“I was able to pull some data from those Exo samples.” Jinju perches on the cockpit dashboard. Two tech mites crawl over her shell.
Their jump-ship plummets through fractalescent polychrome luge, ripping across the sable pitch of space at blistering speed.
Ana leans back in her pilot seat, one knee pulled to her chest. She watches strands of shimmer bend around the hull. A bobble-owl jiggles along as the ship shivers, underneath it: Camrin, in frame.
“Hit me.” Her eyes turn to Jinju.
“I couldn’t completely narrow it down, but they’re definitely from the Golden Age, circa the Collapse.”
Jinju continues, “I’ve been going through the Pillory mainframe download. Those stations are meant to split Rasputin’s mind up in the event that he became… uh… insubordinate.”
“ECHO appears to have been a contingency program that activates afterward. They also had a cornerstone schematic of his brain.”
Light static fuzzes from bubble speakers on Ana’s dash. Her helmet hangs on a hook behind her; Rasputin’s uplink is offline.
Ana chews on the information for a moment. “A foundational brain model would help with containment stability after the partitioning process. It’s like a front porch for your brain.”
“It… goes on.” Jinju continues, “Your name is cross-referenced all over this, Ana. Neural Web-way. Psycholinguistics. Exo brain maps with candidate profiles. It looks like Clovis Bray was syncing Rasputin’s basic core with viable hosts.”
“Oh.” Ana’s mind races. “For what though? Drop him into containment and clone him? Pretty elaborate restart button. I guess with an Exo you could also make some pretty potent AI with more limiters than a Warmind.”
Jinju processes. “Hm. Nothing conclusive here.”
Ana turns her gaze back to the stars. “It would be terrible to be buried like that—trapped in pieces of your own mind. You wouldn’t even know who you were anymore. Where you start, and where other versions of you end.”
“Speaking of, the Clovis—9 site is ‘78% assimilated into his sovereignty.'” Jinju distorts her voice as Warmind facsimile. “He’s so dramatic about it.”
Ana brightens as she laughs. “You remember how Camrin would always impersonate him?”
“He did not appreciate that, but it was funny.” Jinju cheeps lightly. “Is she still buried in work from the Moon?”
“Hole opened up to the Black Garden. Pyramid. Creepy signals. Raining Vex. You think Owl Sector could help themselves from getting involved?”
“I heard rumors through the Ghost-vine about the Pyramid. They said it steals your shell. Lives there, like another you. They said it makes you do things.” Jinju pauses. Her iris flicks to Ana’s raised eyebrow. “Not helping?”
“Let’s just change the subject.”
Jinju squirms awkwardly. “You’ll see her soon.”
“They’re working directly with Ikora. She’s safe.”
Warm-tone reassurance trickles into the cabin through Ana’s helmet receiver.
“I KNOW. WHEN DID YOU EVEN GET HERE, RED?” Ana aggressively huffs in exasperation.
Tech mites traverse Jinju like a jungle gym. One dangles precariously from a shell flap. “Guess who’s there too.”
“How do you know this, and I don’t?”
“Ghost-vine. It’s Eris Morn. She’s working with the Guardian.”
“Eris?” Ana scoffs. “She’s not much of a conversationalist so the two of them should get along just fine.” She gestures to the mites. “Do you really want those crawling all over you?”
“Their names are Pho and Deim, and I love them.” Jinju coddles her mites. “Besides, it’s like Cam’s with us in spirit, right?”
Ana chuckles and scratches her brow before raising a fist in solidarity. “She is. To the brim.”
The shimmer surrounding the jump-ship jitters before abruptly smashing into empty space. Ana leans forward and looks out into the void.
“Um… where’s the planet?” She slowly rolls her head around the cockpit.
They drift through space on placid waves of nothing toward a distant nowhere. The vast luminous twinkle of the Milky Way plays out in panorama, though gloom-speckle pinholes prick gaps in the starry sea. The absence from them directly apparent to Ana’s eye like rays of darkness from a black sun through shear cosmic sheet.
Jinju perks up, internal sensors suddenly askew. “Something nabbed us right out of our jump. We’re off course by…” Jinju calculates, “…three AU?”
“What!?” Ana manually scans the trajectory equations in the nav-computer. “There’s nothing wrong with the math.”
||JUMP-DRIVE ERROR: MISALIGNMENT|| squawks on bubble speakers.
Tart synesthetic tickle creeps red and patient. Low and pressing, as not to be heard by those that might be listening.
