Chapter 30

 

 With his suit put away, not wanting to risk draining his sync ratio, Danny leaned against the wall, sliding down to sit.  For the first time in a while, he pulled his cell phone from his pocket; the battery would’ve died a couple days ago had his nano-net not been recharging the phone periodically.  Checking the time, he guessed they had been on the platform for three or four hours.  He wasn’t keeping up with the time lapse, but it seemed to help to at least know what day of the week it was for everyone back at home.

 Today was a Saturday.  Today Eli would be enjoying a day off from work, Milo would be dreading the coming end of the weekend, and his mother would likely be steeped in grading something.  And here he was, sitting on an alien space station, trying to figure out how to blow the damn thing up.

 With a sigh, he slid his phone back in his pocket and stared across the hall to the opposite wall.  Staring as if through the wall, into Rededication, he played through what he had seen in Arras’ mind—a platform that looked just like this one.  Which meant somewhere in this station was likely another suit like the one he had seen her in: black and white body armor, black plating, violet lights and eyes.  Goose bumps coated him as he considered that he had been wearing Rededication’s de facto doppelganger for weeks now.

Closing his eyes, he remembered the scenes from that rededicated planet, watching the buildings crumble and the bloodstained streets fill with fire.  More than anything else, though, he remembered the people—how they had suddenly turned on one another.  Arras said the operator could get into people’s heads, but he had never imagined it would look anything like that.  He wondered what Arras had seen while invading their minds that day.

Danny shook his head, pushing that all away, shelving it in a far corner.  He remembered the promise he had made to Arras.

He got to his feet and made his way out of the corridor, back onto the command deck.  Inside, he found Ekren and Valiya sitting quietly against a wall, watching Arras still at work, her net woven into two terminals.  Deciding not to bother Arras, Danny turned to Ekren and Valiya.

“She’s been that way for hours now,” Valiya said, watching Arras stand still, lost in a cybernetic phantasm all her own.  “I’m surprised she’s not exhausted by now.”

“Soldiers like her were trained for this sort of thing,” Ekren explained.  “Arras Enqelin can interact with a computer as naturally as you or I breathe.”

“Did she say if she’s found anything?” Danny asked.

“She hasn’t said a word,” Ekren replied, “not since she gave us the bad news.  What a strange thing: they hide a platform, and, in the process, the installation splinters its own network like this.  It’s ingenious, really.  At least, it keeps pirates like us from simply activating the self-destruct.”

“Yeah, well,” Danny said, thinking of Ridarin, “considering what they built for this whole adventure, I don’t think she or her family ever expected this to be easy.”

Arras lifted her hands from the terminals, taking a step back.  She looked perplexed, and more than a little frustrated.

“What’s the word?” Danny asked her.

“Nothing good,” Arras said.  “Each system is severed from the other; they’re all completely isolated.  I can’t get access to any of them, not like this.”  Drumming her fingers on the console beside her, she added, “I didn’t plan for this.”

“What, then?” Danny asked.  “Couldn’t I just use Ridarin to demolish the place?  Do we really need the self-destruct?”

“If you could pull a sync rate higher than twenty percent,” Arras muttered, “then maybe.  But this wasn’t the plan.  We never imagined they would put any of the platforms into such a state.”

“How about the suit’s nano-net, then?  Can we use that to unlock the systems and network them again?”

Shaking her head, she said, “It’s not just some minor lockdown.  Were it a matter of administrative control or something like that, then we could use Ridarin.  But this is different.  We’re not just locked out; something’s locking the door again every time we come close to unlocking it.”

“Something like what?”

She stared back at him for a moment, remembering the same thing he was.

“That suit,” Danny said softly.

“The AI is still alive,” Arras clarified.  “It’s been managing this platform since the shutdown, I’d imagine.  If we’re going to accomplish anything, we’ll need to find a way to bypass it.”

“Does it know we’re here?” Danny asked.  Refining his question, he asked, “Does it see us as a threat?”

“There’s no way it doesn’t know we’re here,” said Arras, stepping down from her elevated space among the terminals to Danny and the others.  “For whatever reason, though, it hasn’t responded with any sort of security measures.”

“We even broke into this place,” Danny said.  “Something’s definitely up.”

“Arras,” said Valiya, “what is a Rededication AI like?”

“Much like ourselves,” Arras answered.  “It’s mostly self-aware, capable of complex decision making.  But it’s also fairly limited without a human operator; just as a human mind alone can’t handle the strain of operating an entire platform, neither can a lone AI.”

“Perhaps that’s why it’s been so inept at keeping us out,” Ekren suggested.

“Arras,” Valiya continued, “if the AI is conscious and rational…  Do you think we could speak with it?”

