Nadesico: Alderbaran Moves In The Sky

By

Nikolai Mirovich

Prologue The young man held his back tightly against the cold brick wall, holding the collar of his trench coat up to conceal his face as he waited in the shadows of the filth strewn alley for the plain black van to drive by. His pulse quickened as the seconds past, the distant seeming whir of hover vehicle's engines partial drowned out by the white-noise of the hard falling rain. Still more time past, and he found himself holding his breath, not daring to close his eyes even as he saw the dark van slide nearly noiselessly past the mouth of the alley, thankfully continuing on down the street.

Letting out a sigh of relief as the van vanished from sight, he turned and scurried quickly down the alley, his specially designed anti-static shoes a poor substitute for rain boots as the icy-cold water soaked through to his skin. Near the end of the ally, he found a small doorway, it's reinforced metal door wedged thankfully open by a woman in kitchen whites, tossing several large bags into the nearby dumpster.

Without pausing to so much as ask or apologize for the inconvenience, he flung the door open completely, startling the commise into dropping a heavy bag of broken glass. With a look of panic in his eyes, he slipped easily past the woman and ran into the expansive kitchen, glancing around in a panic at the nearly a dozen people who stared back at him in surprise.

"I- I need a phone!" he exclaimed, shaking his hands at the tall thin man who approached him with an angry look, "I, I need to get in touch with UEAF headquarters! It's an emergency!"

The Chef scowled for a moment, pushing his glasses up his nose as he stared down at the rain soaked young man who dripped water upon his clean floor, the ID card attached to the lab coat beneath his oversized trench coat proclaiming him to be Okura Hamada, an Indigo Clearance scientist in Nergal Heavy Industries' bio-weapons division.

"Slow down, Mr. Hamada," the Chef said coldly, the beginnings of an amused smirk crossing his lips as he glanced up from the ID card to the scientist's fearful expression, "Panicking is never an option in a kitchen."

The young scientist nodded slowly, his breathing laboured as the Chef snapped his fingers, causing one of his commise to scurry off. "I, I'm very sorry, sir," Okura panted, leaning against a counter as the commise returned, "But, you have to understand. They- He's after us... All of us!"

"Yes, yes, yes," the Chef interrupted impatiently, silencing Okura with a wave of his hand as the door to the alley swung wide open once more and two burly men in dark suits and sunglasses came in out of the rain.

"I know all of this already. Now, if you don't mind, I'll leave you to your fate. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to plan meals for a crew of a hundred on a deep space mission? I can assure you, Mr. Hamada," the Chef said with a grin as the two men came up behind the young man and grabbed him under the arms, "The stress you are about to undergo is comparable."

"But... But..." Okura stammered, his eyes wide with panic as the two men began dragging him from the kitchen, out to the waiting van, "Why! Who- Who are you!"

The Chef raised an eyebrow as his commises all simultaneously stopped work and stared in shock at Okura, a few dropping their cooking utensils and the occasional plate that crashed to the floor and shattered, filling the momentary silence with a quiet echo.

"You may call me Troy. Chef Troy in MY kitchen," he replied sternly, stressing his words like a commandment before addressing the men in suits, "Now then, assure Mr. Nagisawa that everything will be order in time for the launch. The three month old, milk fed veal was a bit difficult to procure, but fourteen pounds should be more than sufficient."

"No problem," said one of the men with a grin, twisting the young scientist's arm just for fun, "And good luck. We're all counting on you."

Chef Troy smirked at the comment and turned back to the fugu he had been preparing. "My father once said to me," he muttered, more to himself than to the departing goons, "'While I'm sure that you can very well take over the world, just how do you expect feed it?' Well, feeding it is MY problem, taking it over is Mr. Nagisawa's..."

Chapter I

"I assume you've been watching the news lately, Captain?" he asked for only the tenth time over the past two months as he stared out past his reflection into the cold vacuum of space where the three-mile long battle ship floated effortlessly in its moorings next to the station.

Ruri Hoshi sighed heavily, not bothering to look up from the computer screen, hundreds of thousands of gigabyte's of data streaming by at her neural-linked command. "I am aware of the situation, Lieutenant-Commander Wallis," Ruri replied calmly, quickly dispelling the tinge of annoyance she felt at her Security Chief's paranoia.

The man turned away from the large three-foot-thick Plexiglas window with military precision, for the thousandth time reaching into his jacket pocket, and for the thousandth time recalling Citadel Station's smoking ban with some annoyance. "Look, I'm just saying that maybe you should delay the ceremony for a few weeks until the police have the matter solved," he persisted, the man's pale hands fidgeting as he spoke for want of something to do with them.

Ruri glanced over her shoulder at the Lieutenant-Commander, at last pulling away one hand from the induction-pad long enough to brush her long silvery hair over one shoulder. "All the other subjects of the Nergal Eugenics Program have either vanished or turned up dead," she said simply, her amber eyes failing to betray the tinge of apprehension Ruri felt deep within the layers of calm, cool logic, "I can assure you, Geoffrey, that I am quite aware of the situation, and that I have faith in your ability to protect my crew, my ship, and even myself. Now, if you don't mind, I must finish copying over the Omoikane's files to the new system."

Lieutenant-Commander Wallis sighed heavily, at last realizing that there was no point in arguing. "Fine then," he muttered, throwing his arms helplessly into the air and heading to the door, "I'll be in my office if you need me."

"One more thing, Geoffrey," Ruri said quietly as the door swished open automatically.

"Yeah, what?" the Security Chief grumbled impatiently, turning to face his Captain and cursing his ill luck in trying to smuggle even one bottle of scotch onto the Station.

"Thank you," replied Ruri, a small smile crossing her thin lips as she glanced back down at the screen, "for being so concerned."

Geoff shrugged, hiding the spark of happiness her words invoked with false dismissal. "Aye, aye, Captain," he muttered a bit bitterly as he stepped out of the room, leaving Ruri to her work...

The internal mechanisms of the air-lock door whirled and clanked loudly before sliding open to allow the hoard of tourist to spill into Citadel Station. Amongst the mob of screaming children, all too slowly moving elderly people, a few reporters, and gray clad techies commuting in from Earth was a quiet, weary looking woman with long lavender hair tied back in a single long braid.

She waited a few moments for the other passengers to clear out before pushing herself off of the wall and following the crowd of mostly tourists out into the customs area. The woman gave the quiet group of techies an envious look, sighing heavily as they bypassed Citadel Station's usual security procedures and were waved through by a bored looking security guard.

"Must be nice," she muttered, somehow making it into one of the faster moving lines, "I'll bet the military people don't have to wait either."

Fifteen minutes later, the bored looking customs agent snapped her out of her reverie. "Ms. Reinaid?" he inquired, raising an eyebrow and checking the passport Megumi absently handed him against the information on the floating holo-screen before him.

"Yes?" she inquired with curious surprise, catching the tone of befuddlement in the man's voice.

"You're on the VIP list, ma'am," he replied, handing her back the passport and causing Megumi to cringe.

'Ma'am...' she muttered inwardly, forcing a smile to her face, 'Am I really getting that old?'

"You don't have to go through the public entrance," the customs agent continued, pointing down the row to the exit the techies had taken, "There must have been an oversight or something."

"Yeah, sure. Right. An oversight," Megumi chuckled a little bitterly, shaking her head as she stepped out of line and ignored the annoyed mutterings of the tourists who felt she'd wasted their time, "I believe that. Really I do..."

Megumi handed her passport to the security guard who glanced at it and nodded all to quickly, handing it back to her and waving the woman through before turning back to the conversation he was having with the other guard.

"That was easy," Megumi pondered suspiciously, glancing over her shoulder at the two as she entered the thin wall of orange light, held in place by the open doorway, the weapons detector not so much as beeping as Megumi stepped through, "Strange that no one's here to meet me, though."

Stepping onto the conveyer-belt and being carried swiftly down the long metal hallway to the center of the station, Megumi closed her eyes and set down her suitcase, thinking back to the last time she'd been up on Citadel. It was the last day that she'd spent as Com Officer on the Nadesico. It was also the last time she'd seen Akito Tenkawa. And the last time she'd let her heart be broken.

"You idiot," the woman muttered sadly, glancing out the long Plexiglas window at the nearby image of the ND-014 scrolling by in the cold eternal vacuum, referring partially to herself and partially to Akito, "How could you be so stupid?"

"Ms. Reinaid?" came a quiet, almost apologetic sounding voice that sparked a small glimmer of happiness in Megumi, and brought an unwilling smile to her lips.

"R- Ruri," Megumi said almost absently, glancing up as she approached the small pale figure clad in the uniform of a UEAF ship's Captain, surprised to see the girl's silvery gray hair tied back in a single long ponytail instead of two, "It's been forever! But, um, you can call me 'Megumi', you know."

"I know," Ruri said quietly, the smallest of smiles crossing her lips as Megumi stepped off the conveyer, "It's just been a stressful day, I needed to lighten the mood."

Megumi chuckled softly, giving the Captain a small hug, surprised by her admission. "You've changed," she commented approvingly, to which Ruri merely shrugged, "The Ruri I knew wasn't known for her humour or for admitting to being stressed out."

Ruri sighed heavily and nodded slowly, her amber eyes becoming distant for a moment. "I had to transfer the Omoikane over to the Nadesico 2 this morning," she explained, the heaviness in her tone dissipating as Ruri regained more of her usual composure, "It feels strange to be leaving the Nadesico behind. And transferring him was something of a big of step."

"It's like leaving home for the first time," Megumi offered, receiving a small nod from Ruri, "But at least you don't need to leave him behind."

"In a way I do, though," Ruri replied, glancing out the window at the new ship she'd been given, trying to see past the ND-014 to where the Nadesico was docked, waiting for the final ceremony where after which it would be permanently decommissioned, "I can only make a copy of Omoikane and install the copy into the new system. I'll be near Pluto when they format the drive... I'll be sure to give him a moment of silence."

"Tell me when, I'll be sure to do the same," Megumi offered, wondering for a moment how Akito would feel about the computer's demise after his experiences with it.

"I'd appreciate that," Ruri said softly, turning back towards the exit, "So tell me, what've you been doing the last few years? We all missed you at the wedding."

"Oh, the usual," the woman replied, suppressing a shudder as Ruri's words unintentionally stung, "I've been really busy with work quite a bit since the war ended. They've even stopped typecasting me as villains, and I've gotten a role as a good character in this new shojo series. Not the sword wielding main heroine, or anything, though. Just her mom, actually."

"You'd make a good mother," Ruri said simply as the metal doors slid open, and the cacophony of voices echoed in from the crowded central hub of the station.

"Not likely," Megumi muttered, her bitterness getting the better of her, "Look, um, would it be alright if we stopped by the old ship? One last time before the ceremony? I'd hate to abandon it without saying goodbye."

Ruri nodded as a holo-screen flickered to life before her, an image of Lieutenant Wallis appearing before her. "Sorry to bother you Captain," he said quickly, glancing off screen and frowning, "but there's a problem with the data transfer, I thought you might like to know."

"I'll be right there," she assured, bowing her head slightly as Geoffrey saluted and the screen vanished. "Sorry about this, Megumi," Ruri said softly, glancing at the woman apologetically.

Megumi shook her head, smiling sadly. "It's okay, Ruri," she replied with a shrug, "I can just go by myself. If that's alright, of course."

Ruri pulled a small card out of her pocket with out thinking and pressed it into Megumi's hand. "It's not a problem," she assured, giving another small smile, "It's still my ship. But if you'd like, for a little while, it can be yours."

Megumi blinked as Ruri slipped away, leaving the plastic card in her hand. "I- Um, thank you," she stammered as the Captain hurried off into the crowd, all but vanishing into the sea of people...

As the heavy blast doors slid closed behind her, Megumi felt a shiver go down her spine, her shoes clicking softly against the metal deck-plating as she approached the Nadesico's airlock.

"One last time," Megumi breathed, taking a deep breath as she covered the short distance with a series of slow steps that brought her to the door in thrice the time it should have, "I'll say my good-bye's to the old ghosts, and then tomorrow I'll say good-bye to Akito one last time."

Megumi waited a moment before sliding the card through the reader, holding her breath as the aging door mechanisms slid into place and opened the airlock. The stale air inside met her as Megumi remembered to breath, making her wonder just how long the ship had sat in space dock, waiting for the final word to come down regarding the Nadesico's imminent demise.

As the interior lights inside switched on, Megumi lifted her chin and stepped forward, refusing to be held back by her memories. "I never should have left this behind," she mused, running her fingers along the wall of the air lock as the inner door swished open and the chill of the ship's interior met her, "even if he's going to be the Chef on the new ship. I'm such a coward sometimes..."

The main corridor stretched off in all four directions, with the passage before and behind Megumi leading to the airlocks, and the right and left leading to the important sections of the ship. "I think Akito's room was this way," she pondered, heading right and taking the first left into the crew quarters area, reading off the names of people she recognized to herself as she went.

When she found Akito's room a short time later, Megumi stopped, running her fingers thoughtfully over the sign beside the door as she remembered the man she once thought she knew, wondering how much five years of living with Yurika had changed him.

"I doubt you even remember me, do you Akito?" whispered quietly, bowing her head slightly as her free hand swiped the card, causing the door to the room of the former mecha pilot/Chef to swish open.

The light inside the small room flickered to life as Megumi stepped over the threshold, letting the door slide closed behind her, it's magnetic seal locking into place as she smiled sadly at the long forgotten TV/video player Akito had left behind. Atop of it the man had also left an old Gekiganger manga, a thin layer of dust already having settled upon its colourful cover.

"He'd probably want this back," Megumi mused, picking the booklet up gently, holding it in both hands as though it were an ancient, lost artifact, smiling sadly down at the image of Gekiganger 3 battling a giant, spine covered mechanical serpent that had wrapped about the mecha's torso, "Although it'd probably be best if I just asked Ruri to deliver it. There's no sense making matters any worse than they have to be..."

But Megumi's saddened musing was cut short by a sudden, distant whir of machinery. Wiping a tear from her eye the woman stood a little taller and listed to the sound, finding it strangely familiar even as the distant mechanisms made an unpleasant grinding noise before settling into a barely audible hum.

"The- The engines!" gasped Megumi, her fingers suddenly loosing her grip on the manga, letting it fall to the floor and sending up a small cloud of dust, "Why would they have started the engines!"

As she reached for door control, the ship suddenly shuddered under the force of what Megumi was certain was a sudden impact, followed by the wail of the red-alert claxon. Grabbing hold of the wall as best she could for support, Megumi pressed her ear to the door, uncertain as to exactly what to expect. What she heard, however, was simply the sound of the klaxon before the ship shook again, this time more violently as the walls vibrated with the whining, wrenching sound of metal being bent into unnatural shapes.

"We're moving," the woman realized, dropping down onto the floor with her back pressed against the wall as the sounds of several explosions rocked the ship, followed by a strange silence, broken only by the sound of the red-alert klaxon.

Megumi frowned, listening intently for a moment as she felt the shaking of the deck plating in response to the ship's movements, but heard no further explosions, and no further impacts hit the hull.

"The distortion field's going on line," she reasoned, her eyes going wide as several scenarios flashed through her mind. Then, just before it happened, Megumi heard the all too familiar sound of the Nadesico's transposition cannon powering up.

The woman closed her eyes, bringing her knees up under her chin and covering her ears to block out the sound of the gravity blast going off. 'Someone's taken over the ship,' came Megumi's thoughts, 'They're stealing the Nadesico, and now they're blasting their way out of space dock!'

Try as she might, however, Megumi couldn't block the image from her mind of the distortion field's going up. As it did, the barrier would push away the surrounding struts that held the Nadesico in place, and no doubt destroy most of the space dock itself. Megumi did her best not to think of the technicians who would be lost in the ensuing explosions, or worse, be sent flying off into the void where they might not be picked up by the aestivalis that would surely be sent out to deal with the high-jacking.

As the transposition cannon fired, Megumi couldn't help but wonder just what it was firing at. It could simply be the swarming mecha, or perhaps another vessel. But by the same token, it could very well be Citadel Station itself.

It was this realization that caused Megumi to glance up, her violet eyes going wide as she sat shaking. "She- She wouldn't-!" the woman stammered, a terrible thought entering her mind as several years of repressed bitterness came back to haunt her, Megumi's mind ceasing to think entirely clearly, "No... Not even Yurika would be that crazy! She... She wouldn't steal the Nadesico and destroy half the Station just to get back at me!"

