Chapter 32

 

Truth slinked her way through Danny’s mind, riding the electrical signals bouncing between his neurons, staining his synapses like ink on wool—looking for any connections to Ridarin.  Shaking down to his core, Danny could feel terror infect him, incomparable fear overtaking him—until he let go.

He found himself in a familiar setting, kneeling on the damp grass in that replication of his old backyard, where he met Suo for the first time.  He watched himself as a child, along with Milo, running without reason through the yard, enjoying the day for what it was, no concern or care at all.  From the porch his parents watched their children closely, tenderly, sitting close to one another like they used to.  Though Danny knew what was happening to him, conscious of the trauma spreading through his body as well as his brain, in that moment he felt an inexplicable peace.

Two gentle hands rested on his shoulders; he knew they belonged to Suo.

“I’m so sorry,” he told her, watching his old family play out their lives in a way he would never see again.  “I couldn’t keep my promise, Suo—I couldn’t protect her for you.  I guess this is really the end of the road.”

“Not yet.”

With those words as her trigger, Suo sent a shock through Danny, something that ripped him from the peace of that backyard.  She awakened him fully, focusing him wholly on what was happening to him in the real world.

“Not yet, Daniel,” she told him.  “It’s not over yet.”

Then another familiar presence entered in.  As the backyard dissolved into blackness, Danny stared across the dark at someone else he had seen before, though never so concretely.  He seemed to fall into her red eyes as she stepped in and took control.

“Daniel!” he could hear Val scream once more.

His own eyes opening wide, the two blue circles that were Ridarin’s eyes shined back to life; with a gasp, Danny regained consciousness.

Truth clearly struggled against whatever had lifted him out of his own mind.  No longer trying to stay in Danny’s head, she was now just trying to get out.  With great effort, she managed to free her hand from Danny’s body, thrown backward as a blinding burst of light erupted from where Danny and Truth had been connected.

Lunging back, Danny covered Val from what seemed like an explosion.  When the light dissipated, however, they found themselves unharmed.  The two automatons behind them clattered uselessly to the deck, and they could hear Law screaming from what must have been excruciating torment, his entire body doubled over, writhing n unclear agony.

Looking back at Truth, both Val and Danny saw what had caused the light—and the one who had come to their rescue.

She would have measured to about Danny’s chest, though she stood upright.  Her long white hair fell behind her shoulders, woven into a thin braid that ran down her back, and she was dressed in what must have been the regular dress of anyone born in the Coalition’s era.  And beneath her feet, jagged cogs and serrated roundels of empyreal radiance spiraled across the deck, expanding outward to encompass Danny and Val, while somehow repulsing Truth and Law.

“What is this?” Truth yelled in fury, trying to fight against the unseen forces shoving her back.  “What are you doing here?”

“Danny, who is that?” Val asked from beneath Ridarin.

Danny looked down at her in his own disbelief, asking, “You can see her?”

With that, Val realized exactly who was standing before them.

“So that’s her…  That’s Ila Enqelin.”

“You can’t stop me!” Truth screamed at the teenage girl before her, as if already in the middle of a conversation, though Ila never spoke a word.  “It’s too late; you’re too late!”

As Truth continued in her unexpected, uncontrollable rage, swarms of additional machines began to fill the hangar from all entrances.  Ventilation shafts and openings to passageways were packed to their edges with a force meant for an invasion, infesting the entire hangar, moving in for their kill.  As if in response to their presence, however, the entire station began to shake and the lights gyrating over the deck expanded farther out, creating a blockade of sorts.

“What’s happening?” Law managed to ask through his pain, turning to Truth.  Through her own shrouds, he could still sense the deep fear in her—something that only baffled him more.  “What are you doing?  Kill her already!”

Ila seemed to tower over the untenable assault as the countless machines continued trying to approach her and the two people she was determined to protect.

Over the crashing of mechanical bodies and the rumbling of the entire station, Danny and Val could hear the engines of their own ship humming; through the hatch and canopy, they could also see the terminals flicker then reactivate.

Danny turned back to Ila, to find that she was already watching him from over her shoulder through one of her blood-red eyes.  She gave him an apologetic smile, then mouthed a single word he could not hear over the cacophony, but which he knew even so.

“Go.”

Picking Val up off the deck, Danny carried her without a second thought back into the ship.  The moment they entered, the hatch instinctively closed and sealed them in on its own.

No sooner did Val’s feet touch the floor than she was already at the nav computer, preparing for takeoff, only to find the ship was already prepared for them.

“I have control again,” she said, strapping into her seat as Danny did the same.

