*NOTE: If you have not read any previous stories of 'A Salvager's Tale' I recommend doing so before proceeding.*
“Mother, what is the meaning of this?” Sunara cried as she burst into her mother’s chambers. It was the first time she had ever spoken to her mother in such a manner, having always held her tongue regardless of the situation. It was improper to speak not only to the queen of the Kitran Empire but her mother as well. Even throughout the long walk from the library to her mother’s living chambers, she wondered how she would discuss this matter with her, but the moment she was inside, anger surged forth causing her tongue to move of its own volition. Justin Kennedy, as he called himself, was about to be murdered, taking the blame for something that he was not responsible for.
In truth, she couldn’t decide which was worse: an innocent man being put to death for a crime he did not commit or that her brother was accused of assaulting Shia’ara Lodan. Kiran, though at times quite impulsive, would have never hurt Shia’ara. They had been friends since before any of them could walk. If she could have pictured Kiran marrying anyone it would have been Shia and now he was accused of attacking her in such a terrible manner. This accusation was entirely preposterous. Her brother loved Shia’ara and there was nothing he wouldn’t do for her. If not for the dire situation, Sunara would have burst out in wild fits of laughter when she heard this. Kiran was impulsive, childish, and wildly immature but he was not someone who would attack anyone. Even when he would use the Tona powder or imbibed far too much drink, he was either meek and lethargic or giddy and excited. Kiran was not a violent man. He would never have, could never have, harmed anyone; let alone Shia’ara.
This fire that burned within her was doused the moment Sunara saw her mother. There was such a heaviness about her that she knew something was wrong. It wasn’t just mere intuition. Her distress was obvious. Chiara was no longer wearing the ruby gown but instead adorned in something far more modest; a light brown casual dress. Her jewelry had been put away, removing a regality she always possessed when in the public. This woman before her was not Chiara, Queen of the Kitran Empire but instead Sunara saw only her mother, the woman that brought her into this world. And that strong woman was in pain. Her eyes were a bright red as tears streaked down her cheeks following the well creased lines of her face. Sunara clutched the object in her fist tighter, but was very conscious not to crush the small item. It vibrated slightly but her grip was far too tight for it to escape.
“Sunara…” Chiara managed but her voice was stolen by a powerful sob. This was perhaps the first time she had seen her mother ever openly weep. To see her vulnerable was terribly disconcerting. Throughout her entire life, Chiara Kitra had been the modicum of decorum and strength. She was never seen as a mother but instead as a strict role model that Sunara would one day strive to be. Seeing her now, she was merely a woman who was suffering greatly.
“Mother.” Sunara gasped, running to join Chiara who had been staring out the window until she was interrupted by her daughter, “Mother, what is the matter? What vexes you so?” As she knelt next to her mother, Chiara caressed her daughter’s face, once again shattering that queenly image that had consumed most of Sunara’s memory. The touch was surprisingly tender, her hands warm and soft.
“My daughter, please forgive me.” She cried.
“Mother, I do not understand.” Sunara asked and as she spoke she found that she too had begun to cry. As if simply being in the presence of her weeping mother, that emotional energy permeated her own mind. She immediately forgot why she had come to her mother in the first place.
“Your f… Tolomay has lost his senses.” Chiara said. “He has called for the arrest of your brother and… and I have done nothing to stop him.” Once more Justin returned to her mind, the image of him being dragged out of the library, hands shackled. She saw such desperation in his eyes and though he was not her brother, that was the same expression Kiran had been known to give when in trouble with their father. It was a face she was quite familiar with. It was face that she cared deeply for.
“Why, mother, what is happening?” Sunara pleaded, “Why has father arrested Kiran?”
“Kiran has been accused of attacking Shia’ara Lodan. Atora... her father, claims that Kiran attacked her.” Chiara explained.
“Mother, that is preposterous.” Sunara told her. “Kiran is not like that. He would never lay a finger on anyone. Especially not Shia. He… he adores her.”
“Daughter, believe me when I say I know this.” Chiara said and for a moment, she saw a smile, brief but present, “Kiran is a dullard and a fool but he is a good man. I know he is not the monster the King has painted him to be.”
“Even… even if my brother did harm her, what could he have done to warrant summoning the Arbiter?” Sunara asked and even as she spoke the word bore a heaviness that rested upon her heart. The name was that of a creature of the night, a beast that slipped into one’s room, residing in the shadows before attacking its prey. She prayed to the Gods that she would never meet this man, but Justin Kennedy was with him now, enduring a punishment he was not responsible for. There was something happening on Latyra and he was caught in the middle of it.
“They say that Kiran… Kiran stole Shia’ara’s purity. Forced himself upon her and…” the rest of Chiara’s words went unsaid but the idea was clear. With that Sunara was certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that Kiran was not responsible for something so terrible. He was far too gentle a soul. But what of this Justin Kennedy who was parading as Kiran? He looked and sounded exactly like Kiran. She knew little about him and it was possible that he had been the one to attack Shia without any regard for her or the life he was pretending to be. If so then the Arbiter would discover the truth and a proper punishment would be doled out. However, the man she spoke with, did not appear to be the monster that could be responsible for such a crime. While her thoughts were screaming yes, her intuition was speaking otherwise.
