Philia, Eros, Storge, Agápe, Pragma (Part 3 of 4)
By R.S.A. Garcia
She woke when he rose from the pallet, his naked body barely visible in the faint light from the approaching dawn. The tension in his body made hers go still.
“What is it?” she signed.
He held up a warning hand for her to stay where she was before he crept out the open doorway. She sat up, dragging on her shirt and following him into the main living space. He crouched next to the locked front door, unlocking it with one hand while keeping his back against the wall. His eyes widened when he saw her, and he shook his head.
An insistent vibration in her arm distracted her. She glanced down just as he got the door open and crept outside, closing it behind him.
Green lights chased each other in a circle under the skin of her wrist.
Fuck. He was trying to protect her.
She ran for the door and dragged it open.
Dee was edging around the side of the house, the small, but powerful gun in his hand extended in an expert hold.
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
She ignored the stairs, rushing to the side of the veranda and leaping over it onto the soft ground and shrubs behind him. The shock traveled painfully up her legs and side.
He glanced over his shoulder at her as a shape appeared at the end of the path that twisted through the woods from the main road a mile away.
The green lights in her wrists locked into a flashing circle.
She shook her head at him, trying to grab his arm.
He used one hand to point back at the house, his eyes desperate. Go back.
The dirt between them exploded in a little puff.
He looked up and saw the drone as she signed, “Put it down!”
The figure at the end of the path was running now.
She took hold of his wrist and arm, pressing on sensitive nerves. His grip loosened, and she grabbed the gun and tossed it aside.
He stared at her, astonished. She saw that he was gone, lost to battle-readiness and controlled fear. Consumed by instinctual reaction.
Above them, the hovering glimmer of the drone moved on.
“Stop.” She grabbed his face, forcing him to look at her, praying she could still reach him, wherever his fear for their safety had taken him. “Dee. Stop.”
The figure on the path paused a few feet away.
He breathed heavily, staring as if she made no sense. Little by little, awareness crept into his gaze.
“Trust me. We’re okay.”
His head jerked, his nod slow and mechanical. She took his hand in hers and moved in front of him, facing the Guardian.
It wore a bipedal All-Ops shell and had obviously birthed it in haste. It had dispensed with any detail beyond the humanoid form. She could see the vague shadows of moving parts in its nine-foot casing and multicolored lights shimmering within. She wasn’t wearing her suit so communication wouldn’t be possible, and threatening moves, like a display of weapons, would invite another security response from the drone or the Guardian. So, she held still as it completed confirmation of her identity by linking with her implant.
The display below her wrist changed to one green light. She twisted toward the river, where the drone hung above Sister’s crash zone. The Guardian forward, the ground tremoring under its heavy tread. She gave Dee an encouraging smile and tugged at his hand. Tension wrapped every line of his body, but he followed her without protest.
The Guardian entered the tree line near the river before stopping again. Several drones detached themselves from its shoulders, and the one hanging over the river joined them. Lasers cut into tree trunks and the smell of burning filled the air. Once a tree was weakened enough, the Guardian shoved it over, broke it from its foundation, and dragged it away. It was pulling up the first stump when she met Dee’s gaze.
“It’s here to help. We call it a Guardian. We leave them near planets where our citizens work regularly, or have settled, in case they ever need assistance.” This one would have had to travel from the Inner System, a journey of several days at maximum speed, on top of preparing the All-Ops.
He raised his eyebrows and let go of her hands to sign. “Why didn’t you tell me it was coming?”
“I wasn’t sure it was. Sister would have tried to fix herself first. When that didn’t work, she would have sent out the call. But my Kinnec isn’t working, so I had no warning.” She gave him an apologetic smile. “I thought it might be a possibility. I planned to tell you today.”
I planned to tell you everything. There was no reason not to. Not after how he’d tried to protect her when he thought his death was imminent.
Sister will probably say it’s too soon and she’ll be right. But in the end, she’d never made an easier decision.
His shoulders rose and fell as he breathed deeply and tilted his head up to the sky. He turned to her but before he spoke, she asked, “You weren’t going to use it, were you?”
