Chapter 40

 

When the pale sun set, the blue planet was Vahna’s only light.  Rededication had left the system, and the people of the one habitable, lonely little moon began the work of cleaning up after the invasion.  Aside from the most necessary and immediate repairs, corpses were gathered and carried away, placed with care near the shore, and survivors were gathered for medical treatment.

In one of the medical tents, tended to by Gidio and his assistants, both Arras and Ila sat on separate cots.  Neither of them could bring themselves to share words, though they had differing reasons.  Except for a few cuts and bruises, Arras was in need of little more than disinfectant and clean bandages.  Ila, however, appeared to be in a far worse state, though presumably not because of the day’s battle.  She seemed to be suffering from fatigue, and dark circles wrapped her drowsy eyes.  Even so, Arras kept to herself, not bothering to ask what might be going on with her little sister.

The flap to the tent’s entrance fluttered open, and Endriss and Valiya stepped inside.  Val cut across the open tent and embraced Arras, telling her how good it was to see her.  An almost involuntary smile crept across Arras’ lips as she told Val the same.

As he approached, Endriss observed, “You guys managed to take out a good number of foot soldiers, it seems.  Dozens or so.  I guess that means you managed to reactivate the suit.”

Flinching, Arras wondered if she should mention what happened at all.  Though there were certainly details she would need to keep to herself, she decided the others deserved to know at least a little.  “It was active for a while,” she said, not caring if Gidio and Ila were within earshot, “but one of the automatons…  It took Ridarin…  The suit’s gone.  Truth has it now.”

Nearly everyone in the room bowed their heads at her words.

With cautious optimism, Val meekly suggested, “Even if she has Ridarin, Truth shouldn’t be able to do anything with it, right?  I mean, not just anyone can use it.”

With a soulful pause no one else could decode, Arras nodded in agreement.

“I guess we’ll just have to accept that,” Endriss reasoned, his arms crossed.  “Still, I have to say, I’m surprised the process didn’t kill Danny.”

Snapping back from her thoughts, Arras turned sharply to Endriss.  “Is he all right?”

“Last I heard, he’s stable,” Endriss replied.  “But I think he’s still out.”

“Where is he?”

When Arras refused to stay put, Endriss surrendered and led her personally from the tent, leaving Val and Ila with Gidio.  Cutting across the camp, on the edge of the commons, they found another large tent, where a man with an assault rifle stood guard.  The man stepped inside to fetch one of the medics, who came outside to speak with Endriss and Arras.  After hearing the details, the medic led them inside, saying that Daniel Eick should be toward the back.  They stepped past a number of injured people, most of whom were civilians.  But when they reached the back of the tent, they found one empty cot.

“I-I don’t understand,” the medic sputtered.  “He was here a second ago.”

Before anyone could speculate, Arras was already heading for the exit.  Endriss stayed where he was, watching her leave.  When the medic asked him if they should go after her, he told the staff to leave her be and to not worry about Daniel Eick.  She would find him.

Stumbling around the edge of the camp, Danny felt more exhausted than injured.  His head was fine, and somehow he had survived the physical trauma, even after Ridarin had shut down on him.  He guessed it might have been some last security measure on the suit’s part, something to keep him alive if he couldn’t fight.  In any case, the only thing on his mind now was that he just wanted somewhere quiet to sleep.  The place he had left seemed so loud, far too lively to get any rest.

Glancing upward, he could see a few clouds speckling the night sky.  Though it was not nearly enough to suppress the light of the gas giant, the little clouds still managed to cast some shadows on the ground as they slowly coasted overhead.  Overall, he thought to himself, it really was a pretty sight.

He wasn’t sure how long he had been walking, but eventually he made it to his tent.  Stepping inside, no one was there to greet him, which was fine with him.  But when he entered his pocket of the tent, he found that his cot was gone.  He guessed everyone’s cots had been taken, in order to give the wounded a place to rest.  He didn’t mind that, not if it was to help someone else.  Besides, all he really wanted was somewhere quiet.  Though he was a little more awake now, he still zipped up the entrance to his room partway, then laid down on the canvas floor, facing the outside wall.

Rather than bolting from one thought to the next, he found himself on something of a pleasant walk in his own head.  He thought of how Ridarin was gone now—completely gone.  Early on in their mission, when he was first learning to use Ridarin, he had managed to lock it down completely because of some neurosis he had never before realized was there, let alone had the chance to address.  And after the skirmish on the orbital, he had spent the past few days without Suo for the first time in months.  Yet he still had the suit; he could still sense it, like the faintest static charge on his skin.

But now that it was all gone, he felt entirely different.  He hadn’t felt like this for about half a year—normal, lighter even.  No longer enhanced in any way.  Not even a nano-net.  Casting an exhausted smile at his own upturned hands, accepting his return to mundane physiology, he then closed his eyes and settled into the thick canvas.  If he was going to die soon, he decided, then he would be fine leaving life the way he had entered—no net, no armor.  No Suo or Aurin.  No Eli.  But no more Eddie and Laura Eick, and no more Milo.  He would miss them all dearly, but something about knowing he would slip away as so many of them had, gave him a sort of comfort, a feeling of solidarity with everyone and everything he had lost.

Drifting back to sleep, he felt as if he was drifting away with them all, into whatever unknown they had disappeared into—whether it was oblivion, something germane to life now, or something else entirely.  Thinking about whatever might lay beyond death, if anything at all, he suddenly found himself wondering about where he had even come from when he was born.  An unfamiliar comfort came with that thought; it felt as if, when he soon died, it would not be a departure, but a return to somewhere he knew very well.  Basking in this incoherent thought, he wondered if this was what it was like to embrace the All.

