Word count: approx. 15000 words (in two parts)
Pairing: Junba, OT5-friendship
Genre: Space AU, Sci-fi, Action/Adventure
Rating: PG13 (pretty much harmless with a bit of actions, a certain level of violence and a little swearing)
Summary: Matsumoto Jun set out to hunt down slavers but he found his old roommate, Aiba Masaki, and his crew instead.
Author’s Note: Originally written for aibaexchange, this version was edited and modified slightly from the original version. The story was based very loosely on Star Trek and Mass Effects AUs (with lots of stress on “very”). Basically, I borrowed the terminology without applying the same meanings in this story. For that, I have to apologize in advance if you are a serious Star Trek fan.
I also would like to thank Mod J. for the help with beta-reading. Thanks for your hard work and patience <3 Also, thank you other awesome AibaEx mods for organizing this exchange. It has been really fun. XOXO
[I cannot shake them off!!]
“I cannot shake them off! The shield is not going to hold.”
The pilot told Matsumoto Jun with unfamiliar urgency. For Jun, it was an alarming sight. His pilot, Ohno Satoshi, was usually a very quiet man. However, his calm and collected posture was in contrast to his panicked face right now. Ohno’s desperate tone told Jun that the current situation was dire.
There was another deafening boom and their spacecraft shook violently. This time, Jun had to hold onto Ohno’s seat to keep balance. Shit. This was bad. There were more hits and more violent shakes. The flashing monitor indicated that the ship’s left engine was gone and the right one was barely working. They were running out of options.
“The shield is down to 15%. We have to do something!” Ohno was as close to screaming as Jun imagined the man could be. The pilot was frantically punching in commands to the ship’s interface while trying to maneuver the spacecraft away from relentless fires coming at them. They were surrounded by several fighter jets, now encircling around a cornered target. This was hopeless.
“The ship is not going to make it.” Jun voiced what both of them already had in mind out loud. His thoughts ran wild searching for a way out. He was not going to die here, Jun swore to himself. They were NOT going to die here.
A deafening blast from a massive explosion rattled the whole ship causing Jun to drop hard on the floor. “Get in a seat quickly! We are going to crash.” Ohno yelled at him. Jun scrambled onto another seat in the cockpit. He barely managed to activate the seat buckle when a full blast of shockwave went through the ship knocking Jun out cold.
“Engineering bay to Bridge. Engineering bay to Bridge.” A voice from the intercom broke the serenity in the command deck and pulled Aiba Masaki back from his dreamy state. The voice continued, “Can anyone tell me again why are we in this star system?” Aiba knew right away why the ship engineer – Ninomiya Kazunari – called him out of the blue. Ninomiya, or Nino for those who were close to him, was bored to death. When Nino was bored, he’d like everyone to feel his pain.
“Seriously, there is nothing at all. Nothing to see. Nothing to survey. It’s like there are only death planets around here.”
Aiba could not resist smiling. He could see what Nino was like at the moment. Nino was sitting on his two legs in his love seat surrounded by many monitors and screens. Apparently, none of the screens and monitors could provide anything of interest to Nino.
“Nino, come up here. You should see the view. It’s breathtaking.” Aiba suggested good-naturedly. Nino always spent time in his own corner inside the engineering bay. Nino’s private corner was full of electronic equipment and devices that helped him keeping track on all the ship operating systems and other related things, but there was no screen with outside view. Nino was a bit of a hermit, not liking the usual ‘indulgences’ and ‘distractions’ (or things that Aiba would call ‘happiness’ and ‘natural beauty’). On the other hand, Aiba could never get enough of the natural wonder. And the Attican Traverse, the current Cluster they were in, was extremely beautiful.
“No way. Thank you. Staring into nothingness is not my thing. If you want some company, call Sho out from the gym then.” Nino replied back rather disheartened. The idea of removing himself from his private corner never appealed to Nino.
“Sho needs his daily two hours workout or he would be brooding all day. We don’t want that.”
Aiba thought that he might need to go to engineering bay and dragged Nino up himself. Or better, he was going to ask Sho to help him. Sho was his second in command, or rather, the one that actually made everything going according to plan. Sho always enjoyed poking Nino on his side just to remind Nino who was really the one in control.
“I told you. It’s so boring around here even Sho spent more time in the gym than usual. Why are we still here again?” Nino asked the same question. This time, his voice sounded a little more serious. It forced Aiba to think of a proper reply, but he found he did not have any.
“Umm…I am not sure. I just have a feeling we should be here. I don’t know why.” Aiba thought his answer was horrible. He had to admit he did not have a good reason.
“Is this one of your hunches again?” Nino sounded disapproving. “Last time you had that, we had to run away from a hoard of extremely displeased space traders. I swore I won’t get into that kind of situations ever again.”
