Chapter 27: Sunlight1
Dass waited until everyone was comfortable before beginning, "We are at a decision point now. Emilia has given me some rather disturbing news. There are two small ships leaving the inner system as we speak. It is her belief that these are Axis ships. Whatever is on that asteroid, the Axis want to reach it first. Everything we hear about this lunatic is that he is a mad man, and if there is even the tiniest possibility that there is any other Aggendi equipment in this system, then he must not be allowed access to it. He has led a devastating assault on the credibility of the UAA. This, coupled with the Murian withdrawal from the Overwatch program, has nearly cripples us. Emilia is willing to outfit us, and Haversom is willing to cover for us. The politicians want us to stay. Ymri has passed on to Haversom the fact that the Council of Lords in Elara has vetoed her decision to stay in the UAA. The program is dead.... And we are going to be disbanded. And Dremmond gets to go free and play with his little alien friends all he wants.... I want to go after him. And I will. The Rimfire is my ship, and it has a crew I'm damn proud of. I'm going to leave here on a course for Aries. There are stasis tanks onboard the Tarsus, 18 of them. Mox is now in the process of 'transferring' them to the Rimfire. The plan is to sleep in shifts, 1/4 up, 3/4 down. That way we'll have enough food water, and air for the long trip there and back. In addition, crews are working to attack the Tarsus to the rear of the Rimfire for increased speed and power. If the attempt is successful, our trip will be severely shortened. Also in the Tarsus's mekton bay, instead of the usual robots, we now have shuttles of various sizes for transportation. We considered removing them to reduce the weight, however the engine of the Tarsus is so powerful that at full throttle the speed would tear both ships apart. The extra mass is needed for control. If there is nothing out there, and the Axis is wasting their time, then I, and anyone that goes with me, is likely to be thrown in prison by whoever is in charge here when we get back. Any that wish to remain behind may do so."

I stood up and said, "Speaking solely for myself, the UAA and Overwatch is the only thing I have known and I will stay with it. Whatever's out there could be my ticket home."

The entire crew agreed, even Arisa. Then the rest of Fireflight agreed. Everything we've been through these past few months binded us together and no one wanted to break up this pseudo-family. After Dass's talk, Emilia took us into the mekton bays of Sunlight1. Inside there were 10 brand new mektons, ExSentinels, which were promised by Korax. They had just been unloaded from a Kargan transport. Eiran was glad to see them, Ariel was happy for him, but I could tell she was a bit worried. The units were carefully transferred over to the Rimfire. The remaining Sentinels were disassembled and put into storage pods for safe keeping and as spare parts. Larani ordered us out to test the new suits. She even insisted that I at least fly one at least once despite my decision to continue to use the Scarab.

To prevent the mood being spoiled, I caved in and climbed into the cockpit of the ExSentinel. It handled like a dream, definitely most advanced example of mekton technology I've seen here. I got a kick out of the transform mechanism. With a flick of a switch, the mekton folded into a jet with incredible speed and agility. But there was one thing that was really disappointing, the weapons and armor were almost exactly like those of the Sentinel. I grimly realized that these new mektons alone would not enough to tip the balance of power in our favor. My Scarab would continue to be needed in the fight against Axis.

Larani insisted that we use the built-in simulation equipment to develop some tactics. She had us split into two teams and fly against each other. Without the chance of getting killed to spur innovative tactics, I tried to relax and treat this like a video game. The mindset worked, at least it helped me take it more seriously. Tharis brought out his own squadron for experimenting with full team tactics and strategies.

Later Laian and myself were called back by Dass. We were reported to Emilia's office. Once there, our weapons were removed and an armband was placed over my PUG before we were scanned for weapons. My demands for an explanation were ignored. Once they were satisfied we were disarmed, we were let in. Inside, there was Emilia and Dass, and the young girl from the Kargan mekton! She was sitting up and drinking tea. Emilia explained that she awakened just a few hours ago and wanted to see us. The young girl said her name was Rina, "Oh thank you! I was lost in the void until you touched my mind, but when you did, I found my way back, thank you! I don't know why he chose me to do those awful things, but he did. When he attacked my mind I learned a few things. These aliens, or whatever they are, talk to him, or at least he thinks they do. It's a calling, and urge to go out there. When I was taken, he was collecting people to try to answer them. It was awful. He thinks that they are going to make him king of the planet or something. It dominates his mind, like an obsession. He's smart, but this thing is making him act mad. Do you think there really are aliens out there talking to him?"

We decided it was best to leave that question unanswered. We accepted her thanks and asked if she had any more information to offer us. She had nothing we didn't already know. With the conversation over, Laian left. But there was something I wanted to say to Rina. "I'm sorry." I whispered.

