Chapter 21

 

His eyelids twitching, Danny began to stir.  It took him some time to realize he had been asleep, or that he was even waking up, but he gradually regained awareness.

He found himself lying on some sort of cot, a thin piece of elastic fabric stretched over a sturdy though light, metal frame.  On his side, he felt the phone in his pocket press against him.  Sliding the phone from his pocket, he checked the time; about eight hours had passed since he left Manhattan.  He let the phone drop to the cot, feeling as if he had been asleep for days, not a few hours.

Wondering where he was, he raised his head and looked out a nearby window.  He saw a natural sky, white and overcast, and a moist breeze wafted into the room from outside.  Remembering the orbital, he wondered if he was back on Earth now.

The door to the room creaked open, and heavy boots on a hollow wood floor caused Danny to roll over to face whoever had entered.  A tall man looked back down at him, with long blond hair pulled back into a ponytail, revealing an inquisitive face.  His clothes were as unfamiliar as the man who wore them; they looked rustic, and they were clearly meant for braving harsher environments than Danny had ever known.

The only thing Danny could surmise about the man was that he was clearly not from Earth.

“Where am I?” Danny managed to ask.

“A planet called Vahna,” the man said simply, speaking in a pleasant tone.  “You don’t have to worry, you’re in no danger.”  He grabbed a wooden stool from against the wall and placed it next to Danny’s bed, taking a seat.  “My name is Gidio.  I’m a medic.”

“Medic?” Danny sighed, still not sure what to make of his situation.

“If you could sit up for me,” Gidio replied.  “I’d like to check your system once more, now that you’re awake.”

Accommodating the self-described doctor, Danny lifted himself from the bed, the upper half of his body feeling heavier than normal.  He put his feet over the edge of the cot, and stared back at Gidio.

“Now hold still for just a moment.”

Gidio reached with both hands for Danny’s head, causing him to flinch, scooting the cot across the wooden floor an inch.

“Not to worry,” Gidio assured him.  “I’m simply going to sync with your net in order to acquire the necessary medical data.  It’s a completely non-intrusive procedure.  If it makes you feel any better, you’re welcome to rifle through my net in return… if you like.”

Though he furrowed his brow, Danny gave in, leaning toward the doctor, his eyes closed.  He felt two hands rest gently against his head, and his nano-net began to pull up a basic report of his body.

“I’m told you experienced major neural trauma,” Gidio explained as he read over the data.  “You seem to be all right, though.  I’ve examined your nano-net a few times already, and it looks like all your systems are still functioning normally.”  He removed his hands from Danny’s head and hooked his feet over one of the stool’s rungs.  “You’re rather lucky, you know.  A shock like the one I found logged in your net could have killed you.  Fortunately, it seems your friend Arras knew how to provide the instant care you needed until you got to us.”

Danny hazily raised a hand to his face, the memories of only a few hours ago returning.  All the screaming, the anxiety and panic, the red lights.  Suo and Aurin—and how they died.  And Arras, leaning over him in a panic of her own, calling out to him, trying to stabilize him as he passed out.

“Where is everyone?” Danny finally asked, looking back up at Gidio.

“Just downstairs, actually,” Gidio said plainly.  “You’re welcome to go see them, if you’re up to it.”

Not bothering to dignify such a caveat with a response, Danny forced himself up from the cot.  The moment he was on his own feet, he stumbled.

Gidio caught Danny with a single arm, saying, “While there may not be any permanent nerve damage, you should still try not to exert yourself for now.  Are you okay to walk?”

“I’ll be fine,” Danny said, lifting himself back up and heading for the door.

The wooden door swung swiftly as he left the room, entering a long corridor, all wood like the room he had woken up in.  He plodded forward, keeping a hand partially raised to catch himself on the wall if he stumbled again.  His footsteps echoed, as Gidio’s had before, bouncing off the insulating walls, composed of stacked slices of what appeared to be tree trunks.  The hall led Danny to a short stairwell, down which he took one cautious step after another, until he reached the ground level.  The stairs led him to a spacious meeting hall, with a high ceiling, under which were arranged several long tables, lined up side by side.

The only people in the room were himself and those he was looking for.

Arras was the first to approach.  She put her arms around him, putting her chin over his shoulder.  “Are you okay?” he could hear her whisper near his ear.

“Yeah, I’m okay,” Danny whispered back.  “How about you?”

But Arras didn’t respond.  She only continued to hold him.

Val came closer as soon as the two of them separated, announcing her presence by saying, “I’m glad to see you’re finally awake.  We were worried you might just sleep the whole day away.”

