Chapter 33

 

Damon Hale returned to New York sometime in 1989 with a crutch and a shrapnel-shredded thigh that would not properly serve him until a number of surgeries later.  As far as anyone was concerned, he had been training new recruits for the CIA, when an exercise had gone terribly wrong.  He would never be able to tell anyone where he had really been, what he had really been up to, what crisis he and a handful of Americans and Soviets had barely managed to prevent.

While the rest of the world would only ever believe he had returned from Langley, he had in fact come from Afghanistan.  That was where he and what remained of his team, plus a handful of determined Soviets, had prevented a group of radicals from detonating a nuclear weapon they had stolen from the USSR.  Such a plot was intended as a scare tactic, something to deter all major participants in the Cold War from ever wishing to “push the button.”  Both the US and the Soviet Union disagreed with this plan and acted accordingly.

To the public, Damon was someone who had simply drawn a bad hand.  To a select few among Langley and the Kremlin, he was received with mixed feelings, though perceived overall as an asset.  Yet none of these parties, nor their perceptions of him, interested Damon.  The black operation he had embarked upon earlier that year had indeed ended in success, but he had lost far more than he was ever willing to surrender.

He could still remember every detail of her face—as well as what her supposed comrades had done to her in the end.  When their team discovered that Sofia was working with the radicals, bullets began to fly, and though ultimately the device was recaptured, the radicals had fled Iraq.  They had taken Sofia with them, a woman who would have never made it out of the country had Damon been able to pull the trigger when he had the chance…

Damon and his team chased the radicals and their Soviet ally through Iran, all the way into Afghanistan.  They found them in a small outpost, tucked away in one of the country’s mountain ranges.   Though the altercation was swift, it didn’t leave Damon without marks.  One well-placed charge blew him off his feet, gnarling his leg, but he did not stop.  He could remember leaning against a wall for support, hobbling pathetically to the last building in the camp.

That was where he found her.  Sofia—stripped, ravaged, and lifeless.

Due to his injuries, Damon was discharged from active duty after the op, though he was certain the CIA would never let him go without some sort of surveillance—not with what he knew.  Yet, returning home, unable to speak with anyone about what he had experienced in the Middle East, he didn’t care much about the eyes watching him from the shadows, or the stories he could never tell.  Those things never haunted him, and they never would; there was only one thing that ever could.

From the moment they had found her body, Damon wanted to believe Sofia’s death had been at the hands of Afghan nationalists, disgruntled by another Soviet in their midst.  Yet he didn’t have the luxury of thinking she had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time, not with the words her tormenters and killers had left carved into her stomach.  It was not Pashto or Dari Persian, the two dominant languages of Afghanistan, but Arabic, the national language of Iraq, the native tongue of the radicals they had chased down.  The radicals who had carved, among other things, one word in particular into the ally they had betrayed, a word which said far more than itself, yet which left nothing but mystery for Damon.

The word was Iblis—devil.

For whatever reason, the people Sofia had trusted had turned on her.  Damon never knew why; though he certainly took guesses, they were only ever groundless, pointlessly speculative.  All he had was the trauma of remembering the death of the only woman he had ever really loved.

Two months after returning home, Priscilla Hale, Damon’s mother, called him to a remote location north of Ithaca, New York.  Caring little for the surveillance that was likely still interested in him, Damon met his mother at the old mansion of his ancestor, Thaddeus Mack.  That was the place where and the day when Priscilla Hale fully initiated her son Damon into the mysteries their family had kept for centuries and generations.

She showed him an aged, black-and-white photograph of his great-grandfather, Kenneth Hakes, who was poised before what looked like some sort of vehicle—what Priscilla told her son was a spaceship.  Skeptical at first, Damon was well convinced once his mother showed him in person the actual ship in the picture.

Priscilla Hale had brought Damon to Thaddeus Mack’s faux manor for one reason: to show him the strange fountain outside, and to tell him of who was hidden within its mossy puddle.

Taking these revelations seriously, Damon borrowed each of his ancestor Asael Mack’s journals.  One after the other, with delicacy yet fire, he turned one decrepit page after another, ever reminding himself that what he was reading was not historical fiction.  Though the journals were not devoid of the typical records of his era, Asael was clearly fascinated by a certain friend he had made in early 1777, a man named “Arrenn Annkellenn, who was from another earth.”

One page after another, Asael detailed what he could of this man’s distant world, describing their fantastic tools and machines in the best terms a man of the eighteenth century could conjure.  He spoke of carriages that could take to the sky, and even go where the sky was no longer night or day—vehicles which could cross the entire firmament, from one star to another, in the “twinkling of an eye.”

