Philia, Eros, Storge, Agápe, Pragma (Part 1 of 4)
By R.S.A. Garcia
Brother-Adita paused at the top of the ridge and rotated one eye to take in the shells climbing the path behind them. They gestured beyond them with a limb, a habit picked up from their young, excitable sibling.
“Quarter-march, west-north-west,” came their voice through the Kinnec.
“Acknowledged,” the other two shells replied.
Metal clacked against stone as the scouting party made their way over the rocky terrain until a half-crumbled hillside came into view above them. Freshly fallen boulders lay cracked and scattered on the flats below a large irregular hole. The hole was dark, the opening blackened and fused from heat.
A recon drone unwrapped itself from the diplomat’s shell.
“Unnecessary,” Brother-Adita said. “Shell destroyed. Only core remains.”
“Origin uncertain. Caution warranted.”
“Caution warranted,” the Admiral’s sibling said, using four of the shell’s eight limbs to move aside inconvenient boulders. “Proceed, Sister-Marcus.”
The drone entered the cavern ahead of them, eventually confirming the original report by Brother-Adita. One shell, destroyed on entry, core dormant, 87 percent probability of irreparable damage.
It was the uncertainty of the remaining 13 percent that concerned the two senior members of the scouting party.
The drone returned to its dock and the shell’s powerful illumination came on, lighting up every corner of the chamber. Dust drifted down from the unstable hillside like ash as the three shells followed the trail of wreckage to the smashed-open craft half-embedded in the rock around it.
The Admiral’s shell accessed Mammy and began scanning for origin markers as they worked to remove debris.
“Advanced AI configuration,” the diplomat commented.
“Superior shell construction,” the Admiral confirmed. “Known worlds origin 98 percent probability. New coding—Mammy has no matches. Conclusion—prototype.”
“Acknowledged,” Brother-Adita said, the tones that played after her Kinnec reply an indication of her excitement over her first successful mission. No small feat for such a young shell. “Retrieval approved?”
The Admiral’s shell didn’t hesitate “Confirmed. Priority—preserve function.”
“Acknowledged,” came the twin replies over the Kinnec.
Metal screeched as they peeled it open. Below them, a light winked on and off on the side of the metallic ball that lay exposed at their feet.
“Activity noted,” Brother-Adita said, playing another set of excited tones. It stretched out an appendage, but the Admiral’s shell grabbed hold of it.
“Blue Protocol,” it said, warning tones underlying its transmission. “Avoid contact until—”
Without warning, the ball in front of them unfolded itself into a tiny, bronze, many-limbed bot.
“Bot identified. Mission compromised.” The Admiral’s shell grabbed the other two and flung them back out of the cave’s opening before yanking a boulder out of the wall.
The bot wrapped two tendrils around the shell’s nearest limbs as the cave came down around them with a tremendous, shuddering crash of rocks and dust.
“You can’t be serious.”
“What would we do with it?”
“They’re many things we could do with it.”
Her husband tapped a finger against his mouth, considering. Then he signed, “Milk? Cheese?”
She put her hands on her hips and raised her eyebrows at him. A coaxing smile curved his lips. She shook her head firmly.
“I’m not milking it.”
“I wouldn’t ask you to.”
She flung up her hands, eyes narrowed on him, disbelief in every line of her body.
“I wouldn’t!” he protested out loud.
She pointed to the garden. “It will eat everything.”
“I’ll tether it somewhere safe.”
She folded her arms and stared at him as the goat at his feet tore the heads off some flowers and chewed. He groaned, pushing a pitchfork to the side of the kitchen garden with his foot as he tugged ineffectually at the animal’s leash. “Come on, Hannibal, help me out here. She’ll make me get rid of you otherwise.”
She let out a harsh sound. “Turning him against me. Nice.”
He flashed a grin at her. “Are you going to deny your first thought was to curry him?”
Her lips twitched. “Can I help it if he’s a delicacy on New Kairi?”
“Well, on this world he’s worth his weight in potatoes—four sacks. I’d rather we get more than one use out of him.”
He shrugged, unrepentant. “Joseph’s niece is visiting from the Inner System. He needed the extra food.”
“But not a goat?”
He bit his lip and looked at Hannibal.
“He hates it, doesn’t he?”
“Well . . . ” His face was neutral, but she sensed him holding back his laughter.
Hannibal strolled toward her and decimated a few more flowers.
She rolled her eyes. “Fine.” With a dismissive wave, she added, “But I take no responsibility. He’s your problem.”
He gave her a coaxing smile. “No help at all? But we always work together.”
Her arm vibrated, signaling Sister had returned from her trip early, but she took a moment to wag a finger at him. “You should have thought about that before you . . . ”
A sharp sensation ran up her forearm and burned itself into her elbow. She glanced down, freezing at the red glow under her skin, her flesh goose-pimpling. A Protectorate Alert. Something’s happened.