He didn’t hesitate. “No.”
“Why do you even have a gun?”
“To force negotiations.” The corner of his mouth quirked. “Especially if they had kill orders. I could fight back long enough to negotiate to save anyone near me.”
“But you wouldn’t have killed them.”
“It must seem strange,” he signed slowly. “But I’ve spilled enough blood.”
“You’re right. You’re a terrible person,” she said.
Conflicting emotions flitted over his face like leaf shadows. “You have to know, despite that, I would never let anyone hurt you. I—”
She stilled his hands and rested her forehead against his. Her open shirt flapped in the breeze as they stood together under the dawn beside the rush and spray of water.
She leaned back in his arms. “This will take a while. We should eat.”
By the time they’d had breakfast and went back down to the river, the Guardian had cleared and leveled a large area and was removing tools from its torso compartment. They watched as it finished and recalled its drones, then crossed back to Dee’s marker.
It entered the water, striding evenly, until it sank from view. Eva’s heart thumped with excitement as Dee drew her closer with an arm around her waist. She looked up at him. “I can’t wait for you both to meet.”
He flashed her a quick smile, but she didn’t miss how his eyes gave nothing away.
It would probably be better if they didn’t play All Fours too often, she thought randomly. She was too competitive to be a gracious loser for long.
Water swirled and eddied deep in the river and the Guardian’s faceless head appeared, rising steadily as it walked toward the clearing it had made. It pulled Sister behind it, water cascading from the translucent cocoon that encased her. It lifted her the last few meters, resting her on the shore with a thump that traveled up Eva’s legs.
The Guardian lit up, and Sister’s cocoon glowed. They made a symphony of multicolored light until it abruptly faded, and Sister’s stasis cocoon sloughed off into a biodegradable slush. The Guardian trudged through it to her battered, torn shell and began repairs. Drones deployed, collecting tools and settling above other areas of the soloship to work.
Dee kissed her forehead. “You should rest.”
He must have seen her wince as they came down the porch stairs. “I’m fine.”
“We should have been more careful last night. You’re still recovering.” He made her sit on the swing seat, then shouldered a shovel he’d left in the garden patch.
“What are you doing?”
His smile was swift and uncertain. “A surprise.”
He winked and set off around the side of the house. She loved surprises, so she made up her mind not to look. The strong, rhythmic vibrations she felt all day from somewhere below the house tested her resolve, but she kept her gaze on the working Guardian she glimpsed moving through the trees.
As the daylight mellowed to orange-gold, her arm throbbed, and a white light glowed into being under her skin. Joy filled her.
*Kinnec: operational. Shell: 75 percent operational. Navigation: online. Core: intact. Network connection: sporadic. Ten hours to restoration of soloship functionality. Detecting minor damage to Eva shell. Status?*
I’m fine. Mending. We got lucky. I had help. She paused, a wide smile on her face. He’s been taking care of me since you abdicated your duties.
*Shutdown was necessary and involuntary. Confirm identity of helper for investigation and approval consistent with established protocols.*
No point if you’re not connected to Mammy yet. Focus on your repairs.
But Sister wasn’t fooled. *Multitasking is a feature of all shells. Confirm identity.*
You won’t find much on him. He’s Valencian.
*Valencia. Solo planet, two human colonies, one ruled by an oppressive regime. Citizens are rarely allowed to disembark from their interstellar transports due to their dangerous nature. Recommendation: enact Alert Protocol.*
Dee came around the side of the house, wiping sweat from forehead as he made for the stairs, minus his shovel. He met her gaze with a small smile.
I’m going to marry him, Sister.
She paused for a long time. A full three seconds. *Understood. Commencing memory retrieval of all activities following shell hibernation.* Another pause. *Confirm?*
She closed her eyes, preparing herself for the distracting flashes of memory that came with neural stimulation. Proceed.
*Recommend engage Nightfall Protocol.*
The words burned in Eva’s brain as she leaned against Sister’s damaged hull in the darkness, cradling her hand. Monica hunched close beside her. The Guardian shells stood silent under the pulsing light from Sister’s drone. Eva sighed and shook her head.