It had been almost two years since Aiba was appointed the leader of an exploration team of the Federation. He and his team members, consisting of Sakurai Sho and Ninomiya Kazunari, had been travelled in their own ship, Arashia, ever since. Their job was to explore and investigate planets and star systems looking for anything of scientific interest. Their discovery would be recorded in the captain log and sent to the Federation every week. Usually, they were scientific records of new species, newly discovered resources and general planetary geographical and environmental conditions. However, once in a while, they would get themselves into sticky situations and they would act outside of their original responsibilities. Last time, they ran into a large number of illegal traders and Sho attempted to stop the trade of illegally obtained species. They could not run away with the rescued alien animals fast enough. Their last expedition was counted as one of those rare but challenging occasions, something Nino did not want to repeat too often.
“I know you don’t believe in my hunch.” Aiba wasn’t a particularly superstitious person but he had faith in hunches and sixth senses. Some of the best things that happened to him in life came from his hunches – like joining the exploration division. “Just wait for a couple more days in this cluster, OK? If there’s really nothing here, at least we can record in our logs that there are nothing of significances around here and we would be done with another cluster.” Aiba tried to make the best of it. Several days had already pasted and there was still nothing really interesting. Aiba signed quietly. Yet, he tried to be positive. “C’mon, trust me. I’ve got a feeling something fun is going to happen.” Aiba sounded very confident. At the same time, he could hear Nino snorted at his positive attitude.
“If not, I am going to pick the next location myself.” Nino felt it would be better to take the important matter in his own hand next time. Aiba nodded in agreement before the transmission was cut off.
Back to his own, Aiba lazily looked at the console. He stared back into the beautiful space, enjoying a peaceful moment to himself, when suddenly, the distress call receiver started beeping red. Aiba jumped on his feet. He blinked a few times to make sure he wasn’t hallucinating because of the monotonicity of the journey. The beeping signal was still there. Someone was calling for help.
Aiba knew it’s wrong but he could not stop grinning. Nino could not say the trip was uneventful anymore.
Matsumoto Jun had always been exceptional. He graduated from the Academy the top of his class and served the Federation on one of its flagships right after the graduation. Jun had been a respectable security officer and he had successfully accomplished multiple missions. After almost ten years of services, Jun was chosen to be a part of the Specters – a semi-independent Federation agency, entrusted with the authority of the Council. The Specters were responsible for special operations crucial for security and safety of the Federation and its people. Jun was proud of the new responsibility. He took his job very seriously. As an option, a Specter may work with a team or alone. In Jun’s case, he chose to work by himself, except for Ohno who helped pilot his spacecraft. Jun had met Ohno a few years back when he was on the first mission as a Specter and Ohno had been with him ever since.
Jun’s current assignment was to investigate and eliminate slavers attacking Human colonists. In the past months, Jun had been hot on tail of the slavers. He was so close to locating their main operation base in the Attican Traverse cluster when his spaceship was ambushed by slaver fighter jets. Jun’s badly damaged spacecraft crash-landed in an overgrown jungle filled with strange-looking plants on a remote planet in the Dakka system. Ohno barely managed to activate the distress beacon before their ship blew up.
Now, they tried to make their way to some place they could camp out and wait for help. They ended up camping out in a small clearing, away from the thick of the forest, in case there were strange creatures in the vicinity. The outgrown forest was dark and musky. Jun shifted uncomfortably where he had been sitting. His right hand placed on the only weapon they had left. Jun was thankful to his habit to have a service weapon on him at all time – even when he was in his own spaceship, not expecting a fight, like hours before. At least Jun still had something to protect himself and Ohno. Jun looked at the man who had become his closest friend over the years. Ohno looked rather unfazed with the situation. Jun wasn’t sure if Ohno was very brave or he just did not let his feelings shown much even with Jun. With Ohno's usual silence, it's hard to tell sometimes.
With nothing else to do, Jun’s mind wandered. He was devastated at the loss of his spaceship, but he was more worried about their escape from this forsaken planet. Who was going to come near here? It was so far away from the usual territory of the Federation. He did not think the Federation agents even operated in this system, let alone anywhere near this planet. Jun probably would regret ignoring his superior’s suggestion to stay away from the Attican Traverse, an outlaw territory, which was so far away from the jurisdiction and support of the Federation. However, Jun knew he was so close to locating the slaver main operation base. He had to find a way to get off of this planet. He had to continue on with the hunt.
While Jun was thinking about all possible ways to send out a longer range distress signal, he could hear the low humming of a spacecraft engine in a distance. Jun wasn’t expecting help to come so quickly. Maybe it was a slave ship tracking them there. The slavers might want to take them as prisoners or finish them off, so Jun readied himself for combat. The unknown spacecraft landed in a large clearing behind the thick tree line so Jun could not see it. He and Ohno, who looked positively unfazed as usual, waited for the new party. His hand rested on his gun, ready to fire if he needed to.
Within minutes, the loud chatter of human language traveled through the thick tree line to where Jun and Ohno were. The new arrivals had no concept of stealth – so Jun was certain they were not slavers. But the chattering sound was somewhat familiar. Jun narrowed his eyes while his brain searched hectically where he had heard that voice from. That was when two figures in familiar uniforms emerged through the thick jungle. Dressed in Federation officer outfits, the taller guy saw Jun and Ohno first and quickly walked toward them. At that moment, Jun saw the face of who seemed to be the team leader. His own face turned hot as he recognized the man. Jun almost dropped his gun and he cursed his luck.
