“This sounds like an omen to me,” Damon said in thought once Danny and Val had finished their debriefing. “And if the platform is still intact...”
“Are you certain you weren’t tracked back to Earth?” Virgil asked them.
“We can’t know for sure,” Val admitted. “No one in the Coalition ever devised a method of tracking FTL jumps, which means the platforms aren’t likely equipped for such a thing. And, honestly, considering how we escaped… I think it’s safe to assume our tracks were covered.”
“According to Aurin,” Damon added, “no one in the Coalition ever invented a collar that can nullify a nano-net, so we should remain alert. The fact that Ila Enqelin saved you only emphasizes that we’ve entered unknown territory.”
“She seemed to know us,” Danny said, catching the others’ attention. “It was like she knew more about us than she was letting on.”
“The AI?” Damon asked.
“Yeah,” said Danny. “She called herself the Infinitude of Truth. I don’t know how, but she saw us coming. And I’m guessing she’s the reason Law was still alive, too.”
“She must have extracted him right before you destroyed his armor,” Val said.
“So you have a rogue AI who’s catching on to your tactics,” Virgil summed up. “That certainly complicates things, but it still doesn’t sound like the end of the world to me. Enemies adapt; all you need do is the same.”
“It’s not like that,” Danny said. “Like I told you, she almost took the suit from me. And if Ila felt the need to step in like that… I’m guessing Truth isn’t like the others we’ve faced.”
“So what now?” Damon asked. “We have some super-powered artificial intelligence on the loose, preparing for any subsequent attacks we may try to make on Rededication, as well as a girl we thought to be dead reappearing in such a way that even Valiya could see her.”
“We really are off the reservation now,” Danny replied. “None of this makes sense. I do know one thing for sure, though: we can’t go back to that platform, not without a new plan.”
“If you need a new plan,” said someone from the doorway, “then you’ll need my daughter.”
Everyone turned to see Aurin, who only looked at Danny.
“I need to speak with you.”
With that, Aurin stepped through the closed door to the outside.
“I’ll be right back,” Danny told the others as he opened the door, following Aurin.
He could see Aurin waiting for him at a distance, close to the lake’s edge, staring off into the water. Danny sprinted to meet him.
“I imagine you’re as confused as I am,” Aurin said as Danny approached.
“I don’t know what to think,” Danny said, standing beside Aurin. “I don’t know if things have gone FUBAR yet, but the playing field’s is definitely different now.”
“You saw her…”
“You mean Ila?”
“Ila, and Truth. You saw all of them.”
“I did.” Danny felt a chill as he recalled Truth’s image, and how close she had brought him to death. “Ila saved my life. Somehow, Truth knew how to remove Ridarin, and she would have if Ila hadn’t been there.”
“It doesn’t surprise me that Truth knew how to remove the suit,” Aurin admitted.
Aurin watched Danny from the corner of his eye, as if he couldn’t look at him directly.
“Truth was Arras’ AI when she was in the Rededication program,” he told Danny. “She was also present when Arras stole the specs we used to create Ridarin. For whatever reason, Arras was certain that Truth wouldn’t report her. Even if she didn’t, that AI might still know Ridarin better than any other.”
“How could Truth know anything more about Ridarin than Surcease or Law? I mean, she’s just a computer, like the rest of them.”
“Truth is different,” said Aurin. “She and Arras were so skilled at what they did that they quickly climbed the ranks, eventually serving as the lead duo for the rest of the program. A number of responsibilities came with such a position, including guarding all data relevant to the Rededication program—including the designs for all equipment used.”
“Like the suit…”
“Truth knew how to disarm Ridarin because ultimately she was the one who gave us the suit in the first place.” He turned to face Danny now, looking more serious than his usual self. “I didn’t want the others to hear that, but things are definitely ‘FUBAR,’ Daniel. We’re dealing with an enemy that has exceeded all our expectations. Our original scenario planned on all the AIs being awake, and when we found ourselves executing our mission long after the Coalition itself fell, we… or, at least, I thought things would be easier. But Truth’s awake now...”
“And you think we can’t make another move without Arras,” Danny reasoned. “That’s just fine with me. It wasn’t like I was going to let her sit in that prison another day.”
“I was sure you would say that.”
Aurin looked abnormally relieved as he turned back to the lake, lost in thought once again.
“What’s up with you, Aurin? You seem different.”
“I don’t know, like you’re worried. I’ve never seen you worried. Just either disturbingly giddy or totally pissed—usually at me.”
Aurin didn’t seem to hear Danny, or perhaps he had simply ignored him. Still, that contemplative look on his face didn’t go away.
“Do you remember what you promised me?” Aurin suddenly asked. “Back when I first met you.”
“I remember,” Danny said uncomfortably. “You… Well, you know.”
“I asked you to kill me when all of this was over.”
Those words didn’t seem to shake Aurin as much as they did Danny.
“I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately,” said Aurin, “and what happened on that last platform is only making me think about it more.”
“Having second thoughts?” Danny asked, trying to approach this delicately. “It’s not like I have to keep that promise, you know. To be honest, you and I are the only ones who know about it. I never told Arras or the others.”
