By the time Arras touched down in Manhattan, most of its citizens had already been evacuated. That didn’t matter to her, though. It wasn’t Manhattan as a whole she was after. Instead, she headed straight for midtown, which was nearly empty now; the closest people to her were nearly three miles away.
She decided to leave behind Rededication’s assault craft and foot soldiers, to come alone. With Truth and Ridarin, they were entirely unnecessary, anyway. She could already feel her own potential power, as if everything around her was just waiting for her command. Even the elements that composed the world itself were eager to promptly obey her slightest whim. For all intents and purposes, she was now free. Free for the moment. Free as any god. Free to set this crooked world on any path she desired.
So why did she not feel free? On the contrary, she felt entirely weak, overcome even. She and Truth both sensed it.
In midtown, Arras set her feet on the rooftop of the Teleios tower. The gravel crunched beneath the soles of her armored feet. Peeling the helmet from her head, she allowed the brisk wind to caress the raw flesh of her strange eye and to rustle her short hair.
At nearly one-hundred percent synchronization, she and Truth could do anything they wanted. She knew better than anyone what Ridarin was capable of, especially now—and yet she could only process that potential in his words. She could remember the day, about two weeks before today, when she had first revealed Ridarin’s ultimate potential to Danny. They were sitting in the testing chamber, just a few yards below where she now stood.
“String theory,” she could remember him saying with a grin. “All matter is made up of protons, neutrons, electrons; then down another level you have stuff like quarks, gluons. But when you get even deeper, theoretically you’ve got a homogenous bunch of building blocks—we call them strings. Strings on an instrument, for instance, can create different notes depending on the frequency at which they vibrate; but the strings I’m talking about can create different particles, depending at what frequency they ‘vibrate’ at. If Ridarin can take matter and transmute it… you’re basically telling me that it can take strings and make them vibrate at different frequencies.”
Thinking of that day returned her to the night when they first opened up to each other, sitting on this very rooftop. She then remembered when she had risked her life to save him at Nellis—when he chose this place and that night as the final moment he would relive before killing himself.
Clenching her fists, rage shot through her. With a fabricated rush of gravity, she lashed out. The Teleios tower imploded on itself, and she rode the crumpling mass nearly sixty stories down. Clouds of dust and chunks of debris mushroomed out into the rest of the city, suffocating the streets. Despite the collapse and aftermath, however, Arras rose from the demolished pile that was once the tower, her armored body unscathed.
Truth appeared before her, amid the cloudy ruins. “You’re in pain—why?”
“I’m fine,” Arras muttered.
“You can’t lie to me,” Truth insisted sincerely, taking a tender step toward her. “I can only speak what you already know. It’s him, isn’t it? Daniel? What is it about him that’s causing you to act like this?”
Studying Arras’ face and how she dodged her glance, Truth gathered the answer for herself. When Arras refused to speak, Truth instead decided to narrate for her what she was thinking.
“You still care about him. But you think he robbed you, took away what purpose you had in this world… All he did was take your armor and turn you into his personal comfort. He even took your body…”
They both revisited the night before, the night she had shared with Danny. But she knew there was no coercion there. That was what Arras wanted. She knew she would never see him again, and she wanted something… Something to remember him by. Something to end their time together, that would remind her that she had loved someone other than herself—more than herself—and that someone had loved her just the same.
With a shock, Arras redirected her twisted thought process, and Truth continued to help her sort through the mess.
“All he did was borrow you as his private love interest,” she told Arras. “He treated what had become your life’s purpose like a toy to be bandied about, and all you ever did was go along with it… You were lonely and lost, so why not be complicit? But do you think that’s really love? Or is it just capitulating like a slave to the person who’s already pulling you by a leash?”
Arras glanced over at Truth, conflict in her eyes, conflict Truth knew as well as she did. It was conflict they shared.
“I’m only interested in telling you what you already know,” Truth confessed to her. “I’m simply excavating what you’ve buried deep inside the darkest reaches of your mind. But if you don’t face them, are you really Arras? Or are you still just the person everyone else wants you to be?”
Opening her mouth to respond, Arras was interrupted by the horrible screech of incoming ordnance. An AGM-158 JASSM cruise missile pierced through the cloud of dust and slammed into Arras’ back. Detonation followed, and a plume of fire and black smoke engulfed her. Several more missiles connected with where she had been standing, all detonating immediately.
A group of F-35 fighter planes completed their pass over the borough after having dropped their payload. Meanwhile, two US aircraft carriers reached their positions at the edge of New York Harbor, preparing for their next assault. The CVN-78 USS Gerald R. Ford and the CVN-79 USS John F. Kennedy moved into position and prepared their armaments. Within seconds of their fighters’ pass, they launched RIM-162 Evolved SeaSparrow Missiles, originally intended to counter aircraft and other cruise missiles, focusing their aim on Arras’ last-known position. Without reservation or mercy, the missiles found their target, rupturing, shattering, and crumbling the buildings that still remained in those blocks of the city. Black smoke spread far from the attack site, obscuring any visuals, leaving the Navy to wait before they could confirm their kill.
