Prologue

 

Kavatea—a small planet, barely sizeable enough to retain a viable atmosphere.  Gravity was light, but the dismal rock was suitable enough for human life.  Only a handful of cities were built on this otherwise untouched planet, some constructed on orbital platforms, then subsequently landed on the surface.  Though colonization of this planet was a project which received little support, at the end of any charted territory, a large population, eventually numbering in the thousands, still managed to migrate there.

Those figures would soon change.  Kavatea’s history became moot; its present situation was all that mattered now.  The planet’s relatively small population had been dubbed hostile to the Coalition, its interests, and its citizens—and there was only one reasonable response to such a situation.

The reasons for this verdict were unknown to Arras, but she was never one to ask for intel like that.  It wasn’t her concern.  The bureau of observation and assessment had delivered their findings some time ago, and the deliberations had already passed.  In cases such as these, she was neither judge nor jury—she was nothing more and nothing less than the executioner.

Arras and Truth jumped their platform into high-orbit around Kavatea.  Their operation began immediately upon arrival.

The first step was to begin syphoning all solar residue skidding over the planet’s magnetosphere.  Antiprotons were taken into the platform directly via positively charged tethers, creating a sufficient source of energy.  Meanwhile, they conducted a survey via laser and radio sensory arrays, as well as taps into any local quantum comm channels, searching for facilities or ships that might be elsewhere in the system.  So far as the initial intel was concerned, the colonists on Kavatea did not have the resources necessary to create, let alone sustain, such things. Nevertheless, Arras and Truth were nothing if not thorough in their duties.

When nothing turned up, they proceeded with an electromagnetic assault on the planet’s surface, eliminating all machinery, including anything that could give these people air superiority.  Subsequently, a number of assault craft were deployed and spread incrementally in a grid.  With such a confined area of operations, they would not need much firepower.  Even so, while the surface data confirmed all human biometric signals were in the cities and nowhere else, Arras and Truth opted to deploy more ships than other operators and their companion AIs might.  Again, thoroughness was their prerogative.

The assault ships in high-orbit were armed and prepped with orbit-to-surface missiles.  Arras and Truth identified the ships’ targets for them, then gave the order to fire.  The ships obeyed faithfully, and the bombardment began.  Infrastructure, hospitals, anywhere artillery could be stored or even hidden—these were the primary targets.  They were demolished quickly.  One of the targeted areas erupted in a secondary blast far larger than anticipated; this was the result of some sort of atomic weapon the people on Kavatea had tucked away, according to the sensory array’s radiological apparatus.

In any case, that would not slow the process.

Next, the platform deployed a number of troop transports, which flew down to the planet’s surface, encountering no resistance.  As they entered the atmosphere and neared their landing zones, Arras and Truth began their earnest role in this operation.  In nearly perfect sync with one another, their minds enmeshed into each other, and they focused in on each human biometric signal they could find.  Each human mind they encountered splayed open for them, their psychological barriers posing little resistance themselves.  This step was perhaps the most straightforward; after all, psychological infiltration and domination were what made Rededication truly formidable, unstoppable even.

Inside the platform, hidden away in the containment room, Arras knelt in her suit.  Her armor was made of a black material which absorbed virtually all local radiation, including light, giving her the appearance of a humanoid black hole.  The room around her would also have been saturated in such darkness were it not for the violet laces of light coasting over her body.  Connected directly to the platform through thick ropes of power cabling and physical data conduits, Arras and Truth worked in conjunction, sinking the people of Kavatea into a number of different fantasies and phantasms, anything to distract them from the incoming assault.  Anything to lead them into committing atrocious attacks of their own.

As if leading them, Arras and Truth plunged each person on the little planet into their own minds.  Rewiring them from the inside out, these people were made to believe they were elsewhere, doing other things, while in reality they tore each other to shreds with their bare hands.  While the people drunkenly swarmed and lynched each other, lost in their own heads and thus ignorant to what they were really doing, waves of automated foot soldiers mowed them down with their firearms.

Intermingling with the minds of others was an odd sensation for Arras, even with the aid of the Infinitude of Truth.  The process was perhaps strange only for her role in it.  Truth’s role was to mine the subject’s psyche for memories, dreams, fears, desires, anything she could pull to the surface to blind the subject to reality around them.  However, while entering a subject might have been straightforward, engaging in the actual work of psychological assault was anything but, especially for an artificial intelligence.  This was one of the critical reasons for retaining a human presence aboard each Rededication platform; Arras’ role was to mediate the connection between their victim’s mind and that of her companion AI.

