Chapter 29

 

 The jump came and went in the blink of an eye—just a burst and shift of time and space before the world settled again.  Various shades of green radiated through the canopy, the lower layers of a gas giant, immediately rocking their ship as they attempted to leave the planet’s stormy confines.  The cabin shook violently as Arras brought the ship back around, firing the engines at full throttle to break a draconian escape velocity, pelted by ice crystals.  With some time, and no one daring to speak, they eventually made it out of the whirlwind and into space.  Emerging from the giant, they were bathed in the pestilent red glow of a distant though massive local star, blanketed in light years of nebulous dust, billowing clouds of orange and radiating gray.

While Arras had anticipated an ordeal, attempting to pinpoint the platform’s position, her concern was swatted away; despite the activity all around them, their target presented itself without a fuss.

 The blasting sunlight and the gas giant combined to create a faint glare, something stroking out the vague surface details of a monstrous construct; even at the distance they were at, everyone aboard could see the installation coming into view.  As they approached, the object took a clearer form; what looked like three serrated wings jutted sharply out, stretching far, meeting at crumpled center.  Everything about the platform felt unnatural, otherworldly—precisely as Arras had remembered it.

 Approaching slowly, Arras checked the scanners frequently while trying to keep a visual on the platform ahead.

 “You think it’ll attack us?” Danny asked, noticing how on edge she already was.

 “It does have a defense network,” Arras said, “but if it were still operational, we wouldn’t have made it this close.  I think it’s shut down.”

 “Power conservation?”

 “Maybe.  Though, it should still be making its periodic jumps.  It wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t still moving on schedule.”

 She watched the harsh metallic mass grow as they drew nearer, considering what the platform’s stillness could mean.  Turning the ship about, she broke from her direct approach and faced their starboard side to the station, coming to a cautious stop.

 “There’s no way it could’ve seen us coming,” Danny said, trying to reason more with himself than Arras.  “That’d be impossible.”  As the station dominated their view at this distance, he could feel his stomach churn.

 “They’ve never had to put the installations into lockdown like this,” Arras said, not taking her eyes from the scanners or her view out of the canopy.  “They may not have planned on anyone finding them.  Maybe they thought it would be safe to put everything to sleep until the platforms were reactivated.”

 Tapping into their communication network through her nano-net, Arras found no receivers within range; the whooshing screeches of surrounding radio waves also washed away any chance of long-range communication.  Finding nothing to speak to, she felt as if they had wandered into a cemetery.

 “There’s no use just waiting for it to do something,” she concluded.  “Let’s make the first move.”

 “If it hasn’t already,” muttered Danny.

 “We won’t be able to dock on any airlocks, and the platform’s armor is too thick to cut our way in—at least, into the station itself.”  She put a hand to her mouth, scanning the surface of the station with her eyes.  “The bay will be near the primary propulsion module.”

 “Can we open it?  The bay, I mean,” Danny asked, leaning toward the canopy, trying to see where the bay might be.

 “Not if the station’s gone silent,” she said.  “Not like it would take our command anyway.  No, we’ll have to be a bit more creative.  You’ll have to cut into the ship and manually open and close the bay doors.”

 “Okay,” he said, a little unsure of her plan already.  “And how do you propose I do that?”

 Ekren and Valiya gathered into the cockpit with Arras as Danny proceeded to the rear cabin.  A door sealed off the cockpit before the cabin began depressurizing.  Breathing deeply, reminding himself that Ridarin would supply the air he needed, Danny prepared himself.  He had flown farther into space than anyone else from Earth ever had, traveled through what were pretty much wormholes, faced the possibility of getting blown out of the air by interstellar warships—yet, for reasons unknown, at least to him, he couldn’t help but feel nervous.

 “Just calm down,” he could hear Arras say through his comm.  “It’s not that big a deal.”

 “Yeah, why should I worry?” Danny sighed.  “I’m just going for a walk in space.”

 “A couple days ago, you were close enough to touch a star with your bare hand.  Does this really scare you that much?”

 “Fair point,” he said.  “But it still feels pretty different.”

 “Just take your time and don’t freak out.  Ridarin knows how to handle this sort of environment.  Remember, this is exactly what we built the suit for.”

 Opening a compartment in the floor, Danny found a reinforced case.  Inside was a plasma torch.  With the torch in hand, he watched Ridarin assimilate and alter it.  He wondered if the torch would have been enough to cut through the platform’s skin without him.

 “Okay,” Danny said, standing back up, “I’m ready.”

 The hatch lifted.  Walled on one side by the gas giant, getting sprinkled by low-velocity particulates, and extended before him an incredible expanse of black and gunmetal surface, much wider than he had ever imagined—Rededication.

Stepping from the cabin, Danny left the ship’s synthetic gravity as he stepped out onto the wing.  His feet stuck to the wing with every step, without command, keeping him from floating off.  Clutching the plasma torch tightly, he took another couple steps, not noticing the hatch close silently behind him.  At the edge of the wing, he had to remind himself that there would be no force to automatically take him down, no gravity to speak of.  With his hands on the wing, he pushed one of his legs downward until he felt the sole of his foot stick to the station’s surface.