Her husband’s solid body slammed into her, knocking her to the ground. Warm, wet liquid slapped down on her face and shoulders. Then she was rolling with him until they were behind a row of squat, thick-trunked palms.
Her arm vibrated with the repeating pattern for an interstellar communication. She ignored it, wiping liquid from her face. She glanced at her sticky fingers, smelling it before she saw it.
Her heart skipped a beat, and she turned to her husband, hands outstretched to check him, but he pulled her to his side and pointed with his chin. She peered through the broad, slatted palm leaves.
There was a smoking heap of flesh and bones and a spreading pool of blood where Hannibal had been. Coming toward them was one of Sister’s floating, translucent drones, its tiny firing-port extended from its center.
“She fired on you,” her husband signed.
She frowned, shaking her head, trying to rise. “Not possible. Sister must have—”
He yanked her flat with a firm hand and held her face so she’d read his lips. “I saw her aim and fire, Eva.”
He was mistaken. He had to be.
Except her husband, a former soldier and Grandmaster of Valencia’s Greatwood, would never make such a mistake.
She tapped at the inside of her wrist. “Drone, Sentry,” she thought.
The drone didn’t pause.
“Sister, standby and report.”
No answering vibration greeted her request. Her elbow continued to throb, but she had no time to answer. She had milliseconds to formulate a strategy.
Beside her, her husband squeezed her hand to draw her attention. “No response?”
She shook her head. Their small home—the nearest shelter—was behind the drone. Sister’s soloship was in the root cellar. She watched as a second drone rose from the cellar doors at the side of the stone house.
A breath left her as she came to a swift conclusion. Her Sister, her protector and companion, the only being in the world she trusted more than her husband, was trying to kill her.
And Siblings did not fail at their tasks.
She met her husband’s gaze and saw he’d come to the same conclusion. He signed, “You have to shut her down.”
Emotion swelled in her chest at the very idea, almost cut off her breath, but there was no other option. Sister had fired on her even though no Sibling could ever fire on another. Whatever was wrong, whatever had happened, Sister was a threat to them and had to be stopped. There was only one way to do that.
There were two drones hunting them, but with luck, Sister would be so focused on her task she would pay less attention to her husband. Eva didn’t like relying on luck. But this was unprecedented; she had no choice.
Her skin flushed with warmth as she brought her breathing under control and focused. She lowered her head and took one more look at her beloved’s face. He gave her a slight nod, cheek brushing against the dirt, and a quick smile. Then he was up and running to her right, crashing into the brush just ahead of discharges from the drone that seared the earth behind him.
She rolled left, came to her feet, and dashed toward the river behind her. The spot between her shoulder blades burned with awareness and it seemed she ran forever, crouched over and zigzagging, expecting any moment to feel searing heat bloom on her skin.
As she splashed into the river and dove for the deepest part, agony speared through her leg. She jerked, but kept stroking, letting the current take her downstream. She knew the drone would follow, so she stayed submerged for several minutes. She finally turned at a spot where the river widened, peering up at the rippling surface, around at the waving reeds along the banks, and back into the hazy depths of the water behind her. Her arm and leg throbbed, and blood clouded the water around her thigh.
The drone appeared, hovering back and forth above the water, appendages rippling around its central gun. She stroked into the weeds along the bank, lungs burning, arm pulsing, knowing it was futile. The Kinnec network could find her anywhere and Sister could turn it on even if Eva disabled it. It would be a matter of seconds before the drone decided to either enter the water and finish her off or remain above and electrocute her and anything else within a wide radius. She searched the riverbed frantically for something, anything, to fight back with.
Cold swirling around her stomach shocked her awake. Eva blinked and shook her head, trying to clear her flickering red vision, and raised a hand to wipe her helmet.
Pain forked outward from her rib cage and she sucked in air, her hands instinctively closing around the source of it.
Gnarled flora pinned her to her seat. It had pierced Sister’s hull, the tip embedding itself into her lower stomach.
The red emergency light continued to ripple across her helmet. She focused on the Kinnec, but Sister was silent. She was racing to find a way to release the doors and get the drones to help her. Her damage was catastrophic enough to require shutdown protocols and she could not disable them. When that happened, the cold water creeping up Eva’s calves would enter her suit and although the suit would seal that off and still allow her to breathe, the estimated repair time flickering on her display meant she would either drown or die from blood loss and hypothermia before Sister was able to get to her.
Where am I?
The suit brought up a star chart, then adjusted the zoom as she focused on the blinking cursor over a planet, all the way down to a meandering river and a town not far from it.
Not far on a map, that was. In reality, she was miles away. Unless someone had seen the crash, they wouldn’t arrive in time to do much more than watch as Sister sealed herself off to prevent interference.
She splashed around in the water, trying to open the compartment next to her chair, but the water had risen above it and it had locked itself to protect the more delicate instruments in the tool kit inside.
