The instant the FTL jump was complete, Danny and Val felt the entire ship began to violently shake. Their view through the canopy was blocked by waves of dusty clouds, washing over their vessel with the tinkling clicks of impacting debris.
Leaping to action instantly, Val synced her net with the nav computer and sensor array, getting what data she could on their surroundings as she adjusted their trajectory accordingly.
Both Danny and Val staved off thinking of the possibility that their ship might implode at any second. However, after laboring with the ship’s controls, Val managed to somehow calm the rocking vessel.
“What the hell just happened?” Danny asked her, realizing only then that he had been holding his breath that entire time.
“It seems the Coalition took great pride in jumping their platforms to locations no one would dare go,” Val said, fighting the tremors in her hands as she pulled away from the controls.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked, looking out into the swirling madness outside, seeing nothing but the thick billows of particulate matter.
“A black hole,” she said starkly, the color returning to her face as she spoke. “A large one. We’re far outside its accretion disk, thankfully, and we should be at enough of a distance to avoid any sort of time shift.”
Danny looked up at the scanner display; the ship had identified numerous large pieces of nearby rock, all of which orbited a large mass several million miles away from their ship’s current location.
“You’re sure we’re far enough?” Danny asked nervously.
Looking back out at the chaos, he searched for anything like an event horizon. Despite the unimaginable distance, he could still make out the faded silhouette of some huge mass skirted by a thin, whitish yellow aura. Laying eyes on such a monstrosity, something that to Danny had been only theoretical until then, he felt his stomach sink to the deck below.
“We came here using the platform’s own coordinates,” Val explained. “I doubt the Coalition would risk putting the installation too close to the black hole.”
“I guess that would screw up the timing of its security jumps,” Danny reasoned before taking a deep breath. “So you managed to get us in orbit?”
“It wasn’t easy, but yes,” Val said with a nod. “Again, considering we entered this system with the same coordinates as the platform, I think our orbit should bring us at least close to the installation. The scanner’s having a difficult time finding anything out there, but we should be able to detect it once we’re within—”
A tone from the scanner interrupted her thought; or, rather, Val stopped speaking when she saw what the sensors had picked up.
“Or maybe we could just fly right to it,” Danny said.
Val stared at the newly detected object, finding it more suspicious than serendipitous.
“No, that’s not right,” she muttered in thought. “The platform should’ve gone dark a long time ago, which means we wouldn’t be able to pick it up at such a distance without already knowing exactly where it was.”
“Is there any chance the installation has to activate more of its systems to keep out of the black hole?” Danny asked. “Maybe that’s what’s creating the stronger signal.”
“If that were the case, the signal would still be weak, considering the Coalition meant to hide these stations in a hibernating state. That looks more like the entire station’s active.”
Without warning, the ship went dark, shutting down completely, leaving only the constant rumbling of outside forces against the hull and the sound of the engines gradually dying down. After a couple seconds, the ship snapped back to life.
Val tugged at the controls helplessly, looking worried.
“The ship’s not taking any of my commands,” she said, trying to sync with the nav computer, though to no avail. “It’s moving on its own.”
Looking up at the scanner, they watched as their ship began approaching the Rededication platform; their engines roared with a life of their own, ferrying them to the installation.
“Something’s definitely wrong,” Val said.
“No shit,” Danny replied. “Can you get back control of the ship?”
They met no resistance as they neared the installation, though a number of spotlights on the platform’s exterior indicated that it could respond to their presence—if it really wanted to. Flying toward the rear of the superstructure, the ship headed straight for the heavy blast doors of the station’s primary hangar bay, which opened for them as they came closer. Still of its own accord, the ship glided slowly into the hangar, turned about, and landed as the bay doors closed.
Once the bay had flooded itself with air, the gunship opened its hatch, then shut down again. Then, nothing.
“Never thought Rededication would roll out the red carpet for us,” Danny said, cautiously surveying their surroundings through the canopy, finding nothing.
“This is not good,” Val said with a shudder. She squeezed the ship’s controls without restraint, as if unable to move the rest of her body. “Something brought us here.”
“You think it’s the New Pact? Did they beat us here?” Suiting up, Danny used Ridarin’s additional sensors to scan the bay outside their ship. “I doubt they’d be able to activate this much of a platform, though. But if it’s not them…”
One combatant suddenly registered on Ridarin’s sensors—a target Suo easily identified.
“There’s no way,” Danny breathed, dumbfounded.
“What is it?”
Val tilted to look where Danny was looking; the sight left her more petrified than she already was. Standing at a distance of only a couple dozen yards from their ship, they could see a black armor, streaked with violet neon, watching them.
“The AI’s already awake?” she asked.
“There’s no way that’s the local AI,” Danny said, not taking his eyes off the suit. “But I don’t know how it could be him either.”
“Suo says that’s the Recognition of Law, the AI from the last platform.”
“How’s that possible?”
“Are you coming out,” the black suit outside roared at them, “or am I going to have to come in?”
“Leave this to me,” Danny said, unbuckling from his seat. “Stay in here and try to reactivate the ship.”