“That’s not quite what I mean,” Aurin admitted. “It’s just…”
The truth of it hit Danny instantly.
“You’re thinking about Ila.”
“And Suo,” Aurin added, “and Arras, too.” He was quiet again, but broke his own silence hastily. “I never thought this would happen, Danny, but it did. My entire family is still alive, and it’s only hitting me now. I knew, no matter what, that Ila would have died by the time Arras awoke—if she ever woke up. I knew Suo would survive in the suit, and that I would live on the orbital. I never guessed Ila would still somehow be alive, but she is. And she’s not just some illusion. Valiya saw her, too. She saved you; fought real, concrete things. She’s real and alive, and I just…”
“You want to see her again,” Danny concluded.
“I do. I… Danny, I want to be with my family again.”
Shifting from one foot to the other, it was as if Danny could feel his pain directly—how real it was, how visceral. Though Aurin had separated himself from anything biological, his pathos was just as pervasive, soaking down to the very core of what made Aurin a living being.
“I think I understand now what you were going through,” Aurin said, “when you left your school.”
“Oh yeah?” Danny asked, finding himself suddenly laughing at the fact that he had ever been in such a position to make mundane decisions like that. Then he realized what Aurin was trying to say.
“You make a decision that shapes the rest of your life,” Aurin went on, “and even the lives of the people you love. And then… to feel like you might regret that decision after it’s already been made…”
“Yeah, I felt that way, too,” Danny said, almost too offhandedly, catching Aurin off guard. “And I get it— well, I don’t get it, but I do a little… I mean, what I’m trying to say is… I know what it’s like to make one of those choices and end up wanting to go back; and once you start to feel that way, it’s like you’re totally lost. Like your feet aren’t even on the ground anymore. But, honestly, I don’t feel that way anymore.” He laughed at himself again, but there was no denying this. “Since I met Arras, and you—your whole family—I realized it doesn’t have to be that way. I don’t have just two options, either go back to school or live the rest of my life as a useless floater. There’s… there’s always an alternative, another open door somewhere.”
Aurin laughed a bit, too. “I transferred my consciousness and my wife’s consciousness to two separate quantum computers. I put one of my daughters in a time-space pocket, only for her to end up in stasis for over two hundred years, and I sent my other daughter off to die alone on a world I abandoned a long time ago.”
“And you’re a real bastard for it, I’m sure,” Danny said, speaking as carelessly as Aurin. “But a while ago, when I was still learning to use Ridarin, Arras taught me something. She told me there’s a lot I can’t control, and a lot of choices I can’t take back. I can’t do anything to change those things. But that doesn’t mean I’m powerless.”
“You think my situation is somehow… salvageable,” Aurin stated, shaking his head. “There’s a thought.”
With a shrug, all Danny could say was, “It came from your daughter, not me. It’s a worthwhile question, though. What do you want? I mean, here you are. But, now that you’re here, what do you want to do?”
Quietly, Aurin weighed this on his own. It was such an almost childish response on Danny’s part, yet he couldn’t deny its validity—partly because he could remember telling Arras the very same thing, when she had come home from the Rededication program in tears. He thought back to the days before going into that orbital, when they were still a family. The world was slipping into entropy, but it was still a world he could live in with the people he loved the most.
“What do I want?” Aurin asked himself. “I want…”
He turned back to Danny once again, his answer already in hand. Perhaps he had known it all along. The question was simple enough, just to ask himself what he wanted. He knew what he wanted. He had wanted it for two centuries now. There had just never been anyone to ask what it was until now.
“Danny, I want my family back. My wife and my daughters, I want them back. And if I can’t have them back, I want to at least make sure they’re safe.”
“And how can I help you make that happen, Aurin?”
“I don’t know why, but Ila’s returned. We know she’s alive. And I know Arras is still alive, even if she’s… been better. Same with my wife.” He sighed, his whole frame rising and falling with that breath, as if he still had a body to speak of. “It’s as if each of them is right within reach, but I can’t touch them… Not by myself. That’s why I need you. I want you to help me get my family back—to bring Suo out of your unconscious mind, to coax Ila back into our world, and to rescue Arras.”
“I have to say,” Danny replied, “that sounds much better than just killing you.”
“I’m not taking back that promise; you’re still bound. Or, at least… I don’t know what I want to do with it, not now. What I do know is there’s something I want to happen before that.”
“Pull Suo out of my brain,” Danny listed, “somehow get Ila to come back, and go spring Arras from the clink. Got it.”
Aurin smiled at the simplicity of it all, the very sentiment that had made them both laugh a moment ago. None of these things ever really interested Aurin—simplicity or sentiment. He reveled in complexity, and he had always thought himself brave enough to let anything in his life go. It was what attracted him so much to Asael’s philosophy. But now, after being alive so long, with his old friend having passed lifetimes ago, nothing seemed the same anymore. It was as if everything had been short-circuited, and here he was, staring at the cause.
“Anyway,” Aurin said, dismissing the past few minutes, as if they had not necessarily happened. “I think we’ve spent enough time bearing our souls. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“If you say so,” Danny said with a smirk. “What do we do now?”
“That should be obvious. Let’s go save our families.”