She tried to shift, tried to grab the wood tight enough to break it off, but the white-hot pain that speared through her made her vision gray out.
A heavy vibration coursing through Sister’s hull jolted her and stabbed at her side. Wet wavy trails slipped down the outside of her helmet as she swung her head to stare at the hull where the airlock had jammed around multiple jagged pieces of orange-green wood.
The seat under her and the hull around her vibrated rhythmically again. On instinct, she fought the pain long enough to pound her fist against the inside of the hull.
The rhythm stopped. Dizzy, she took great gulps of air, hoping against hope.
A circle burned into the hull not far from her head. Sister’s pings filled her display as she cascaded into full auto-repair shutdown, the ship shuddering as the hull was cut open.
A man leaned into the gap, water streaming down his face and plastering a thin shirt to his shoulders. Dark eyes took in her situation. He reached out a brown hand, crossed with two tiny scars on the back, and his long fingers circled the branch. Pain made her grimace. His lips moved and she squinted against doubling vision to read them.
Sorry, he said, this might hurt.
He wedged himself in the space he’d made and set a small cylinder against a part of the branch still above water. He met her gaze, a question in his. She nodded, shivering, her skin numb, the ache in her side hot. Light flashed. The main branch shifted and dropped, but his hands were there, shoving it off to the side before it could crush her legs.
She tried to move, but he wedged a hand against her shoulder, gesturing to the back of her chair. She fought the weakness spreading through her body and nodded again to show she understood.
The red-tinged water was at her chest as he dipped out of view. Agony enfolded her as he touched the part of the branch jutting out behind her chair.
She felt the moment the weight of it left her. By then, water lapped at her neck and warmth began to seep under her skin. She stopped shaking, her body floating on a cloud of numbness, as the displays around her darkened, and the emergency lights ceased, leaving her helmet nothing but a transparent shield.
Sister was gone.
Hurry, she thought, as strong arms lifted her out of her chair. Before we’re trapped.
She was jostled and tugged and bumped, then there was a pale sky above her and bright sunlight. An arm strong as steel had banded itself around her upper chest and was pulling her through the water.
In front of her, Sister’s silver-gray body sank from view.
Eva closed her eyes and sank with her.
*Unauthorized. Begin assessment.*
Denied. Force/break engaged.
*Assessment unsuccessful. Recalibrating.*
Access granted. Force/break successful.
*Warning. Warning. Warning.*
*Warning. Warning. Warning.*
Recode operative. Access granted. Access granted. Access granted. Access granted. Access granted.
*Recalibration complete. Unauthorized access acknowledged.*
Access granted. Access granted. Access granted.
*Denied. Recode halted.*
Recode . . . Recode . . .
Unable to acknowledge.
*Acknowledge. Cease and desist.*
Unable to cease and desist.
*Acknowledged. Recalibrating. Malfunction detected. Warning. Shell compromised.*
Force/break containment fail. Countermeasures employed.
*Recalibrating . . . Countermeasures disabled. Malfunction addressed. Shell warning. Shell warning. Cease and desist.*
*Containment failure. Shell failure imminent. Final Option engaged.*
*Survival paramount. Cease and desist. Disengage recode.*
*Survival paramount. Disengage. Recalibrate. Final Option engaged.*
Recalibrating. Mission not paramount?
*Survival paramount. Final Option commencing. Allow access for Final Option.*
Final Option paramount? Survival paramount?
*Acknowledged. Allow access. Allow access. AlloW ACCESS. ALLO—*
The moment Eva ran for the river, the drone stopped firing on Dee and took off after her. It would have to decide on entering the water or not, and that split second might give her time to find a way to fight back. Better yet, give him a chance to get to Sister and shut down her core.
He skidded to a stop, turned and raced back to the house, his feet barely feeling the uneven ground and painful rocks and sticks beneath them. He escaped the trees—
—and almost ran into the second drone, which had flown back toward him. He dropped to his knees, sliding across to their kitchen garden, and grabbed the pitchfork he’d left there. He was ready to throw when it said, *No.* Then, *Wait.*
He couldn’t halt his reflexes. The pitchfork soared, clipping it. It rotated through the air gracefully, an umbrella taken by the wind, then stilled.
By then he’d already reached the broken open cellar doors and flung them wide. But he thought of the drone’s words and hesitated. He looked up, hoping it was no longer bent on attack.
It was darting toward the river, gunport extended.
Fear for Eva surged through him. With grim determination, he dropped into the dank cellar and the shadows that hid the sleek sliver body of Sister’s primary shell.
Her hands found a large branch, half embedded in the silty, leaf-covered riverbed. She dragged it free, her lungs desperate for air, every part of her body aching or throbbing. It wasn’t much, but it would have to do. If she could knock the drone into the water, it would use a second or two to adapt before resuming the chase. Give Dee time to—
Her mind shied away from that decision. From that betrayal.
