The lights in the station all snapped on, power flowing unhindered from one module to the next, all systems fully functional once again. As the assault from the sun washed over the shield like a waterfall, the orbital siphoned the energy into itself, transferring it to all primary systems, then secondary, focusing mainly on supplying Ridarin with energy via its quantum tether. All excess energy that couldn’t be stored or devoted to engines and angle control thrusters was ejected back into space in nondescript patterns.
Danny watched the surviving terminals flicker to life all around him as a hologram filled the center of the control room, displaying streams of data that meant nothing to him. Complicated lines of code streamed down in tight columns, running through Arras’ open hands as she read them through her net.
“I received a signal, just as planned,” Aurin explained to both Danny and Arras, looking into the projection with them. “It came exactly forty seconds after Danny entered the rift—I forwarded it immediately after it arrived.” He scratched at facial hair, his artificial face. “The strange thing is that it’s the exact coding I was expecting.”
“Is that a bad thing?” Danny asked.
“No, just strange,” Aurin hummed casually. “It’s the same code Ila would have sent. Only, it’s two hundred years too late.”
“Someone copied it, then,” Arras concluded.
“That’s possible. Or…” Aurin looked as if he were calculating something. “Perhaps she implemented my rift design.”
“Why would she do that?” Arras asked.
Danny was more confused than ever. “Do you mean to say she might have gone into hibernation? Why would she do that if you were expecting her to contact you within twenty years?”
“He’s right,” Arras said. “Father, she was supposed to immerse herself in the Coalition’s political agendas, to dismantle Rededication peacefully. It wouldn’t make any sense for her to hibernate.”
Aurin shrugged. “It’s only a suggestion. Otherwise, I don’t know how to explain why Ila would send you a wakeup call hundreds of years after our deadline.”
The three of them stared back up into the circulating code, lost in the possibilities, in what it could even mean that such a signal had arrived when it did.
“Do you know where it came from?” Danny finally asked, pulling himself from the confusing rows of characters. Even with Ridarin trying to translate them, none of it made sense.
“For the most part.”
“Meaning?” Arras asked.
“I can give you a planet,” Aurin said simply. “Nothing more, though. You’re going to like this.” Sweeping his hand through the air, Aurin sent the streams of code away, replacing their torrent with the map of a star system. “Look familiar, Love?”
Arras went quiet, studying the map. At the outskirts of the system were a couple gas giants and prominent asteroid belts; closer to the star was a single planet, one a little smaller than Earth. Ridarin rendered the planet’s name in letters Danny could recognize.
“Eilikh,” Danny read aloud, not sure if he was pronouncing the name properly. “Should I know what that is?”
“Eilikh,” Aurin confirmed. “The very planet on which my daughters were born and raised. That is, before we were transferred to Earth. It’s also supposed to be Ila’s first stop after arriving back in Coalition space.”
“The plot thickens,” Danny couldn’t help but mutter, studying the mapped out system as intently as Arras.
“There’s no way Ila could still be alive,” Arras said. “There’s just no way.”
“Precisely,” Aurin said, swinging his finger for emphasis. “Which is why this is so absolutely baffling. I can only urge the utmost caution.” Eyes fixed on Eilikh, his brow creased. “This is a completely unpredicted variable. It could present us with a particularly dangerous situation. However, I don’t know how else to begin looking for the Rededication platforms.”
“Platforms?” Danny asked, jerking his head from the map to Aurin. “There’s more than one?”
Aurin stared at Danny for a moment, then turned to Arras. “Where did you pick this one up, Arras, honestly?”
“There are eight installations,” Arras explained, ignoring her father. “Each of them is strategically positioned outside Coalition space, programmed to perform regular FTL jumps to predetermined locations, ensuring no one would simply stumble into them.”
“So you think we might be able to start our search there,” Danny asked, pointing back to Eilikh.
“Ila’s first goal was to negotiate the dismantling of Rededication,” Aurin said. “Secondarily, if her task was a failure, she was to send the wakeup call with the coordinates to the Rededication platforms.”
“Which makes this signal even stranger,” Arras added. “I suppose there wasn’t any intel attached to the signal.”
“Correct.” Aurin paced the room, following Eilikh’s sped up orbit. “Which leaves us with only one option.”
“Good thing I packed for this field trip,” Danny muttered. “When can we leave?”
“I’d suggest sometime between three weeks ago and right now,” Aurin said plainly, making his way to the exit. “I’ll forward the coordinates to your ship; they should be ready before you get there.”
He disappeared through the bulkhead, leaving Arras and Danny to themselves as the hologram disappeared. Looking back at Arras, Danny could see she was troubled—she had that same look as when he had asked her about Rededication on their way to the moon.
“You gonna be alright?” Danny asked, trying not to sound patronizing.
“Of course,” Arras said starkly, making her way to the bulkhead without another word.
They found Aurin waiting for them in the short tunnel to their ship’s hatch, leaning against the wall as Arras walked past him, on her way to the ship’s cockpit. While she checked the coordinates, Danny stood beside Aurin.
“Danny,” Aurin said suddenly, “I’m sorry for earlier. As you might imagine, being awake as long as I have, all alone…” He tried to smirk, but the expression wouldn’t come. “Let’s just say it doesn’t do wonders for one’s social skills.”