“No way, isn’t that Jun-kun?!” The rescuer brightened up immediately when he came close. He ran to Jun to give him a hug. Actually it was more like a squeeze. Jun could hardly breathe. When Jun was let go from the bone-crushing hug, he nodded only slightly in recognition. The same rescuer exclaimed happily, satisfied that Jun also remembered him – or was that a squealing sound he just made? Jun tried hard to keep a straight face.
Of course, Jun remembered Aiba Masaki, his old roommate from the Academy and Jun’s worst nightmare.
The group made it back to Aiba’s shuttle waiting in a clearing on the other side of the forest. On the way back to Arashia, Aiba was beaming happily in the pilot chair with Sho was looking all professional and reserved next to him. Behind them, Jun and Ohno cramped into the backseat. It was a relatively small shuttle that could barely carry four people plus a little bit of equipment. Aiba was positively cheery and talkative throughout the short journey. He was chatting, mostly by himself, about how great it was for him to see Jun again and began recollecting their past, the memories Jun already forgot or didn’t want to remember. Jun chuckled dryly while Ohno was smiling slightly. Ohno was probably amused at Jun’s unusual reactions.
As soon as they left the planet atmosphere, Jun looked through the screen panel on his passenger side and there she was, right at the outskirt of the planet, a frigate ship floating in the space. Just the sight of the ship made Jun lose his words. Arashia was different from any standard frigate ships Jun had ever seen. She was slimmer and looked more agile. There were four thrusters on the aft and the sides. The ship was slightly longer than the usual frigates and had several armaments equipped to it. Her silvery white exterior glittered in rainbow colors due to the reflection of starlight. Aiba turned back in his pilot seat to look at the reaction of the new guests. He smiled proudly when he saw the awe-struck faces of both Jun and Ohno upon seeing the spaceship.
“I know, she’s beautiful, isn’t she?” Aiba said happily and winked at Sho. Sho chuckled in amusement. He always liked it when Aiba treated the ship like his own kid and he was the proud parent. “Your ship….” Jun still could not find words, which made Aiba felt even prouder. “Well, you would be more amazed if I tell you the whole story of this ship. You know, she is not just any standard Federation frigate. Nino have modified her a lot from the original specs. Now, she is uniquely ours.” Aiba said proudly. Then Aiba suddenly remembered something.
“Oh, right! You remember Nino, right? You know, Ninomiya, our old roommate.”
Jun’s face turned slightly redden. He did not say anything in response. Aiba looked at Jun and realized that was not a good sign. Jun and Nino had a history. It wasn’t a particularly good one. Aiba’s mood changed suddenly from the realization. Well, in fact, they all had a history.
The truth was that Aiba had had a crush on Jun since their first year at the Academy. By the second year, Jun reciprocated. He also fell for Aiba – BIG time. They were roommates and they were attracted to one another. Things were great until Jun lost his parents to an accident in his third year. Jun shut himself in and started focusing only on his study after that. The thing was, Jun saw Aiba as a distraction. Aiba knew Jun always wanted to become a high-ranking officer, his father was one, and it was his promise to his parents. Jun probably thought Aiba and their relationship would have just gotten in the way. Aiba believed Jun would never regret focusing on his education and his career instead of his emotions and feelings. And Aiba was grown up enough to respect Jun’s decision. Nonetheless, they managed to stay roommates even after that, which was strange to everyone else. It was until Jun accused Nino of cheating in an exam and forced Nino to resign from the Academy that the thing between Jun and Aiba became too weird. It was like one day Aiba woke up and found Jun a complete stranger. Someone he could not understand anymore.
After their graduation, Aiba still tried to keep in touch. Generally they were nothing too fancy, just some messages and voice memos, but Jun had been ignoring Aiba ever since. Jun never responded to messages that Aiba sent through Starfleet mail system and his personal datapad. He also ignored every single New Year and Birthday old-fashion paper cards from Aiba. Aiba was a persistent person but everything had a line. Aiba wasn’t sure he was being a good friend that kept in touch with his former roommate or he was just a plain stalker clinging on to his ex-boyfriend. So, after being ignored by Jun for so many years, Aiba gradually stopped sending messages and cards. Aiba told himself he had to move on.
Now, with Jun just an arm length away, Aiba began to see the complication of inviting Jun and Ohno to their spaceship. Aiba turned his gaze away from Jun and back toward the screen in front of him. His eyes kept focus on the screens and monitors of the shuttle but his mind was elsewhere. Aiba was thinking about Nino and how his best friend would think about this. Nino was not going to be happy.
