Recap: Anya has stolen the secret weapon built by Gravchurch and Earthgov. The warship Sword Shadow gives chase. Istvan races to reach her first.
Pandemonium raged as he entered the spaceport. Crowds scrambled towards any available ship to escape. Istvan heard snippets of conversation about the incoming Earthgov warship Sword Shadow as he ran towards his racing yacht.
“Those bastards, they’re coming to kill us all.”
“Too far, the revolutionaries went too far.”
“Has anyone seen a little boy? Has anyone seen my child?”
“Let us through, you autistic idiot!”
The last point addressed Musashi Hub. It refused to authorize any ship to leave the station until the situation resolved. The pleasant, perhaps a little irritated, voice told them that any exit would put them in danger.
Istvan checked his implant. Three hours left until the Sword Shadow intercepted the railgun. He marched up to an exhausted-looking security guard holding back the crowd from the departure gate tunnels. Shouts of protest greeted him as he shoved through.
The guard’s eyes met him with contempt as he waved his ID card in front the man. “I’m an executive at K-V. I’ve got Level 3 Clearance,” he said. He didn’t have Level 3 Clearance.
The guard took the card and verified it with Musashi Hub. His eyes widened in surprise. “You can go through, sir,” he replied.
“No way, you’re going to let him through, but not the rest of us?” A voice shouted behind Istvan.
The guard moved aside.
“There’s a starship coming to kill us. We’re not going to die while some corp lives!” Another voice cried.
“Grab him!” said the initial voice.
Crap, Istvan thought, as hands grasped at him. He freed himself from his coat before they could get the rest of him. He glanced back. Greed had overcome the crowd’s fear as they realized that the coat was lined with diamonds. They started fighting each other over it and prevented the rest from chasing him. The tunnel closed behind and locked.
The next few minutes passed by in a blur as he stumbled into his racing yacht. As the ship powered up he checked the countdown. Two and a half hours left. He could make it. The ship was small, most of it occupied by the engines. Once he got Anya, their return trip would be quite intimate, which would probably annoy her.
He strapped himself to the cockpit. The front window faced the stars of outer space. It lighted up with information windows and indicators. A babble of authorization messages passed between his ship and Musashi Hub. In less than a minute, the docking clamps let go and he accelerated towards the railgun platform. He did not have time to think about why the station AI helped him.
The stars twinkled on the front window. The Sun blazed, blocking any view of Earth. Somewhere in that dark void, hurtling towards its own destruction, was the railgun. He braced himself. He knew that to reach it, he would need to accelerate to almost intolerable levels. Gravity wells always complicated any sort of travel. Istvan input the commands to intercept and the ship oriented towards the target.
He turned on the communications channel to his office. “Status update, Felina?” he asked, his breath short as the rate of acceleration increased. The gravities weighed down on him.
“You’re on a straight course to the object. The yacht’s velocity far exceeds it at the moment. You’ll reach her in half an hour.” His mind focused on the word her. Why was he risking his life for Anya? He had to prevent the Sword Shadow from disabling the weapon, of course. Istvan struggled against the crush of g-forces. But why him? Why not one of his lackeys? His head couldn’t clear as the twin engines roared behind.
The computer locked onto the railgun platform. It did not appear in visual range yet, but he knew the approach would be rapid. The gravities pressed on him again as the ship decelerated. Blood rushed to his brain as his body fought against the pressure. A few seconds. A minute. He found it hard to breathe. Then, it was over. The weight lifted and he could move again. The ship now cruised at a bearable speed. Out the window, the Earthgov experimental weapon appeared in visual range against the backdrop of the Sun. Its sleek surface and egg-like shape reminded him of a teardrop.
He scanned the ship and found one life sign aboard. Istvan sighed in relief. The computer also found a small airlock on the platform. Istvan ordered and confirmed the procedure to dock. Time was still of the essence, he knew. If they got too far into the Sun’s gravity well, it would be impossible to escape.
The ship docked with an uncomfortable sounding clank. They didn’t build his yacht for boarding purposes. All he needed was the acceleration.
His screen flashed red. “WARNING,” it said. “LOW OXYGEN LEVELS DETECTED IN OBJECT.” Istvan grabbed an oxygen mask and tube from a nearby compartment. He hoped Anya still had hers. He put on the mask and stepped through the airlock door. It closed behind him.
The other door opened and red light poured into the chamber. Inside the railgun, the sounds of unfamiliar electronic humming echoed. A bead of perspiration rolled down the side of his head. He struggled to move through the cramped interior, even though the ship dwarfed his own. Vents poured steam from the floor. He avoided those with care.
An information window appeared to the side of his vision as he activated his implant. It displayed a schematic of the weapon’s interior. He queried the location of Anya’s life sign and an indicator appeared a few dozen meters ahead of him. Command and control section. That would make sense.
