The first move was easy enough: Danny seized Surcease by the head, infiltrating him directly through his own nano-net. Lights pulsated back and forth between Ridarin and the AI’s armored body.
“I thought you learned this lesson already,” Surcease said, remaining still. “You won’t be able to seize control.”
“Shut it,” Danny demanded. “You’re dealing with a net that’s much more advanced than Arras’.”
“It won’t matter.”
“If you’re the one in control of most of this station, then all I have to do is turn you into my personal puppet.”
“Still think you can just self-destruct this place?”
“You better believe it.”
“You should know,” Surcease said, grabbing hold of Danny’s hand, gradually peeling it from his head, “bravado and machismo will only take you so far. It’s wit and skill that will take you the rest of the way.”
Danny’s infiltration into the AI was cut short as Surcease began his own conquest of Danny’s mind. Trying to pull away from the black armor, Danny felt Surcease’s grip tighten.
“What’s wrong, Danny?” asked Surcease, looking him deep in the eye. “Are you afraid?”
“I won’t let you in!”
Danny tried fighting back, but the AI managed to penetrate deeper into his thoughts, swimming in the basic information floating around in his mind. Gritting his teeth, he slammed his free hand into Surcease’s head again, using it as a point to push off while he continued to pull his other arm free from the machine’s grip.
“Don’t go now,” Surcease pleaded facetiously. “I almost have what I want.”
“Crap, let go of me!”
Getting more frantic by the second, Danny continued to thrash at Surcease’s hold—anything to get away, anything to keep that precious data from him.
“Got it.” Surcease released Danny, letting him jump backward, putting a good distance between the two of them. “Now was that so hard?”
“Shit, no,” Danny muttered, trembling, though not from the mental assault—this was fear.
A deep hum resonated through the station as strands of light seeped from Surcease’s body into the floor.
“Danny, what’s going on?” Arras asked through his net. “Something’s happening up here.”
“I’m sorry,” Danny could only say. “I’m sorry, Arras. I already failed.”
“We’re not through yet,” Arras replied, sounding just as frantic as Danny. “Kill him now and we can still stop him from rededicating Earth.”
“I suppose so,” Surcease said. “Though, if you were able to kill me, you’d still be unable to detonate my station. You’d still be stuck here, waiting for your guests outside to come aboard.”
“This isn’t good,” Danny whispered, keeping his eyes locked on Surcease.
“I’m afraid not,” said Surcease, taking a few steps forward, closing that space Danny put between himself and the black armor. “Not for you, at least.”
With one swing, Surcease seized Danny by the throat, lifting him off his feet. Ridarin managed to keep the pressure from crushing Danny’s windpipe, but the pain still came through.
“You’re absolutely pathetic,” the AI taunted him. “You’re supposed to level the entire Rededication program? Look at you! I think we can both see who the superior military force is.”
“Please,” Danny managed to gasp despite the pliers wrapped around his neck, “just shut up.”
Danny raised his hand as Ridarin materialized an AA-12 shotgun, another courtesy of Damon Hale. He rammed the muzzle into Surcease’s head and held down the trigger, sending a stream of electrified buckshot pointblank into his enemy, forcing Surcease to loosen his grip and stumble back.
With small bolts of electricity trading between his weapon and the floor, Danny materialized a second AA-12, amplifying it like the first. The drum magazines hanging from the firearms’ frames filled seamlessly with ammo, this time a courtesy of Aurin Enqelin. Danny couldn’t help but think Asael Mack might be proud as he raised both guns, aiming directly at Surcease.
Though the damage Danny had done was only superficial, it still gave him hope. The black armor’s face had been gouged badly from the close-range assault, leaving his left eye sparking and sputtering, gray gashes sprinkled around the violet mess.
“You ready to die?” Danny asked.
“Don’t spout clichés at me. I’m much more than brute force, Daniel Eick. I’m the very reason the Enqelins committed suicide.”
Keeping his weapons raised, Danny squinted to keep focused as Surcease made his move. Without any sort of care for the laws of physics, the room began to expand, its walls and ceilings melting away, twisting the surrounding corridors into a seemingly nonsensical weave. It was as if the entire world had collapsed into confusion.