Nino had been friend with Aiba since they were just little boys running around a busy intergalactic market in a human colony. Aiba’s parents were travelling space merchants hopping from one planet to another looking for things to trade. Nino’s family ran an infamous repair shop near the colony shipyard – accepting legal and illegal customers alike. Aiba family received repair services of their merchant ship at Ninomiya’s, as well as doing some parts trading there. Aiba and Nino were tight even though Aiba could never stay in the colony for an extended period. Aiba felt they fitted perfectly. Because of Aiba’s family business, Aiba could not be in one place for long and it was hard to become serious friends with anyone. Friends, Aiba had learned since he was young, tended to prefer that you were there for them. But Aiba could only maintained long distance relationships, literally. He could not be there to share experiences with them. However, for someone like Nino who almost always preferred the solitude of his own working space, playing with machines and trinkets, Aiba and his lifestyle suited him perfectly. Nino wanted someone who could connect with him without having to try and Nino did not want to put so much efforts into socializing and hanging out needlessly. Because of Nino’s strange viewpoint and lifestyle, Nino hardly ever made any friends on the colony. He didn’t connect with anyone. Being in a repair shop, Nino learned that people just came and went in his life, except a very few long time customers of his family. Because of that, Aiba’s occasional visits were some of few constants in Nino’s life. For Nino, it did not matter that Aiba was never there for an extensive period. Every time they met, they connected. And throughout the years, they remained connected. Aiba had become the only constant friend in Nino’s life. And for Aiba, Nino was the perfect kind of friends Aiba needed in his life. Aiba was never in one place for a long time. He didn’t really have any place to call home, except his family merchant ship. Aiba yearned for a place he would belong to. For Aiba, Nino represented that place because Nino was someone who would always be there in his small shop, waiting for Aiba to return.
It was when Nino told Aiba he was going to apply for the Academy that Aiba thought about the Starfleet life seriously. Nino’s mother wanted Nino to be in the military. Aiba guessed that, for someone who had lived off a shady business all her life, she wanted her only son to have a respectable and honorable life. Because that’s what Mom wanted, Nino decided to apply to the prestigious Starfleet Academy. It was true that Aiba kind of wanted to be in the military – mostly for the sense of adventure. For Aiba, it was either a super-cool Federation officer or a sexy space pirate. Aiba’s parents decided it would be better for Aiba (and the family) if he steered clear of the silly pirate idea and joined Federation. Nino and Aiba entered the Academy together. Nino was a talented and bright cadet although he was not keen in working with others in general. Aiba, on the other hand, flourished at the Academy. Aiba wasn’t particularly good at lessons but everyone was warm toward him and they had helped him in the study. People either liked Aiba a lot or felt benevolence toward him. As a result, Aiba began making friends while Nino stayed a rather secluded person. But that had never been a problem in their friendships. The two were almost inseparable.
However, Aiba knew Nino well enough to sense that Nino felt unhappy at the Academy. His characters didn’t suit a future of military life – it was not interesting to him and Nino hated following rules and regulations. He disliked interacting with too many people. Nino liked gadgets and computers. Machines were fun to him. They were preferable to untrustworthy people. Aiba knew that Nino felt that fixing machines and spaceships were more fun than leading soldiers or commanding a spaceship. Nonetheless, Nino remained in the Academy for the sake of his mother. Nino’s future plan (or what his Mom planned for him) suddenly changed when he was forced to drop out of the Academy by the end of his third year. His mother cried for almost a month and it hurt Nino more. Aiba was also very unhappy with the incident. Not only because Nino was miserable but because Nino would now return home while Aiba remained at the Academy.
After spending the next few years working in his family shop, Nino picked up all his pieces and decided to get on with his life. He went to an engineering school and graduated the top of his class. By that time, Aiba had already graduated from the Academy and was working in the exploration branch of the Federation. Aiba had kept in touch with Nino throughout the years and the two remained tight even though they were far apart. When Aiba was appointed a leader of an exploration team, he requested that Nino worked tech for him. At that time, Ninomiya family shop was just shut down because of the Federation’s stricter regulation on illegal trades with pirates and slavers. Nino was out of job (and barely managed to stay out of jail). Normally, the Federation would not allow suspected criminals or law-breakers to work in Starfleet, yet, because of Aiba's request and his mentor, General Shimura, pulling some strings, the Federation made an exception allowing Nino to join Aiba's exploration team. Although Nino was probably better off working away from the Federation, Nino would not say no to Aiba. So Nino had become a Federation engineering officer, working under commander Aiba. Since then, Nino had been the permanent residence of Arashia's engineering bay.
Nino was screaming his name so loudly Aiba thought the whole deck must have heard him – but then, their deck wasn’t very large to begin with. And there were hardly anyone there. Sho was out showing Ohno to the guest quarter, leaving only him and Jun, who was sitting on the other side of the command center, completely ignoring Aiba altogether. Aiba looked toward the direction of the shout. Nino was walking straight at him. His furious face was noticeable even from afar. Aiba knew right away that Nino meant trouble.
"Nino. What's up?" Aiba greeted Nino rather weakly. Angry Nino was one of the scariest things in Aiba’s opinion – probably second only to that weird kangaroo-like creature that jumped at him once on an expedition.
