With a stun-gun in his hands, Danny made his way out of the testing chamber into the corridor.
The weapon snapped and shifted at his touch, its range increasing, its charge growing—enough to punch through the air without the need for direct contact with its target. He decided to trade safety for functionality; the kind of high-voltage charge required to eliminate the need for direct contact would need to create enough amps in current to arc through the air. However, once such a current connected with the target, unless they were wearing sufficient body armor, the strike could potentially stop their heart.
It was simple math, Ohm’s Law: the voltage in his stun-gun, divided by the resistance of the air and his target, would equal the amperage—and he needed enough amps to down whoever was coming for him. Making the calculations with Suo as he walked the few yards down the corridor, armored up, they altered the battery in the stun-gun to pulsate its charge, with each strobe lasting only a few hundred nanoseconds per pull of the trigger. It wouldn’t be comfortable for whoever caught the resultant shock, but lessening the amount of stored energy would make the current dissipate more quickly, and perhaps make the difference between a stunned intruder and something more akin to the victim of a lightning strike.
His weapon ready, Danny prepared to round the final corner before the elevator. Through the wall, Ridarin displayed four blue mannequins ascending the final few feet to the same floor, huddled behind the elevator’s doors. As he rounded the final corner, he raised his stun-gun. He could see the elevator doors were already open, but from his angle he couldn’t look directly into the cart. Ridarin continued to monitor the four targets, displaying them as featureless humanoid silhouettes, mapping their movements.
At this range, Ridarin noted that each person in the elevator was carrying a weapon on their right thigh—two FN Five-sevens, one SIG Sauer P229, and a Glock 17 Gen4. All pistols, Danny told himself; he guessed these guys hadn’t come this far looking for a bathroom, but they would be easy to handle.
Yet something seemed off; Suo noticed it, too. Though the doors to the elevator were open and each of the men were crouched inside, as if ready to move in, none of them had drawn their weapon. Instead, one of them bravely approached the exit to the cart, then stopped.
“Is there anyone out there?”
Danny was taken aback to hear one of the men so brazenly give away his position, but he kept his intricately-modified weapon ready nonetheless. “Nobody here but us chickens,” he called back. “Who’s asking?”
“Special Agent William Harris,” the same man replied. “Plus three field agents.”
“Should I know who you are?”
“Is that Daniel Eick?”
Twitching at hearing his own name come from this stranger, Danny tried not to let that surprise show. “Let’s see some identification, Special Agent William Harris. Maybe a badge.”
“Oh, bloody hell!” came another voice from inside the elevator, quite different from that of Harris. “Daniel, would you kindly stop the police-procedural routine? This isn’t television.”
One of the four blue mannequins in Danny’s line of sight stood upright, almost nonchalant compared to the other three with him. Squinting a little, the corner of his mouth curling, Danny muttered back to himself some of what he had just heard before it clicked—he knew that voice.
“Is that you, Virgil?”
“Indeed,” came the same melodious, western European accent. “Now may we please exit the lift? Believe it or not, it’s rather cramped in here.”
All urgency attempted to leave Danny when he heard his familiar voice, but he fought that urge to let down his guard. Stun-gun still at the ready, he proceeded as if Virgil was just one of the intruders.
“Virgil, you come out first,” Danny ordered. “Slowly, and with your hands up.”
“Don’t be shirty with me, Daniel,” was the snide reply he received.
His shoulders slumping, that same curl in his lip returning, Danny nearly groaned. “Just get out here, Virgil.”
Without further delay, the one upright man in the elevator stepped into the open, shifting from a blue mannequin to a detailed human. In business casual attire, his sleeves rolled up, with a black tac vest strapped over his shirt, there stood Virgil. He had his hands raised halfheartedly, but he allowed them to flop down to his sides after only a second of posturing. A surprisingly friendly smile wafted from Virgil, directed at the armored young man down the corridor, whom he had come to know quite well in only a few days.
“Good afternoon,” Virgil almost sang to Danny. “You’re looking fit as ever. Permission to come aboard, captain?”
The tension left Danny, and he replied, “Granted. But I’m going to need your friends to toss their guns down the other end of the hall.” He lowered his weapon, but kept it at his waist, unsure of who else might come out of that elevator.
“Well, boys, you heard the man,” Virgil jovially relayed back into the elevator. “Come along now!”
