposes?

"I had always considered my childhood normal," Chigara's eyes fixed on the distance wistfully. "Performing experiments with my parents, learning to continue and contribute to their work. They were happy days. I was an only child and my parents gave me all their love and attention."

Kayto frowned slightly from behind Chigara. Despite the earnestness in her words, nothing about that childhood sounded remotely normal, at least not compared to his own.

"A-anyways!" Chigara spun around to face him again, clutching a hand to her chest, her eyes pleading. "I never knew I had hundreds of sisters wandering around, all plotting to take over the galaxy! C-Chigara has no interest in galactic overlordship! J-just proprietorship of a small bakery is already more than enough!"

Kayto snorted, laughter diffusing the tense energy in the air. Everything they knew or thought they knew about the prototypes was barely enough to fill a page, but he knew Chigara was telling the truth. Whatever the prototypes were planning, whatever their role in the galaxy, he knew instinctively that the woman in front of him wanted nothing to do with any of it. "No one's questioning your loyalty, Chigara," he said firmly, fixing her with a serious look as he sobered. Putting his hands gently on her shoulders, he steadied her and felt her relax a degree with his touch. "We would never have made it this far without you. You kept us alive, upgraded our systems, worked harder than anyone else on this ship so that we'd have a chance of accomplishing our mission. You would never betray us."

"C-captain," Chigara giggled and blushed a little, stepping a shade closer into his space as she looked up in his face with genuine happiness dancing behind her sapphire eyes. "Eh-heh… n-no…" her blush intensified. "You musn't keep saying things like that." Sighing, she let his hands rest on her shoulders for another heartbeat before pulling back, a demure smile beneath the blush. "Thank you, Captain. I think I feel a bit better now. Please see me later… I'm… making something for you."

"Really?" Kayto felt a stupid grin climb onto his face, irresistable.

"Yes." Chigara held his gaze for a moment longer than comfort allowed before turning away and walking down the hall with a small spring in her step. "Please look forward to it."

Watching her back retreat and disappear around the corner, Kayto felt his eyes linger on the corridor intersection, as though hoping she'd change her mind and step back into sight. "I will."

Asaga pressed her cheek against the cool of the viewport, sending rippling interference across the display of stars and the dark of space. Alone in the Ryder pilots quarters, she tried desperately to marshal her thoughts and collect herself. Truth be told, she barely remembered most of the battle. One moment she'd been launching in Black Jack, wild elation and bursting pride burning in her chest as Kayto led the Sunrider into the fiercest battle of the war, her at his side as CAG. The next, she was staring at a retreating PACT fleet, a sense of unreality as the PACT leadership unraveled. Then she was staring at the remnants of Havok, hacked to pieces by Black Jack's blade. In between, she remembered only flashes, brilliant light, a sense of ascendancy, the thrum of power as her very body became a conduit for something greater than herself.

"What… came over me?" she muttered, staring at her reflection in the holographic display, looking deep into her own emerald eyes and finding only swirling confusion and uncertainty.


Asaga jerked back, electricity running down her spine and her hair standing on end as she darted a look behind her. Nothing. And yet… the voice had been as clear as water, as real as anything else she'd ever heard. Turning back to the viewport, her eyes widened in shock as she found her reflection looking back, no longer mirroring the shock she felt on her face, but a study in stern judgement. Glaring back, the spectre's eyes flared a brilliant blue, the pure, burning light drowning out the jade and boring into her as her alter ego commanded her attention. "W-who-!?"

"Do not fear." The apparition's voice echoed slightly, but brimmed with ancient wisdom and a sense of potency, addressing her as a matron would an errant child. But beneath it all, a burning, suppressed rage, as though the energy and power behind the other woman's eyes were barely contained, ready to flash out in a torrent of cleansing fire at but a moment's notice. "I am but a part of you; Awakened by the strength of your will and your birthright as the Heir of Ryuvia. Reflect on your feelings. You know I am the embodiment of your emotions and desires, made real by your will."

"You don't…" Asaga gulped. "You don't actually exist. You're just inside my head!"