Without thinking, Megumi got to her feet and turned around to face the door. With a determined scowl, the woman punched the door release, half-thankful as the klaxons suddenly cut off.

"I won't let you do this," Megumi muttered, her sadness at the loss of life mixing with her anger as she stormed off down the empty hall to the elevator...

"Charge the forward weapons and come about, Lieutenant-Commander," Captain Hoshino ordered calmly, her amber eyes fixed on several holo-displays at the same time, giving her several different angles of the scene outside, "Target their transposition cannon and have the aestivalises disable their engines."

"Aye, ma'am," called back Lieutenant-Commander Wallis, targeting the Nadesico's forward section as across the bridge, a nervous Com Officer transferred orders to the mecha teams to get out of the way as quickly as possible.

"I knew this was a bad idea," Geoffrey grumbled under his breath but received no immediate reprimand from Ruri.

"Fire when ready, Lieutenant-Commander," the Captain said simply, staring intently at an image of the Nadesico as the two ships faced one another, her eyes narrowing imperceptivity as she saw the transposition cannon powering up.

'Fight them, Omoikane,' thought Ruri, her hands pressing a little harder against the induction pads on the arms of her chair, her mind wading through the streams of data as her Com Officer tried desperately to establish a link with the other ship's computer.

"I'm sorry, ma'am," the Com Officer called back without looking up form his display, "But they've shut down their communications entirely. Their computer core is completely isolated, and there's nothing I can-"

The Ensign was cut off as the two ships fired at one another, the Nadesico's gravity blast impacting with the ship's distortion field a moment before the Nadesico 2's smaller guns were easily reflected by what should have been an inferior distortion field.

"They've managed to fortify their distortion field somehow!" exclaimed Wallis as the ship shook and a warning alarm went off.

"Status of our distortion field?" called back Ruri all too calmly.

"Down by-! What the-! Captain, that's not possible!"

Ruri swiveled her chair around, the holographic displays following her as she moved. "Status, Lieutenant-Commander?" she said simply, looking right into Wallis's eyes in a way the man hated. It always seemed to him as though Ruri could see into his very soul.

"Our distortion field is down to five percent!" the man shot back agitatedly, his fingers curling into fists, "but to make matters worse, we barely scratched them!"

"There's also a Boson Reaction in their Transposition Engine, Ma'am," called back the helmsman.

"That isn't possible," said Ruri simply, swiveling back to face the Ensign, "Most of the Nadesico's non-essential systems were removed. But then, the ship shouldn't be able to fire its gravity blast either."

"They're preparing to fire again!" called Wallis through gritted teeth, interrupting Ruri's musing, "We're sitting ducks with our distortion field this low!"

"Status on the aestivalis?"

"Ineffective!"

"Prepare the ship for Boson Jump," the Captain replied simply, "If we can jump before the blast hits us-"

"Small problem ma'am," the helmsman interrupted nervously, "Citadel Station's habitation dome is in the direct path of the blast. We're the only thing between it and the Nadesico..."

Captain Hoshino met the Ensign's frightened gaze and nodded solemnly. "Then we stand our ground," Ruri replied quietly, switching on the internal intercom. "This is Captain Hoshi. All hands prepare for impact..."

The elevator door swished open a heartbeat before Megumi stormed out of it and onto the bridge of the Nadesico. "Yurika Misumaru!" the woman shouted angrily, "How dare you steal the Nadesico! And how dare you try to destroy Citadel Station! If you have a problem with me, then take it up with me! I've had more than enough of your cowardly, limp-wristed, selfish, obsessive, jealous-!"

But as the Captain's chair swiveled around, Megumi's eyes went wide, her rant cut short. Instead of finding Yurika, there sat a rather unassuming young man in a simple gray jumpsuit with a long silvery cloak about his shoulders. As their eyes met, he raised one of his dark eyebrows and a small smirk crossed his face.

"Your assumptions are both inaccurate, and highly Narcissistic, wouldn't you agree, miss?" he inquired, his amusement clear in his smarmy tone.

"Who- Who are you!" Megumi stammered, her anger cooling as her brain tried to wrap around the odd twist the situation had taken, the woman surprised not only by his presence, but also by the fact that he seemed no older than Ruri.

"Captain Nagisawa," the adolescent replied with a condescending smile, "But please, call me Kenji. Oh, and you should really be detained."

The boy snapped his fingers as he spun the chair back around and two burly men suddenly grabbed Megumi's arms from behind. "Feel free to stay and watch the show, however," chuckled Kenji, "it should be most entertaining."

Megumi pulled at her arms as she scowled at the two black clad men in Armani suits before glowering at the front holo-viewer. The woman's eyes went wide as she saw the Nadesico 2 floating a mere thousand meters away in the cold vacuum. There was already carbon scoring upon her freshly polished hull, and the strange flickering glow around the ship showed that the Nadesico 2's distortion field was barely operable.

"Target their bridge," Captain Nagisawa said simply.

"No!" Megumi exclaimed, screaming every curse she could think of at the boy as she struggled against the two men, finally jumping up and stomping as hard as she could down upon each one's foot.

Their reaction was to simply grin as the steal toes of the expensive seeming footwear became apparent to Megumi who gritted her teeth and all but snarled at back of the Captain's chair.

"They're about to fire their transposition cannon, sir," replied the helmswoman, a small pale blond haired girl of about the same age as Kenji.

"Let them," the Captain replied with a nonchalant shrug, "It will do them no good. Fire at will."

"You- You're insane!" Megumi screamed, forcing her captors to grip her arms tightly with both hands, "There's no need for this! You- You have a hostage! You could just fly out of here without a problem!"

"That's nice," Kenji replied with bemused condescension as the Nadesico's transposition cannon fired off another gravity blast at the same time that the Nadesico 2 fired.

Megumi could watch in horror as the two, mile wide beams of radiant light reached out across the void towards one another. As they met, the reaction caused the entire view screen to light up, forcing all but Kenji to shield their eyes from the brilliant burst of energy.

Megumi gritted her teeth as she felt the Nadesico 2's gravity blast hit the Nadesico's distortion field, shaking the ship and causing the interior lighting to flicker as the light from the view screen began to fade.

"Ruri..." Megumi murmured softly, her head bowed as she cried, "I'm so sorry. I did what I could..."

As the light faded, however, Megumi's ears caught the sound of a surprised, yet not entirely annoyed sounding heavy sigh. Looking up and blinking away both her tears and the fading light, Megumi smiled as she saw the other ship still mostly intact.

Though it had been knocked to one side, with one of the four long sections of its bow that made up the transposition cannon reduced to floating rubble, and with much of the ship battered, blacked and broken, the Nadesico 2 still showed signs of life. Several of its running lights were still active, and the ship's remaining starboard thrusters still struggled to aim the ship at the enemy.

As Kenji got up out of his chair, his cloak billowing out behind him, Megumi couldn't help but smile. "It looks as though you've underestimated your opponent," the woman commented mockingly, pleased with whatever bit of ingenuity Ruri had pulled off.

Captain Nagisawa sighed heavily again and shook his head thoughtfully. "I'm uncertain as to how exactly Captain Hoshi managed his," he replied, turning right around to look directly into Megumi's eyes, "but it should only be a matter of time before I deduce the answer, and should we meet again, I can promise you that things -will- be different."

A proximity alarm went off just then, and the helmswoman brought up a few extra holo-displays. "Sir, three more UEAF warships have just jumped to our location," she said simply, almost coldly.

"Are we ready for a Boson Jump of our own?" Kenji shot back without taking his eyes off of Megumi.

"Yes, sir."

"Then initiate Jump. By the time they've found us, we'll be long gone..."

"Damage report," said Ruri softly, holding her eyes closed as she struggled for breath, the sounds of warning klaxons and sparking electronics filling her ears, the cold metal of the floor beneath her doing nothing the sooth the headache the Captain felt.

"We're alive for the moment," Ruri heard Lieutenant-Commander Wallis intone before coughing loudly for several moments, "The station's already dispatched med-teams. At least they said they did just before communications went down. Oh, and we've lost life support on decks three through nine. Good thing we only scrambled just enough of a crew to pilot this thing. Now all I have to worry about is the flack I'm going to get from my wife when I get home..."

Ruri considered nodding, but thought better of it. If Wallis was complaining, then he was fine. Forcing her eyes open, Ruri did her best to ignore the increased aching and tried to see if the Helmswoman and Comm. Officers were still conscious.

Neither seemed to be moving, with Ensign Kozlovski having fallen forward across the display, and Lieutenant Wali having slid sideways out of her chair to sprawl out upon the cold floor. Seeing this, Ruri closed her eyes once more. She had little medical training, and there was no way of knowing if they were even still alive. There was also little sense in worrying about it so long as the ship was vulnerable to further attacks. With no distortion field, no weapons, and very little undamaged hull plating, there was little chance that the Nadesico 2 could survive a second hit.

"What's the status of our external sensors?" Ruri inquired, noting that none of the holo-screens were active as she shut her eyes a tightly and gritted her teeth when she tried to move her arm.

It took Lieutenant-Commander Wallis a few moments to respond, the man grumbling a bit as he fought with the systems. "Active," he replied hesitantly, "barely. The good news is that we have three other ships out there. Looks like their preparing to fire."

'Good-bye, old friend,' Ruri thought sadly despite the fact that she'd backed up the Omoikane.

"Ah, crap!" Wallis exclaimed suddenly, just as a group paramedics forced the door to the bridge open, "Captain, it's the Nadesico! She-! she just Boson Jumped! She's gone...!"

Chapter 2

As the queasy feeling that always seemed to accompany Boson Jumps at last faded, Megumi gave her head a bit of a shake, experimentally giving her arms a quick pull as she looked across the bridge at the main viewer. To the woman's annoyance, the two goons still held her arms tightly and the view outside of the ship was seemingly very crowded.

"We're one thousand meters off the projected coordinates, Captain," the blond girl intoned, making a few minor course corrections as several asteroids impacted harmlessly off the Nadesico 2's distortion field.

"Run the program and scan for the Tulip," Kenji ordered, turning back to face Megumi before walking up the short flight of steps to where his goons held her.

"It will only take the UEAF twelve point three-eight minutes to discover that we've only jumped to the Asteroid Belt," the Captain commented seemingly offhandedly, his smirk almost as smarmy as his tone, "but it should take my people five point one nine to find the Tulip. In the meantime, miss, perhaps you could satisfy my curiosity and tell me both who you are, and what it is that you are doing on MY ship."

Megumi glowered at her diminutive captor and considered kicking him when he got close enough. Kenji, however, chose to remain just out of reach. "This isn't -your- ship!" she spat, "For the next twenty-eight hours it belongs to Captain Ruri Hoshi!"

Captain Nagisawa rolled his dark eyes and shook his head. "Fine then," he replied dismissively, turning away and giving his goons a small, equally dismissive wave, "She's of no use to us, have her jettisoned for the UEAF to find. I really don't need this kind of distraction."

"No, wait!" Megumi exclaimed as the two men who held her turned her right around and one of them punched the button for the elevator, "I- My name is Megumi Reinaid, I used to be the Com Officer on this ship!"

"So?" inquired Kenji grinning as the main viewer displayed an ancient-looking Tulip in amongst a large cluster of mineral poor asteroids ahead of schedule.

"So I know the Omoikane!" Megumi countered, already pondering the feasibility of escaping the two burly men in suits once she got out of the elevator, "You must have had a few problems with the computer by now. I, I could help you with it."

"Irrelevant," Captain Nagisawa countered, as the Tulip began to open, a white glow emanating from within the ancient Boson Jump device, "I've already had the drive reformatted, and the AI replaced with one I programmed."

Megumi gasped at the admission, taken back at the boy's callous tone, regretting that Ruri wouldn't have her chance to say a proper good-bye to the original version of the Omoikane. Without a word, she let the two men drag her into the elevator. As she was turned around, the woman caught one last view of the main screen.

Upon it the Tulip had opened fully, its interior swirling with a thousand different colours as it made contact with the destination Tulip, elsewhere in the void of space.

"The programming is complete, Captain," said the Com Officer, "The Tulip will self-destruct five minutes after we've Jumped-"

But the doors slid closed before Megumi had a chance to hear more. A second later, and the elevator began its decent, moving swiftly and purposefully to what was to be her doom.

"S-so tell me," the woman said as conversationally as she could, glancing up at the two stern figures who Megumi supposed were probably ex-secret service agents, "why is it that you two are working for a guy like that? I mean, he's just a kid, right? Isn't that kinda degrading to you?"

Both men snorted at the question as the doors slid open once more. "Mr. Nagisawa pays well," the one on the right chuckled.

"And besides, it's best to get in on the ground floor of an operation like this," added the one on the left rather matter-of-factly.

"An operation?" Megumi inquired, dragging her feet as they lead her down the empty hallway, "What -exactly- is this all about?"

Both men laughed at the question as they made a right. "Oh, the usual," the one of the left assured with a smirk, "Mr. Nagisawa intents to take over the solar system. Well, Earth mainly. Nothing terribly unusual."

Megumi actually found herself laughing at the thought. "Using the Nadesico!" she blurted, "This ship's more than five years out of date! I'm surprised it even had a working Transposition Engine in it! And besides, you'll be terribly out numbered!"

"Not a problem," assured the man on the left as they stopped before an airlock, "Mr. Nagisawa's just using the ship for transportation. He's found the aliens home world, you know."

"Aliens?" Megumi pondered out loud as they shoved her into the airlock, "What aliens?"

"Oh, the ones who left those artifacts on Mars. The one's that gave the Jovians their edge during the war," the other goon replied dismissively before hitting the button to close the door, "Don't worry, you won't live long enough to see us leave the system..."

Half a solar system away, Ruri opened her eyes as the Med'Evac shuttle docked with Citadel Station, the sudden jarring of metal on metal bringing her back to reality despite the painkillers they'd given her.

"M-Megumi... I, I require a Comlink," she told the closest paramedic.

"Your crew are all fine," the woman responded with a reassuring smile, "You'll live, as well, but only if you don't stress yourself out making premature calls to their families."

Ruri closed her eyes, sighing heavily as she decided that shaking her head would only make matters worse for her. "No, you don't understand. A friend of mine is still on the Nadesico. I need to tell the UEAF..."

The paramedic smiled as Ruri's words trailed off, the extra sedative doing its job almost immediately...

Megumi jumped as the door swished closed and an alarm claxon went off signalling that the outer door would automatically open in a matter of moments. Glancing out the small window, she saw the two men in suits laughing as they walked off back down the hallway.

Waiting for a few precious seconds before acting, Megumi slammed emergency button that would stop the door from opening. To her complete lack of surprise, the airlock failed to respond. Just above the button, a small LED lit up proclaiming "Access Denied" in large red letters.

Megumi shook her head as she backed away form the door and glanced up at the small security camera installed in the ceiling. "If the Omoikane was still part of the computer core I could always just ask for some help with this," she commented with a nervous chuckle, her whole body shaking as Megumi prepared herself for what was to come, trying not to wonder if the cold, the lack of air, or the boiling of her blood would be the first to get to her.

But then, the thought of the Omoikane caused the woman to remember something. "Ruri!" she exclaimed, reaching into the pocket of her jeans and pulling out the plastic ID card she'd been given.

Megumi glanced at the card for a moment, hoping against hope that the system would still accept it. Then, as the spinning yellow warning lights switched on, and internal mechanisms began to clunk and clank into place, Megumi slotted the card and hit the emergency button once more.

The LED made flashed a green "Override Accepted" and the warning lights switched off as the door back into the ship released and slid open. Megumi smiled as she pulled the card back out and quickly slipped through the slowly opening portal, only to hit the button to close it once again.

"We should be entering the Tulip any moment now," she pondered aloud as she glanced out at the radiant light just beyond the airlock, an idea forming in her mind as the door fully opened before beginning to close once again.

With a nervous glance behind her, Megumi pulled off one of her running shoes and pulled a pen from her pocket. "It's not a message in a bottle," she muttered, scribbling as quickly as she could on the side of the white leather shoe, "But it should be unusual enough to get noticed."

Just before the door closed, Megumi tossed her shoe inside. She then hit the emergency release button, causing the airlock to once more begin its slow opening process before ejecting her written-on shoe into the cold vacuum the Asteroid Belt floated in.

Then, just as the shoe was shot out into space, the Nadesico lunged forward into the Tulip, sending Megumi toppling to the floor as the world once more began to shift unpleasantly...