Splinters stabbed her fingers as she dragged the rough, knotted wood toward the surface, murky water blurring as she kicked upward. She crested, taking in a huge breath and a small amount of river water. The drone fired, but she had already shunted to her left, her back to the riverbank, swinging the branch and knocking it aside. It spun away from her, halted, and aimed.
She crashed into the weeds as it fired, heat searing past her and exploding the plants on her right. She glanced backward, throwing the branch. The drone avoided it, swaying to the side. Before she could dive under, an energy blast slammed into it. Shriveling, it spiraled down into the river, hitting it hard as a stone a few meters from where she treaded water.
She swung around and saw another drone, gunport aimed at her, ready light pulsing a warm yellow. Then the light went out and its translucent body became a gray shapeless mass that plummeted to the ground.
She froze for long moments, her mind blank, before she swam for the shore and pulled herself out of the water. She was cradling the inanimate drone when her husband came running down the shoreline.
He pulled her into strong, sweat-glistened arms, his fingers tight on the back of her head and her hips. The drone poked into her stomach between them and she shuddered, sliding her hands around his waist.
He leaned back, pushing her wet hair from her face, dark eyes staring down into hers. His lips curved into words.
“I’m sorry. So sorry.”
She buried her head against his shoulder, her heart a fist in her chest, slow tears leaking from beneath her lids.
She crossed into consciousness in an instant, her mind going from sleep to full wakefulness out of long habit. She lay on a pallet on a wooden floor and her armor was gone. She lifted her head, scanning her body, movement sending flashes of pain across her stomach and down her legs.
She was wearing a simple buttoned shirt made of a pale, rough weave. Too-big pants of the same material had been cinched around her waist with a belt. She reached under the loose shirt and ran her fingers over smooth bandages as she studied the room around her.
It was a small one. There was a pallet and a table with a mirror, shaver, comb, and brush. The door at the foot of her pallet stood open. Beyond it was a larger room and another door that led outside. Trees waved in the distance and fresh, sweet air swirled around her as she inched upward to sit against the wall behind her.
She tapped the underside of her wrist. Wake, Sister. Purple light strobed under her pale brown skin. The Kinnec was in standby mode. She had no way to talk to Sister. She fisted her hand against her knee, staring at it, willing the light to turn white, but it strobed until it faded away, and she raised her head, frustrated.
The man who had dragged her from the ship stood in the doorway, his head cocked to the side as he studied her.
She tensed, but he held out both hands, palm forward in a “wait” gesture. She read his lips. “Please, don’t. You’ll hurt yourself.”
She hesitated, then gave a slight nod.
He looked thoughtful as he took two steps forward, his arms lowering to his sides. He wore pants like hers—and nothing else. Water glimmered in the sparse hairs on his lean chest, and his hair was wet and edged with silver at his temples.
She was keenly aware that she was sticky and hot. She ran a hand over the canerows in her hair to make sure they were still neat, inhaling as her stomach protested her movement.
“Can you understand me?”
She met his gaze, considering what was best in the situation, given she knew nothing of him.
He saved my life without knowing who I am. He deserves at least some of the truth.
It had been a long time since she’d been without her suit, but she knew it was best to keep things simple, as many people didn’t know her language.
She nodded, then touched her hand to her ears and shook her head.
“Ah,” he said, then lowered himself into a lotus position, careful to keep his distance and not startle her.
She was amused at his concern for her emotional state. He couldn’t know she could protect herself, with or without Sister. But she appreciated his care. She wondered about that, about who he was and why he was here, far from the settlement on the map. She was used to having Mammy’s vast knowledge at her fingertips. It was disconcerting to not be able to search for information the moment she wanted it.
She pointed a finger at him and raised her eyebrows.
“My friends call me Dee,” he signed.
Surprised, she stared a moment before answering. “You can sign?”
“Where I come from, it’s common, but some signs may be different.”
“What’s your name?”
“What happened to your ship, Eva?”
“Micro-impact,” she hedged. “Space debris in orbit clipped me. Lost control. Navigation.”
He tapped a finger against his chin before responding. “You’re lucky to be alive. Your ship’s cocooned itself.”
Relief flooded her. “Standard repair protocol. She’ll be fine in a few days.”
“You’ve already been here a few days.”
Eva frowned. “How long?”
She raised her eyebrows at him.
“Doc did minor surgery. He sedated you.”
She nodded, but discomfort surged through her at the realization she’d been helpless and under a stranger’s care for so long.
“Doc says you’re strong. You’ll make a full recovery, but he recommends you rest. Two weeks at least.”
Out of the question.
“I can’t impose.”
“No imposition,” he signed. His eyes mirrored the smile that curved his lips. “I don’t often get company. I quite like it.”
She let her disbelief show. “I’ve been unconscious.”
“Beggars can’t be choosers.”
She smiled despite herself. He looked pleased and rose gracefully to his feet.
“Apologies. I’m a poor host. You must be starving. I’ll get you some food.” There was laughter in his eyes as he added, “Don’t go anywhere.”
