Almost an hour passed in silence.
Arras stayed outside the room, having worked through her nano-net to not only scramble the station’s communications but to muffle any sort of microphones or recorders Surcease might be able to listen to them through. Valiya tended to Ekren, keeping him awake with small talk as his net treated his wound; thus far, the net had taken his body out of shock. Danny watched his three companions from one side of the room. He kept an eye on Arras for a moment, then looked back up at the speakers, thinking of Surcease. The AI had given them the cold shoulder for a while now. Scowling, he couldn’t help but feel completely irritated—this AI had way too much confidence.
Looking through the monitors above, Danny watched the New Pact ships as they maintained their position. They hadn’t moved since their first transmission; at least they were buying the story for now.
“I’m guessing you knew,” Valiya said, glancing back at Danny. “About Arras, I mean. That she used to be an operator.”
“What about it?” Danny asked, not looking at Valiya.
A little taken off guard by his response, Valiya turned back to Ekren. “It’s just a surprise, that’s all.”
“Ekren,” Arras said from the doorway, startling Valiya and Danny.
“How can I be of assistance?” he asked, sounding stronger than before.
“It’s impossible for the College to have decrypted those coordinates,” Arras said. “There’s no way they could have found this place the same way we did. Do you have any idea how they could have found us?”
“Not sure,” Ekren said, propping himself up on his elbow. “When I was in the military, there was always talk of how to locate anyone once they had made a jump. It was too difficult, though. We never found a way.”
“Do you think they used those trackers they put on us?” Danny asked.
“Deactivating those was a precaution,” Ekren said as he rolled back to the floor. “There’s no way they could transmit our location from this sort of distance; they barely work from one end of a star system to another.”
“Then how the hell did they find us?” Arras asked.
“There’s one way,” Valiya said. She stared down at Ekren for a moment, looking at the opening in his abdomen, at its burned edges, turning away when she could see inside him. “There was one method the College discussed, a tracking method for the military, something to resolve the problem Ekren just mentioned. However, we decided the method was a potential violation of the private lives of civilians, so it was never implemented.”
Danny squatted beside her. “Is there any chance they may have used that method to find us?”
“It’s possible,” Valiya muttered, twirling a lock of red hair in her finger, weighing the answer she didn’t want to be true. “It seems they’re not above much now.”
“This method, then,” Arras said. “How’s it work?”
Looking up from Ekren to Arras, Valiya said, “Every time a superluminal drive is activated, it creates a distortion in space and time for a vessel to traverse. The thing is, even after a ship passes in and out of that distortion, it still leaves behind a sort of echo, just as skipping a stone across a lake leaves ripples in the water.”
“They can trace someone’s destination with just the point of origin?” Danny asked.
“If the residual effects of the event don’t fade before then,” Valiya explained. “If you can find the spatial location of an FTL event, then you can theoretically track a ship to its destination, yes.”
“And I didn’t exactly hide our jump from Zero Point,” Arras admitted, shaking her head. “I suppose that’s how they found us, then.”
“Which means we can’t even escape in our ship,” Danny said. He looked down at Ekren, furrowing his brow. “If they could track us all the way from Zero Point… They’ve got us boxed in.”
“Looks that way,” said Arras, sitting down beside Ekren. “I’m very sorry, Ekren. If we could get you help, we would.”
“Please don’t apologize,” Ekren said, forcing a smile. “Really, I understand. This is more important.”
“The only thing is,” Danny said, “it looks like we’ve hit a dead end here. We can’t jump without them tracking us, which means we can’t get Ekren help; we can’t even go back to Earth without them following us. Which means we’re trapped on this station with a deranged computer.”
Danny got to his feet and walked across the room, staring back up at the monitors.
“I’m sorry for bringing you along,” Arras said to Valiya, taking her off guard.
“Please, don’t apologize,” Valiya insisted. “It’s not like I was safe on Zero Point.” She played with her hair, thinking of what to say.
