The girl with the white hair left everyone else confounded. No one seemed able to breathe a word or make a move in her presence, and so she took control.
Ila’s smile evaporated from her lips as she closed the distance between herself and those she had come to see. Nothing about her appeared optimistic, as if she was carrying some heavy load, yet she radiated a patent hope, like a flickering candle teasing the darkness.
She reached Arras and Danny and lowered herself to the floor. Radiating an aura that was at once familiar and foreign, she draped her arms around both of them.
“I’m so happy to see you,” Ila said to them, closing her eyes as she pulled them in. “You’ve done so well.”
Arras and Danny both struggled to register what they were experiencing; in that moment, they knelt before what felt like a true impossibility. Nonetheless, they returned Ila’s embrace. The sensation was odd, but only because it was so enlivening, as if to awaken them both to the reality of the girl in their arms.
Thinking about it, Danny recognized this girl more than he first realized. Her presence, that subtle yet undeniable aura—he had encountered it a number of times before. He had felt it in reading strange texts on his phone, and behind Thaddeus Mack’s faux mansion. He felt it in dreams and borrowed memories, and in the final moments of his battle with the Surcease of Enmity. The last time he had felt this presence, and even seen the girl to whom it belonged, was when she had saved him from an otherwise imminent death at the hands of the Infinitude of Truth. This was that girl; she was no longer an ineffable feeling but a concrete person.
Arras, however, had not felt Ila’s presence for some time. Yet she could feel her breathing in her arms, her chest rising and falling. She could feel the warmth of her body. She could feel her sister’s thin arms around her. She was real—this really was Ila—and in that recognition, Arras could say nothing. This embrace was all that she needed.
Ila pulled away from them, then looked up at her mother. Suo stood at Ila’s side, smiling understandingly back at her daughter; she had no way of holding Ila, not like the others, but she could still dutifully stand by her.
Aurin appeared from thin air, speaking her name in a weak voice. She turned to her father as he fell to his knees beside her. Out of pure instinct, he reached his hands out to her, but stopped short, leaving his fingers to float hopelessly over her cheeks. There was a tortured look on his face as he stared into his youngest daughter’s eyes, caught between the limitations of his immaterial body and the desire rooted in his very being.
“Father, it’s been so long,” she said in words as soft as his own, staring back into his tormented eyes with a soothing gaze. “Please, there’s no need to be so sad.”
Ila reached for him with her own hand, stopping at her father’s cheek. She waited for the brief moment it took for him and the others to register what she had done: where her palm and fingers made contact with the image of Aurin’s face, strands of blue flared across her skin, mediating sensory data and force feedback between her hand and what should have only been a mixture of holograms and mind tricks. As if he had never left his body, Aurin felt Ila’s hand against his cheek, and she felt him in turn.
“I altered the haptics in my net,” she explained as Aurin continued trying to process what was happening, cupping her hand in his own. “What do you think? I thought you might like it.”
A few tears strolled down Aurin’s cheeks, pooling in the space where Ila’s fingers met his now seemingly physical flesh. Without restraint, he leaned forward and threw his arms around Ila; with the connection mediated by her net, her body responded to his movements. Unsure of any of this, Suo nevertheless knelt down between her husband and Ila and held them both. Their tears dripped down to her, and where they encountered her bare skin, Ila’s net emulated the sensation of moisture, and where their bodies connected she felt the sensory data for body heat. Via the haptical effects of the interface in her net, both father and mother held one of their daughters for the first time in two centuries. Were it not for the flaring streams of nanomachines beneath her clothes and running up her neck, the three of them might have appeared entirely normal then.
Clutching Ila close, Aurin closed his eyes and held back more tears. He could remember the last time he had genuinely wept; it had been more than a hundred years ago, when he had tried to end his own life with the sentry guns in the solar orbital’s control room. He had not found death that day, but he knew he was not weeping alone either—he could remember that faint presence, weeping as many tears as he was. Not until that moment could he truly sense the gravity of it, that that had been his little girl watching over him. The very girl he thought he would never see again, let alone hold in his arms.
