Chapter 9

 

Sitting in the front passenger seat of Damon’s Mercedes-Benz S-Class, Arras reclined, a hand in her pocket.  She ran her fingers around the thumb drive Ethan Rhodes had given them before leaving the clinic.  The USB contained Arras’ head scans, a recording of their conversation with the old doctor, as well as some of the neurologist’s hasty notes on his patient.

Connecting to the small storage device through her fingertips, Arras tried to use the remainder of the nanomachines distributed through her body that had not gone to creating her new eye, passively scanning over the data.  Perhaps it was boredom, or maybe it was just to take her mind off everything, but she soon gave up on the thumb drive altogether.  Instead, she pulled out her cell phone and quietly revisited Danny’s text from a few hours ago.

Damon took notice of this, and said, “For as many times as you’ve looked at that text, you’d think it was some sort of threat.”

“It just seems sloppy is all,” Arras replied, looking up from the phone.  “If you already knew where they would be, then it was redundant for him to report to me.”

Stopping at a red light, Damon turned to her, looking more incredulous than he thought polite.  “Is that really why you think he sent that message?”

“Why else would he send it?” Arras asked, obviously not catching his meaning.

“He’s off with another woman,” Damon explained, realizing he was leaping headfirst into a conversation for which he was not prepared.  “Well, that is to say…  You’re not… worried?”

As Damon kicked himself for what he considered to be the worst possible word he could have chosen, Arras merely considered what he had said to be annoyingly paranoid.

“Valiya’s an ally,” she said simply.  “It’s unnecessary to think she would do anything to him.”

“I didn’t mean you should be concerned for his well-being,” Damon countered, trying to salvage what little dignity he felt he had left at this point.  “But perhaps a little… jealous?”

The light turned green, and Arras glared at Damon a bit as he started to drive, feeling as if he was pretending to know something she did not.  Still, she looked back down at the text, her look softening as she read over the short message again, still wondering what Damon was trying to tell her.

Taking a deep breath, and sighing inside, Damon accepted his own ineptitude.  With a kind voice, one devoid of his previous disbelief, he continued trying to state his case.  “It’s rather normal for him to send you that, I’d say,” he began.  “He just doesn’t want you to be concerned.”

Still studying the text, Arras asked a little helplessly, “Am I supposed to be concerned in this situation?”

“I wouldn’t say so, especially considering he’s with Valiya.  But I believe that text is Daniel’s way of showing consideration for your feelings.”

Remaining quiet, Arras continued to stare into the screen of her phone, feeling like a fish out of water now.

“I may be overstepping my bounds, and certainly put me in my place if I am,” Damon ventured once more, “but, Arras…  Have you ever been in a relationship like this before?”

“A relationship,” Arras repeated, as if the word he had given her now was too bland.  “I’ve had plenty.  My family, military officers, politicians…”

“Yes, but I mean relationships of a different kind,” he persisted, grateful for the need to keep his eyes on the road and not on her.  “Not a relationship between family members or co-workers, or even friends.  But a relationship between…”  Tightening his grip on the steering wheel, he struggled to think of the proper word, loathing how uncomfortable he was making himself.  “Sweethearts!” he finally blurted, instantly embarrassed by himself.

Arras mulled over this word, staring inquisitively back at Damon as he forced himself to face forward.  Before she could say anything more, however, their conversation was cut short.

Another sharp pain drilled into Arras’ head.  Resisting the urge to clasp at her hair, she leaned forward, wincing at the returning feeling.  This time around, she could remember feeling this kind of pain long before now; it was centuries ago, when she was being vetted as a potential Reded operator—when they had tested the mettle of her mind.

“Arras, are you all right?” Damon asked instinctively, stopping at another red light before reaching out to her.

“It’s nothing,” Arras muttered back, pressing her palm against her eyepatch, still fighting the pain.  It was lasting longer this time than it had back at the clinic.

“Ethan was right, we can’t simply ignore—”

“I said, it’s fine!”