Surcease leapt into the mess of metal as Danny opened fire, watching shards and ribbons of what was once the space station shatter to pieces before the amplified ammunition. Despite the ferocity of each round, Surcease managed to keep cover.
“Danny,” Arras said through the comm, “remember, your mind and his are interacting right now. He’s damaged his own surroundings, but what you’re seeing isn’t precisely reality.”
“What can I do, then?”
“My mother should still be unaffected; she can translate your actions into the real world. For now, focus on what you see—kill Surcease while we still have a chance.”
A rectangular hologram snapped into view overhead, extending and displaying a set of numbers Danny could recognize without Ridarin’s translation. A timer began its countdown, starting from seven minutes.
“Do you feel lucky, Daniel Eick?” he could hear Surcease ask, his voice reverberating through the newly renovated room, bouncing off the streams of floating materials that filled the air. “That’s how long you have until the FTL drive is fully operational and we make our jump to Earth.”
“I’ll just have to kill you before then,” Danny called back, leaping straight into the air and latching onto a spinning bulkhead, scanning the room for Surcease.
Danny could see his target toward the top of the room, watching from over a frayed cliff, a slab of what was once a wall. Before Danny could make his way up, though, the walls around him ripped open, allowing in streams of machines, dots of black and silver—Rededication’s ground infantry.
Hissing a few curses to himself, unsure if what he was seeing was real or just an illusion, Danny gave the command through Ridarin to switch out ammunition. Once he had his confirmation that the ammo was prepped, he lunged headlong into the air. Stretching both arms out in opposite directions, holding his AA-12s tightly, he opened fire, launching rapid volleys of high-explosive ammo at the walls, trying to first close off the enemy’s entry points. Fire flared and explosions rumbled from each round as it connected with the walls, blowing some straggling machines to pieces and collapsing the openings.
“Careful,” Arras called out to him. “You may not see things as they are, but the room’s not as big as you think it is. Take it easy on the explosives.”
“Sorry,” Danny answered, landing on the ground as the remaining machines drew closer.
All around him, the room seemed so large—he wondered how much smaller it could be in reality, looking up at Surcease on his perch. If this room was in fact still smaller than it appeared, small enough to force Danny to be cautious himself, then he guessed Surcease would be just as cramped. Pointing both shotguns up at the AI’s hiding spot, he squeezed the triggers, sending a stream of explosive rounds into the slab of metal Surcease was using for cover. As shrapnel drilled through the air, raining down on Danny and the marionette-machines around him, he could see Surcease dive from his cover to escape.
The incoming enemies around Danny seemed to slow down as Surcease scrambled for a new cover.
“That’s a laugh,” Danny yelled out to Surcease, tracing his escape route with a steady flow of slugs, destroying any cover the AI might be able to take beforehand. “The more you screw with me, the more it takes your mind off your puppets down here. You think I’m pathetic? Without an operator, you’re just DOS with a machine gun!”
In response, Surcease thrust a chunk of wadded up wall downward as his machines retreated for the impact. Knowing he wouldn’t be able to dodge, Danny sprayed the incoming mass with his shotguns, shredding. Before he could see through the wreckage, however, Surcease plowed his way through the splattered pieces of metal, pounding his fist down hard on Danny’s head.
Danny was thrown headfirst into the ground as Surcease finished his landing, coming back for more. Rolling over, trying to get up after such a blow, Surcease landed one of his feet into Danny’s stomach. Reaching for the ground, Surcease picked up one of the AA-12s, watching its frame collapse to normal in his own hand.
“You’re surely very interesting, Daniel Eick,” Surcease said, stomping hard onto Danny’s throat, keeping him down. “However, it seems you still aren’t enough to take on the Coalition’s crowning achievement.”
Through blurring vision, Danny looked past Surcease at the timer—only three minutes left.
“I wasn’t built and brought to life for murder as such, Daniel,” said Surcease, resting the tip of the shotgun on Ridarin’s mouth, infiltrating his way into Danny’s nano-net once again through the contact. “Whether you believe me or not, I was created to quell violence and ensure peace. I’m not a monster. No, I think the monster here is the one who’s been carelessly blasting his way through this space station with no regard for his friends.”
Looking back at Surcease, feeling the AI dig its way back into his mind, Danny watched as the black and violet mask of the armor standing over him split and spread open, revealing a face—Eddy Eick’s face.