“I doubt it would just let us into the self-destruct protocols,” Danny said.

“Certainly not,” Valiya said, trying not to sound defensive.  “However, if we could directly access the platform’s AI, wouldn’t that give us a better chance at overriding its lockdowns?”

Danny resisted looking back at Arras; he felt that he might already know the answer to Valiya’s question.  He wondered if Arras had chosen to begin here in the station’s control room for a reason—if she really might be trying to avoid the inevitable.

“It might be too dangerous to go see the AI in person,” Danny said.  “For all we know, it could be waiting for us to—”

“She’s right,” Arras said, getting Danny’s attention.  Though she didn’t look completely on board with the idea, she didn’t look against it either.  “If we want to unlock the self-destruct, the fastest way will be to disable the AI itself.”

Not sure what to say to that, Danny stayed quiet.

“And where can we find the AI?” Ekren asked.

“It’s distributed throughout the entire station’s network,” Arras said.  “But there are a couple places you can access the AI directly.  Danny and I will go to those locations and see if we can undo the lockdowns.  Ekren, you stay here with Val.”

“Can we not help?” Valiya almost protested.  “After all, it could be waiting for you.  We could help.”

Arras could see she was sincere, but she didn’t change her mind.  “We won’t need a politician or a bodyguard for this.  Unless either of you are qualified to dismantle a sophisticated biomechanical supercomputer...”

“Point taken,” Ekren conceded.  “Valiya, we’d do well to stay put for now.”

With Arras leading the way, she and Danny made their way out of the control room.

“Arras,” Valiya called, stopping Arras at the threshold.  “Please…  I just want you to know you can trust me.  I want to help any way I can.”

Keeping her eyes forward, Arras said, “I know.  We’ll need you soon enough.”  With that, she stepped out of the control room, leaving Ekren and Valiya on their own.  “Contact us through the comm if you run into any trouble.  We won’t be too far.”

Quietly, Arras and Danny walked down the corridor.  Danny tried not to fall behind, yet he also wanted to give Arras some space.  Only a few hours ago, he had looked into the most guarded places of her mind—he thought Arras could use a break.

They made a few turns before coming to a closed door.  By pressing her hand to the door she opened the way.  An elevator.  She stepped in without hesitation; Danny was not so sure.

“Is this thing safe?” he asked, stepping into the elevator.

Arras didn’t answer; she only gave the elevator the command to descend deeper into the station.  The ride was steady but slow, leaving Danny almost squirming.  He tried not to stare at her, or really even to look at her.

“You aren’t going to say anything?” she asked suddenly, taking him out of his tactless moment.

“I, uh…  What’s there to say?”

“What you saw…”

He felt foolish for even trying to ignore the elephant in the room.  “Right.”

The lift seemed to only inch its way along through the station, moving with no sense of urgency.

“You can trust me,” Arras finally said.  “I don’t want you to think you’re in any sort of danger around me.”

“You mean more than normal?” Danny asked, cracking a smile, getting none in return.  “Sorry—bad joke.”

“I mean it, though.”

“Arras,” he cut in, almost chuckling, “to be honest, it’s been a while since I’ve been on the fence about whether or not to trust you.”

“Things are different now.”

“Not at all.  You’re still Arras; I’m still Danny.  We’re the same people we were when we first met.”  He could have laughed, reminding himself that they had only met a few weeks ago.  “All that’s changed is that we know a little more about each other.”

They both fell silent again.  The lift started to slow as they neared their destination.

“Look,” Danny said as the doors opened, “I meant what I said to you before.  I’m not going to treat you any differently because of your past, no matter what it may have looked like.”

“But why?” she asked, looking back at him.

She had that same look in her eye as when they looked over Manhattan together.  Though only for a second.  Getting back to the task at hand, she seemed to push whatever may have been brewing inside away.  Stepping from the lift, she took the lead once again, leaving Danny to follow.  As they made their way down the corridor, he couldn’t help but hear her question repeat—why indeed?  He hadn’t really asked himself anything like this until now.  He set that question aside, as Arras had a second ago, at least for the moment.

They stopped at a reinforced bulkhead.  Heavy crossbars kept a door in place; bolstered as it was, if the door hadn’t been at the end of the hall, it might have looked like nothing more than a wall.

Putting her hand forward once again, Arras touched the crux of the crossbeams.  A second passed before red lights snaked their way from her hand, denying her access.  However, without any sort of warning, the red lights turned blue and the crossbeams slid aside.

“What’s that about?” Danny asked, watching as the door slide aside.

“I guess Val was right; it was waiting,” Arras said, fixing her eyes on what was waiting for them behind the door.  “It remembers me.”