By the reckoning of the Rededication program, consciousness was nothing more than the human brain processing incoming data.  Therefore, theoretically, one could relocate this processing power to another site and different hardware—a computer, for instance.  However, when rededicating a planet, minds were not to be transmigrated but infiltrated, supplanting and inserting data into the conscious stream, rather than relocating.  An AI could create potent hallucinations, but nothing to the scale such an operation demanded.  In order to accomplish this, another human mind was required.  By virtue of a functional synchronization with the AI and a shared nature with the victim’s brain, the Rededication operator served as the thread that wove a vicious assailant like Truth into the neural network of helpless prey like the people of Kavatea.

Even if this portion of such operations was manageable, however, the sensation was still utterly unlike anything else for the operator.  For hours at a time, sometimes even days, Arras would dissolve.  She wouldn’t directly enter anyone’s mind, not even Truth’s—she would simply bridge their connection.  As a result, she would forget her own self, left to linger in gray space where there was no other self for her to latch onto.  It was as if Arras would vanish entirely, becoming no one in particular as she in turn became everyone there was to be.  Every available mind became her own, in a way, though none of them belonged to her.  And so, with her own mind left behind, Arras indeed would dissolve.

“Arras.”

The voice was familiar yet seemingly distant.

“Arras, the operation is complete.”

Raising her head, Arras became conscious of her own body once again, then of herself.  Taking in a deep breath through her nose, she regained clarity.

“How long did it take?” she asked Truth.

“The initial strikes required forty-two minutes.  The ground assault lasted just over sixty-eight hours.”

Arras laughed quietly to herself.  The first time she had experienced this, she came out of it thinking she had been unconscious for the whole ordeal.  Upon further reflection, however, and after a lengthy conversation with Truth, she realized that it was quite the opposite.  She had not gone dormant at all, but instead had been spread so thin as to enter a kind of consciousness that defied any familiar euphoria or aesthesis.  That was why Truth was her companion, after all—to ensure that her mind could be spread so thin and yet still function, and even come back once the mission was complete.

Still kneeling, Arras accumulated all information gathered during the operation into one spot.  Records of casualties, methods used, various feedback reports on the operator, all observational data acquired during the operation—anything deemed relevant to the rededication of this inconsequential planet on the edge of Coalition territory.

“I want you to compile all of this into a coherent report,” Arras told Truth, getting to her feet, the cables on her back disconnecting automatically.  “Once that’s finished, begin cleanup on the surface; then hail the next teams, let them know we’re done here.”

“Certainly,” Truth replied in a rote tone.  “And congratulations on yet another successful rededication.”

“Sure, thanks,” Arras muttered, slipping her helmet off.

Hearing that from Truth meant little to Arras—the AI’s tone expressed all the value those words had.  Even so, it wasn’t Truth’s fault.  In order to perform her duties, Arras needed to remove from herself any sort of relational emotions, any feeling that might hamper or even interrupt an operation midway.  Things like praise or gratitude directed had failed to elicit any sort of emotional response in Arras for some time now.  That was all there was to it.

Still, there was something almost boring about it all.  Mowing down faceless masses didn’t leave Arras with a moral crisis of any kind.  It left her with a profound sense of ennui—total boredom.

“I’m amending a correction to our report,” Truth announced to Arras, pulling her from her reflections.

“What’s changed?”

“It seems my initial scan was incorrect.  The operation is still in effect.  Not all human biometric signatures have been eliminated.”

“There’re survivors?” Arras asked, not quite sure what to make of the AI’s cryptic responses.

“One human yet remains on the surface, alive.”

Hearing that, a tight vice squeezed Arras inside.  She couldn’t tell if it was outrage or excitement.  The feeling was unexpected, yet strangely welcome to her.

“Give me their location,” Arras demanded.

A bright HUD popped into view above one of the nearby terminals, displaying a series of satellite images and other geographical data.  The view panned in, aiming for a particular location in one of the now ruined cities on the planet.

“I will dispatch a squad of foot soldiers to correct this error,” Truth narrated as the pictures continued to pan in.

“No,” Arras concluded, turning from the pictures, not caring what they could tell her.  “I’ll take care of this myself.”

“You, Arras?”