In his father’s own voice, Danny could hear the AI speak to him.
“You’ve paraded around the galaxy for the past few days, calling yourselves heroes, but what have you accomplished so far? You’ve managed to connive with a bloodthirsty mongrel from Earth, earning yourself war-machines like these—” Surcease twisted the end of the shotgun harder into Danny’s armored face. “Then what? You were assaulted at the neural level by a maddened shadow of what used to be Aurin Enqelin, only to earn some modicum of respect through further violence. Then you rushed away to see the aftermath of what other humans could do to Eilikh, only to be picked up by the military of a government who’s own civil war you yourselves would prime. And now you’ve come to kill me.”
Pulling the trigger, Surcease fired a solid eight rounds of buckshot into Danny’s face, keeping his body from moving with his foot anchored to Danny’s throat as his head jerked in different directions with every shot.
“You have the audacity to call me the end of humanity? Please.”
Tossing the shotgun aside, Surcease leaned down to Danny, putting all his weight onto Danny’s throat. He made sure Danny could see his father’s face up close.
“Let me be very clear,” Surcease seethed through Eddy’s gritted teeth. “This is the man that taught you war. I can feel it in your very being, Daniel—you hate your father with every iota of your being. You wanted him dead. You may have realized science was an escape from the truth, but you never could tell another what truth that was: that you weren’t running from his tragedy; you were running from your own rancor at his very life and your uncontrollable glee at his death.”
Losing air, Danny watched the timer hit zero.
“Now,” said Surcease, pushing off from Danny’s neck, standing up, “I’ll show your planet the truth. I’ll level the very field that inspired animals like Aurin Enqelin to murder and call it ‘justice.’ Then, with some hope, perhaps we may at last have peace.”
Teetering on the edge of consciousness, Danny could hear the hum of the FTL drive intensify. As the noise grew louder, he found himself almost praying this hadn’t been in vain.
His heart felt like a feather on the wind as that familiar presence stood at his head. Smiling, Danny could feel Ridarin shock him back to consciousness as he sat up, listening to the powerful roar of the station’s jump drive begin to die, leaving Surcease, with Eddy’s eyes, looking as if he had just missed his stop.
“I don’t understand,” Surcease said, looking upward into the mess of metal above. “What’s happened to me? What have you done?”
Surcease turned around just in time for Danny to rocket a fist into the falsified face of his father, knocking the black armor off its feet and into the air. Landing hard on his back, Surcease rolled over his own shoulder, shooting back up to his feet as Danny slowly approached, Ridarin still numbing the injuries he had received.
“What have you done?” Surcease repeated, his fury unable to mask his fear—though these were only the dullest memories of his old operator.
“You’re smart,” Danny said, cracking a smile as he approached Surcease. “You tell me.”
“The drive is still online,” Surcease reasoned, “but it’s not taking my commands.”
“You didn’t want the self-destruct.” Surcease stared wide-eyed back at Danny, slipping into sheer panic. “You haven’t done anything! They’ll still track you. They’ll follow you back to Earth.”
“Let me worry about that,” Danny said, raising his remaining AA-12 and firing a few 12-guage rounds of buckshot into the AI’s chest, knocking him back once again. “You think you’ve got this war figured out, but you’re blind. Like I said, without your operator, you’re nothing but a piece of junk trying to connect to the rest of this place through dial-up. It’s not hard to clog your signal; it’s almost as easy to make you think you’re still in control.”
Surcease slapped a palm to the ground, trying to reconnect with the station. Every string of light he sent out was deflected back to his hand as the room returned to normal, the walls demolished and the corridors perforated, though nothing was altered anymore—this was the real world. Looking up from his futile efforts, Surcease could see a woman in white standing at Danny’s side.
“How can you suppress me like this?” Surcease sputtered, scrambling back up.
Danny fired another two rounds into Surcease’s chest, saying, “I knew I wouldn’t be able to hack you on my own, so we decided to lead you on a goose chase; give you Earth’s location and make you think you’ve won so you would unlock the FTL drive. All the while, my suit’s own intelligence keeps you from frying my brain while it distracts you from the real kill-switch.”
Two more rounds into Surcease’s chest had him pinned to the wall as Danny stopped his slow pursuit.