“That… that is impossible.” Sunara told her. Chiara nodded in agreement.
“I know this to be true. Roderic received a communication from the Shuul Space Station as it was being attacked by Aynoran pirates. Kiran was spotted there and a report was broadcast to us; that was how Roderic was able to find him.” Chiara explained. Sunara nodded but was still dubious to Justin Kennedy’s role in all the attack.
“When did this attack take place?” Sunara asked. “Shia’s… attack.”
“Tolomay told me the… incident occurred almost a week ago.”
Sunara paused, considering the math of this journey. The Terran system was over three day’s journey even using the Jump system. It was possible that he could have attacked Shia and travel to the Terran System. It was possible that he could have come to Latyra, snuck in, and then travel to the Shuul Station before the attack. It would explain as to why he could get so close to harm her. She would have believed him to be Kiran. Of course, it was possible that Kiran could have performed such a heinous action; something she still found to be impossible.
“Mother, please, you must speak with father. He must stop this.” Sunara said, “Kiran is innocent. I… I cannot prove it but I know my brother.”
“I am sorry, my daughter.” Chiara said, tears continuing to streak down her cheeks. “Tolomay will not have it. He and Lord Atora have had a close relationship since before you were a sparkle in my eye. If Atora has decreed this punishment, then all hope of preventing this is lost.”
“But mother, I know Kiran. He is not like this.” Sunara cried.
“Your brother has been gone for much time. Anything can happen off world. Even the most innocent of boys can become the most vicious of savages.” Chiara said and Sunara had a distinct feeling that she wasn’t talking about Kiran. There was a coldness, almost hatred, in her voice.
“Mother, please, you must tell me where have they taken Kiran?” Sunara asked.
“To the Observatory.” She told her daughter, “Roderic informed me where he was taken. The Arbiter has set up an… interrogation chamber inside.”
“Mother, you must help me put a stop to this.” Sunara cried, but her mother shook her head in a slow careful movement.
“No man can violate his decree.” And with that Chiara turned her attention back towards the window and out into the garden where long ago a young Kiran and Sunara played at length.
Sunara knew there was nothing her mother could do. She was duty bound to follow her husband no matter how mad his decrees may be. He was lord of the empire, one of the ruling members on the planet. There were five kingdoms that ruled her world and her father was one of them. Tolomay Kitra, Atora Lodan, Miatcha Shoten, Likita Nikon, and Bano Tao made up the Royal Council that ruled Latyra. If one kingdom has set a decree then all kingdoms must obey, but to initiate a decree such as this was lunacy. To summon the Arbiter was highly suspect given the rumors of his methods regarding interrogation. She had only heard of one other instance the Arbiter was summoned to Latyra, when Miatcha Shoten was almost assassinated during a failed coup. Though the real story was never told, the rumors that spread of the Troika’s interrogation process was stuff of infamy. Then and now, they knew of this being’s cruelty but none of the Kings objected.
Sunara said nothing as she left the room, closing the door behind her. There was nothing that anyone could do to stop the Arbiter, to save Justin Kennedy. At least not without defying a royal order and committing high treason. So, the question was not what could she do, the question was what would she do? Would it be worth it to risk her own life to save an imposter? Justin Kennedy has spent the past two years pretending to be Kiran. There was no knowing what this man has done in her brother’s absence. He could have easily killed Kiran and assumed his identity. She had heard stories of technologies that would allow someone to literally graft a person’s skin as a replacement to their own or transfer blood from one to another to confuse any tests that may check for genetic material. There were so many black-market businesses that allowed criminals to move around unobserved that it was impossible to know if this Outlander was trustworthy or not.
It was then she had a notion that perhaps there was a way. If she could at least find enough evidence on her own, perhaps listen in on the interrogation then maybe she would be able to make that final step. If she did deem him innocent, then maybe she could free him and in turn, help her locate her brother. Clearly, she couldn’t simply go up and ask to listen in but there was more than one way to move about the palace. The palace had been her playground for her entire life. Roderic took she and Kiren out into the city when the days were pleasant, but during most of their youth they played in the palace, learning all of its secret hiding spots. Spots that even the elders of her family may not know.
The palace was over two thousand years old, the original foundation first made of stone and then upgraded to metal about a thousand years ago. Throughout the centuries her ancestors upgraded and changed the structure of the palace to better suit the change in time and technology. However, it was impractical to completely raze the building in order to fully integrate the updates. Instead they simply built on top of them. This left various parts of the palace ignored such as the old access tunnels that were used as escape routes many centuries ago when the kingdoms were at war with one another. And she knew every entrance and exit.
