Chapter 41

 

Despite her own exhaustion, Arras lay awake the entire night.  She held Danny close until he fell asleep against her, but she would not allow herself time to sleep.

Feeling his rhythmic breath against her skin, she was grateful for this moment.  More than ever, she wished that this could be their life—that this could be their norm—but she knew it could never be that way.

With the sun about to rise, she slowly, gracefully eased herself away from him.  Digging out her clothes from among his, she noiselessly dressed herself; last of all, she combed the strap of her eyepatch through her hair, though she kept the patch just above her left eye.  Before taking her leave, she looked back down at Danny one last time, finding him still tucked beneath their coats.

Steeling herself—for him—she slid the patch back over her eye and stepped out.

“Goodbye, Daniel.”

Few people were outside at this hour, even as dawn approached.  Everyone else was likely still asleep or in the makeshift infirmaries, she guessed.  It didn’t bother her, though; she was glad to be alone, if only for this.  Yet she was not alone.  As she made her way to the edge of the settlement, she never detected Ila, who watched her from a distance, hidden among the trees.

Though struggling to hold herself up, Ila didn’t concern herself with her failing body.  All her attention was focused on her sister.  More than anything, Ila wanted to stop her, but she knew this scene well.  All Ila could do now was hope they could save her—perhaps this time.

Walking out into an empty field, Arras stood in the open and waited, though not for long.  Something like a thunderclap cracked from high up in the sky as a small ship jumped into Vahna’s upper atmosphere before descending rapidly toward the surface—toward her.  Within seconds, a Reded troop transport, a design she was very familiar with, landed a few feet from where she stood.

As Arras approached the ship, its side opening to receive her, a number of armed rebels burst from out of the trees.  With their weapons raised, they moved in slowly, perhaps lost as to why they would find Arras Enqelin boarding the intruding vessel.

A trio of automatons in the transport stepped forward, prepared to open fire, but Arras effortlessly raised a hand.  “Stand down,” she sternly ordered.

As the machines complied without hesitation, she suddenly felt as if she was back in her old life, two hundred years ago—when she was still an operator.  Worse yet, the simple gesture only served to reinforce her theory, to tell her that she was exactly where Truth wanted her to be.

Leaving the onlooking rebels petrified with confusion, the side of the transport closed between them and Arras before the vessel launched from the damp ground.  And as her transport increased its altitude, Arras reminded herself that she was not in the hands of an AI—she was on her way to an appointment with a person.  With Truth.

The transport broke free of Vahna’s orbit and made its first jump before anyone could open fire.  From there, it leapt from one FTL event to another, following its preset course.

Feeling the ship’s subtle vibrations beneath the soles of her feet, Arras guessed that news would spread quickly that she had disappeared aboard a Reded transport.  Shuddering at the idea, she hoped with all her heart that when Danny heard, he would not get the wrong idea—that he would not hate her for what she had done.  For now, all that kept her going was her confidence, that she knew what she was doing, that this was the only way to keep him alive.

Arras knew she could end this.

At the end of its circuit, the transport emerged above Earth.  There were no windows or canopies for Arras to look out of, but she knew where they were taking her.  She could hear hisses and rumbles outside the transport as they landed in the pressurizing hangar bay.  And when the transport’s side reopened, she was unsurprised to find herself aboard one of the Reded platforms.

Stepping onto the deck, the only one to leave the transport, Arras was met by a few more automatons.  Upon her arrival, they turned about and walked ahead of her, wordlessly beckoning her to follow them into the monstrous station.  Despite their guidance, however, she already knew the way.  She knew where she was going.  After all, for all intents and purposes, this place used to be home to her.

The machines left her at the entrance to a chamber she immediately recognized.  Past the bulkhead, Arras entered an all-white room, boxed in by sleek floors and walls.  There was nothing inside, but that was the point.  This chamber was on the way to the platform’s containment room, where the local armor was stored; however, before any rededication was executed, the operator needed to pass through a thorough decontamination process.