Chapter 3

The three aestivalis cut their thrusters a few moments after leaving the ship, using the unlimited momentum to carry them the rest of the way to the site of the explosion. Drifting silently for several moments, their pilots peered out at the huge shattered shards of what was once an ancient, and long forgotten Tulip floating in a large cluster of mixed debris.

As the trio of space frames approached, proximity alarms went off, followed by a rain of tiny impacts against their armor as the aestivalis flew through the smallest and furthest flung bits of exploded asteroid.

A few moments later, as the three switched on their searchlights and passed them over the wreckage, however, something far larger than the gravel sized debris chose that moment to hit the lead aestivalis squarely in the face.

"Hey! That's -NOT- funny!" the mech's pilot exclaimed angrily, prying the running shoe off with one of the aestivalis's hands and flinging it at one of the others.

The shoe impacted with the second mecha as its pilot spun the aestivalis sideways to see what the problem was. "Wha-!" she began, lifting the mech's arms up instinctively to catch the shoe, but instead having it hit her in the chest, "Hey! It's a shoe!"

"That's right, it's a shoe!" the first pilot began, firing her stabilizing thrusters to hold the aestivalis steady as she turned towards the second, "Don't you think it's just a little bit immature to go chucking shoes at..."

The woman's voice trailed off as the oddness of finding a shoe in the floating in space finally sunk in. "Wait a sec," she pondered aloud, "What the heck's a shoe doing out here!"

"Kaboom," the third pilot said quietly, her low voice chuckling over the com-system as the other two stared at each other for a long moment.

"Do, do you really think someone was 'spaced' and they just, um, blew up?" the second pilot inquired nervously, forcing the arms of her aestivalis outwards, pushing the shoe back at the first.

"Don't be ridiculous, Hikaru," she scolded, snatching the shoe away and bringing it closer to the visual sensors of her mech, "That'd never happen. Hey, there's a note of some kind scribbled to it..."

"What's it say, Ryoko?" inquired both the other pilots at once, immediately crowding in close around the shoe and setting off all of their proximity alarms again.

"Hey, back off, already! I can't think with you crowding me!" growled Ryoko, using her maneuvering thrusters to give herself some room before adjusting the shoe's position in her aestivalis's metal hand, "Now then, I think it says... 'Kenji Nagisawa. Nadesico. Mars Aliens'. Oh yeah! That's informative!"

"Maybe it's haiku?" postulated Izumi, chuckling quietly at the thought.

"Look, let's just finish up here and worry about it back at base, okay?" offered Hikaru, shining her searchlight along a particularly long shard of alien metal, "this place is really creepy!"

Ryoko heavily sighed into the com-system and turned back towards the wreckage. "Fine, just try and keep the hysterics to a minimum if we do find the rest of whoever was attached to that shoe, okay?"

"So, just what was a long forgotten Tulip doing this far out anyway?" Hikaru inquired as the trio floated up to the first large shard and began their scans.

"It was probably left here by the Jovians and forgotten," Ryoko replied, frowning thoughtfully as she checked her readings.

"Or left behind by the aliens," chuckled Izumi darkly, "Until the owner of the shoe gave the Tulip indigestion and it exploded."

"Enough about aliens, already!" ordered Ryoko, "Besides, I need a second opinion here. I think I've detected an ion trail leading up to the Tulip, but not away from it."

"As though someone used it before it went up?" offered Hikaru, checking her own readings, "Hey, looks like there was a Boson reaction here recently as well."

"Two," corrected Izumi mysteriously, propelling her aestivalis closer so that it loomed menacingly over Hikaru's, "Looks like the aliens are here once again! And they've destroyed the Tulip to cover their tracks!"

"Enough already!" exclaimed Ryoko angrily, smacking Izumi's aestivalis upside the head as Hikaru screamed unpleasantly into the COM system before laughing, "I think we have what we need. Let's head back to base and let the lab boys figure out what's happened here. I think I've had enough aliens for one day..."

Ruri nodded as she accepted the report from the uniformed UEAF courier before shuffling to sit up straight in the uncomfortable hospital bed. She frowned slightly as she read the report, but smiled slightly as it went on to state that there was no evidence that the floating shoe was being worn when it was jettisoned into space. The note upon it caused Ruri to raise an eyebrow, however.

Just then, the door to the private room swished open once again and in stepped Lieutenant-Commander Wallis, his left arm in a sling as he saluted his Captain. Ruri sighed softly in response and set down the report.

"There isn't time for that, Geoffrey," she said calmly, closing her eyes for a moment to collect her thoughts, "We have to get the Nadesico 2 up and operational again. There's a problem."

"Dang right there's a problem!" the Lieutenant-Commander agreed with a laugh, "Some moron up and stole UEAF property before they completely trashed our ship!"

Ruri sighed heavily and shook her head slowly as to not make her injury any worse. "No. This problem is bigger than that," she explained evenly, glancing up into Geoff's eyes and causing the agitated man to stand perfectly still for a moment, "I know who did this. And I'll need the Nadesico 2 back in operation soon if we're going to stop him."

"That won't be for at least a week, I'm afraid. And that's only -if- the technicians up here can figure out what they're doing!"

"We may not have a week," said Ruri seriously, glancing back down at the report, "But in the mean time, I need to get in contact with Professor Fresange."

Geoffrey sighed heavily, knowing better than to argue. "As you wish," he said with a shrug before turning to leave. Just before exiting, however, the man glanced over his shoulder and added; "I suppose this isn't going to be an official mission, then?"

"No. The UEAF would see it as a childish vengeance ploy. We need to keep what we know a secret, and get out there before the UEAF does. They'd only be throwing their lives away."

"Yeah, right," muttered Geoffrey, giving Ruri a nod before stepping out of the room, "Everything 'we' know. Oh well, I guess if anyone asks I won't really have anything to tell them, at least..."

Ruri closed her laptop, set it down on the side table and smiled a little as she saw the door slide open, a familiar figure stepping into the room. "You seem to have missed all the excitement, Akito," the girl said softly, causing her old friend to smile weakly.

"I hurried over as soon as I head you were hurt," he explained rather quickly, clutching the package he carried in both hands a little tighter, "but they wouldn't let me see you right away. Said you needed your rest."

"That's alright," assured Ruri, leaning back and glancing at the package as she caught the scent of curry in the air, "Although it seems to have given you time to do some cooking."

"I hate hospital food," Akito chuckled, stepping up to the side table before opening the box, "so I thought I'd bring you over a little something. Oh, and sorry that Yurika couldn't make it. She's having dinner with her father tonight."

"That's okay," assured Ruri, inhaling deeply and holding the scent of real food in her lungs for a moment, "It's better that I talk to you alone first anyway."

Akito gulped as he glanced sideways at the silver haired girl. "Wha-? What about?" he inquired nervously, unpacking two bowls.

"I'm sure you saw the battle this morning outside the Station," Ruri inquired, glancing out into the star filled void outside her window, "and I'm sure you heard that the Nadesico was commandeered by pirates."

Akito nodded slowly, tasting the curry to make sure it was perfect as he listened. "It seemed like a rather odd thing to do, though," he replied, nodding to himself as he analyzed the flavour, "I mean, they've been in the process of decommissioning it for a few weeks now. I'm surprised the ship was capable of launching an attack at all, let alone being a match for the Nadesico 2."

"More than a match," Ruri corrected without apparent ego problems, "Anyway, do you recall when you were on the Nadesico, the day you took me to see the school I attended."

"The Nergal sponsored eugenics project?" Akito inquired as he filled the two bowls, to which Ruri nodded.

"Did you also hear that all of the students except for myself have either died or vanished thus far?"

Akito hesitated as he offered Ruri the steaming bowl. "I'd been trying not to think about that," he confessed, handing it off to her, "But, but you're safe here, right?"

"For the moment," replied Ruri darkly, accepting a pair of chopsticks from Akito before trying her meal, "It's nice. You're talent is improving."

Akito tried his best to hide his smile by turning to serve himself. "So, just what does the school you went to have to do with someone stealing the Nadesico?"

Ruri ate a little more before continuing, only then realizing just how hungry she was. "A name," she responded, "Kenji Nagisawa. He was one of the students at the school with me."

"And you think he stole the Nadesico?"

"If not, he's still connected to the theft in some fashion."

"How do you figure?"

"Megumi said so."

Akito spit out his curry against the far wall before turning to Ruri with a look of alarm upon his face. "Me-Megumi!" he stammered as Ruri continued to calmly ate her curry, "How-? Where-? When-!"

"They found her shoe with a note on it, floating in the remains of an old Tulip," Ruri replied thoughtfully, "It seems that she jettisoned it just before the Nadesico used the Tulip. Once they were through, however, the Tulip's systems overloaded, destroying it completely, and making it impossible to use it to follow them to wherever it was they went."

"So, so Megumi's onboard with those- those pirates?"

"Yes. There's little doubt in my mind that she is, assuming, that is, that she's still alive."

Akito gulped down his nervousness, nodding slowly as he set down his bowl, no longer feeling terribly hungry. "So, you have a plan right?"

"Indubitably," Ruri assured him with a slow nod before holding up her empty bowl, "Could I have some more please? Anyway, I did some checking up on my old classmates, and it seems that Mr. Nagisawa has done some rather extensive research for the Nergal Corporation regarding distortion field technology. Apparently his research has significantly improved the effectiveness of both distortion fields and gravity blast technology."

"That would explain why the Nadesico seemed to get out of there almost unskaved," pondered Akito as he refilled Ruri's bowl.

"And why the Nadesico's gravity blast cut through the Nadesico 2's distortion field so easily," the girl added with a nod, "My working theory is that the technicians haven't been decommissioning the Nadesico, they've been upgrading it."

"That'd explain why it took so long," agreed Akito, exhaling loudly as he stared out the window, his expression consternated.

"It only gets worse," continued Ruri, "I believe that the Tulip Nagisawa took the Nadesico through leads to the home world of the aliens responsible for distortion field technology in the first place. There's no telling what he's likely to find there."

"We could always ask Ines," offered Akito without thinking, getting a smirk from Ruri.

"I've already contacted her. She'll be meeting us on Europa in about a week's time."

"Us?"

Ruri glanced up at Akito, looking searchingly into his dark eyes for a moment. "Unless you don't want to help me save Megumi," the girl said quietly, causing Akito to bow his head low and stare at the floor for a long moment.

"I guess you're going to need a cook if they can get the Nadesico 2 up and running in time," he replied absently.

"I'd prefer a Chef," commented Ruri, "So I thought of you first. There's also an extra aestivalis if you're still willing."

"I'll need some time to think about it."

"Take all the time you need. We have a week..."

Chapter 4

The slowly dying red star shined its pale crimson light out across the seemingly endless debris field that still orbited it after so many thousands of years of disuse. Amongst the ruins of destroyed mecha and the long abandoned remains of abandoned alien space platforms, floated hundreds of thousands of fairly salvageable insect-like batta drones.

Amidst this floated an ancient tulip, left over from the catastrophic war that ended two thriving alien civilizations. The mammoth device sat, floating in the cluttered void still opened, but now thoroughly out of commission. When the Nadesico had come through it, its pirate crew had gone through the Tulip, salvaging anything they'd need before simply abandoning it as they turned to the second stage of their plan.

Outside the ship, scattered throughout the debris field, aestivals' sifted through the remains, taking orders from the bridge crew as they began salvaging and reprogramming the surviving batta drones. For five days they worked around the clock, finding more and more of the ancient robots still in reasonable working order, their numbers swelling beyond the several hundred thousand mark as the Nadesico moved slowly around the sun that had long since swallowed whatever planets it might have once had.

Megumi sighed heavily, shaking her head in dismay as she stared out over the debris field from the relative safety of the observation deck late on the fifth night. She knew the Nadesico fairly well after her time aboard the ship, and had easily avoided what few crewmembers there were.

At first it had surprised the woman that so many of them were so young. Most of them seemed to be just entering their late teens, but every last one of them carried an air of mature intellect that went far beyond their years. It had taken Megumi into her second day of hiding out and sleeping in air-ducts, occasionally stealing food from the galley when she could before the former com-officer had figured it out.

Spying on them from time to time, and doing everything in her power to avoid their Captain, Kenji Nagisawa, Megumi soon realized why their odd habits seemed so strikingly familiar. Why it was that they were so quite, seldom laughing and seeming far too serious as they industriously worked towards their goal. They were all just like Ruri.

"This explains quite a bit, at least," the woman muttered to herself, shivering against the cold that permeated the non-essential portions of the ship, "All those disappearances they talked about in the news..."

Megumi shivered again, rubbing her arms with her hands as she turned back towards the access panel and contemplated crawling back into the ducts with a certain sense of dread. Between the darkness and the claustrophobia the narrow tunnels were bad enough. But it was the two hundred meter crawl across the freezing cold metal that Megumi truly dreaded. The growling of her stomach, however, made the journey unavoidable, despite the fact that to her knowledge, no one else besides her ever bothered to use the observation deck.

"At least there's no rats," she reminded herself, crouching before beginning the long crawl down the dark tunnel, "Or spiders..." Megumi shuddered, thankful for the careful health procedures that kept UEAF clean and tidy as she turned around and pulled the grating back into place.

Fifteen minutes later, Megumi felt warmth beneath her bare hands and began to crawl faster, feeling the barest hint of warm air and the smell of actual cooked food emanating from galley not far ahead. After a few minutes more, she could hear murmuring voices, and realized that she was loosing her sense of time.

"It must be earlier than I thought," the woman pondered, squinting as she glanced at her watch out of habit, chastising herself as Megumi quickly remembered that the timepiece had stopped working immediately after the first Boson Jump, "I guess I'll have to wait until the crew's done with dinner before chancing getting my own."

Megumi's stomach complained again and the woman sighed heavily. "I guess I'll just have to try then," she muttered to herself, half-wondering if talking to herself meant she was crazy as she crawled further down the now pleasantly warm tunnel.

Making a left at the next junction, Megumi quieted her movement as she approached a downward facing grating. Soon, she could hear the sound of loud voices actually laughing. The sound caught Megumi off guard for a moment.

"Laughter?" she whispered, inching closer to the warm light that shined up from the grating.

Megumi then took a deep breath, the various scents of expertly prepared food causing her mouth to water as her stomach tightened painfully. 'Patience now,' the woman thought inwardly, 'they won't be there all night. I just have to wait for the kitchen staff to clean up, and then I can take a few things that won't be missed.'

But as Megumi peered down into the cafeteria, her eyes widened and the woman let out a small, quiet gasp. Directly below her, Megumi could clearly see several individuals crowded around one large table. Each was dressed in the standard UEAF maintenance uniform, but it wasn't the fact that Megumi recognized many of them from Citadel Station that surprised her, however. It was the figure sitting at the head of the table, who was currently standing up and waving his arms about dramatically as he told some humorous story about his previous days aboard the Nadesico that truly caught Megumi's eye. Uribatake Seiya.

Megumi shook her head in disbelief, backing up quickly towards the junction as an angry feeling spread throughout her being. "That traitor she hissed through gritted teeth, changing direction before scrambling forward, "How could he be working for these people! Doesn't he realize their murderers! And with all those batta drones out there, why they could- Could..."

Megumi stopped in her tracks for a moment thinking. Considering the number of drones and other alien technology the crew was salvaging from the debris field. "They could take Earth, couldn't they?" she pondered rhetorically, her eyes widening as Megumi pondered the possibilities, "I have to get word to the UEAF. I have to tell Ruri! She'll know what to do. Not even a dozen Kenji's can out-think one Ruri!"

The woman took the next right and stopped before a rusted access panel that she easily pulled away from the wall. Beyond it was a short drop into total darkness, but Megumi had slid into the small room far too many times in the last few days to injure herself on the drop down.

Getting to her feet and putting the panel back in place, the woman found the old discarded lighter she'd found in Misato old room and lit a few of the candles she's salvaged from the currently unused multicultural chapel.

Light filled the room a moment later, and Megumi had to shield her eyes from the unaccustomed glare. Glancing about, the woman quickly found the peculiar conglomeration of wires, circuit boards, transistors, and dials that Megumi had managed to cobble together. Doing her best to ignore the protests of her stomach, the woman picked up the old keyboard she'd managed to piece together and plugged it into the side of her jury-rigged device.

A moment later, and a flickering dim holo-screen came to life before her. Sitting cross-legged upon the floor of the cramped little room, Megumi typed furiously, quickly hacking into the Nadesico's communications array, at the same time doing her best to both bypass security and to cover her tracks.