The ground around Arras glowed red, superheated, melting the chunks of rock and metal around her; the air rippled in agony, suffused with vicious heat. Even so, she emerged from the carnage unharmed. Still hidden in the smoke, giving no other signal they could detect, she watched the F-35 fighter group make another flyby, trying to get a visual on her. Arras reached up toward the planes, then twisted her hand in the air; in response, the planes suddenly slammed into each other, their metallic bodies and insides wadding together into one jagged mass. With no more mercy than she had been shown, Arras slammed the ball of twisted metal into the flight deck of the Gerald R. Ford, snapping the eleven-hundred foot supercarrier in half. Next, she reached for the John F. Kennedy, lifting it at an angle from the water. Out of the water and in the air, the ship started to bend under its own weight before she lobbed the vessel at what remained of the broken Gerald R. Ford.
The results were catastrophic, but Arras cared little if at all.
Even so, Truth could still see inside her. “You’re holding back. You could have just overloaded their nuclear reactors, annihilate them.”
“It’s not worth my time,” Arras murmured, turning away from the carriers and the harbor, and Truth.
Leaving the burning mess the fighters and carriers had made of that portion of midtown, Arras walked the abandoned streets of Manhattan with apathy. All around her were abandoned cars, many with their doors open, their engines still running. Everyone had already picked up and left, not bothering to take anything with them. From monitoring the US military’s lines of communication, she knew the evacuation order had been given before she arrived, and they had made remarkable progress in a short amount of time. Even if there were still some people within a few miles, they were quickly putting distance between themselves and Arras.
Though she knew all of this ahead of time, she did not care. She even took her time coming here. Arras didn’t care about causing mayhem or killing these people. Something about that felt empty to her.
Stopping her walk, she looked up into the sky. Through a collection of cameras on the vessels she had in high orbit over the planet, she watched as several dozen more ships jumped into space above Earth, grouping into a sizeable fleet. They weren’t the New Pact; they were pointing themselves toward her fleet, including the platforms. Yet Arras still didn’t care. She just didn’t care.
“What is it you want, then?” Truth asked, sidling up behind her.
By then, they had made it all the way to Wall Street. Taking in the impossibly-high buildings flanking her on both sides, Arras felt suddenly boxed in. Like the uneven teeth of some goliathan maw, it was as if the towers had come together to crush and swallow her whole.
“I don’t care about killing these people,” Arras finally whispered into the air. “It’s not them. It’s this world. It’s the world that’s tried to devour them the way it devoured me. There’s nothing to this place. No meaning. No goodness. It’s just a void. It’s nothing.”
“There’s one thing that still keeps you here, though,” Truth murmured.
They both thought of Danny once again, whom Arras had left behind on Vahna less than a day ago.
“You still love him,” Truth added, looking away.
There was disappointment in Truth’s eyes, but it wasn’t that of someone dissatisfied with a tool, but of a child who felt neglected by her parent. Arras could see that, and she could feel her sincerity, that this was not manipulation but genuine sorrow.
“You know this world is still wrong,” Truth finally told Arras. “Daniel Eick is part of the problem. He added to it just as much as anyone else. There’s only one real solution…”
Turning from Truth, Arras cast her eyes dejectedly to the street. “I know… There’s only one thing left to do.”
Arras’ feet left the ground as she lifted high into the air, hovering a few dozen yards above the rooftops on Wall Street. She stared into the air overhead until it began to circulate, energizing. Dark matter and energy congealed and swelled within the swirling concourse coiling above her, scattering Higgs particles and forming a Dirac sea of antimatter. Positrons ravenously consumed electrons, exuding radiation like a black hole, collapsing and reforming until the quantum storm solidified into a massive, black sphere, like a gaping, all-seeing eye—like Arras’ own left eye. Staring down at, into, and through the world itself, this quantum opening distorted the cloudy midday sky into sickly shades of yellow and dark gray as it shook the city below.
Staring into what looked like the surface of the sun, Arras was captivated by the pulsating flares of black and violet, the dim tendrils of orange and red, the otherworldly waves of sickly yellow—a truly abnormal object. No, not an object. A rip, a rift, running deeper into the universe’s most fundamental fabric and components than even an FTL event. It was a hole, an opening through which she could see in one great and dreadful view the entirety of reality itself. And she could feel it, what she was looking for. All Arras needed to do was pull the cosmic thread that held everything together, and she could unravel it all at once. She could end the world.
Looking into the madness above, faceless in Ridarin’s armor, she could do whatever she wanted. Then it would all be over. Existence itself would cease, taking with it everyone and everything, including captivity, pain, suffering. All of it. Nothing would be left; nothing would exist, and that would include all the darkness. Not only Arras, but everyone could be free. It would be just like Nellis, they told each other. Only, this time, they would see it through to the end.
Yet something ripped Arras’ attention away. Above the planet, the two fleets had grouped themselves into two distinct sides, one of which possessed the five Reded platforms. How easily she could wipe them all out. But something appeared which caused her to lurch at her very core, something new had jumped into the middle of the two fleets. Something entirely different.
The only thing that could trouble the crimson goddess.