“Of course.  It’s not like it’s against protocol, and I’m certainly trained for a situation like this.  It’s probably nothing of interest, but if it’s some loner who happened to fight us off…”  A frightful grin cracked across Arras’ face, her eagerness spilling out.  “Well, we can’t take an affront like that lying down, can we?”

“An ‘affront’?”

“This is Rededication.  Letting some guy slip through is a technical error, which is on you.  Someone successfully surviving a strike is a tactical error, which is on both of us.  It just wouldn’t be right to let a few machines gloss over this for us.”

“Accountability and remuneration,” Truth replied with interest, if not genuine praise for her operator’s logic.  “We would be inept to not take responsibility for this ourselves.”

“Exactly,” Arras said, still grinning.  “I’ll be sure to give this guy a good pat on the back for being able to evade us before I put a bullet in his head.”

With that, Arras left the containment room and proceeded through the massive station on her own.  Leaving Truth to continue preparing their report, Arras entered the hangar and boarded one of the outgoing troop transports down to the planet’s surface.

The vehicle jerked and jolted on its way through the atmosphere, a constant, subtle shaking filling the cabin like white noise.  The other automated soldiers stood in formation all around her, divided into rows and squads.  None of them had a face, and of course they were incapable of producing any emotion.  But Arras brimmed with all the feeling they could not, still carrying her wild grin and her pounding heart.  She herself wondered where this had come from.  She hadn’t felt like this in some time, though she had a few ideas.  Rededication had had her for roughly three years now, and all that meant was one orbital strike after another.  It was all too abstract; it lacked any thrill.

She was taken into the military academy as a girl, and puberty had barely hit her when she had pulled the trigger on someone for the first time.  At first she had been squeamish, but she soon found something other than anxiety in it—challenge, and maybe even sport.  All those feelings returned to her as she made her way to Kavatea’s surface.

The transport touched down near her destination.  Truth had left her with directions, which were displayed inside her helmet.  Leaving the other soldiers to their cleanup duties, Arras walked alone down an especially ravaged street.  The city was called Flowing River, named after the body of water running through the middle of the settlement itself—though, of course, that name didn’t matter anymore, not after Arras and Truth had eliminated the city itself and anyone who might call it by that name.

Arras eagerly patted the long, wide muzzle of her heavy handgun against her thigh as she walked between the crumbling buildings, imagining what kind of person would be waiting for her.  Her target was close now, just beyond the remains of a toppled tower.  Raising her handgun, Arras rounded the wrecked corner of the skyscraper and made her approach.

Though there was only one biometric signal, she found two bodies.  The one living subject was out in the open, making no attempt to hide.  Its frame was far too small to be that of a gunslinger or hotshot survivalist.  As Arras drew nearer, she lowered her weapon, her boredom returning.  Confirming her gun was still prepped to fire, she nonchalantly approached the scene, ready to put a bullet in the target’s head and call it a day.

Standing directly over the two bodies, what she saw gave her pause.  This was no man fighting for his very life, hanging on by a handful of bullets and the skin of his teeth.  It was a girl.  A little girl.  Below her was the corpse of a grown woman, her eyes and mouth agape, her limbs sprawled out and akimbo.  Her abdomen and chest were open, exposing ribs and a shredded mess of what used to be organs.

The little girl, crouched and sitting on her heels, had her hands inside the woman.  She pulled out small clumps of what was inside, raising them to her small mouth.  Arras could hear the sounds of moist matter being mashed between teeth.

Repulsed, Arras waited for a moment, realizing the little girl did not notice her.  Pacing around the girl and the open woman, Arras concluded that the girl must still be caged in her phantasm.  Looking back at the eviscerated woman, Arras’ cheek tensed and she showed some teeth as she grimaced.  She had seen bodies gnarled in more ways than one, but this was something else entirely.  This kind of savagery was something she had never seen before.  By no means did it frighten her or leave her unnerved, but it did disgust her.

Casually, Arras sat down on the side of the woman opposite the girl.  She looked up at the little girl, who continued what she was doing without pause.  The look in her eyes was that of a vacant sleepwalker; she neither smiled nor frowned, but simply ate.  Chewing slowly, then swallowing audibly, the girl would then bring another piece to her lips.

Arras could see a few lines of gouges running down the kid’s face, wounds that looked like they came from fingernails.  Looking down at the hands of the woman between them, she found the culprit.  Dried blood and bits of tissue were tucked under the woman’s shattered nails.