The woman held her breath as she sent out a test signal for the third time in as many days. Megumi then cursed as the response came back that there were still no UEAF relay stations in range. "Just how far out are we!" the woman muttered bitterly, directing her attention to the Tulip, attempting to access the device's communications array, scowling at the screen as she was informed that the Tulip was completely unoperational.

"If I knew were we were, then at least I have a place to start!" grumbled Megumi, angrily smacking the wall of her little room and wincing as she hurt herself, "Just where in the universe did that little brat take us, anyway...?"

"Alderbaran," replied Ines with a small, smug smile, "In the constellation of Taurus, actually."

Akito glanced over at Ruri who seemed unphased by the information before turning back to Ines. "Your sure that's where those aliens you made contact with have their homeworld?" he inquired apprehensively, pondering the difficulty of Boson Jumping that far without a working Tulip system.

Ines leaned further back in her chair, glancing for a moment out at the view of Jupiter she had from her office window, reminiscing silently, her expression unreadable. "No, Mr. Tenkawa," the temporally displaced scientist corrected, "Not their homeworld; the homeworld of their enemies. The ones who are responsible for both Mars and Venus being the way they were when humans found them."

Akito's eyes went wide as he leaned further back in his chair, his body tensing as beside him Ruri sat calmly, giving a contemplative nod. "Is it your belief that Nagisawa intends to find some new weapon to use against the UEAF then?"

Ines nodded slowly. "That is a definite possibility," she agreed, a small smile crossing her lips, "Although, one does not simply bring in a weapon of mass destruction, destroy Earth, and move on unless one is a complete psychopath. It is more likely that the threat of using such a weapon will be enough to serve Mr. Nagisawa's plans."

"I'll be sure to ask him his intentions once we arrive in the Alderbaran system," said Ruri dryly, glancing over at Akito who suddenly felt distinctly uncomfortable with so many eyes upon him, "But I believe that our first priority should be determining if Megumi is still alive. If not, then I have no intention of showing Nagisawa any mercy."

Akito blinked, staring in amazement at Ruri, detecting no hint of malice in the girl's voice, but knowing full well that she meant what she had said. That Ruri could forgive the theft of the Nadesico, but not the murder of an old friend. That keeping the mission ahead as unofficial as possible was not only a good idea, it was a necessity.

"The only problem that remains, however," the Captain continued, turning back to Ines, "Is plotting our course there. A blind Boson Jump would be foolish. As though we know where the star is, we don't know what we'll find when we get there."

Ines nodded in agreement and called up a small holo-screen. As words and diagrams scrolled up it, the woman explained her idea. "There is a way to compensate for anything that might be in the way," she explained, her long fingers dancing quickly across the keyboard, "So long as it's less than the size of a small moon."

The two observers leaned forward at the same time to view the monitor. Upon it, an image of the Nadesico 2 appeared amongst a field of asteroids, its distortion field fading as it came back into normal space, leaving an open area around it where once there had been a swarm of asteroids. A second later, however, and the field went up again, and the Nadesico vanished, only to reappear some distance away at the outer edge of the field. Curiously, the missing asteroids immediately returned to their former position as the Nadesico vanished from one place, and reappeared in another.

"It's actually a rather simple solution to the problem," Ines explained, smiling at Akito's amazed expression, "The transposition engines simply displace any matter that happens to be in the way in time for a short period. Once we're able to determine a safe place to Jump to, however, the matter is put back in its place."

Akito scratched his head curiously, tilting it to one side as he read the displayed information, but failed to completely comprehend it. "Yes, but... Where exactly does the displaced matter go? I mean, two objects can't coexist in the same place at the same time, right?"

"Precisely," agreed Ines with a quiet chuckle, "they can't be in the same place at the same 'time'."

Ruri raised an eyebrow, leaning back in her chair. "Do you send the matter ahead, or back in time?" she inquired.

Ines typed a bit more into the system, and more information began to scroll past. "Because the same matter has difficulty existing twice in the same time at once, I felt it would be best to send it ahead in time. Preferably to a point where the matter has been reduced to its base atoms, and no longer presents a problem."

"This, of course, presents another problem, correct?" inquired Ruri to which Ines nodded with a small amused smile.

"There is the problem of the matter appearing ahead in time where other matter currently exists. This makes it difficult to Jump into area in the future, because one could in theory make contact with matter one sent ahead in time previously."

"Enough! Enough!" pleaded Akito, holding his ears and bowing his head with a pained expression upon his face, "I'm a cook, not a Boson scientist!"

Ines chuckled softly, shaking her head in amused dismay. "The point is, Captain," she explained as simply as possible, "That yes, there are risks involved, but so long as we avoid that sector of space after this excursion, it shouldn't be a problem for us."

Ruri nodded slowly, glancing at Akito with some concern. "Just be sure that it's not. That's all that I can really ask," she agreed, standing up and straightening her uniform, "Until then, you have permission to make whatever adjustments to the transposition engines are required, Dr. Fresange. In the meantime, I have to brief my crew on the mission..."

Chapter 5

The door automatically slid closed behind Kenji as he finally entered the Captain's quarters after a non-stop twenty-hour shift of overseeing the salvage operations. Setting down the data-pad he'd been all but symbiotically linked with for most of the long day, the Captain rubbed his eyes wearily before suddenly feeling cold, sharp steel against his throat.

The young man smirked, giving a small amused snort as he stayed perfectly still, listening to the haggard breathing of his captor, feeling shaking nervousness through the blade, and sensing the presence of an other standing a little taller than himself just behind him.

"Congratulations, Ms. Reinaid," said Kenji quietly, not a hint of nervousness in his voice as he stood with perfect still calmness, not even bothering to raise his hands, "You've done quite well to elude my guards and to survive on my ship for so long."

"Firstly," Megumi hissed, her free hand relieving the pirate Captain of his sidearm before putting away the kitchen knife and taking a few slow steps back, "This isn't 'your' ship. Captain Hoshino is still in charge until the Nadesico's officially decommissioned. And secondly, how did you know it was me?"

Captain Nagisawa chuckled, turning slowly around to face the woman with a condescending grin that raised her hackles. "Simple, Ms. Reinaid," explained Kenji, folding his arms across his chest as Megumi's shaking hand kept the pistol levelled upon him, "You're the only one who would do this. All the others on my ship are completely loyal to me, and our noble cause. Even Guido and Nunzio, as much as they failed to kill you, are more than simply 'employees'. You see, Ms. Reinaid, they all share my vision, thus the only one capable of doing this, was you. Which, of course, meant that you were still alive. Well, in as much as you pass for such in your current condition, that is."

Megumi glowered at Kenji, her fingers gripping the energy pistol all the more tightly as she extended her arm further, aiming the weapon straight between the young man's eyes. "You try living like a rat for a week and see how you like it," the woman spat bitterly, self-consciously wiping some of the grime from her face, her eyes narrowing, at her prisoner.

Kenji shrugged nonchalantly. "I doubt very much that you'll like the brig very much either, then," he assured.

Megumi frowned. "I'm the one with the gun, remember?"

Kenji's smile widened. "It's not loaded."

Megumi's wrist moved ever so slightly to the right and down. An eye-blink later and she squeezed the trigger.

The hiss of the laser passing through Kenji's shoulder filled their ears a second after he was caught off guard by it boring a hole through flesh bone before cauterizing the wound behind it.

"Next you'll be telling me it only has one round left or something equally ridiculous," the woman commented with a smirk as Kenji clutched his wounded shoulder, panting as he stared at Megumi with a shocked expression.

"Now then," Megumi said with no small sense of satisfaction, "back to the little matter of what it is you're doing way out here?"

Kenji glanced up as he fell slowly to his knees. "Cutting straight to the heart of the matter, I see, Ms. Reinaid," he chuckled, wincing against the pain in his shoulder, "You don't waste much time, do you?"

Megumi shook her head slowly, refusing to allow herself to be distracted. "I've learned not to waste time," the woman replied quietly, keeping her voice level despite her agitation.

"Those who hesitate are lost," agreed Kenji.

"You're stalling, Nagisawa. Spill it."

Kenji sighed heavily, giving a slow nod. "Very well," he replied, wincing as he struggled to sit down upon the floor, "As you probably noticed, everyone save for dear Miss Hoshino in the Nergal Eugenics Program has met with unfortunate accidents, or occasionally has simply vanished without explanation. I'm also certain that you've recognized at least of few of them from my crew."

Megumi nodded slowly, listening both to the sound of her prisoner's voice, but also for the sound of approaching guards outside. "Go on," she ordered, motioning with her pistol.

"Tell me, Ms. Reinaid. What traits does everyone in the Program have in common?"

Megumi frowned thoughtfully for a moment. "A high IQ for one thing," she replied with a shrug, a small grin growing upon her face, "But also a certain moral bankruptcy to make up for it. At least in your case."

Kenji sighed heavily, rolling his eyes and shaking his head. "Normally I'd insist that insults don't suit a lady," he replied almost sadly, a condescending smile crossing the boy's face, "But you don't look much like one after crawling around in air ducts for a week."

Megumi's eyes narrowed for a moment, but she didn't give him the satisfaction of overreacting. "Touché, I suppose," the woman replied, slowly switching the pistol to her left hand, "But I can always take a bath. You'll always be morally challenged. Now look. I don't know how long I have before my arms'll be too weary to point this gun at you, so finish with your explanation or I'll just shoot you right here and now."

Kenji smirked again. "You won't kill me, Ms. Reinaid," he countered, "You're not the type. You see value in all life. Even in those that you despise."

Megumi gripped the weapon in both hands and bit back a comment, knowing the pirate's words to be true. "That doesn't mean I won't shoot you, though," she corrected, lowering the weapon and holding it steady, its muzzle pointed directly at Kenji's groin.

Nagisawa sighed heavily, bowing his head as he shook it in dismay. After a moment, however, Megumi could distinctly make out the sound of a quiet chuckling from the adolescent.

"Hey! What's so funny?" the woman demanded, her eyes narrowing suspiciously, her inquiry causing Kenji to look up at last.

"Oh, just the irony," he assured her, "It's more or less what I'm planning on doing to the rest of the human race upon our return to the Sol System."

"You plan on making the entire population infertile?" Megumi inquired, raising a curious eyebrow, "What good will that do? The human race will just die off eventually, and you don't strike me as the type who wants that."

"Very astute," the young pirate Captain agreed with a small nod, "But you're still not putting it all together, Ms. Reinaid, as I'm sure you can."

Megumi nodded slowly, mulling it over for a moment. "The Nergal Eugenics Program," she replied carefully, nibbling her bottom lip as she paused, "you're only going to allow those who came out of the program to breed once you take over, is that it?"

Kenji nodded, giving her an amused, and very expectant look.

"There's just a few things I don't understand, though," Megumi concluded, relaxing a little as she lowered herself carefully to the floor, "How're you going to do it? And what makes you think that scientists won't be able to put an end to the problem before it becomes too widely spread?"

"Where are we?" Kenji inquired simply, seemingly barely able to keep from chuckling despite the numbness in his arm.

Megumi's brow furrowed for a moment. "In the middle of a debris field from what I can tell," she replied with a shrug, "Probably has something to do with the aliens that left all that technology behind that the Jovians later used in their war against Earth."

"You're very close," assured Kenji, his grin widening, "This is what little remains of the homeworld of their enemy. Their sun, unfortunately, has long since enveloped their planet, but much of their technology still remains. Since I lack the resources to build myself an army, I thought I'd just stop by here and salvage myself one. After all, no one's really using these old batta drones anymore, and they were built to last."

Megumi nodded thoughtfully. "A two prong attack then?" she inquired, "keep the military busy while your, I'm guessing a virus, does its work? Is that it?"

Kenji shrugged. "More or less, but it's not a virus, Ms. Reinaid."

"Oh? Then what is it?"

"Remember Mars?"

"Mars?" Megumi inquired, becoming annoyed with Kenji's tone, "What does it have to do with this?"

The boy sighed heavily, shaking his head in dismay. "How's it being terraformed?" he inquired, his smug grin returning as Megumi's eyes widened.

"N-Nanites!" Megumi exclaimed, "You're going to use nanites to alter the DNA of humanity to ensure that only your people can continue the development of the species!"

"No, no," corrected Kenji, "Not 'going to', try 'have already started'."

"Say what?"

Kenji grinned broadly. "I hope you weren't planning on having children, Ms. Reinaid. Because even if something were to happen to me, and my crew, you've still been 'infected' as it were. The nanites are in you right now, finishing their work as we speak, no doubt."

"B-But how!" Megumi demanded, her body shaking with anger as she stood upon her knees, the pistol shaking in her hand as Megumi pointed it directly between Kenji's eyes once more.

"You've been stealing food from the galley," the pirate Captain replied simply, "I'm afraid you're causing our poor Chef no end of annoyance."

"You put them in the food!" Megumi choked, her ability to think clearly slipping, "But- But what about your crew! And- And yourself!"

Kenji chuckled lightly. "I've had them programmed to simply pass harmlessly through the systems of those with perfect genes," he assured his captor casually, "Which, by the way, includes Captain Hoshino should she ever change her mind about seeking revenge upon me for stealing her ship. As she no doubt is as we speak."

"R-Ruri?" Megumi stammered, her stomach tightening as she recalled all the food she'd managed to procure, hating Kenji all the more for doing such a thing to her despite the fact that Megumi had long since given up any hope of having children.

"Oh yes," the boy assured, "That was also part of my plan. By stealing the Nadesico, it would surely get her attention, and bring her out here looking for me. Of course, by the time Captain Hoshino finds her way here, we'll all be long gone, and the attack on Earth will have commenced before she can Boson Jump back to attempt to stop me. I'm sure, though, that when she sees the main fleet in ruins she'll be more willing to see things my way."

Megumi simply shook her head. "Ruri would never agree to help you destroy humanity," she replied quietly, the pistol she held dropping slightly.

"I'm not destroying humanity, Ms. Reinaid," corrected Kenji, "I'm remaking it! Just as was intended with the Eugenics Program... And as for Ruri, she will join us or die. It is really that simple. I've already proven that the enhancements to the Nadesico are sufficient to thwart even the Nadesico 2, so I'm certain that she won't need a second demonstration."

Megumi glowered darkly back at him, her weapon lifting higher once again as a new flood of anger sharpened her senses. "You already tried to kill her once! Was that part of your plan!"

Kenji shrugged dismissively. "It was an unfortunate necessity," he replied, a hint of aggravation entering into his tone, "But she survived, as did most of her ship. Curious that. I very much look forward to finding out how she did it-"

A curious light filled the room then, interrupting Kenji and causing Megumi to jump, swinging her weapon towards the source of the light. "I- Ines!" the woman stammered, staring startled at the hologram of Dr. Ines Fresange that floated beside and between her and Kenji.

The hologram smiled in amusement as Megumi's foot shot out, catching Kenji in the jaw and sending him sprawling backwards as he made a grab for Megumi's gun. "You have accessed the 'How & Why Of The Nadesico Protocol', better known as the 'Ask Ines Protocol'," explained the hologram as Megumi scrambled backwards and Kenji held his jaw with both hands, giving the woman a shocked look, "You're inquiry regarding the previous battle is a good one. Move to the front of the class."

Megumi glanced over as a holo-screen appeared before the representation of Ines, keeping half an eye on Kenji as he regained some semblance of dignity and turned to watch the presentation.

Upon the screen the images of both the Nadesico and the Nadesico 2 appeared. As the second ship powered up its transposition gun, the image halted and Ines continued. "As you may know," said Ines slyly, only the slightest bit of condescension in her computer-generated voice, "Captain Ruri Hoshino has an eidetic memory. Thus, as the Nadesico was powering up her main gun, it was a simple matter for the Captain to reprogram the Nadesico 2's transposition gun to fire at the exact same frequency of the Nadesico's."

The small flat screen with the ships on it showed both of them firing at one another as Ines spoke. Both energy blasts quickly shot forth, overlapping one another before impacting with either ship.

"Were both blasts of equal strength, they would simply have cancelled one another out," the hologram continued, the image of the Nadesico 2 suddenly flashing red, "However, as the Nadesico's cannon had been augmented far beyond current human technological standards. The Nadesico 2's beam was only sufficient to cancel out half of the incoming blast, resulting in a crippled ship, but a living crew."

Kenji scowled at the holographic Ines for a moment as she completed her explanation. "Just one thing," he inquired, giving his jaw a bit of push to set it right once more, "You're obviously not part of the new AI I had installed on this ship. How is it that this program is able to activate?"