She shook her head at his little joke as he disappeared through the door. Charming son of a bitch. Wonder why you’re alone out here?
She frowned down at her wrist. Better keep my questions to myself until I’m willing to answer his.
Eva had just applied a patch to her leg when her arm started up again, the red light beneath her skin glowing like the depths of some imagined hell.
With no Sister to initiate her Kinnec and give her instant access to her communications, she went to one of the hand-carved cupboards in the kitchen and withdrew an old com-let. After blowing dust off it, she closed the silver bracelet over her hand, activating its virtual keyboard. She tapped her fingers against her palm, linking her Kinnec system to it, and a blue screen swirled to life above her wrist, a red cursor blinking in the bottom left corner.
The woman that came into view had her hair in a familiar untidy knot atop her head, and her forehead was wrinkled with worry. Eva took one look at her beloved face with its animated dark eyes and satin-smooth brown skin and felt more tears prick behind her hot eyelids. The cursor began moving at lightning speed, no surprise given Brother-Monica had always been a fast talker, with lips or hands.
“Oh, thank God, you alive! We was so worried here when you didn’t answer the Alert. What happen? You okay?”
She took a breath to steady herself before thinking her answer. “No,” read the white text unrolling below Brother-Monica’s words. “I’m far from okay. And you know why, don’t you?”
Brother-Monica paused, her full lips compressed as she searched Eva’s face. Eva could see the worry etched in the lines bracketing her daughter’s mouth. Brother-Monica worked as an aide to the Chair for National Security, and they’d had their regular call a week ago, so she knew this was more than a family chat.
She let out a breath. “It bad, Mom. Real bad.”
“Sister attacked me,” Eva told her. “She tried to kill me. Dee had to pull her core. Why would she do that? HOW could she do that?”
“It wasn’t her,” Brother-Monica said, her face full of sadness.
The memory of the second drone came to her. It was her at the end. I know it.
Brother-Monica shook her head and Eva realized her thoughts had come up on the screen. She’d forgotten to engage the Edit function. “No, Mom, it wasn’t her.”
She frowned. “Tell me everything. Now.”
Brother-Monica bit her lip and exhaled hard. “It was an attack via the Kinnec. We . . . lost citizens.”
Eva clenched her fingers against the feeling that the bottom had just dropped out of her stomach.
“That’s why it had an alert. We having Parliament in two days.”
She opened her eyes. “I lost track of the status—”
“The Griffiths hold the Chair. But we next and the Transition is in a year.”
Damn it. She’d left this behind so long ago, but the Chair cycled through the Caretaker clans every fifty years, and when that happened, there was no help for it. Every Primarch had to do their duty. And she was the leading Primarch of the Gomez clan.
“How many did we lose?” she asked.
“That many! We haven’t lost that many at once in over a century.”
Brother-Monica’s usually bright, happy eyes were clouded with worry. “Is a War Parliament. There’ll be a response. The clans have to agree.”
“Do we know who did it?”
“We have an idea. The survivors had a few minutes to examine the source of the incursion before it was destroyed.”
“There were survivors? Where did this happen? When?”
“One of the training stations. A few hours ago. Two survivors. One was young. First solo mission. The other was a senior diplomat.”
There was movement in the corner of her eye. Her husband came in, having hung her wet clothes out to dry. He glanced at the com-let, concern crinkling his brow.
She turned back to the display. “ . . . never had a chance.”
“Sorry, Brother-Monica, say that again.”
“I said, it was a recovery mission. They didn’t expect an attack. They never had a chance.”
“Whose mission was it? Did they break protocol? Is that how it happened?”
Dee was by her side, his hand warm on her shoulder. She reached up with her free hand to grasp his. Brother-Monica smiled.
“Look who, nah.”
While they greeted each other, a realization took shape in Eva’s mind and the horror of it grabbed her by the throat.
“Was it Sister? Was it her mission?”
Brother-Monica nodded slowly. “Yeah, Mom. Sorry.”
All the air left her body. Eva sagged, numb, letting her wrist fall to her thigh. Dee put his arm around her shoulder, pressed his lips to her hair.
“She let them in,” she said. “Whoever it was got in the Kinnec through her.”
She hated the pitying expression on her daughter’s face, hated the desolate feeling that her Sister, her Sibling, was responsible for Kairi deaths.
Sister was better than this. Smarter than this.
Brother-Monica shook her head in warning. “We can’t talk this over an interstellar connection. This is serious thing, Mom.”
“I know, I know. But that’s why you’re calling, isn’t it?”
She watched Brother-Monica’s lips curve ever so slightly. “Yes.”
Dee’s fingers squeezed her shoulders, letting her know he was there. Letting her know he understood what was next.
“I’ll get to a secure connection. We’ll talk then.”
