Danny’s eyes fluttered open, catching the rays of an abnormally bright sun. The clouds having vanished altogether, the distant sun was now totally free to wash Vahna in its bluish-white light, alongside its far closer counterpart, the blue gas giant.
Yet something caught his attention more quickly than the sun or the planet. Though it took a moment to process what it was with his still waking mind, several markers appeared in his field of vision, indicated by his nano-net. He shot awake when he realized they were ships, and that they did not belong to the rebels. Like swarms of bugs, Rededication attack craft and troop transports dove into Vahna’s atmosphere. Their destination was obvious—the larger island.
Leaping to his feet, Danny found Ila already up and looking into the sky.
“Let’s go,” he said firmly, making his way back to the coast.
Reaching the shore, he found that the tide had receded, though not to the low depth it was at when they first arrived on the small island.
“The water’s still too high for us to cross,” Ila told him, coming up from behind.
“How the hell did Rededication get here?” Danny demanded to know, turning back to her. “Did they track us?”
“They must have found us through our FTL events,” Ila surmised. “We may have made them close to stars, but that only slowed Truth down.”
Looking back out over the water, Danny tried to get a visual on what might be happening on the other island. Yet all he could see was the distant specks of Rededication ships descending, some opening fire from the air. To his horror, he could see thickening columns of smoke starting to rise from the tree lines.
On instinct, he tried to activate Ridarin, but he was met with a sharp headache instead. Wincing at the misfire, all he could think about was how the others might be faring; if Rededication was focused on that one island, they would inevitably get dragged into the mess. Even if he couldn’t engage the suit, he refused to let Arras or Valiya fight alone, no matter how many rebel soldiers would be with them.
“Screw this!” he finally burst, jumping down to the dark sand, turning back only to speak to Ila. “Come on, we have to get back.”
Sloshing out a few feet from the shore, the water rose quickly to Danny’s knees. He could hear Ila coming up behind him, treading more water with her shorter stature. “Get on my back,” he told her. “Our combined weight should keep us from getting knocked off the bridge.”
Quickly, Ila reached up for his shoulders. Under the water, it was easier to lift herself, requiring little assistance. Once she had a safe hold on him, Ila told Danny she was ready to go. And without another word, Danny pressed forward through the thick, temperamental water.
As much as he wanted to rush, Danny still cautiously checked the footing of each of his steps; regardless of how quickly he trudged through the cold water, it would do them no good if he ran them both right off the land bridge.
Soaked to the bone from their midsections down, they reached the shore of the larger island. Ila leapt down from Danny’s back once he was far enough out of the water. Wasting no time, ignoring the weight of their wet clothes, they ran back down the path they had taken the day before. In the distance, they could hear the sounds of explosions, and the air seemed to get hotter the farther they ran.
Coming out of the trees, they entered the fields.
Stepping onto the central path that bifurcated the expansive fields, they found the orphans and their adult caretakers scrambling in all directions. The scene appeared haphazard at first, but Ila and Danny soon realized that each person they passed had a destination in mind and a task to perform. There were a number of fires in the fields, and gunfire could be heard cackling in the distance, yet everyone worked as if there was not a war going on. They dug out the crops that were immediately around the burning portions of the fields, creating a perimeter to limit the fires’ spread, while others heaped dirt and soil onto the flames.
Danny looked to Ila, asking with only a glance if they should stop to help, but she had already anticipated his question. “They’ll be all right,” she assured him, speaking now with what could have been sure foresight. “We need to get to the others.”
Although he agreed, the devastation seemed only to increase the further they went. Heading back to the main village, the sounds of soldiers and automatons trading bullets grew louder, rivaling Danny and Ila’s stomping feet and their heavy breaths. By the time they reached the village, it was already too late. Many of the stone buildings had been toppled, the slats of their terra cotta roofs shattered and spread across the ground. Smoke permeated the air, though it was no longer enough to be oppressive.
Toward the center of the village, at the well where he had met the elders, Danny stopped. Ila stopped a couple of feet ahead of him, then turned to look back at him. Danny was now peering in all directions, catching his breath, as if looking for something. She did not need to ask—she had already realized the village was much too quiet.
The whine of shifting mechanicals caused their hearts to pound harder, coming from down one of the paths branching from the well. Running forward, wordlessly grabbing Ila along the way, Danny evaded an automaton’s line of sight in the nick of time. They hid themselves inside a nearby home, which had not entirely collapsed, taking cover. They both knew they would not be able to hide long, not with the layers of sensory equipment each automaton had, but it would be enough time for them to come up with a plan.
With his back to the single stone wall shrouding him and Ila from the pacing machines outside, Danny looked into the building they had hidden themselves in. A number of bodies were spread over the floor, each having been shot dead. Dark red spots and rips in their clothes indicated where the bullets had found purchase, and the positions of the bodies indicated that they had not seen the machines coming.
Toward the middle of the group, Danny saw two bodies covered in robes of familiar colors and patterns—a few of the village’s elders. Wondering how likely it was that one of the robed corpses was Alvia, his jaw tightened and his body tensed. Consumed in his own fire, he wanted to rip apart the automatons patrolling outside, but he knew he couldn’t—not with only a 9mm, and certainly not without Ridarin.