“Glad to see you’re up, too,” Danny replied.  “You’re looking pretty spry for someone who took a flying leap from an airlock.”

“Thanks to you,” Val said with a grateful smile.

Looking back and forth between Val and Arras, Danny thought to ask where Ila was.  The rest of his memory returned then, leading him to his final thoughts before passing out—that perhaps Ila had actually expected what had happened.  To Danny, and Arras, and Val.  And to her parents.

Scanning the meeting hall, Danny found Ila sitting at the end of a nearby table.  Seated alone, she watched him, not bothering to come over or say a word.

Danny took the first step toward Ila, but he didn’t get far before Val stepped in his path.  “Daniel, don’t,” she said in a hush.

“Something’s up with her,” Danny whispered back to Val, hissing each word, not taking his eyes off Ila.  “I want her to explain what happened on the orbital.”

“We all do,” Val replied, still keeping her voice low, not letting Danny pass.  “But, for now, you need to contain yourself.”

“ ‘Contain’ myself?” Danny asked in exasperation.  “And why’s that?”

The doors to the meeting hall slammed open, and Endriss stepped inside.  He wore the same kind of clothes as Gidio, dark and durable, plus some sparse body armor.  A compact machine gun hung from his chest by a couple of clips, but it seemed to be standard dress, not something he planned to aim at anyone.

He looked over the room, then found Danny, and sprinted over.  “Good to see you on your feet.”

“Never expected to see you again,” Danny replied.  He smiled at the man he had last seen on Felicity, the double-agent in the New Pact fleet who had helped him, Arras, and Val escape Zero Point.

“Never thought I’d see any of you, either,” Endriss replied, also smiling, but with more mixed emotions than Danny could perceive.  “Life’s funny like that, though.”

Turning to Val, Endriss said, “I’ve spoken with the elders.  Your presence here potentially violates our arrangement, but we talked it out.  They say you’ve got their permission.”

Val lit up at this, putting her hands together.  “That’s wonderful!  Keitimas, thank you so much.”

“I guess I slept through the first half of this movie,” Danny cut in, “but who are the elders, and what exactly did they give us permission to do?”

Noticing that neither Val nor Arras were going to answer, Endriss cleared his throat and took the responsibility upon himself.  “You jumped into orbit around this planet earlier today,” he told Danny.  “We were all surprised to see such a massive clunker come out of nowhere, but we decided to board it immediately.  Turns out some other ships had already gotten the same idea and cut in the craft’s hull for us, presumably before you got to us.”  He leaned in, eyeing Danny closely.  “Your friends here already explained that we’re safe, but you should know none of us were pleased to find Rededication vessels on the ship you came in on.”

“We weren’t exactly pleased ourselves,” Danny grunted back.  “You haven’t answered my question yet.”

“You’re about as brazen as I remember,” Endriss retorted, getting back to his original topic.  “Well, we boarded the thing, and who should we find but a proxy, a ghost, and a soldier—three people our side of the galaxy knows all too well.  Oh, and one little girl, who just so happens to be the one who triggered the fall of the Coalition itself.  Now, Danny, how is it you’ve happen to come across not one, but two people who were supposed to have died ages ago?”

Endriss glanced back at Ila with a grin, but the red-eyed girl kept her eyes on Danny.  Retreating from her, leaving his grin behind, Endriss turned back to Danny.

“The bottom line is you looked like you could use some help,” Endriss concluded.  “So we brought you here.”

“I appreciate that,” Danny replied.  “If you hadn’t come when you did…”

“Don’t worry about it; it’s not like I was going to let the three of you just die on that station.  And like I said, you’ve got your clearance now.  The elders—they’re the natives’ authorities here—they’re willing to help you, too.”

“That’s great!  But…”  Danny eyed Endriss’ clothes again, realizing how relatively rough they were compared to the attire worn on Zero Point.  “What can they provide us?”

Endriss opened his mouth to reply, but Gidio entered the meeting hall, stepping from the stairs and into the conversation as if he had been there the whole time.  “The natives aren’t much for visitors,” he said, stepping around Danny, stopping next to Endriss.  “They probably won’t be lending you anything but the most basic necessities, if we’re being honest.”

Danny wasn’t sure what to make of that, but Val stepped in quickly.  “You need to understand,” she told Danny, “we’re not asking for weapons or anything.  We’ve requested asylum.”

Muttering that last word himself, Danny felt even more lost.  He turned to Arras, hoping she could clear this up, but she could not bring herself to look at him.