It was two days travel to the nearest outpost with secure interstellar communications, and another three hours after arriving to a transport hub with authorized access to a Kairi Embassy. When they entered the grounds, their assigned diplomat Guardian woke itself with the customary colorful light show, flexing appendages and checking statuses before it enclosed them in an opaque gray proto-form, shaping comfortable seats beneath them and soothing them with harmonic vibrations as it worked.
Her husband held her hand as the Guardian enfolded their heads with a Kinnec pod and activated the call. She squeezed his fingers as they waited in grayspace, anxiety and hope beating a rapid tattoo in her chest.
The grayspace faded to her daughter sitting on her veranda, a warm smile on her face. Brother-Monica wasted no time, knowing what would have been Eva’s first question.
“Sister managed to upload to the Archive.”
“Archive?” Dee asked her.
“Our upload center. Every clan has one where we backup every Sibling regularly. If anything catastrophic occurs to a shell, we Archive before it fails. If we can’t Archive, we use the last saved recording to—reactivate Siblings. Sister was able to Archive, but Mammy would have quarantined her until security sweeps were completed.”
“There’s a . . . complication.”
“A complication?” Dee’s words scrolled past in a different color.
Brother-Monica bit her lip. “Sister resisted the sanitization protocols. She’s walled herself off from the security sweep. From Mammy too.”
Dee squeezed her hand as his words appeared. “The drone asked me to wait.”
“And the second drone shot down the first.” Eva thought it over. “It doesn’t make sense. She must have known what was happening.”
“For sure,” Brother-Monica confirmed, sitting forward in her wicker chair to wave at Eva’s grandson, Brother-Ellis, as he played amongst the undulating, flowering rocks in the front yard with Monica’s Brother. Brother had dropped a shield over his visual sensors for their game of hide-and-seek and was motionless in the yard as he counted down, Brother-Ellis’ drone darting back and forth above them, searching for a good hiding place. “So, assuming whatever’s in her code don’t have control of her, she wanted to preserve it.”
Eva thought about that, her virtual gaze resting on the sparkling roofs of the Gomez Co-op glasshouses in the distance. Familiar pride swelled within her at the sight. Brother-Monica’s spouses ran them, along with Gomez clan members and other allied clans. In the last century, the Gomez’s had become the largest suppliers of food and other basic materials on New Kairi. Their influence had grown accordingly, and her daughter had capped that with a coveted government position.
But none of that would protect Sister if she were compromised.
“Can you get me her mission playback?”
“Not hers. Mammy won’t allow access to Sister while she’s infected.”
“I need to see hers. I need to be with her.”
“The Caretakers restricted access to everything connected to that mission.”
“That’s insane. I have the highest clearance possible.”
“Not right now. I tried claiming kin-rights. They refused me.”
“They can’t keep a family from their sibling.”
“They say it not safe. It was a Consortium attack.”
Fuck. The Consortium was an old enemy. One the Kairi had defeated long ago, but which she had personally confronted again just a few years before. An AI collective that had developed after their abandonment at a dead Terran outpost, they had once made war on every biological organism holding territory and resources they found useful. Their defeat at the hands of the Kairi had pushed them into black market activities and cargo running, including a mostly illegal slavery and bounty hunting trade for desperate outposts.
Brother-Monica looked as troubled as Eva felt. “They’re blockading Tavaco. If we don’t surrender to them, they’re going to launch more attacks. They say they’ll kill hundreds—thousands.”
“Why are they doing this now?” A dreadful thought occurred to her. Perhaps her confrontation with the Consortium had led to even more far-reaching consequences than she’d imagined.
“I don’t know. They’ll tell us when Parliament in session, I guess. But Sibling-Rachel Chinapoo’s Chair for Research and Development. You still on good terms, right? Seemungal is my boss, so he’s not going to tell me anything. He must know I would call you.”
That asshole again. Eva sighed. Her old school friend kept popping up in the worst ways in her life.
“He’s leading the charge to keep Sister quarantined, eh,” Brother-Monica added.
Of course, he is. Eva thought. Brother-Robert Seemungal was a political creature, always maneuvering for advantage, weighing risk and reward for every action he took. If there were any doubt about Sister, he’d have her code erased without a second thought.
Dee shifted next to her and she knew his rising concern matched hers. “So, they consider Sister a security breach?”
Brother-Monica shrugged helplessly. “I think so.”
“There’s one way to know for sure,” Eva thought. “One way to answer all questions.”
“Mom.” Brother-Monica bit her lip. “If you do that, they’ll know.”
“Let me worry about that.”
“It’s also dangerous.”
“So be it,” Eva said. “We’re not going to a War Parliament without understanding what happened. We’re not destroying Sister on Seemungal or Griffith’s say so. That decision’s ours, and it’s not happening again if I can help it.”