Ila whispered tenderly to both her mother and father, cradling their heads beneath her own with a gentle smile. But for all the tears they shed in her arms, Ila did not cry. She only smiled, basking in the moment.
Damon laid nearly all his weight onto his cane, in need of real support to remain upright. He felt a lump in his throat as he watched what he never thought he would see—the entire Enqelin family, reunited. Noticing Damon’s transfixion, Ila looked up from her parents and smiled at him as well, and she spoke words that could have moved him to as many tears as her mother and father.
“Damon, I’m grateful to you. Thank you for fulfilling Asael’s promise to my family.”
Entirely speechless, to Damon this red-eyed young lady was the very reason all of them had made it to this point, not him. She was the architect of this alternative to the Enqelins’ original scenario; she was the drive that had seen them this far. And she was the one who had called him to fulfill the promise Asael Mack had made to Aurin Enqelin and his family all those years ago. Were it not for her intervention, he knew he would have died as any other man in his family had, simply awaiting the ever-deferred day.
In Damon’s view, he was no longer staring into the pale face of a teenage girl, but that of an iridescent archangel.
Containing himself, he stood up straight, the end of his cane—Asael Mack’s cane—smartly anchored to the floor. With the respect he had shown only to superior officers and elders in his lifetime, and the gratitude he felt his ancestor himself would demand him to express, Damon replied with the only words he could muster.
“It was my genuine pleasure to serve you and your family.”
Turning from Damon, Ila’s eyes landed on Valiya, who seemed as petrified as everyone else.
“I have to thank you, too, Valiya,” Ila said. “For all that you’ve done for us, I know it’s cost you so much.”
“N-not at all,” Val stammered. Catching herself, she bowed her head deeply, the way she would have saluted a dignitary when she was a proxy. “It was also my pleasure to help.”
The rest of the room stared at Ila as dumbfounded as before, but they each came to themselves soon enough. The longer she was with them, the more she seemed to blend in with the rest of them.
“There’s so many things to discuss, Ila,” Suo said, pulling back from her daughter enough to get a good look at her. Stroking Ila’s cheeks, she felt almost beside herself. “Where have you been? Wh-what happened to you? No, no—Love, how is it you’re even here?”
“You all must have so many questions for me.” Ila took her mother’s hand in her own, but she shook her head in response. “I’m sorry, but there are only so many answers I can give.”
“What do you mean?” Suo asked.
“It’s like I’ve just woken up from a very long sleep,” Ila explained in a low voice, looking down at the floor in thought. “Everything that happened to me feels like a dream, and the memory of that dream is fading fast. I know it must sound strange… but I can’t remember much at all.”
Danny was the first to get to his feet. He helped Arras back up, then offered a hand to Ila. Suo and Aurin stood up with her, still remaining glued to Ila.
“You really can’t remember anything?” Arras asked, leaning on Danny for support, still a little lightheaded from before. “Can you remember how you got here?”
Ila shook her head again. “I’m sorry, but I can’t.”
“What about the message you left us in that theater on Eilikh?” Arras persisted. “It said that you’d… that you’d been killed, and that your death had even sparked a civil war that ended the Coalition.”
Nodding along to Arras’ words, Ila knit her eyebrows in yet deeper thought, but she replied with the same apologetic expression.
“I’m sorry, but where I’ve been, how I got here, or even how I died—I really can’t say. There are historical footnotes I can recollect, like the founding of the New Pact. I can remember contacting Daniel somehow… and bits and pieces of some other moments when I made contact with you. But almost everything beyond that…”
“How about when you saved me from Truth?” Danny asked, hoping to get a better grasp of what they were dealing with. “Do you remember that?”
“I’m very glad that you made it out of that all right,” Ila replied with a hint of surprise, as if she had never heard about this, let alone experienced it. “Honestly, I can’t remember much of that either.” Looking down at herself, Ila bounced between apologetic and pensive. “I can remember deciding it was time to come to all of you directly, but that meant having to descend to a lower state of being. I had to empty myself of a lot in order to come to you like this. But I’m sure it was for a good reason.” Though she was wary herself, Ila’s voice suddenly filled with determination. “I can’t remember all the details, but I know why I’m here. I’m here because it’s necessary for me to intervene one last time…”
Before anyone could reply, Ila stepped back a few paces from the group, then cleared her throat. “Truth plans to take away every ally you could possibly have. And she wants to make sure you have nowhere to hide, on Earth or in the New Pact. She’s trying to drive you out into the open and force your hand.”
