Chapter 32

 

 At the center of the room, just as it had been in Arras’ mind, knelt the suit.  Arras and Danny passed the threshold, stopping at the last circle of terminals surrounding the ropy column that kept the suit in place.  They both stared at the genuflecting body as it raised its head to them, violet eyes sparking to life.

 “I thought I sensed you,” the suit said in a man’s voice, sounding a little synthesized.  “Welcome home, Arras Enqelin.”

 “Let’s get to work,” Arras said to Danny, picking a terminal.

 “Do you want me to do this?” Danny asked, his worry evident.

 “I’ll be okay,” Arras said.  Though she didn’t look up from the terminal, she sounded grateful for the offer.  “I know what needs to be done.  If it can be done, I’ll do it.”

 Danny nodded, deciding she would be the most qualified for this task.  Still, he didn’t know how he felt about Arras getting that close to the AI.  He wasn’t afraid, not for himself, watching Arras sync with the terminal and start into the AI.

 “I know what you’re trying to do,” the suit said smoothly, calmly.  “It won’t work.”

 “Tell me what’s happened to your systems,” Arras commanded, looking into the suit’s eyes.  “I was never informed of such protocols.”

 “That would be because this was not a protocol,” the suit answered.  “I was given express directions by my operator, shortly before he was killed, to lockdown the station and splinter its network.  No one trusted you to come aboard another installation.”

 “Grant me access to all systems,” Arras said with the same demanding tone.  She continued digging through the AI’s surface layers, its digital mind, in order to coerce it into obeying.  “I don’t imagine your operator left you completely on your own; surely they gave you administrative authority.  You can unlock those systems.”

 “I can.”

 “Do it.”

 The suit only stared back at her.

 “Let me guess, Hal,” Danny said.  “You’re afraid you can’t do that—right?”

 Studying at Danny for a few seconds, the suit then turned back to Arras.  “Who is this?”

 “Do not ask questions,” Arras demanded, penetrating another layer deeper into the AI.  “Grant me access to your systems.”

 “Arras Enqelin,” the suit stated, unfazed, “fourth of the eight operators.  You may not have operated this particular installation, but I know more about you than you would probably like.”

 “Unlock your systems,” Arras continued, not losing stride.

 “Responsible for only three major rededications of hostile parties and their territories,” the suit went on, still just as undaunted.  “Despite the few times you ever participated in a full-scale operation, you managed to impress high authorities of the Coalition military, including certain members of the prime family themselves.”

 “Unlock your systems.”  She pierced another layer deeper into the AI’s mind, taking further control, yet something started to feel off to her.

 “You were recognized for your seemingly natural ability to negotiate aggression and stratagem,” the suit said, now sounding almost bored.  “You managed to stave off the crippling insanity that recycled the other operators.”

 “I will not ask again,” Arras insisted, her anger coming through.  “Unlock them for me.”

 “But you never could learn one simple lesson,” the suit concluded.  “No matter how many shining analyses and reviews you were given, you never seemed to understand your own limitations—you never understood who was really in control.”

 Without warning, Arras’ eyes shot wide open, her body seizing, her back arching, her mouth wide, as if trying to scream—though she suffered silently.

 “You aren’t in control, Arras Enqelin,” the suit said from its knees.  “I am.”

 Danny seized Arras by one of her wrists, entering through her net, clearing out any infiltration the AI had made on her mind before pulling her from the terminal.  Armoring his free arm, Danny aimed a shotgun at the suit’s face, trying to curb his own anger, ready as he was to make a rash decision.

 “That really is fascinating,” the suit said.  “However, it’s rude to interrupt.”

 Her eyes still wide, Arras held Danny’s arm tightly as her mind settled and her nano-net repaired itself, gaining control of her body once more.  Danny looked back to see if she was all right; he had never seen her like this, thrown so off guard.  The sight left him in a swirl of dread and rage.

 Turning back to the suit, Danny said, “I could blow your brains out right now.”

 “Why don’t you?” the suit asked.  “Is it because you’re waiting for her order?  I suppose you must be the pawn; she’s the handler.”