Leaning back with her hands on the ground behind her, Arras guessed these two had been caught in the brawl together.  They surely had no idea what they were up to at the time, no more aware than this little girl was now.  Judging by their immediate proximity, as well as the common physical characteristics, hair and eye color, Arras didn’t find it an unrealistic leap to assume these two were related, a mother and her daughter.

The whole scene was still surreal to Arras, like a fever dream.  She brought her hands to her head and slipped off her helmet, sitting it beside her to get a good look at the little girl.  As if nothing had changed and nothing was amiss, the girl contentedly chewed and swallowed.  Staring deeply at the girl with her own eyes, Arras felt as if she recognized her somehow.

In a flash, like a painful shock, Arras saw it—saw her.  This girl was the same age as her own sister.

Arras ferociously knocked this connection from her mind.  All this time, she had diligently trained herself to forget all previous relationships.  It was essential to her duties to let go of any sentimental connection she might have to anyone outside the prime family or Rededication.  She had done so well at this.  So why this?  Why now?  No matter how hard she pushed, the thought persisted.  For a very real moment, she felt as if she was sitting across from Ila.

Tearing herself from the girl, Arras glared down at the woman instead.  Remorselessly, looking into her tormented face the way she might a pile of trash, Arras felt that shock again.  This wasn’t some woman—it was her mother.  It was Suo.

With a grunt, Arras turned and spat on the ground, feeling as disgusted as before.  However, though she would not admit it, not even to herself, she was disgusted for different reasons now.

Turning back to the woman, forcing a morbid grin, Arras spoke to the corpse.

“How pathetic do you have to be, honestly?” she asked the woman whose open mouth gave no response.  “I mean, really!  It’s not like we just tossed you guys into a pit and told you to kill each other.  We tricked you, made you think you were somewhere else entirely, doing completely different things.  But still you managed to get wrecked by your own daughter!  Sorry, lady, but the truth is a battlefield like this is no place for maternal instinct.  I mean, it can’t even exist, which means you got your ass handed to you by a little girl—and that’s it!  Can’t say you held back or anything.  You’re just…”

Leaning back again, Arras felt the fight leave her again.

“Just pathetic,” she now muttered, staring back down at the woman, her amusement chilled into contempt.

With only the wet sounds of chewing to fill the silence, Arras grew curious.  Letting out a short laugh, she crouched like the little girl and pressed her right hand to the woman’s head and her left to the little girl’s head.

“Let’s see what you two were really up to.”

The little girl’s mind gave way to Arras’ nano-net without resistance; the woman’s brain still had some life in it, though it wouldn’t have had enough time to decay yet anyway.  Together with the two of them, Arras entered their heads, culling what phantasms were left in them.

Her heavy boots made a couple of muffled steps onto a cheaply carpeted floor.  The air was warm, and a nearby window told her it was evening.

“We’re so proud of you,” a man exclaimed from behind Arras.

Turning about, Arras found the woman and the little girl, as well as some man, gathered together.  The little girl sat at a small table, held tightly by the man Arras presumed was her father, while her mother beamed brightly down at them.

“That’s right, we’re so proud,” her mother affirmed.  “Congratulations, dear, this is a great accomplishment.”

The mother’s congratulations felt sincere, and Arras felt a subtle static of thought and emotion buzz through her.  She knew what was happening.  This little girl, a few years younger now, was celebrating her entrance day.  She had taken her aptitude test, and the Coalition had assigned her to work in hydroponics.  Such a meager field, Arras thought, but she could still feel the pride in her parents, their gratitude for their daughter.

The mother disappeared only for a moment before returning with a few plates.  Each plate carried a scant meal, but to the three of them and by Kavatea’s standards it was a feast indeed.  This was a celebration after all, she could feel the parents conclude.

Arras flinched at their thoughts, spilling over as it were from their heads and into her.

Still bursting with pride, the father put his arm around his daughter again, holding her close and congratulating her once more.  Meanwhile, the mother put a plate of food before the little girl, urging her to eat up.  The girl took her first bite and the atmosphere shifted.  As she ate, the father whispering his love began to fade away, dissolving into the air until he was gone entirely.  Only the mother and her daughter remained.

Tears rolled down the mother’s cheeks, though nothing else about her face expressed sorrow.  It was the same for the little girl, tears streaming but still smiling, as if nothing was wrong.