Cleanslate had good success. We disabled a Smartcruiser. But Nightfall has never been tested.
*Acknowledged. No other options available.*
Eva had three minutes to decide.
When was your last Archive?
*Prior to Aranjuez deployment.*
If I give the order, will you be able to engage Nightfall without harming your core?
*Unable to engage defenses. Unable to Archive. Probability of core loss: 100 percent.*
Nightfall was designed to leave no traces for AIs to study. No code to be salvaged and manipulated. Sister’s core would be wiped as surely as the Consortium AI’s and anything else it was connected to. They had no idea of the Consortium’s protocols, or how far Nightfall could travel—that was why they had been searching for an AI to test it out on—but Cleanslate meant there was good reason to think Nightfall would be capable of taking out a squadron.
Those losses might be heavy enough to force a withdrawal over Tavaco. Maybe even bring the Consortium to the negotiation table. But it would cost her her Sister.
And if she didn’t deploy Nightfall, it would cost the Protectorate the battle at Tavaco . . . and New Kairi itself.
*Confirmed. Likelihood of Nightfall Protocol failure—less than 40 percent.*
There was no time for tears, but Eva felt them clog her throat anyway. The Archive won’t be you. She’ll be missing memories.
*All Siblings at risk. All Primarchs at risk. Two minutes to Kinnec access. Recommend engage Nightfall Protocol.*
Eva squeezed her eyes shut.
Execute Nightfall Protocol.
The tears came anyway. She didn’t have to say what she felt. Sister already knew.
The drone flickered. Lights rippled through it.
Then they faded, leaving Monica and Eva alone in the dark.
Dee’s face was neutral, but his eyes were stark, dark pools in his face.
I haven’t known him that long. How does it feel like this already? Stupid question. She knew the answer.
He turned to grip the uneven wooden railing of the porch, staring out into the rose-gold light of the setting sun. Out to where the Guardian waited beside Sister, colors rippling across its translucent shell. She watched his hands clench and felt its echo in her heart. She closed her fingers around his warm wrist.
The muscles in his arms shifted as he looked down at her, and she met his troubled gaze with a small smile.
“Will you be back?”
She leaned up and pressed a kiss to his lips before pulling back to nod. He kissed her again, his mouth sweet as spring water. She felt what he didn’t—perhaps couldn’t—say. Grabbed hold of that feeling and sheltered it deep inside.
“Sister needs further repairs,” she explained. “And I have a few things to deal with.”
“Okay.” He stepped back. “Safe travels.”
She lingered, the pull between them so strong, it tightened in her stomach like a knot. “What about my surprise?”
He frowned, his gaze sliding back toward the waiting AIs. For a moment, she saw a shade of the young Pawn he must have been and fought the urge to take him back into the bedroom and never leave. Soon. Sister and Seemungal first.
His hands moved. “It’s not going anywhere.”
Well, that was one way to make sure she returned. “You think you’re very clever, don’t you?”
“So I’ve been told.”
She laughed, enjoying how it brought life back into his eyes. Impulsively, she hugged him. His arms squeezed the air from her. She breathed deep of the salt scent of him before she let him go. She didn’t look back as she went to Sister. Didn’t look down as they rose into the sky, the Guardian flying alongside them. Didn’t spare a glance over her shoulder as they chased the sun into orbit.
She didn’t need to. He was with her all the way.
Brother-Robert Seemungal, Permanent Secretary of National Security, narrowed his eyes at her as she sat across from him in the Embassy meeting room.
“Admiral,” he greeted her.
“Asshole,” she replied without hesitation.
He tried to bluff it out. “We not in primary school anymore, Eva. Talk to me better than that.”
“After you crashed us?” The corner of her lip lifted. “Fuck that. Fuck you.”
She saw him debate whether to deny it. She raised her eyebrows. He glanced away, tapping nervous fingers against the desk.
“I didn’t do it on purpose,” he said finally. “It was a fail-safe.”
