Aurin had already kicked Arras from the system, not daring to risk her becoming infected with the digital contagion that was now fighting for control of the orbital. He had spent the entire time, since the first transports had jumped in, attempting to clear out whatever contamination they had brought with them, and retake the system. However, with every portion of the contagion he managed to eliminate, he found another; though not all systems had been taken, he was unsure how long he could keep this up.
“I can’t say for sure,” was all the explanation he could offer Arras. “Communications have been severed all throughout the station, and I’m locked me out of the comm system.”
“What about air filtration and cabin pressure?” Arras asked, still trying to find any way she could to fight back.
“They’re boarding us, Arras,” Aurin replied sharply. “I don’t think they’re interested in venting us.”
“What, then?” she replied just as pointedly. “What does Truth want?”
“Maybe she wants to take us alive,” Aurin suggested absently, his mind divided. “Maybe she wants Ridarin. Who knows? I can’t waste any processing power guessing.”
Not knowing what else she could do, Arras turned to Ila. “You said we would have more time.”
As much as Arras fixed her gaze on Ila, her little sister could not look her in the eye.
“Ila…” Arras breathed her name in supplication, pleading for her sister to come back, to answer her. To save them.
“One of our modules just disconnected from the station,” Aurin announced in a new fit of panic. “I’m scanning it now… No, no, no!”
“What is it?”
“Daniel and Valiya are aboard, so is your mother,” Aurin replied, his voice nearly vacant, his field of vision elsewhere.
Before Arras could get further details, the sealed bulkhead to the control room burst from the wall and flew down the lengthy walk of steps, landing against a few already decimated terminals. In unison, a row of five mechanized foot soldiers marched into the expansive control room, proceeding to the center of the deck where Arras, Ila, and Aurin stood watching. Their arms already cracked open, their weapons at the ready, the automatons stopped a few feet from their three objectives.
Before they could clear that distance, Arras pulled Ila by the wrist toward her, shielding her. Aurin placed himself between them all; despite his immaterial body, he stood like an impenetrable barrier, holding the foot soldiers back from his daughters. A long pause followed as he glared daggers into the band of machines before him. Yet where Arras and Ila saw only the humanoid automatons, Aurin saw more.
“What is it you want, Truth?” Aurin demanded with a frightening ferocity, snarling every word at the machines, as if their master was there in their place. Yet no response came. The foot soldiers remained where they were, their firearms still raised, as if waiting. Arras still kept herself in front of Ila, and Aurin did the same for both his daughters, boldly staring into the machines.
Breaking the dense silence, Aurin’s shoulders quaked with a chuckle, which erupted into a booming laugh. The laugh waned, and a wild smile cut across his face. “I get it,” he said, unnervingly amused. “You don’t think I’m a threat, do you, Truth? You think I’m just someone who watches the real war from the shadows. You must think I’m a pushover if you really believe your pathetic minions can take this station from me.”
Taking a step toward the machines, hunching a little as he moved, Aurin’s smile grew wilder still, bearing his teeth at the person only he could see.
“You’re so afraid of Ridarin, and that pleases me more than you know,” he went on. “But you should really be afraid of me. I built Ridarin. And for what you’ve done to my friends and family, I’m going to show you just why you should be afraid of me.”
The raised arms of the five machines before him sank like stones toward the deck, and the automatons struggled to stand. A patch of synthetic gravity, localized to where they stood, had intensified to several dozen times over, crushing the machines against the deck. Before the automatons could react, the whine of working mechanicals resounded from above.
Arras knew precisely what was coming, and she threw herself onto Ila, pulling her sister down to the deck. An array of charged particle turrets descended from the control room’s ceiling, each one taking aim at the now incapacitated automatons kneeling before Aurin.
In the brief moment it took the turrets to descend, a maniacal grin twisted across Aurin’s lips.
“Welcome to my workshop, you piece of trash.”
Shrieking ionic bolts pierced the air like needles, peppering the five automatons in red light. Before the machines could raise their weapons, the turrets had already done their work, shredding the intruders into smoldering pieces, devouring them before Aurin’s very eyes.
With the physical threat now neutralized, Aurin turned on his heel and raised his eyes upward, still looking at someone neither Arras nor Ila could see. The two sisters stood up from the deck, finding their father still grinning.
“You can’t win, Truth,” he cried out into seemingly empty air. “This is my family and my station, and you’re not taking either!”
Before any sense of security could come, however, Aurin’s eyes abruptly shot wide open and the lights of the control room went dark, replaced by the faint red glow of security lights. It was just enough illumination for Arras and Ila to see what was happening to their father.
Aurin seized his head in incomparable agony. Red circuits pulsated up and down his body, and his irises glowed eerily blue in the otherwise red room.
Taking a step forward, Arras reached for him. “What’s happening to you?” But before she could lay a finger on him, she felt Ila’s small hand pull her back by the wrist.
“Ila, what are you—?”
“You mustn’t connect with him,” Ila said starkly. “If you do, the residual shock could kill you.”
Arras wasn’t sure what to make of that, but Aurin managed to grunt something to her. “Truth—she’s here. She’s trying to take control.” Stumbling over the deck, lowering his shaking hands from his head, he looked more furious than he ever had before. “I won’t let her… You hear that, Truth? I won’t let you in!”
Trying to stave off the panic threatening to overflow in her chest, Arras looked from her suffering father back to Ila, who only watched Aurin writhe. The look in her eyes was suffused with a pain all her own, but also with resignation.
“Tell me what the hell is going on, Ila!” Arras demanded, grabbing her sister by the shoulders. “It’s not even been thirty minutes, so how can this be happening? What do we do?”
Looking almost sleepily from Aurin, up to Arras, still emanating that same disquieting aura, she could only tell Arras one thing.
“I’m so sorry.”
Unleashing another anguished cry, Aurin bent over, his avatar appearing to boil as he drowned in torture only he could quantify. Yet he forced his head up, still staring at someone no one else could see. He tried to yell another taunt, but couldn’t seem to muster the breath, as if the wind had been knocked out of him. Instead, he struggled to turn his eyes to Arras.
“I won’t let her hurt you,” he seethed through his teeth. “I won’t— I won’t let her take you! I won’t let Truth lay a finger on you.”
Nothing about this made sense to Arras. All she could do was reach foolishly for her father, unable to lay a finger on him without putting herself in grave danger. Curling her outstretched fingers into a tight fist, she fixed her eyes on Aurin and channeled her fear into all the rage she could muster.
“She won’t beat you!” she yelled at her father. “Kill her, and don’t let her kill you!”
As Arras continued trying to strengthen Aurin, Ila watch from one of the few intact terminals. There were no tears in her eyes, but the pain she felt was real. Yet it wasn’t pain born of confusion or powerlessness—it was what remained after understanding and acceptance had taken root.