 “Don’t listen to it,” Arras said through heavy breaths, letting go of his arm, putting a hand to her head.  “It’ll just try to manipulate you.  It may be limited without an operator, but there are plenty of other ways it’ll try to get into your head.”

 “It, it, it,” the suit sang.  “Why not call me by my name?  You can call me the Surcease of Enmity.”

 “Wow,” Danny muttered, not dropping his weapon from the suit’s head.  “Translation’s a real bitch, huh?”

 “You’re as aggressive as she is,” Surcease said, putting a hand on the ground, pushing itself up, standing like a tower.  “Though, I wonder, can you strategize like she can?”

 “Don’t shoot it,” Arras said, grabbing Danny again and pulling him back, leading him out of the room as the suit watched peaceably.  “Even if we destroy the AI, then this whole place will still be under lockdown.  Come on, let’s get out of here.”

 “Perhaps I was wrong,” said Surcease as they made for the door.  Its body took a few steps forward, cocking its head to the side.  “You do seem to know when you’re beat.”

 Danny and Arras walked backward through the bulkhead, watching it close behind them.  They could hear Surcease call one last thing to them before the door slid in place and the bars returned to their original position.

 “Don’t forget, you two, who is really in charge.”

 The door then secured, Danny heaved a sigh and sent the shotgun and portion of Ridarin away.  He looked over his shoulder, seeing Arras leaned up against the wall, still trying to calm herself.

 “You gonna be okay?” he asked.

 “I think so,” she said.  “Surcease doesn’t play around, and I walked right into his trap.  He let me think I was getting in, when all he was doing was waiting for me to open up for an attack.”

 Danny wanted to say something to reassure her, but he couldn’t think of anything.  By all accounts, their situation had just gotten worse.

 “Come on,” Arras finally said, regaining her composure, “I have one other idea.”  She proceeded back down the corridor, heading to the lift.

 “What did the AI mean when it said it was in charge?” Danny asked, catching up to walk beside her.

 “Surcease was letting its hand show,” Arras said, looking just as angry as before.  “He led us in here, wanted to see what was going on.  He let me see a couple things before trying to get into my head: the Coalition knew I was coming.  That’s why they locked down the platforms like this.”

 They stepped into the lift, the doors closing behind them.  Arras gave the lift another destination.

 “Are we not going back to Ekren and Val?” Danny asked.

 “No,” she said.  “I’m not sure why, but Surcease is keeping us alive—at least for now.  I plan to make the most of that time.”

 The lift slowed to a halt, opening up to another corridor.  Danny followed, looking down to the end of the hall.

 “What is this place?” he asked.

 “Think of it like the station’s brain,” Arras said as they walked.  “Surcease can control it remotely, but I want to see if we can take that control away.”

 At the end of the hall, they stood at the open entrance to a massive cylindrical room.  A tower ran from where they stood to the back of the room, rotating in place.  Danny looked down at the ledge; the drop was at least twenty feet, maybe more.

 “What now?”

 “This.”

 Arras grabbed onto a bar on the other side, stepping off the ledge.  Her feet left the floor and didn’t come down; using the bar to adjust her position, she kicked off from the wall and floated gently through the room, parallel to the tower.

 “No gravity,” Danny said to himself, mimicking Arras’ movements.  “Of course.”

 Floating after her, he continued to watch how she maneuvered, grabbing onto the rotating tower on occasion, using it to anchor and adjust her body in midair.  Arras stopped at one portion of the tower, prying up a part of its cover.  She tapped at a few buttons, holding onto the tower as it continued to spin.

 “No good,” she finally said, moving farther down.

 “What was that?”

 “Auxiliary control for the self-destruct mechanism.  It was a long shot, but I thought it was worth checking.”

 “I’m guessing we’re locked out of that, too.”

 She stopped at another part of the tower, doing just as she had before, tapping at the controls under the surface.

 “I think I get why Surcease didn’t blow us out of the black before we landed,” Arras said as Danny joined her.  “Look here.”

 Danny wasn’t sure at all what she was trying to point out, but he followed her fingers as she explained.