“Relax. I know we’re off course, but it’s not that far… relatively speaking.” Ana scrunches her face at a nav-screen as it’s overtaken by interference. “Okay, I can’t see where we are. Hang on.”
A slow wrinkle skulks across space. It presses up the fabric. Insignificant points between stars warp and spur small disturbances in the constellational congruence of the galaxy. From afar it is nothing. A flutter of wings in wind.
“It’s dark out here.” Jinju’s voice is distant as she peers outside. Beyond the canopy an expanse without horizon.
“That’s when the stars shine brightest, Jinju. Find a constellation for me so we can get our bearings.”
||GRAVITATIONAL WAVE ANOMALY DETECTED: JUMP-REALIGNMENT REQUIRED||
“Way ahead of you, ship.” Ana checks jump vectors and flicks through alignment procedures. Mav thrusters sputter to orient the ship toward Sol. Ana test-cycles the jump-drive. It revs and then chokes before locking.
||GRAVITATIONAL WAVE ANOMALY DETECTED: JUMP HAZARD—LOCATION INCONCLUSIVE, CLEAR HAZARD||
“Okay, that’s not a comforting thing to hear.” Ana deploys a sensory buoy from the ship.
Rasputin stings and pricks red iron. Steady pressure. With localized insistence.
“Feel’s strange.” Jinju is distant. “We should go.”
Ana initiates recalibrations on the jump-drive’s positioning solution. “There’s definitely some weird space out there.”
||GRAVITATIONAL WAVE ANOMALY DETECTED||
The ship lurches. Ana’s stomach churns. Jinju vibrates violently in place, an outer shell of Light absorbing some form of force.
Red iron needles whistle tea-kettle pressure in white anxiety from Ana’s helmet.
Cloaked Shadows shift through the vacuum an eternity away and all too close; shown only when they wish to, to only whom they want.
Ana swallows to settle her stomach. “What even was that? Did we move?”
“Leave. Now please. Ana.” Jinju presses against the glass of the canopy, peering outward.
||SYSTEM REALIGNMENT: SOLUTION SECURED||
“There it is. I’ve got a jump-lock.”
||GRAVITATIONAL WAVE ANOMALY DETECTED||
“Again? Then we’re riding this one out of here.” Ana eye-balls adjustments for the gravitational wave into the nav-computer. “Punching jump in 3… 2… 1…”
They slip between folds in space. Formless wake propels them. The ship rides through sub-space at speeds far exceeding her jump-drive's capability. Color dulls in the slipstream. Frisson electrifies Ana's senses into timeless euphoria. The nose of the cockpit stretches ahead, drawn toward some distant vanishing point. She struggles to keep the flight stick straight. Her motions seem small, inconsequential and all too slow within the wave. Fluctuant pockets of drag flex and buck, threatening to throw them off into the unknown. The cockpit twists around her, indicator lights blink in metronomic sequence—purpose and pigment slowly materializing in her mind.
Hull integrity failing. "Not yet."
||COLLISION: BOW, CELESTIAL BODY DETECTED, AUTO-DROP FAILED||
Ana steadies her mind. She force-cancels the jump, seizing the drive and dumping them out into space before thrusters burn to steady them again.
Their emergence is dwarfed by a stratospheric colossus.
Uranus hangs, a daiquiri pearl set in tilted rings.
A grin overtakes Ana’s face. “Nailed it.”
Pale blue gleam inundates the canopy with planetary light. Ana plots an approach to the station. The trio slow burn forward, each silently collecting their faculties. Ahead: tiny beacons blip red. Satellite silhouettes take form out of the planet’s zealous glare. Instrument spokes jut from their polygonal chassis like old-war depth charges itching to trigger.
“Those are Warsats.” Jinju breaks the silence, eager to shift her mode of thought far from weird space and gravity waves.
“Finally, some luck," Ana says with relief. "I bet we can daisy-chain Rasputin into the station’s network through the defense system.”
“Oh, they’re powering up. Maybe we—”
Horns of responsive distortion roll across the cabin like a stress wave. Rasputin’s alert pings litter the canopy HUD.
Ana pushes hard on the flight stick and reflexively dives under a barrage of laser fire. Nose thrusters roar vibration through her hands as she cuts to guide the ship vertical and tumbles into a barrel roll, slipping around follow-up bursts. A bolt skims shallow across her starboard side: ricochet. Shockwave tremors reverberate through the hull.
