Mission Sigma — Chapter 2
The safety was off. Landrik’s hand hovered over his holstered ion blaster. All he had to do was draw and fire, and then the man who’d been his friend for the last two months would be dead.
If he could fire before Bem. Landrik had never tested his speed against the other man, but had seen Bem servicing and charging his own weapon with precise attention. Bem clearly knew how to handle an ion blaster. Like the rest of the travelers on the Stargazer, he wasn’t this deep into space to find a peaceful resolution to the Rift’s relentless digitization of worlds.
“It doesn’t have to be this way, Bem.” Landrik tried diplomacy before firepower.
“Depends on if you’re trying to stop the Rift or help it do what’s right,” Bem growled. Maybe it was the Sigil, or maybe it was because he was backed by a dozen or more fighters, but the once nervous Bem was definitely grounded with more confidence. His fingers flexed near his pistol.
The two of them stood ten meters apart, each with a group of other travelers wearing the glowing Sigils of their newly formed Alliances. No one seemed ready to bridge the gaps between them peacefully.
“I’m here to stop the Rift,” Landrik answered.
The Stargazer ship continued to rattle its way through deep space on its way to the front lines of the Rift event, unaware of the standoff that could turn bloody in the blink of an eye.
Landrik didn’t blink. Cold sweat ran down his back, but his hands remained steady. He’d expected to die at the end of this voyage, his body being segmented and arranged into digital bits by the Rift energy no one seemed to understand. It had never occurred to him that Bem and others on the ship were there to help the Rift.
The goals of the third faction, whose mark was some kind of segmented wheel, were unknown.
Landrik drew his pistol and pulled the trigger, instinct pointing the barrel at Bem. But the gun didn’t fire. Landrik tugged on the trigger a second time, staring at the deadly end of Bem’s gun pointing at him.
In a split second the ion blast was going to sear through Landrik. If he could just fire back, then he could at least kill the man who killed him.
Where was the scream of the energy pulses? The amber and ruby flashes should’ve been streaking across the room. More and more fighters drew their weapons and pulled their triggers.
Landrik’s pistol didn’t fire. Bem’s didn’t, either. No one’s weapon worked. As everyone was checking their safeties and ion charge levels, a voice boomed through the starship’s decks.
“No killing,” it said. “Not here.”
Whatever it was, the voice wasn’t coming from the ship’s comm speakers. It resonated from the walls and ceiling and everything else around them.
“Is that the Rift talking?” Landrik glanced out the observation window to see the dark energy relentlessly digitizing a planet in a solar system.
“It’s the AI that started the Rift.” Bem stared reverently out the same observation window. “Doing what we could never do. Setting the universe to order.”
Landrik burned with the thought of how many people had already been transformed by the Rift, and how many more would succumb to its onslaught. “And taking away anyone’s choice.”
“Let me kill these enemies,” Bem called back to the voice, shifting his narrow eyes back to Landrik. “Let me help you.”
“Not…yet,” it replied. The voice was mechanical, yet still shaded with something like agony.
“Release my weapon,” Bem pled. He pointed his pistol at Landrik and pulled the trigger again and again.
“Not…yet,” the voice repeated.
Landrik holstered his pistol and drew the knife from its sheath at the small of his back. “The AI hasn’t taken my choice away.”
Before he could move toward Bem, the lights on the deck went out. The only glow came from the Sigils everyone wore to define their Alliances. People stalked cautiously in wide circles, no one willing to attack within such darkness.
The Stargazer heaved. Crackling energy snapped at the hull from outside.
“Yes!” Bem exclaimed in the darkness. “Take us.”
Through the window, Landrik saw the digital tendrils of the Rift whipping against the ship. It tried to take hold, but each strike resulted in a series of deep blue sparks and the Rift recoiled.
“Do you see it?” A woman’s voice sliced through the darkness. She was somewhere among those with the circular Sigil. “The language in the sparks?”
Peering closer, Landrik noticed that the result of the Rift’s attacks did appear to be symbols of some kind.
“That’s the language of the Splice Arcana,” the woman gasped. Murmurs spread through the group of her Alliance.
“Another threat?” Landrik still held his knife, knowing it wouldn’t do any good in fights this big.
“It’s a mystic energy that has the unlimited power to unite, if used correctly,” the woman instructed. “If used incorrectly, it’s doom.”
“It’s protecting us,” Landrik said. Cold sweat continued down his spine, even though the Rift couldn’t grab onto the ship.
“Something in the Stargazer is doing that,” a man from Landrik’s own Alliance corrected. “The engines surge with every strike from the Rift.”
“Sigma Tech.” Another woman spoke from such deep darkness that Landrik couldn’t tell which Alliance she stood with. Irony dripped from her voice. “They called it the Sigma Mission because the whole ship runs on Sigma tech.”
Frustration choked Landrik. If it wasn’t so dark, he would’ve stabbed something. “Why do I feel like I’m the last damn person to know anything around here? What in blazes is Sigma tech?”
“Alien tech,” the man from Landrik’s Alliance whispered cautiously. “Ancient and barely understood. Incredible potential to manipulate gravity, and…it has destroyed at least one civilization.”
Landrik had known that the Stargazer was experimental, but not that experimental. He made a fist so tight he thought he’d bend the steel of his knife.
“So we’re all on a ship that’s powerful enough to destroy the universe,” he hissed, “Fighting an AI powerful enough to destroy the universe, while surrounded by a mystical force powerful enough to destroy the universe?”
“Yes,” several people from all the Alliances replied at once.
“Then what the hell is next?” He didn’t want to know, but the answer came quickly as the Stargazer veered hard through space.
The ship plunged directly toward the planet that was half-consumed by the Rift, and Landrik stared death in the face.
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