"Yes." Her other self nodded without any change in expression. "Your powers have at last begun to manifest. In time, you will become indomitable. An unstoppable instrument of Justice to judge the sins of all Mankind; the Arbiter the weak and oppressed cry out for. Your companions ignore the dues they owe for they cannot perceive the greatness of the destiny that awaits you. You are not in his sight. But she is. You are the Sharr, the one that will bring Justice and balance to this galaxy." The other's face twisted into a snarl as she leaned forward, eyes flaring with righteous fury. "While she wears the face of an evildoer. One who would subject the galaxy to the chains of slavery and bring about a dark age of cruelty and pain unending."

"No…" Asaga shook her head and backed away from the viewport. "Chigara's my friend. She… she wouldn't…"

"Already, she has squirmed her way into his heart. She will seduce his trust, corrupt his kindness. His goodness shall be his undoing. You alone can defend this ship. You alone can save him!"

"No!" Asaga backpedaled further, willing those burning eyes to let fall that terrible gaze. "I-I don't like these feelings! G-get outta me!"


A quiet voice behind her made Asaga jump and stagger. "U-uwaaah!" Tripping, Asaga's feet and legs somehow managed to entangle themselves; crying out in surprise as her balance gave way and her world slipped out from underneath, Asaga crashed to the floor in a confused and undignified heap. Looking up, she found Sola looking down on her with an expression of mixed concern and profound disappointment. Flushing scarlet, Asaga darted a look back at the viewport, finding nothing but the serenity of space looking back, her vision gone as suddenly as it had come. "H-how long were you there?" she asked Sola, scrambling to her feet and making a show of dusting off and hoisting a cheesy smile on her face.

Sola's delicate features settled into an inscrutable mask. Completely still, Sola merely looked at Asaga, her lack of reaction or contribution far more unnerving than any kind of protest or exclamation. Finally, she broke the awkward silence. "Heard the entire thing."

"Huuu… N-no way…" Asaga's shoulders slumped and the grin washed off her face in an instant.

Sola slid past Asaga, sitting down on her bunk and removing her shoes with deliberate slowness. "You are troubled."

"Well… yeah…" Asaga mumbled, rubbing her neck, a fierce glow on her cheekbones. "How do I put this…" Asaga fished around for the right words. Although they were about the same age, in some ways, Sola felt like a distant, old aunt, someone who could maybe offer her a piece of advice or guidance, nevermind that she probably was, in fact, some kind of distant relation that only the court genealogist could work out without suffering some kind of apoplectic stroke.

"I am inexperienced with matters of the heart," Sola curtailed that particular line of inquiry before it could even properly start, her blunt tone completely shattering any illusion that she might offer Asaga any insight or advice with Kayto. Silence fell between the two for another minute before Sola turned her amber eyes to Asaga with a serious expression filled with weariness. "The Ryuvian Court of my time was a place rife with dark emotions. Jealousy. Paranoia. Lust. They fester in your heart. They consume you. Until the men and women it feeds on can no longer be called human, but monsters."

"Easy for you, Sola!" Asaga shot back, her frustration rising and threatening to claw its way out from inside her chest. "You don't feel any emotions!"

Sola stared at Asaga for a moment longer before swinging her slender legs up into her bunk, turning her face away to stare at the wall. Her voice, however, remained as deadpan and steady as ever as it floated over her shoulder. "One would rather feel nothing at all than pain, no?"

"Hmph." Asaga crossed her arms, blowing a strand of red hair out of her face.

"Forgive me." Sola turned slightly, a single honey colored eye peering over her shoulder again. "I have overstepped my bounds. I am no Sharr. Merely a pale imitation, impressed into service and elevated by desperation." Again, she turned away, this time with a sense of finality.

"Sola?" Asaga felt a prickle of curiosity despite her annoyance; Sola had seldom mentioned any part of her past and if anyone else alive knew what it felt like to be a Sharr or something like a Sharr, it was her. "Hey, Sola!"

No response came from the other woman, save for the rustling of fabric as Sola pulled a blanket over herself, disappearing from sight.

Great power begot arrogance, entitlement, and corruption. Sola felt a numb sensation spill over her as she drifted in the dark, afloat on memories of an Empire long dead. Their omnipotent powers had proven to be their undoing; greed and ambition exceeding control and temperance, tearing the galaxy asunder. It was a story that had echoed through human history before humanity had even taken to the stars, one she had hoped would be averted in the future she'd found herself in. And yet, here she was, the victim of Fate's cruelty, forced to watch the story unfold yet again.