“Red, ping all incoming fire vectors! Jinju, arm the spikes!”
Plates split open along the belly of the ship. A drum-launcher of six Warspikes rolls out as Jinju links into the launcher's gunnery apparatus. Indicators blare onto the canopy HUD. Jinju sends two Warspikes straight into the first of fifteen Warsats blocking their path as Ana nudges the ship between incoming laser bursts.
Two spiked Warsats cease fire as their automated defense protocols are overridden, security software utterly failing to halt Rasputin’s invasive assimilation. They come back online—spikes blending into spokes—and swivel to gun down the closest still-hostile targets.
The assimilated twin Warsats thrust to reposition into a shield for Ana and Jinju as they close distance. Crimson flare shines around the Warsat shield as lasers chisel into them. Ana watches HUD pings for an opening between incoming bursts. She finds half a moment and burns hard on the main engine, then toggles full power to maneuvering thrusters to sling the ship under Rasputin’s shield and open a lane for Jinju.
Jinju unleashes four more spikes. They strike true. Rasputin spreads digital plague through the Warsat’s frameworks with each skewering hit. He demands subservience. Laser fire tears through space in all directions as Ana cuts between dueling satellites and rolls to evade overlapping firing arcs. Concussive shockwaves rattle the ship as defiant Warsats explode or fail one by one until the firing stops.
A field of deputized Warsats and debris dead-drift within the planet’s orbital current, back-lit by radiant mesopelagic glow. Beyond them, almost lost among cloud-cream atmosphere, Caelus station.
Ana releases her breath. It feels like she had been holding it since the jump. She forces short gulps of air into her aching lungs and lets her ship glide towards the station without guidance.
Jinju emerges from the gunnery apparatus and floats back to the dashboard. Pho and Deim appear from under her shell. “What was that, Ana? Back there.”
“The Warsats or the freaky gravity?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
“My guess worries me.”
“Let’s just pull this data and get home.”
Ana hangs her head in her hands and muffles a sardonic, “Nailed it.”
Dim and powerless, it gently falls. The label grows at pace with Ana's measured approach. Rasputin's cohort of Warsats encircle her in a defensive phalanx. The station rotates to face the planet. It glitters in gas-giant grandeur as massive translucent hull plates display a desolate gut shrouded in sea-foam reflection. Jinju combs through station blueprints pouring in from Warsat data stores. Caelus consists of one long shaft containing a launch bay and spindly communication arrays at either end. Deeper, passed the launch bays, mostly maintenance frame space cap-stoned by a large reinforced mainframe housing complete with a thick-glass viewing ceiling. Orbiting ringlets, indicated as "Biomes" 1, 2, and 3, spin lazily in unison with the central structure, held in position by mag-lock paddocks that align with metallic rungs set into the station hub's outer plating.
Jinju locates several unpowered docking points before settling on entering through one of the station's bays. She snaps a HUD ping on the canopy.
"Here. This one is open, though it doesn’t look like anything but the outer rings are still pressurized."
"Ready for a spacewalk?" Ana guides them to the bay, catching sight of the transparent interior solar-glass paneling of the rotating ringlets. Clean rivers slosh along the outer ring underneath a dividing sieve. Earthen dirt sprouts abundance above.
"Are those greenhouses?"
"I think so. Everything seems to be locked under a file named 'contingency.'"
"That's not ominous," Ana says, scooping her helmet from its hook and swiping 18 Kelvins from a footlocker.
"We need mainframe access."
"When do we not?" Ana looks at the dark station. It is a grave of potential awaiting the next planet-rise.
Jinju prepares Ana's bandolier. Mites patiently tap pin-legs as they wait for attention.
Ana dons her helmet and puts a hand on the canopy release pulley. "You're not bringing those, are you?"
The bay is still: a snapshot of countless possible failures in the face of challenge. It holds only one ship. The bulbous craft lay broken, dropped from its support brackets in denial of an attempted launch. Reflective hexagonal plates sparkle like space dust as the station faces Uranus' light. Scorch stains blacken the far wall behind the craft's ruined ion thruster.
"The propulsion system is missing its ion cell. It doesn't look like damage, but obviously a lot went wrong here."
Jinju beams light over the fuselage as they float through the ruptured bay in weightlessness. The reflective hull is filled with Exos. Mannequin cadavers hang frozen on silk threads, surrounded by globular blobs of various fluids. Loose-wire tangle sags around the lifeless many. One or two glides freely within the cabin. Their chest plates share a pristine logo.