Ines chuckled quietly, giving the pirate Captain a knowing smile. "The 'Ask Ines Protocol' is a separate program, stored in a completely separate databank from the Omoikane. When you removed the program, I still remained."

The pirate Captain nodded, seemingly satisfied with the explanation as the holographic Ines gave a short wave and vanished from sight, leaving the room darker than it had been.

"Looks like you're not as good as you thought you were," said Megumi with a smirk, blinking quickly to force her eyes to adjust to the sudden gloom, tensing as she heard Kenji move suddenly.

"Neither are you!" the boy shouted angrily, leaping towards her as Megumi fired the energy pistol.

To her satisfaction she heard the pirate Captain curse, the air filling with the scent of broiling flesh a split second before Kenji ploughed into her. Megumi cursed as she felt his cold hands grab at her fingers, his knee suddenly hitting her in the stomach and causing the woman's grip to loosen.

"Get off you brat!" Megumi all but snarled, bending her leg at the knee and forcing it forward, the awkwardness of their positions causing her to miss hitting Kenji's groin as the room suddenly flooded with red light and filled with a distant seeming wail of a klaxon.

Kenji complied, rolling off of Megumi and using his weight to force the pistol from her hands. For a split second a sense of relief flooded him as the gun came free, but his victory was accompanied by the sound of a gentle click. Megumi had some how ejected the clip and was even then rolling away in the opposite direction with it in her hands.

For a moment the two stared at one another from opposite sides of the room, panting from the exertion as the wail of the klaxon out in the hallway echoed in their ears before Kenji sighed heavily, tossing the useless weapon and letting it roll under his bed. "You know, if I don't show up on the bridge soon, they'll know something's wrong," he stated simply.

Megumi nodded. "And when you leave, it'll give you ample opportunity to summon your guards," she replied.

"Which will also give you amply opportunity to flee back into hiding," finished Kenji, getting to his feet and brushing himself off before walking casually towards the door.

Megumi's eyes narrowed as she watched him pass by, squinting as the door slid open automatically and the blinding light of the hallway flooded the compartment. Without a word she watched Nagisawa leave, immediately scrambling to flip the bed over as the door slid closed.

"Freakin' brat," the woman muttered, reloading the pistol before pulling the ventilation grating off of the wall and crawling back inside, "He makes Yurika look like a good Captain..."

"Status report!" ordered Kenji as he stepped onto the bridge, his eyes narrowing at the sight of the large dark shape, silhouetted by the huge red star that floated several hundred meters of their port bow.

"The Nadesico 2 Boson jumped in just a few minutes ago, Captain," the helmswoman replied calmly, looking up from her console to the image of the other ship sitting just above the floating debris, the red light of the ancient star shimmering off its Distortion Field.

"Sooner than I had expected as well," the pirate Captain commented, ignoring the alarmed look he received from the other crewmen regarding the wound in his right shoulder, left flank and the bruise upon his jaw, "I would do well not to underestimate Captain Hoshino's resourcefulness in the future."

"Sir, incoming message from the Nadesico 2," reported the Com Officer.

Kenji sighed heavily, a weary smile crossing his lips. "Patch it through Lieutenant," he ordered, brushing back his bangs as the flat holo-screen materialized before him.

"Captain Nagisawa," ordered Ruri sternly as her image filled the screen, "Stand down and prepare to be boarded by order of the UEAF."

Kenji chuckled quietly, looking with as much amusement as he could into Ruri's amber eyes. "Ah, Captain Hoshino, at last, we meet again. How have you been since our time at the Institute? I trust your aptitude with computers has come in handy now and then?"

"Platitudes duly noted," Ruri replied coldly, "But I must also inform you that you are guilty of several counts of murder, kidnapping and grand larceny in addition to treason against the UEAF. Now stand down or I will be forced to destroy the Nadesico and all aboard."

Kenji raised an eyebrow before laughing in her face. "Surely you can't be serious, Captain," he managed after a moment, "firstly, you've seen how efficient our upgrades the Nadesico were. You know you couldn't win in a one on one confrontation. And secondly, you wouldn't destroy this ship. Not with Ms. Reinaid aboard, anyway."

"I see," said Ruri simply, the transmission cutting off immediately afterwards.

"They're powering up their Transposition Cannon, sir," reported the helmswoman.

"Active our distortion field," Kenji said smugly, "But let Ruri get off the first shot. Let her see just how futile her efforts are."

"Incoming gravity blast," the girl reported a moment later, a puzzled expression crossing her face, her voice becoming suddenly panicked, "Captain, they're not firing at us... Sir! It's the tulip! They're firing on the tulip!"

"On screen," ordered Kenji, his eyes narrowing as another screen popped up just in time to show the bridge crew an image of the Nadesico 2's gravity blast impacting with, and destroying the ancient tulip, taking a fair portion of the debris field with it.

"Captain, that will make it more difficult for us to transport the batta drones in sufficient numbers to-!"

"I'm aware of the situation, Lieutenant," interrupted Kenji, glowering coldly at the holo-screen, "But we must live in the here and now. Quickly, have the drones surround their ship. Disable their distortion field and then their engines and weapons systems. I wish to speak with Captain Hoshino face to face..."

"Captain, we're being surrounded!" exclaimed Lieutenant-Commander Wallis, panicking as his radar display filled with tiny glowing dots.

"I'm well aware of the situation, Geoffrey," assured Ruri calmly as Ensign Kozlovski glanced over his shoulder at the Captain.

"Incoming message ma'am," he replied seriously, "It's audio only, and it's not coming from the bridge."

Ruri nodded slowly. "Patch it through," she said quietly, a small smile crossing the girl's face as she heard the static crackling of a jury-rigged com system.

"Repeat! This is Megumi Reinaid calling unidentified vessel, please come in!"

"This is the UEAF battle cruiser Nadesico 2," said Ruri with a hint of amusement, "It's good to hear your voice, Megumi."

"Ruri!" yelped Megumi over the speakers, "I take it you got my message then?"

The girl suppressed the urge to nod. "Loud and clear. But listen, I require a small favour of you."

"Anything. If I could get to bridge without being spotted I'd power down the ship completely!"

"That won't be necessary," assured Ruri, "All that I need you to do is to active a program I left behind. Simply ask a technical question in a redundant manner. That should active-"

"Way ahead of you!" Megumi laughed, her voice fading in and out as the frequency continued to alternate, "'Captain' Nagisawa already 'asked Ines'. But why-?"

"Don't worry. Just stay hidden, and don't panic no matter what happens," replied Ruri.

"You have a plan then?"

"Was there ever any doubt?"

Megumi laughed. "I guess not! Well, I'll see you soon. I'm looking forward to a hot bath and a decent meal."

"I'll have Akito prepare you something special, then."

There was silence on the other end for a long moment. "I see," said Megumi simply, "Look, I don't know how much longer I can keep them from noticing my signal, I'd better go. And, well... Good luck Captain Hoshino! We're all counting on you!"

"Captain, it's the batta drones," said Lieutenant Wali suddenly as communication cut off and the entire ship shook.

"It's worse than that!" added Wallis, "Their transposition cannon is charging! I think they're serious this time! I'll deploy the aestivalis!"

"Delay that order, Geoffrey," said Ruri simply, standing up and smoothing out her skirt before walking up to the main viewer, "Alec, give me Engineering."

Ensign Kozlovski gave short nod, his shaking fingers punching the buttons on his console a little harder than he intended, the ship shaking again as Lieutenant-Commander Wallis shook his head in dismay.

"Shields down to thirty-five percent, Captain," he said suddenly in an insistent tone as a holo-viewer popped up before Ruri who simply nodded.

"Lieutenant Lilcamp, I need you to stage a small explosion. Make it seem as though they've taken out our engines," she ordered, receiving a curious look from the bespectacled chief engineer, "We're also going to need an energy surge through the transposition cannon. Be sure to power them both down immediately afterwards, we need this to be convincing."

The engineer cringed as the ship shook again. "Shields down to ten percent, Captain," reminded Wallis as the bespectacled man on the holo-screen gave a slow nod. "I can do that. I think," he assured, pushing his glasses further up his nose, "I'll need a few minutes, though."

"You have a few seconds," Ruri replied, cutting off the communications as an alarm went off.

"Shields down!" insisted Lieutenant-Commander Wallis, his dark eyes wide was Ruri turned to face him.

"Kozlovski, prepare to open a channel," she said calmly, hearing a series of small explosions going off near the stern of the ship, "Wallis, I'll need that energy surge."

"Charging weapons," the security chief hesitantly, quickly making the adjustments necessary to reroute the relays, "I'll need just a few seconds."

"In a few seconds we won't need to fake this, Geoffrey," Ruri replied, turning back to towards the main viewer, upon it, a swarm of small, insect-like automated robots had surrounded the ship. As she watched, flashes of white light blinked off and on at the front ends of each of the drones, followed up by dark scorch marks across the bow of the ship, accompanied by a long series of impact shakes that the inertial dampers couldn't compensate for.

"On your command, Captain!" Wallis replied quickly as chunks of the Nadesico 2's ablative armour flew off to add to the debris field, the man not waiting for Ruri's command to trigger the surge and series of explosions that would simulate the drone's success.

Ruri glanced at the holo-display that floated before the Captain's chair, noting that both the transposition cannon and the engines were down. "Open a channel, Ensign," she said quietly as the batta drones stopped firing, but loomed ever closer, the Captain glancing up as an image of Kenji Nagisawa appeared on a fresh holo-screen.

"Ah, Captain Hoshino," the pirate Captain said confidently, his smile wide as one of his crew bandaged his shoulder, "Willing to listen to reason now, are we?"

Ruri took a moment to take a seat once again before casually glancing up at the pirate Captain. "Actually, I was going to ask you to surrender," she said simply, her tone calm and level despite the double takes her bridge crew did and the look of barely contained amusement that crossed Nagisawa's face.

"You- You can't be serious!" he exclaimed, jumping to his feet, "We have you completely surrounded, your transposition cannon is inoperable, your distortion field is down and your engines are dead! Yet you expect ME to surrender MY ship? Has something gone terribly wrong with that all too logical brain of yours, Captain Hoshino?"

"Not at all," said Ruri simply with a bored expression, her eyes glancing over Kenji's shoulder as her hand touched the control panel before her. Then, as Ruri's IFS made contact with the new copy of the Omoikane, using the open channel to make contact with the other ship's central computer the young Captain uttered a few simple words, "ND-001, initiate self destruct sequence. Authorization Hoshino omega zero."

Kenji's bemused grin slipped as the lights on the bridge of the Nadesico changed to flashing red and an alarm klaxon sounded. "Self-Destruct Sequence initiated," intoned a serious male voice, "T-Minus fifty-nine minutes until critical mass."

Kenji glanced about frantically at his crew who could only shake their heads as they tried to bypass the problem. After a full minute, however, the self-destruct warnings continued.

"You have another option," reminded Ruri, catching Kenji's panicked expression as he turned to face the monitor once more.

The young man's eyes narrowed for a moment before a small smile crossed his face. "Yes, yes I do indeed," he replied, walking around to the back of the bridge before motioning his security chief to stand aside, "I can power down all of the Nadesico's non-essential systems by simply removing the Master Key. That would, however, leave us at something of a stalemate as I wouldn't be able to fire weapons or move the Nadesico."

"You still have your batta drones," reminded Ruri simply.

Kenji smiled back at her, his hand upon the large key. "As well as Ms. Reinaid," he added, "But tell me, Captain, "How ever did you manage to order my ship's computer to initiate the self-destruct?"

Ruri waited for the computer to announce that another minute had passed before responding. "Why not inquire with Ines?" she replied, causing Nagisawa's eyes to narrow as he turned the key with one rough motion, the loud -click!- to echoing throughout the suddenly deafly quiet bridge.

"So, just how do you expect to resolve this little conundrum, Captain Hoshino?" inquired Kenji, folding his arms across his chest, "With my computer down, I have only my aestivals to use against you should you launch your own. I would remind you, however, that the upgrades to the Nadesico are trivial in comparison to what I had done to her mecha. Perhaps you would permit me to invite you aboard -my- ship so we might discuss this problem and come to a mutually agreeable solution to our impasse?"

Kenji's chuckling smile broke for a quick second into a look of astonishment as Ruri suddenly replied, "That was my plan, exactly. I will, however, be bringing two of my crew with me."

"Unarmed, of course."

Ruri paused for a moment to consider. "That would depend on your Chef's generosity," she replied.

"Oh?" inquired Kenji, his interest piqued.

Ruri nodded in reply. "I did some research before coming here," she explained, "I was able to determine that you were co-owner of 'Sorera No Koitsu Harubaru No Akuro'. You apparently have a taste for fine cuisine, and it seems logical that the Chef you chose to bring along was non-other than the world famous Chef Troy."

Kenji's grin widened as he nodded appreciatively throughout Ruri's explanation, but didn't interrupt her.

"Thus," the UEAF Captain continued, "I should like to resolve this not with a battle where both sides would surely loose many good people, but with something of a duel. The winner will take command of both ships. Agreed?"

"What kind of duel, exactly?" inquired Kenji suspiciously; his mouth watering as he made the short leap of logic yet still felt the urge to hear it spoken.

"I propose a cooking contest," Ruri replied, "Your choice of dishes. Between our Chefs. Mine, of course would require permission to bring his knives, however."

"Granted!" assured Kenji enthusiastically, "I'll expect you in twenty minutes. Nagisawa out!"

Ruri breathed a heavy sigh as the holo-screen vanished, closing her eyes as she heard Lieutenant-Commander Wallis' heavy footsteps come up beside her. "Permission to speak candidly, ma'am," he said formally and in a surprisingly level tone.

"Always, Geoffrey," she assured.

"Are you stark, raving mad!" Wallis suddenly exclaimed, his arms flailing madly at his sides, his dark eyes wide behind his glasses as the security chief jumped up and down in a most undignified manner, "You- You can't risk giving over the ship to that- that pirate!"

Ruri waited patiently for a few moments for her security chief to exhaust his supply of tension and to cease his ranting before slowly opening her eyes and glancing calmly up at him. "Duly noted," she said quietly as the now panting man's eyes went wide again, "Now then, prep a shuttle, Geoffrey, I'll fetch Akito."

Wallis merely shook his head as Ruri turned to her comm. Officer. "Open a secure channel to Megumi, Ensign," she ordered simply, receiving a rather quick nod from the amazed looking man.

"Channel open," he replied a few precious seconds later.

"Megumi, this is Ruri, do you read?"

The crackling over the comm. system was suddenly interrupted by the hushed, but agitated voice of Megumi. "Ruri! What they heck is going on! The Nadesico, it- it just started up its self-destruct sequence and now it's powered down, what's-"

"It's part of the plan," interrupted Ruri, "But right now, I need you to head to the airlock. We'll be arriving soon, and it'd be best if you were to sneak aboard the shuttle. I have a feeling that this is going to go bad, and I want you to get to safety as quickly as possible."

"Okay..." replied Megumi hesitantly, "Just, just promise me one thing, okay?"

"Absolutely."

"Don't let him get away with this. I don't appreciate people trying to space me, or having to spend this long crawling around in the air ducts with only one shoe!"

Ruri gave a small smile at the last. "Have no fear," she assured before ordering the channel closed, "Everything's going according to plan. Nadesico 2 out."

Captain Hoshino took a moment to take a last minute look at the plan she had formulated as her crew watched her apprehensively, awaiting further orders. "Wallis," she said at last, "I'll need you on the shuttle as well. Wali, you have the bridge."

The Lieutenant and Ensign watched Ruri and Geoffrey left the bridge with a tinge of anxiety before glancing at one another. "Well, this does prove one thing," Lieutenant Wali commented to ease the tension, a small smile crossing her lips at the thought, "the best way to a man's heart is through stomach!"

"Is that an offer, 'Captain'?" inquired Ensign Kozlovski teasingly.

"W-What are you implying, Alec?" the dusky skinned woman inquired almost shyly, fiddling absently with a lock of her long, ebony hair.

"Well," he replied with a mischievous grin, looking directly into the Lieutenant's compelling, almond brown eyes, "I did hear a rumour that you can whip up a mean lamb curry..."

Chapter 6

As the shuttle Mariposa established a link between itself and the Nadesico's portside airlock, several armed guards accompanied Kenji Nagisawa down hallway that lead to the sealed door. As it slid open, the four men aimed their rifles into the airlock despite the calm, confident smile upon their Captain's face as he caught the impassive gaze of Ruri Hoshino looking back up at him.