The remaining three mannequins emerged into plain sight, becoming men clad similarly to Virgil. Carefully reaching for the handguns on their legs, each of them slowly removed their weapon and did as they were instructed. Two FN Five-sevens and one SIG slid across the floor, several yards down the hall.
Each of the three men with Virgil then stared in awe at Danny, flabbergasted by who—or what—was standing down the hall from them. Danny realized only then that Virgil was the only one of them who had seen him wearing Ridarin in person; he must have appeared intimidatingly strange to the others. Nevertheless, he let only his helmet slip away before waving the new arrivals over.
Virgil confidently led his three companions to the crimson guard down the way. All the while, Danny kept his weapon at his hip; it wasn’t that he wanted to use it, but given how much trouble he had gone through to fabricate the thing, and considering he still had no idea who these other men really were, he thought he’d keep it handy for now.
Stepping aside for the last three feet, Virgil allowed one of the men to pass him and approach Danny. Like Virgil, this man looked like an office worker turned militiaman; accept for the holster and the vest, he might have fit right in with the staff who normally worked a few stories below this level.
“Special Agent William Harris,” he said in the same tone as before, extending a hand to Danny. “Thank you for allowing us in.”
Danny looked down at the hand, then back up at Harris. “Sorry, I’m not sure if this suit can shake a hand without crushing it.”
He had meant it as something of a morbid joke, but Harris seemed to take him seriously—and even respected him for the supposed insight. “I’ve heard you’re pretty formidable.”
Harris had quickly overcome his initial shock at seeing Ridarin for the first time, and now appeared confident though polite, as if conversing with a fellow agent and not the person who had until recently spent a good amount of thought on how to effectively zap him into submission. Weighing Harris’ expression, taking it as genuine, Danny couldn’t help but wonder if these agents knew anything about him—or about Nellis.
“These two,” Harris suddenly said, turning to his other companions, “are with me—Field Agents Benson and Beck.”
Though these two were as stout as Harris, Danny could tell who the junior officers were in their trio. He nodded at the two agents behind Harris, and they nodded silently back.
“So who are you guys with?” Danny finally asked. “FBI? Because we had FBI here recently, and it wasn’t great.”
Looking more serious, Harris said squarely, “We’re not FBI. About that badge you wanted to see…”
Harris reached into his pocket and pulled out a black leather wallet, flipping it open and handing it off to Danny. Woven to one of the sides of the wallet was a gold star with rounded tips; at its center was a blue and red emblem of the American flag, with a circle of bold text encircling it—United States Secret Service.
Reading the words aloud, Danny handed Harris back his badge. “What’s the Secret Service want with us?”
“It would be better if we could speak with all of you at once,” Harris replied, pocketing his wallet.
Danny mulled this over for a second before Virgil interrupted him.
“Daniel, if you can’t trust them,” he said, “then trust me. We can’t afford to shilly-shally.”
“Yeah, seems like everyone’s short on time today,” Danny replied, still in thought. “Fine, I’ll take you to the others. But anyone who starts acting up is gonna get tased.”
Danny led the four intruders-turned-guests around the corner and to the testing chamber, with Virgil closest behind him.
“Don’t freak out,” was all Danny could say as he entered the chamber before Virgil and the three agents followed him in.
The three unfamiliar faces put everyone on edge, but Virgil’s unexpected appearance seemed to soften the blow. Even so, no one else in the room seemed ready to welcome anyone else on Danny’s heels.
“What is the meaning of this?” Damon demanded to know, standing up from a crumbled chunk of concrete.
Virgil was the first to step forward, putting out his hands to Damon, as if to pat down the flames. “Now, Damon, I understand you may be rather cross with us—”
“How is it you even got in?” Damon persisted, still fuming, even at Virgil.
“Oh, that was easy,” Virgil answered, dropping his hands. “The same escape route you and the others used to evade the FBI last week—”
“That’s putting it rather casually…”
“We used that in reverse to get in,” Virgil finished. “Busting open the steel security door wasn’t simple, but hacking the elevator to take us up here was as easy for us as it was for the FBI.”
“Of course it was,” Damon murmured, rubbing at the space between his eyes. Having smoothed out some of his irritation, he turned to the three agents. “I see you took the liberty of bringing friends.”
“Business partners,” Virgil corrected.
