Chapter 37

 

Nearby explosions beckoned Arras from her stupor, though their efforts were somewhat futile.  It was only when a shell went off close to her tent, splattering clumps of soil onto the canvas, that she reemerged from herself with a start.  Only then did she realize the sharp sting shooting through her left eye.

Confused, she risked slipping the patch from her eye slightly.  The moment even a portion of her dark eye was free, the frightened and frenetic thoughts of dozens of people came pouring into her head from all around.  Superimposed over her vision, several markers appeared, indicating the various Rededication craft that were already touching down all around.

A klaxon started to blare outside, and the sound grew as Valiya entered the tent.

“We’re under attack,” she said starkly, pulling Arras up by a hand.  “We need to get out of here now.”

“How did Rededication find us?” Arras asked, slipping the patch back over her eye.

“Not sure,” Val said, heading back to the center of the tent, “but foot soldiers are already on the ground, and the rebels are engaging a few ships in high orbit.”

Pulling away the covers they had placed over their hidden ammo box, Val found the container already empty.  “He must have taken it with him.”

“Danny,” Arras concluded, recollecting the tinkering she had heard the day before, as if only then becoming reality.  “Valiya, where is he?”

As if confessing some wrongdoing, Val replied, “He went to see Ila.  But he hasn’t come back yet.”

“He’s been gone since yesterday, then.”

They could both hear yells and hurried steps outside their tent.  It seemed everyone else was already in full motion.

“Come on, Arras,” Val said, pulling her out of the tent.  “There’re a few underground bunkers set up around the commons.  There’s no way we’ll able to escape, but we might be able to take cover until the attack’s over.”

Arras stopped and pulled her arm from Val.  Turning to see what was the matter, Val found Arras suddenly conscious for the first time since they had arrived on Vahna.

“You go on ahead,” Arras told her.

“What about you?” Val asked.  “If you’re thinking of going after him—”

“I’ll be all right, Valiya.”

The clarity of her answer was shocking enough to Val; it was the reassuring smile Arras used to punctuate the statement that truly left her bewildered.

“I have to go,” Arras said softly, as if the rest of the camp around them was not still scurrying in all directions.  “I shut down on all of you, but now it’s time for me to take responsibility.  I’ll be fine; I was trained for situations like this.”

Val tried to reply, but she knew there was nothing else she could say.  The facts were clear: Arras was prepared for something like this, and Val was not.

“Go to the bunkers,” Arras told her, reading her silence.  “These people need you alive.  As for me, I’m going to find Danny and bring him back.  We’ll meet back up with you later.”

Biting her lip, Val then nodded.  “You both better come back alive.”

With only a nod from Arras, the two of them parted ways, Valiya heading for the bunkers toward the center of the commons, and Arras heading further into the rebel settlement.

Occasionally she passed the bodies of civilians, always near where some shell or other explosive had gone off.  But she didn’t reach the frontlines until she arrived at the market place.  The booths were mostly overturned, their tents shredded and rustling in the wind like ruffled feathers.  And in the tumbled mess, she found a few soldiers—all dead, shot right through their armor.

Stopping at a nearby corpse, Arras unclipped the man’s carbine from his chest, counting how many rounds were left.  She also took his spare magazine and combat knife, pocketing them both in her coat before cradling the carbine.  Taking the soldier’s communicator, she tuned in to the various channels in use through her nano-net; by the sound of things, even the rebel soldiers were at a loss for what to do.

“Hey, you there!”

The hissed words pulled Arras from the comm, turning her attention to a nearby booth.  Three civilians, all unarmed, were huddled behind the crumbled pavilion.  One of them was furiously waving for her to come join them, but by the time Arras realized why, it was already too late.  Down the open aisle ahead of her, two automatons were already coming toward her.  Their weapons were raised, but they held their fire as they approached.  As the three civvies went silent as the grave, Arras resisted the urge to glance over at them, not wanting to risk giving away their position, assuming they weren’t already compromised.