“That would explain what happened this afternoon,” Damon said, listening to her carefully. “Because of her, our fair planet isn’t exactly the most hospitable of places now.”
Ila nodded vigorously, then said, “Psychological warfare. She wants to turn everyone on you—all of humanity, if she can.”
Danny could feel the same question that had haunted him since Truth had shown up above Earth return to him; it stuck like a thorn in his side. “If Truth just wants to force us into the open,” he asked Ila, “why not just destroy the planet and be done with it? It’s not like she needs my people to do her dirty work for her.”
“Your morale,” Ila said simply. “For Truth, it’s not about just taking away your hiding places, but showing you what happens when you resist her… She wants you to see your whole world crumble. She knows she can’t face you yet, but she also knows you’re not yet able to stop her with Ridarin. Truth believes that this is the only way she can make you truly vulnerable, by not only smoking you out but by making you suffer emotionally and mentally.”
Val brought her hand to her chin, thinking this over. “So that’s why she’s put us on a timer, then. Make Earth too hostile for us to stay, and tug at whatever compassion we might have with her seventy-two-hour ultimatum.”
“That’s rather vindictive,” Damon muttered. “So she wants us to wrestle with the idea that our own would sell us out. Another odd tactic…”
“I don’t mean to be rude,” Danny cut in again, “but knowing how screwed we are doesn’t give us a solution. Regardless of why she’s doing this, it’s working; we’re almost completely out of options. If we stay here, the people will just get crazier; and if we wait too long to make a move, then Truth will make good on her threat. The only other option is to leave Earth. Is that what she really wants, though? I mean, working from space would be difficult, but not impossible.”
“That still wouldn’t explain why Truth doesn’t attack us,” Arras added. “Even if she can’t take on Ridarin directly, she could still unleash Rededication on us. If she wants us dead, she’s just dragging her feet at this point. But if she wants to force us into the open, then most of her moves are superfluous.”
Bowing her head under everyone’s collective confusion, Ila said, “I don’t know why Truth is doing this… But you have to understand, we’re not dealing with an AI. Truth is far, far more than that.”
“What do you mean?” Arras asked, narrowing her eyes at the idea. “A Reded AI wouldn’t behave like this, but what are you suggesting?”
“It’s a bit vague, but this is something I know,” Ila replied, turning grave. “This isn’t the same Truth you once knew, Arras. The other AIs went dark near the end of the Coalition’s civil war, but for some reason either no one shut down Truth’s platform, or she somehow rejected the order to do so herself.”
Everyone could tell where she was going with this, but Aurin was the one who could sense the full weight of her words. He knew from experience what this meant. “She’s like me,” he said, looking just as grave as Ila. “Truth’s been awake all this time.”
“I believe so,” Ila said with a sober nod. “And in the two centuries Truth’s been awake, something changed in her. She evolved. She may have been an artificial intelligence, highly complex yet still fabricated, but she’s more than that now. She used to be just another synthetic cognition, like the other AIs, but she’s become a superintelligence. She can think for herself, she can feel, and she’s immune to her own error-correcting code. She has her own thoughts and desires, independent of her previously programmed functions and directives. Truth is no longer merely synthetic; she’s become an actual sentient being, like any one of us.”
Hearing this, Danny revisited his first encounter with Truth. He could remember that ominous feeling he got from her; she overflowed with all the raw intensity and gut-wrenching unpredictability of a wild animal. But what she had said that day on the platform now began to make sense: “The intelligences you’ve previously encountered may have spoiled your opinion… but you don’t know what I am.”
“So I guess that means she can toss out Asimov’s laws of robotics, if she can just do as she pleases,” Danny muttered, his skin crawling at the thought. “But if that’s the case, what is she doing? If she’s not just performing a function or trying to fulfill some directive, what does she want?”