Standing at the center of the room, Arras knew what to expect, having gone through this process countless times before.  She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, reminding herself that decontamination was completely safe.  Sheets of red light zapped into existence, filling the room at various angles.  Surrounding her, the laser sheets twirled and summersaulted through the air, sweeping over her body repeatedly.  Wave after wave of precisely directed energy washed over her, disintegrating her clothing at a single touch, everything from her neck down to her boots.  Even her eyepatch was cut away, along with the superfluous length of her hair, leaving her with just short of an inch of hair on her head.  Entirely naked and exposed, everything else on her had been destroyed by the now vanishing lights, leaving the room as spotless and empty as before.

In such a state, under normal circumstances, Arras would be prepared to go forward and dawn her usual armor.  But this was not a rededication, she knew.  Right outside the chamber, she found a neatly-folded pile of clothes waiting for her.  They were black and white, plainspoken and formfitting—the uniform she had worn two centuries ago, perfectly preserved.  She got dressed quickly, then proceeded onto the next station on her path.

Streaks of sweeping lights glided over the corridor’s floor, guiding her.  As she expected, they did not lead to the containment room.  Instead, they deviated to another door in the bulkhead.  The door opened on its own as she approached, and she walked out onto an observation deck, from which, through sprawling reinforced windows, she had a panoramic view of Earth.  Eclipsing the view, however, she found two familiar faces—Nulem Verris and Truth, both of whom had been awaiting her arrival.

Remaining where he was, Nule looked as if he wanted to say something as Arras approached, but he backed down under her glaring eyes—especially her glowing left eye.  Truth, however, was not nearly so sheepish; rather, she was entirely delighted.

“I’ve been waiting for this day for so long,” she exhaled with a grin, standing before Arras in total awe.

“It took me too long to realize what you were after,” Arras admitted plainly.

“But you’re right on time!  And after all, Arras, this was all for you.”

“Turning everyone on Earth and in the New Pact against me and the others…”

“I had to show you how those people really felt about you.”

“You killed my parents…”

“To show you that no one could really love you the way I do.”

“And when you didn’t just kill me with Daniel yesterday…”

“I never wanted to kill you, Arras.”

“I know,” Arras breathed.  “I know you don’t want anything that Rededication wanted…  You just want me.”

“That’s right,” Truth said reverently, though struggling to suppress her giddiness.  “And here we are, the only two people to ever truly outgrow Rededication itself.”  Taking a cautious step toward Arras, her joy brimmed.  “You must truly understand—you’re the only one who really could.  You understand that I want only what you want, Arras.”

“I do understand,” Arras replied softly.  Her eyes narrowed, focusing on Truth and nothing else.  “I want all of this to end.”

Truth lifted a hand to Arras, her palm upturned, fingers outstretched, waiting.  Arras returned the gesture, laying her hand on Truth’s.  At her touch, Truth dissolved into lines of light and code, siphoned into Arras through her fingertips, disappearing into the girl with the twisted left eye.  Spreading through her body and mind, Truth took Arras deep into her own psyche.  Nulem and the observation deck disappeared, and they stood in the midst of swirling shadows.  Arras had not been to this stratum of her mind since her coma beneath Nellis, but she recognized the scene.

With an almost discomforting pleasure, Truth smiled at Arras and said, “Now please, I want to hear you say it.  Tell me, what is your wish?”

Arras saw no use in belaboring things any further.  With ice in her veins, her heart turned to iron, she said what she intended to be her final words.

“I want you to take me, and yourself, and all the Reded platforms, and jump us into the nearest black hole.  I want you to kill me and yourself, and end Rededication for good.”

Though she was unsure what to expect, it certainly was not what she saw in Truth.  The girl before her appeared mildly surprised, but her smile did not droop in the least.

“How strange,” Truth muttered as a matter of fact.

Furrowing her brow, Arras said, “That’s what I want.”

Closing the gap between them, Truth touched Arras’ cheek; her fingertips felt disconcertingly real as they brushed her skin.

“That’s what you’re saying,” Truth said sweetly, “but words are meaningless on their own.”

Arras could feel it then, that she was not merely speaking with Truth, but that their minds were dissolving into one another.