“This whole time,” Danny said, “Arras was waiting to take control of the drive, wipe your coordinates, and replace them. All the while, Suo and I keep you busy.”
Still wearing Eddy’s face, Surcease tried feigning sober distaste.
“Then I was right,” the AI said stoutly. “All you are is a pack of animals, bent on nothing but violence. It’s the very air you breathe.”
“Not violence,” Danny said, “not purely, anyway. Despite what the prime family may have thought, not all humans get off on slaughtering each other. The Coalition built you because they were afraid of something, but that something wasn’t violence—it was reality. Life’s a struggle, it’s true, and people get hurt. There’s a lot of suffering that doesn’t have to happen. But there’s a lot of it that just comes with the uniform, so to speak.”
“You’d really choose a world like this?” Surcease asked. He jabbed a finger at Eddy’s face. “You’d choose a world with a face like this?”
“It doesn’t matter if I chose it or not,” Danny said, letting his shotgun disappear. “What matters is that it’s what’s real. There’s something you don’t get, Surcease, and maybe it’s just because you weren’t programmed to get it: as much as humans hurt each other, there’s still a few of us that try to watch our step and pick up others when they trip or get tripped. We’re not a hopeless cause.”
With Danny apparently unarmed, Surcease hurled himself forward, readying to plow his arm through Ridarin’s chest—ready to rip Danny’s misguided heart out and crush it himself.
“For the record,” Danny said calmly as Surcease made his approach. “I forgave my father a long time ago.”
A wall of firearms flashed into existence around Danny, suspended in the air—shotguns, assault rifles, carbines, a myriad of weapons—all aimed at Surcease, stopping him in his tracks.
“Actually,” Danny went on, “I even came to love him again.”
The wall of weapons opened fire on Surcease, each round landing in his chest, firing nonstop until the armor ripped open, leaving Surcease pressed back against the wall, unable to move, his interior splayed open for Danny to see. A ribcage of ancient bones crumbled inside Surcease’s armor as dust wafted from the opening in his chest.
“Your operator didn’t leave you here,” Danny muttered, looking in on the brittle skeleton. “Whoever they were, they were here with you till the end.”
“We waited for the Coalition to give the order,” Surcease explained, his voice sounding more synthesized, his stolen face fading away to a crumbling skull. “They prepped us for an attack on Earth, but everything fell apart before the green light could be given. And so he waited inside me for the order.”
“An order that never came,” Danny added, staring respectfully into the tomb of a suit before him. “I don’t know if it matters much coming from me, Surcease; I don’t even know if it’ll mean anything to you, since you’re still only artificial… but I am sorry.”
Extending his hand, his other firearms flitting out of sight, Danny materialized one last weapon: an M72 LAW, an anti-tank rocket launcher. The tube of the weapon shifted in his hand, wrapping around his arm and solidifying once again into something much larger. Taking a step back, Danny aimed the cannon at Surcease; holding down the trigger, the explosives inside detonated, compressing into a bead-sized ignition of white and blue light.
“I know your dream, Surcease,” Danny said as the payload roared to life. “I’ll even help you make it a reality—a world without death. I can’t bring it myself, but I can at least contribute to the effort.”
“You’ll die like the rest of them, Daniel Eick,” Surcease screamed in a voice of static. “Mark my words: Rededication has a way of weeding out degenerates and animals like you, even from a distance.”
“How do you figure?”
“Arras Enqelin,” Surcease said. “Once an operator, always an operator. She’ll be the one to stop you.”
Leveling the charged-particle cannon at Surcease, Danny weighed the AI’s words.
“One thing you have to know about us,” Danny said simply, “we know what’s not in our control, and we know what is. You think Arras is one of you, but the fact is that she’s not what you want her to be and she’s not what I want her to be. She is who she is. Learn to accept that—that’s teleios, after all.”
With a smile, Danny felt the cannon get lighter on his arm. To his right, he could see Suo holding the weapon with one of her hands, helping support the weight. To his left, he could see that familiar presence—really see her. Ila rested her own hand on the other side of the cannon, smiling back at Danny before the three of them fixed their eyes on Surcease.
“One down,” Danny called out, “seven to go!”
Together, they opened fire and ended the Surcease of Enmity.