Freezing in place for a moment, he waited.  He wasn’t sure what he was waiting for, but at that moment every thriller and sci-fi movie he had ever seen before flashed through his mind—all the scenes of people suffocating in space or tripping some horrific, alien security system.  With some added courage, having noticed no negative response to his presence, he brought his other foot down and made his way to the spot Arras had pointed out to him a couple minutes earlier.

Relaying his progress back to Arras, he marveled at how normal his body felt; despite the lack of gravity, he still seemed to move like normal.  Smirking, looking down at the torch in his hand, he felt simultaneously lucky—what physicist wouldn’t kill to be in his position, to experience what he had?—and grossly underqualified—“I should have gotten into engineering.”

Standing over the designated spot, he brought the torch to bear, starting to feel a little more nervous as he watched the lights pulsate over the instrument’s still shifting surface.  Pieces of the torch slid and relocated themselves, each one moving with some sort of purpose, but nothing Danny claimed to understand.  He thought of Aurin as the tool changed, wondering how much of this moment he was aware of; Arras had reopened potential communication channels with him before they left the orbital, but nothing that could relay the entirety of what was going on.

“Okay,” Danny said through the comm, “I’m starting my cut.”

Pulling the torch’s trigger, what would have otherwise been just a tip of plasma became a blue blaze, extending half a foot from the nozzle, focused into a point.  He pushed the end of the torch into the surface of the station, cutting a shaky square, moving slowly, hoping he wasn’t going to nick anything important.  Once his cut was complete, he deactivated the torch and put his hand on the cutout, sticking to the material; he lifted the cutout himself, setting it aside, letting it twirl out into space.

Beneath the station’s skin, past inches of armor, Danny could see a flat, glossy surface.  He reached his hand inside, putting his palm to the surface, waiting for whatever would happen to happen.  Despite his previous experiences with this sort of tech, it was still difficult for Danny to wrap his mind around the idea that Suo Enqelin could know exactly what he needed done, and be able to do it.

The ground beneath him throbbed as the panel accepted his command.  A few dozen yards away, a wide slab of metal begin to slide aside, revealing the platform’s hangar.  He felt another short jolt as Arras disconnected the ship from the platform, slowly cruising toward the new opening.

“We’ll meet you inside,” she told Danny.

“Right, sure,” Danny sighed, watching them silently hover to the hangar.

Arras landed the ship in the hangar without any trouble, finding no other ship around them.  However, once their ship’s feet touched the deck, a number of red lights started to twirl as alarms sounded uselessly into the vacuum.  The bay door started to close again.

Danny could see the doors sliding back into place.  Dropping every four-letter word he could think of, he bolted across the station’s surface, trusting his feet would stick with each step.  Holding the torch close, having no faith that even the augmented cutter would make it through those bay doors, he lunged forward with every footfall.  He could hear the dull sound of his feet hitting the station, the shock of each step traveling through the air in his suit; and the sound of his heartbeat muffled Arras’ announcement that his window of opportunity was quite literally closing.

With no time left to run, Danny threw his body down, sticking his palms to the surface beneath him.  On all fours, mustering every ounce of strength Ridarin would give, he rocketed himself forward, feeling his feet and hands leave the station.  Grabbing the lip of the bay door, barely within reach at his angle, he used his tentative handhold to pull himself into the hangar, missing the lip of the door by inches.

A harsh thud followed as he entered a new gravity well, falling a few feet to the deck.  Needing no time to recover, he got back on his feet as air poured into the bay.

Still feeling the adrenaline, Danny made his way back to the ship, standing where Arras could see him through the canopy.

“That was not fun,” he said.

She looked back at him, then back to Ekren and Valiya behind her, telling them something he couldn’t hear.  A minute passed before the bay completely pressurized and the ship’s hatch lifted.  Ekren was the first to step out, holding a handgun.  Valiya followed him, a small weapon of her own in hand.  Then Arras, who stayed on the wing for a moment.

From her perch, Arras stared down at the deck for some time.  Danny approached, not saying anything; she didn’t acknowledge him anyway.  She was lost in some kind of thought, her eyes fixed to the ground.

Danny’s helmet disappeared, letting him have a fresh look at Arras.

“Come on, Arras,” he said.  “Let’s get this over with.”

Looking back at him, she saw him smiling back at her.  A little tension seemed to leave her as she stepped down to the deck.

“Everyone stay close,” she ordered, leading the way to the hangar’s exit.  “There’s no telling what’s active and what’s not.”

Making their way into the lit corridors of the station, they walked in silence, nothing but the gentle sounds of shifting mechanics and pressure outlets to join the sound of their footsteps.  As they walked, they saw nothing but plain corridors, walled with patterned panels and braced with metal ribs, the corners of the passageway filled with stray pipelines and wires.

With no welcome party to greet them—something that evoked mixed feelings in each of them—they walked deeper still into the heart of the Coalition’s doomsday machine.  They walked deeper into Rededication.