"Don't you 'what's up?' me. I heard it on the intercom. Why did you pick him up?!?" Nino was furious. His voice raised high, matching his expressive facial expressions. It was obvious Nino was very angry.
"Pick whom?” Aiba tried to play naive but seeing Nino looking positively annoyed made him change the act. “Oh, you mean Jun? His ship crashed. We picked up his distress signal – you know that – you were the one that helped me pinpoint the exact location. And you know, it was a distress signal. We had to help."
"You could have just left him some supplies and let him wait for the next cargo ship or Federation ship travelling this way. Why did you have to pick that jerk up and house him here in Arashia?" It did look like Nino was about to attack Aiba with more screams when a cough could be heard. Of course, they weren't alone in the room. The newest guest was also there and he heard every words that had just been said.
"Hello, Nino. It has been a long time." Jun broke the silence. Nino turned to stare at him intensely as soon as he realized Jun was also in the control room.
"Hello, Jun. It has been such a long time, hasn’t it? Oh, thanks for getting me kicked out of the Academy. I was surprised you weren’t named the biggest asshole at the Academy on your graduation.” Nino said sarcastically.
"You cheated, Nino. I had to tell the truth. We were going to be Federation officers after graduation. We had to have honor and integrity." Jun said it rather coldly but Aiba could see Nino's words were getting on Jun’s nerves. Aiba nervously stepped in the middle, hoping to rectify the situation.
"Ah...a reunion. Isn't this great? Just like when we were cadets." Aiba tried to remain cheery. It was difficult with Jun and Nino having a staring fight with him in the middle.
"I didn't cheat. You just couldn't accept the fact that I could score higher than you in the Strategic exam." Nino sounded murderous it scared Aiba. Okay, Aiba was beginning to feel that maybe getting Jun on Arashia was a bad idea.
"You manipulated the instructor into giving exams the way you wanted. That's cheating!" Jun started raising his voice. Aiba felt he was getting smaller and smaller.
"No, it's not! It's called being smart. You just couldn't accept me being smarter, you dumb pri..." Nino didn't get his insult through as Aiba grabbed and pulled him out of the deck before then.
Safe in another room, Aiba let go of Nino who was still venting his frustration in a struggle.
"You shouldn't be saying all those things to Jun, Nino. He is a Specter. He's all important now. We have to treat him with respect."
"A specter, so what? I respect a person for what he does, not because of a title. He can shove his title up his ar.." Nino's insult was cut short again. This time Aiba’s hand clamped on top of Nino's mouth, not letting the smaller man speak.
"I am serious, Nino. Don’t pick a fight with him. I don't want you to run into trouble again." Aiba’s voice was gentler. It was obvious he was worried about Nino’s past and what that could lead him to if things weren’t going well with the Federation. Nino had to turn away. He could not stand seeing Aiba being this serious especially when it was because of him.
“There is no need for that. I know how to stay away from trouble now. I won’t cause you any problems.” Nino said somewhat bitterly.
“No, no… I did not mean that.” Aiba responded quickly. “You know that, Nino. I would never think of you as a trouble.”
The sincerity and seriousness of Aiba’s voice was so endearing Nino had to hide his gaze and pretended to look all pissed off and serious. After getting himself composed again, Nino looked back at Aiba in the eyes. “Please take it from me who learned it the hard way, Masaki. Get rid of Jun as soon as you can. He IS trouble.” And with that, Nino left Aiba standing alone in the walkway. Aiba remained still, his gaze followed the back of Nino heading toward the engineering bay.
Aiba wished he could do what Nino said. But he just couldn’t.
After all these years, Aiba knew he couldn’t stay away from Jun.
“What do you mean I cannot work on this assignment alone?” Jun bellowed at the flashing screen in front of him. He was using the ship communication bay to contact the Specter headquarter.
“If what you have been reporting us is true, the mission is highly critical to the safety of human colonies. We want every able man we can find to help identifying the source of the disappearance and locating the slaver operation base.” A calm but stern female voice said to him from the screen. It was Julie Fukushima, one of the Generals supervising all the colonial operations. She was the person giving Jun the case in the first place.
“That’s why I think I should work alone. Aiba and his crew would just drag me down. You have seen my records. I work better that way. I don’t want some inexperience officers to be responsible for something as crucial as this.” Jun did not mean to be angry or emotional, but by the end of his speech, he realized he was yelling at the screen. General Fukushima was visibly taken aback. Silence filled the room for almost a minute. Jun was breathing heavily trying to control his feelings. Why was he this angry? There was no reason, none at all.
“The decision has been made, Commander Matsumoto. You will follow our directive. The operation must continue with both you and Commander Aiba on it.” General Fukushima said to him in a strict authoritative voice. Jun knew that was the end of the discussion. He bit his lips, Jun was still not used to people not doing things his way. His head tilted down a little so the general would not see how furious he was.
“Aiba is a capable officer. Both Sakurai and Ninomiya are actually among the best in their fields. Get to know them, Matsumoto. You will find Aiba and his crew an extremely valuable ally.” General Fukushima commented. “Maybe it is time for you to stop working alone.” She gave him a final suggestion, in a much cooler tone, before the transmission ended.