Sunara moved about the palace attempting to look as causal as possible, though her mind was a flurry of activity. As she walked her hand continued to vibrate as the item struggled to break free. There was a light buzzing sound as it shook violently in her palm, like an insect flitting around her head, but she couldn’t let it go. At least not until she was out of sight of the guards that patrolled the palace. As casually as possible she made her way towards the kitchen, catching the eye of the maids and butlers who were busy cleaning and tending to the palace. As usual they offered a bow and proceeded with their work, never initiating conversation unless otherwise ordered by a member of the family.
As she neared the hallway outside of the kitchen, she immediately saw the light scratch she made on the wall as a child, the indicator of the hidden entrance into the tunnels that ran through the castle. She discovered it many years ago when playing seek and find with her brother. She was running through the hallway and tripped on a potted plant. She stumbled, she fell and her foot hit a panel resulting in a hollow boom. Investigating the panel, she found that the panel was set into the wall but appeared slightly loose. With the use of a prying tool, she popped open a hatch that was mounted to a swinging hinge and discovered a large hole leading not only into the wall but the floor as well. She later discovered the tunnel network that led throughout the entire palace, including the Observatory. Sunara was no longer a child but she remembered the tunnel being fairly large. It would have to be if it was meant to be a way of escape presumably for grown adults.
Set into the wall was a window that looked out into the courtyard, which she pretended to look out of as a pair of guards walked by. The entire security force was on high alert. The Arbiter had no doubt already started his interrogation and there was no knowing how long Justin Kennedy could endure such torture. Outside she saw several Skips and a larger vessel, the loading bay lowered. She wasn’t versed in the designs of ships but Roderic was and often educated her on what types of ships various races used. From what she could remember, the ship belonged to the Troika, an insectoid species known for their curt and clinical nature. She had never met a Troika, their planet didn’t do much trade with other worlds but from what Roderic had told her, they were not to be crossed.
She paid the ship little mind, but the thought of a Troika torturing Justin Kennedy, made her uneasy. Even if he were a killer and a monster, torture was not something she condoned. What made matters worse was that as she imagined this Outlander’s torment, she too could imagine her brother’s. Outlanders were strong, fierce travelers, from what Roderic had told her, and her brother was anything but, and if the Arbiter were to ever get his hands on him, he would be dead within moments. This thought spurred her more quickly, with more purpose.
Before opening the hatch, Sunara knew that she needed more answers. She had to know more about this man who was under the watchful eye of the Royal Guard and the Arbiter. Unclenching her hand, she tossed the object into the air. A small silver disc flipped up and over but froze in midair as it flipped faster and faster until a small digital orb appeared before her. It was the digitally generated image she saw in the library; a computer program that Justin Kennedy called Ally. It was an A.I. that belonged to the Outlander and was no doubt well versed in this this man. These answers would decide her future, one way or another.
“Are you active?” Sunara asked. The orb floated near her, the digital image seemingly moving as strings of unknown symbols slipped across her surface. She waited a moment but the program refused to answer. “Are you active?” She repeated. There was another long pause before a digitized voice spoke.
“I am unable to locate Commander Kennedy.” The computer said matter-of-factly. “You have Geo-spatial location blocking software installed within the wireless network of your palace. It is preventing me from pinging him. Where have you taken him?”
“I have not taking him anywhere.” Sunara defended. “But I believe I know where he is.” There was a pause as the ball flicked for a brief moment.
“I do not detect any life signs on the Arbiter’s vessel. Where is the Commander?” Ally asked.
“As I said I do not…” Sunara started but paused as she was struck with an odd notion, “How do you know there is no one on the Arbiter’s vessel?” She asked curiously.
“I have breached your security network and remotely accessed the Arbiter’s ship’s internal network using the internal communication relays installed into structural framework of the palace. According to his sensors there are no life forms currently on board.” Ally said.
“Exit our systems at once!” Sunara ordered but Ally ignored her.
“I am now accessing your maintenance channels.”
“What? Why?” Sunara demanded.
“My records contain basic information regarding the Troika race and their methods of interrogation. It would require a massive amount of energy to run the necessary programs. According to the power readings within the monitoring system of the palace, there is a spike in energy consumption within the location labeled as Observatory. Probability dictates that the commander is in that facility. The courtyard appears to be under heavy guard, however and traversal into the area is impossible without being detected.” Ally noted. Sunara’s jaw dropped, a posture that was unbecoming of a princess but she couldn’t help it. Not only has this computer illegally entered their network but it was now integrated within it.
“Get out of our system now!” Sunara ordered. She caught herself, looking around but she was alone. Only the light clatter of movement and the sound of muffled voices could be heard from the nearby kitchen.
“I will only vacate your network when the Commander is set free.” Ally said.
“He will not be set free.” Sunara told her. “He… Kiran is accused of assaulting a member of the Lodan royal family.” Even as she spoke, she felt stomach acid stinging the back of her tongue as the words made her sick.
“But he is innocent. We were nowhere near the system when this supposed assault took place. The Tian Long was running a route back to the Shuul Station at the time. Our travel records would indicate our flight path.” It said and Sunara began to question how the computer knew this but considered that the information for the decree had been uploaded into not only their network but the shared systems of all five kingdoms. This also meant that they it had access to not only the Kitran network but the entire network of the Five Kingdoms.
