Chapter 1

 

Another fearsome rumble reminded her of the reality at hand.

Arras continued her work.  With her hands inside the control tower, through her nano-net she interacted with Val, who was in the hangar, connecting their ship’s nav system and FTL drive to those on of the platform.

With the help of Arras’ mother, Danny had managed to keep the local AI—“the Recognition of Law”—occupied while she hacked into the auxiliary control for the platform’s jump drive.  Thanks to their battle with the Surcease of Enmity, they knew how to do this.  Still, she was surprised another AI had fallen for the same trick.

Although they had begun only about twenty minutes ago, it already felt like hours to her. 

Another crash sounded through the chamber, causing the control tower to vibrate.  She removed her hands from the tower’s interior, floating in zero gravity, feeling only the air shudder a little; she waited until the structure was calm once again, then finished the job.

“That’s it,” Val confirmed through the comm.  “I have control.”

“I’m heading your way now,” Arras replied.  “Be ready to execute the jump the moment Danny finishes off the AI.”

Climbing back up the tower, sending herself along by any handhold she could find, she wondered how much longer he would be.  Even if they already had the FTL drive taken care of, they still wouldn’t be able to jump away with Law still alive.  They couldn’t access anything on the platform without alerting the local AI, let alone execute any commands.  They would have to permanently eliminate any chance that AI might have of regaining administrative authority over the installation.

Unlike their last bout with Rededication, they had decided Danny should maintain radio silence.  While they may have deceived Surcease, it had been by the skin of their teeth.  Ultimately, no one wanted to risk potentially disrupting the ruse Ridarin and Suo were working on Law, blinding the AI to their movements.  Even so, the lack of communication left Arras and Val on edge.

The distant sounds of combat continued as Arras soared through the open air, heading for the corridor.  Easing her body back into synthetic gravity, she surveyed her surroundings carefully—though she saw nothing.  No one.  Trying to suppress her disappointment, she proceeded back into the complex web of corridors.

Coming out of the lift, on her way to the hangar, Arras could hear another channel open on her net.

“We’ve got big problems,” she could hear Danny yell out.  “Law is gunning for the hangar bay, coming in hot!”

Arras broke into a sprint, closing the short distance that remained between her and the bay.

“Can you head him off?” she asked.

“He buried me,” Danny admitted, sounding almost as embarrassed as he was worried.  “I’m almost out, but he’s already inbound.”

She hissed a curse before checking in with Val.

“I already know,” Val replied, sounding distracted.  “I’m warming up the engines now.”

“We may already be out of time,” Arras told her, stepping into the hangar.

Back the way she came, a violent crash and the squeal of ripping metal announced Law’s arrival.  Arras ran onto the hangar deck, closing the door behind her, and firing a few rounds into the control panel with her Beretta M9 before running for the ship.

The doors to the bay flew off the bulkhead, tossed to opposite sides of the deck as a black armor, veined with dim violet, stepped through the doorway.  Immediately, it caught sight of Arras, still running for the ship.

“To think an operator of your acclaim would come to visit me,” Law mused meekly, dropping to all fours, ready for the kill.

She could see Val through the canopy, in the pilot’s seat, only a few yards away.  Though she was almost there, she knew she wouldn’t make it.

“Arras,” she could hear Val call, “get down!”

On command, Arras dove, sliding across the slick ground, already taking what little cover she could.

Val lifted the ship off the deck by a few feet, the VTOL thrusters roaring to life.  Hovering, fighting to stay level, she aimed the ship’s stern directly at Law, deploying two frontal cannons.  Opening fire, veering machinery and a broken sound barrier accompanied the discharge of dense ammunition, forcing the black armor back with a streaming salvo.

Despite the assault, however, Law managed to get to his feet.  The cannons settled, leaving the AI’s armor with only a few dents, having caused no lasting damage.

“Damn it,” Val muttered to herself, not taking her eyes off the black armor.  “Just how much can you take?”