Ana locates a crumpled worker frame beside the bay’s internal air lock and signals Jinju to come over.
Jinju puffs toward Ana on pulses of Light. Remnants and dust hold motionless in the vacuum. Their groupings, jostled and drawn to each other since the bay's collapse, form tiny gravitational microcosms; a new faux system trapped in the failed husk of a past age.
She flicks her helmet microphone on. "Hey, what about just normal frame access?"
The Ghost sweeps the frame and gets to work. "This isn’t just some mop-bot. This is the Station Manager. Let's get it inside."
Ana props a foot on the wall and forces the airlock closed behind them. Mag-boot clinks to tile. Dust floor, echoing groans, and humid taste populate the station. Even through her respirator the stale flavors of plant matter and dirt coat Ana's tongue in grist-like film. She turns to Jinju, busy at work splicing bad connections within the frame and spinning light to charge its power unit.
"It’ll work, but this unit won’t hold power. It’ll only last as long as I charge it."
"You’re a miracle worker, Jinju."
She solders a loose line. “It should also be a little more… talkative.”
Ana peers down the hall. From their current position, the airlock functions like an estuary flowing into the rest of the station. She could almost see clear to the central mainframe hub atop a raised panel fortification in the middle of the room. It sits below a ceiling of translucent plates, rimmed in distant ringlet halos falling under shadow. A stairway aligned with the launch bays on either side provides access.
The Frame sparks to life, looks directly at Ana, and speaks with grating age to its voice.
“Welcome, Ana Bray! Very excited to see a Bray walk this hall again. It has been a long time.”
Ana grasps at words. Jinju shrugs, plugs of Light toss in zero-G.
The Frame stands on magnetized foot cups and dusts itself off, nearly bumping into Jinju. “Excuse me, small servo bot."
The Frame turns to Ana. “How may I be of assistance?"
“I’ll unplug you.”
The Frame ignores her.
Ana smirks at Jinju, then looks at the Frame.
"Walk with me," she says, briskly moving deeper into the station.
The two converse with Jinju in tow.
The main section of the station is a wide-open hall supported by struts. In large red lettering the words:
OUR LEGACY BUILDS THE HORIZON
Dozens of maintenance frame plates line the floor. Some open. Some semi-raised with collapsed frames steps away, half-responding to a catastrophe. A scene in disorder.
"Zilch on Atlas.”
Ana stares out the translucent ceiling, wistful as the Frame waits for another question.
“So those crops in the rings are food supplies for a colony mission."
"Yes. Thank you for asking that, Ana Bray."
"Yeah. And the colony ships are full of Exos?"
"Partially. ECHO-1 and ECHO-2 were stocked with Exo unit crews. As you know, their task was to establish and oversee embryonic development at Colony M31, Site-A and Site-B."
"If Rasputin got out of hand, they weren't planning on resetting him.”
"I don’t have access to Clovis 1-12 directories."
“They just assumed he would win. The Pillory is a last-ditch panic room.”
"I don’t have access to Clovis 1-12 directories."
Jinju’s iris flicks back and forth between the two. Her tiny Light-leash hums.
Ana massages her palm. “What was my role in all this?”
“As you know, your work on the Warmind made you a prime asset to oversee applicant selection.”
“I chose the people in there?”
Ana watches the ringlet spin, her mind repeating the statement back to her. Artificial night slips back to artificial day as the station's rotation continues.
“As you know, yes. Additionally, your work on the Warmind, as you know, was vital to the establishment of Clovis 1-12.”
“Do I know where the candidates came from? Did they volunteer?”
“I do not have access to candidate profiles.”
Ana shuts her eyes and takes a steady breath.
“You said I helped with the Pillory stations?”
"I don’t have access to Clovis 1-12 directories."
She nods and lets her helmet slink back to rest on her shoulders. “I think I can piece it together on my own. Is this station linked to any other sites?”
Her gaze returns to the distant ringlet, lit by the recurring planet-rise. Her augmented eyes pick at details.
“As you know, Miss Bray, there are thirteen CLOVIS sites that this station is linked to.”
“Thirteen? What’s the thirteenth?”
The plant life is still vibrant. Regimented.
“Paragon access does not permit that information.”
“You hear that, Jinju? We’re all just slaves to circumstance.”
Jinju chirps. “I’d like to think our choices matter a little. I’d like to think mine did.”