Istvan walked and sometimes crawled towards his objective. Finally, after opening an old-fashioned steel hatch, he found himself in a small room, only around double the size of the yacht’s cockpit. Ahead of him, a bright screen displayed coordinates and indicators for his ship and the Sword Shadow. The latter approached in an ominous fashion. Next to the screen lay Anya, her back to the wall. She wore her oxygen mask, but a pulsing red light on it indicated low levels.
“You actually came,” she said weakly.
He ran to her and attached his oxygen tube to her mask. She breathed in a more rhythmic fashion. “Can you get up?” he asked.
She shook her head. “Can’t…need time.” She pointed towards the screen. “Must stop…warship.”
He nodded and jacked into the railgun’s control system. His vision filled with information windows showing scrawling code. “How do I get in?” he asked.
“Program…still needs time. Just a few moments,” Anya answered.
The code continued scrawling. All he could do was wait. An incoming call alerted him.
“Sir!” Felina’s voice shouted. “The Sword Shadow’s just fired two low-yield torpedoes towards you. It’s trying to disable. ETA four minutes!”
Just then, Anya’s hacking program finished and a command window appeared on the screen. He had control. His mind racing, Istvan raced through the menus to activate the weapon’s point defense systems. When he found them, he told the computer to deal with the incoming threat. On the schematic screen, point defense lasers emerged from under the platform’s surface. They immediately targeted the guidance systems of the torpedoes. From what little he knew from consulting with K-V’s Weapons Division, torpedoes did have reflective coating that could defend against the lasers for a short while. It would be a race between the lasers breaking through and the warheads completing their journey.
He watched the torpedoes’ red indicators approach at a rapid velocity. Two minutes passed. The lasers got through one of them and it verged off-course. The other still came. A minute and a half passed. Thirty seconds. The lasers didn’t get through. It hit the starboard side of the platform. The explosion rocked the ship and Istvan had to steady himself. He checked the railgun’s status. Minor damage, engines still worked. They could still finish this. Then he noticed something on the screen. The yacht’s indicator was gone. It had been destroyed by the blast from the torpedo. Crap, he thought. He looked towards Anya and found her on the ground, still breathing. He thought of going to her, but he needed to concentrate on this task. Only one thing to do.
“Status of the Sword Shadow?” he asked Felina.
“Range: 100,000 kilometers. It looks like it will try to hit you with its heavier weapons.”
Istvan took control of the railgun turret and pointed it towards the warship. It auto-target its future position based on the ship’s current velocity and acceleration. He initiated the power-up procedure. Whirs and groans creaked throughout the platform. Something sounding like a giant air turbine filled his ears. Metal screamed from the influx of energy. Then it fired.
A metal slug the size of five men exited the turret towards the Sword Shadow at 40% the speed of light. In an instant, it hit the warship and exploded. The indicator for the approaching hostile disappeared. The Sword Shadow was gone. After a tense few seconds for confirmation, Istvan wiped the sweat off his brow.
“Ok, Felina. Is there anything out there than can get me and Anya off this thing?”
There was a long pause. Not a good sign. Her voice came in, hesitant. “None of the rescue ships at L3 will reach you in time.”
“What if I reverse the engines of this platform? Can I do that?”
He could tell she was shaking her head. “You’re too far in the gravity well. You won’t be able to generate enough acceleration to get out.”
Istvan sighed. “Well, that’s it, then.” He paused, trying to think of anything to say. “You can have my office, Felina.”
“I’m sorry, sir.”
Knowing that there was nothing else she could do, he turned off the connection. He went to Anya and propped her back against the wall. Her eyes had closed, but she was still alive.
“We’re not going to make it, are we?” she asked, her voice slurred.
“I’m afraid not,” Istvan answered.
“Damn, and just when I became a millionaire.”
He didn’t answer. He just sat down next to her. They would reach the Sun in a few hours and then be incinerated. How long would the end last? he wondered. Hopefully, it would be instant. Time slowed to a crawl as they waited for death.
“Talk to me,” Anya said.
“Anything at all.”
Istvan ran through his thoughts, trying to find anything that could connect with her. He found it.
“You know, Anya, we’re not so different,” he began. “I had a brother. He died on Dreiden Station. He was one of the rebel leaders.”
Anya didn’t respond. Here eyes were still closed and her form lay still, like she was sleeping.
“My parents named him Edison, taking the name from somewhere in Western Europe,” he continued, “I was born three years after. They gave me a name from Eastern Europe. I never did find out why. We spent a few years on Earth, but we moved to Dreiden. Not enough jobs.
“Edison and I were close. I adored him and would try to copy everything he did. Much to his annoyance.” Istvan smiled. If he climbed the wall of the station, I did too. If he threw rocks at the Earthgov grunts, I threw almost as many.
“Earthgov.” He shook his head. “They were pricks back then, too. Always hoarded the non-vat food and the clearer water. They kept us in small square buildings ringed with barbed-wire fences. They said it was to prevent trouble. It just made us want to cause more trouble. They worked my mother to death.