Before he could fall asleep, however, something pulled him back from that abyss.  Another body was lying down behind him, two arms wound around his sides, meeting over his abdomen.  He could feel warm breath against his neck, and he held the surprisingly soft hands resting on his stomach.  He had not heard her come in, nor had he heard her zip up the entrance.  But he could hear her gentle whisper.

“I thought I’d find you here.”

“Here I am.”

They both remained silent for some time, but Arras wanted to speak.  She tried, but with each attempt her words seemed to dissolve.  Whether she didn’t have the words, or she could simply not bear to say them, Danny didn’t know.  Even so, he squeezed her hands in his, as if to tell her she didn’t need to say anything.

“It’s okay,” he whispered back to her.  “It really is okay.  You don’t need to worry anymore.  I know we’re done, but I don’t want to make you cry again.  Not you.  Not again…”

This only made her hold him tighter.  Burying her eyes against his shoulder, he could just barely hear her.  “I was so afraid I was going to lose you…”

“I’m still here.  I’m right here.”

Together and alone, both of them drifted to the same memories, taking account of how far they had come together, and of how it all began.  Though for Danny this had all begun with Eli and Ila, for her it had begun with him.  Alone in that rift, she had found him walking through those doors; and though the mental image the rift had produced was entirely his, she knew he was going to her mother and Ridarin.  So she stopped him, taking his arm and turning him around, entirely unable to communicate with him until that brief moment of contact.  Until she had taken his language through her net.

In a way, he had been the one who first taught her how to speak in the modern world into which she had been thrown.  Having slept for over two centuries, rather than roughly two decades as her family had planned, an already strange world had become even stranger still—and so he showed her around.  And she could remember feeling as if he was familiar somehow.  When she considered the all too obvious option of taking Ridarin back from him, with no regard for what state it would leave him in, she always returned to that inexplicable feeling of familiarity.  It was like having a name on the tip of her tongue, one she could never manage to speak aloud, but which she still knew.

Sometime later, she had learned that that feeling had come from Ila.  In all the time Arras had been asleep, her younger sister had been whispering to her, preparing her for when a stranger, an intruder, would enter—preparing her to know he was no enemy.  Now and again, in the last few miserable days, Arras had wondered if how she felt about him was just a trick of her frenzied mind.  She toyed with the possibility that all of it might be something Ila stirred up artificially in her, a simple means to an end.  But when she emerged from the tent earlier that day, and the bombs were dropping, and the soldiers were fanning out, she found his signal in the midst of the havoc.  When she chased that signal down, when she chased him down—when she went to die for him—she knew.  She knew it wasn’t an illusion.  This was her.

With a smile, taking in the scent of the boy in her arms, she knew this was her.  Truly her.

“Do you remember when we were last at Teleios?” she asked.  “My eye was going crazy, and you reworked my patch into an inhibitor, like the choker they put on me at Nellis.”

Still holding her warm hands, Danny stifled a guilty chuckle.  “I wasn’t even sure it would work…  I can’t describe what it felt like to see you look up at me afterward, to know that you really made it…”

“You whispered something to me just before.”

“You said you didn’t hear it.”

“I did,” she muttered into his back, burying her eyes again.  “I did hear it.  And I’ve wanted so badly to hear it again ever since.”

Her hands slipped out from underneath his, and in a few unexpected movements, she crawled over him.  When they were settled, she had climbed on top of him, her legs around his waist.  And in the dark tent, they stared deeply into each other.  The world outside was quiet, and the light from the blue planet in the sky shined only faintly through the canvas walls.

“Will you say it again?” she asked him softly.  “Will you tell me one more time?”

Still smiling, Danny ran his hand up her arm, until he reached her face.  Easing his fingers carefully beneath the patch over her left eye, he slid it up and off her face, pulling the strap slowly from her long, black hair.  Feeling exposed, Arras dodged his glance, as if to subtly hide her unnatural eye in embarrassment.  But she could feel more than his touch now; she could feel his thoughts and feelings.  With both her open eyes, she could feel his embrace, his beckon and welcome.  At last looking back down at him, she found him still smiling up at her—at the uncovered Arras.

“Arras…”  He stared up at her, as if not knowing what else he could do.  “I love you.”

Hearing those words again, tears gathered in her eyes, and she couldn’t help but laugh nervously.  But with a smile of her own, she replied, “I love you too, Daniel.  And I always will.”

Lowering herself, they shared a long, deep kiss.  Their hands began to wander over one another, and gradually they eased each other out of their clothes.  Breaking their long kiss for only moments at a time, picking it up once more as if it had never ended, their bodies entangled.  The sensation was somewhat unfamiliar to both of them, yet they communed on a deeper level than either of them had ever before experienced.

Arras felt utterly vulnerable, holding nothing back; naked before him, even her scars were visible.  But Danny was the same.  They embraced each other as they were, and neither of them felt any need to hide.  And as their bodies interwove, sharing warmth, sharing motion, sharing love, Arras could feel his thoughts.  She could feel him in her mind and her body, as if they had melted into one another.

When they finally settled, using their coats to cover their bare bodies from the cold, they rested against each other.  With a deep, satisfied breath, Arras closed her eyes and allowed herself a moment’s repose.  She had spent her entire life feeling like a stone rolling downhill, tumbling over itself, knocking into this and that along the way, always on the move.  But now she was entirely at ease.

She decided that this was the best way she could have spent the last night she would ever have with him.