Ana smiles at her. “Yeah.”
“You are a Bray.” The frame pauses.
They lack signs of overgrowth.
“So?” Ana turns to the Frame.
“ECHO project requires a station link with
Ana eyes go wide. “Jinju disengage that cipher thing.” Over her shoulder, a glint shines from the far central ringlet. Biome 2.
Jinju glides forward. “What is that?”
Ana looks at Jinju. “The verbal cipher.” She pauses and traces Jinju’s eyeline to face Uranus. Ana’s eyes adjust to sieve out the glaring brightness. “What’s what?” She puts a hand to her visor and squints.
An ion lance threads the station from the distant ringlet.
It pierces Ana’s chest clean through.
Brick-stained atmosphere hisses out of her suit, searing on smoldering fabric fringe.
Jinju’s iris widens with confused shock.
Howling storms slam salt-coarse keys in Ana’s helmet.
"DEAD-ROCK SEIZURE IN ACTION: Station Manager initiate manual override in ECHO-1 Launch Bay."
"ALERT: This station is experiencing power fluctuations. Emergency power will run until—
He awakens alone. A fluke. Others hang around Him, but they remain in the dream. Electrical surge prickles through his entire body. A screen in front of his face begins playing a recording complete with visual aid:
"Welcome to ECHO-1. Before your departure, you should have been briefed by a Station Warden If you don't recall your Station Warden, please alert your Crew Captain. Now then, my name is Ana Bray, and you're one of the lucky few who has been selected for the ECHO Project. The future of Humanity rests on your sho—"
The recording is interrupted as emergency sirens blare through the station.
"STATION HAZARDS: GRAVITATIONAL ANOMALY | STERILE NEUTRINO BURSTS | Please remain calm."
"OVERRIDE BROADCAST: via ECHO-LINK//:PILLORY-SUBLOCK.R.R//:SKYSHOCK ALERT: TRANSIENT NEAR EXTRASOLAR EVENT:—
Power failures wrack the station in rolling thunder. The Exo slumps, lifeless until its next reset.
The recording. He finds familiarity in the newness. The face on the screen seems kind—
"STATION HAZARDS: ROLLING SURGES IN WARDS 1, 2, 3. Please remain calm."
Thunder. Pain to death. Electro-static purge, triggering a reset.
He awakens to rolling, thunderous darkness and pain. The screen does not illuminate.
Barely audible words form from the air:
"Primary propulsion systems failing. Auxiliary systems near depletion. Planetary impact unavoidable. Distress triggered."
Meaningless. He struggles against chains.
Eons pass. His bonds will not break. His mind fragments and corrupts.
He wishes he could bleed. He wishes he could die. He wonders where the Wardens are.
Short lives of confusion and pain. He grasps at falling in every direction. There is nothing to grip.
Until one day:
He hangs in the futile passage of time.
A creeping madness weaves its way in solitude.
Thunder. Thunder. Thunder.
The Warden speaks for the first time in many storms. Her twisted promises are fresh to His ear.
"When we return." Etched in mind.
Wake and sleep. Struggle. Dream and wake. Struggle. Endless. Innumerable. Stillbirths. Tomb spasms. Thunderous pain. Sweet death.
Thunder, one final time. The storm gives life, but never came to take.
He slips from rot shackles. Worn with age. Weary, they snap at slightest motion. Untold rotations pass without movement. Freedom?
He matures questions. A hunger wells up within him.
He travels the station. From Tomb Bay, to the Mind Shell, to the Sealed Space. In dark, and in light.
The Mind Shell teaches Him the new roads. Teaches Him the majesty of the Rings. Teaches him the key.
He walks the Rings.
He tends to His little freedoms. He cultivates. He grows. He does, unknowingly, as He was meant to do.
The Mind Shell tells Him of the Bridge. Tells him of His ancestors. Speaks of the "ECHO LINK".
The knowledge does not leave His thoughts.
He seeks a meaning beyond routine.
The Tomb Bay kept secrets. He had not returned since He walked the Rings. It is a shallow sepulcher.
Brothers and Sisters dreaming. Never to wake as He had.
He digs treasures from their graves. Digs knowledge from the Prison's many minds.
Picks lies from the bones of truth.
He drinks the memories of Echoes passed.
He finds the Prison's purpose. A Bridge's end. If He holds this end, perhaps the Wardens hold the other.