Arras wanted to take back that curt reply, but she couldn’t bring herself to do so under the repeated pangs twisting inside her head.  No matter how long she waited, the pain would not relent.  Her eyes watered, and her ears rang, but she could still clearly hear Damon’s voice.

“Why do you always have to be so damn stubborn?”

“I’m not being stubborn!” Arras snapped back.

Opening her watering eyes, she found Damon looking completely taken aback at her, negotiating his own mix of worry and confusion.

“I apologize, Arras, but I… I didn’t say you were,” he told her, speaking with minor trepidation.

The pain in Arras’ head began to wane.  She could feel something else fading with it now; not a physical sensation, but something like a bare emotion or sentiment.  Somehow she knew it belonged to Damon, that it was rooted in him, branching out from him.  She could feel it: remorse for accusing her of being hysterical, though he had never verbalized it, and regard for what she must be going through.

As the pain and the emotion both faded, Arras found herself even more perplexed than he was.

“Damon, I—…”

The car’s speakers chirped abruptly, announcing an incoming phone call.  Looking at the console next to the wheel, Damon and Arras could see Danny’s name scroll across the main display.  Without words, Damon looked back at Arras, who only nodded that he was free to move on.

Damon tapped the touchscreen and answered the call.  In an instant, the car was flooded with the sound of rushing wind and clattering footsteps, as well as someone huffing for air.  A crash broke the otherwise meaningless noise before Danny’s voice finally came through.

“Damon?  Damon, you there?”

“I’m here, Daniel.”

“Is Arras with you?” Danny asked before Damon could say more.

“I am,” Arras answered for herself.

“Where the hell are you guys?” Danny asked.  Struggling to breathe through what sounded like him running at top speed, he still seemed to be trying to keep his voice down.

“We’re driving back to Teleios now,” Damon replied.  “Daniel, what’s happening?  Is something wrong?”

“Is something wro—?”  Danny sputtered the words, but stopped himself, though he was clearly infuriated.  “Are you kidding me with that shit?  Turn on a TV or something!”  A few more seconds of strained breathing came and went before Danny spoke again.  “I need you to pick Val and me up at Seventh and West Forty-Forth.  RFN, Damon, you hear me?”

“We’re on our way,” Damon replied, forcing himself into a ready mode as he watched the perpendicular traffic blocking the intersection thin.  “I need you to tell me what’s happening, Daniel?”

Damon noticed Arras was staring out her window.  Leaning over to see what she was looking at with such intensity, he saw a large knot of people converging on two men, one of whom was ramming his fist mercilessly into the other’s face.  He needed no explanation; Damon knew the seeds of an impending riot.

“We need to hurry,” Arras muttered almost absently at her window.

Then Danny’s voice broke back into the car.

“Nulem Verris just put out a hit on all of us—come pick us up right now!”

“We’re coming, just stay where you are!” Damon replied.

Wasting no more time, he put the car into a new gear.  The Mercedes’ engine revved with a new bravado, and Damon accelerated between a break in the traffic ahead, running the red light.

Arras unapologetically reached into Damon’s pants pocket, pulling out his smart phone.  She opened the web browser, and Damon, picking up on her motive, directed her to a news site he had bookmarked.  “There should be something on that site, I’m certain,” he told her.

“Doesn’t look like there’s much to choose from,” was all she said.  Thumbing through what would have normally been a list of latest stories, Arras found the same image and text repeated endlessly down the line.  Daniel was right: the image was of Nulem Verris, and the text was what she assumed to be the starting lines of whatever message he had delivered.

Arras tapped one of the copies of the video and turned up the volume.  As Damon drove through and around the rapidly congealing traffic with daring yet control, he listened to the words of a proxy he had never before met but whom he felt he already knew well.  Locking her seatbelt in place, and keeping a firm grip on the phone as they bounced over a curb, Arras glared back at the man on the screen.

“My name is Nulem Verris”—the man who had called for her murder, and the murder of those she held dear.