Arras laid back on a bench in the locker room, the lights out; the faint glow from beneath her eyepatch, rivulets of compressed nanomachines, could not light up the darkness. Alone except for the watchful eye of her mother, she continued to writhe on the thin padding of towels the others had laid down for her.
She still felt like a scalpel was twisting its way through her brain matter. But it wasn’t just pain. It was so much more. She could hear them. Everyone outside the tower. Not only hear them, but intuit them, like some primitive sibyl. Their audible voices could never reach her, not behind these walls of cement, brick, and steel. But their thoughts entered her head, like breathing dense smoke in a house fire. Skimming through each of their neural nets, she felt like an eagle freely dipping the tip of her wing into the watery surface of their collective conscious and unconscious. And it was agony. She could glean everything on the top of their minds, and even feel dull semblances of what they themselves were feeling.
Rolling onto her side, holding her head, she sank not only under the brute trauma, but what it reminded her of. Arras knew what it was like to have her own psyche distributed and diluted into the minds of countless others, and the familiarity of this sensation brought back terrible memories. But even back then, as an operator, her consciousness was altered, augmented for such distribution; yet now she was fully conscious and aware of what was happening. Curling up further, she felt as if everyone outside the tower had taken hold of a piece of her, then run off in opposite directions, tearing her to scraps and shreds.
Biting her lip as she bore another swell in her head, she tried to focus. She could hear everyone outside the tower, but she could also hear everyone just outside the locker room. And she found comfort in their voices, in something less flighty and unconscious—something she felt as if she could touch with her own fingers.
“I was worried something like this might happen,” Damon confessed after filling Danny and Val in on what he had learned from Ethan. “But to think it would progress so quickly… She was fine just this morning.”
“Did you hear what she said downstairs?” Danny asked, sliding on his back down the wall, to the floor. “It’s weird to say, but it sounded as if she was somehow connected with the people outside. Like a regular mind meld between nano-nets, but on a much wider scale.”
Arras had become a little more coherent on their ride in the elevator, up the tower, while she was still in his arms. However, her condition had worsened only minutes after they reached the testing chamber’s levels. It felt as if getting her farther away from the people outside had helped, but not enough to outrun her deteriorating state.
Staring at the ground, Danny felt sick to his stomach. Only a few days ago, Arras had been in the nearby chamber on this level, helping him practice his targeting, teaching him more about the suit. And now she was laid up in one of the locker rooms, left to wrestle with something no one seemed able to rescue her from.
“I don’t mean to disparage Arras’ condition,” Damon said, looking down at Danny, then to Val, “but it would be in her best interests, and ours, to first address what we can, and not to doddle. As I said before, the security doors downstairs won’t hold forever. I’ve shut down the elevators and locked the doors in the stairwells, but there’s no telling what could happen from here on.”
“How far do you think they’d go to kill us?” Val asked, her imagination already running.
“The possibilities are endless, really, especially when the stakes are so high,” Damon answered, tapping the end of his cane against the shaved concrete floor in thought. “The entire planet might not have turned on us yet, but that could change with time. As for our current predicament, someone could bring explosives, or worse.”
“Then there are the people I managed to piss off in Nevada,” Danny muttered at the ground. “I guess that happens when you level most of an air force base.”
With a swift but merciful swing, Damon bounced the length of his cane against Danny’s shins, startling him up to his feet with shock and indignation. By the time he met Damon’s eyes, though, he found a man who did not match his anger. Damon seemed as serious as he had the day they were under fire at Nellis.
“I know this is hard for you, Daniel,” he said plainly. “Arras is important to all of us, and it’s difficult to see her like this. But the best thing you can do for her right now is remain mindful. Do what you promised to do for her six months ago and be her knight, not the boy who breaks down whenever she can’t give us an answer or order.”
Damon’s words sank in like needles, but they hit Danny with surgical accuracy.
“You’re right,” Danny said with a nod. “Sorry. I’m here.”
“We now know that the College is somehow involved with Truth,” Damon said, moving forward. “There’s no saying how this happened or what kind of relationship she has with the New Pact, but I believe it’s safe to say this was a deliberate move on Truth’s part.”
“You mean she might have approached the College herself?” Val asked. “What makes you think that?”
“With all due respect, my dear,” Damon said, “I don’t believe it was a coincidence that Nulem was the one to issue our death warrants to the world. This wouldn’t catch my attention otherwise, but considering he and Truth know you’re on this planet, as well as the fact that you both shared an intimate relationship…”
“Then Truth just so happened to target Ithaca and Cornell to show off her power,” Danny added. “That doesn’t seem like a coincidence either.”
“But those are such obvious slips,” Val said, “not to mention her plan is too convoluted to be an honest attempt on our lives. It’s like she wants us to know there’s more to this.”
“This is definitely not Rededication’s MO,” Danny added. “We know that the College only wanted to revive the Rededication program. I can’t imagine they’d waste their time playing around with Earth like this. Unless they think they have something to gain…”
“Yet they have nothing to gain from this occupation,” Damon countered. “The New Pact has no connection to Earth whatsoever, other than us. Eliminating each of us might serve a purpose, but making such a strike on Earth seems entirely unnecessary.”