He also wrote of a dreaded “Coalition,” which he almost cheerfully compared to the British Empire.  As the months and years progressed, however, and after the end of the war, Asael began to see this Coalition as the perpetrators of far more “eville” than he could ever ascribe to the British.  Soon enough, Asael became sympathetic with the plight of this “Arrenn” and his family, going so far as to enlist in their cause.

That was when things changed for Damon.  Up until then, the writings of his long-gone ancestor had been entertaining, if not intriguing—yet they seemed so distant, holding nothing relevant for his own era, with the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union.  Yet he found a single page which made the tall tales of Asael Mack all too real.

He found a drawing, done by Asael himself, of a young woman.  Through Asael’s careful attention to detail, and his bold revisions from one version to the next, Damon found himself looking into the beautiful features of the very daughter of “Arrenn Annkellenn.”  Her face was pale, and the artist was unafraid of attempting to convey this; she had locks of hair so black that Asael had used iron-gall ink, which had bled through to other pages, to capture its darkness; and in this sea of black and white, there were two strikingly blue eyes, which seemed to shred Damon to pieces, analyzing him dispassionately, before leaving him to put himself back together.

Asael had met this girl only once, but her face had stayed with him ever since.  He wasn’t sure “by what foraine caractors the men of her earth may spell her name,” but he could not help but find her name delightfully familiar.

“Eris” was the spelling Asael chose, and “how fit the goddesse of chaos and discord and strife should bee to shatter the stars and their mysterious earths, that they might be built back up in a new image.”

Though his ancestor’s words had seemed so abstract before, this one drawing was enough to convey to Damon all Asael Mack had felt upon looking into the face of the girl whom he did not hesitate to call a “goddesse.”  Damon could feel his heart break as he looked into her face, wondering if this was what had happened to Asael.  Yet he knew this shock could never have come for the same reasons; he did not feel a sudden urge for revolution as he stared into this girl’s hand-drawn eyes, but instead felt a piercing sense of recognition.

She looked so much like Sofia.

In the coming weeks, Damon reread Asael’s journals, taking this new sensation with him.  And as he did so, the words seemed to take on new life; as if they were simply corpses before, now he felt as if he could dance with the spirits behind these cursive letters.  No longer did he find himself reading of Asael Mack, “Arrenn Annkellinn,” or even his daughter “Eris”—rather, he was reading into the mind of the Russian woman to whom his heart belonged.  Every one of these three people’s words reminded him of the final conversation he had shared with Sofia, while he had a Beretta pressed to her forehead.  He didn’t hear romantic cries for upheaval and revolution, if not out and out revolt; rather, he heard the tender, thoughtful words of a woman who was willing to surrender all security and surety in her life to pursue what she truly believed was ultimately good.

Though their terminology differed, they all wished for the same thing: to free their people from oppression and destruction.  The nuclear forces of the United States and the Soviet Union, on the one hand; the Coalition and the sword they wielded over their people’s heads, “Rededication,” on the other.  And when these two worlds, his own and that of Asael Mack and his friends of “another earth,” had become so germane, Damon made his decision.

He could not give Sofia what she wanted when she was alive, a genuinely free Russia and world.  But perhaps he could at least contribute to freeing the people of this young woman named “Eris.”

Upon hearing her son’s decision, Priscilla Hale promptly shipped Damon off to Stanford University, where she told him he would continually educate himself in courses she and Joseph Hale would choose on his behalf.  All of this would be in preparation for Damon to take his place in the family’s mysteries, to position himself to fulfill the promise their predecessor Asael had made centuries ago.  Upon the death of his father, Damon would take over Teleios, and then await the day he might live to see for himself.

That was all nearly thirty years ago.  And now, after all that time, his commitment had never faded—though he had never been certain he would indeed be the one to fulfill Asael’s promise to Aurin Enqelin.

Waiting outside the room in which he had met with the four senators, Damon sat alone, pondering how he had ever ended up beneath the White House, on a world that was now under assault by the very thing Asael, Aurin, and Arras had plotted to destroy in the eighteenth century.  His train of thought was interrupted, however, when Virgil stepped outside the room.

“Good news,” he said, sinking down the side of the wall until he was sitting next to Damon.  “It seems you’ve managed to convince them to pocket the Manhattan Protocol once again—at least for now.  Admittedly, if the senators’ patience wears too thin and Rededication is not stopped, then the protocol will likely be back on the table.  But you’ve bought us time, perhaps a good amount of it.  You should be well pleased with yourself.”

