SPOILER ALERT: Have you read the short story Signal Loss yet? If not, stop, get yourself a copy, then continue. Last Stand discusses several major plot events from Signal Loss, including the ending.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: It was tempting when writing Signal Loss to follow Kyan aboard the Resolve and see what he found, but that story ended in the right place. Last Stand follows up on Kyan's story, and also gives us a little more of Watts's origin.
This is a short. It's not a full story, but it is a story extra. If you'd like to see more of this storyline, please leave comments.
Jade’s face was a cavalcade of red waves, and her voice frantic, rough. “They’re coming.”
Teor pushed his head through the combat armor, snapped closed the torso, and reached inside the locker. His hands shook. He fumbled unfolding the rifle stock, slung the strap over his shoulder, then grabbed his helmet. “How long?”
A man’s voice blared over the comms. “Egret, cut your engines now or you will be fired upon.”
The tactical screen to the left of Jade’s display showed three red dots converging upon the Egret. All three bore U.N. tags. Pulsing red circles emanated from the central ship as a shrill alert sounded.
“Range finding laser, weapons lock,” Jade said. “Eight minutes.”
“Aria,” began Teor, “I’m sorry.” He snapped his helmet in place. Crimson heads-up displays materialized on the faceplate.
Teor pressed against the wall, pulled down the seat and clicked into the harness. His hands had barely cleared the clasp before the Egret spun., kicking the floor up against his legs. His chest grew heavy and he gasped shallow breaths.
Urgent tones rang from the tactical as a beam flickered on the display.
Jade’s screen swirled silver. “Miss.”
The seat smashed into Teor’s back and he struggled for air, his eyes wide. Harness straps pressed the armor hard against his right rib cage as he grabbed onto the seat bottom. The pulse rifle swung out in front of him, seeming to levitate from his shoulder by its strap.
“I can’t—” Jade said.
A shrill tone from tactical with another flickering beam, then a thunderclap inside the cabin with a shockwave that knocked the wind out of Teor and banged the back of his helmet violently into the wall. Bright stars flashed in his vision and everything doubled. Cabin lights flickered twice. Teor looked up. The lights died. Consoles blinked in the darkness before emergency LEDs kicked in. White smoke sept across the floor.
Interior displays changed colors, red text, red graphics. Jade’s display was a vortex of quicksilver. “Reactor’s down, batteries only. I can maneuver—“
The second blast sent the Egret into a spin. A line of flame fanned past Teor’s head, but the fire changed, billowing in waves, liquid gold with sputtering yellow spheres. The flames bent slightly with the ship’s spin. Dead engines. Zero gee.
Teor looked up, watching the flashing fire groggily for a second, then snapped awake. Spilling out of his harness, he pushed away from the flame. Fire suppression sprayed clouds of dry chemicals overhead, sparkling and drifting like a snow globe. Teor tried to control his breathing. He looked left and right, sighted and latched onto a tether, pulled himself forward. When he found the cockpit pillar, he walked his hands down until he was behind it, crouching for cover.
“Four minutes,” Jade said.
Teor flicked the pulse rifle’s safety off. “Do you think…do you think Aria’s dead?”
The comms voice interrupted. “Egret, stand down. Prepare to be boarded.”
Pale blues interlaced Jade’s display. “Yes. I don’t think she’d let herself be captured.”
He glanced at the tactical. The two U.N. Goshawks burned at four gee towards them, decelerating to match velocity. “We were careful. I don’t understand…how’d they track us?”
“It was Aria. She’s always been overconfident. She probably didn’t bother to wipe the Resolve’s logs. Didn’t think she’d be stopped.”
“All occupants of the Egret,” the comms said, “on your knees, hands over your heads. Prepare for borders.”
Collision alert, flashed the main screen. Teor burrowed his left shoulder into the pillar and sighted his rifle towards the door. The ship rumbled with a rough clang and groaned as stresses settled. A hissing sound of an airlock pressurizing. He slipped his index finger over the trigger.
A dazzling ring of white hot fire erupted and the airlock door imploded, crumpling like paper. Teor winced as the afterimage burned a green ring in his vision, blinked, and pulled the trigger. Even though the pulse rifle was recoilless, it still pressed against his shoulder with each shot. Burning blue rounds simmered into the airlock entrance and he caught a glimpse of a red armored drone pulling back, then a spray of phosphorescent rounds shot back, shredding the pillar and perforating the ship hull. A surge of wind swelled from the cabin’s center, unbalancing him. He fired wildly towards the airlock. Staccato red muzzle flashes returned fire, overlapping in the smoke as multiple dark crimson shapes darted in from the airlock, then everything around Teor fragmented, impacts landing on his chest and leg like sledgehammers, his armor ablating, and he was spinning in the cabin’s debris field, colliding with metal and ruined chair foam. He squeezed a few shots off, scorching the floor, before a crushing blow to his chest robbed him of air. He tried to scream, but no sound came out. Globs of red spun from his chest as he turned end over end.
