Chapter 36

 

 “Danny, Arras,” Valiya called through the nano-net.  She looked over the ship’s scanner display, watching the New Pact vessels come closer as they transmitted messages to the platform, demands to surrender.  “They called our bluff; we need to go.”

 “On my way now,” Danny called back, stepping out of the lift and making his way toward the central hub.  “We should still have a few more minutes; we’ll be there before the New Pact gets in.”

 Stepping out into the zero-G environment, Danny crawled his way across the control tower, making his way to the FTL drive’s auxiliary control.  He found Arras right where he expected she would be.

 “You ready to go?” Danny asked, his helmet disintegrating.

 Arras shook her head, her eyes glued to the inside of the tower.  “It looks like Surcease managed to screw us over one last time.”  She looked back at Danny, a hint of fear evident in her eyes.  “The FTL drive is unlocked, the coordinates are set, but I couldn’t get full control.”

 Danny could feel that same fear in her enter him.  She turned to look back into the tower, her hands still at work, trying to bypass the barriers Surcease had left behind that barred them from remotely operating the drive.  The fight was no good; she pulled her hands from the tower.

 “If we want to use the drive,” Arras said, “someone’s going to have to stay behind and manually activate it.”

 “No way,” Danny said, already anticipating her.  “You’re not staying behind.”

 “We don’t have a choice,” Arras insisted.  Her immovability suddenly turned to a sort of compassion.  “I’m not trying to kill myself, Danny.  We just need a way out.”

 “You have one,” a voice said through the net.

 With what strength he had left, Ekren lifted himself to his feet, wobbling a little before he could get a stable footing.  Valiya got up to stop him, but he raised his hand.  A weak smile on his pale face, he shook his head.

 “Val,” Ekren said, “don’t do this now.”

 “Ekren, please,” Valiya said, taking his hand in hers.  She didn’t know what to say; the seriousness of their situation didn’t escape her, but she couldn’t bear the thought of it.  “You can’t.”

 His strength returning, though only slightly, Ekren brushed a tear from her cheek.  “I and my family were always raised to protect you and your family.  To die for my charge would be the greatest honor of all.”

 “But…”

 “It’s the most logical choice, Val.  I’m fatally wounded; even if you could get me to some medical facility, there’s no telling if it’s not already too late.”

 Valiya stared back at him, her hands still around his.  She held back what tears she wanted to shed—she could do at least that much for him.  Releasing his hand, she watched in an almost sacred silence as Ekren opened the hatch to leave.

 “Be strong, Val,” he said to her as he stepped out onto the wing.  “There’s a new world to create, and it’ll need you as one of its grand architects.  Don’t give up now.”

 Holding onto the frame of the hatch’s opening, Valiya watched Ekren make his way to the hangar’s exit, to Danny and Arras—to his own chosen end.

 “I’m coming to you two, so stay put,” was his message through the net.

 Danny went to meet Ekren at the mouth of the hub, helping him into the weightlessness of the room.  Together, they glided tepidly down the tower’s side to Arras and the FTL drive’s controls.

 “Are you sure this is what you want, Ekren?” Danny asked.

 “Believe me,” he said, still smiling, “there’s nothing I could want more than to end this way.  This body may die, but I’ll go on—consider this the last trace I leave.”

 Ekren looked to Arras, who gave him a sober nod, pulling back from the open panel to let Ekren in.  She guided his hand to the control, giving him instructions on what to do once the time came.

 “I understand,” was all he said, gingerly pulling Arras’ hands away.  “Now get out of here, before it’s too late.”

 “Thank you,” Arras said to him, that unmistakable air of respect in her words.

 “I believe in both of you,” Ekren said, “and my dear Val as well.  I know you three can change the world.”

 Danny and Arras flew together to the hub’s exit, each one resting a single hand on the other’s shoulder.  Back into the lift and through the corridors they wound their way as Ekren held onto the controls.  As Danny and Arras boarded their ship, Ekren peeled the bloodied bandages from his abdomen, disabling his nano-net—letting his body slip into its natural state.

 Arras and Danny took their seats in the cockpit, Valiya buckling into one of the seats in the cabin.  Danny set his hand on the navigation console; Ridarin put in Earth’s coordinates as Arras warmed up the jump drive.  With some quick commands, she networked the drive into the platform’s navigational system, preparing for what would take nothing less than perfect timing.

 Valiya smiled as the tears rolled quietly down her cheeks.  “Goodbye, Ekren,” she whispered into the air.

 Hearing her words through the net, the blood rushing from his stomach, Ekren couldn’t help but keep smiling as he turned a handle and activated the jump drive.

 “Goodbye, Valiya.”

 The New Pact vessels were caught in the implosion, thrown toward the suddenly empty space the platform left behind, repulsed by the shock of disturbed dark energy, caught in a brief anti-gravitational wave—the result of Arras reprogramming the platform’s FTL drive, creating as violent an event as possible.  The flagship began tracking the jump immediately, though it didn’t take them nearly as long as the first search had; they knew immediately where the platform had gone, though they would have needed no special method to find it.

 The news traveled from the flagship to the rest of the battle group as the massive star began to collapse in response to the cataclysmic FTL event transpiring at its core.  The Rededication platform only lasted a millisecond at the center of the star, evaporating into the time- and space-distorting heat and gravity of the cosmic oven a microsecond after the small ship in its hangar made a jump of its own, leaving for a system that would remain hidden that Saturday.  As the star’s core fell into gravitational collapse, its contents plumed out into space at a fraction the speed of light; an awesome blast set out to devour the entire system as the remaining core, thrust back under its own gravity, compressed into a singularity.

The New Pact vessels took the few remaining minutes to jump back to Zero Point with the bad news, leaving the echoes of any FTL events to face the same fate as Surcease’s installation.