Though Danny wanted to tell him not to worry about it, that he really did understand, he mostly just wanted to kick Aurin’s face in.
“You showed yourself some pretty high maintenance stuff,” Danny said, looking away.
“And I showed you the same,” Aurin replied. “What was that you said? Quid pro quo? I’m not sorry for what I did, but I am sorry that you had to go through that.”
Danny didn’t speak.
“If you’re angry enough,” Aurin went on, “then perhaps you’ll be willing to grant my request.”
Aurin nodded. “One of my security protocols was that I couldn’t eliminate myself while waiting for Ila to send her signal. Even with the option of going into hibernation… it’s still frightfully isolating up here, so I planned for the worst.” He looked down the passageway, watching Arras work through a display scrolled across the wall, a feed into the cockpit. “This is the first time I’ve seen her face in so long—longer than you will ever know. You will die before ever knowing how long I’ve waited.”
Danny stared back at Aurin, shrinking at what he had gone through these many years—all by himself.
“You said you wanted me to do something for you,” Danny reminded Aurin, pulling him from his daughter.
“That’s right,” Aurin said, returning to his original topic, trying to shake the feelings that were invading him for the first time in so long. “When all of this is over… when Rededication is nothing but stardust, when whatever remains of the Coalition is exsanguinated, and—if you can manage it—when my daughter is safe and sound, her mission complete…” He looked Danny deep in the eye. “I want you to kill me.”
Unsure of how to respond, Danny could only stare back.
“I mean it.” Aurin stepped a little closer. “When this is over, you won’t need me anymore—Ridarin will no longer be necessary. I have no intention of living eternally as bare consciousness. I can’t do it, and I would never ask Arras to do it. So, Daniel Eick, I’m asking you to take care of it for me. When this is all over, terminate me.”
“How would I even do that?” Danny protested, trying to dodge the load Aurin was trying to place on him.
“It’s not like I’m going to evade you!” Aurin couldn’t help but laugh. “Honestly, if you really do complete this mission, I won’t be the toughest opponent you’ll have faced.”
“What about Arras? Won’t she… you know, miss you? She might not be too keen on the idea of me just killing you once you’ve outlived your usefulness.”
“Look at her, Danny,” Aurin said, bobbing his head back to the video feed. Danny did just that, watching Arras with him. “Look at her face. She knows her father’s already dead. She knows her sister is dead, and her mother. She knows she’s already dead, too. Do you remember that memory Suo showed you? When we performed our own last rite?”
Danny thought of the crimson chevrons painted over their faces; he couldn’t help but imagine the mark over Arras’ face as she stared into her flight controls—the same crimson that plated Ridarin.
“When we began this mission, we were undead,” Aurin said, folding his arms and leaning against the wall again. “In motion, but not really alive—not anymore. We severed all ties to the real world around us. We gave up our lives so that no one else would have to do the same because of Rededication.”
“Ridarin,” Danny muttered, remembering the story Arras told him in orbit around the moon.
“Ridarin was the kind of person who could pit her very being against the world itself, until gravity pulverized her into nothing—all for the hope that the world might stop turning the way it was, that it might one day turn the other way.”
“Ridarin’s not just the suit—it’s each of you,” Danny realized, his mind suddenly racing. “I thought Ridarin’s story was just about entropy, just a noble death, but really she’s exactly like Schrödinger's cat—she’s both dead and alive at the same time. You didn’t just die for a greater good; you died so you could live to fight this war.”
“Now you get it—at least, for the most part.” Aurin smiled. “Will you indulge me, then? When the time comes, that is. Will you give me rest once our war is finished?”
Danny looked back at Aurin, not sure what else to say than, “I will.”
Arras stepped out from the open hatch and made her way to the two of them. “That’s it, we’re ready to go.”
“Arras,” Aurin said, smiling at his daughter, “I’m glad I could see you again. Do everything you can to end this.”
“I will, Father,” she said with a nod.
Danny found himself wondering for a split second why they didn’t embrace each other one last time, feeling foolish once the obvious reality returned to him. He watched Arras and Aurin, daughter and father, look back at one another, expressing their heartfelt goodbyes the only way they could.
“Goodbye, Arras,” Aurin breathed as she walked back to the ship.
Danny suited up to the neck as he stepped back into the cockpit, buckling in. Arras joined him shortly, settling in, taking hold of the controls. With a hiss the hatch closed and the ship pressurized. Another familiar jolt shook the ship as they separated from the airlock, the canopy filtering the sunlight once again.
As they drifted from the orbital, Arras thought she could see the airlock still open, still lit, her father watching them fly away from the open end. Tearing herself from the sight, she returned to the FTL jump, starting the countdown.
“Aurin’s a good man,” Danny said, surprising Arras. “I’m glad I got a chance to really meet him.”
“So am I,” Arras said softly, a small nod for emphasis.
“He’s still kind of an ass, though.”
As the ship lurched through space and time, Danny thought he could hear Arras laugh—a real, uncontrollable, sputtering laugh. That laugh must have vanished with the sun and Aurin, though; as they emerged in the blink of an eye into new territory, he found himself wondering if she really had laughed, and if he would ever hear her laugh like that again.