Val tightened her lips, reluctant to speak what was on her mind. “I know I’m the last one who could really say this,” she told them, “and it might only be wishful thinking, but… Do you think there’s a chance Truth might be tricking the College?”
Both Danny and Damon looked at her, considering this. Val took their silence as skepticism, however, stating her argument further. “I can say from experience that the other proxies would never waste their time on something like this, let alone supply New Pact military resources, unless they thought it was absolutely necessary. And considering Truth isn’t behaving like a Rededication AI should… I can’t help but wonder if she is who she claims to be.” Hearing herself say this, Val jumped a little, feeling ridiculous. Yet she persisted. “I know it sounds silly,” she said hastily, “and I couldn’t even begin to think of what it might mean, but while the Reded AIs are somewhat self-aware and autonomous, they’re still only programs.”
“Truth’s behavior is as absurd as my toaster trying to file my taxes,” Damon concluded. “Yes, I believe you’re on to something, my dear.”
“I agree,” Danny added. “Truth’s definitely up to something, and there’s no telling whether the College knows.”
Bowing her head in relief, Val felt far less tense than before. Becoming so unnerved by just the sight of Nule in Times Square bothered her, but it was worse to her to think she was at all relieved by even the possibility that he was only an unwitting pawn in whatever Truth had planned. As much as she resented her own reaction, she still could not deny how inviting it was to believe such things.
“Setting aside the myriad of questions this raises,” Damon said, switching gears, “we still need to start from where we are.”
“And where are we?” Danny asked. “Proverbially speaking...”
“Quite literally, actually,” Damon answered, “we’re at the Teleios tower. And the only reason that’s so is that Arras believes that, of all people, her sister Ila told us to come here—that she was waiting for us here.”
Having almost forgotten this in the rush of escaping the mob outside and the gravity of Arras’ condition, both Val and Danny nodded as they listened.
“I don’t mean to be obnoxious,” Danny said, “but I don’t see Ila around here. Not to mention that it looks like a B-list zombie movie outside.”
“I suppose we can’t just ask Arras,” Val bemoaned, looking back at the door to the locker room with concern, hoping Arras would pull through this.
“I have something you should hear.”
The statement gave all three of them a start, as it had come from Suo, who had appeared in a blink beside them.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you,” she said worriedly. “I only wanted to tell you there’s an anomaly you need to know about.”
“What kind of anomaly?” Damon asked, dropping his hand from his chest, catching his breath.
“Well, I’ve noticed a gradual increase in the concentration of Higgs particles in our immediate area,” Suo explained.
“Isn’t that normal, though?” Danny asked her. “I mean, that’s how Arthur found us in the first place, right? It could just be Ridarin.”
“Yes, but it’s been intensifying since you stepped into the elevator,” she replied. “I normally wouldn’t consider this out of the ordinary, but with what Arras said on the way here…”
Val could hear the hesitation in Suo’s voice, and she could see that same caution in her eyes as Val must have had only seconds ago. She could see that Suo was considering something that she was afraid might nothing more than wishful thinking.
“What is it really, Suo?” Val asked, taking a step toward the immaterial woman. “Do you have an idea?”
“These readings,” Suo said, not looking at any of them. “They’re… Well, I wasn’t fully conscious for many of the appearances, but… I mean…” Breathing deeply without lungs, she steeled herself and looked directly at Danny. “These readings are similar to the ones I recorded when you had that dream in Felicity, when we were on the beach, and Ila was on the water. And when we killed Surcease, I sensed her then. And I… I believe I sense her now.”
Before anyone could reply, the door to the locker room swung open with a squeak. Arras stepped calmly out into the corridor where they stood.
“Arras, are you all right?” Val called to her. But Arras didn’t seem to hear her, as if none of them were there with her at all. She looked as if she might be sleepwalking, staring into the wall opposite the door with a vacant look. Raising her hand to her face, Arras carefully slid her eyepatch down, letting the strap fall around her neck. The glowing black hole of an eye stared at the outside world with a life seemingly all its own. The neon iris swirled, and the short veins of light branching from the eye and onto Arras’ face slinked back and forth.
The vaguest hint of pain crossed Arras’ face, though only for a moment, as if swallowed up in whatever catatonic state she was in. And without a word, yet seemingly with purpose, Arras turned and began to walk away from the others.
“Hey, Arras,” Danny called to her, following after her. “What’s going on?”
“I suppose we’re doing this now,” Damon told Suo with a shrug, following Danny, with Val at his side.
With everyone only a few feet behind her, Arras rounded one of the corners of the blocky corridor. By the time the others rounded the same corner, however, they found her at a surprising distance down the way, though she was still only walking. By the time they sped up to close that distance, Arras was already at the door to the testing chamber, which slid open automatically, as if to welcome her. Stepping through the chamber’s threshold, they found Arras standing still at the center of the capacious room.