With an unrestrained smile, Virgil waited for Damon to reply, but no response came.  Only cluttered silence.

“With this out of the way,” he went on, “we’re now free to focus on what truly matters: putting 85-11 to good use.”

Still, Damon said nothing.  Virgil eyed him closely, trying to gauge what might be going on inside his friend.

“What’s the matter, Damon?”

Called back to the conversation by such a direct inquiry, Damon turned his head.  “Sorry, there’s nothing wrong.  I was just… thinking.”

“Whatever about?”

“Admittedly, I was pitying myself a little.  I was thinking that if the senators manage to hold off on the protocol, that I have to put all my trust in Arras and the others to finish this.  And if that’s all I can do at this point… I can’t help but think my role in the Enqelins’ plan has finally… ended.”

Still a little perplexed, Virgil cocked an eyebrow.  “In what way?”

“Teleios was originally founded to arm the American revolutionaries during their war of independence,” Damon explained, a large part of his mind still caught up in his own private thoughts.  “However, after Asael Mack met Aurin Enqelin, Teleios’ sole reason for existence was to somehow arm Arras when she awoke, to protect her ship, and to send her on her way.  But now all of that is over.  I’ve fulfilled Asael Mack’s promise to the Enqelins.  It’s finished…  And now, I simply feel a little strange.”

“Rededication is still right over our heads, Damon,” Virgil almost protested.  “You certainly can’t be ‘finished’ yet.”

Leaning back against the wall, turning away from Damon, Virgil sighed deeply, then fell silent.  After a few seconds, he returned to the conversation.

“You know, ‘Virgil’ isn’t my real name.”

“I guessed as much,” Damon shrugged.

“Then do you know why I chose that name?”

“I suppose it’s a reference.”

Virgil smiled self-consciously, chuckling to himself.  “Dante’s Divine Comedy.  The long-dead poet Virgil finds Dante at his greatest hour in life, wandering directionless through the thick forest of life.  He then leads hapless Dante into the underbelly of the world, into Inferno and on through to Paradise.  I wanted to be the Virgil to your lot’s collective Dante, but regrettably it seems I’ve only left you in Purgatory, nestled restlessly between heaven and hell.”

“Certainly not!”

Damon’s curt response made Virgil almost jump.  Looking back at the now very alive American beside him, the MI6 agent wondered what fires he had just stoked in his friend.

“My entire family spent their lives preparing to send Arras Enqelin on her way,” Damon told Virgil, now far more present.  “And now that she’s gone, the only thing left for me to do in her family’s scenario is wait for her return, so she can make good on the plan—so she can destroy Rededication.”  Turning to the wall opposite the two of them, he settled back against the wall behind him.  “But it’s not that I feel as if I’ve finished all the work I have to do.  It’s simply that at this moment, I’m especially conscious of the fact that that chapter of my life has ended.”

Still a little taken aback, Virgil ventured to ask, “What do you plan to do, then?”

“If 85-11 really is in the hands of the US and the UK now, there’s really no going back,” Damon mused.  “I want to help them use the tech the Coalition left behind to build a better world, as starry-eyed as that sounds.  I want to help build a world a lot like the one Arras came from, but one which doesn’t have to make the same mistakes as the Coalition.”

“I suppose that would be a world which hasn’t lost its understanding of what it means to be human,” Virgil added with a wry smile.

Together, they both returned to that rural hillside between Pennsylvania and Philadelphia.  Though it had only been a few days ago, with everything that had come thereafter, it might as well have been a lifetime ago.  Yet they both remembered; they remembered when Virgil had held that gun to Damon, and when Damon had convinced him to rescue people he saw as simply non-essential—not because they were essential, but because they were friends.  Because if they had abandoned Arras, Eli Vale, and the Eick family, even if they had stopped Rededication, they would have done so at the loss of their own humanity.

“So here we are,” Virgil concluded, glancing back at Damon.  “What now?”

“I believe that Arras, Danny, and Valiya really will save this world,” Damon replied.  “In the meantime, we might as well prepare for what comes after.”

The two men stood up, Virgil helping Damon to his feet, handing him his old cane.

“On an unrelated note,” Damon said, placing his weight on Asael’s old walking stick, studying Virgil closely, “what is your real name?”

With a blithe smile, Virgil recalled a line from the very book which had given him the name he bore in this strange world.  “Bene ascolta chi la nota,” he said, patting Damon on the shoulder as he walked away.  “A good listener takes notes.”

Matching the agent’s carefree expression, Damon watched Virgil walk for a few more seconds before sidling up beside him.  Together, they wound their way through the bunker beneath the White House, off to their next task.