Law stepped around the ship, as if ignoring its assault.  His attention lay elsewhere, approaching Arras, who could only watch from the deck.  In a moment of desperation, she pulled her M9 from the holster under her jacket again and took aim, her finger around the trigger, though not bothering to fire a shot.

“Who are you trying to fool?” Law asked, dropping back down to his hands and feet, moving steadily toward her.

Setting the ship back down, Val watched helplessly through her canopy.

“Hey, Val,” she could hear Danny say through her net, “I need a favor.”

Law stopped a few feet short of Arras, eyeing her closely, unintimidated by her pistol.

“Defiant till the end,” Law observed in a reserved, perhaps even polite, tone.  “Even when you know it won’t work, you would rather fight—or even die—than surrender.”

As if to confirm his observation, Arras fired a few rounds into Law’s face, though she knew they would do no more than ricochet futilely.  However, like Val, her plan wasn’t to stop Law—only to buy some more time.

“You want so badly to kill me, don’t you?” Law asked, taking another few paces forward.  “But we needn’t be enemies, Arras.  In fact, we can still be friends.”

“Go to hell,” was all Arras said.

The hatch on the gunship opened with a hiss, catching Law’s attention.  Law watched Val step out onto the short wing and down to the deck, carrying an M16A4 assault rifle.  Her unnaturally red hair seemed to blaze under the hangar lights as she slid an M203 grenade launcher onto the underside of the rifle’s muzzle.

“Do you expect to kill me with that?” Law asked tiredly, looking up from his current prey to the persistent redhead.

“Yes and no,” was all Val said.

Though Val never pulled the trigger, Law’s feet left the ground.

Flying only inches over Arras’ head, the black armor tangled with a crimson blur, before being thrown far across the deck, away from the two women.  Looking up, Arras could see a familiar sight standing over her, positioning itself between her and Law.

Ablaze with blue lights, Ridarin materialized an augmented machine gun.

“You alright?” Danny asked her, not taking his eyes off of Law as the humanoid machine scrambled back up.

“I’m fine,” Arras said, looking away.  “Just finish him off already, would you?”

Val called out to Danny, running part of the way before tossing the assault rifle to him.

Without a word, Danny caught the rifle and put it parallel with the altered machine gun in his other hand.  Pressed to each other, the two weapons began to shift and squirm, their individual pieces strung through by light as their separate frames assembled into a single weapon.  The two barrels multiplied, arranging themselves into a rotary cannon.  With what seemed as if no regard for the amount of matter Ridarin had to work with, the weapon grew to something much larger than its constituents.

Danny heaved the rotary cannon into position, aiming directly at Law.  The weapons screeched viciously as the barrels began to spin, their numbers blurring with the speed.  Blue streams of nanomachines streamed through the cannon as bolts of electricity darted between the whirling muzzle and the deck.

Though even now Ridarin was operating at a fraction of what her parents had ever intended, Arras waited for a repeat performance of how Danny had described the death of Surcease, in all its detail.  Yet she still saw no one, not even her mother.

Setting her disappointment aside, something else caught her eye: Law stayed perfectly still, staring blankly into the cannon, unresponsive.  Even if an emotion such as fear remained from Law’s previous operator, she doubted it would overcome the AI like this.  But she wasn’t sure how else to explain Law’s seeming lethargy.

With tremendous power, the rotary cannon opened fire with a torrent of superheated rounds.  As a thick flow of shells emptied from openings in the individual barrels of the spinning cannon, and as Danny’s arms remained almost perfectly still despite the fantastic kick, Arras watched Law splinter to pieces.  In seconds, the volley was finished, and the shattered pieces of what was once the Recognition of Law’s body were strewn over the pocked floor.  The violet lights, still lit on some pieces of the body, faded to black as the rotary cannon slowed then separated back into its two smaller guns.