 “The station’s defense network is malfunctioning.  Surcease can’t send any commands to the weapon grids outside.”

 “Lucky.”

 “More confusing than anything.”

 “Why would it be malfunctioning at all?”

 “Two centuries is a long time to go without maintenance,” she said.  “It could’ve happened in combat, too; maybe we weren’t the first ones to locate this platform.”

 Their conversation was cut short by a transmission, Ekren’s voice coming in through their nets.

 “Arras, Danny,” said Ekren, “we need you back here, pronto.”

 “What is it?” Arras asked.  “We’re a little busy.”

 “We have company.”

 Arras and Danny looked back at each other before scrambling back up the tower, heading for the hub’s exit.  A minute or two passed before they were back on the command deck.

 “What’s going on?” Danny asked Ekren.

 “See for yourself.”

 They all looked into one of the hanging monitors, watching three warships and a number of smaller craft come out of FTL jumps.  The group numbered four in total.  According to one of the sensor displays near the monitor, the ships were already arranging themselves to surround the installation.

 “How did they find us?” asked Danny, looking down from the monitor to Arras.

 A transmission came through, waiting at the room’s comm station.  Arras stepped forward to answer the call.

 “We are hailing anyone aboard this Rededication platform,” a voice announced through the transmission, coming in on a weak signal.  “Please respond.”

 No one in the room spoke as Arras held the comm in hand.  The voice repeated itself when they didn’t reply.  Staring down at the comm, Arras seemed to be weighing their options.

 “Arras,” Danny finally said.  She looked up from the comm to him.  “We don’t have any way to keep them out.”

 “I know that.”

 “But they don’t.”  Danny smirked as she registered what he was saying.  “It’ll buy us some time.  Maybe enough to figure out how to blow this thing up.”

 She nodded, raising the comm to speak.

 “All New Pact vessels,” Arras said, “this is a warning to each of you: I am now in control of this Rededication platform.  If you attempt to board this installation, I will destroy all of you without mercy.  You will receive no more instructions than this.  Stay away.”

 As the New Pact vessels complied, she set the comm down.  “That’ll only buy us a little time.  They won’t fall for it for long.”  Putting her palm to the console, the incoming voices fell into static.

 “What are you doing?” Ekren asked.

 “Jamming our own communications,” she said.  “I’m sorry to say that we weren’t able to disable the AI.  In fact, destroying this place may be much harder than we thought.”

 “You understand, then,” Surcease said through the speakers in the room.  “You understand who’s really in control.”

 “Who is that?” Valiya asked, her eyes darting from one speaker to the other.

 “You shut down all communication,” Surcease observed.  “Why is this?”

 “I can’t have you contacting those vessels,” Arras said.  “I may not be able to access your self-destruct, but the communication grid is low-hanging fruit.”

 “You’ve got me curious.  What could you possibly have in store?”

 “There’s one thing you need to know about me, Surcease: the reason they thought I didn’t know my limitations…”  She looked down at Danny, a wild grin cut across her face.  “Let’s just say we’re going to show you who’s really in control of this situation.”

 “Oh, Arras,” Surcease almost groaned, “don’t be so brutish—it’s unbecoming of someone with your reputation.  Perhaps a demonstration will help you understand the pecking order.”

 The sound of whirling metal parts sliced the air as a number of turrets dropped from the ceiling.

 “Not this crap again,” Danny said as the turrets opened fire.

 The moment was absolute chaos.  Lights tearing through the air, the sounds of charged particles demolishing their targets.  Once the dust was settled, however, the aftermath was clear enough.

 Armored up, Danny covered Arras, having pulled her to the deck.  His arm was still extended, an assault rifle in hand, electricity arcing at the end of the muzzle as the remains of the turrets fell from the ceiling.

 “Ekren, Valiya,” Danny called out, getting to his feet.  “Are you okay?”

 When the answer didn’t come, Arras jumped to her feet and followed Danny through the thin smoke, crushing bits of debris beneath their feet.  They found Valiya kneeling, holding Ekren close as his fingers trembled over his stomach.  Arras knelt with Valiya, looking over the wound in Ekren’s gut as Danny stood guard.