“How is it?” the mother asked her daughter excitedly, though her voice was reserved.  “Is it good?”

The girl nodded just as exuberantly, taking another bite.  “Yes, it’s delicious!”

This time the mother put an arm around her daughter.  And as she whispered her own love, she too began to fade away.  With the disappearing woman went the rest of the scene, the fantasy losing its composition.

And suddenly, the flood hit Arras.  A surge of raw emotion and thought pummeled her psyche as the woman’s brain died and the daughter’s mind unraveled further.  In one intense moment, Arras felt it all—all their pain, their love, their regret, their sadness, their happiness—everything they had ever felt, all of it.  And in one final second, she felt only what the little girl felt.

Falling back onto the shattered ground, Arras returned to reality.  Hyperventilating, she raised her handgun to the little girl, her finger curled around the trigger.  But she couldn’t fire.  Unmoved by the weapon trained on her, the little girl continued to eat.  Yet now those same tears from the phantasm were streaming down the girl’s face.  Her mouth had turned to a disturbingly contented half-smile, and tears flowed freely down her cheeks.

The gun shook in Arras’ hand as she wrestled to pull the trigger.  Steadying the weapon with her other hand, aiming for the little girl’s head, she found herself left to a petrified finger and an impossibly heavy trigger.

Only then did she recognize the little girl was not the only one crying.  The tickle of tears strolling down her face shocked Arras into submission.  The drops coasted down and met at her chin, falling with their combined weight onto her armored stomach.  Her chest still heaving, Arras suddenly felt violated.  She panicked, wondering if this was psychological contamination, her mind crossed too deeply with little girl’s.  Letting out an enraged scream, Arras pulled the trigger.  Her shot missed the little girl shamefully, impacting a distant building instead.

For some time, Arras remained frozen.  Finally, she let her weapon fall.  Instead, she tried to stop crying, but she knew the truth.  She hadn’t been contaminated by these people.  All they had done was show her themselves, unadulterated and whole.  And Arras wept, not because she had been stained with their sorrow—but because she had seen those sorrows, experienced them on a disturbingly deep level.  A woman, a man, and a little girl; a mother, a father, and their dear daughter.  She wasn’t made to cry by this mother and her daughter, or the man that still existed between the two of them; she wept at their plight.  For the first time in years, Arras felt sympathy, and she could not suppress it.

Wiping at her eyes, she could think of only one thing.

Arras stood up and walked to the head of the mother.  Looking down at her, this time she neither felt nor bore contempt for the woman.  Arras’ face carried emotions altogether different, her regrets—even what might be an apology.  Raising her handgun again, to be certain the woman would not suffer any longer, Arras fired one round into her head.  Bending down, she managed to close the woman’s eyelids, despite the oncoming rigor mortis.

Looking up at the little girl now, she found her still busy eating.  Arras stepped around the woman and crouched behind the little girl.  Wrapping her arms around her, Arras pulled her away from her mother, falling back onto the ground, sitting the girl on her lap.  Arras swept away what was left in the girl’s hands, and as the girl’s mouth emptied, her chewing changed into weak groans and protests.  With one arm, Arras tenderly wrestled the girl’s arms down to her to belly as the protesting moans intensified.

Pressing her face into the girl’s hair, her tears flowing along with those of the child on her lap, Arras clenched her teeth.  These feelings had been absent for so long that they felt entirely new to Arras, and she continued to weep.  She wept for the father who had faded from even the memory of those he loved so dearly, and who loved him; and she wept for the mother who had sustained her daughter till the horrid end, and for the demented child squirming under her arm.

“I’m sorry,” Arras whispered to the girl.  “I’m so sorry.  If I…  If I could take this back…  I would.  So please…  Please, forgive me.”

In one quick motion, Arras raised her handgun again, put it to the back of the child’s head, and pulled the trigger.

There Arras remained, weeping ever more until her sobs became uncontrollable screams.  And from a distance, mentally and physically, Truth observed.  Something strange stirred in Truth as well—confusion.  Yet it was an unexpected confusion, an unanswered query which wondered not how an individual like Arras could respond like this, but if there was anything Truth could do for her.  Truth wondered if there was a way to console Arras, to comfort her, and that left the AI confused.  So she left Arras alone for the time being, leaving her to her tears, tears which would soon carry her all the way to Earth, to confess to her parents—confess everything she had done, and everything she had become.