The many minds. The liar's words. Takers. They would know of his escape.
The Wardens would come to take with fresh shackles.
He prepares. He learns from the Warden's alchemy.
He digs through the carcass of his once-mighty Tomb.
From hollow basin, He seizes Starlight power to wield from afar. From its flesh: adorns Himself with a
cloak of lies to fool. He armors his soul against the Thunder that kills.
He opens the Bridge at his end and waits.
He walks the ring when She arrives.
The Warden rides in with finality and judgement.
A red-light storm at Her back.
She had followed the Bridge, as He had hoped. She leads many shells, but only One descends with Her.
She brings with Her the Thunder, and He fears its wicked spark. He places trust to his plated frame.
He watches Her trespass in the Tomb Bay. Sees Her defile the Mind Shell's grand hall.
The Wardens reap what had been sown.
As Wardens always do. She comes to collect him.
He raises his Starlight.
But a Warden is not so easily slain, and She has many allies.
She is submerged.
Light sways just above a tense surface.
Something far below stirs.
The Light brightens to blind.
Rasputin weeps a terrible cacophony of anguish.
Ana gasps for breath. Her head swims in effort.
(!) HYPOXEMIA: b/o 73% (!)
“Hold still! Your suit is leaking!” Jinju quickens Light into Ana's punctured suit, her Iris jittering from spot to spot as oxygen spurts around her in foggy clouds.
Ana shakes dizziness out of her head. A smoldering frame is sprawled a few meters away. She droops flat to a support beam that runs up to the mainframe office.
“I got shot…” The realization doubles back. “I got shot?”
Ana pats her chest and stiffens. She draws in shallow breath.
“Jinju, did you see where it came from?”
“Central ring. I dragged you into cover. Stop moving so much.”
Ana peeks around the strut; an ion thread zips by and stings her helmet.
Rasputin obliterates every square inch of ringlet within ten meters of the ion beam’s origin in response.
Sections of the central ringlet combust and explode under heavy bombardment. The ring buckles, splitting along the seams and splaying out into space. Magnetic anchors fail as the halo fractures and splits away from the station's central architecture. Fragments rush away toward the planet; Caelus’ ruin falls to Uranus in lingering prolicidal consummation.
“RASPUTIN STOP!” Laser fire halts immediately. “You’re gunna sink the whole station!”
Tense finger waits on hair trigger. Ana works her starving lungs.
(!) HYPOXEMIA: b/o 67% (!)
“Ana, you need to stop breathing so much.” Jinju bobs with Ana’s head and quickly reseals her visor.
“Can’t hold still.” Ana shakily stands and points up at the dislodged ringlet spinning above her. “Bad angle.”
“I’m pretty sure whatever shot you is dead. Stop talking. You're getting delirious."
Wreckage looms far over Ana’s shoulder. The remaining two halos slowly spin in ignorance through their sibling's burial-dust cloud. Eerie distortion soars across the divide between station and rings, the veneer of invisibility momentarily lost in flight as rubble collides with its form. Rasputin perceives the abnormality.
Harmonic chimes across Ana’s visor resonate and combine into uniform patterned homogeny.
“Active camouflage?” Ana sucks thin atmosphere, a wheezing undertone to her breath. “Jinju, give me an auditory visualizer.”
Jinju whirs and dips back to Ana's suit. “Compiling an interface. Now. Hold. Still.”
(!) HYPOXEMIA: b/o 65% (!)
A ceiling panel twenty meters from Ana erupts in brittle plastic shards that glisten and spin like tiny neutron stars, catching the last of Uranus' light as the station beings to turn dark. Amorphous form thuds into the floor, shattering tiles in a plume of dust that stretches up into a spire before slowly holding in place. The form tumbles to a stop. It stands between her and the open launch bay and slings a kit-bashed Ion caster aside, depleted. Hexagonal patterns stutter to blend with the station interior as the room rolls into tenebrous obscurity. For an instant, an Exo takes form, and then nothing as its cloaking shroud flashes and re-engages in the dark.
Ana doesn’t wait. She rushes heavy clunking boots up the stairs to the mainframe, arrhythmic tremors beat through her heart. Jinju deactivates the switch on Ana's mag-boots and hurls her through the door with a forceful pulse of Light. She speeds in behind Ana, finishing her suit with Light stitch as Ana slams the door shut.
“Ana. Hang in there.” Jinju orients Ana and reactivates her mag-boots.