Kayto ambled down the Sunrider's corridors, lips quirked upwards in a smile. Knowing that Chigara had bade him farewell with her spirits buoyed had lifted a weight off his shoulders as well, not to mention her promise of a surprise. Idly, he wondered what she could be preparing, indulging in a vision of icing and fresh fruit as he walked almost headfirst into Ava at a corridor intersection.

"O-oh." Kayto blinked as Ava glared at him, arms crossed, her remorseless cerise eyes boring into him and daring him to start first,making no effort to spare him her disapproval. As mounting horror took its toll, he felt the smile slide off his face with comedic slowness. "Ahem… well…" Gulping and clearing his throat awkwardly, Kayto veered to the side, hanging a hard right and making to hightail it back to his quarters, dignity be damned, his self-preservation instincts kicking in. He'd seen that look on Ava's face more than once in the past and it had never bode well; it was all he could do to not drop the entire pretense of self-control and simply make a run for it.

"Captain!" Ava's voice cracked like a whip, causing Kayto's entire back to stiffen in anticipation of the impending lecture. Marching after him, she chased him down, power walking with an almost manic intensity that sent any crewmember foolish enough to stand in the way diving for cover. "I've tolerated everything from you so far: unorthodox tactics, relaxed military regulations, civilian contractors with no more character references or approval than your own! But this time, you have crossed the line! I knew from the beginning that I was too soft with you, too relaxed aboard this ship! No longer; I will be lodging a formal complaint in regards to the operation against the Legion!"

"Ava," Kayto struck a reasonable tone, trying not to sound like he was whining. "Be reasonable; I'd say the operation turned out well enough."

Ava carried on, her words steamrolling over his with neither trouble nor any indication that she had considered his words of any worth at all. "You order the crew to devise a plan to sink the Legion. Not without insignificant effort, exactly such a plan is devised. The Alliance backs your plan, throwing hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of lives towards making that plan a reality. And then!" Ava's temper seemed to reach boiling point. "Despite expending considerable resources and lives in an attempt to exploit the Legion's weakness, you issued an order to ignore it while we had the ship in our sights! Because of your order, our allied forces sustained heavy losses that were entirely preventable with no results to show for them! Worse! The PACT has now been tipped off to the Legion's design flaw. According to the latest Alliance intel, the Legion has retreated deep into PACT space for a design overhaul. No doubt, the PACT will compensate for and seal the only real weakness in the Legion's design. The next time we face the Legion, it will be nigh invincible and even more lives and ships will be lost as a result! We had but one opportunity to strike at the Legion while the PACT was unaware of the vulnerability, an opportunity that you squandered!"

"But-" Kayto tried desperately to get a word in before she built up too much critical momentum, failing miserably.

"All in all!" Ava seethed, cutting Kayto off, glaring daggers. "The Battle for Helion would've been a catastrophic loss for the Alliance had it not been for Veniczar Fontana's fortuitous betrayal. Our victory was entirely situational and had we not been so lucky, none of us would be alive right now! And FINALLY, one last thing, Captain-"

"Hurk." Kayto's eyes spun a little as he struggled to absorb the verbal blows that Ava hurled at him. "Y-you mean there's more!?"

"I wholeheartedly denounce your highly inappropriate remarks regarding your… feelings towards me on the floor of the bridge!" Ava hissed, advancing on him with menace. "Shouting like a fool like that, and in front of the whole bridge crew! Unbelievable! S-such unbecoming behavior from the highest ranking Ceran officer in this fleet! Hmph!"

Kayto cringed, slowing his walk and finally stopping, turning to face his First Officer. "W-will that be all Commander?" he asked tentatively, unsure if he would set off another massive flood of criticism and disapproval.

"Sir!" Ava shouted through clenched teeth, a tick throbbing frighteningly in her temple as she saluted with mechanical precision and neurotic stiffness.

Kayto scratched the back of his head, grabbing a fistful of his hair and explosively sighing with frustration. "I'm glad to see you're safe and sound too, Ava."