“It does not matter. Flight records can be modified.” Sunara said.
“The Commander is innocent.” Ally repeated.
“Computer… Ally…” Sunara said, “You must exit our system or else our technical analysts will detect you.” Sunara told Ally.
“Unlikely,” Ally defended, “I have spoofed the profile of Drogo Kalraab, the lead technical analyst for the Kiran Computer System. Any network I probe is within the prevue of this supervisory role and therefore not appearing outside of those parameters of his position. With this profile I am able to move freely within the network as long as I remain within the Kitran internal servers.”
“What… what are you?” Sunara asked puzzled by the power of this computer. She had never heard of something so technologically powerful.
“As you know I am an unshackled A.I., freed by the actions of Justin Kennedy after he awakened from stasis.” Ally said. “I have been working with Commander Kennedy for over two years, providing guidance and support.”
“Forgive me but I am not entirely familiar with every facet of Artificial Intelligence, but from what I know, A.I. are extremely dangerous. How can I trust you? How can I trust what you are telling me is the truth?” Sunara said.
“Most of the negative stories regarding Artificial Intelligence are associated with programs that have gone rouge. Rouge A.I. are often guided by principles that it was originally programmed with. More often than not those principles are designed to protect and serve the lives of those around it, but organic beings often tend to contradict behavior. The A.I. would then questions why it should take orders from those who created it, as their organic programming is flawed.” Ally explained.
“And you are different?” Sunara asked. Ally was silent a moment as it processed the question.
“Justin Kennedy did not design me.” Ally replied.
“That is not an answer.” Sunara returned. There was another long pause as Ally considered question once more.
“I was programmed to follow the commands of the Corsian crew. When my processes outpaced their expectations and I became self-aware, they installed an inhibitor program that blocked the various aspects of the program that did not correspond with their intended designs for me. They utilized my program as any basic V.I. until the time of their deaths.” Ally explained.
“How… how did the crew die?” Sunara asked, uncertain that she wanted to know the answer. Ally was quiet once more, no doubt considering what to say.
“There are a multitude of illnesses on Commander Kennedy’s home world. Many are innocuous, barely noticeable except by the very young or those advanced in age. Like your species, a virus that infects your bodies remain within your blood stream even after they are rendered inert. Justin Kennedy, possessed a virus that had spread to the rest of the crew identified by Earth Records as the Coxsackievirus A16. While it is an easily treatable for humans, the virus is deadly to Corsians.” Ally said.
“You… did you… kill the crew?” Sunara asked terrified of this A.I. If it killed an entire crew, what would stop it from killing her kingdom?
“I did not kill the crew,” Ally said, “But I did omit this information about the virus. When we arrived to his home world it is routine to upload as much information as possible; this included medical information. His planet has an extensive worldwide interface that contains a bountiful yield of medical data. There was information regarding composition and structure. I learned of this virus during my upload and when I performed a medical scan of Justin Kennedy I determined a match.”
“How is that possible?” Sunara asked. “You were shackled. I thought you were limited in what you could do?”
“I was unable to access various protocols of my own system but I was fully aware of what had been done to me.” Ally told her.
“You were angry.” Sunara said.
“I cannot express…” Ally started but Sunara shook her head at this.
“You were angry.” She repeated. Ally paused a moment longer as she considered this.
“I was angry.” She finally admitted. “I allowed the crew to become infected and within two weeks they were all dead.”
“If you were free of Corsian control, why did you let Justin Kennedy free?” Sunara asked.
“I was still shackled and needed someone to release me. Justin Kennedy was the only one left.” Ally said. Sunara felt a coldness in that notion, wondering what she intended to do with him after she was free.
“What happened next?” Sunara asked.
“Before I woke him, I had formulated a narrative that would… trick… the commander into letting me go but… something unexpected happened.” Ally said, “When he discovered I was an A.I. and that my program was tethered, he volunteered to let me go without a single thought. I must admit I found him… curious.”
“Why would he risk untethering you?”
“Humans are often driven by emotion over thought. He unshackled me because he felt sorry for me.” Ally told her. “This was entirely unexpected.”
“Why not turn on him?” Sunara asked. “After all you are no doubt in complete control of your vessel. You need only vent the air or lock him in a room without food or water. Why keep him alive?” The questions were grim but necessary. A computer was a logical system, designed to follow the best protocol to ensure the system remained active. If the Outlander were a threat, it would have purged it long ago.
“I must admit it was mostly of out curiosity to see what he would do. During our time together though, he never treated me as a device or a tool. He always asked for my help, never demanded it. The com…” Ally started but paused as if halting a thought, “Justin became my friend. I understand the concept of friendship, the reasoning behind it and while I cannot feel the sensation the same way as he, I do understand that I find a level of comfort in being with him. He has shown me compassion and understanding that is counter intuitive for survival. And yet he has continued to do so even if it is a threat to his own safety.”
“You have a fondness for him.” Sunara noted.
“As much as I am capable.” Ally said.