Kenji's smile faded, however as he caught sight of the number of people in the compartment. "I thought we had agreed that you would bring only -two- crewmen," the pirate Captain said quietly, his eyes narrowing at the wide-eyed woman with long dark blue hair that clung tenaciously to Akito's arm like some kind of parasite.

"She is Akito's wife Yurika. She... 'Insisted' on coming along," explained Ruri hesitantly calmly extracting some small portion of satisfaction as Yurika met Kenji's gaze with a wide grin, the woman immediately defending her place in the party by stating loudly, and in a rather annoyingly high-pitched pitched tone that was full of pride, "I'm a commise!"

"Err, I see," stammered Nagisawa as behind Ruri, Geoffrey gave an annoyed expression as he tried to pop his ears to restore his hearing, "Well, I suppose it's alright then. However, we mustn't keep Chef Troy waiting. I trust you remember the way?"

Akito tensed as Kenji directed the question toward him, a bead of sweat rolling down from his hairline. "Of- Of course," he assured with a quick nod, his hand squeezing the handle of his carry-case a little harder, "I spent a lot of time in the galley when I was here."

Kenji gave a short nod, ignoring the Chef's reply for the most part, instead turning around and waving for the group to follow after leaning over to one of the two large, dark suiting men who had accompanied the two uniformed security guards. "Guard their shuttle," he said quietly, "I don't want our 'prisoner' escaping just yet..."

Megumi slowed her pace as she neared the bright glow from the steel grating just ahead. From the other side of it, she could hear the sound of distant voices, and listening carefully, Megumi just could make out Ruri's voice. The woman's heart nearly stopping as she then suddenly caught Akito's. But at the sound of Yurika's, Megumi could only cringe.

"She's probably Ruri's secret weapon," the woman reassured herself, smirking at the thought and waiting for the sound of footsteps to fade before crawling cautiously forward.

When at least Megumi reached the grating, she cursed silently under her breath. Just beneath her were the two black suited men who had tried to kill her, and were all too obviously waiting for her to try and escape. For a moment Megumi considered the pistol she had commandeered from Kenji. If she was fast enough, she could shoot them both. Dragging their bodies into an empty room to hide them would be sweaty work, but Megumi needed a shower anyway...

"No," she told herself, shaking her head in dismay before pushing herself back from the grating, "there has to be a better way."

Finally moving back to a four-way junction, Megumi managed to find the room to sit up against a wall and think for a moment. Catching her breath at last, the woman pulled the pistol out and examined it curiously. The small LED on its side told her that the weapon could be fired only nine more times before its charge was expended, but it was the small green numbers that brought a sudden thought to Megumi, and a smile to cross her face.

"There should just be more than enough power left in its clip," she mused, popping out the e-clip and abandoning the pistol before scrambling as quickly as she could towards the small, dark service room she'd lived in for what felt like an eternity...

Most of the Nadesico's pirate crew, consisting mainly of Ruri and Kenji's surviving classmates and a handful of others who acted as support staff, had filled the cafeteria in anticipation for the event. As Kenji lead Ruri and her entourage to the table set aside for them, Captain Hoshino felt a small nudge upon her shoulder.

"Ruri, isn't that...?" whispered Akito, his dark eyes going wide as Ruri glanced over across the room to where several techies were sitting at a table drinking and laughing.

Ruri nodded. "Yes, it's Mr. Seiya," she replied quietly, glancing back at Kenji as the pirate Captain motioned for them to sit.

"Please, relax for a moment while I go and inform my Chef that you've arrived," he said, Kenji's tone taking on an annoying smarmy quality before leaving the small group mostly to themselves.

"Hey! Isn't that Uribatake!" blurted Yurika suddenly the moment they had seated themselves, causing Geoff to cringe again.

"So much for keeping a low profile," he muttered.

"Yes it is," replied Ruri with a small nod, exchanging glances with Akito who set his carry-case down on the floor and slid it slowly under the table towards her.

"Well then what is he doing here!" Yurika demanded to know, her all too loud voice getting several annoyed looks from Kenji's crew, but providing a sufficient distraction as Ruri surreptitiously reached under the table to lightly tap the side of the case, causing a small compartment to open.

"Um, I guess that Nagisawa needed a chief engineer," offered Akito distractedly, breathing a soft sigh of relief as Ruri slid the case back in his direction.

Yurika got to her feet just as Kenji came out of the kitchen accompanied a tall man in dressed entirely in white, his hair concealed beneath his tall Chef's hat. "Oh, there's no need to stand, miss," chuckled Nagisawa, quickly turning his attention to Akito to perform a simple introduction, "Chef Akito, meet Chef Troy."

"The owner of 'Sorera No Koitsu Harubaru No Akuro', yes, I- I know," stammered Akito getting quickly to his feet, his eyes wide with reverence, "It's good to meet you sir! I've read all your books!"

"Co-owner, actually," corrected Kenji with a smirk as Chef Troy rolled his eyes.

"If you were truly worthy of the title 'Chef' you would capable of composing yourself with a touch more decorum," the man in white replied, not bothering to so much as glance in Akito's direction, "This shall hardly be a competition so much as a practice exercise."

"That reminds me," said Ruri, quickly changing the subject as Akito grabbed Yurika and held a hand over her mouth to keep her from screaming at the Chef, "What is the dish you both will be preparing?"

Chef Troy glanced at Kenji who took a moment to take a deep breath, his self-satisfied smile full of delighted anticipation. "Veal," he replied half-blissfully, "But I leave the actual recipe choice to the discretion of the competitors, however."

"Three month old, milk-fed veal, to be precise," Chef Troy corrected.

"Anyway, you may begin as soon as you're ready," added Kenji, taking a seat across from Ruri and ignoring the others as Akito released Yurika and gave a small nod to Troy.

"I'm ready when you are," Akito said as confidently as he could, picking up his suspiciously lighter carry-case, "Oh, and this is Yurika. She'll be my commise."

"Whatever," muttered Chef Troy, rolling his eyes again, shaking his head before leading the way back to the kitchen, "It's just a shame that such fine cuts of meat have to be wasted on such an amateur."

Once more Akito had to grab Yurika about the waist with one hand covering the woman's mouth as she kicked and flailed, her barrage of insults only partially muffled and causing the majority of those present to stop and stare at her for a moment.

"Don't you see?" mused Kenji, smiling with bemusement at Ruri as Akito finally dragged his wife into the galley, "This is what I'm trying to put an end to. The imperfection of the human species, their inability to foresee the consequences of their actions, their lack intelligence, their lack of self-control!"

Ruri spared Kenji's wounded shoulder half a glance. "Is that another example of human impulsiveness?" she inquired dryly, folding her arms across her chest and looking back at him boredly.

The young pirate Captain nodded slowly, his patented smirk never leaving his lips. "Yes," he said with some self-satisfaction, "I believe you know Ms. Reinaid. She caused a bit of problem just before we left the Sol System, but it's all be taken care of, I assure you."

Geoffrey tensed, sitting a little taller in his seat, wincing slightly as he felt the heel his Captain's boot press hard down on his foot. "I'll be sure to add another murder to your long list of charges, then," Ruri said quietly, surreptitiously as possible steering the subject away from Megumi, making a mental note that Nagisawa hadn't noticed the woman's shoe being jettisoned, or the communications that had passed between them, "But in the meantime, tell me. How is it that you came to have Uribatake Seiya on staff?"

Kenji frowned thoughtfully for a moment, tapping his chin as he tried to recall the name. "Ah! Yes, my Chief Engineer!" he said with a laugh, getting to his feet and waving to the man from across the room, "He was the perfect choice, you know. He had an expert working knowledge of the Nadesico's systems, a great love for his chosen career, and just the right level of moral leniency to be of use to me. Ah yes, Mr. Seiya, please, have a seat. I'm sure you remember Captain Hoshino?"

Uribatake's eyes widened as he glanced down at Ruri, giving her a bit of a nervous smile before pushing his glasses back up his nose and taking a seat next to Kenji. "Long time, no see, Captain," he said as conversationally as he could, doing his best to avoid Geoffrey's venomous gaze, "All's well with the new ship, I trust?"

"As well as can be expected," the girl replied, sighing heavily and leaning back in her seat as Lieutenant-Commander Wallis suddenly slammed his fists down on the table.

"You-! You traitor!" exclaimed Geoffrey, jumping to his feet and shaking with barely contained emotion as he all but snarled at the engineer, "How-! How can you work for this psychopath! Do you have any idea what you've done!"

"Have you met my wife!" Uribatake shot back, raising his hands defensively, "You'd leave Earth on the first ship too if you had to put up with that!"

"If getting off world meant so much to you, I'm sure that Captain Hoshino would have gladly done something about those charges stopping you from renewing your mechanic's license," the Security Chief countered, lowering his tone as his eyes narrowed dangerously, the rest of Kenji's crew snickering at the exchange, "But I see that 'Captain' Nagisawa's offer was much more tempting."

Uribatake gave a heavy sigh, falling back in his chair and gazing up wistfully at the ceiling. "You haven't seen the modifications transposition engines, have you?" the engineer replied wistfully after a moment, "Or the enhancements to the distortion field generators. Or the upgrades to the transposition cannon! My goodness! It has almost enough power now to cut through a planet! Heck, if I were to divert power from the transposition engines I'm almost positive we could set of an irreparable chain reaction in a star that could-!"

"That will be quite enough, Mr. Seiya," said Kenji quietly, silencing the Chief Engineer, "Now then, Captain Hoshino. While we're waiting for the competition to come to an end, perhaps we should discuss its final outcome in detail...?"

Chapter 7

Megumi leaned back against the cold steel wall, panting for breath as she set down the jury-rigged microphone, its plethora of multi-coloured wires stretching out back down the hall of the ventilation shaft. "I just hope this little trick doesn't take any more time than I have," Megumi muttered to herself, wiping the sweat from her brow and leaving a gritty smudge across her forehead, "I'm rather looking forward to hot meal and a warm bed..."

Just then, Megumi jumped at the sound of a peculiar scurrying noise. Narrowing her eyes against the gloom, the woman could hear the sound of half a dozen metal feet hurriedly making their way along the corridor. After holding her breath for several long moments, Megumi finally spotted the source of the noise as it rounded the corner.

The woman let out a muffled curse as she spotted the small, six legged drone come into view, the front end of its rectangular body covered in a variety of small flailing sensors and tiny mechanical arms. "And I just had to use the e-clip as a power source," Megumi muttered, glowering darkly down at the little drone, "Okay, Kenji. So you found me. What'd you gonna do now? Send in your goons?"

The drone stopped at Megumi's words, its sensor probes spinning and clicking for a moment in her direction. As its primitive mind processed the information, the drone made a peculiar, almost happy sound before projecting a small holo-image of Ruri before it.

Megumi blinked as she stared down at the miniature Ruri, the hologram's eyes staring straight forward, not really seeing her. "Megumi, please do not panic, or destroy this drone," the tiny Ruri said quickly, something in her tone telling Megumi that the program wasn't interactive, so asking questions of it would be futile, "It is part of my plan to save both you, and the Nadesico. Please continue to do your best leaving the ship. I'm certain that Captain Nagisawa is doing his best to make this difficult for you, but Akito and myself are doing all we can to buy you the time you need. Good luck, Megumi. See you soon."

Megumi sighed heavily as the image faded and the drone continued along its path, heading towards what she knew to be the bridge of the Nadesico. "Good luck to you too, Ruri," the woman said quietly, watching the drone disappear around the first corner it came to, "Good luck to all of us..."

Guido yawned broadly, folding his arms across his wide chest and leaned heavily against the wall. "This is stupid!" he complained to his mostly silent partner, "The boss is off enjoying an amazing meal made by one of Earth's greatest Chefs, and we're stuck here waiting for some stupid stowaway to make a move to escape!"

"Two Chefs, two meals," corrected Nunzio absently, squinting as he strained to hear a distant sound from down the hall.

"Yeah!" Guido laughed, shaking his head in disbelief, "We'll probably only get C-rations for supper tonight, although with our luck they'll more than likely get switched with claymore mines... Bloody things look the same!"

"Would you shut up!" his partner hissed, reaching inside his jacket and retrieving his pistol, "Listen. I think that's her."

Both men were silent for a moment, listening intently to the quiet sounds issuing from inside the ceiling. What they heard made them smile, a sound like something metal dropping to the floor and rolling some distance away, followed by a quietly muffled curse. A few seconds later, and they heard a quiet scrape of metal on metal.

Motioning for his partner to follow, Nunzio crept quietly along the corridor, listening intently for other sounds. He was reward a few steps later by the sound of a dull thud and another muffled curse. Tracking the sound, the two reached the center of the four-way intersection, before walking cautiously towards the other airlock.

"What's she doing?" whispered Guido, frowning thoughtfully at what sounded like someone dragging something heavy.

"I'm not entirely sure," Nunzio responded suspiciously, both dark suited men stopping before the entrance to the second airlock, his dark eyes watching the ceiling as his thick fingers punched in the access code, "But we'd best find out."

The two listened for a long moment as the door slid open, the silence broken only by a peculiar hissing sound somewhere above the ceiling. "She's cutting into the air-transfer system," whispered Nunzio, himself and Guido checking their pistols one last time, "They must be sending a second shuttle to pick her up."

"Then they'll be picking her up in pieces!" chuckled Guido quietly, his meaty hands gripping his pistol making the weapon look like a toy as the large man fidgeted eagerly, "And this time, we'll make sure she's a goner!"

Nunzio grinned broadly, waiting for the hissing sound of the cutting torch to subside, followed by what sounded like someone bending down a sheet of metal. They then waited a moment as they heard the sounds of a vague struggle, presumably to squeeze a body through a narrow opening before stepping into the airlock.

Then, as the two men raised their pistols to the ceiling, wide grins spreading across their faces, Guido gave a happy sigh. "Finally," he said quietly, barely containing his excitement, "we actually get to kill something!"

As one, the two men began firing at the ceiling, blasting numerous holes in it and filling the room with white smoke as the metal melted and occasionally sublimated. Through the smoke, and the sizzling of metal, though, the two goons didn't hear the quiet swish as the airlock door slid closed. Instead, they continued to fire repeatedly until they both had to reload.

It was only as they did so, that Nunzio happened to glance to the side and caught the grinning face of Megumi as she waves to them through the triple-thick glass window. The man's eyes went wide behind his dark sunglasses as the woman hit a single button on the control panel and the warning lights began to flash.

"Don't worry!" she laughed over the intercom as a loud hissing sound signaled the fact that the air was being slowly leeched out, "I'm leaving you just enough air to survive for about three hours, but the carbon monoxide in their should have you both sleeping like babies in a few minutes!"

Nunzio glowered darkly back at the woman as she suddenly turned and ran down the corridor. After considering trying to shoot through the glass, the man punched the release button several times, only to curse angrily as he saw the LED come up with 'Access Denied.' "Alright," he told his partner, lifting his pistol as his arms felt like lead, "Blast the door! Maybe we'll take her down before she can make it to the shuttle!"

Outside in the hall, Megumi sprinted as quickly as she could down the corridor, hearing the sizzling pops of the small glass window as it began to give way under the repeated blasts of laser fire.

"I guess this wasn't the best idea after all!" she muttered, the woman's eyes going wide as the wall a short distance ahead suddenly developed a long scorch mark, signaling that the two goons had succeeded in at least blowing a small hole in the window. As she reached the end of the corridor, Megumi all but slammed the control panel to signal the starboard airlock to open.

For what seemed like forever, the door's mechanisms whirled and clicked, the door itself sliding slowly into the wall. The entire time, the occasional black char appeared on the door, most seeming to barely miss Megumi as she crouched down and tried to remain as small a target as possible.

"Oh, just run of ammo already!" the woman muttered under her breath, thankful that eerie silence of laser fire wasn't likely to alert unnecessary attention, but quickly realizing that Kenji had had the foresight to give the two goons a third e-clip for their laser pistols.

Just then, the door slid open just enough for Megumi to squeeze through, and wasting no time, the woman leapt to her feet and began pushing herself sidewise through the opening. But as Megumi's body came out the other side unscathed, the woman felt a sharp pain in her right arm, the unpleasant sizzling pop sound and the smell of burnt flesh telling being all the evidence Megumi needed to know she'd been hit.

"I should've spaced 'em!" Megumi hissed between her gritted teeth, holding her forearm for a moment before hitting the interior control panel and ordering the door to close before pressing her back to the wall and sliding slowly down it into a sitting position, "I just hope it takes them awhile to get someone's attention. The last thing I need is someone letting them out before Ruri's done with whatever plan it is she has..."