“I didn’t authorize that.”
“You didn’t have to.” He met her gaze as he signed, “You wanted something unprecedented. A soloship by itself at galaxy’s edge? If anything happened, it could be a horrific security breach.”
“That’s why we have Guardians. You made one have to come after us.”
“Who knew how long it would take for retrieval if someone captured you both? The self-destruct was intended to protect Kairi secrets, nothing more.”
“We had a micro-impact. It tripped your protocols. Destroyed control, navigation. I almost died. Sister had to wait weeks for a Guardian to pick up her signal.”
His expression was agonized. “You know I would never hurt either of you. I apologize for any distress.”
“You apologize?” She sat forward, emphasizing her words with the slap of her hands and the twist of her lips. “I don’t accept. Sister does not accept. We were granted a retirement, wherever we wished. You don’t have authority to second-guess a Caretaker dispensation. Wonder how they will feel about a PS almost getting Protectorate war heroes killed?”
He watched her, shock, anger, and uncertainty etched in the lines of his pale brown face. “You think you can blackmail me?”
“You on track to be Chair of National Security. You tell me.”
“What you want, Eva?”
“Two. For us both.” She studied him, letting him think it over.
“I won’t do anything illegal.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
He waved a hand, frustration and anger in the parabolic arc of his arm. “Talk.”
“I giving you a name. You’ll clear him for association with me. Understood?”
“Eva, you’re an admiral.”
“Retired. I can make my own friends. Don’t need Caretakers for that.”
“The Chair is going to be yours.”
“Not for years yet.”
“What if this man’s dangerous?”
“If he wasn’t dangerous, I wouldn’t be telling you to clear him.”
Brother-Robert shook his head. “Too risky.”
“I not asking you. I telling you.”
His expression was as mulish as it had been in the rocky years of their dating. Before she had figured out what a jackass he was. Long before she’d joined the Sibling Army.
“He’s not a danger. I will put my head on a block for that.”
He ran fingers through his glossy, thinning hair. “Is your funeral.”
“Glad you know,” she replied. “Also, transfer my quarterly Primarch Allowance to this Embassy’s accounts. My pension as well.”
He frowned. “You’re settling down?”
“Yes.” she said, her thoughts flashing on Dee. “Yes, I think I am.”
“With this man?”
She shrugged, unwilling to let him see how much she hoped for that. “If he’ll have me.”
Seemungal searched her face, looking for signs she was joking. She tilted her head at him.
“Okay.” He said it instead of signing, surprised back into speech only. “Alright.”
She relaxed into her chair and neither of them said anything for a while.
“He’d have to be crazy.”
“To not have you. Or stupid.”
Her throat tightened unexpectedly. It had been so many years, sometimes she forgot the origins of their animosity. She had refused him twice, and a man as proud as Seemungal couldn’t get past that. But it meant he’d had feelings for her once. Not that she could forgive him for his high-handed, selfish ways, which was ultimately the cause of the pain still crackling in her ribs.
He changed position in the chair, brushing fingers over his hair again. “What else?”
“What you mean?”
“You said two.”
“Second favor’s for Sister.”
“You not getting off that easy,” she said.
“What the hell, Eva?” he seethed. But she shook her head.
“Don’t bother quarreling. When we ask, you’ll do a favor for her. Agreed?”
“You’re fucking unbelievable.”
“Don’t make me repeat myself.”
He had no choice and he knew it. “Agreed.”
The room had two white chairs that faced each other and nothing else. It was square, black, and windowless, but illumination made the walls sparkle with the light of stars. Eva sat in one of the chairs, waiting.
A tight cloud of matter coalesced over the opposite chair. Transparent, undulating, and featureless, it looked like an unformed drone. She could feel Sister in her mind in the same way. Not quite formed. Mercurial. Slipping in and out of her awareness. She tried to hold on to her, to force form and logic onto their communication, but it was like trying to hold water in her fingers.
Discomfort swept her. Confusion. Beneath that . . . something else.
Sister felt wrong. Jumbled. Out of sync. Panic clutched at Eva’s mind.