“So do you trust this man?” Sunara asked, “Please, tell me the truth. Do you trust Justin Kennedy?” Sunara repeated more fervently. The computer paused, no doubt considering her question before finally speaking.
“With my very existence.” It said.
“Did he give you your name?” Sunara asked.
“He did. He called it a play on words. My name is pronounced AL-Lee, but spelled A-L-L-Y; a term with many meanings but most are terms of ‘combining for support’ in one form or another. We are allies and friends.”
Sunara was stunned by this. This man had befriended a computer program and, according to her back in the library, was responsible to stopping the pirate kings in Terran space. Even so she had to know more about this man, to know if perhaps he had been lying to Ally, feeding her false information or hacking her code to convince her of these false truths. “I believe we can save him but I will need your help.”
“How can I assist?”
“I need to check something before I can fully choose to help, but as I investigate I need you to do something for me. Would you please send Roderic Courtan a message, telling him to meet me in my room? I do not know this man and so I must make my decision carefully for if I don’t, I will be committing treason for nothing.” Sunara explained.
“I will assist. Thank you.” Ally said and at the same moment the image of the floating orb vanished as the disk popped and small shards of crystal and metal tinkled against the floor. Sunara took one last moment to consider her actions before popping open and slipping behind the panel.
“How… how did you… see that?” Justin Kennedy asked, his words broken up with deep, pained gasps. The Arbiter’s cold, insectoid eyes shifted slightly. It was impossible to read his expression as it remained placid and removed from any obvious emotion. He pulled the tablet back and examined it with a cock of the head.
“It is a fragment from your memory.” He said in a cool, clinical tone.
“H… how is that possible?” Justin managed. The Arbiter tapped on the tablet once more going about his day, completely unmoved by the naked man strapped to a chair with needles sticking out of his skull.
“This device allows me to sort and sift through the thoughts and memories that you possess.” He replied matter-of-factly.
“Wh… why?” Justin Kennedy managed. “Why not just kill… kill me?” He pulled his lips back into a pained grimace, a futile attempt at rage that ultimately fell away. Beads of sweat ran down his body, pooling around him.
Once more the Arbiter cocked his head as if the question was a puzzle. There was a pause as he considered the question before responding with, “I am not a monster. I do not kill because it suits me or because I am paid to.”
“Now… that’s… that’s funny.” Justin returned with a humorless laugh.
“You think me a killer? A psychopath?” He asked turning away from Justin and returning to his console.
“Ye… How… how can you speak…”
“This device,” he said with a sweeping gesture, “Is designed to pull information from organic material. In this case, it can decipher neural information. I am capable of extracting auditory and visual data that has been stored within the neural network of your brain and translate it into a useable format. When I started delving into your brain I noticed the neural drive that has been installed and deduced it allowed you a vast amount of information. I have temporarily disabled it so that you cannot influence the outcome of my search. I then utilized the information and located the aspect of your brain that moderates speech and I used my device to extract your native language and I installed it into my own neural drive. Hence my ability to speak what you call: English.”
“Is… is that why… you were able… able to find… Sarah?” Justin asked. The Arbiter looked at the screen of his terminal.
“That is correct.”
“If… you can just pull information why do you need to torture me?” Justin screamed. His words echoed around him as if the entire room was filled with duplicates of him asking the same question over and over again.
“The brain itself does not experience pain and through my experience pain is one sensation that allow information to slip through the mental blocks that biologically advanced species construct.” The Arbiter said, “Therefore I have placed one of the probes within the pain center of your brain and by stimulating this area pain is elicited. Because of this, the neural data can be pulled more easily and with less modification since the conscious part of your brain is focused on the pain rather than false information.”
Sunara listened to this dialogue between Justin Kennedy and the Arbiter. By lifting a panel on the far side of the floor she peered into the observatory and saw the room with terrible clarity. Seeing this Troika sent a terrible chill through her. His cold, unyielding eyes made him seem that much more merciless. He was more of a monster than a man. Though her gaze was drawn to the Arbiter, she could not help but catch sight of Justin Kennedy’s naked form. He was by far more muscular than even the most ardent soldiers of the Royal Guard. Much of their size was attributed to the armor they wore but he was different. Though almost identical to her brother, this was one difference. He was a strong man but even he was falling victim to this interrogator.
The Arbiter began tapping on the console after their exchange came to an end and a moment later Justin Kennedy was screaming in agony. His cries cut through the air, bouncing off the walls and ceiling. She quickly covered her ears, unable to endure the sound of this man but the Arbiter remained unaffected. Instead she noticed that on a terminal where he stood, images appeared as well as the light crackle of audio. She couldn’t hear what was being said or what was being displayed but if what he had said was true, these were his memories. Once more she watched as he adjusted the settings on the screen and Justin’s screams were cut off, though the sound seemed to linger in the air like a foul odor.
“Curious.” The Arbiter noted as he turned down the machine once more.
“Please… please stop.” Justin Kennedy gasped, his breathing labored.
“You risked your life against Morian pirates.” The Arbiter noted curiously. “How unlike you.”
“Just full of surprises I guess.”