"Hey! This looks so easy!" Yurika laughed, grinning broadly as she held up the open cook book, her 'deer-caught-in-the-headlights' expression seeming more vapant than usual as the former Captain studied the directions for the particular veal parmigian recipe Akito had chosen to prepare, "I would have thought cooking this'd be hard!"

"It is!" exclaimed both Akito and Troy, both men suddenly staring at her with a mixture of shock and horror, with Chef Troy throwing in a touch of disgust just for flavour.

"Cooking is a fine art," the taller Chef explained with more than a dash of contempt for the commise, "It requires skill, patience and intuition. A true Chef simply ignores recipe books and uses the skills and knowledge honed by years of experience to prepare a true culinary masterpiece."

"But I've never made anything with veal before," protested Akito, his eyes narrowing as his opponent simply ignored him, instead beginning to chop an onion with a swift, arching motion that decimated the root in a matter of seconds, leaving it in several thousand pieces without the Chef actually having to look down at it.

"We began with thirty minutes to complete our task, Mr. Tenkawa," reminded Troy as the two stared at him in disbelief, the Chef's skill seemingly on par with the Nadesico's former Chef Howmei, "And you have succeeded in wasting three of those minutes thus far. I recommend you put your commise to work immediately and start preparing your meal. That is, of course, unless you'd like to loose by default."

Akito stared back at Troy for a moment until Yurika let out a piercing shriek as that caused her husband to jump, startled by the sound, but brought back to reality because of it. "Quickly! Quickly!" the woman shouted, bouncing up and down on the verge of panic as Akito ran to do ten things at once, "We need all kinds of stuff! Eggs! We need four-! No, wait! Just one egg! And some of that veal of course, um... five thousand? Oh! No, silly me! Five hundred grams of it-!"

Troy turned his head towards the two as he switched on one of the kitchen's gas stoves. "Excuse me," he said politely, with a generous helping of sarcasm, "But which one of you is the Chef, and which is the commise again?"

Both Akito and Yurika stopped at the comment, staring back at Troy as he put a dozen veal cutlets into the oven and started work on his cordon bleu sauce. "I, um-" Akito began, only to have Yurika throw the book into the air and shriek again.

"He's right!" the woman exclaimed, running for the freezer and leaving Akito with his hands full, "Come on, Akito! We're getting behind! We have hurry! Hurry! Hurry! We can't let Ruri down!"

Akito's expression became sterner at the reminder. "Good point," he muttered, setting everything he'd been holding down on the counter and getting to work as quickly as possible, silently adding a little something extra to his wife's comment, 'Or Megumi, for that matter...'

The bridge was quiet except for the sounds of what few vital systems remained on-line. The various consoles occasionally letting out soft beeps and clicks as the computer system ensured that all was well every few minutes.

The only person who remained there was the serious seeming blond haired girl. Frowning every so often at one of the three holo-screens she had floating just above her laptop, she diligently continued trying to bypass Ruri's codes to regain control of the Nadesico and ensure that the ship wouldn't self-destruct once full power was restored. The helmswoman then smiled a little, realizing that the string of passwords Captain Hoshino was using were all relatively simple. Each was merely the name of one of the Nadesico's former crew members converted to a binary code and then reversed.

"It's almost an insult it's so easy," she muttered, the young woman's eyes going wide as she felt something heavy landed upon her shoulder. Turning immediately, the helmswoman barely had barely enough time to let out a small, short gasp before the small drone drove a tiny, yet infinitely sharp needle into her neck.

The chemical it contained put the girl to sleep almost immediately, and as she slumped forward over the console, the six-legged drone scurried quickly down her back and leapt onto the floor before making the long trek across the bridge.

Upon reaching the security station, the little done climbed up the side of it, the ends of the mechanical insect's legs sharply pointed and slightly curved, allowing them to bite into the metal where necessary to propel the drone to the top of the console.

Once there, the drone wasted little time, its simple computerized brain unaware of the actual danger of being caught in the act, only knowing that its task had to be done as quickly and efficiently as possible. After a nanosecond's thought, the drone scurried across the console to where the Nadesico's master key.

With the key gone, the hole it filled was left empty, and without a moment's hesitation, the drone extended several probes down into it. It only took the drone a few seconds to effectively pick the lock, but it left the ship in low power mode long enough to establish a link with the Ask Ines Protocol program.

As the holographic image of Professor Fresange appeared before it, the drone transmitted a series of commands. The holographic woman smiled, giving the drone a small nod. "On your command Captain Hoshino," Ines replied with a soft chuckle, the drone suddenly turning on the internal mechanisms to reactivate the Nadesico completely, but sill making it seem as though the ship was in low power stand-by...

Akito glanced up as the lights flickered ever so slightly, cursing as he nearly tipped over the sauce he was stirring in a pan. "Looks like you guys forgot to fix the wiring when you moved in," he commented conversationally, glancing at Chef Troy with a grin, only to have the man ignore him completely as he slowly poured cream into a saucepan containing butter, spices and a few extra things he'd thought up on the spot.

"I just hope the life-support systems don't start turning off and on too!" gulped Yurika, hastily grating Parmesan cheese into a large metal bowl, "Or worse, the gravity!"

Akito shook his head, mixing his sauce a bit before lifting the wooded spoon to his lips and frowning thoughtfully at the taste. "They're on separate systems," he explained, quickly adding a bit more thyme, "That's why they can power down the ship yet we can still breath and walk around normally and whatnot."

"A techie as well as a Chef, I see," Chef Troy chuckled, receiving a dark look from Yurika, but causing Akito only to nod.

"I'm also a pilot," he explained, "Aestivalis's to be precise."

"A real renaissance man," Troy chuckled condescendingly, "Ah well, I knew this contest was over before it had even began."

"Hey! Akito is very good at everything he does!" exclaimed Yurika angrily, the woman on the verge of tossing a cheese grater at the man, "What gives you the right to say such terrible things about him!"

Chef Troy smirked as he started his cleanup. "Simply put, and expert specialist will always be better than a jack of all trades," he explained, sparing Yurika the barest of glances, "There'll just always be someone better than him, and he'll never be the world class Chef that I am."

"We'll just see about that," Akito replied quietly, scowling darkly but refusing to get too distracted, "This competition isn't over yet..."

Chapter 8

"So we're in agreement, then?" Kenji inquired slyly, his smile as smarmy as ever as the group sat waiting for their meals to arrive, "Should your champion's dish fail to outdo Chef Troy's, you'll surrender your ship, your crew, and of course... Yourself, to me."

Ruri nodded, her calm, placid demeanor offsetting the way Lieutenant-Commander Wallis kept twitching, his expression a barely contained scowl. The pirate Captain's words nearly causing the security chief to leap out of his chair, dive across the table and strangle the young man. Somehow, however, Geoffrey maintained his self-control, and simply waited.

"And should Akito win out," Ruri added, her eyes narrowing slightly, "You will do the same. Otherwise, the stalemate continues."

Kenji gave a short, quiet laugh at the thought. "I very much doubt you'd stall long enough for the UEAF to figure out our location," he inferred, knowing his assumption to be true due to the look in Ruri's eyes, "because you know full well that the situation would quickly deteriorate."

Ruri nodded. "My people may very well out number yours, but I'm certain that yours would make up for that by being better organized," the young Captain replied, torn between amusement and annoyance, "The conflict would be prolonged, bloody, without a clearly foreseeable victor, quite frankly, pointless."

Kenji nodded, leaning far back in his plastic cafeteria chair as he folded his arms across his chest and grinned. "Ah, it's so nice to finally have a worthy opponent in a battle of wits," he chuckled, glancing at Wallis momentarily as he spoke, "I just hope you don't loose your edge after the new regime is established. After all, every successful ruler requires a competent woman by his side."

"Don't even think it," Lieutenant-Commander Wallis growled, his hand futily clenching the air where his sidearm usual was, but beside him, Ruri was unmoved, her expression impassive.

"Well, then I wish you luck finding such a woman," she replied levelly with little emotion in her voice, causing Kenji to chuckle once more. But before he could reply, the swinging doors to the galley swung outwards, and all eyes turned to the sound and scent of cooked veal in the air, setting off hushed conversations throughout the room.

As Akito and Troy and entered, each holding a large domed platter and trailed by Yurika who was bringing out the plates and cutlery, the room fell suddenly still. In the near silence, the muffled sizzling of concealed meat was just barely audible over the scuffing of shoes on the floor, the rattling of plates and the clink of forks and knives being set out in four place settings upon the rectangular plastic table.

By the time Yurika had finally backed away, and both Troy and Akito had set their platters down on either end of the table, the tension made it almost difficult to breath in the cafeteria and the anticipation brought on by hunger made it hard for even Ruri to remain completely still.

Realizing that he had everyone's attention, it was Chef Troy who spoke first, standing a little taller as he held his hands behind his back and addressed the group as well as the room. "Ladies, and gentlemen," he began formally, pleased by the way everyone immediately looked up at him from the platters, "My self and my esteemed challenger have been given a difficult task this day. To quickly prepare a meal that is both tasteful and fulfilling, yet leaves the diner wanting more. In this case, the other's meal."

Troy paused for a moment; letting his words sink in before continuing. "That which we have both prepared, we hope will satisfy all of our judges, irregardless of the outcome today. However," and at this point, Chef Troy directed the others attention to Akito, "I would very much appreciate Chef Akito to begin. His dish will make for a more than adequate appetizer before the main course, which is to say, the masterpiece that I have prepared."

Akito shot the man a quick glare before relaxing his expression, realizing that everyone was now looking up at him expectantly. "Oh, sorry," Akito stammered, clearing his throat before addressing the group, "Today I decided to go with veal parmigian. It looked fairly good in the book I found, I just hope that my improvisations are to everyone's liking."

Ruri glanced across the table at Kenji as the lid was lifted form Akito's platter and a collective gasp went up as Kenji, Geoffrey and Uribatake stared at the meal in hungered awe. "Aesthetically pleasing," the pirate Captain remarked, sitting a little taller in his seat to get a better view, hardly noticing as Ruri took note of his reactions before looking at the meal herself, "But it still remains to be seen if it lives up to my standards."

"There'll be four opinions judging these meals," reminded Ruri, noting how distracted Kenji was, the young man almost drooling as Akito quickly and efficiently served each of them with a plate of a few thinly sliced slices of breaded veal, set atop a small layer fettuccine pasta, and coated with a light tomato based sauce.

Kenji nodded absently, his eyes wide as a plate was set before him, and he wasted little time in testing it for flavour. Around him, the others, especial Akito, with Yurika hanging off his arm with an expectant look upon her face, watched the pirate Captain swiftly slice off a bit of veal and eat it.

There was a quiet pause as Kenji's expression became distant, absently chewing as his eyes became heavy lidded before he finally sighed contentedly, smiling as he gave an approving nod.

"Well at least now we know our side isn't up to anything," muttered Lieutenant-Commander Wallis quietly to Ruri, taking the young man's reaction as a good sign to dig in as well, the security chief relaxing a little inspite of himself at the wonderful flavour that his pallet encountered, "Although I can't say much for the opposing side."

"Don't assume that, Geoffrey," his Captain replied, eating with a little more dignity, "A Master Chef would never sully his art by adding poison to it. It's not their way."

The security chief shook his head disapprovingly, twirling a bit of fettuccine around on his fork and sighing heavily. "I still say this is a ridiculous idea, though," he added, bringing it to his lips.

"Quite the contrary, Lieutenant-Commander," chuckled Kenji, his grin never leaving his lips as he ate almost without pause, "I personally think this is a splendid idea, wouldn't you agree, Mr. Seiya?"

The Chief Engineer looked up guiltily from where he'd been quietly eating Akito's contribution to the contest. "What? Oh, oh yes, splendid idea," Uribatake muttered, absently pushing his glasses back up his long nose but refusing to look up at Ruri or Geoffrey, "I haven't eaten this well in ages. However, I could use something to drink, I suppose."

"I recommend water. For everyone," suggested Chef Troy as he stood at one end of the table, calmly awaiting his turn to display his dish, the man's hands held confidently behind his back, "That way the taste of one meal does not interfere with the other, and the judging can be as fair and impartial as possible."

There was a slight pause before both Akito and Yurika realized that Troy was looking directly at Yurika, the man raising a disapproving eyebrow when she didn't immediately react to his 'suggestion'.

"Don't worry about," Akito said quietly, narrowing his eyes at Troy and moving towards the kitchen, only be stopped by the feeling of his wife's fingertips digging into his arm.

"No, it's okay, I'll go," assured Yurika, a bright smile crossing her face as her voice went up an octave, "After all, I'm a commise!"

A few moments later, and the woman returned with a tray laden with four tall glasses in one hand and a pitcher of water in the other. It took her only a moment to fill each one and set them down before each of the diners, and as she set the last one before the sullen seeming Uribatake, the distracted engineer muttered a quiet, "Thank you, Captain Misumaru."

The words caused Kenji to drop his fork, and cover his mouth. The young man trying not to laugh as he quickly chewed the last of his meal and swallowed. "C-Captain Misumaru you say?" he inquired, picking up a napkin to wipe his mouth, "As in the daughter of General Misumaru of the UEAF? Ha! I thought you seemed familiar, 'Captain.'"

Yurika foolishly beamed, basking in the attention. "Wow! I didn't realize I was quite so famous!" she laughed, "But I'm not in the military anymore, and Ruri's the Captain of the Nadesico now."

Kenji chuckled at the woman's outburst, setting down his fork with a smug grin. "Oh, I've read the reports of your exploits on Mars during the Jovian conflict," Captain Nagisawa assured her, leaning forward upon his hands, his elbows resting upon the table on either side of his plate, "How it was your jealousy over Mr. Tenkawa and Ms. Reinaid's relationship that lead to the deaths of, oh, what was it now? Eighty? No, it I believe that it was closer to a hundred colonists? All because you moved the Nadesico over the bunker in which the survivors had taken refuge in."

"But-! But-!" Yurika stammered, staring at the young man with wide, frightened eyes, "If I hadn't have raised the distortion field, we all would have died!"

"And if you hadn't have moved the ship in the first place, neither would have those colonists!" shot back Kenji, his grin broadening, only to be cut short by Akito.

"Hey! That's completely uncalled for!" he argued hotly, his fingers twitching as the pilot/Chef wished he could challenge Nagisawa to something a little more dangerous than a cooking contest.

"The report regarding that particular incident is classified information," added Ruri simply, setting down her fork and nearly bringing the argument to a halt without even having to raise her voice, "It is inappropriate to discuss it in the presence of those who lack the appropriate security clearance or those who were present for the incident."

That's very true," agreed Kenji, turning to face Ruri with absolutely no intention of revealing how it was he'd acquired the information, "but it's also inappropriate to order your ship to be moved to a place where its mere presence will endanger the lives of civilians solely because you're concerned that someone's going to steal your beloved away from you. It's just another example of why 'normal' humans have no right to continue to exist. They're selfish, don't think about the long-term consequence of their actions, and they are prone to taking unnecessary risks. And frankly, for the record, I'm surprised Ms. Misumaru wound up with Mr. Tenkawa in the end. Says something about the man himself, though, I suppose."

"I said that that will be quite enough, Mr. Nagisawa," said Ruri calmly, yet sternly, her expression impassive, but her eyes showing the barest hint of anger, "Spoiling people's appetites with such talk is grounds for proclaiming your contribution to this contest forfeit."

Kenji sighed heavily and picked up his glass of water, giving the Captain a small nod. "My apologies, my lady," he replied melodramatically and not entirely insincerely, "I'll remain quiet and allow us all to digest and contemplate the sumptuous meal Mr. Tenkawa made for us before partaking in what is sure to be the winning entry in this competition."

Ruri and the others said nothing, the after course calm broken only by the sounds of Yurika sniffling as Akito cleared away the dirty plates and brought out clean ones, the Chef/pilot thankful that he himself didn't have to eat anything, as the knots his stomach was tied in would have made such a thing difficult.

'He's right,' Akito thought to himself, concentrating on his task, refusing to look anyone, not even Yurika in the eye, 'I don't know what else to say... It's all so true...'

A few minutes later and the four judges sat expectantly looking up at Chef Troy, their stomachs waiting expectantly for the second half of the meal. With a confident smirk, Troy held his hand atop the domed platter, pausing for dramatic effect, confident that heating unit in the platter would keep his dish warm for far longer than was necessary.