“They told us everything, Danny,” Endriss cut back in.  “Or at least, they told us enough.  We know your suit is out of commission, and without it, your war on Rededication is… well, over.”

“What do you mean, ‘over’?” Danny asked, offended that he would insinuate such a thing.  “We’re still alive, aren’t we?  And Rededication’s still up and running.  We’re not done by a long shot.”

Arras squeezed Danny’s hand in her own, and said “It was my decision.”  She hesitated, still finding it difficult to look up at him, but she continued.  “You’ve lost the suit’s control system and weapons platform.  It’s still tied to your nervous system, but without my parents…  It’s virtually impossible for you to ever reactivate Ridarin.”

“This arrangement is only temporary,” Val added, hoping to smooth things over as Danny’s eyes widened, then sank.  “Only until we can decide what we need to do next.  But for now, the people of this planet have offered us a place to stay.”

But Danny was not listening.  Instead, he had his eyes anchored on Ila, who was still watching him from across the room.  She did not wear the same sadness as she had aboard the orbital; rather, she looked like she was waiting, waiting for him to make a move.

“You got anything to say?” he called over to her.  “Weren’t you supposed to help us stop Truth?”

Without a word, Ila stood up and headed for the door.  Danny thought to go after her, but before he could, Arras had already broken away from the rest of them, following her little sister outside.  Sensing that nothing good was about to follow, Danny, Val, and Endriss chased after her; Gidio trailed after them in turn, moving at his own leisurely pace.

They stepped out onto the meeting hall’s wooden porch, finding Arras and Ila already several yards away across the muddy turf outside.  There was nowhere for them to go, though, with only a single village visible yet still at a far off distance.

Arras caught up with Ila and seized her by one of her arms, spinning her around.  Ila pulled her arm from Arras’ grip, but she did not run away—she stood her ground.  Yet she did not appear angry with Arras; she was still waiting, resolutely willing to take whatever Arras might have for her.  The two sisters stood among thin trees, under the ironclad sky, each staring the other down with a tense silence that left the rest of the world frozen.

Shaking her head, Arras was the first to speak.  “Tell me one thing.  Just tell me you didn’t know, Ila.  Tell me you didn’t know.”

Ila continued to hold her ground.  She was not scared, but despairing—yet she was still waiting, listening.  “I wish things could have been different,” she said softly.

“Did you know?” Arras repeated herself in a hush.  “Ila, did you know this was going to happen?”

The question floated between the two sisters for several seconds before Ila bowed her head and answered plainly.

“Yes.  I knew.”

Not a second passed before Arras ran her fist into Ila’s face, sending the girl straight to the weeds and mud.  In that moment, Endriss and Danny leapt in front of Arras, grabbing onto her on both sides, keeping her from lunging at Ila.

“Arras, you have to calm down,” Danny told her.  Yet the words left a bad taste in his mouth.  He knew what was happening, and he couldn’t blame Arras, but for some reason he could not explain, he still couldn’t bring himself to let Arras beat Ila’s face in—the face of the girl who, until today, had been their guardian and guide.

Lifting herself, Ila wiped the back of her hand across her face, smearing the blood that had dripped from her nose across her lip and cheek.  The red streaks matched the crimson in her eyes, contrasting starkly against her pale face.  Wobbling back to her feet, she stood straight and looked back at Arras, who was still desperately trying to get to her, consumed by a rage that terrified all but Ila.  She watched her sister scream and thrash at her with an odd sense of recognition, as if this was nothing new to her.

“You knew!” Arras screamed at her.  “You knew, and you did nothing!  Why, Ila?  Why would you let her kill them?”

“It had to happen this way, Arras,” Ila replied with half the passion she had riled up in her sister.  “I had no choice.”

Growling unintelligible anger, Arras struggled against Danny and Endriss, as if entirely unaware of them.  But the longer it took for her to throttle Ila, the deeper everything seemed to sink in, piercing her down to the marrow.

“If we knew she would come, we could have prepared—we could’ve fought back!  We could have killed her and ended this!”

“Do you really think killing Truth would fix anything?” Ila asked Arras, infuriating her even further.

“It’s the whole reason we gave up our lives, Ila, to stop Rededication!”

Despite her older sister’s anger, Ila stood as firmly as one of the deeply-rooted trees around them, not backing down.  Yet she cast her eyes down.  There was something Ila wanted to say, and she tried to say it, but she held herself back.

“I wouldn’t bring you this far just to betray you.”

“They’re dead, Ila!  They’re dead and it’s your fault!”  Arras’ thrashing weakened and her eyes began to water.  “They were your parents, and you can’t even cry for them.”