"This is no time for more of your jokes and foolishness!" Ava looked practically ready to physically attack him. "You could lose your commission for this! At the very least, you'd be looking at an ugly sexual harassment suit!"

"S-sexual-?!" Kayto choked and stammered, bewildered.

Ava's glare was all the answer she deigned to give, the silence between them stretching uncomfortably.

Fighting the urge to drop his face in his hands, Kayto took a deep breath and blew out explosively again. "I wasn't going to send you to your death, Ava. Enough Ceran lives were lost to that ship and-"

"And now many more," Ava retorted, having none of it.

Kayto set his jaw, her words swirling in his breast, opening raw wounds and gouging new ones. Struggling, he shoved those emotions deeper, slamming the door shut and backing away from them as quick as he could. "We'd be insane if we weren't emotionally compromised after all that's happened," he said quietly, unable to hide the bitterness welling up from within. "We'd be monsters. I'm sorry… you were right. I should never have taken the Sunrider into that battle." Looking up and meeting her gaze, Kayto squared his shoulders and soldiered on, damning the consequences. "You never realize what you still have around you. Until you're about to lose it."

"Hmph!" Ava scoffed, her facial expression suggesting the explanation was beneath any worded response.

"Anyways," Kayto dropped his gaze, feeling fatigue lapping at the shores of his consciousness. "You can go ahead and file that complaint. Considering that Command was reduced to a smoking crater a while back, it's probably going to be a little bit longer before anyone can act on it."

"I'm painfully aware of that fact, Captain," snapped Ava. Still, something in her face softened as she brushed her long chestnut hair back with a hand. "Tsch… I was… merely venting..."

Kayto forced the ghost of a smile lift his features for a moment. "Looks like you'll have to deal with me a while longer then. At least we have luck on our side."

Ava merely shook her head and gave him another look of venom before stalking away.

Behind her, Kayto's forced smile crumbled to pieces, her parting glare as stinging as any physical slap she could've given him, draining him of anything he'd recovered in the last hour. 'Great. Kayto kicked himself mentally, an empty feeling stealing over him as he turned and trudged the other way, dragging his feet. 'Now she totally hates me. So much for getting closer.'

He'd barely made it three steps before his bracelet chimed, offering an not unwelcome distraction from his own thoughts.

"This is Kayto," he answered, keeping his voice studiously neutral and swallowing the rest.

"Captain." Kryska's voice sounded like the verbal equivalent of one of her salutes, crisp and professional beyond reproach. "May I speak with you on the bridge, Sir?"

"Copy that Lieutenant," Kayto changed his course, directing his steps towards the bridge as though on autopilot. "I'll be there in a moment."

The Sunrider's CIC looked worse for the wear, collapsed beams and overloaded circuits still bearing testament to the damage the ship had taken as a whole, but the same could not be said for the crew. Despite the general exhaustion, a sense of optimism seemed to permeate the bridge staff, at odds with the grim work of search and rescue that the fleet had been engaged in since the end of combat operations.

As he stepped into the CIC properly, he overheard more than one muttered conversation between various bridge officers, their voices brimming with excitement as they swapped speculation and rumor, the truth behind Arcadius's identity and the revelation of PACT infighting feeding their rekindled spirits and morale. Honestly, Kayto couldn't remember the atmosphere in his CIC being this positive and optimistic since their underdog victory at Far Port.

"Captain!" Kryska saluted in person from the CIC's tactical board.

"At ease Lieutenant," Kayto stepped over to join her, glancing at the tac map, awash in a sea of green with no enemy contacts to the edge of sensor contact. "What's our situation?"

"We've secured complete control of the Helion system," Kryska's voice sounded triumphant as she nodded to the tactical display. Tapping in a few commands, she caused the tactical screen to pull out to a larger map of the Neutral Rim as a whole. "The PACT's Helion fleet has completely withdrawn from the system. Navigation reports that their fleet has separated; the majority have fallen back to Ryuvia Prime; the rest of the fleet's retreated to Cera. Alliance Intelligence reports that the PACT invasion fleet has withdrawn from nearly a dozen minor Neutral Rim systems as well, they've likely pledged allegiance to Fontana and are massing at Ryuvia Prime with the rest of his fleet. PACT loyalists from New Eden and the surrounding systems are diverting additional forces to shore up their defenses around Cera and what's left of their occupation in the Neutral Rim."

