Chapter 26

 

Three days had already passed since Danny awoke—since everything had gone horribly wrong aboard the orbital.

Endriss had been generous with the three of them thus far, providing shelter and feeding them with the rest of their soldiers.  The setup was surprisingly better than Danny had expected, especially for a rebel movement hiding from an interstellar empire.  Though, he hadn’t set foot outside of the settlement’s commons since they arrived.

They had been given a rather sizeable canvas tent to stay in.  A section at the center connected three smaller sections, which functioned as individual living quarters.  Only a few square feet, they were enough to accommodate a cot and provide room for a few personal items.  It was the center section that provided any space for further storage.  Each of them had a private space for themselves, with enough room to sleep or change in private.

For the past three days—which, according to Danny’s phone, equated to a little more than two days on Earth—Val had gone out into the other areas of the settlement, hoping to get to know the area better.  She would come back and tell both Danny and Arras about the settlement, the people there, as well as news she had heard about the operations the resistance was running.  Even so, she would keep her visits brief; when she realized Danny was the only one who would respond, with Arras remaining utterly silent, she decided to keep to the most essential details.

Early on their second day, Val told Danny that Endriss wished to speak with her, though she wasn’t sure why.  However, their meeting would happen the next day.  She said she would fill them him in on everything the moment she was back, though.

As for Arras—since she had returned from the forest with Danny, and after they had been given their quarters, Arras had fled to her pocket of the tent.  For the past three days they were on Vahna, she remained there, sitting with her back against one of the legs of her cot, staring absently into space.  She would only leave the tent for meals in the meeting hall, where she would sit silently with Danny and Val before immediately returning to the tent.  Although she remained somewhat responsive, it was usually nothing more than a few words, maybe a nod or a hum, but only when prompted; it was clear that she wanted to be left alone.

At the start, Danny had decided to give her space, but that had changed only a few hours after Arras had first retreated.  He had sheepishly entered her section, asking if she would mind if he joined her for a little while.  Since then, she had not objected to his presence.  They would sit together for hours, with one of his hands held tightly in hers, resting on her lap.  In the night, she would rest her head on his shoulder and sleep; and he would rest his own head against her, dozing off himself.

While Danny could not fully understand what was going on inside Arras, he knew what had caused her to shut down.  He had seen her like this before, but never to such a degree, and never for so long.  He made sure to sit on her right, so he could get a good look at her uncovered eye, hoping to monitor her mood.  Arras usually appeared mostly expressionless, as if nothing was on her mind.  Yet there were moments when he would catch a glimpse of what she was thinking; she would squint occasionally, as if something was pricking her, and her hands would tighten around his, her palms sweating.

By the middle of their third day on Vahna, with Val off to her meeting with Endriss, Danny tried to break the silence one more time.

“I was thinking…”  His words faded as he waited to see how she would respond to him speaking.  “I was thinking of going to check out the rest of the settlement.  To get a better idea of where we are.  Would you like to come with me?”

Arras turned her head a little, glancing back at him through her right eye.  “No thanks.  I think I’ll stay here.”

“O-okay.”

As her grip loosened on his hand, Danny regretted his idea, but he told himself that it would do no good if they both remained sequestered here.  He also felt it would be unfair to leave Val to do all the work alone—whatever work there was to be done.  In any case, he treated his own regret by telling himself that Arras might appreciate some time to herself.

Rising from the floor, he made it to the zippered portal of the room.  With his fingers on the zipper tab, he hesitated.  Something felt off to him, leaving Arras alone in this state.  His shoulders slumping, he resigned himself to the choice he had made; if there was anything he could do for her, it was try to keep moving.  Even if she couldn’t move herself, if he kept going, perhaps he could carry her along.