Jun swore under his breath. He didn’t like what he just heard. He did not want to work with something he had been running away from for the last ten years. Would there really be no escape for him?
“Let me say this first. I don’t want any of you on this mission with me.”
Jun stated right at the start of the meeting. They were sitting in a round table in a makeshift “war room”. It was technically a part of the extended command center but, from what Jun could see, it had been used as a dining room and a break room for Arashia’s small crew. Some local snacks Jun recognized from various different planets: Valmalus, Slekon and Vebinok. Those were three different planets in three different systems from three different Clusters. This ship sure travelled a lot, Jun thought. Well, they might have been all over the Galaxy but it did not mean the crew would have any experiences running a critical mission. Jun sighed. An order was an order and Jun had to include Arashia’s crew in this. Jun looked around the room. Aiba was sitting closest to him on his right. His eyes glittered in excitement. Sho was on Jun’s left, opposite to Aiba. His posture was more reserved and he seemed quite pensive about the new development. Nino was standing at the exit, looking like he would rather be anywhere else but here. Ohno was in a chair that he dragged there to sit closer to Nino. Jun frowned a little, wondering how the two could get along so well so quickly.
Jun began the briefing. There were attacks on several human colonies in the past year – that part everyone knew. The patterns were the same in all of the attacks. The settlement would be ransacked and every colonist missing. Yet, the attacks were so random, it was impossible to predict where the attack would come next. Jun had been on the case after the first couple of mass abductions. Gradually, he started seeing something consistent in all the attacks. The settlements were usually composed of younger colonists or they were relatively early settlements. None of people that disappeared were older than 50. That led Jun to believe the slavers were behind this. What Jun still did not understand was the scale of the abduction. Jun could not believe a slaver ring would be as bold and ambitious as this. Jun believed someone was behind it. Jun’s investigation had led him to the Attican Traverse. Jun was certain the slaver operation base was on one of the planet in the Dekka system. But Jun’s ship was attacked as soon as it entered the system. They already knew the rest.
“There is an abandoned research base there in Plagia. I want to investigate it.” Jun concluded after giving a brief summary of his investigation. It had been his life in the past year. He was not going to stop until he saw it through.
“I see. Let’s go there.” Aiba concluded, rather too easily. All eyes turned at him instantly. Some were obviously disapproving of his too-quick decision making. Jun and Nino were the ones with strongest physical reactions.
“It’s not going to be easy. We don’t know what is waiting for us.” It was Sho who finally offered verbal protest.
“Won’t that make it interesting?” Aiba asked and tilted his head a little. He tried winking at Jun, but failed miserably. It came out more like someone trying to get dirt out of his eye. Jun could not believe this guy was the captain of the spaceship. “Sho and I are going with you while Nino can provide support from Arashia. Ohno can stay with Nino here and be our backup in case there is an emergency.” Aiba assigned roles to everyone – forgetting to ask Jun what he had in mind. Jun was about to voice his protest but a quick look into Aiba’s eyes and Jun knew he could not win over that kind of determination. Aiba had his mind set on the new “expedition”. For Aiba, they were all in the same boat and they were in this together. There was no other choice. Jun wasn’t sure he agreed to that, yet, he wasn’t going to protest. Jun was already given an order from General Fukushima.
“If we are going to investigate the research base together, you better prepare yourself. Show me the ship’s armory. We need to get equipped.” Jun said in defeated. Aiba was beaming eagerly like a kid getting his Christmas present early. Just a little behind, Sho looked really weary. Sho wasn’t sure Aiba knew what he had just signed up himself and everyone else for.
Sho’s inner thought matched exactly the sentiment Jun had in mind.
Although the research station seemed empty, Aiba, Jun and Sho moved cautiously and stealthily toward the main building. They had landed the shuttle some distance away and decided to make their way on foot. Jun was clearly not happy about two more people adding to his investigation. For Jun, it seemed like what he got were these two – a gangly scientist and his underachiever first officer. Jun would like to think of Aiba that way. He was a scientist, no matter what the HQ said. This guy was not up to the field operation. A field exploration and survey, maybe, but definitely not what they were up to right now.
Aiba was in a combat suit, something he had not worn since he was out of the academy. His pistol was right on his side and his sniper rifle on his back. After knowing about Jun’s mission, Aiba had put all of his hope in finding the abducted colonists and he was all confident that Jun was going to help him achieve that goal. Aiba could feel Jun wasn’t too trusting of him and Sho. And Aiba couldn’t really blame him. Secretly, Aiba felt slightly unsure of himself. Of course, he was an experienced field officer and his shooting skill was superb. He often used a tranquilizer rifle to capture various alien creatures during the expeditions. But Aiba didn’t often get into real combat situations. He could never be so sure of his own ability with the combat rifle with live ammo instead of the exploration one with tranquilizer shot. However, he had full confidence in Sho, given his long CV and credentials on field and combat experiences. Just a little to Aiba’s right, Sho looked relatively comfortable in his own combat suit. It was thicker and heavier than Aiba’s, providing better protection suitable for Sho’s style of combat. His shotgun was on his back while his assault rifle was ready in his hand. Sho had been an experienced field combat expert who traveled with the Federation top-level vassel before he transferred to Arashia. Sho was the first son of General Sakurai, a Federation Council member, and he was on his way to top level appointment. Yet, Sho decided to work with Aiba on Arashia - the decision that Aiba was yet to understand. But right now, in this situation, Aiba was thankful for Sho's decision. Sho was the one Aiba could rely on completely. That knowledge gave him courage and a peace of mind.