"Hm." Kayto mused on the development. Fontana's betrayal had effectively sundered the PACT's fighting force in two. It was hard to imagine that Arcadius, or rather, the Prototypes wouldn't have been rattled by the last battle. If they were diverting defensive forces from New Eden and the PACT core worlds, PACT High Command was undoubtedly in a state of near panic. "Looks like they're giving up on the rest of the Neutral Rim and bunkering up for a defensive war…"

Kryska made a fist, pumping her arm in a gesture of triumph. "The Emerald Fleet has the PACT on the run and off balance, Captain. They were fools to challenge the Alliance!" Kryska coughed, correcting herself hastily, "and the Sunrider and the Neutral Rim, of course!"

"It's fine Lieutenant," Kayto waved aside her concern, hardly feeling petty enough to make a slip of the tongue anything larger. "And the Paradox Core?" he prompted, pointing out the elephant in the room.

"Alliance forces have secured the Core," Kryska zoomed the map back in, showing the Alliance fleet holding a respectful perimeter around the Core. "The structure was abandoned, save for explosives wired throughout the entire superstructure. It appears the PACT ran out of time to complete their demolition before we took control of the system. Our specialists have defused the explosives and Admiral Grey is inspecting the Core personally as we speak. He's requested that you join him."

"I see." Kayto nodded, Kryska's purpose in calling him to the CIC suddenly clear. "All right, let's get going. We'll take any shuttle that wasn't smashed to pieces in the battle."

"Understood!" Kryska saluted and turned on her heel, leading him out of the CIC. "I've already taken the liberty of inspecting and preparing one of our shuttles for immediate departure."

'Let's just hope this field trip goes better than the last one,' Kayto remarked wryly to himself.

Kayto stepped into the Paradox Core's main control room, although calling it a throne room may have been more appropriate for the style of architecture the PACT seemed to have adopted for this part of the Core. In stark contrast with the claustrophobic, utilitarian design of the rest of the Core which had led to this chamber, the main control room featured a vaulted ceiling, buttressed supports, and an expansive view of the space surrounding the Paradox Core that stretched from ceiling to floor. At the center of the cathedral-like space, a single seat of monolithic proportions, utterly dominating the entire room from its position on a raised dais, radiating a sense of grandiosity and hubris. Taking it all in, Kayto wasn't sure if he should be impressed or roll his eyes at the display; outside of portrayals of Holy Ryuvia at the height of its opulence and decadence on his parents' holodramas, he honestly could not say he'd ever seen anything quite so unnecessarily lavish or excessive.

Maybe it was a reflection of the prototypes' tastes? Or maybe they were trying to compensate for something? As Kayto eyed the massive throne at the center of the room, overseeing the rest of the controls and work stations, he struggled to imagine if it would serve to magnify or further diminish the prototypes' petite frames.

"Captain Shields, welcome" Admiral Grey stepped out from behind the throne, having evidently been examining the seat or the view it offered while waiting for Kayto, his gravelly voice as humorless and serious as ever. "Quite a grand control center, is it not?"

"Admiral." Kayto nodded at Admiral Grey and stepped forward, making his way towards the throne. Maybe the room's architecture was getting to him, executing the intended effect of elevating those on the dias and diminishing those below, but Kayto wasn't entirely sure he liked the Admiral's tone of voice or the look on his face.