Furrowing her brow in frustration, Ila shook her head once more. “I’m sorry, but I don’t know that either. All I know is that, whatever it is, she was willing to consume all the other AIs, cannibalizing each of them to enhance herself further.”
“She killed her own?” Danny asked. “That’s… pretty twisted, even if they were just computers themselves.”
“But what should we do next?” Val asked, taking a step forward. “Whatever Truth is, and whatever she may be scheming, surely we have options. Ila, if you’re here, then that must mean there’s something we can do.”
“There is,” Ila said resolutely, nodding at Val. “First and foremost, you need to relocate the solar orbital to another star system. Truth has been searching for it ever since she learned of its existence, and she’s almost found it. She knows that if she destroys it, then she’ll eliminate any chance Danny has of using Ridarin against her.”
“What do you mean by that?” Danny asked. “I thought Ridarin didn’t need the orbital to function.”
“It doesn’t, not ultimately,” Suo confirmed, turning to him with a worried expression, “but you and I aren’t yet synchronized to that degree. At our current rate, we still require the orbital for storage and power, and we need Aurin for additional assistance in fabricating additional equipment. The orbital is only a failsafe, yes, but if it’s removed now, you won’t be able to continue training to outgrow it.”
Aurin tightened his lips, looking as worried as Suo. He turned to Ila, to present his worries to her. “You may still remember, but I can’t jump the orbital myself. The drive has to be manually activated, and my nav system requires Arras’ net specifically to input any coordinates.”
Though he didn’t say it, that restriction fell under the same general protocol as the restriction that explicitly prevented Aurin from doing anything that could result in his own death—such as firing an array of turrets at himself or the mainframe that housed his consciousness.
Damon cocked a brow at this. “That’s a strange caveat. Did your original scenario not have a planned response for a situation such as this? I’m sure you couldn’t rely on Arras to always be able to jump the orbital herself.”
“We never anticipated needing an FTL drive for anything more than possibly relocating the orbital after our mission,” Aurin replied. “Besides, the only reason the orbital can survive that close to your sun is because of how much armor it has; at that range, remote detection is nearly impossible, and a blind approach would be suicide. Anyone who wanted to get to the orbital would need coordinates so accurate that they could jump in behind the solar shield, or else they’d be instantly vaporized by the solar wind.”
Aurin turned back to Ila, holding onto that last thought. “How is it that Truth could bypass all of that, though?”
Picking up on something, Val asked Ila, “Is it our ability to analyze FTL events, then?” Still piecing things together, she turned to the others. “If the Americans could track the micro-FTL events resulting from Ridarin’s connection to the orbital, it doesn’t seem that farfetched to think that with enough time Truth could do the same thing to the orbital itself.”
“Yes, that must be it!” Ila answered excitedly, as if she had just found the answer to some difficult equation after hours of work. “That must be part of the reason she drew in the New Pact.”
“But if that’s the case,” Val said, “if we jump to the orbital, then Truth can just probe that FTL event. We would be leading her there ourselves.”
Turning grave once again, Ila said, “That’s true, but we have a slight window of opportunity. The moment you make a jump to the orbital, Truth will take sixty-two minutes to trace your destination through the residual FTL event.”
“At that point, she wouldn’t need to send any ships to destroy the orbital,” Suo added. “She could just jump a few nuclear weapons behind the shield.”
“How long would it take for us to get the jump drive up and running, then?” Danny asked, turning to Aurin with folded arms. “Would we even have a chance?”
Aurin ran a quick calculation, then said, “Taking into account the time it will take for you to dock with the station, as well as the actual work of reactivating the drive, I estimate that we can have the job done in about thirty-four minutes.”
“So it’s doable?”
“Of course it is! It’s basic arithmetic, Daniel.”
“That aside,” Arras said, turning back to Ila, “we would still need to ensure Truth won’t find the orbital again. Is there any place in particular we should go?”
“I’m afraid I don’t have an answer for that either,” Ila replied starkly.
“I can assist Ridarin from any location,” Aurin added. “As long as I have enough power to maintain my tethers to the suit, it doesn’t matter where you send it, so long as it’s far from Truth.”