Jun had been on high alert since the team entered the facility. Jun felt something was off. He did not like how it felt since they had landed on the planet. For a start, everything looked too neat. It did not look like a place that had been abandoned for the last four years like it was stated on the Federation’s record.
“This is strange. The scanner shows that there is no one in the research base. It is completely uninhabited.” Sho looked toward Jun, expecting a comment from the specter. It was Jun’s intention to visit here after all.
“They probably knew we were coming. Now they are gone.” Jun said disappointedly. He did not like failure. This lead was the best one he had. Several informants and Intel suggested that this was the place. It was where the operation base was. It was confirmed by a slave Jun rescued earlier that he was held here for some time before being shipped out to the black market. If Jun came up empty right here, he would have to go back to zero – with no leads again. Already Jun felt anger boiling inside him.
“It is unlikely they could detect our ship. Nino’s advance stealth system never fails us. Maybe we should investigate this site a little more.” Aiba would not lose hope. His voice was as hopeful and expectant as ever. Aiba might not understand it but he had full confidence in Nino’s fancy tech. He was certain their visit was undetected. If there was anything on this station, they weren’t alarmed – yet. Jun thought about that just a bit before he nodded in agreement. They were already there. If this place was really the secret operation base before they arrived, there might still be some traces left for further investigation.
The team proceeded uneventfully to the control center of the research station. Jun headed the group, Aiba followed close by, and Sho trailed behind looking out for danger. Each one of them had different feelings from the other. Jun concentrated on finding more clues. Aiba looked overly excited. Sho was very concerned and on high alert. All of them had weapons out and ready, in case there were unwelcomed encounters. Jun kept rechecking the station blueprint on his monitor. So far, the path seemed uninhabited. There really was no one in the station.
Finally, they made it into the control center. Jun went straight to check the information on the station database. It was protected and coded so Jun had to spend some time letting his personal A.I. hack and decoder to work their magic. Aiba went to another computer trying to figure out what happened to the Research station. According to the official log, it was decommissioned four years ago because of the project funding cut. But Aiba found that there was traces of activities in the station mainframe as recent as last month. Something was really fishy.
Then, an alarm resonated throughout the Research station. “It’s the automated defense system!” Jun shouted in alarm. Somehow, the sleeping machine had come back to life. The automatic lock down was also in effect. The space brightened up in flashing orange and red warning lights and the digitalized sounds of the machine repeated the phase warning about intruders. Someone must have rigged the base computer, making the self-defense mechanism activated as soon as someone tried hacking into the database. The slavers must have laid a trap here and Jun walked right into it, dragging Aiba and Sho along with him.
The three exchanged glances. Sho's eyebrows twisted in a nod. He turned to meet Jun's eyes briefly before switching his gaze at Aiba, who looked surprisingly calm, just a spark in his eyes telling the others that Aiba wasn't all that calm. Aiba was in fact frightened, he just did not want it to show. He said repeatedly into the intercom in his ears,
"Nino? Nino? Can you hear us?" Nino had been in communication with them through this time, providing them tech support and important data feed from what Nino could get through the base mainframe and the Federation ComLink. Now, Aiba seemed to lose contact with his chief engineer. He turned to Jun and Sho to deliver the bad news.
"I lost Nino. The self-defense mechanism must have blocked all outside communications." Aiba speculated worryingly. They were going to have to break out of here by themselves. Sho suggested, "We don't have the layout of this place for alternate routes. We have to go back to the entrance." That was quite a distance. Jun’s expression clearly indicated he did not like the idea but he could not think of any other ways.
Seeing there was no other suggestions, Sho readied his shotgun, "I am going in the front. Commander Matsumoto, your automatic assault rifle does good mid-range shots, right? I will take care of anything coming close range to us." Then he turned to Aiba, "Take out the security cameras, defense guns and turrets, okay?" Aiba nodded understandingly. Jun was surprised at the sudden switch in roles between Aiba and his first officer. Suddenly, when they entered combat mode, Sho obviously took the leading role and included Jun into his roster too. Sho probably knew better of his own strength as well as Aiba's. Strangely, Sho seemed to know Jun’s strength. He knew Jun worked better with the mid-range target. Jun suspected that Sho must have studied him. So, Jun complied with the suggestions.
