"How far off?" Richard asked, propping his torso on his elbow as he swiveled his seat towards Kikata.
"A few more hours if Torren's numbers are accurate." She replied with a frown.
"Then we'll be in the dark zone." Richard said. He could feel the coming pressure of uncertainty, looming for them in the blackness of space. Losing communications systems was a very real fear for anyone who works in the vastness of space. Gliding along in an expanse more massive any mind could imagine, a ship unable to communicate would be truly lost in every sense of the word. If anything went wrong here, no help would be coming. That small fact was about the only thing they were certain of now. "I suppose it's our last chance to secure plan B."
Kikata frowned, "I suppose it would be stupid not too." She sighed as she brought up her contacts, that slight twinge of jealousy creasing her brow as she opened up Kina's information. She forced her mind back to a more professional state as best she could. Right now Kina was the only other person who knew, and happened to be sitting in just the right position to act if they needed her too. She made the call. About a minute passed before Kina answered.
"Hello." Kina said in a groggy voice. "I was wondering when I might get a call from you two."
"Did we wake you?" Richard asked, noting she took the call from her personal quarters. Even with disheveled hair her beauty was not mitigated.
"Well I'm sure you have good reasons." Kina replied before stifling a yawn.
"Is the line secure?" Kikata asked.
Kina smirked and held up a small, slender device with a red blinking light, "Even though my room has privacy software I still knew to be doubly sure, when you two are on the other end." Her brow grew more stern, "Are you in trouble?"
"Not yet." Richard said with a chuckle.
"We have reason to believe that very soon we will be entering an area that will cut off contact. We'll be operating in the dark and well, we will need a back up plan." Kikata explained.
Kina nodded her head thoughtfully, "I suspect that is a good idea. I've done a little digging myself. Had some trustworthy people investigating." She noted a grimace of concern from both Kikata and Richard, "Mind you, I told them nothing of you, or your objective. Trustworthy as they may be little bits of information can go a long way, especially among the intelligence types. You never know who might be slipping credits to one another."
"We appreciate your caution." Kikata said with a nod, "We do not ask you risk yourself for-"
"It is what friends do. Don't think I will forget that because of my position. I may not know...your objective as well as you. But she is a friend of mine as well, and a good person at that." Kina shook her head, "But to what I have found." She straightened her posture and cleared her throat, seeming to be rising further out of her tired state. "The underworld has grown inactive over the past cycle. Agents following various mercenary groups...defense contractors, reported that entire fleets of vessels have just vanished."
Kikata did not want to think they were heading straight into fleets of potential enemies. "Any word on where too?"
"Speculation did not bring up anything very consistent as far as location. However, intercepted chatter had perhaps just one thing in common. Something they call the Sapphire Star. Unfortunately no one has uncovered an exact location, they spoke of it as if it were mystical." She shrugged her shoulders, "But you know how extremist groups can be."
"Really wish we didn't." Kikata said with a tired sigh.
"Anyway, that is about as much as my agents could pull out of the darker regions of the universe. What is most interesting is these disappearing fleets of ships coincide with the dates we believe P-" Kina stopped herself from saying the name, "Your objective went missing."
"Well, that certainly is very interesting." Richard said, "Strings are certainly coming together."
"Well I have more for you." Kina said. "I looked into reports on Farnax industries myself. Believe me, there are many of them. Allegations that never go anywhere. One particular case was a patent dispute between an Alliance contractor who just so happened to be working with Devora's father when he was still alive. The information I found was vague. Details were missing that seemed well, professionally lost. Whoever handled that paperwork was very careful, and I'm sure much more information is either hopelessly buried in volumes of lawyer speak or completely destroyed. What I was able to procure, though, was that the project dealt with something called B-Matter."
"B-Matter?" Richard asked with an arched brow. "Never heard of it."
"Perhaps Issac might know?" Kikata asked.
Kina shook her head, "I highly doubt it. Whatever it is, or was, seems to be a very tightly held secret behind a patent held by Farnax Industries."
"So what does this have to do with everything else? I'm sure they hold lot's of secret project patents." Kikata asked.
"Just one thing I found." Kina said holding up her index finger, "A private correspondence between a researcher on the project and who I assumed was a close friend of his. Much of what was said was fairly vague, however he made one specific claim. That it glowed like Sapphire."