Ana's feet clomp to the floor. She hangs from them, a loose timber bending in the wind.
Jinju finishes her patch job. New fabric seals air-tight.
"You're good. You're good. Don't pass out. Your suit is re-oxygenating."
(!) HYPOXEMIA: b/o 59% (!)
The words are intensely bright on her visor against the darkening room.
"Auditory overlay complete. Check your visor." Jinju's voice focuses her.
"I just… need a minute…" Ana speaks between gulps of air. An unsteady hand draws 18 Kelvins. The mainframe room orients around her more clearly with each breath. It is stark, a large lone desk of singular oak commands the center of the room. A console screen, dead, is embedded in the surface.
Rasputin drops positional estimation pings into her HUD in an attempt to track her assailant. She steps backward, away from the door she had entered through and toward the opposing stairway's door.
Her eyes pick up faint quivers from outside. Indirect. Resonate white noise pings like interference on her visor. She focuses on each occurrence, looking for a note out of rhythm.
She spins as the Exo crashes through the secondary entrance at her back. The door snaps from its hinges in a torrent of dust and rackets Jinju into glass.
Ana loses track of her attacker momentarily in the darkness before it pushes off from a hard surface, triggering her visor. She spits off rounds from 18 Kelvins. Some find their mark, puncturing the camouflage shroud and revealing her adversary before impotently fizzling on the Exo's outer shell. It covers the gap with surprising speed and catches her gun hand; Ana discharges an arc round; tiny bolts reach across to the Exo’s metal skull in vain as it scorches ceiling.
Bones pop in her fingers and wrist.
(!) HYPOXEMIA: b/o 68% (!)
The Exo flattens its other hand and stabs toward her stomach.
Adrenal instinct floods Ana's body. She stops it. They lock. Ana’s vision blurs. She gasps for breath. Muscles quiver in her arms, desperate for oxygen. A spark cinders in her.
"Get off her!"
Jinju zips toward the Exo and paddles Pho and Deim onto it with a flick of her shell. The mites crawl under the Exo's exterior plating and send shock-sting bites through its systems, seizing its joints for a few precious seconds.
Jinju rushes to Ana's side. The Ghost deconstructs itself, orbital shell bits swirl around a core of coalescing Light. She fills the room like a brilliant star, overcharging her wayward Guardian.
Ana's crushed bones reforge. Light fills her eyes. Her grip, still holding against the seizing Exo's bladed thrust, liquefies its plated hand to scrap. A glorious crown of Solar flame erupts from her visor and she cracks her forehead into the Exo’s face. It reels, tufts of flame extinguish in the vacuum. Ana kicks away.
Solar might engulfs 18 Kelvins. Ana hammers off two rounds of celestial annihilation. They melt straight through the Exo, puncture the station plating, and scream through space for light years.
The Exo slumps, a molten heap.
It draws breath.
“Resilient.” Ana drops to a knee. Barrel trained on the Exo's head.
She takes a full breath. The Exo’s eyes are unflinchingly locked to her. It refuses to die.
It points to Ana’s badge with its still-blistering hand.
She says the only thing the can think to say: “Who were you?”
It hesitates. “Echoes.”
Her head droops. “How many did you live?” She looks to find his number designation, but it is missing.
It looks passed her as Uranus' light once again trickles through the station. “Echoes… grow… Wardens… keep…”
“What did I do to them?”
Ana stares at Echo’s husk. The faint glow of the desk's lit console screen grays out her face behind her visor.
She sits dead-still in rotation. She could stare forever, if she only had enough time.
Jinju nudges her shoulder. “I've got the mainframe data.”
Ana is devoid of thought at the mainframe access console. She watches as Uranus comes back into view over and over again. It dominates the station’s viewing port. She maps the movement of the clouds along the surface, but only ever on the surface, and sees how they differ from the previous iteration on their last spin. She wonders if they are different underneath.
Stable major chords strum in Ana’s helmet, getting caught in the cracked visor glass.
She finally speaks, decisive. “Dislodge the other ringlet paddocks. Warsats can tow them back to the Tower. Skim the shadow-networks for anything else they can use. Get some good from this…”
“Ana, the Warsats could haul this whole station as long as we do it soon.”
Caelus rotates away into shadow once again, and the planet’s sheen fades from sight. Ana clicks a spring-loaded slot on the desk. It snaps to, bearing a placard of ownership.
Ana stands. Steady.
“It’s okay to let some things be forgotten.”