The Admiral stretched his arms out, his deep voice echoing through the hall as the acoustics amplified his words to the boom of distant thunder. "A weapon more devastating than anything the human mind could even grasp, much less conceive. It is quite fitting that this weapon's creation sprang not from the mind of man, but from a monster, a corruption of science." Grey turned back to the throne, a hand tracing its way along its arm rest. "Whoever held the reins of this weapon would have held a knife to the galaxy at its very neck. Entire systems could be destroyed in the blink of an eye; a new era where entire empires would collapse and vanish in seconds. Fleets, armies, weapons, empires, politics, would have no meaning, petty differences that would all be rendered moot before the power of the Paradox Core." Nodding at the throne, Admiral Grey paused for a moment, looking out at the hellish glow of Helion as it illuminated the deep lines of his face. "The one who would sit on this chair would cease to be a man at all, but ascend to the level of divinity, wielding the power of the Gods for themselves; all other men, but beasts before their eyes, their will, absolute. A seat fit for the Ryuvian Emperor himself." His gaze distant, the Admiral seemed to peer into the interstellar dark between the stars, as though looking for something. "In times of antiquity, sons turned on their fathers for such power. Men turned into demons lusting for a taste of Godhood. The galaxy ran red with blood as they fought for dominion, even as everything they held dear burnt to ash around them..."

Kayto chewed the inside of his cheek, unsure how to respond, a sense of wrongness tingling in his spine as his hairs stood on edge. The way the Admiral's words caressed the allure of such power unnerved him, although he could hardly refute the Admiral's assessment. The very nature of such power and omnipotence was corrupting; history had shown time and again that to be true. Respecting it was one thing, but something else, perhaps a shadowy flicker behind the Admiral's dark eyes or the way his fingers lingered upon the armrest of the colossal throne, sent a ripple of alarm through Kayto's conscience.

A wry, cynical smile broke out over the Admiral's face as he returned his gaze to meet Kayto's look of discomfort. "Let us all be in relief that those dark ages are behind us and shall never again descend upon humanity." Straightening his back and stepping away from the throne, Grey walked down from the dais, meeting Kayto halfway, face-to-face. "The Core must be destroyed."

Kayto let the breath he'd been holding out, feeling a surge of relief ease through him. Somewhere, deep in his heart he had suspected… Unbidden, he flashed back to the desperate moment over the skies of Ongess where the Admiral had played his true hand. 'Sit down boy, and let me show you War! Execute contingency plan Obsidian!'

Mentally shaking his head, Kayto pushed the thought from his mind. War bred fear and paranoia; the Admiral was still a good man, one who, perhaps, walked the razor's edge but whose morals and principles kept him from falling as so many before him. Perhaps he'd been wrong to suspect the Admiral in the first place; the man had yet to go back on his word.

As though the Admiral could sense the conflict in Kayto, he leaned forward slightly, fixing the younger Captain with a firm look and setting a hand on his shoulder. "Many of my sons and daughters died so that we could destroy this abomination. Good men. Good women. Hundreds of families across the Alliance torn apart so that thousands would be spared the horrors of war. Their sacrifice will not be in vain."

Kayto nodded. "I pray the galaxy will never see anything like it again."

"Indeed. As do I." Grey's expression lifted as he dropped his arm. "Although I am disappointed the battle was not won by our fleet's courage and might, but rather through sedition within the enemy's ranks, this is the end of the war, Shields. With division sown among the PACT leadership and fleets, they are finished."

"And our next step?" asked Kayto.

"We press on and push further into the Neutral Rim," answered the Admiral without hesitation. "The PACT are withdrawing to a defensive posture. Cera is our goal. With Cera liberated and the Neutral Rim reclaimed, the PACT will have no option but to surrender or face a devastating offensive into the heart of their core sectors. It is not an option for their leadership."

"And the prototypes?" Kayto wondered aloud, recalling their claim that they had infiltrated leadership across known space, Alliance and PACT.

"Alliance Intelligence has already made strides in locating the rest of their ilk," responded Grey with a tone of menace. "Speaking of which, I am given to understand that you captured one of them alive."

"The prototype is our prisoner under the Ceran Military Code, yes," said Kayto, dropping his tone of voice by a degree. "My forces performed the capture; she is under our jurisdiction."

"And I don't assume you intend to turn it over." Admiral Grey half-grumbled, not missing the change in Kayto's tone or the firm set to his face as he held his ground. "Very well, Captain. I will defer custody of the prisoner and the intelligence gathering to your forces then." Waving his hand, the Admiral seemed to dismiss the matter. "At any rate, the prototypes will be neutralized in short order, both by our forces and those within the PACT. The PACT leadership is changing. The new leaders emerging, I predict, will be more amenable to our goals and point of view."