Racing through her options, Arras felt another shock shoot through her left eye.  Gritting her teeth in frustration, she seized the patch again and yanked it down her face, strap and all, letting it hang loose around her neck.  In an instant, the panicked thoughts and emotions of the three nearby civilians funneled into her head, but she pushed to keep her own thoughts separate from theirs.  Instead, she focused on the data her eye was already gathering on the automatons.  It scanned them thoroughly, taking into consideration her prior knowledge of their design, before marking several points of structural tension on their bodies, as well as weak spots in their armor plating.

With the aid of her strange eye, Arras raised her new carbine and fired a few bursts at one of the two machines.  Her accuracy and grouping were flawless, and the one automaton’s head shattered, the rest of the metal frame toppling to the ground.  Not stopping for a second, Arras tilted her weapon to the next machine, crippling its limbs, disabling its guns, then demolishing its head in the same way as before.  In only a few seconds, both machines had dropped.

Turning back to the three civvies, Arras growled, “Get back to the commons and take shelter.”

As they ran back the way she had come, Arras surveyed the landscape again, her mind running faster than usual.  If Danny had gone after Ila, she reasoned, then he would have gone to the natives’ village.  But she wasn’t sure how to get there, other than a general direction.  Before she could think further, however, a new marker appeared over her vision in the direction of the village.

The marker was one she had seen many times before—it belonged to Ridarin, to Danny.  She even began to receiving sparse feedback reports from the suit, though the data was limited.  Even so, she broke into a full sprint, heading straight for the marker, not caring about what kind of terrain might be between the two of them.

Along her way, she took out a few more automatons, meeting little resistance from any of them.  And with every armed corpse she passed, she picked up more ammunition.  Rather than slowing as she went, she only increased her speed.  With every heavy step she took, she tried not to think of what terrible things might be happening where Danny was then.  She tried not to think of why he had gone out to find Ila either, though she already knew.  He had gone because she had shut down, because she refused to lead him and Valiya when they needed her most.

Ever since they had arrived on Vahna, Danny had not left her side.  He had spent the entire time with her—holding her, commiserating with her, tending to her.  Thinking about the past few days alone caused her to revisit all the times he had stayed by her side before, even when she had given him every reason not to.  She thought of how he had leapt into one terrible storm after another for her, chasing after her, or following her orders.

Trying to hold herself together, the further she ran and the closer she came to the marker, the more she was reminded of Nellis, two weeks ago, when she had run into a storm herself—all to save him.  She refused to let him die here.  Not after everything he had put himself through.  Not because of how badly she had screwed up.  She would save him, no matter what, and she was prepared to kill and destroy everyone and everything between her and him in the process, if only to keep him alive.

At full speed, Arras suddenly found Ila, nearly colliding with her.  The two slowed down, orbiting each other as they turned to face one another.  Ila was panting hard, and she looked utterly distraught.

“Arras, please!  He’s still back there, and I don’t know how much longer he can keep this up,” she pleaded to her older sister.  “You have to help him before he gets himself killed.”

Looking at Ila for the first time with her left eye, Arras noticed something she had never thought to check before.  Despite how close and clearly panicked Ila was, Arras could not hear or feel a single thing coming from her little sister.  Unlike everyone else who seemed to split open for her, Ila was not exuding thoughts and emotions—she was contained, walled off.  Yet even without the added fervor of thought and feeling, Arras felt as if she could more deeply feel her little sister’s fear.

“There are bunkers back at the settlement,” Arras said.  “Go there, they’ll keep you safe.”

With that, Arras returned to her run, still chasing the marker.  And as she disappeared, both sisters had the same thought on their minds, wondering if Arras could still make it in time.

Still struggling to breathe, Ila caught herself on a nearby tree.  Never before had she experienced this particular event, and that left her all the more anxious.  A sharp cough seized her chest and gouged her throat.  She raised a hand to her mouth; pulling it away, she found a few flecks of blood splattered on her palm.  Feeling heavier than she had a moment ago, she knew her body was already beginning to fall apart.  Still, she couldn’t help but smile, relieved at the thought.

“I guess we really are close, then.”