"The B-Matter?" Richard asked.
Kina nodded, "Now, it could all just be coincidence. But when I tried to dig anything more up on this project, particularly the location, all of the information has been sealed behind Farnax's private vault. Trying to retrieve information from there, well, you may as well try pulling light out of a black hole."
"They seem to have a knack for that." Richard commented.
Kikata hummed in agreement, "It is like that dark zone we entered before, and are likely entering again."
"Ah yes, our third piece to the puzzle." Kina said. "That device in particular is very intriguing to the Alliance. And whoever developed it, or its predecessors have been very diligent about keeping it out of our hands. Nearly a century ago a large mining corporation used something very similar to block the human's galaxy from Alliance vision. However before our fleets could capture it the device was destroyed. Utterly."
"They blew it up on their escape?" Richard asked.
"They hurled it into Earth's sun." Kina smirked, "Whoever they were did not want even a trace of it left."
"So the Alliance could not figure out how to disengage it themselves?" Kikata asked.
"That. Or they did not want the Alliance to find their finger prints on it. The mining company did not create the device. It was an outside contractor and that's about all anyone knew. In the following years anyone who knew anything about it were killed. Someone with a lot of resources was very careful about that."
Richard cursed under his breath, these were not the type of people you wanted to be caught snooping around in their business. As successful he and Kikata had been during their careers, they were still no professional killers. The thought never really occurred to him how easily Devoras could hire even a single assassin ship to dispose of them.
"Now, this mysterious contractor, perhaps for the best, would never work with someone unreliable and without resources of their own. However, Farnax industries..." Kina trailed off.
"They could certainly afford it." Kikata said.
"And have every bit of personal experience covering up a dirty trail. If anyone might have access to black market stuff, it would be them." Kina replied.
"Unless of course, Farnax and this mysterious contractor are one in the same." Richard offered.
"Well, they certainly would not have the same name, but perhaps they have been purchased by them, it's possible." Kina replied, "Regardless their corporate takeovers of other companies are public domain. So ultimately whoever they are is a mystery and will remain that way." Her eyes grew stern again, "You must realize now that this is much bigger than your objective. The people you seek appear to be the same ones that have been in hiding for nearly a century. If...When you are successful you have an opportunity to bring justice to those responsible for countless acts of terror."
A short silence fell over the call before Kikata said, "To think we spent the evening with her. If only we knew something sooner."
"Still all we have is speculation, reasonable as it is." Richard said with a shrug, "Had we accused her of anything earlier she would have time to destroy whatever evidence lies behind their dark star."
"Dammit. You're right. This is why we need to work cautiously. A slip up could-" Kikata bit off her words. "Time is running short. We need to discuss the backup plan."
"Right." Kina said with a nod. "What do you have in mind?"
"I presume you can trace our location?" Kikata asked.
"Our trail should lead you right to where our contact is lost. There's no way of knowing how large the dark zone is, but I imagine it contains a solar system at least. If our contacts information is true, anyway. We will have a lot of ground to cover, it might take us a while to even locate where our objective might be, and until then we cannot really form a plan of attack."
"How much time do you want?" Kina asked.
Kikata took a deep breath, "Two weeks. Richard and I discussed this for quite some time and- we're just worried that if we cause a stir too soon the entire thing will fall a part."
"Two weeks is a long time if something goes wrong." Kina said cautiously.
"We might be able to leave the zone briefly to make contact." Richard suggested, "The problem is we just can't be certain of anything."
"I don't like it. But then again I don't like any of this. But I suppose...I suppose you are right. If we hear nothing of you for the next two weeks I will send a fleet." Kina's eyes bore concern, "I trust you will be careful."
"There is a lot on the line." Richard said with a nod.
~ ~ ~ ~
Ground control to major tom...
Ground control to major tom...
Take your protein pills and put your helmet on.
Atrix entered the community quarters and was surprised to hear the room filled with interesting sounds. It was music, but none that she was familiar with. She grew warm as she saw light from the human balcony and Issac was sitting there.
Ground control to major tom...
She cleared her throat. "W-What's this?" She asked through the almost mystical droning of instruments she was not familiar with. The sound cut off and Issac turned towards her.
"Oh. It's a song." Issac said. "An ancient one, from back on Earth."