Glancing at Ila, who seemed surprisingly uneasy, he chose to calm himself. Even if she had experienced something like this a thousand times before, he told himself, he couldn’t be so callous as to expect her to fend for herself. If nothing else, he would keep cool so she could make it out of here in one piece. Grabbing her arm, he gestured to the wall, and to what was beyond. He mouthed to her that they would make a break for it once the automatons were far enough away. Ila nodded, preparing herself to move.
The moment the mechanical noises had faded, Danny took Ila’s hand and carefully led her out of the building. They kept their heads low, staying close to the buildings, in case they needed to dive for cover again. But the coast seemed clear. Once they made it to the edge of the village, they broke back into a sprint, trying to clear the distance between the village and the trees ahead unseen. Ila ran at top speed, but Danny made sure to stay behind her; if there was any danger, he was sure it would come from behind, not ahead.
His instincts paid off, it seemed. Roughly halfway through the clearing, two automatons emerged from the village, catching sight of them. Their forearms burst open, deploying their guns. Ila realized the danger as soon as Danny did, but neither of them had much time to react. The machines had already opened fire, and their streams of bullets were coasting up the grass, biting into the soil, cutting a path to their two targets.
In less than a second, Danny wondered if this would really be it. Death wasn’t an entirely unfamiliar thing to him now, not after all he had been through in half a year alone. Two weeks ago, he watched Eli die at Nellis; only a few days after that, he had seen Suo and Aurin both sacrifice themselves. He himself had nearly died when Suo separated from him so abruptly. No, death was not new, nor was thinking he had magnetized it himself, deflecting it at the last second only to cast it onto people around him.
As if time had slowed, he looked back from the incoming fire and into Ila’s frightened eyes. He wondered if she had indeed gone through this before, or if this was as new to her as it was to him. Regardless, her fear was evident; she was even more afraid than he was.
With this decelerated moment came something like a feeling of inferiority, even uselessness. Without Ridarin, Danny could only consider himself deadweight. He no longer had armor to deflect death—but maybe that was a good thing. If he couldn’t deflect death, then it couldn’t splatter onto someone else he cared about instead.
Yes, that was it. That would be enough. He wasn’t useless without Ridarin. Perhaps now, without any armor, he was more useful than he had ever been.
As the bullets crept up behind them, Danny leapt with what strength he had left after running for so long. With his arms outstretched, locked straight, he shoved Ila aside, causing her to roll off her course. As time returned to its normal pace, Danny felt the brusque impacts of the automatons’ salvo strike him in midair. Hitting the ground hard, he tumbled to a stop. He could hear Ila calling his name, but he wasn’t worried. Though he had just taken such a direct hit, it didn’t bother him. It didn’t even hurt.
It didn’t even hurt.
Rolling over, feeling as if he had merely tripped, Danny looked up at Ila, who could only stare at him, her red eyes wide. Even the automatons’ had seemed to stagger at him. With his hands on the grass, he realized he couldn’t feel the damp blades between his fingers; looking down, his hands were black, plated in dark red. Up his arms and his sides were patches of black body armor, lined in white, with crimson alloy in patches. Touching his face, half his head was covered in a familiar casing.
More awake than he had ever felt before, Danny stood up, facing the automatons, who studied him closely, trying to calculate this change. With this new wakefulness, he could feel his anger return; the faces of every person he had lost, and everyone he could stand to lose now, were seared into his vision—alongside the two machines before him. There was no doubt, not at all: they had led Rededication here themselves, and any life lost now would be on them. But he refused to let that stand. It wasn’t guilt or obligation that fueled him, but sheer rebellion. In behalf of every person on this little moon in the middle of nowhere, each of whom could be dead in the next few hours alone, Danny refused to let this happen.
“You pieces of trash think you can kill me?” he yelled at the automatons, who still watched him cautiously, waiting for him to move. “You may have taken away my control system, but I still have what really matters—I have Ridarin. And I’m gonna rip you a world of new ones!”
The rest of Ridarin coasted over his body, sealing him into the familiar armor. It had only been a couple days, but he had almost forgotten what it felt like to be suited up like this—to be this strong.
“Ila,” he said, his blue eyes fixed on the machines. “Get to the others, and keep yourself safe.”
Though her shock was fading, something in her eyes told Danny that his previous intuition was correct. He couldn’t articulate it, but he knew Ila Enqelin had never been through this moment before now. And that gave him strength.
“Go,” he reemphasized. “I’ll catch up with you later.”
“Please,” she said, getting to her feet. “Please, be careful.”
Positioning herself behind her armored guardian, Ila ran to the trees. Once she had safely disappeared, Danny turned his full attention back to the machines. A few more automatons came from the village, and they began to form a semi-circle around him, their weapons deployed.
Remembering the M9 holstered against his side, Danny reached down to his right thigh; as if tugging away a piece of Ridarin itself, he snapped the Beretta from beneath his armor, peeling it from his leg with an almost elastic effect. Ignoring the pain shooting through his head, and relying on his own mental acuity alone, he reshaped the handgun into something bigger, wider, more powerful.
With a familiar rush, and riding the wave of almost blinding fury building inside him, Danny lunged forward. With his enemies already shooting, he jumped headlong back into battle with a single pistol and an unseen fire in his eyes.