As soon as the group moved out of the control center, they were greeted by several security androids. Sho blew the closest ones with his shotgun and Jun took out a couple more in the rear. Aiba hid behind the cover of the back panel close to the control center entrance, aiming his rifle at the automatic guns at the center and the back of the room. Jun felt strange working with the other two and he had to admit, it was easier to get past different layers of the station defense than if he had to work alone. His combat style changed too. Instead of using stealth to get through a large group of enemies like he normally did, now he just went at them head on. He got an adrenaline rush from the different kind of combat and Jun had to admit he was liking this. But Jun tried keeping his face straight.
The three of them moved cautiously in close proximity. They were almost at the entrance when, suddenly, they were facing a large group of security androids and two turrets stationed at the gate. They dispersed quickly, trying to find strategic positions to get through the heavy group of enemies. Sho slowly advanced forward, taking a few androids along the way with Jun’s support, yet, there were still quite a few more. The androids were moving around the parameter to encircle them. Sho couldn’t move forward because of the relentless firing from automatic guns and several androids that camped out near the door way. He looked back toward his captain for assistance. “Aiba! A little help, please.” Sho shouted and Aiba responded quickly. A few androids fell on the floor – the results of Aiba’s marksmanship. He continued on to shoot at the turret guns near the entrance, disabling both of them. Jun could not help looking back to the sniper in amazement.
That was when Jun noticed a couple of androids closing in from the back. Aiba had no idea he was in danger and continued to support Sho’s advance. Instead of yelling a warning, Jun’s body responded instinctively to the threat on Aiba’s life. Jun dashed out of his cover, his assault rifle pointed at the sneaking robots, and he let out several rounds at the incoming targets. Right then, his eyes met with Aiba and Jun saw surprise and panic in Aiba’s eyes. To Jun’s surprise, Aiba hastily dropped his long rifle, jumped out of his cover and dashed at Jun. His arm reached forward. In that split second, Jun felt a blinding pain as Aiba’s body crashed into his. Both of them fell on the floor in a loud thud with Jun’s head knocking hard on the floor upon impact. Jun groaned painfully. He could hear Aiba, who laid on top of him, whimper weakly.
There was a loud shouting from Sho not far from where Jun and Aiba were. Jun raised his head just in time to see the cause of Sho’s urgent shout. Other androids were advancing on them. Unable to move freely, Aiba and Jun were practically sitting ducks. With impressive reflects, Sho ran and jumped as quickly as he could, heading toward the two. He took out his pistol and released multiple shots all around. His movement was quick and his shots were decisive. The androids fell down left and right, disposed by the precise and deadly shots from Sho’s pistol. Sho looked around making sure that all androids were destroyed before he knelt down next to Aiba and Jun.
At the same time, Jun pushed Aiba to the side. Aiba turned on his back but he wasn’t moving much. Both Sho and Jun looked at the man in alarm. Aiba was whimpering in pain. He was clearly hurt. Jun raised up and his hands reached out to survey any damage and injury on the laying man. Jun’s face changed when he saw it. Aiba had been hit on his left shoulder. There was a large hole in his body armor where the shot must have landed and Jun could see a scorching burn on Aiba’s skin. Jun bit his lips, trying to control his emotions. In seconds, Sho was right on his side. He was calling Aiba, trying to get the man on the floor to focus.
“Acid ammo. It is going to continue eating his flesh if we don’t get it off.” Sho said in an urgent voice. “We are getting you out of here, Masaki. Hang in there, okay?” Aiba breathed in and out deeply. It hurt but he did not want to worry his friends too much. Aiba tried to sound as assuring as he could.
“Okay…” Aiba replied with some difficulty and tried to get up on his feet with Jun’s support.
“Let’s go.” Jun balanced Aiba’s unsteady frame on his left side and started moving forward slowly. He noticed Sho looked at him funnily for a brief moment before turning back, leading them to the front gate. Jun still had his assault rifle in his right hand ready to shoot at anything coming their way. But no more androids could be seen at the entrance. Sho spent just a minute bypassing the control of the main gate, unlocking it. Both Jun and Sho had the same thing on their minds. They worried about more defense system installed around the station outer parameter. They had to make their way back to the shuttle through the large opening outside the station. And with Aiba injured, they would be very slow. Their future looked grim.
However, as soon as the front gate was opened again, all three men were surprised at the sight that greeted them. At the large landing out front, it was Arashia. Nino had decided to land the spaceship right in the front of the station after he had lost communication with the team. Sho looked around and saw that all of the parameter defenses were taken care off. It was quite a scene. All androids and automated machine guns were blown to bits. Sho never knew Nino was that good with guns and cannons. Nino was yelling at them through the now-functional intercom, asking them to get on the ship quickly. Seeing that the help had arrived, Jun was relieved. He glanced at Aiba on his side. Aiba was now half-unconscious but he was going to be okay.
Then, out of the blue, Jun began feeling light-headed. In the next step he advanced forward, Jun suddenly dropped on his knees. Aiba’s whole body trembled down with him. Everything was becoming a blur and the last thing Jun remembered was Sho yelling his name.