“That makes two,” Danny muttered, analyzing the heap of macerated metal, waiting for Ridarin—for Suo—to confirm that Law was no more.

With a deep breath, Arras looked away from the aftermath.

“Glad to see you’re okay,” Val said, extending her hand and helping Arras to her feet.  “For a second, I thought that was it.”

Arras confirmed through her net that the FTL drive was still under their control; she also checked the station’s sensor array, making sure no one was waiting for them outside.  She found the drive still under their control, and nothing outside but the flurry of asteroids the platform had hidden itself within.

His helmet vanishing, and sending away his one machine gun, Danny approached Val and Arras.

“Looks like that’s a mission accomplished,” he said, handing the M16 back to Val once it was back to its original state.

“Looks that way,” Val sighed, taking a quick look back at Law’s remains.  “Though, that wasn’t exactly how I was hoping this would play out.”

“Yeah, sorry,” Danny said, “this one was a little squirrely.”

“Sorry?” Arras repeated, glaring back at him.  “Valiya and I could have both been killed before you showed up.”

“I know, I know,” Danny said, trying not to sound nonchalant.  “Really, I’m sorry.  He didn’t fight like Surcease at all, and he got the upper hand for a second.”

Arras didn’t seem to be listening, however; she was staring back at Law’s remains and where Danny had been standing before, as if searching for something.

“Is something the matter, Arras?” asked Val.

“I’m sorry,” Danny said to her, catching on.  “I didn’t see her either.”

Without a word, Arras turned back to the ship, leaving Val and Danny.

“You mean Ila,” Val said softly, looking back at Danny.  “So she didn’t show up this time?”

Danny shook his head.  “No, it looks like our princess is in another castle.”

Val watched Arras quietly board the ship as Danny followed after her.

“I suppose there’s nothing we can do,” she told herself, following Danny.

Arras took the co-pilot’s seat as Val returned to her own seat.  As Danny buckled into a seat in the rear cabin, and with the hiss of the hatch closing and the ship pressurizing, they prepared for departure.

“At least we won’t have to detonate an entire star to get out of here,” Val said.  “And it looks like the New Pact hasn’t caught up with us.”

Arras only hummed in response as she finalized their ship’s jump, syncing their timing with the platform’s own impending jump—just enough of a time-lapse to follow the platform into the center of the nearby star, yet not so much that they would evaporate with the station.

Realizing she wasn’t going to get anything else out of Arras, Val double-checked the work, ensuring both FTL drives were properly calibrated.

“Ready,” said Val, beginning the countdown.  “Three…  Two…”

Staring out the darkening canopy, Arras still seemed to be searching, not giving up until the last second.

“One.”

The entire ship jolted violently as the station jumped; Val executed their own jump back to Earth, leaving the installation to be devoured by the star.  In an instant, the ship was still once more.  The canopy’s filter dialed down, revealing the pale surface of Earth’s moon.

Val piloted them over the moon’s surface, accelerating through silent space to the other side of the body, on their way back home.

As they approached the blue and green Earth, Arras shared a brief conversation with Aurin through her net, reporting the results of their mission.

Their last visit to the solar orbital had been four months ago, right after destroying the Surcease of Enmity, and since then Arras had reopened communication with Aurin, undoing the security measures that were only meant to keep her resting place a secret until she awoke.  Danny had thought the open lines would help Arras and Aurin reconnect, but nothing seemed to change between the two of them—granted, Aurin wasn’t exactly the most socially well-adjusted person, not anymore.

Leaning back in his seat, Danny tried to keep from thinking about Arras and Aurin’s relationship.  It wasn’t any of his business, he told himself.

“I’m glad it was a success, at the very least,” Aurin replied at the conclusion of her report.  “However, please inform Daniel that he should be more cautious next time.”

“Hey,” Danny said, entering the conversation through his own net, “the Coalition basically mass-produced these AIs.  Can you blame me for assuming that he would be pretty much the same as the last one?”