Stepping outside of the tent, he was treated to the cold breeze of the Vahna.  Though he wore the layers of clothing Endriss had provided, the cold still managed to soak through.  Looking into the thickly clouded sky, he wondered if the whole planet was like this, and if it was like this naturally.  Something about the environment seemed abnormal to him, much like when he was on Eilikh; though there was nothing outwardly strange about the snowstorms there, and even without the eerie rubble of the decimated cities, there was something ominous about the place.  Something like widespread nuclear strikes had done that to the tiny planet Eilikh; but whatever disaster might have made Vahna like this, it felt far more cataclysmic, and far more ancient.  Though he couldn’t explain the feeling more than that, beyond some primal intuition.

The commons area of the settlement consisted mostly of housing, such as the canvas tent Danny had been in, but there was more than that.  Makeshift buildings functioned as administrative offices, and there was even a small school.  With children running freely through the area, busy at play, Danny realized this settlement was home to more than just a paramilitary.

On his way out of the commons, he received strange looks from several women and most of their children, who would sometimes stop in the middle of their games to wait for him to pass.  Part of him wondered if this was because they knew who he was, but he settled on the possibility that they were especially conscious of newcomers, especially ones who only appeared for meals.

He retraced the path they had taken from the meeting hall three days ago, which resided on the edge of the rebel settlement.  From there, it was a few miles to another village, populated by actual natives—that was where Ila was, upon Endriss’ insistence, to keep her separated from Arras.

Danny tried to shake that thought off for the time being.

Passing the meeting hall, he made his way to the other wing of the settlement, which was closest to the nearby village—a market place, which always seemed alive.  Metal poles propped up square, overhanging tarps, which covered tables of produce, processed food items, and other supplies.  People spoke back and forth over the tables; shopkeepers negotiated trades with the settlers, who sometimes offered concrete money, but who usually offered some other goods or services in return for what they needed.  And though most of the people behind the tables were clad in the rugged attire and accoutrements of New Pact settlers, some were dressed in what looked more like animal skins and handmade fabrics, earthy tones bearing arabesque patterns of little contrast.

Danny wasn’t at all sure of what he was looking for, or even why he had come outside.  Partly, it was sheer curiosity, the side of him that loved old sci-fi classics and which reminded him frequently that he had indeed boldly gone where no man had gone before—at least, no one from Earth.  But that intrepid spirit quickly flickered out, replaced by an unexpected social anxiety.  His eager eyes were soon feverishly dodging glances, and his heart was now pounding for different reasons.  Suddenly wishing he was back with Arras, he wondered if this was anything like what she was feeling.

He considered going back, when a hand tapped him on the back.  The touch was soft, but it might as well have been a punch to the back of his head.  Wheeling around at a fantastic, if not embarrassing speed, he found himself toe to toe with the same tall, blond man from a few days ago.

“Uh, Gidio—right?”

With a smile that brimmed with understanding, Gidio said, “Yes.  And do you prefer Daniel or Danny?  I’ve heard both.”

“Either-or.”

“Danny, then.  I’m surprised to find you here.  Out for a walk?”

“Something like that.”

Looking down from the tall man’s face, Danny saw a canvas bag in Gidio’s hands, which held a few deep purple items that looked like vegetables.

“Sorry,” Danny said.  “If you’re shopping, I won’t keep you.”

“I’ve only just finished, and they certainly don’t spoil that quickly,” Gidio assured him, looking down at his bag then only slightly back up at Danny.  “Why don’t we have a chat?”

Gidio waved Danny past a few tables, through a narrow gap between a few booths, and out to the edge of the market place.  Traveling out a few yards, Gidio stopped at a rocky outcropping that hung over a barren plain.  In the distance, Danny could see some short, rocky hills, with a dark ocean just beyond them.

“I hope you don’t mind,” Gidio said, sitting on the edge of one of the rocks overlooking the plain.  “It’s not exactly pretty, but it’s nice and out of the way.”

“Uh, sure.”

Not certain of what they were doing, Danny nonetheless took a seat next to Gidio, looking out at the pale landscape.  The surface seemed like the edge of a lake, stretched out to fill an entire plain with damp sand and rock deposits, with something like grass managing to poke up through the ground in splotches and patches.