Val thought this over, then turned to Aurin. “During the civil war, the Coalition government wiped all of its databases, which contained the locations of every occupied planet. The New Pact’s been trying to relocate these worlds ever since, but they still haven’t found them all. Aurin, maybe we can use your own Coalition map data and compare notes. I’m sure we can find a good hiding place for the orbital.”
“Good idea,” Arras seconded. “And with the orbital’s shield, we can make a few more jumps near other stars on our way to create a trail that’s harder for Truth to follow. She won’t be able to probe FTL events that close to other stars before they dissipate.”
“We’re really doing this, then?” Danny asked, suddenly feeling aware of how fast things were moving.
With a shrug, Val said, “It wouldn’t be the hastiest decision we’ve ever made.”
“Good point,” Danny muttered back. Then he glanced back at Ila. “And I guess it doesn’t hurt to have our guardian angel giving us directions.”
Ila smiled back at him, but she seemed rather nervous. Danny’s confidence seemed to weigh heavily on her shoulders; however, Ila pushed past that feeling, as if refusing to acknowledge it at all.
“With what Truth has done,” Ila said, proceeding to their next topic, “I’m afraid you’ll need to leave Earth indefinitely. By doing so, you can short-circuit Truth’s ultimatum; she’ll turn her attention to you exclusively and leave Earth alone.”
“Are you sure about that?” Danny asked, trying to contain his skepticism. “Who’s to say she won’t just bomb the world to hell anyway after we leave?”
Apologetic once again, Ila said, “I’m afraid you’re just going to have to trust me. I don’t have all the details, but I know that’s how it’ll play out.”
Ila turned her eyes away from everyone one last time. Any joy she may have had reuniting with them seemed to have melted away; not even her faint smile remained.
“There’s one last thing,” she said. “Despite what I said before, not all of you can leave.” Forcing herself to turn back to them, she decided she at least owed them the courtesy of not looking away as she delivered her final direction. “The rest of you will leave Earth, but Damon will have to stay behind.”
The moment the words left her mouth, everyone readied themselves to protest.
Val was the first to speak up. “But if we leave Damon, he’ll be in even more danger than he is now. He won’t have Ridarin to protect him. Besides, if Truth realizes one of us is still on the planet, won’t she still make good on her threat?”
Ila appeared to be caught between sympathy and resolve. “I wish from the bottom of my heart that I could assuage your worries, but the fact is that I don’t know the reasons for why it has to be this way. All I know is that this is the path we have to take in order to finally put an end to this.”
Before anyone else could raise a complaint, Damon loudly cleared his throat, gathering everyone’s attention. He placed a light hand on Val’s shoulder and smiled reassuringly at her before addressing everyone.
“I’m grateful for the concern,” he said politely, “but you should know I can take care of myself. If you recall, I wasn’t always a businessman. As for Truth’s ultimatum, I believe Ila has brought us this far already, and if she says Truth will not attack Earth if I remain behind, then she will not attack.”
Ila seemed thankful for Damon’s intervention, though she looked somewhat burdened once again, as she had when Danny expressed his own confidence in her. Even so, she persisted nonetheless, as if trying to hide it from herself and the others.
“Thank you, Damon,” she said. “Truly, thank you.”
“Not at all, my dear,” Damon replied cordially. “However, if I may, I do have one final question for you.”
“I’ll do my best to answer.”
“It’s simply this: why is it that you had us meet you here?” Damon asked, resting both hands on the end of his cane as he spoke. “Surely you could have met us anywhere. Why here?”
Looking back at Damon for a few seconds, Ila tilted her head in thought. Finally, her conclusion came in the form of drooping shoulders and another apology. “I’m sorry, but I really don’t know.”
As if on cue, a staccato flurry of beeps sounded from Damon’s coat pocket. Reaching after the source of the noise, he pulled out his phone.
“Telemarketers?” Danny asked with a hopeful smile.
“It’s not a call,” Damon answered, his face losing color as he read from the screen. “It’s an alarm to notify me if someone attempts to forcibly access the tower’s restricted levels... It seems the elevator is on its way to this floor right now.”