“I know you, Arras,” she said, still smiling.  “I know you on the deepest possible level.  And I know that your eyes have not yet been opened…  I know that’s not what you really want.”

Truth’s touch sent a chill down Arras’ body, but she kept herself as still as she could.  “What do you mean?”

“You’ve hidden it from everyone—even yourself—all this time, Arras.”

Truth was reading her, and they both knew it.  She was digging deeper into Arras’ psyche, and only pulling up what she found within.  As much as it began to frighten her, Arras knew that whatever Truth may say now, it would not just be her own delusions.  She would be getting it from Arras.

The shadows circulating around them swelled menacingly, pulsing with hidden life.  Arras trembled once again before the violent swirl, afraid of what could be waiting inside the cloudy depths.

“I saw it for myself,” Truth said sympathetically, “what was hidden in those shadows.  It was a long time ago, when we were still together.  I wanted to show you, so you could see it for yourself, back at Nellis.  I wanted you to finally see what you were hiding from yourself, what was always already there.  But then your sister interrupted you…”

“Don’t you dare impose thoughts on me, Truth,” Arras snarled.  “Enough of this.  Comply with what I’ve demanded, now.”

“I’m not imposing anything, you know that.  I’ve been waiting all this time for you to give me an order, Arras, to request something of me.  I only exist to serve you; that’s all I want.  What you want is already inside you, and it’s not a bad thing that you don’t yet recognize it.  But I’ll show you what it is—what you’ve been hiding all this time.”

Truth’s fingertips grazed Arras’ cheek, down to her chest, before she plunged her hand into Arras.  Against her piercing hand, Arras could only fall forward against Truth.  The shadows swirled all the more, lurching back from the two of them, threatening to recede and unshroud what they had swallowed up all this time.

“I can see it, feel it,” Truth muttered into Arras’ ear.  “You were lost and alone.  All your life, you’ve belonged to a world, to a government, to a family, all of whom told you what to think and do, how to feel and when, and ultimately what you were supposed to be.  The Coalition said you were supposed to be a soldier, and they made it so.  But you woke up to that coercion on Kavatea, and you wanted out.  But when you went to your family for help, all they did was cram you into another identity of their own choosing—and suddenly you were a soldier again, the indispensable key to a plan they had drafted long before you ever showed up.  But at least you had an identity.”  Bearing her teeth at what would come next, Truth’s tone turned hard and harsh.  “Yet even that was taken from you when Ila died and you didn’t reawaken from the rift, and even more so when she finally sent someone else to interrupt your part of the plan and rob you of what little you had left.  He came and stole what was left of you.  Daniel Eick stole what little identity you had, and he forced you back into the cold.  He took away what purpose and meaning you had left.”

“You’re wrong!” Arras protested.

Despite her objection and her attempts to pull away, however, Arras could not resist Truth.  It was not that Truth had somehow forced her way into Arras; it was that she had truly dug out some dark thing that was festering within her former operator.  What she brought up felt so familiar to Arras, so familiar in fact that she had not even realized it was at all foreign to anyone else.  It was nauseating to consciously feel, thieving her breath from her lungs and tightening around her chest until she could feel nothing else.

“You were handed over to a world and people that tried to define you themselves, down to the very last detail,” Truth continued, immutable against Arras’ resistance.  “They never asked what you wanted, what you wanted to do or be.  And when you tried to fight back, that same world and those same people punished you like an animal until you obeyed.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“You wanted out.”

“Shut up already!”

“You just wanted them to let you be.”

“Stop this, Truth—please!”

“But they wouldn’t surrender what they decided was their right to own you.”

“Please…”

“You hate this world and everyone in it—every last one of them—for what they’ve done to you.  You’ve been a slave all your life, handed off from one master to another, and you just want it all to stop…”

At last, Arras could no longer push back.  Drained of what will she had left, she leaned forward, easing herself into Truth.  Truth did the same, pulling her hand from Arras and holding her instead.

“This world has done nothing but rape you and then call you the criminal,” Truth concluded in a pensive breath.  “All I want is what you really want.  I just want to set you free from all of this.”