"Ehy." Atrix replied. She approached the balcony and took her usual seat. Once again she found herself nervous despite how familiar this sort of interaction felt to her.
"My brother loves these old songs so I was curious to find some and this one stuck out to me." Issac shrugged.
"It...sounded nice. What's it about?" Atrix asked curiously.
Issac hummed, "Well, I'm still not sure what the deeper meaning of it is...But it's about the early astronauts of earth, and something goes wrong I think."
Atrix tilted her head, "Well I didn't mean to interrupt."
Issac smiled, "Well really I was waiting for you to show up. But we can listen to it if you want?"
Atrix nodded, "Please."
"I'll start it over."
The light strumming of the ancient guitar recording started. It was soft, and yet carried an emotional current with it. Atrix's eyes fell on Issac and felt as though the music was pulling on her delicate emotional strings.
Ground control to major tom...
Ground control to major tom...
Take your protein pills and put your helmet on. (A voice begins counting down from ten in whispers in the background)
Ground control to major tom...
Commencing countdown engines on.
Check egnition and may gods love be with you. (the countdown reaches zero)
The tone of the song became more earnest and more rapid paced.
This is ground control to major tom
You've really made the grade
And the paper wants to know whose shirt you wear
And it's time to leave the capsule if you dare
The character of the song responds
This is major tom to ground control
I'm stepping through the door
And I'm floating in a most peculiar way!
And the stars look very different, today.
And I'm sitting in a tin can.
Far...above the world...
Planet earth is blue
And there's nothing I can do.
Suddenly the voices stopped and the pleasant stringed instrument strummed directly several times before more odd instruments filled Atrix's ears. She smiled despite the song's oddly sad tone. The voices then returned.
Though I'm past one hundred thousand miles
I'm feeling very skilled
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go.
Tell my wife I love her very much
The voices return with some concern.
Ground control to major tom,
Your circuits dead
there's something wrong
Can you hear me major tom
Can you hear me major tom
Can you hear me major tom
Can you hear....
And I'm floating in a tin can
Above the moon.
Planet earth is blue
And there's nothing I can do.
Once again the instruments interrupted the singing, and again in a tone that made Atrix almost confused for the words she heard seemed so sad. Then the instruments began to whine and shriek until they slowly faded away. They sat in silence for a few long moments. Atrix still could not quite piece together whether or not it was a sad song. "What was it all about?" She finally asked.
Issac hummed. "Well, a lot of sources seem to say it was about a junkie getting his fix."
"A junkie?" Atrix asked, tilting her head.
"Someone who uh, is addicted to drugs."
"I don't know if that's what I got from the song myself, really." Issac said with a shrug. "It mostly made me think about those astronauts who first ventured out into space."
"Did...The man in the song die?" Atrix asked with a frown.
"I think so. I mean it sounded like it." Issac thumbed at his chin. "I suppose it's good song writing. Makes you think about it after it's all done."
"Yes, like a good story." Atrix replied.
"Those first people into space, I can't imagine being so brave. You know in this ship we're pretty safe. The chances of a failed launch or something happening without, you know, someone shooting a missile at us, are pretty low. Like really low. We don't use combustible fuel like they did back then. If something went even slightly wrong the rockets could explode before they even leave the atmosphere."
"I guess I never thought about it." Atrix said, she forced a small huff of a laugh.
"Yeah, I guess humans early space travel is still, well relatively, recent history. Had it not been for the Alliance humans would likely still be limited to our own solar system, if that even. Hell some history professors think we'd have likely killed ourselves off before even reaching Mars. I think that's a bit cynical though."
"And we would have never met." Atrix murmured.
Issac laughed, "Hell if things didn't go just the way they had for us humans I might not even exist. I mean what are the chances? It really makes you wonder."
Atrix smiled, recalling a familiar parable that Prila often recited when describing the relationships of beings to one another. "Well I am glad fate pushed us the way it has." Atrix rolled her eyes to the side, "Well mostly glad."
"Had Richard not been stranded a few years ago, he would have never met Kikata. Never became an employee of the Alliance. Never put in charge of this ship. I'd likely be job hunting still back home on earth! It really makes you think sometimes that fate does exist...maybe even some, I don't know, higher being."