Danny didn’t stop running until he reached Arras, stepping around her to face her directly. Except for he blue and black eye, she seemed entirely unaware of him. Putting his hands lightly on her shoulders, as if to coax her awake, Danny said her name a few times. After a few attempts, with Val and Damon watching from a few feet away, Arras’ one natural eye began to stir. In a moment of lucidity, she stared drowsily back at Danny, then tiredly took in their surroundings.
“Danny? Why am I here?”
But that lucidity didn’t last.
Arras’ eyes suddenly widened, and she started to shake uncontrollably. Yelling out in new pain, she fell forward, landing against Danny, who caught her. As she continued to scream and dig her nails into him, he slowly brought himself and her down to their knees.
“Shut up!” Arras screamed into his chest. “They won’t shut up! I just want them to stop!”
Resting his hand on the back of her head, Danny tried to connect to Arras’ nano-net. Instead of a solid connection, a jolt ran through his brain as he hit what felt like a barrier.
“Suo,” Danny called out, seemingly summoning the woman out of thin air with just her name. “Suo, do you know what’s going on?”
Visibly worried, yet remaining composed, Suo squatted down beside Danny and Arras, looking into her daughter’s gaping, watering eyes. “I’m not sure at all,” she conceded, “but her entire brain is lighting up like a star.”
Unsure of what that could mean, Danny brought Arras closer and whispered into her ear. “It’s gonna be okay,” he told her. “I promise, it’ll be okay. But I need to you talk to me. Give me something, Arras, anything that might tell us what’s happening to you.”
He could hear Arras whimper back to him, as if she was caught in some waking nightmare, unable to escape it. “I can hear you,” she seethed through her teeth. “Not just your voice. I can hear your thoughts. And everyone else’s, too. Damon. Val. Everyone outside. And I can hear her… I can hear her!”
Arras buried her head against him again, thrashing almost involuntarily in his arms, grasping fistfuls of his coat as she resisted the urge to scream again.
Looking down at her, Danny could hear her muttering something under her breath, speaking through the crippling fire in her brain. She continued to say the same things, that she could hear them all, what they were thinking. And she could even hear “her.” Then he could feel it against his hand, the band of Arras’ eyepatch, hanging loose around her neck. Lifting the strap in his hand, the idea came to him almost instantly.
“That’s far too dangerous, Daniel,” Suo said, knowing what was on his mind. “It was a miracle that the Americans were able to do it; there’s no saying it won’t kill her this time.”
“It’s better than leaving her like this, isn’t it?” Danny snapped back.
Danny and Suo locked eyes for only half a second, not wanting to waste any time as Arras continued to writhe before them.
Clutching the patch’s strap in his hand, and looking up from the girl clinging desperately to him, Danny looked back at Suo. “I need your help, Suo, and so does Arras,” he said. “We can save her, but I need you to trust me.”
Suo stared into the young man pleading before her. She could remember a moment much like this, about six months before now, when he had asked her—Suo, no one else—to trust him enough to help him. It had been in this very chamber, only now it wasn’t Danny facing down the gunfire of mindless drones, but her own daughter quivering in his arms.
As her answer, the hand with which Danny was holding the patch’s strap armored itself. Through Ridarin, Danny and Suo reconfigured the composition of the eyepatch as a whole, doing their best to replicate a design they only knew from the fried fragments of its predecessor which Arras had brought back from Nellis’ black site. Soon the strap and patch were as ready as they could be.
Lifting Arras’ head to his own, Danny pressed his lips to Arras’ ear and whispered one last thing to her. He then lifted the strap back up and around her head, situating the patch over her left eye. In an instant, her entire body went limp, and she fell heavily back against Danny, her hands loosening from his clothes. She was silent, no longer screaming, but not saying a word either.
Damon and Val took a couple steps toward them, not daring to breathe a word, lest they somehow jinx this. But Danny was not quiet, nor was he still. Gently shaking Arras, he continued to whisper to her, telling her it was time to get up, saying her name and asking for her to say something back. To give him any sign that she was still there. His heart skipped a beat when he felt her move in his arms. It wasn’t much, but it was enough. Looking down at her, he found her looking up at him, her one visible eye half-open.
With another seemingly exhausted smile, she asked him, “What was that you whispered to me? I couldn’t hear you.”
With a shuddering laugh, Danny grinned down at her. “Don’t worry about it, I’ll tell you some other time.”
Damon and Val squatted next to the two of them.
“What in the world did you do, Daniel?” Damon asked, looking back at the patch over Arras’ left eye.
“We replicated the collar Arthur and Ridge used on her at Nellis,” Danny explained. He then turned back to Arras. “Are you okay, then?”
But Arras was looking past him, captivated by something over his shoulder. Along with everyone else, including Suo, Danny turned to see what she was now so fixated on.
All five of them together could see her.
A few yards away, in the open space between the bullet-ridden freight containers and ruined vehicles, stood a young girl. She couldn’t have been more than fifteen years old, and though she was not tall, she seemed to tower over her surroundings. She wore a deep blue sundress with long black sleeves running down to her wrists. Long strokes of snow-white hair ran over her ears and shoulders, woven into a thick braid, which ran down her back.
As they stared paralyzed at her, Ila in turn stared back at them with a sweet smile and scarlet eyes.