“Secret Service, actually,” Danny elaborated, siding with Damon. “Come to think of it, Virgil, where’d you find these guys? You’re gone for a couple days, and suddenly you come back with—”
Raising another hand to stymie any other questions, Virgil looked back at Damon, as if to wordlessly acknowledge his own impropriety. “I know you have questions; I could ask a few myself,” he said. He waved a hand toward Ila, which prompted her to step back toward her parents, who were invisible to Harris and his agents. “I could ask where this young lady came from—a pleasure, by the way, miss—but that’s not why I’m here. Now, I need each of you to please be patient and hear us out.”
When no one else spoke up, Virgil took that as his cue to proceed. He waved Harris over.
The special agent cautiously strode over to Damon, then pulled a cell phone from behind his vest, pressing a single button and speed-dialing a certain number. He put the call on speaker phone, then extended the device to Damon. “It’s for you,” was all Harris said as the phone rang for all to hear.
Still somewhat perturbed, Damon took the phone and waited for the call to connect. When the phone was quiet, he decided to begin the conversation. “Who is this?” he asked plainly.
“One of the last friends you’ve got.” It was a woman’s voice, firm, articulate, and painfully familiar—Henrietta Ridge. “If you’re calling me, then I guess that means Harris’ team made it to you without getting shot.”
“Madam President,” Damon said, mustering what courtesy he could for the woman. “Your men must be lucky.”
“I thought a familiar face might help,” Henrietta replied, her voice hollow and tinny. “I knew you wouldn’t be able to play nice with the FBI or the military, so I made some arrangements, just for you. Harris, Benson, and Beck—they’re part of my personal security detail. I sent them to you because I knew I could trust them. You can trust them, too, Damon. The only people who even know they’re there are everyone in that supposedly secret shooting range of yours, and me.”
“How comforting,” Damon blatantly lied. “What is it you want, Henrietta?”
“I need your help.” Her words hung in the air for a moment, as if they had surprised her more than her listeners. “And you and your friends could clearly use some help, too.”
“And what does our nation’s commander-in-chief require of a lowly arms dealer and his fellow former-fugitives?”
“I’d prefer to discuss the details in person, not over the phone.”
“As promising as this already sounds, if that’s what you wanted, then you should have come yourself.”
“This isn’t like last time, Damon.” Henrietta’s tone seemed to intensify, but it wasn’t anger that pushed her voice through the phone. “I’m not trying to step on your toes. If you’re interested, I can get you and your friends safe passage out of New York. I can protect you.”
Damon staggered inside hearing this, but he thought to test the waters further before diving in. “I’m not so sure we’re as ‘in need’ as you say we are, Henrietta. In fact, we have plans to leave the planet altogether.”
“I thought as much,” Henrietta replied lowly. “My men have strict orders to not impede whatever you might be up to, especially not if it has to do with knocking out Rededication. However, if any of you just so happen to be in town and have some free time on your hands, I could put you to work.”
“Not if we don’t know what kind of ‘work’ we’ll be doing,” Damon said straightforwardly.
“Madam President, if you could give us just a moment,” Virgil cut in, taking a step toward Damon and the phone. Knowing what Damon was after, Virgil looked him dead in the eyes, doing his best to relay what he could without potentially compromising anything confidential. “You may have already guessed, Damon, but Earth is not simply taking this invasion on the chin; we’re going to fight back. And not merely with the old tricks we’ve been using until now. However, there are still… wrinkles that must be ironed out, certain wrinkles which we believe you are far more qualified to iron than others.” Slowly waving the phone down, covering the receiver, he lowered his voice. “If you and the others have a plan of your own to fight back, then do as you please. Neither she nor anyone else is after your weapon or any of your other assets—they’ve learned their lesson. We’re simply requesting assistance from the only people we know who could provide it. And we could use all the help we can get.”
Breaking eye contact as Virgil spoke, Damon considered every word. Yet, throughout the entire conversation thus far, all he could think of was 85-11. He knew the project was still fresh on everyone else’s mind, too—including Virgil’s. It hadn’t been but a week ago that the SIS special agent had helped them evade capture while they were on the run from the United States government.
This made Damon wonder all the more what Virgil was doing working with the Secret Service, let alone Henrietta Ridge. Though he didn’t dare mention any of this aloud, he knew this had something to do not only with Rededication, but 85-11—which would inevitably involve him. The only question was what angle Henrietta was trying to work.
Raising the receiver again, Damon spoke into the phone. “Madam President, aren’t you concerned at all with the consequences of exhausting the ultimatum you’ve been issued?”
“I’m no fool, Damon,” Henrietta replied. “Judging by what I know of Rededication, none of this adds up anyway. I think whoever’s working behind the curtains is selling us snake oil. And since you haven’t told me to go to hell just yet, I’m willing to bet we’re on the same page.”