"Which are?" Kayto prompted, getting to the heart of the matter. "What does the Alliance want from this war, Admiral?"

"An end to it. Peace." Admiral Grey ran a hand across his beard. "And Freedom of course. For both the Alliance as well as the Neutral Rim. We are a nation of traders; war and sanctions hurt everyone in the Alliance; with peace and security will come prosperity. It will not be long now, Shields…" Grey smiled at Kayto as an uncle might to one of his nephews. "You, at the head of your Liberation Day parade, the mighty Hero of Cera who triumphed against all odds to bring freedom and liberty back to his homeworld. Men will cheer you, women will adore you, children will be named after you. Such days are precious to a military man." Leaning forward again, Grey's voice took on the tone of advice. "Cherish them, while they last."

"Sir?" Kayto felt himself taken slightly aback.

"War is but a playground to the perils of peacetime politics," declared the Admiral in wry cynicism, winking as he chuckled and patted Kayto on the back in good humor. "Now, let us be done with this place and send this damnable construct to the fires of Helion. I can only take so much of this grotesque architecture…"

Kayto held his breath as the countdown ticked down to zero, the entire CIC's gaze fixed on the main screen as the Paradox Core hung over Helion, outlined against the white-hot light of the sun. Slowly, with a certain balladic quality, chains of explosions began to ripple through the Paradox Core's rings, chaining one after another as the entire construct began to shatter and break apart, slowly falling into Helion's gravitational pull as it started to sink into the sun.

Wild cheers broke out among the CIC crew as they watched the Paradox Core twist part, entire ragged chunks of the strange ring-like structures of the Core tearing asunder and heating to a white hot glow as they entered the upper layers of Helion's photosphere. Beside him, Kryska beamed, barely able to contain her pride and joy. Ava was conspicuously missing, their two paths having not crossed since she confronted in the halls.

"With this, Captain, the galaxy is saved!" Kryska pumped her fist again with feeling. "The Alliance has saved Humanity!"

Wordlessly, Kayto nodded, still watching the fragments of the Paradox Core streak across the star in a fiery shower of light and heat. The Core destroyed and the PACT weakened, the war did seem to be drawing to a close, the winds of fortune firmly behind the Alliance. It all seemed too good, too fast to be true; Cera was almost within grasp. Somehow, however, Kayto couldn't shake the feeling that something was grossly amiss, something waiting to strike the moment he let his guard down. Perhaps it was the guarded attitude that growing up in the Neutral Rim had left him with, but his conversation with Admiral Grey had only marginally assuaged his concerns, the man as difficult to read as ever. Then again, maybe the burden of the war was starting to get to him, burning out his reserves and leaving only pessimism in its wake..

"We've won this battle, Lieutenant," agreed Kayto, putting a hand on Kryska's shoulder that was in equal parts camaraderie and caution. "But the war's not over yet."

"Sir!" Kryska spun to face him and saluted, as though sensing his inner turmoil. "I promise you, you will not regret your decision to trust the Alliance!"

"I'll keep you to your word then, Lieutenant," smiled Kayto, knowing at heart that trusting the Alliance and trusting Kryska were two very separate issues. Nevertheless, he felt the question ease slightly in his mind. "You have my gratitude… for everything. For flying as one of us, for watching my back on Ongess… that was a dicy situation that you got us out of…"

"Of course," Kryska's lips curled in a small, tight smile, eyes shining. "I'd gladly protect you again, Captain! The Sunrider…" Kryska's voice took on a thoughtful tone. "The Sunrider's different than any other ship I've served on. Something that goes beyond anything as banal as Alliance or Ceran. There's a lack of discipline here, but something else keeps the crew together. Something you and your crew have extended to me since I came aboard. Something I've had precious little of since joining the Alliance Navy." Catching Kayto's eye, Kryska flushed slightly. "I mean no disrespect, Sir! I just mean to say… it is not merely duty or my assignment from the Admiral that keeps me here. The Sunrider… is my home now. And everyone here, my friends… my family."

Kayto's smile widened as he felt his heart swell, his gaze sweeping across the CIC and finding bright, shining faces looking back at him, the men and women who had stood with him shoulder-to-shoulder so that this moment would be a reality. "Yeah… Family."