“So, what really brings you out here?” Gidio ventured, taking a bite of one of the purple vegetables in his bag.  “I’ve seen your friend Valiya, our former madam proxy, but not you.  And not Arras, for that matter.”

Not wanting to talk about Arras with him, Danny forced himself to focus solely on any other reasons he had for leaving the tent.  “I was sort of curious about this place.  I was unconscious when we came down from the orbital, and all I’ve seen is the meeting hall and my tent.  So… I thought I’d explore.”

As if impressed, though likely not, Gidio’s eyebrows rose.  “And would you say this place is exciting, or otherwise?”

Raising an eyebrow of his own at the odd question, Danny muttered, “I honestly don’t know anything more than that you guys are definitely not just military.”

“That’s right,” Gidio confirmed, glancing back at the market.  “Actually, this settlement isn’t just for the rebel faction to hide out.  That may have been how it started out, but it’s since become a refuge for anyone who can’t return to their homes after aiding us.”

Danny thought of the women and children he had passed in the commons; their suspicion now made more sense to him.  It was no wonder that they would be wary of a stranger, especially after what circumstances had dropped them on this dismal rock.

“That’s good of you to help them like that,” Danny said.  “But aren’t you guys afraid the New Pact might find you out here?”

Pursing his lips, Gidio waved a hand and said, “We’re all a little worried, but that’s why we keep security tight.  So tight, in fact, that only a handful of us even know the coordinates to this planet.”  His eyes narrowed.  “So tight that we were all left wondering how you and your friends managed to jump your space station in orbit around this planet.”

“Hate to disappoint you, but we’re just as in the dark as you are,” Danny murmured, trying not to think of Ila.  “It just sort of… happened…”

“Well, it’s not like your station is going anywhere.  To tell you the truth, we’ve tried accessing its systems to get a look at the FTL log.  But wouldn’t you know it, the whole station seems to have gone dark, and we’ve as yet been entirely unable to reactivate it.”

“That’s strange,” Danny sighed.  He wondered if it might have been another security protocol, to shut down the entire orbital in the event that Aurin was no longer in control.  Wanting to change the subject, he instead looked back out at the distant ocean, beyond the hills.  “So, what can you tell me about this planet?”

“What’s there to tell?” Gidio asked.  “Most of the planet is ocean; all the landmasses are islands.”

Nodding along, Danny knew he was referring to the village Endriss had decided to put Ila in.  “Is this the only settlement, then?”

“Actually, we share this island with some of the natives.  They have villages on several other islands, but we’ve only settled on this one.”  As if to look back at the village itself, Gidio took another glance over his shoulder.  “Originally, these people’s ancestors were under Coalition rule—at least, that’s what we gather from their oral histories.  But since the civil war, the New Pact hasn’t found this place, so the natives have lived here entirely untouched by the rest of the universe ever since.  That’s what made us think this would be the perfect place to hide.  With the elders’ blessing, we made our encampment; and with their further blessing, we made this settlement.”

At first marveling at the magnanimity approving such a project on their own land, even if the environment wasn’t picturesque, Danny then cocked a brow again.  “Wait,” he said.  “If the New Pact doesn’t know about this place, then how did you guys find it?”

“Dumb luck, I’d say,” Gidio replied casually.  “The New Pact has always been interested in correlating lost planets, if not assimilating them.  They track the light patterns and gravitational waves emitted by nearby stars, testing for orbiting bodies, then they send survey teams to see if there’s anything habitable.  One of those finds happened to be Vahna, and the survey crew they sent just so happened to be entirely composed of rebels.  They also just so happened to be led by a young captain by the name of Savin Visk.”

Though he tried to envision Visk as a young man, Danny could only remember the slightly heavyset old man he had met aboard Ila’s Voice some time ago.  He guessed that Visk must have been involved in the faction for much longer than Gidio or Endriss ever had been.  But Rededication had only relatively recently become an issue for the New Pact; he wondered what sort of grievances Visk and his older generation of rebels might have had with the College then.