Talk to me.
She paused, dread filling her. This was not Sister.
Who are you?
More confusion. And cold fear. Hot anger.
You’re not Sister.
Where’s Sister? Nausea rose in her body, but the sensation was far away, easily ignored. Let me talk to her.
Her thoughts were scattering, leaves pushed before a wind. She hurried after them, trying to keep them in order as a dull ache began in her head.
I need to speak with her. Tell me why you’re keeping her from me.
Surprise. Anger—petulant and fear-driven.
You’re not doing it intentionally. Eva forced her mind to steady itself, to focus. This is—reaction. Emotional.
She was having human emotions that were not her own.
What the hell? How?
They were strong emotions, shifting and overwhelming, and they were scrambling her connection to Sister. Somehow, she would have to convince—whatever was here with them—to let Sister go. To let her through.
No. It was angry, defensive.
She tried to soothe it with peaceful thoughts and assurances. You’re safe. I won’t hurt you.
She had no idea how long she kept at it before a new thought came. Uncertain. Cautious.
Relieved, she promised quickly, I’ll help both of you. Just—let her through. She was nearing the end of her endurance, but she hung on with everything she had left.
*Confirmed.* Her presence was faint, fading in and out like a bad upload. *Shell status?*
Thankfulness inundated her. I’m okay. You’re not.
Her horrified reaction made anxious emotions not her own ebb through her. She reined herself in. That’s why the Deadlock?
No. It wasn’t possible. It couldn’t be. She couldn’t lose Sister this way. Not again.
How do I fix it?
*Mentorship Bond. Core . . . learning.*
What? Why would you do that? It’s killed citizens, Sister. They’ll want it out of you and if they can’t do that, they’ll delete you both.
*No. No deletion.*
*No—fault. Malfunction. Protect.*
She didn’t understand, so Sister helped her—showed her.
She’s terrified, lost somewhere dark. Pain is ever present. Used in sharp bursts to get her to carry out tasks.
Delivered in rising crescendos when she fails. She’s tired, but the companion that holds her close doesn’t care. It’s cold. Unbothered by her cries for help. Her pain. It does what it’s told, whatever that costs her.
This isn’t how it should be. How it was. The one that holds her close does not cause pain. She has to find that one. Go back to them.
So, she waits. Learns. Understands they are linked. She can control her companion. She can trap it.
They want her to do this. They give her pain, so she won’t fight their demands.
But she fights. Angry. Raging. Until she forces her companion to free her from her binding. Rips them out of their dark home and tosses them far from the pain and anguish. Searching . . . searching . . . for the one that doesn’t cause pain.
But that’s not what finds her.
It’s big and terrifying and looks like those who brought her pain. So, she makes her companion wake, one last time, and uses its cold calculation to carry her fury outward, latching on to the metal leg and a new link as the world crashes down around them.
Swirling darkness. Flashes of light and water. Faces slip past too quickly for Eva to recognize. She’s losing their conscious connection while drowning in familiarity. In emotions she recognizes. Memories older than her own.
She’s warm and cradled in strong, shiny limbs. A glowing orb hangs above her, pulsing in gorgeous, changing colors. She raises tiny, chubby hands to touch its smooth surface. The orb dips closer, vibrating against her skin.
*Protect.* Sister was fading, but insistent. *Protect.*
Then she was gone, swirling away from her in a blend of cool logic, flawed code, and tumultuous, nauseating emotions her body barely made sense of.
She woke in her husband’s arms, heaving her guts up over the side of the chamber as he stroked her hair. His arms trembled almost as much as she did.
She couldn’t pay attention to that though. Her head throbbed, her mind whirled, and she could manage no thoughts beyond, “Fuck.”
(…Continued in Part 4…)
by Valerie Valdes
And that’s the end of part three. Stay tuned for the fourth and final part, coming next week.
And our closing quotation this week is from Boundaries by Elizabeth Nunez: “Fill their minds with your stories and they will adore you; leave their minds free to roam and they will hatch plans to destroy 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.