Atrix rested her chin on an arm along the balconies edge. She loved to just let him talk sometimes, to see how his thoughts flowed from one thing to the next. Her smile broadened as he took the eventual step of doubting his previous thought process.
"Then again. Had things gone different, and had I been somewhere else having unique experiences I would be saying the same thing. In the end we only get to experience one universe, with one unique outcome. So no matter what all causes will have their own unique reactions." He put his hands up, "I'm sorry, I'm rambling."
Atrix giggled, "It's okay. I like to hear you ramble."
Issac grew warm in his ears, his heart rate quickening. He could feel a warm breeze gusting across the floor as Atrix softly exhaled, her massive, light gray eyes burrowing into him. They darted away less and less since he first met her. He wanted to tell her she looked beautiful today, but the second guessing was always there. Would it be right? Would it work? Atrix was a delicate flower, perhaps it would be better to observe and admire...but not too touch. He didn't want to see her hurt. Besides, he was never very smooth at talking to Richard.
This could be her moment. She just had to be brave. A tilt of her chin, an arch of her neck and her lips would envelope him. But then what? She had never kissed anything or anyone in her life. Even for pleasant greetings she just pretended to kiss hands and cheeks. Would her uncertainty ruin it? Would it be too awkward and spoil everything in a single brief moment of action? Kikata had told her to just do it, do what ever feels natural in the moment because it's not really all that physically natural anyway. It's the emotion that counts. But what if the emotion isn't both ways?
"Is...everything okay?" Issac asked, noticing a familiar blank stare.
Atrix swallowed and nodded, "Y-yeah. Just, a thought."
Issac nodded, "Yeah, apparently this whole mission is coming up on us soon." He grinned. "I never thought I'd get to say that!"
"Mission. Like being on a mission." He laughed. "Though I guess we're not really the ones, like, doing it."
Atrix huffed through her lips, "You've done more than me!"
"So it must be your turn, next." Issac said. He stood up from his seat and bounced on his toes, feeling a jolt of energy rush through him. An excitement that almost felt childish. The sense of unknown and potential danger, yet the comfort of also knowing he had his ship and his brother's protection.
"I wish." Atrix said softly.
"I'm sure you'll get to beat someone up." Issac laughed again, "Even if it's after everything is resolved. We'll just sweep it under the rug. Turn a blind eye."
Atrix giggled again, "Will you hold them down for me?"
Issac thumbed at his chin, "Well they'd have to be pretty small. Are you going to beat up a human? Seems a bit unfair."
"Well I would limit myself, naturally." She said, rising her free hand to the balcony and walked two fingers across the floor as if they were legs."
"Naturally." Issac said, assuming his best impression of a fighting position.
"Or maybe I'll just eat them." Atrix said, "I think I've acquired a taste." She nearly sighed as she was able to fumble the words out over her tongue. This could be it.
"Oh yeah?" Issac said, throwing a few punches towards her finger gently.
"Ouch!" Atrix gasped jokingly.
"Maybe I just taste good?" He offered.
Atrix took a shaking breath, "Well. Maybe I'll just have to eat you again!" She could feel her lips twitch, a natural segway to get him closer to her mouth. She tried to keep her slight smile genuine. Maybe it would be easier than she thought? Maybe Kikata was right.
"Well. Maybe just a taste." Issac offered with a laugh.
"I will have to get some Fularu." She said, she slipped her hand from under her cheek and lowered her face closer into the smaller scale balcony. Issac didn't move, standing by her fingers still pressed against the floor. Her body almost felt as though it ached with her nerves screaming for her to back out now, fighting against every instinct she had built up over the years not to go through with what she really wanted to do.
Issac felt his heart beating under his shirt as Atrix's face came closer. Any thoughts other than how beautiful she looked, and how he adored her laughter, and how her image rarely left his mind had simply vanished. Her lush lips, shining brightly against the lights pressed together before relaxing, he could see her tongue dab the back of her lower lip just briefly. A warm gust of wind swirled about him, he could see himself taking just two more steps towards her and falling against those soft lips.
The large scale doorway opened and Atrix jumped to sit back up in the chair. The adrenaline of what she almost did still pumped in her veins. She whirled around to see Kikata standing there with Richard perched on her shoulder. "H-Hey." She stammered nervously before fixing her hair. She could almost stand up and smack the woman. So close! Now she would have to wait around for perhaps another eternity before the moment was right and she was feeling confident.