Rina look puzzled as if she didn't know what I was talking about. "After we plucked you out of the wreckage and examined you, the doctors reported no brain activity. I wanted to kill you. Seeing you there, kept alive only by machines, I couldn't stand it...."

I broke down and told her how much she reminded me of my sister and what happened to her then begged for forgiveness. She placed a hand on my shoulder and said that there was nothing to forgive. "I don't blame you for wanting to pull the trigger. You thought you were helping me and I understand why. But I'm happier that you changed your mind. I can't hold this against you. Go out there and give Axis one for me."

"Did you feel any pain there? Did you suffer? There are other people who were victimized the same way as you and I must know!"

"I can't accurately express what it was like. But I don't remember any pain. I didn't remember any feelings except for the need to recover. They'll recover just like me. Don't worry about them."

I left that room a man with one less heavy burden on his back. Practice time was over for that day. After dinner, I asked her why she had me fly the ExSentinel instead of the Scarab. She talked about team effort and how I should broaden my mekton skills, but there was something else. I suspected that there was some part of her still jealous about how I have a bigger, better vehicle while she is stuck with what everyone else has. But I let it slide. Since no plan ever survives contact with the enemy intact, the tactics we developed today must be flexible enough to accommodate the Scarab. If they weren't...well then they weren't useable tactics to begin with.

That night, after a quick doze with the inducer, I went to the military library and used my clearance to gain access to the plans and technical schematics to every mekton on file. This was the best chance to get it with the UAA being disbanded and lax security. I didn't know or really care if they detected me. We would be leaving today and there wasn't enough time to stop me. If I made it back to Earth, this information would be worth enough money for me and every employee of Rapid Fire to retire.

If not, well it's just one more charge among all the others for being AWOL and drek. Once finished, I checked over my prize. My time as a weaponsmith made me wonder if the Stallion's blade/blaster could be created for personal use instead of on a mekton's scale. I mentally filed the idea under "things to do" and went about my business. Algol circled far below me. Such a wonderful place it was. A far cry from the urban jungle of Night City. I sipped a cooling cup of soykaff as I sat and enjoyed the view. "Soon this will be over." I thought to myself. I was certain that the secret passage back home was out there on Tarsus.

This metal ring Terrin described was large enough for a ship, even several ships, to pass through. It was my best bet. Perhaps it was like that gizmo IMT developed which sent me here. Maybe there was a way to regularly travel to and from each world. What a kick that would be. Algol provides the technology and Earth returns the manpower and attitude to use them effectively.

I felt that I had humored this line of thought long enough and returned to planet watching. The lush green of jungles attracted my eye more than once. It was a rare sight for me. How did the Algolians manage to achieve such a technological level without severely damaging the environment? It was because they were not truly native here. Their ancestors were pioneers from other star systems, they didn't have to claw up the evolutionary ladder like Earthlings. Nope, they already had their mektons and such. Remembering that Algol was a settled planet made me more sure that the metal ring was my ticket home. After all, it provided the best answer as to how the original settlers got here in the first place. But how did the ring itself get there in the first place. Archaeology is not my biz. That was a question left for someone else. All I cared about was its function and if it's in working condition.

Planet watching is a fun activity, but the participants have the problem of losing track of time. Before I realized it, the morning shift were getting ready to go on duty. A shuttle flew past the window heading towards the planet. Through a porthole, I think I saw Rina. She was finally headed home. Good luck, Rina. The construction crews had worked through the night. It was discovered that the designer actually built in a sort of merging clamps, as if he anticipated the need to attach the two ships together. The Tarsus fit rather well under the circus of the Rimfire. The Tarsus's bridge was removed and moved on top of the observation area where workers were busy welding it. Several pieces of both ships were floating around. Construction mektons flew from piece to piece with scrap metal floating about. "Emilia says that we'll be ready by tomorrow. I can hardly recognize it now." Arisa commented.

How long was she here before she spoke? There was something wrong with her, I could feel it despite the normal expression she now wore. "Know what's the extent of the modifications?" "Well I know that we're going to have increased speed, power, and cargo space. Dass ordered some of the extra living quarters to be converted to fuel tanks. The rest are being used for storage. Get this, the old Stallions you used on Fiora were found in the new circus. No one has any idea how they got there, but we're keeping them since they take up so little room. Also the Sentinels are being disassembled to save space and being stored in the outside pods. I also learned that we're getting some new crew members. Karri suddenly got homesick really started to miss her husband, if you know what I mean. So she talked to Dass and Haversom about it and she left on the shuttle with Rina."

"Sorry to hear that. Wish I had the chance to say good-bye."

"Karri tried to keep this quiet. She really didn't want to leave but..."

"What about you? Haven't you considered going home also? You have family to take care of. We found your brother and he will probably make a full recovery. Do you really want to make them worry about you for so long?"