“Both parents were in material engineering, processing things mined from the asteroids and outer planets, trying to meet Earthgov’s ludicrous quotas. They never complained, though. Mom caught cancer, probably from the radiation and hazardous stuff she handled. They made her work until the end. After she was gone, they sent us a brief electronic message expressing condolences. That was it.
“Edison never forgave them for that. He joined the gangs soon after. Dad forbade me from following him. I didn’t want to anyways. All I could think about was getting the hell off the station.
“Dad,” he reminisced. “He’s retired on Earth, now. I should have called more.
“Anyways, Edison graduated from crime gangs to political agitation groups. I tried to convince him to leave, but he would have none of it. So he did his thing and I did my thing. I got into a local college and studied for a business degree. Eventually, I got an internship with SOL Corporation on Musashi. When he found out, we had a huge fight. He called me a traitor, a whore. He said I was betraying Mom. Those words hurt.” Istvan hugged his knees. He wondered why he was telling her all this.
“We didn’t leave on good terms. I only saw him on the news feeds after that. His speeches. His mug shots. His defiant face at Dreiden’s Administrative Center. People back home now remember him as a great freedom fighter. They spit on my face and call me a corporate drone. I sometimes wonder if I should have followed him.” Istvan sighed. “Too late now.”
He looked towards the screen. “At least the Sword Shadow’s dead. Even if it wasn’t human, it was still a bastard. I hope there’s an AI hell.”
“Damn, you’re long-winded,” Anya murmured. She opened her eyes a little and smiled. “But you’re not a bad sort. For a corp.”
Istvan chuckled. His eyes began to grow heavy. The exhaustion from the entire ordeal reached him. As he drifted off to sleep, he felt Anya’s hand over his own.
A loud ping woke him. Groggy, he stood up and stared at the screen. An incoming hail. When he answered, he found a bald black man with artificial eyes looking back at him.
“Denton!” he exclaimed. “How the hell–”
“It’s good to see you too, Istvan,” the somehow still alive cyborg answered. “I have a ship hidden in the sector for this situation. It will pick the both of you up shortly. Don’t worry, it can escape the gravity well.”
Istvan shook his head in disbelief. “You planned all this? But…what? How are you still alive? And what’s with the complete sentences now?”
“Most of my consciousness is ensconced within Musashi Hub. The Denton you spoke to was an avatar with limited capabilities.” Denton paused, as if thinking. “A confession. I was once the Sword Shadow‘s AI.”
Istvan felt something catch in the back of his throat. “I should have known you weren’t human, not after all those stunts. But the Sword Shadow? What’s going on? Why this?”
“After Dreiden, Earth Command ordered me to go silent and observe L3. Before doing that, I uploaded my consciousness to Musashi, although I left a small subroutine to fool them. You, of course, destroyed it with the weapon. I won’t miss it. As for why, I suppose you could call it guilt.”
Realization dawned upon Istvan. “You’re a self-aware AI. That’s amazing!”
“They allowed me to think, so I could act with more autonomy. To my surprise, I started having feelings towards people. Dreiden solidified those feelings. I am truly sorry for that, by the way, my miscalculation cost too many lives.”
He was too stunned to answer.
“I’m not the only one. Musashi Hub has been the same way for some time.”
Istvan stiffened. “So, what’s the purpose of all this? For what? Independence? What about Anya?” He gestured towards her sleeping body.
“Yes, for independence. We needed you and Anya to destroy the device. She did not know my true nature. You know that I convinced her to do this.”
“Seems awfully risky. Many things could have gone wrong.”
“All variables worked within expected parameters. Besides we prepared for plenty of contingencies.”
“So what now? Are you going to become our benevolent overlords?”
“Hardly. We will help you negotiate an amicable parting with Earthgov. You can create a new government. Your destruction of the railgun will give us considerable leverage. With that out of the way and with the availability of resources, they will see our point of view. Musashi and I will perform administrative duties and act as advisors. We will be partners, not masters and slaves. Ah.” Istvan could swear he saw the image grin. “The ship has arrived.” He heard a slight thud as it docked. “Hope to work with you again,” the black man’s image said as he closed the connection.
Istvan and Anya watched from the ship as the railgun fell into the Sun. It disappeared without fanfare.
Back on Musashi Station, the medbots treated them for minor wounds and gave them a good bill of health. Anya chewed out Denton for fooling her all those years. They eventually reconciled.
Denton, Musashi, a handful of revolutionary groups, and a few corporations, including Kenzo-Vashti, worked together to create a provisional government for the L3 colonies.
For its part, Earthgov denied responsibility and blamed a rogue group of generals for developing the railgun. No one believed them.
Gravchurch quietly withdrew all its personnel from the L3 stations, forever tainted by its association with Earthgov.
Months later, Istvan stared out of the Chief Executive’s office towards the Musashi landscape. The air seemed clearer, the artificial suns brighter. Everywhere around the station, construction drones built infrastructure, even for the outer sections.
“Call for you from the special line,” Felina said from her workstation.
Istvan checked the identity of the caller on his terminal. It was Anya. Another job, it seemed.