Kikata looked Atrix and Issac up and down for a second. Atrix's cheeks were beaming red and her eyes a little wider than usual. "We've reached the Dark Zone." She announced. "Our objective is close now."
Issac felt weak at the knees as he glanced from Kikata and back to Atrix. What had just happened? Or not happened. He slumped back into his seat and watched as Richard climbed down from Kikata's hand and onto the balcony. Nichole soon entered through the smaller scale entrance as well, her personal computer in hand.
"Is something wrong the the feed? I just lost connection." Nichole asked.
"We'll be without that until we get our mess sorted out. We're in the dark zone now." Richard told her.
"Ah." Nichole said with a frown. "I suppose I'll put off research until then."
"I guess that means no more Spirit Quest." Atrix commented sadly.
"Well, not unless I can figure out how to make a private server." Issac offered with a shrug.
"I think we have bigger worries at this point." Kikata said. "Hopefully things won't take longer than a day or two."
"If not?" Atrix asked. Once again Prila was made fresh in her mind, she almost felt foolish that she had been wrapped up so deeply in other things rather than the entire reason she was out here in the first place.
Kikata ran her hands through her hair, "Worst case scenario, we have two weeks before the Alliance sends a fleet of ships. We want to settle this ourselves, not to mention it would be safer for our friend if we can stay under their radars for as long as possible. Who knows how they might react to an entire Alliance fleet entering the dark zone."
"Likely to burn camp and flee." Richard said.
"But that is for Richard and I to worry about." Kikata frowned, "It is not too late for you three. We could send a shuttle back out of the Dark Zone and into safety. No one would blame you."
"I'm not going anywhere until it is done." Atrix said quietly.
"Me too." Issac said.
Nichole smiled and shrugged, "Hell I wouldn't miss it. Besides, a good doctor finds her use."
"Let's hope we won't be needing one." Richard said, folding his arms over his chest.
"Perhaps Devoras will need one once I've seen to her." Atrix grumbled, her fists clenching unconsciously.
Issac huffed a short laugh, "I think I'd pay money to see that."
"Let's keep ass beatings to a minimum." Richard said, "No matter how satisfying or, erm, entertaining it might be. The last thing you'd want to do is hit a women with that many lawyers working for her."
"Just a joke." Atrix whispered before propping her cheek on her hand.
Kikata shook her head, "Either way. I think you all might enjoy the view we are coming upon in the cockpit."
~ ~ ~ ~
Atrix followed Kikata into the larger scale hallway towards the cockpit.
"So, how is your-" Kikata started but was interrupted as Atrix shot a quick, two fingered strike into her shoulder at just the right spot. "Ow! Atrix!" Kikata yelped in surprise.
"You interrupted!" Atrix complained.
"Interrupted what!?" Kikata asked, rubbing her shoulder.
"I was- We were-" Atrix intertwined her fingers as she tried to spill it out.
Kikata's brow rose in surprise, "You were about to what?" She asked again.
"I don't know. Kiss I think. I don't know what I was about to do but I was going to do something. I had my eyes closed and he was like, right there in front of my lips and then the door opened." Atrix groaned in frustration and leaned back against the wall.
"Well, perhaps you should have your private moments in your room and not the community quarters." Kikata offered. She frowned at Atrix, who was still blushing deeply and her eyes nearly looking ready to tear over.
"And what? Whisk him off to my room like you do with Richard?" Atrix shook her head, "Impossible. I can't. It will take days for me to work up the courage again."
Kikata sighed and laid her hands on Atrix's shoulder, slowly bringing her in for a hug, "I'm sorry, hon. Just keep positive. You'll see."
"Maybe I'll just get drunk again..." Atrix murmured softly.
Kikata held Atrix out with stiffened arms, "No. Not that."
"But it makes it so much easier!" Atrix pouted.
"You know why you can't. If you start using drugs as a crutch you'll be dependent. From there nothing good follows. Now come on, the others will be wondering where we are."
~ ~ ~ ~
Issac, Richard and Nichole were already staring out the cockpit window when Atrix and Kikata arrived in the larger scale section of the controls. Kikata slumped down into her seat while Atrix stood, clutching the back of the seat, their eyes falling on the unusual star system that laid out before them. Kikata felt the chill down her spine again as she stared out into the Sapphire Star. Indeed it shone a cool blue where most stars shone white, yellow or red.