Something inside of her snapped. Arisa started crying uncontrollably and she practically threw herself on me for support. The grip was stronger than I would give her credit for. I tried to calm her down and encourage for her to tell me what was wrong. "They disowned me. Since I voluntary stayed in the UAA for so long...and all that bad press we got. They're convinced that I've changed for the worse and that I've become violent and evil. They even accused me of being part of the plot to kidnaped my brother. They think I abandoned them. I have no where else to go."

"Why don't you go back and try to patch things up?"

"It's too late for that. They didn't even tell me, give me a chance, before they made it legal. I no longer have a last name! I'm just plain simple Arisa. Once Father makes up his mind, it stays made. Returning is only a quick way to get killed emotionally."

"Well I'll tell you this. Whenever you need help, all you have to do is come to me and I'll be there for you."

She took comfort from my words and moved closer to me, as if trying to absorb my inner strength to help her. I couldn't think of anything else to say or do except hold her and try to convince her it will be alright. Before I realized it, she had fallen into a light sleep. It was about noon before she woke up. What happened had a serious affect on her. She could hardly keep food down and she never wanted to be left alone, even for a short while.

I learned from several sources about the new arrivals. There were no names, but I did find out that there was a replacement flight controller and a spare weapons controller. I guess the latter was needed for the extra weapons brought on with the Tarsus. In the wake of Karri Yar's departure, Sarka Loara was promoted to lieutenant and made main pilot. It was something she was very happy about and I swear that she even cracked a smile when I offered her my congratulations. By evening, a general inspection tour was arranged for the new Rimfire. It was like a whole new ship. While some parts were exactly the same, others were very different. The hall to the observation deck now had a new door leading to the foward bridge. This bridge was too vunurable to be considered of any practical use except for an extension of the observation deck. The computers and screens were modified and it took me a second to realize what had been done. They had converted it into a training and practice center. This ship was slowly turning into a small city. What's next? A day care center?

The tour continued. The mekton circuses were partially connected by a freight elevator from the Tarsus. The Tarsus had a smaller, twin level circus with an overhead exit which now led to the Rimfire. While everyone was impressed as to how well the merger was going, I wondered just how much did the designer count on this. How well would have the Tarsus's design worked out if it had remained a single ship? Most of the tour was on the Tarsus section. As told, its living quarters were now storage areas with the exception for about six. These six were now three larger quarters, one of which was now being furnished as Eiran's and Ariel's new home.

I noticed Arisa was longingly looking at one of the empty "couple's quarters" and sighing as if entertaining a private dream. To the designer's credit, things were actually better. More space, more power, it was as if the ships were meant to be one. The "couple's quarters" was one of the most protected areas of the ship. By evening our tour was finished. The work crews were doing minor finishing touches like a new paint job and sealing minor gaps. The Scarab's original stealth equipment had been partially repaired. It wasn't perfect and required a large power source. A source too big to be on a mekton. So Dass ordered it to be installed on the Rimfire. The most it can do is block long range radar and other primitive scanners. Not too useful around Algol, but it would give us a small edge over our Axis friends.

To insure the spaceworthyness of the Rimfire, the construction chief applied sealing techniques she had learned when she was a submarine designer. So now we were waterproof as well as vacuum-proof. Great, since the engines were designed to work without air, if we ever returned, we could hide out on the ocean floor. There were still minor tasks to be completed, mostly relating to the connections between the Rimfire and its new Tarsus components. But enough was finished to allow everyone to move back.

Arisa still didn't want to be alone, especially at night. I could mentally feel her pain and need for companionship. I could also tell that she was willing to do almost anything to fulfill that need. Her request to sleep over had an obvious ulterior motive. Something which I normally would have taken advantage of, but in her current emotional state it just didn't sit right in my stomach. So I wound up taking an induced sleep on the acceleration couch.

When I woke up, I found Arisa practically on top of me sound asleep. With no other option, I attempted to go with a natural doze. But after about an hour of staring into darkness, it was time to risk waking her in favor of moving her someplace more appropriate. No sooner had I set her gently on my bed did she stir. "Nate," she whispered, "don't leave me. Please, I feel so alone. You helped me when I needed it. You promised to be there for me."

What could I do? She was already betrayed by a family which she thought loved her unconditionally. Should I make it worse by breaking another such promise? Without a word, I covered her with the sheets and held her hand in my own real one and let her fall back into slumber. She slept like a log, never even removing her hand from mine and even giving it a reassuring squeeze as I plugged into my computer and began a detailed study of the Stallion's blade/blaster. By morning, I had learned some of the principles and started a rough model of the human-sized version. But without a real knowledge of science, there was little more I could do.