Stepping down the retracted short wing of the ship, Danny leapt onto the deck, staring down the black armor that claimed to be Law. The armor in turn looked deep into Ridarin’s eyes, as if entranced by the stark blue rings of light blazing from Danny’s covered face, two iridescent irises floating on an otherwise mostly featureless face.
The black armor curled in on itself, holding its stomach, belting out an almost hysterical laugh.
“I can’t believe it,” Law yelled through the armor’s speakers. “It really is you. She wasn’t lying after all! I never thought I’d see you again.”
“So we have met before,” Danny called back. “But you see, that’s a little strange to me, seeing as I thought I already killed your sorry ass.”
“You know, to tell you the truth, I thought I was dead, too!”
“Guess I’ll just have to try a little harder this time.”
“Easy now, Daniel.”
Hearing his name come out of that machine made him cringe. “How do you…?”
“I know much more about you than I did when we last met,” Law cooed, pacing the deck casually, keeping his glowing eyes dead set on Danny. “But before we get into anything else, there’s someone who would love to meet you—both of you.”
Danny could hear the sounds of struggle back inside the ship. He turned around in time to see Val get thrown headlong out the hatch, onto the deck, with two anthropomorphic machines following after her. Sprinting to her, Danny knelt down beside Val as she lifted herself off the ground.
“I’m fine,” she grunted. “Focus on him.”
“I’m a bit disappointed not everyone could join us today,” Law said from just over Danny and Val, having closed the space between the three of them without making a noise. “But apparently that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be.”
“What the hell are you saying?” Danny asked, putting himself between Val and Law. “What’s going on here?”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Law said, taking a peaceable step back. “As I said, there’s someone who would like to meet you.”
Law looked back at the center of the bay, where a new figure flickered into sight—some sort of immaterial avatar, like Aurin. However, unlike Aurin, this figure was shrouded in distortion, having no distinguishing detail other than their own lack thereof. Suo tried to identify the new arrival, but it didn’t match anything Ridarin had encountered before.
At a slow pace the figure approached. Law stepped back, giving her room to stand over Danny and Val.
“And who are you?” Danny asked the obscured person.
Truth stared down at Danny and Ridarin with absolute glee.
“My name… You may call me the Infinitude of Truth.”
“Another gaudy name,” muttered Danny. “What do you want from us?”
“What an insolent question that is,” Truth replied. “After all, you two are the ones who came to destroy this platform. You would do well to show more respect.”
“Stay behind me, Val,” Danny warned, materializing a Colt 9mm SMG, amplifying its design immediately and taking aim at Law. “As for whoever you are, Ms. Infinitude of who gives a damn, you’d better stay back.”
“We’re not here to fight you, Daniel,” Truth said simply. “That would be such a waste, really.”
Ignoring her confidence, Danny prepared himself for a battle. Though he faced himself toward Truth, his first target would be Law; he realized then that that would leave Val defenseless before the anthropomorphic machines that had thrown her from the ship. Sweating behind his armor, he tried to think this out carefully. Whatever happened, he told himself, he would get them both out of there alive.
“I’m getting tired of asking a bunch of machines what they want from me,” Danny snarled at Truth, ready to leap to action. “So why don’t we skip the monologue, and you just tell me what’s going on?”
Though he couldn’t see her face, Danny could tell his comment had earned him nothing but contempt from Truth.
“You think we’re nothing more than machines,” Truth observed, “simply objects in motion, programmed to perform a certain task, and nothing else.”
“Look, I’m all for superintelligence, the singularity—all that transhumanist stuff,” Danny replied. “But no matter how special you guys may think you are, you’re still only good for one thing.”
“The intelligences you’ve previously encountered may have spoiled your opinion,” Truth said in a disturbingly soft voice, “but you don’t know what I am.”
Danny could feel his guts twist; something about this AI, Truth, left him genuinely uneasy. The strikes on the past two platforms were difficult, nerve-wracking even, but the AIs there had never done more than irritate Danny—this one left him with a deep anxiety, a kind of uncertainty that told him there was something far out of the ordinary standing before him. At least, out of the ordinary relative to everything he had seen so far. With Truth standing over him like this, Danny felt more like he was getting mugged by some psycho in a dark alley.
“You met one of my predecessors, the Surcease of Enmity,” Truth continued, realizing she had worked Danny somewhat into submission. “He inherited the idiocy of his own operator. His fatal flaw was arrogance, indeed a strange characteristic to attribute to a mere machine. However, arrogance isn’t simply thinking you’re more powerful than others—it’s making the mistake of thinking you’re more powerful than you actually are.”
“What a crying shame,” Danny replied. “But you’ll have to excuse me if I just don’t care.”
“The Surcease of Enmity wanted to show you your place in the existential food chain,” Truth said simply. “He hadn’t the ability to do so. However, his desire itself wasn’t flawed.”
Before Danny could respond, Truth was already on top of him. In an instant, she plunged her seemingly insubstantial hand into Ridarin’s chest, infiltrating the suit with ease. Danny yelled out in shock and pain, a bloodcurdling pain he had felt only once before—in that rift, where he had met Suo, and where he had received Ridarin.
He could hear Val scream to him, but her voice faded into distant nothingness. What would be only a few seconds felt to him like eternity as Truth wove herself into his mind, with only one goal—to completely sever Ridarin from Danny’s nervous system, with no regard for his life.