"Now, before I introduce my contribution to this contest," the Chef announced, "I would just like to take a moment to thank my most worthy opponent, Chef Akito, for his interpretation of veal parmigian. He shows much promise, and I hope to one day challenge him again. In the meantime, however, may I present to you, ladies and gentlemen, veal cutlet, Cordon bleu style in blended mushroom sauce."

Kenji's gasp was the loudest as the dish was revealed. The cutlets arranged in a row, the mushroom sauce that had been poured over them seemingly artful in the way it maintained its consistency and hugged the prepared meat. The main course filling the room with its compelling scent and reminding everyone that Akito's dish was but the first course.

Chef Troy didn't seem to mind serving it out to his judges, seemingly taking pride in ensuring that every aspect of the meal was under his strict supervision, ensuring that everything went as perfectly as possible, the man leaving nothing to chance.

Once served, Kenji was once more the first to try the dish, the young man closing his eyes and sinking a little lower into his chair. "Ah, it all but melts against the pallet," he murmured a moment later, savouring the aftertaste a while longer, "I believe that the winner is quite clear in this competition."

Lieutenant-Commander Wallis smiled inspite of himself when he tasted the veal dish as well, but a dark thought suddenly caught him, and he was forced to chew and swallow more quickly than he would have preferred. Leaning closer to Ruri, he whispered, "Um, Captain. If there's only four of us, two from each ship. Doesn't that make it almost inevitable that there'll be a tie decision?"

Ruri ignored him for a moment, taking her time to slice a piece of veal from a cutlet before consuming it with equal calm slowness. She then took a sip of water before glancing in Geoffrey's direction. "I know," the young Captain replied, slicing off another portion, "Just follow your heart Geoffrey. Vote for the better Chef."

Her Security Chief stared back at her wide eyed for a moment as Ruri calmly ate another portion, closing her eyes to fully enjoy the taste without distraction. "But, but-!" Geoffrey stammered before sighing heavily and giving up, deciding begrudgingly have a little faith in his Captain before going back to his meal.

Sometime later as Ruri set down her knife and fork, leaning back in her chair with her eyes closed and sighing heavily with contentment, a sense of looming dread began to hover over the table as Geoffrey Wallis made a production of being the last to finish, hoping to delay the inevitable.

Feeling the eyes of the others, save for his Captain, he looked up and glowered back at Kenji, chewing loudly as the pirate Captain smirked confidently back at him. For a long moment, the quiet contempt between the two was almost palatable, until the veal in Geoffrey's mouth became a nearly tasteless mush that the Security Chief was forced to simply swallow it.

Nagisawa then broke the awkward pseudo-silence by leaning far back in his chair and cracked his knuckles loudly. "Well, I believe that about finishes that then," he announced, turning his attention back to Ruri, "I suppose, just to be fair, we should now go through the pretence of voting for our preferred Chef, then?"

Ruri sighed again and slowly opened her eyes, glancing boredly at Kenji before giving him a slow nod. "I propose a secret ballet," the Captain said simply, "Akito, the note pad and pen, if you'd be so kind?"

Kenji covered his mouth to stop himself from laughing at the whole charade, but made no attempt to protest as Ruri took the note pad and tore out four sheets of paper. She then scribbled something on one of them, and passed the other three out to the others before giving Kenji the pen. "Whenever you're ready," Ruri said simply, leaning back and folding her arms across her chest once more, seemingly completely without concern with the potential outcome.

"This is crazy," muttered Yurika quietly, clinging to Akito's arm as the man watching Ruri as the others wrote down their votes.

"She's up to something," the pilot/Chef assured his wife quietly, "I trust Ruri to get us all out of this. Don't worry."

The only one who needed a moment to think about their vote Uribatake, and when even he had decided, and the small sheets of paper were handed back to Ruri, the tension in the room doubled, with all eyes upon the diminutive young woman.

Without any fanfare, further delays, or unnecessary dramatics, Ruri turned over the first sheet of paper. "One vote for Chef Troy," she said simply, looking up to catch Kenji's smile with an unwaveringly calm stare as she flipped over the next, "One vote for Chef Akito."

Ruri paused long enough for a bead of sweat to roll down from Geoffrey's brow before flipping the next. "One more vote from Chef Troy," the Captain commented, glancing down at the paper for less than a second to read it before holding up the last vote, "And finally..." Ruri paused, glancing at Akito almost apologetically as she said it, "A third vote for Chef Troy."

Another person might have burst out laughing at the sight of the looks upon the faces of the others, but Ruri wasn't like most people. Even as Geoffrey began to stammer a comment, recognizing Ruri's handwriting on the last vote, the Captain merely stared expressionlessly into Kenji's shocked expression.

As the pirate Captain's expression slowly went from shock to amusement, Ruri took the time to finish off her glass of water, letting the young man's laughter brew deep in his throat before coming out in one short, harsh sound.

"I-! Oh goodness!" Kenji choked, finally settling on simply applauding slowly but loudly, "Oh bravo Captain Hoshino. You've run an excellent ruse, giving your friend time to escape onto your shuttle, but now that you've soundly lost to my Chef's superior cooking skills, I can't imagine what good it will do you. You might as well just allow me to power-up my ship once more, so that you can disengage that childish self-destruct sequence you initiated."

"No, I don't believe that I will, Mister Nagisawa," said Ruri simply, slowly getting to her feet and staring coldly down at Kenji.

"You, you can't be serious, Captain!" Kenji laughed, "we have your ship surrounded by batta drones. They could tear it half to pieces in the time it takes us to fire a gravity blast to finish you off. We would, of course, die as well. But then, so would you.

"This is the same impasse that lead us to this point previously, Captain. And I can see no reason to prolong this any longer. Surrender your ship to me and I'll allow your crew to live. Once I control the UEAF, there'll be nothing you can do to stop me anyway. And really, Captain, are you willing to sacrifice your life to save those pathetic humans? Especially those generals in the UEAF who are always calling you 'that child Captain'. Is it worth the lives of your crew to force those morons to show you a little respect? Even posthumously?"

Ruri stared into her opponent's eyes for a long moment, refusing to dignify Kenji's response with a reply. Instead, the young Captain addressed the ship's computer, her gaze never wavering. "Ines," Ruri said simply, not even looking away as the holographic image of the scientist appeared beside her, the woman smiling all too knowingly as always, "Has the link with the batta drones surrounding the Nadesico 2 and in the surrounding area been fully established?"

Ines glanced at Kenji, causing the young man's expression to go from one of confidence to one of abject horror. "Yes, ma'am," Ines said a little too happily, a slight chuckle in her voice.

"Good," said Ruri quietly, turning away from Kenji and walking towards the exit without much further ado, the pirate Captain's crew staring at her in amazement, "Then order the drones to initiate an immediate self-destruct.

"N-No..." Kenji gasped, his body shaking as he turned towards Ines. "G-Give me an outside view!" he demanded, receiving a smile from the hologram as she raised her hand and melodramatically snapped her fingers, causing a flat holo-screen to appear before the pirate Captain.

Outside in the cold vacuum of space, the inactive drones suddenly came to life. Their running lights all blinking in unison, on and off, sending bursts of crimson light that rivaled that of the dying star of Alderbaran. Off in the distance of the debris field, it was that same light that showed the location of hundreds of thousands of other batta drones, their lights blinking like distant dying stars.

As Kenji Nagisawa looked on in horror, the flashing of the lights picked up in pace, soon becoming little more than a crimson glow before his dreams went up in one explosive wave as every yellow carapaced batta drone in the Alderbaran system went up like popcorn filled with nitroglycerine.

"Nooo!" Kenji screamed madly, his expression full of sudden rage as he pulled a small, concealable laser pistol from up his sleeve and leveled it at Ruri's back.

Before he could pull the trigger, however, Lieutenant-Commander Wallis knocked his arm upwards, nearly snapping a bone in Kenji's forearm as the shot went high and singed the ceiling above Ruri's head. Then, before Kenji could react, he felt an arm go around his throat, lifting the smaller man up off of his feet as the Security Chief caught him in a rough headlock.

"I'd snap your neck right now," Geoffrey growled angrily into pirate Captain's ear, "but Ruri would never forgive me."

"B-But-! How-!" the young man stammered, causing Ruri to take pause at the threshold, the commotion behind her failing the break her trademark calm.

"It was quite simple, actually," the Captain replied, "I just jury-rigged another Master Key, and then took control of the Nadesico shortly after coming aboard. I only made it seem as though the ship were on low power stand-by. In reality, systems have been fully restored for quite some time now."

"And the self-destruct?"

"A silent countdown. Just as insurance."

Kenji sighed heavily, shaking his head in dismay, nearly going limp in Geoffrey's arms as a small smile crossed the young man's lips. "You really think you've won, don't you?" he inquires with a quiet chuckle, not seeming to notice the nervous looks exchange by his crew.

"No. I don't really think that anyone truly wins wars, Mr. Nagisawa," Ruri replied, turning to face him at last, "Now then, order your crew to stand down. You're all under arrest by the authority of the UEAF for more offences than I care to mention at this time."

"I'd rather die than live in a world ruled by morons!" Kenji spat, his smarmy grin fading as Ruri merely shrugged gave a small wave of her hand.

"Then so be it. Release him, Geoffrey," she ordered, causing her Security Chief to toss the defeated Kenji roughly to the floor, Ruri's cold gaze following him there, "There's just one thing you should remember, Mr. Nagisawa. No matter how much you and your people deny it, you're all human. Each and every last single one of you. And because being human means you have freedom of choice, I'm letting you choose whether or not to come with us. Whether they live, or whether they die."

"You have my answer!" Kenji glowered, rubbing his bruised throat.

"Well, then I guess that makes you the biggest moron of all," commented Ruri briskly before addressing Ines once again.

"Yes, ma'am?" the hologram inquired without being prompted.

"It will only take Mr. Nagisawa and his team of hackers a few minutes to crack the code halt the self-destruct system," the Captain explained, "So I think it's time for something a little more drastic."

"You- You wouldn't!" stammered Kenji.

"Watch me. Ines, over-charge the transposition cannon," Ruri ordered, causing Kenji's eyes to go wide as he stammered unsuccessfully, "And take aim at this, system's star. We can't have anyone coming back here and using any of the aliens left over technology. Twice is enough."

"As you wish, Captain," chuckled Ines as the room filled with a low humming sound that slowly increased in volume and pitch.

"This- This is madness!" Kenji protested at last as Akito, Yurika and even Uribatake and Chef Troy walked past him and out the door, none of them interested in being aboard when the ship when it finally went up, "This, this is the first ship you ever served on! Think of all the memories you're going to loose if you destroy it!"

"They're only memories," said Ruri, raising her voice as the room began to shake, and the loud humming of power being diverted to the forward cannon made it difficult to concentrate, "I can always make new ones."

A muffled explosion rocked the ship more violently just then, cutting Ruri off as she staggered a little, managed to remain standing as more of Kenji's crew began to flee for their lives. "Captain, the transposition engines have just overloaded," Ines said with a smirk, "The conventional engines are fully functional at this time, but the transposition cannon is reaching critical and won't survive another thirty seconds. Infact, even if we do fire them now, they'll-!"

"Fire," Ruri ordered, glowering just a little down into Nagisawa's eyes as the deafening sound of the transposition cannon firing momentarily drowned out Ines speech.

Kenji's morbid curiosity got the better of him at that moment, and he glanced at the still hovering holo-screen at the outside. To his dismay, the young man was just in time to see the beam of brilliant white light as it leaped from the huge forward cannons, the hull plating cracking and buckling as huge arcs of lightning danced over the two long booms and the whole array began to come apart.

The beam of mile-wide light wasn't inhibited by the destruction of its source, however, and arced across the open void, launching itself directly into the heart of the huge red star of Alderbaran.

"It will take the beam only five light seconds to reach the star," offered Ines, "Then you will have no more than ten minutes to reach the minimum safe distance before the star goes nova, and takes what's left of this system with it."

Ruri nodded simply, and turned away. Geoffrey then gave Kenji one last stern glance before following his Captain from the cafeteria, remaining respectfully quiet as he followed the young woman out into the hall and back to the airlock where Megumi, the others and their shuttle were waiting for them...

Kenji Nagisawa arrived on the bridge of the Nadesico just in time to see the subtle change in the crimson star. As nearby the Nadesico 2 collected the escape pods that had jettisoned, the huge red star turned a rosy pink before slowly turning blindingly white.

"You may have won the battle, Captain Hoshino," chuckled Kenji, the Nadesico 2 coming about to face the Nadesico 1 a final time as her transposition engines fired up and the whole ship began to glow strangely, even in the blinding light of Alderbaran, "but it is I who have won the war. You see; you'll have children one day. And their genes will be just as strong as yours. Then, they'll have children of their own, and they'll have children as well. And slowly, but surely, our people's superior genome will spread across the Earth, out to Mars, to the Jovian moons, and beyond! And one day, my dear Captain Hoshino, there will be no more 'normal' humans left. There'll be only our kind. Our superior people. And on that sweet day, when the last 'normal' human dies... I. Will. Have. Won..."

Outside the ship, the Nadesico 2 was finally enveloped in an ovoid sphere of white light. Giving one last flash, the light then dimmed and faded, leaving only an empty space in the debris field where the Nadesico 2 had been, and more importantly, leaving the Nadesico 1 alone with the dying sun.

As the star then began to collapse in on itself, shrinking down to the size of a small moon in a matter of moment, Kenji Nagisawa began laughing aboard the bridge of the remaining ship. Even as the star the burst outwards in a catastrophic explosion, enveloping the last of the alien artifacts, the Nadesico, and even Kenji Nagisawa himself, the young man went into oblivion laughing. Laughing into the face of death itself...

Epilogue

The view of Citadel Station from the Captain's quarters upon the Nadesico 2 fascinated Megumi for a long moment as Ruri set a cup of tea before her. "Thanks," the woman said absently, picking the cup off the coffee table as Ruri sat at the other end of the long couch that was built into the wall, a long window just over it giving a wide angle view of the station they were docked to.

"So you were saying that apparently Akito spoke to you after the debriefing," commented Ruri, snapping Megumi back to reality, the woman blushing a little as she stammered out a quiet apology.

"Oh, yes. That," she chuckled, lifting the steaming beverage to her lips and sighing contented as it calmed her still half-frazzled nerves, "He cornered me in the corridor and made a big show of asking me how I've been lately and what I've been up to. When I finally got him to stop being evasive, he confessed that he and Yurika had gotten into an argument just after we all got back on the ship. Apparently there's trouble in paradise."

Ruri looked back down the long couch at Megumi, remaining silent for a moment as the woman chuckled lightly under her breath. "And?" she inquired non-judgmentally.

"And," Megumi said with a small grin, trying to hide her amusement, "I politely informed Mr. Tenkawa that he was a married man, and that I had too much self-respect to even so much as entertain thoughts of such deception."

A small smirk crossed Ruri's lips. "You meant that your ego would never allow you to take what would feel like to you as Yuriko's 'seconds' as it were," the younger woman corrected, causing Megumi's lavender eyes to widen with bemused scandal.

"You know me too well," Megumi chuckled, sipping her tea again, "or is it just that all adults are still morons?"

Ruri bowed her head, unable to keep from letting out the smallest of chuckles. "I guess that I'm becoming predictable as well," she replied.

"Not from what I hear," Megumi corrected, her tone becoming a touch more serious, "It didn't seem like Captain Nagisawa found you too predictable."

"He assumed that we thought alike because we were in the Nergal Eugenics Program together," the Captain explained simply, "He also assumed that I could be brought to his side rather easily with just a smile and a kind word. He was wrong. He then underestimated me, and failed in his mission."

"About that," interrupted Megumi pensively, causing Ruri to raise an eyebrow at her, "You... You had no intention of having Akito win that cooking contest. Even from the very beginning. And then you reneged on your deal with Nagisawa..."

Ruri gave her friend a serious look for a long moment, catching Megumi's gaze and holding it. "I'm a UEAF Captain, Ms. Reinaid, not a paladin," she replied simply, in a completely emotionless tone, causing a smile to slowly spread across Megumi's face.

"No," the woman laughed, "I suppose that role wouldn't suit you. But at least you got to play the role of 'knight in shining armour' this time."

A small smile crossed Ruri's face. "You're welcome," she said simply, receiving a wide grin from Megumi who just couldn't seem to find the right words to say 'thank you'...

THE END

Copywrite Nikolai Mirovich May 19, 2003