 “It’s fine,” Ekren sputtered, “really.  My net will take care of it.”

 “Not all of it,” Arras said.  “You’re bleeding out too much.”

 Light pulsated through his flesh to the wound; in response, the bleeding slowed to a complete stop.  The wound was still open, but the blood vessels were sealed off or redirected inside his body.

 “Will he be all right?” Valiya asked, helping Arras lay Ekren on his back.

 “For the time being,” Arras said.  “But we need to get him some help soon.”

 “Please don’t forget,” Surcease said through the speakers.  “Don’t forget who’s in charge.”

 “What are you doing, Surcease?” Arras yelled at the ceiling.  “If you want us dead, then you’d better try harder.”

 “I’d say I was doing well enough,” Surcease said.  “Though, that man on the ground is expendable; I couldn’t kill you or Daniel.  That would ruin everything.”

 “What are you after?” asked Arras, standing back up.

 “I want to fulfill my mission, of course.”

 “And what might that be?”

 “Don’t be thick, Arras; you’re smarter than that,” said Surcease.  “I would think my intentions would be obvious after our little ‘talk’—you know, when you stormed in and started giving orders.”

 Arras thought this through for a moment, then her eyes widened, the answer coming like a sack of bricks.

 “There you go,” Surcease said.  “I knew you’d get it eventually.”

 “But why?” Arras asked.  “I’m here.”

 “It’s not just you I was ordered to terminate.”

 “That order is obsolete, Surcease.  Your target’s not the same.”

 “I beg to differ.  I may not have gotten the coordinates before Daniel interrupted my search, but I did learn quite a bit about them—they’re a danger, just as the Coalition concluded long ago.  They were the spark of rebellion, and every day they are allowed to breathe is another day they risk infecting the rest of the universe with their brutality.”

 “What’s it talking about?” Danny asked Arras.

 She looked back at Danny, as if unable to answer, though the look in her eye said it all.

 “He wants Earth,” Danny said, his shoulders dropping.  “That’s…  No.  I mean, that’s outdated.  They’d want to destroy Earth to find you.”

 “That’s not the only reason Earth was deemed in need of rededication,” Surcease explained.  “Perhaps the order is a tad aged, but the reasons are still the same.  Arras Enqelin was only part of the reason.”

 “Then, why?” Danny asked.  “Why would you want to destroy a planet that hasn’t caused you any trouble for centuries?”

 “That’s a laugh,” Surcease replied.  “No trouble?  I may not have gotten as deep as the coordinates, but I saw your world through Arras’ eyes, Daniel Eick.  You’re just as much a threat as you were in the eighteenth century.  Rededication’s purpose is to eliminate any possible threat to the well-being of humanity, including other human beings; and because an operator is not available, that responsibility falls to me.  I just need the coordinates, and we can end this ugly mess.”

 “What makes you think I’d ever give you Earth’s location?” Arras asked.

 “I doubt you’d ever give me that information on your own,” Surcease admitted.  “However, I imagine you’ll succumb eventually.  Even if you don’t surrender them willingly, I can still pry them from your brain before your corpse gets too cold.”

 “You have no leverage, Surcease,” Danny said.  “If you think we’re just going to give in—”

 “Likely not,” Surcease said.  “But we’ll see what happens.  After all, Arras, you were once an operator—maybe you have at least some desire to pick up where you left off.”

 Valiya and Ekren looked up at Arras, neither one sure what to make of what Surcease had just said.

 “She…” Valiya said softly.  “She was an operator?”

 “Not a chance!” Arras yelled back at Surcease.  “Whatever past life you may think I led, that paperwork doesn’t know the half of it.  I came here to kill you and destroy this platform, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do!”

 “We’ll see,” was all Surcease said before leaving them to reel.

 Turning back to the others, Danny could see the look of confusion on Valiya’s face.

 “Arras Enqelin was an operator,” Valiya mouthed to herself, watching Arras move for the exit.