He looked back out through the canopy at Ila as she held back the horde of mechanized monsters and their enigmatic leader.  Though the machines were beginning to break through her barricades of light, at great physical cost to their unfeeling bodies, Ila nonetheless seemed to hold them back still with nothing more than her presence.

“She’s giving us a way out,” Danny said.  “Fire up the FTL drive—we have to go now.”

“The bay doors are still sealed shut!”

“Just start the drive!”

Val found the FTL drive also already warmed up, with Earth’s coordinates programmed in.

“Everything’s set,” Val muttered, more bewildered than ever.  “I don’t get it.  What is this?”

She looked up just in time to watch the hangar’s blast doors rip violently away, thrown haphazardly into the storm outside.  With incomparable strength, the air in the bay flooded out all at once, picking up most of the machines with it, throwing them with the blast doors out into the black hole’s domain.

The gunship’s landing gear automatically disengaged, tossing the vessel and its two passenger out of the bay with everything else.  Bracing themselves against the unexpected G-force, through squinted eyes Danny and Val watched as the ship tilted forward over its nose, until they could see back inside the hangar, watching the scene continue from an upside-down perspective.

Ila continued to hold back the waves of machines until another blast of light erupted from where she stood; along with the light, the radios and quantum comms aboard the gunship and in Ridarin seemed to sing a distorted, ethereal cavatina—some great and terrible melody, climaxing in a terrible screech as Ila vanished from sight.

Before they could see the end of the blast, the FTL drive kicked in, leaving Truth, Law, and Ila behind.

With another harsh lurch, their bodies braced only by the belts of their seats, the ship reemerged behind Earth’s moon.  The sensor array started to sound off, complaining of some sort of anomalous readings it had only then been able to process, residual detections from only a moment ago.  Those warnings continued petulantly, even as the gunship floated in relatively tranquil space.

Her hands shaking, Val pressed her palm to the scanner, syncing with the system and dismissing the warnings.  Though it didn’t feel like it, she knew they were out of the woods—at least for the time being.

“What just happened?” she asked, her voice shaking with her hands.  “That was Ila, but…”

“I have no idea,” Danny said with bated breath.  “But I think we’re okay now.”

They sat in total silence for several minutes, restraining their countless questions as they tried to calm themselves.  Despite their attempts to recover from the altercation from which they had fled, this extended moment was not simply to regain their composure—they were waiting.  Waiting for some terrible monster to come chasing them through what remained of their FTL event.  But nothing ever did, and they were quite alone over the dark side of the moon.

“We didn’t destroy it,” Val finally concluded.  “The platform.  I couldn’t see before we jumped, but I think it’s still there.”

“Yeah, but it looked like Ila sure knocked it in its teeth,” Danny replied, catching his breath.  “More importantly, you don’t think those AIs can track us back to Earth, do you?”

“The Coalition never developed such a method,” Val explained.  “Only the New Pact.”

“Yeah, but it seems like that logic’s wearing thin these days,” Danny said, thinking of the armor beneath Nellis.

“I know, but…”  Val tried to put it into words, but it was more of an intuition than a defensible argument.  “I think Ila knew we would be safe when she sent us off.  None of that escape was me; it was like she had full control of the ship.  I guess we really were in a dire situation.”

“That one AI, Truth,” Danny muttered, “she definitely wasn’t like the others.  When she was in my head…  It wasn’t like when I let Surcease in.  It was more like when I’ve synced with other people, as if Truth wasn’t actually an AI, but… just another person.”

“Whatever she was,” said Val, retaking the controls, “we need to get back to Damon and Virgil.  There’s no way I’m taking us back to that platform anyway.  It would be pointless.”

“You’re right.  Let’s get back to Earth…”

Danny fled into his own head for some time, shell-shocked from what Truth had done to him—or, at least what she had tried to do to him.  If Ila had been even a second later than she had, he might have been lying brain-dead on that hangar deck, with Ridarin completely removed.  And Suo, assuming she even survived the process, probably wouldn’t have been in much better shape than him.  What Truth had tried to pull, that would have been the finishing move—that would have been the end of their war.

Overall, he found himself locked in a mystery; by all accounts, neither he nor Val should have survived what just happened.  Were it not for Ila, they really would have died on that platform.  And Ila herself, she had never been so present, not like that.

The questions only multiplied further, forcing Danny to shut down on himself, for the sake of his own sanity.  For now, he would simply have to content himself with the fact that they had made it out alive.

On their way back to Earth from the moon, they didn’t speak to each other.  They only thought to themselves about what any of this might mean, and who their attacker really was—this Infinitude of Truth, who really did seem to be in control.