“It was a good fight, Teor,” Jade said. “Goodbye.”
Teor imagined there would be waves of explosions as Jade detonated the Egret, but there was the briefest sensation of white, and then nothing more.
* * * *
A man’s breathing punctuated the audio, short, rhythmic. Superimposed letters read: K.Anders, Aristarchus 08.02.80 11:43:21 Suitcam XV2. The scene bobbed with each footstep as a gray door grew nearer, then the door’s window pressed right up to the lens. Through the scuffed window angular shapes rested in pools of light. The camera backed away and panned down, looking at two red-gloved hands. One held a large black knife. The breathing sounds in the audio quickened. The other glove reached up to the door and a hydraulic whine churned as it slid sideways.
In the center of the room a blue tarp draped a hidden object. It grew larger until it filled the video, then a red-gloved hand grabbed a corner. The tip of the black knife bobbed into the frame, ready. In one quick motion the hand ripped back the cover. White metal, diamond-shaped craft.
“Son of a bitch,” the man said. “Rios, is this the other one?”
“It seems likely.”
“Okay, okay. I’m going to finish clearing the room, then head up to the bridge.”
The video froze. Back in the room, in front of the wall screen, four silhouettes moved. A brief murmur swept through the viewing audience before Senator Larson cleared his throat. “Mister Anders, that was you speaking in the video?”
Kyan looked up from his desk, addressing the panel. “Yes sir.”
“Can you tell us what we’re looking at here?”
“I’m in the Resolve’s hangar, and that’s the kinetic impactor. You can see she hasn’t modified it yet, but we found polymer and nanotube applicators in the back of the bay.”
“And the bridge?”
“It was empty. The ship’s computer was disabled, but we were able to restart it. The logs were intact up until the point when the computer was disabled.”
“Let’s see ‘em.” Larson swiveled back towards the screen.
The wall screen faded to a young man with spiked blonde hair wearing an orange flight suit. Embroidery on his pocket read G.Watts. Seated beside him was a brown-haired man, similar age. Both were smiling. “Copy, Egret,” the blonde said, “happy to help. We’ll be at your location in six hours.”
A female voice replied, “Thanks, Resolve. You’re a life saver.”
Back in the room Larson spoke over the video. “That’s the salvage ship you encountered?”
Kyan grimaced slightly. “The Resolve, yes.”
The video jumped six hours, shifting to a fisheye view of a parts room. Two men walked beside a wheeled repair robot, entered the airlock, and disappeared out of the Resolve’s camera range. Minutes ticked off on the video timestamp, then a black armored figure emerged from the airlock wielding a pistol. The Resolve’s computer spoke in a calm, measured tone, “Grayson, Riley, do you require assistance?” There was no response. The intruder proceeded through the parts room into the hangar bay.
The video paused and Larson said, “Aria Reyes.”
Kyan stared at the frozen image of the black figure with the gun. “She said her name was Watts. When I saw the log, I realized she’d killed Watts, stolen the Resolve.”
“And your ship’s computer killed her.”
Kyan tilted his head forward and leveled a stare. “Rios isn’t a computer. He’s officially been reclassed an emergent intelligence. He saved my life. Really, many peoples’s lives. Without him, Aria would still be out there with the second impactor.”
Larson folded his fingers. “Twenty-five days back to Earth with a computer that had just killed someone. Weren’t you worried that your ship was able to disregard its safeguards at will?”
“I gave the order, and Rios followed it, so I’m responsible. Are you worried being in the same room with me?”
Larson waved his hand. “That’s different.”
“I don’t have hard coded safeguards.”
“Ah, but you do, Mr. Anders. You have morals, heart.”
Kyan flexed his knuckles. “When it was down to the wire, I didn’t hesitate to give the order that killed that woman. But Rios…” His voice cracked. “Rios didn’t want to do it. I had to badger him into it.” He leaned back. “What does that say about us?”
“Look, Mr. Anders, no one’s questioning your intentions. Hell, you’re a hero. Aria was a subversive. But that’s really the point of these hearings. Space tech is outpacing regulation, and we’re putting unbelievably destructive technologies in the hands of anyone.”
“Not anyone. It takes years to get a pilot’s license. What kind of vetting allowed Aria to fly?”
A smile from Larson. “You’re for tighter controls on pilots, then?”
He glanced to the freeze frame. “Yeah. At least more thorough background checks.”
“And what about computer pilots? Strike that. Emergent intelligences.”
“I don’t see AIs trying to slam weapons into planets.”