“Perhaps,” Damon replied, his voice lightening. “But how am I to trust you? Your agents might just kill whoever goes with them. I trust Virgil, but these boys might get a little trigger happy the moment he turns his back.”
“Don’t screw with me, Damon,” Henrietta retorted, swiftly losing what patience she had. “I could have sent the FBI, the Air Force, or maybe some marines—there’s plenty to choose from among the many, many people who have an axe to grind against you and your friends after what happened last week. Hell, I could’ve just sent a cruise missile into that tower of yours and leveled the damn thing; even if it killed everyone outside, I’d still go down in history as a hero—that is, if we still have luxuries like history when this is all over. But I’ve never been one to run errands for enemies. If I wanted you dead, you’d be dead. But you’re not… Don’t make me say it again.”
Henrietta fell silent once again, and Damon could tell it was not for dramatic effect. She struggled to say what came next, but she spoke with undeniable sincerity.
“I need your help.”
Staying quiet, Damon looked back at the others, Danny and Arras, Valiya and Ila, Aurin and Suo. As they waited for him to make the call, their plans already decided, he looked at them the same way he might look into an old photograph—a static image which conjured a hurricane of memories.
His eyes traveled over the group, then focused on Ila alone. They both locked eyes, each of them deep in their own thoughts. He wondered if she might have somehow known this would happen. “You have impeccable timing,” he whispered to the young girl. But Ila only smiled back, as if this was nothing more than serendipity.
With a heavy sigh, Damon raised the phone once more. “Madam President, I would be delighted to help with whatever project you may have in mind.”
Several tense seconds passed before Henrietta replied, her voice coming in as sincere as it had a moment ago. “Thank you, Damon. I’ll see you soon.”
The call ended there, and Damon handed the phone back to Harris.
“How many will we be bringing with us, then?” the agent asked as he took the phone from Damon.
“Only me,” Damon quickly replied.
“We should leave as soon as possible, then,” Harris said. “I’ll make the final preparations, then we’ll depart.”
The agent stepped a few paces away, bringing his fingers to an ear-piece to deliver cryptic commands to someone else on the other end of the channel. Damon didn’t give that much thought, though. He only paid attention to his friends, who converged on him the moment Harris had stepped away. Ila stood off with Aurin and Suo, leaving Arras, Danny, and Val to stand alone with Damon—none of them able to utter a word, it seemed.
They all traded quiet looks for a short while before Damon broke the silence. “Don’t worry about me,” he told them. “We won’t likely see each other for some time, but it’s what must be done.”
They all knew that, and no one could deny it. But as the seconds ticked on, Damon appeared progressively more overcome than he would ever let on. Soon, without a word, he set his cane against a nearby freight container and put his arms around all three of them, pulling them close.
“I’m glad I had the chance to meet each of you,” he sighed to them before taking a deep breath. “Take your time, do this the way it should be done, and then hurry home.”
They stood together for what felt like forever, his arms encircling all three of them. Danny, Arras, and Val awkwardly worked their hands and arms around him as well. None of them knew how long it would be until they saw each other again, but they thought it would be best to treat this as their final goodbye.
In time, Damon released them and took his cane from the freight container. As if having waited for them to separate, Harris told Damon it was time to leave. Damon replied with an affirmative and followed the special agent and his two partners.
Virgil remained where he was for a moment, having witnessed their last goodbye himself. Finding his voice once more, he tossed Arras a cell phone from his pocket. “If by chance you happen to be around again,” he told her and the others, “give the number on that phone a ring. I’ll find you after that, as well as Damon.”
Having nothing else he could possibly tell them, Virgil finally said, “Take care,” then followed everyone else out of the testing chamber.
Watching Damon and Virgil leave, Danny felt more conscious than ever of that unexplainable hole that seemed to be fraying at the edges inside him. It only widened as Damon walked out, and he wasn’t sure how to deal with that. His fingers curling, he realized how sweaty his palms were, and he tried to breathe. Another pair of hands took one of his loose fists; he glanced over at Arras, who leaned against him, the same look in her eyes as was in his own. Valiya, too, felt that same emptiness.
Together, not needing to share a word, they decided to give Damon and Virgil enough time to get clear of the area. When they were far enough away, Danny, Arras, Val, and Ila would make their exit, one no one would miss—one that would tell the entire world they were leaving.