For the first time in a longer while than she could remember, Ila felt rage of her own.  She glared back at Arras, that fury spilling out from her scarlet eyes.  “I have shed every tear that I can, Arras; I have no more tears left to weep!”  She looked down at her feet, her eyes open wide, as if staring down the barrel of a gun.  Even Arras could see it—there was something tormenting her.  Something she so badly wanted to say.  One by one, the words crept from her lips—“if you kill Truth…”—but she stopped herself.

Regaining what composure she could, Ila looked back at Arras.  “I know it’s too much to bear, but I’m not your enemy.”  Taking a step back, for the first time since she had appeared, Ila looked genuinely uncertain—yet she remained determined.  “I came here to save you, Arras…  But you’re not the only one I’ve come to save.”

“Why would you lie to us, Ila?” Arras asked, trying to hold back tears.

“I’m so sorry, Arras, but you would have never come with me this far if you knew what it would cost.  You don’t have to forgive me, but I’m doing what I know is best.”

At last fed up with this, Endriss turned to Gidio.  “Take that little girl to the village, get her out of here,” he roared.  “I’ll deal with her later.”

“Certainly,” Gidio said, taking a step toward Ila.

“I’ll go alone,” Ila replied, turning toward the native village in the distance.  “I know the way.”

No one stopped her as she left.  Each of her steps sure and decided, she left everyone as confused as before.  While the village was visible, the path was hardly obvious, and Ila, like the others, had not set foot outside the meeting hall since arriving on Vahna.

With a heavy sigh, and with Arras no longer struggling, Endriss and Danny let go of her.  Before either of them could say a word, though, Arras turned around and headed in the opposite direction Ila had gone.  Her walk accelerated to a run, and she disappeared into the trees.

Danny went after her, but he didn’t get far before he heard Endriss call his name.

“Are we going to have a problem?” he asked.  “I don’t know what’s going on, but I can’t promise the locals will approve of your presence here if you’re any trouble.”

“It won’t be a problem,” Danny answered, picking back up his pursuit.  “We’ll figure it out!”

Glancing back at Val, Endriss shrugged.  “I guess I missed a few things since I last saw you.”

“Believe me,” Val replied, watching Danny disappear into the woods, “we all know how you feel.”

Danny ran at full speed, dodging the thin but dense trees that rushed toward him, but Arras was faster than him.  He wanted to use Ridarin to catch up to her, but trying to summon the armor only made his head hurt.  But he didn’t care.  Though his chest was heaving and his lungs stung from the exertion, he refused to stop running, to stop calling out to her.

Soon enough, he emerged into a clearing.  Leaning over, his hands on his knees, he tried to catch his breath.  Though he had nearly made himself sick, he didn’t complain, not even to himself—not when he found Arras across the clearing, leaning against a tree.  He thought to call her again, but he could sense she was aware of him.  She sank down to the damp grass, and once Danny caught his breath, he walked over and sat beside her.  Her shoulders trembled, but all he could hear was the faint plopping of her tears falling to the leaves and twigs on the ground.

Danny could not even begin to think of what he might say to her.  He couldn’t imagine what might be going on inside her, let alone what she might be thinking.  So he decided to just sit quietly beside her.

“I was ready.”

Her words fluttered quietly from her lips, but Danny could still hear her.  He only listened, unable to speak, not wanting to speak.

“When I went into the rift,” she said, “I was ready for it.  For them to die.  I was ready to die, too.  When I spoke with you on the roof at Teleios, I was ready to die, and I was ready to see you die.  I had already said goodbye to Ila; I didn’t care that she would be dead, or worse, when I woke up.  I didn’t even really care that she was dead when I woke up two centuries late.”

Arras lifted her head and looked ahead into the empty spaces between the trees, still shaking.  She then turned to Danny, tears streaming from her one exposed eye and from under her patch.  Looking back at him, she forced a crooked smile, struggling to keep it up.

“So why does it hurt so badly?” she asked him.  “I was ready, but now…  Danny, why does it hurt?”

Casting all thought aside, Danny threw himself forward, wrapping his arms around Arras and bringing her down to the forest floor.  She curled up in his arms, and wept.  Cradling her head in his hand and wrapping his arm around her waist, he held Arras against himself.  And as she sobbed into him, he said nothing.  He couldn’t, and neither could she.

There was nothing to say.  Suo and Aurin Enqelin were dead.  Ridarin was useless.  They no longer knew who had been leading them along all this time.  And so he just held her close and let her cry the tears she had tragically earned, offering nothing more than his company and a few silent tears of his own.