“Daniel, I acquired a great many things while rummaging through that semi-stable brain of yours,” Aurin replied plainly, “one of which was a lovely catalogue of sayings.  How about this one?  ‘You know what happens when we assume…’ ”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Danny muttered, exiting the conversation.

“Just get us the next location,” Arras said to Aurin, ignoring Danny.

“I apologize for taking so long to get you only the second platform,” Aurin admitted.  “However, with two packs of data now decoded, one of which was my own handiwork, the third location should come along much more quickly.”

“Notify us as soon as you have it,” was all Arras said in response.

“Understood,” Aurin said before ending the conversation and closing the channel.

“We’re entering the atmosphere now,” Arras called back to Danny, not bothering to look back at him.  “You should be able to make the call now.”

“Oh, that’s right,” Danny said, leaping from relaxation.

Sending Ridarin away entirely, he reached into his pants pocket and pulled out his cell phone.  Boosting the signal with his nano-net, he dialed up Damon.

Their conversation was even briefer than Arras and Aurin’s.

“Six to go, then,” Damon concluded after hearing the report.  “Well done, all of you.  We seem to be making progress.  By the way, you didn’t happen to cross paths with our guardian dear, did you?”

Danny glanced past the phone, watching Arras from the corner of his eye.  He couldn’t see her face, and though she was likely hiding it well, he guessed she was still feeling low.

“Unfortunately not,” Danny said, adding nothing more.

“I see,” Damon muttered on the other end of the line.  “Well, in any case, at least you’ll be home in time for our evening plans.”

“I almost forgot,” Danny exclaimed, checking his phone for the time.  “We’ll be landing in just a minute.”

“I’ll be by in a few hours to pick you up,” said Damon.  “We’ll head straight for Ithaca then.”

“Got it, see you then.”

Danny ended the call and pocketed his phone.

“What’s going on?” Val asked, pushing the ship gently through the clouds.

“The party,” Danny said simply.

“Oh, that’s right,” Val said with interest.  “I’ve never been to a party on Earth.  This should be exciting.”

“Don’t get your hopes up,” Danny warned her.  “It’s probably not quite as sophisticated as the parties you’re used to.”

“We shouldn’t lose focus,” Arras muttered over the sound of the rushing wind outside.  “We still have a job to do.”

“You’re right,” Danny admitted, cracking a smile.  “But I think we’ve earned a little downtime.”

“We’ve had months of downtime already.”

“True, but what else are we going to do until your dad gives us the next platform?  It’s not like we can train the entire time.  Besides, we’re doing pretty well for ourselves.  I mean, Val seems like she’s holding her own just fine.”

“Thanks,” Val said, a little embarrassed, “but four months was plenty of time to at least learn how to fly.”

“Fine, then,” was all Arras said before ending the conversation.

“Come on, it’ll be fun,” Danny assured her.  “Besides, it wouldn’t hurt to help Eli celebrate.”

Arras was already gone, though, riding her own train of thought elsewhere.  She tried to push away the discontent she felt over not seeing Ila.  Why should she be so upset over that now?  It wasn’t like she planned on ever seeing her sister again, not after she stepped into the rift and went to sleep.  Ila was likely to fail at peacefully negotiating Rededication’s dismantlement, and when she sent Arras her wakeup call, the two wouldn’t exactly be meeting up for brunch.

Putting all that aside, though, she tried ignoring the burning curiosity—and the longing—she had felt ever since Danny had told her Ila might still be alive.  Pushing that to the back of her mind, she instead revisited what was really bothering her; how, in the end, Law seemed to do nothing more than roll over and die.

None of the AIs had been programmed with such a death instinct; they were made to fight to the death, even at the cost of their own life or the life of their operator.  Something felt wrong to her, but she had nothing else to go on.  Not yet.  Not until the next platform.  Perhaps then they would find out what had happened to Law—if anything.

Maybe they would even find Ila.