Larson drummed his fingers, then pointed, thumb over closed knuckles. “I can see why you’d say that. Haven’t you ever wondered what happened to the Egret, Aria’s original ship?”
Kyan furrowed his brow. “After I transmitted the Resolve’s logs the U.N. intercepted and destroyed it.”
“That’s what made the news. But it was boarded, first, and there was a firefight. There were two subversives on board. One was Teor Sti, a low-level operative. The other was Jade, a grade six artificial intelligence.”
“Are you saying an AI can be radicalized?”
Senator Larson leaned forward. “Exactly.”
* * * *
Kyan found a quiet spot during lunch recess. Holding a small plate dappled with a few hors d’oeuvres, he tilted his left wrist to read his notifications. Thanks for defending me. I thought you did well handling the questions - Rios. Kyan gestured a response. Sure thing, buddy. Don’t listen to Larson. He’s a jerk. He swiped up the next message, and a video popped up. Harmony knelt beside a swaddled one-month-old. “Hi, Dad! We’ve been watching the hearing. You’re doing great. I think Jake had his first smile before. It was really cute. See you tomorrow.”
He smiled, glanced up from his watch, and surveyed the room. People in suits were milling about clustered in small groups grazing at the buffet. Footsteps sounded on the marble floor to his left. When he turned, a tall sandy-haired man wearing a camel blazer walked straight towards him. The man leaned forward with a smile and said, “I hoped I’d catch you.”
For a moment, Kyan thought the man looked like an actor, a bit too polished to be in this setting. Then he realized he was famous, he had seen him before. Kyan switched the plate to his left hand and extended his right at the same time the man did. “You’re James Hayden.”
“That’s right,” James said. “And you’re Kyan Anders. I’ve wanted to shake your hand and buy you a drink for months now.” His handshake was firm and he smiled with his eyes. “I know, you probably get that a lot.”
“It’s a bit surreal.”
“Yeah.” He thumbed towards the chambers. “You done for the day?”
He sighed. “I am. Glad that’s over. Larson was getting under my skin.”
James chuckled. “Congress has a long history of putting the least qualified people in charge of tech committees. Anyway, I saw the testimony. I don’t know why Larson was all over you. It’s already trending negatively.” He waved a dismissing hand. “It’ll just bite him in the ass.”
Kyan evaluated him for a second. “Are you testifying?”
“Two o’clock.” He held up four fingers. “Fourth time before Congress. The Riggs drive really freaks them out. There’s only so many ways they can ask the same questions.”
Kyan raised his eyebrows. “I saw your Mars flight. What’s it…what’s it like, flying near light speed?”
James nodded, tilted his head. “That’s a tough question to answer. The only way to know is to sit behind the stick. It’s a bit like skydiving in that you’re not really in control. You jump out of the plane and accelerate at a speed that seems way too fast for your senses, then have faith in your gear to land you safely. There’s no changing your mind once you jump.”
“Yeah, I don’t think I’d have the stomach for that.”
“You sure? We’re moving into long range test flights and could use pilots with outer system experience.”
Kyan chuckled, but James kept a level smile. Kyan raised his eyebrows. “Wait, you’re serious?”
He scratched his chin. “I’m no test pilot.”
“You took a Meerkat into combat with nothing but guts and a couple of imaging drones, smashed the hell out of it, flew both ships back. Flying isn’t the hard part about being a test pilot. It’s knowing the right thing to do when everything goes south.” James read him for a second. “You’re probably twenty years into your career, right?”
“Astronautics degree with astronomy minor. You mentioned it in your deposition.” He considered him for a second. “I think you’re like me, dreaming of something bigger, reaching for it, trying to get as far out as you can. Right now that’s the outer system, but within five years it’s all going to open up. The question is, where do you want to be when it does?”
Kyan glanced to the side and took a deep breath through his nose. He looked back to James. “I’ll give you a hand, that’s a pretty good pitch.” James waited, smiling. “You’re right, you know, and if I was twenty-two, no family yet, I’d sign up in a heartbeat. But now, watching my granddaughter grow up is worth more to me than all of the stars.”
James nodded, reached into his jacket, and produced a white card. “I understand. If you change your mind, give me a call.”
Kyan accepted it. The card had a fine texture and felt like real card stock. Businesscard, very vintage. James Hayden, Chief Technical Officer, Hayden-Pratt. Black ink swirled in an elliptical line around his thumb and the word encoded faded into the lower corner. He pressed lightly and circular icons embossed themselves alongside Jame’s name, options to direct call or message. The words keep dreaming big appeared in script letters. He eased up the pressure and the ink sank back into the paper.
“Thanks.” He tucked the card into his pocket.
James extended his hand. “It was great meeting you, Kyan.”
“Likewise.” Kyan shook his hand and smiled, then watched as James walked away.