“By the way,” Danny said, “how is Visk?”

Gidio’s eyes hardened, but he spoke softly.  “Dead.  He died in one of our latest operations.”

“I…  I’m sorry to hear that,” Danny muttered, feeling careless for having asked so nonchalantly.  “If you don’t mind, what happened?”

“That depends on who you ask,” Gidio admitted.  “Recently we tried for a rather dramatic resolution to this war, but it backfired, and the Commander attempted to go down with his ship.  He certainly died, but his ship did not go down.  Some say it was the New Pact, and others say it was we ourselves that did him in.  In any event, Ila’s Voice is still in the New Pact fleet, now operated by loyalists.”

“So the op didn’t go as planned…”

“Not at all.  And the failure is still fresh on everyone’s minds.”  Gidio suddenly looked melancholic, casting a sidelong glance at Danny.  “But we haven’t given up on this war just yet.  And while some have mixed feelings, it seems Endriss hasn’t given up on you and Arras yet either—neither have I.”

“Thanks for the confidence, but…”  Danny stared down at what lay immediately beneath the cliff he was on.  “I’m not exactly of any use right now.  In case you haven’t heard, our trump card sort of got blown away the other day.”

Leaning back on his outstretched hands, Gidio looked up at the thick clouds.  “Every single man, woman, and child in this movement is scared and confused, Danny.  But they want to fight.  Do you know why that is?”

“Honestly?  No, I don’t…”

Gidio’s eyes rolled from the sky back down to Danny, staring deeply into him.  “It’s because, as far as they’re concerned, the only other option is death.  No one is certain we can win, but they want to die trying—there’s no more middle ground for us.  It’s not the ships or the guns that get every soldier out of their bed in the morning, out doing the dirty work, with no guarantee of survival.  Even the best supplies and equipment can’t convince people to run onto a battlefield when they know there’s a good chance they’ll die for nothing.”

“What is it, then?” Danny asked, as if Gidio was in possession of some secret.

“It’s simply because they choose to,” Gidio replied squarely.  “They believe in their cause because they choose to believe.  And so they choose to fight.  They choose to put their lives on the line, and they choose to say no to an oppressive regime.  They choose to do everything that’s difficult because they know that the only alternative is dissolution and death.  They choose not so they can one day live, but because choosing to fight is life itself.  So when things fall apart, as they did for Commander Visk, they find a new avenue.  They try something different.”

“You guys do seem pretty resilient.”

“That’s what I think you’ll do, Danny, if you don’t mind my saying.”  Gidio looked out over the barren plain, the look on his face implying that he saw so much more than what was on the otherwise featureless terrain.  “War comes when people refuse to accept things as they are, no matter the cost.  And because of that, war demands everything of people.  It seizes them without mercy and drags them out of their comfortable worlds, out into uncertain territory—into an unknown that stretches them to the stars and sinks them into the darkest depths.”

Cracking a smile, Gidio stood up and grabbed his bag.  “Well, I think that’s enough heavy-handed poetry.  Thank you for indulging me, Danny.  Take care.”

Without much else, Gidio turned and simply left.  Danny muttered a response and waved goodbye before turning back to the plain.  His mind was racing, turning over each of the medic’s words, wondering what might be beneath them.  All he could find was a strangely distant memory, a conversation he had shared with Damon months ago in Teleios tower, when their mission had only just begun.

Teleios,” Danny whispered to himself, letting the Greek word tumble from his lips and dissolve into the air.

And there he sat with his realization, not on the edge of a cliff, but on the edge of teleioswith the pleasure of looking ambiguity right in the eye, as Damon had put it.

Rising to his feet, he felt like his body weighed a few tons, but he knew why he had come here.  He needed somewhere to think, someone to talk to—Gidio had provided that, whether he realized it or not.  And though it was difficult to imagine, let alone to accept, Danny knew what limit he would have to push himself to.

He didn’t know what to do next—but he knew who might.