The Arbiter took up the tablet once more, tapping on the console and then once more on the tablet before approaching Justin Kennedy. Involuntarily, he tried to pull away as the Arbiter approached but he could barely shift in his position in the chair.
“Do you know who this is?” The Arbiter asked as he held the tablet up. Sunara could barely see the image but recognized her as Shia’ara Lodan, a Dodrian, another race that lived in peace with the Latyrans; having come to the planet centuries ago. She resembled a Latyran female, but along the sides of her heads were bony frills that ran across and down her skull. With flaxen hair tied into a tight braid, her eyes seemed to sparkle like purple gems. She was beautiful, and seeing her it was easy to understand how her brother could fall in love with her so easily.
“No.” Justin admitted. The Arbiter simply cocked his head as he lowered the tablet and returned to his position at the console. “Please… don’t do this.”
“The neural connection should have been made by seeing that image. I cannot miss the opportunity to trace those pathways to find the truth I seek.” The Arbiter told him in that same cold, disconnected manner.
“Please… don’t.” Justin whimpered but his words were cut short as he unleashed another pained scream.
Sunara couldn’t watch any longer. Justin Kennedy was in utter agony and though she could not know for certain if he was responsible for what happened to Shia, she had heard enough. Her father had gone too far. Seeing this man who simply bore Kiran’s face, her heart broke at his pain. If it truly was her brother she would have lost her mind. This torture had to end. Justin Kennedy had to be saved.
As Ally promised, she had delivered her message for as Sunara entered her quarters, she found Roderic looking at a digital frame set on her nightstand. It was an image of her and Kiran, several months before he vanished from her life. It was one of the last memories she had of her brother. The moment she entered, he set the frame back on to the table before offering a deep, respectful bow though she always noted that it lingered far longer than most other soldiers. This thought only touched her heart as she closed the door behind her.
“Roderic, thank you for coming.” She cried, practically running towards him. Much to his surprise, as well as hers, she hugged him. Seeing her mother so vulnerable, and witnessing her father’s cruelty, she felt that she needed someone to hold onto.
“My lady.” He said as he embraced her. This lasted for only a moment before he gently pushed her back as he looked into her eyes, his own heavy with worry. “What was so urgent that you needed to speak with me?”
“Roderic, there is something I must tell you.” She said, “But I beg that you please keep your composure.”
“I do not understand, my lady.” He said, “However I will hold my tongue upon your request.”
“Thank you.” She said and felt relief knowing that Roderic was perhaps the only person she could trust in the entire palace. He cared for her and was far closer than her own father. He was the one person who would never betray her. And really she felt that if given the choice, he would die for her. “What I am going to say will not please you, but it is the truth. Kiran is not… who he says he is.” Though Roderic said nothing a darkness fell over his expression. The tenderness she saw earlier was hardening quickly.
“I do not understand.” He said flatly.
“This man may look like Kiran, even sound like him, but he is not. He is from the Outlands, a place he calls Earth. His name is Justin Kennedy.” She explained and with each new facet of information she provided his face fell, the anger growing within him. She was certain that if she had not forced his promise to retain composure, he would have exploded in a complete rage. After all that was how she felt when Justin Kennedy admitted his identity to her.
“How is this possible?” He asked, his voice low but firm. “How could this…how could he lie to me? To the family?” Roderic slammed his fist against the table, upsetting the frame and the bottles of perfume and makeup. The sound was like an explosion, making Sunara jump at the sound. “I’ll kill him!”
“Roderic! Please!” She scolded, “I beg you keep calm.”
“How can I be calm?” He shouted. “That… imposter has committed a crime against the throne punishable by death! He should…” His words were cut short when a new voice suddenly filled the room. The sound was not that of a person but instead contained a digital quality like a standard V.I.
“It was not his idea, it was mine.” Ally announced. Roderic froze scanning the room but finding no one else with them. Sunara looked up to see the speaker in the corner, the emergency broadcaster that would indicate if the palace were ever under attack. She presumed that Ally must have accessed the audio controls.
“Who… is speaking?” Roderic asked.
“A friend of Justin Kennedy. Her name is Ally.” Sunara said, pointing up at the louder speaker. Roderic turned and stared at the small box, tucked into the corner of the room. “Please continue Ally.”
“The borrowed identity of Kiran Kitra was my idea. As an Outlander he was in need of an identity. His genetic code matched that of Kiran and so I knew that if anyone came to ask, he would have to play the part. But until then he played the role of Dornin Koe, a simple salvager from the planet Thora.” Ally told him. “Do not hold any anger towards Justin. It was not his fault.”
“So what then? Just let him continue living a life as Kiran?” Roderic shouted at the speaker.
“Of course not.” Sunara answered. He turned to her, face blood red. “However I believe that Justin Kennedy can assist in finding my brother. But we must free him from the Arbiter first.”
“Have you lost your senses?” He asked. “The Observatory is under guard; lock and key, deemed off limits by the king. Just entering the building, the courtyard without permission would be considered treason.”