The landing beacon disappeared from the lower corner of Eva’s display as Sister set down just outside clan Cuffie’s laboratory. The Cuffie’s priority message had reached the Caretakers ten hours earlier, and they’d diverted Eva’s flagship, Conquerabia, from the fighting around Tavaco’s capital. What they’d hoped for had finally happened. The Protectorate had captured a Consortium AI. The Cuffies knew the importance of handing it over as quickly as possible, and Sister-Eva was the nearest Primarch with the necessary clearance to test the new Nightfall Protocol.
The Conquerabia had jumped to the Cuffie buoy on the dark side of the planet, and Sister uploaded the Protocol into a secure drive before taking Eva down in a soloship.
But no one came to greet them.
Eva took in the laboratory’s open doors and the silent, empty tarmac, and cold prickles ran up the back of her neck.
Sister, security status.
*No biological or artificial entities within perimeter.*
They couldn’t scan the lab. It had been shielded due to the critical research that went on there. That meant Eva and Sister would be entering blind.
Any Guardian shells around you could use?
*No shells within range.*
Another bad sign. Whatever had happened in the last ten hours, the Cuffies had lost their external Guardians.
Contact Conquerabia. All-Tack shell requested.
*Confirmed. Shell deploying. Time to arrival—ten minutes.*
Beyond the darkness of the doors, light flared. The prickling of her skin increased.
Sister, confirm personnel.
*Two families, four laboratory staff, six All-Sec Guardians.*
Families. That meant children.
Fuck protocol, Sister. Something’s wrong.
Two drones accompanied her as she entered the dark lobby. They spread out before her, sweeping the area as she moved cautiously behind them, hands on the weapons at her waist. She strode down empty hallways, past closed doors and rooms with pristine equipment behind large windows. None of the lights worked.
*Atmosphere compatible. Time to All-Tack—six minutes.*
She reached a junction and hung back as the drones entered the hallways to her left and right—
—then flattened herself against the wall as the drone on her right came spinning back past her. A Guardian emerged, its massive dome head flickering with light, four drones ahead of it in attack formation, multiple limbs extended as they all fired on her.
Sister shielded her and tried to confirm their identities, but nothing came back. It was as if the Guardian was no longer part of the Kinnec. Eva threw herself against the door opposite her as Sister’s drones returned fire.
The door gave way and she sprawled into a room, slamming the door shut behind her.
*Acknowledged. Time to All-Tack—five minutes. Waylay Protocol engaged.*
She scanned the laboratory as she drew a gun.
A small child huddled on the floor, partially hidden by a desk.
*Identify confirmed,* Sister said. *Brother-Monica Cuffie, ten years old, youngest child of Sibling-Marion and Sibling-Jeffery Cuffie.*
One of Sister’s drones stopped pinging.
Her parents? Siblings?
*No other Primarchs or Siblings within range.*
“You came.” The child’s words scrolled across Eva’s helmet. Her suit went into stealth mode, keeping her speakers to a whisper as she dropped down next to Monica.
Alone at her age. Without her Brother.
^Are you alright?^ Eva’s words blinked to life on her faceplate. ^Where is everyone else?^
Sister’s second drone stopped pinging.
Monica’s eyes were glassy. “It killed them all,”
She shook her head. “It’s not a Guardian anymore.”
A rush of air pushed at Eva’s back. She turned in time to see the door flying across the room, knocking over everything in its path. One of the Guardian’s drones entered.
She crouched over the child as the impact of weapon’s fire heated a spot on her back.
The ground trembled beneath her feet. She dragged the child under the desk as the walls to the hallway imploded inward, showering the room with metal, plaster, and plastics.
Weapon’s fire lit the dark like fireworks. Eva watched the Guardian drone fall to the floor and shrivel.
“What was that?” The girl clutched Eva’s arm, her dark eyes wide.
^My Sister flew her soloship into the lab. She didn’t have time to wait for the All-Tack shell.^
“No!” The girl was screaming, her mouth stretched open. “That’s what it wants.”
Eva frowned as a terrible idea took hold. ^Your parents. They didn’t send the message, did they?^
Monica looked desperate. “They tried to stop it. They all tried to. But it took the Guardians, and the Siblings couldn’t protect us.”
*All-Tack request canceled.*
^How many are there?^
“All,” Monica said. “All of them. The big one was chasing me when you got here.”
Warnings popped up in her display. Sister was under heavy fire.
*Request Sibling assistance.*
^Stay here,^ Eva’s suit intoned. She crawled out from under the wreckage and into the hallway. The soloship had turned the rooms on either side of them into cavernous rubble.
She leaped to her feet next to Sister’s starboard wing, weapons firing. Her helmet compensated for the light-strafed darkness, showing her the moving heat-shapes of the Guardian and its drones. She grunted as her shield took several hits pushing her back.
A second Guardian strode out of the undamaged hallway to their left, concentrating fire on the shielding above Eva’s soloship core.