“It’s true,” Arras sighed into Truth.  “It’s all true…  Okay, then.  Okay…”

And with those final words, the shadows at last receded from the two of them, unveiling the ultimate truth Arras had been hiding for so long, allowing it to rise to the surface.  Opening her eyes once again, back in the real world, Arras stood still as a web of pylons descended from the ceiling and connected to her.  Beginning their work immediately, the pylons pumped a new nano-net into her system—everything Truth had taken from Danny the day before, including Ridarin.  Though the pain was immense, Arras did not let out the slightest sound.  She did not respond at all.  And when the pylons at last separated from her, shrinking back into the ceiling, she stood silent and still.

Stepping forward, still as sheepish as before, an excited smile bloomed from Nule.  “Is that you, Truth?  Or… is it Arras?”

With one natural eye and a seemingly digital other eye, Arras studied him for a moment.  “It’s only me.”

“This is amazing,” Nule exclaimed, trying to contain his exuberance.  “We’ve done it.  It’s finally finished!”  With only the slightest hesitation, he cautiously added, “Does this mean we can go back for Valiya?”

As if she had not heard him, Arras fell silent once more, turning to the Earth outside.  Nulem spoke one more time, his words brief, but still Arras did not respond.  She was elsewhere, in a way, her and Truth.  In the hidden confines of their shared space, Arras considered Truth, taking in all the experiences she had shared with Nulem Verris—all she had shared with her friend.  Truth had even told Nulem she would retrieve Valiya for him, and that was true.  Yet now that promise had a contradiction, a broken circuit causing it to short out.  Truth stood at a crossroads between Nulem and Arras’ wishes—and Arras’ wish won.  And so there was only one order Truth could carry out.  She did not do it out of contempt, nor even because she did not really consider Nulem a friend—it was simply because Arras would always take priority over him.  She was sure he would understand.

Arras glanced over at Nule, holding him in view of her one natural eye.  And though she made no physical connection with him, Nule could feel his head begin to throb.

“W-what are you doing?” he sputtered in abrupt agony.  Toppling to the deck, he could feel them both, Arras and Truth, invading his head, burrowing into his mind without reservation or difficulty.

Glaring down at him, Arras said starkly, “You’ll see Valiya again, I’m sure of it.  And, when you do, you’ll kill her.”

His eyes wide, Nule gritted his teeth through the pain, wanting to scream out at her.  But he could not.  He could feel the impulse rising in him, beyond his volition, as if he was being rewired at Arras’ feet.  He could recognize how alien an idea it was, yet the desire infested him and took him over with ease.

Leaving Nule to writhe, Arras turned back to the Earth.  In an instant, Ridarin appeared from thin air and covered her body.  In the window of the observation deck, she examined her armored face.  She could see Ridarin’s two blue ringlet eyes staring back at her, eyes through which she had not seen in so long.  Even in the armor, however, she could still see the blue veins stringing in and out of her left eye.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t correct that,” Truth told her.  “But it’s too enmeshed in your brain for me to remove.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Arras said flatly.  “Not for what we’re going to do.”

The window to the observation deck exploded out into space, spewing its large shards from the station, carried on the venting air.  Arras’ feet left the deck, and she floated out of the room with the air and shards.

Nule held onto a bracket on the wall, keeping himself from getting sucked out into the vacuum as Arras left the platform.  A few seconds passed before the security bulkhead slid over the opening in the observation deck’s wall, pressurizing the compartment.  Gripping his face in continued pain, staring through the gaps in his fingers at where Arras had been standing, Nule seethed with confusion and betrayal.

“What are you doing, Truth?” he wrestled to ask.  “What’s going on?”

Yet by then the idea had sunk into him entirely.  He knew Valiya would come, and when she did, he would carry out his order.

Descending feet-first toward Earth, covered in Ridarin’s crimson armor, Arras passed a number of New Pact vessels as several Reded assault vehicles joined her on the way down.  She moved slowly, slow enough for her to study the expansive planet below, the world from which so much of her suffering had come.  And as she lowered herself to it, she already knew where her first destination would be.