“Do you distrust me now?” Arras asked.
“You were an operator,” Valiya said, confessing her anxiety. “Still, you brought us this far, and it doesn’t appear that you have any intention of using Rededication. You clearly want it destroyed.”
Arras replied with a quiet nod.
“Why did you bring me here, Arras?”
“I… I wanted you to see Rededication firsthand.”
“Because I thought, if you could see what it’s capable of, what it takes away…” Arras looked down at Ekren again, that same apologetic look still in her eye. “I thought you could help your people understand. Maybe, if they really knew what Rededication was meant for, why it was created in the first place—they might not be so ready to kill each other over it.”
“I see,” Valiya breathed, smiling a little. “You knew my people would fall into another civil war. You wanted to see if you could stop it.”
“I know she never intended it, but Ila’s death was instrumental in sinking the Coalition into war. My little sister… she never wanted that kind of bloodshed—I know that for a fact. It seemed like a blight on her memory to cause the same thing over again myself.”
“You hear that?” Ekren said to Valiya. “She thinks you might wake the people up.” He smiled up at her, feeling her hand in his despite his net numbing much of his body.
“Maybe so,” Valiya replied, smiling back down at him. “In order to do that, though, we’ll have to get out of here somehow.”
“Yes,” Arras said, “somehow.”
Getting to her feet, Arras left Valiya and Ekren, going to stand with Danny. She found him still looking into one of the monitors, one of the New Pact vessels obscuring the local star with its relative distance, awash in the orangy-red hues exploding from the hypergiant.
“What’s on your mind?” Arras asked, watching the outside world with him.
“No matter how you look at it,” Danny said, “we’re pretty screwed. If Val’s right, then we won’t be able to even escape this place.”
“There’s always options.”
“You don’t sound so convinced.”
“Shall we surrender to the New Pact, then?”
“That’s not what I’m saying.”
“There’s no real hope of saving Ekren,” Danny muttered, looking from the monitor and the ships just outside to Ekren and Valiya, hating himself for even saying it. “As much as I wish that weren’t the case...”
Arras studied him, looking into his eyes; for the first time in what felt like eternity, he looked cornered. Something in Danny seemed to be clawing at the walls inside him, something demanding to get out.
“We’ll figure this out,” Arras said, surprising herself with how readily she wanted to comfort him.
“I don’t doubt that,” Danny finally sighed, “but I don’t know if we’re going to survive this.” He turned to face her squarely. “Arras, if this is where we die… how do you want to go?”
Staring back at Danny, she thought his question through, realizing she was seeing that something trying to get out of him—not a desire to escape, but a spirit that was willing to fight to the death. This wasn’t a side she was used to seeing, not in him. There was the determination that had taken him this far, but this was different. This wasn’t mere conviction. Danny was prepared to die.
“I would want to go like Ridarin,” Arras answered.
“So would I,” Danny said with a nod. “We won’t be able to blow this place to hell with Surcease blocking us; I want a shot at punching through him.”
“You want to go into the AI?”
“I want to rip it to shreds with my own hands,” Danny said. “No more playing with software; I want to pit our hardware against his.”
“Even if you manage to destroy Surcease,” she said, “the systems would still be locked down.”
“Sure. But what if they weren’t?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, if Surcease wants to go to Earth so badly… why not let him?”
Arras stared back at him, thinking this through. “The New Pact ships would still track us, even if we were able to jump back to Earth.”
“Maybe not,” Valiya said, getting their attention. “If you really want to risk this, then there might be a way to mask our jump and destroy this platform all at once.”
“What would you suggest?” Danny asked.
“We declared probing FTL events illegal partly because we felt people would become desperate to cover their tracks,” Valiya explained. “We thought they’d get so desperate that they’d try to counteract tracing by putting themselves and others in danger. So, since we’re desperate, why don’t we get a little dangerous, too?”