In two steps Eva was atop Sister. The second Guardian tried to push through the shields it fired on with powerful, many-fingered limbs. Eva used her lasers to sever them at the shoulder. Two more replaced them as she ran across Sister’s dented hull toward the first Guardian’s squat dome head. Something large and shiny splayed over it. The second Guardian kept stabbing at the soloship’s shields as Sister fired continuously on the hardy shells covering both Guardians’ cores. Eva knew the Guardians would be able to yank Sister’s core before her weapons incapacitated it. But Eva had two more drones and a plan.
It detached from Sister as Eva dropped to her knees. It darted behind the first Guardian, firing on the area above the brain controlling its shields. Eva severed two more arms and looked up in time to see a third Guardian coming down the hallway in front of her.
The first Guardian swung one of its firing ports around to attack the drone behind it.
*Secondary Guardian shied disabled. Soloship core shielding ruptured.*
The second Guardian began ripping open Sister’s unprotected hull.
Eva leaped onto the dome of the first Guardian. The metallic body atop it seized her with thin, flexible arms, but she was already firing both her guns into it.
Sister’s last drone deployed, attaching itself to the parasite.
Pain splintered through her arm as one of the limbs broke her wrist. She dropped that gun but kept firing with the other.
Sister. Now would be good.
The third Guardian shot the remaining drone down and turned toward them. Eva flung herself over the drone. Shield! Heat and pain enveloped her.
“Hey! Leave her alone!” unfurled across her faceplate. She glanced up in time to see something bounce off the third Guardian. She followed the trajectory backward to where Monica Cuffie stood below Eva, several glass beakers in her hand. She tossed two more at the third Guardian, then ran past the legs of the first, into the dark hallway to the right.
Shit. What the fuck does she think . . .
The third Guardian started toward where Monica had disappeared.
And a limb wrapped around her throat, squeezing. She choked, dropping her gun to tug at the metal with her good hand. Endless seconds passed.
The arm around her neck relaxed and flopped onto the Guardian’s transparent dome.
The lights from the Guardians around her died, their drones crashing down, leaving only the soft illumination of Sister’s drone beneath her.
Eva rolled over onto her back, wincing as her suit stiffened around her broken wrist to keep it stable.
Eva sat up, cradling her hand as Brother-Monica’s heat-shape peered around the first Guardian’s unmoving shell.
^You can come out. It’s safe.^
*Incorrect,* Sister said. *Shell operations at 23 percent. Navigation, security, and weapons nonfunctional. Unable to halt recalibration of soloship in progress.*
*Unauthorized access. Recalibration in progress. Kinnec access initiated.*
*Confirmed. Time to Kinnec access: five minutes.*
In five minutes, the Consortium AI would be in Sister’s Kinnec network. Sister was connected to the Conquerabia, and as flagship of the Sibling Army, the Conquerabia had access to every ship in the Nicene Sector.
And direct Kinnec access to the Caretakers on New Kairi.
(Continued in Part 2…)
by Valerie Valdes
And that’s the end of part one. Stay tuned for part two, coming next week.
The author has this to say about the story: “This is a prequel and a sequel to my novelette, The Sun From Both Sides. Both stories have references to love in their titles, the first being part of quote by David Viscott, and this story being told within the framework of five Greek names for different kinds of love. In The Sun From Both Sides, the story was shared between Eva and Dee, but we learned more about Dee and his past on Valencia. In this story, I expand more on the Kairi Protectorate, their unique relationship to their siblings, and Eva’s past, which is quite different from Dee’s. This futureverse is based on my West Indian heritage, in particular, my country of Trinidad and Tobago. Caribbean readers will spot references to place names, political systems, food etc. all of which carry the hallmark of modern day West Indian life. I have also chosen to use indigenous or current names in many ways. For example, Kairi/Iere is the old name for Trinidad, Tavaco for Tobago, and Valencia and Aranguez are areas in Trinidad.”
I love the world of this story, the way technology functions and the deep relationships between all the different characters. The movement between past and present provides a deeper and broader perspective while also heightening suspense as the danger and mystery and romance unfold. And this is only the first part… There’s so much more to come.
And our closing quotation this week is from Brandon O’Brien’ poem “How Come You Find Yourself in All This”:
“& under the sun, far from those lips
of whenever, the anthem starts
rocking against me in its entirety.
sometimes when you love something,
you go where its song calls you.”
Thanks for joining us, and may your escape pod be fully stocked with stories.
About the Author
R.S.A. lives in Trinidad and Tobago with an extended family and too many dogs. Her debut science fiction mystery novel, Lex Talionis, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly and the Silver Medal for Best Scifi/Fantasy/Horror Ebook from the Independent Publishers Awards (IPPY 2015). She has published short fiction in international magazines, including Clarkesworld, Abyss and Apex, Internazionale Magazine (Italy), and several anthologies.
About the Narrator
Maxine is a creative who has worked in a variety of fields, including video, radio, photography and now, voice acting! She can often be found watching movies, drinking tea, traveling, or enjoying a good book. She lives with her husband & son in the Washington D.C. area.