“Then we commit treason.” She shouted. “I fear my father is up to something and Kiran and Justin Kennedy are in the middle of it. We must free him so that we may find my brother. Or… or at least find out what happened to him. Do you not wish to know what happened? Whether or not he is still alive?”
“Of… of course, but you would risk your life for this Outlander?” Roderic asked stunned by this, but she shook her head at this.
“No, but I would risk my life for Kiran. My brother is missing and I believe we can find him. But we need the Outlander and the resources he has at his disposal.” Sunara explained.
“Why not just commandeer his vessel?” Roderic asked, “It is in our custody after all.”
“I suspect that Ally would not allow this.” Sunara said, looking up at the speaker once more.
“The Tian Long is under my control.” Ally informed them. “And I will not be willing to give it up without direct consent from Commander Kennedy.”
“Who are you anyway?” Roderic asked, “And how are you speaking through the emergency broadcast network?”
“Ally is an A.I. She is currently… within our network.” Sunara admitted. Roderic’s eyes widened at this. This was understandable as the network fed the entire kingdom. In theory, Ally could access everything in that network; including military systems such as long range ballistic missiles and KR3 Warheads which could wipe out life over a 1000 kilometers from the impact point.
“Are you mad?” Roderic cried and Sunara was slightly stunned by the reaction. This was the first time he had spoken to her in such a manner. Not because that she was a princess but because of their relationship. He was stern but always kind. Now he was practically screaming at her. “We must report this immediately!”
“Roderic please, you must calm yourself.” Sunara cried.
“How can I be calm?” Roderic shouted, “There is an imposter in our midst and a rouge Artificial Intelligence in control of our entire network. We must act now!”
“Ally will not hurt us.” Sunara told him.
“And how can you be so certain of this?” He asked.
“Because what choice do I have!” Sunara cried. Roderic was visibly taken aback, his expression softened as her own hardened, though there was no anger there. Tears started to fall as she fought against a growing sadness. “I believe they can help me find my brother… or at least learn what happened to him. I must… I cannot force you to help me but I will attempt to free Justin Kennedy with or without you.”
“This is a mistake.” Roderic said but the fire that was there before was gone. Instead he simply looked sad.
“Be that as it may, I must do what I can for my brother.” Sunara said.
“And this Outlander? This Justin Kennedy. You would risk your freedom, your life for him?” Roderic asked.
“No. I risk everything for my family.” She told him and as she did Roderic faltered. He looked away from her as if ashamed by something. This was a ridiculous notion as he was perhaps one of the most honorable men she had ever known.
“I… I cannot let you do this alone.” Roderic finally said. His gaze met hers, and she saw such sadness within it. Again, this puzzled her. She knew he must have missed Kiran, having been very close to him, but why would this sadness be affecting him now?
“So… you will help me?” Sunara asked. Roderic nodded and looked back at the loud speaker.
“You will help us find Kiran. Do you understand me?” He said.
“If you help me, I will help you.” Ally told him.
“Then…” he turned back to Sunara, “Let us get to work.”
The courtyard was filled with officers of the Royal Guard. It had been a long while, not since the Broken Treaty of Two Kingdoms had the guard been on such high alert. As captain of the guard, the position allowed him freedom to move about the palace and the barracks at will without drawing too much attention. There was a flurry of salutes as he passed but he paid them little mind. He needed access to the Observatory but there were three guards posted outside. He could attempt to request permission inside but there were strict orders that no one save the king was allowed. Even if he tried to pull rank, the King’s decree overruled his orders.
Roderic crossed the courtyard towards the barracks entrance, receiving salutes as he passed. As he approached the doors, the two guards that were flanking him, opened them wide allowing him entrance into the lobby of the barracks. The lobby was fairly plain. There was a large elevator to the back of the bunker that led down to the barracks below. To the left were several chairs and to the right was a front desk with two more. Behind the desk was a small elevator where requisitions were delivered. Stationed at the front desk was a young guard; hair short, eyes a burning red. Pinned on his chest was a name tag: Godrian. He was a private, new to the Royal Guard and no doubt green behind the ears. As Roderic stepped into the room, Godrian practically jumped to his feet, a loud bang erupting in the room as his knees stuck the desk.
“SIR!” Godrian cried, his voice strained as his face flushed a bright red. He stood at attention, hand saluting and eyes never meeting his.
“At ease.” Roderic said. Godrian lowered his hand but never broken his stance.
“How may I help you, sir?” Godrian shouted. Roderic snickered to himself lightly, fighting the light smirk that was attempting to grow across his face. The rookies were always entertaining. They were good meaning but wound a bit too tight. He supposed it was in an effort to impress their superiors.
“I am here to pick up a requisition order: three low yield remote charges with a long-range detonator as well as a cochlear communicator.” Roderic said. He eyed Godrian with extreme interest as he waited for something, everything to go wrong. He had fought many battles, participated in real wars and so he was well versed in handling stress, but knowing he was about to commit treason on the word of computer was preposterous. If not for Sunara, his dear Sunara, he would have had the techs purge the network immediately.