"Interesting." Grace's voice said, breaking the silence.
"What's that?" Issac asked.
"It is very quiet out here." Grace continued. "Any signals I detect are encrypted, they float on by without any signs of where they came or where they are going. It is how I imagine wind must feel."
"Communication out here is tightly locked. And likely strongly monitored as well." Kikata said, "We'd be wise not to put out too many signals ourselves."
"I will keep that in mind." Grace replied. "However my proximity scanners show that, if I am correct, there are hundreds of planets within the life sustaining zone."
Issac leaned forward on the human platform, his fingers gripping the railing tightly. Far away, just faintly, he could make out the shapes of little orbs blocking bits of the blue light radiating from the star. The light made him feel strange, it was not fear that struck him. Yet it felt primal, ancient. As if it should mean something significant to him. He glanced around to the others. Both Richard and Nichole wore rather stern expressions, as if they were trying to understand just as he was. He looked over his shoulder, Kikata's golden eyes staring straight ahead, though Atrix's eyes were on him. They darted away out the window once she was caught staring and he smiled.
A loud ping sounded in the cockpit and a spread of data suddenly flowed out onto the HuD. "Five ships approaching." Grace's voice said.
Kikata cursed, looking to Richard before into the pool of data and maps, "Any reads on them Grace? Any information?"
"T-3's." Grace replied. "They are locked onto something, but not us."
"Torren's ship." Kikata whispered.
"T-3's are typically too hard to obtain for a Mercenary group unless they are stolen." Richard said. "Either those are out dated Alliance vessels of some kind or-"
"Defense contractors." Kikata said somberly, "Which means they are probably working for Devoras."
"Is that...a bad thing?" Nichole asked, the sudden commotion left her voice a bit shaking.
"Richard, I will hail Torren, tell him to get behind us. Watch to see if they get any closer." Kikata said, "Atrix, Issac, Nichole. Might be best for you to go to your rooms."
Nichole nodded and quickly turned for the door.
"Five of these ships would pose a threat to a ship even of our technology." Grace said.
"Well that's why we don't intend to start a fight." Richard replied.
"But perhaps...if a non human or Neko pilot were in control. They would be more able to make the maneuvers necessary. If it came too it." Grace continued.
"What are you getting at?" Kikata asked.
"I think she wants control over the, uh, controls." Issac said.
"Is that even possible?" Richard asked. "I mean I know there is auto-"
"It's possible, but I haven't really had time to make a program for her. If I gave her access she would have total access." Issac explained shortly.
"I'm not sure it's a good idea." Richard said, listening as Kikata wrapped up her conversation with Torren's ship. A moment later a gray vessel slipped over their heads, positioning itself behind the Richata.
"Grace, taking control of the ship is a big responsibility. And strictly against the rules-" Issac said.
"I am aware of the laws. And I know violence is a last resort, especially violence that would lead to a death. However my instincts tell me to protect my crew, and I am aware of the advantages my mind has. I am sure that if I were in control I could win, if it came to it." Grace replied.
Kikata's heart rate quickened as the five ships soon appeared on their proximity radar. Their speed was slowing as they approached. She had been involved in her share of dogfights. However their ship plus Torren's would still be out manned by the slightly inferior yet greater number force that was assembling in front of them. "Grace. If we give you this you must follow orders. Is that understood."
"I understand." Grace replied.
Richard nodded his head to Issac who had already pulled his computer from his pocket.
"You must not use your weapons until it is certain the enemy intends to use theirs." Kikata continued. "The objective is to cripple the ship, not to kill the crew. The men and women on board might have valuable information, and even if not it is not our jobs to-"
"I am aware of the laws and the philosophy, Kikata." Grace replied in a smooth tone.
"Am I doing this?" Issac said, his software ready to grant Grace full control over the ship. Every last function would be at the will of Grace's mind. Her body would finally be completely hers.
"Do it." Kikata said between clenched teeth, part of her knowing it was a dangerous move. However she felt more and more that the world within the Dark Zone would be very different than the universe beyond it. "Now hail the oncoming ships, let's see who we're dealing with."