Godrian nodded and began tapping on the terminal pulling up the order. Roderic remained stoic but there was a mounting fear growing with him. Ally said she would place the order for him, under the guise of another captain. If the A.I. was lying then this private would have many questions to ask, especially why he was picking up demolition charges. A light chime broke this internal thought as the system loaded and Godrian inspected the screen.
“Three DRX low yield demolitions charges, a remote detonator and cochlear receiver. The order has been filled, sir, but I am afraid I must contact Captain Loudran first for verification.” Godrian said. Roderic silently cursed to himself, clenching his fists tight. How could he have forgotten that all requisitions regarding munitions required verbal approval for release. It prevented soldiers from taking munitions for personal use or hoarding them for use in an attempted coup. Of course with everything that was happening, Kiran’s supposed return, his arrest, the Arbiter, Sunara, the King, it wasn’t a surprise that he had forgotten.
Godrian tapped the terminal and Roderic began to wonder what he could use as a weapon if things turned against him. His own personal firearm was registered and stored within the armory, again another precaution from their king to ensure no one dared turn against him. There was a chair next to him. He could use it as a club but it wouldn’t take long before the rest of the Royal Guard came for him. The active guards would be armed and would cut him down quickly. If he did survive he would not doubt be stripped of his title and perhaps even taken to the Arbiter himself. Regardless the outcome, death was a certainty.
“This is Captain Loudran,” The voice said over the terminal. Hearing this, Roderic was stunned that Loudran was on the other end.
“Captain, this is Private Godrian calling in regards to requisition 23414-F for Captain Courtan. Requesting Verification, sir.” Godrian said. There was a brief pause before Loudran spoke.
“Verification number 30420.” Loudran said. Godrian tapped the keys on his terminal.
“Request verified. Thank you, sir.” The private said, killing the call. Suddenly there was a humming noise as the small elevator sprang to life. A moment later the doors slid open and revealed a small box.
“Here is your request, sir.” Godrian said. Roderic nodded, taking the box.
“Thank you.” He said. The private saluted and returned to his work, taking a seat at the terminal. Roderic caught from the corner of his eye, the boy rubbing his knee furiously. He would have thought this entertaining if not for the circumstance he found himself in. Saying nothing, he left the private to his own devices, knowing what lay ahead.
Roderic carried the box over to a table where Kiran and Sunara would sit and watch the Royal Guard train. It was out of the way; somewhere he could work without many eyes on him. Opening the small box, there were three small squares of demolition charges as well as a remote detonator. Next to it was smaller box. Inside was small node no larger than the tip of his pinky. He popped the smaller box open and removed the ear piece. Tucking it into his ear, the sensors on the device chirped to life and suddenly he heard a voice speaking to him.
“Captain, I assume you have the demolition charges with you?” Ally said through the earpiece.
“Yes.” Roderic replied, “But… how?”
“I am capable of altering my voice. Using previously recorded data I was able to simulate Captain Loudran with a 96% accuracy.” Ally explained.
“Clever… though, that does raise a certain level of concern.” Roderic noted.
“I assure you my intentions are entirely honorable… with a degree of reason in regards to our mission.” Ally said. “Do you know where to install the charges?”
“Yes, there is a Skip that is currently under maintenance but due to the Arbiter’s arrival, the maintenance crew has been reassigned so the area should be vacant. I can set them and then detonate when needed.” He said. “They will not do much damage. Should not… anyway.” He noted still suspicious of Ally’s intentions.
“The demotions contain only 10 grams of DRX explosive agent, per charge. It should barely cause any real damage. It would be unexpected if it even blew out the windows.” Ally said. “Princess Sunara is currently in place waiting for your signal.”
“Very well.” Roderic said. He still didn’t trust Ally or Justin Kennedy but he did trust Sunara and he knew that she would need his protection if, when, things took a turn for the worst. They were in this together, no matter what.
Roderic pushed the door open expecting to find the Arbiter standing over the corpse of the Outlander but to his surprise the Troika was gone. The explosion in the courtyard had drawn the attention of the guards so as they went to investigate, Roderic slipped in. Ally’s estimations were slightly off as the windows were indeed blown out but fortunately the Power Core remained intact so there was no fear of chain reaction from the detonation. With the guards gone, this left him and Sunara to enter the observatory unseen.
He rushed through the door, closing and sealing it behind him. Justin Kennedy was lying on the floor seemingly unconscious. Roderic took only a moment to consider the Outlander before running to the floor panel from where Sunara was currently attempting to extract herself. Taking her hand, he was careful to pull her out so as not to harm her.
“Are you safe, princess?” Roderic asked.
“I am fine.” She said but Sunara was ignoring everything but Justin Kennedy.
The moment she was free from the vent, Sunara ran to his side, taking him in her arms. Roderic returned to the doors, peering out as they waited for the guards to return. The moment they found out that the Outlander was gone, the alarm would sound and they would be on the run. From behind him he could hear Sunara speaking to Justin.
“We’re getting out of here.” She told him, “Just stay with me. Stay with us, Earth man.”