Chapter 10

 

 Lying in bed, back in his quarters, Danny wrestled within himself, doing what he hadn’t done for a few days now: he thought of home.  More than ever before.  Only, this time, he didn’t simply wish to be back in Fayette.  He thought of the past.  Of his brother, his mother.  Even his father.

 Wandering through his own mind, he found himself revisiting memories he thought he had set aside years ago, memories that had retaken him only a few days ago—thoughts that had been steadily returning since a couple months ago.  Danny wondered how they might be connected, knowing only that they all orbited the same core.

 In a moment of lucidity, Danny looked down at his feet in time to catch sight of Arras standing in the doorway.

 “Hey,” he said, feeling almost dumbfounded.

 “Do you have a minute?”

 As they walked from his room and to the elevator, Danny could see the sun had already set.  He wondered why Damon hadn’t shown up after all, while also recoiling at the thought that he had spent the rest of that day only meandering around the top five floors, doing nothing more than try to review the various mechanics of the firearms he had been shown the day before.

 Leaving the elevator at the bottom of the top five floors, Arras and Danny made their way up the remaining five stories, coming to a single door at the end of the stairway.  Pushing through, Arras led them both out into the wind and night.  Feeling gravel shift and crunch beneath his feet, Danny followed her out onto the roof.

 Arras continued leading the way, stopping to sit behind the lip of the roof’s edge.  Danny joined her.  The air blasted against his back, making him rethink their seating arrangement, but the sight was too much to surrender.  He had never set foot in Manhattan before yesterday; though Ithaca was a big city in itself, there was something about this borough that left him shell-shocked.  The city surrounding them wasn’t quite a jungle; it was more like a mountain range, echoing with the sounds of engines and car horns, and people.  Waves and waves of people, flooding through the urban valley, surrounding clotted streets of cars and trucks, taxis and the occasional bicycle.  Solid walls of buildings rose from the concrete soil far below, their jagged skylines gouging their way toward the clouds, holding in the warm oranges and yellows of street lamps, speckled with multicolored signs and billboards, traffic lights and the red and white of vehicles coming and going.

 “Is this where you’ve been this whole time?” Danny asked, struggling to take his eyes from the view.

 “Not the whole time, no,” Arras said, pulling her knees to her chest.  “I came here this morning to watch the sunset, right after you finished shooting practice with Damon.”

 “Oh,” he hummed, leaning back on his hands.  “It really is beautiful out here.”  With a shrug and a smile, he added, “I’m glad you brought me up here.”

 “I’ve been watching your progress the past two days,” Arras said simply, keeping her eyes on the city below.

 “Pretty mediocre, huh?”

 “You’re progressing.”

 Her answer surprised him a bit, though he tried not to let that show.  A few minutes passed, filled with nothing more than the crashing symphony below, interlaced with the staccato beat of thousands of barely audible footsteps.

 “I wanted to ask you,” Arras said, abruptly interrupting the sounds, “about what happened the other day.”

 Lowering his head, Danny added, “You mean with the suit.”

 Her silence was her affirmation.

 “Actually,” Danny said, “I wanted to ask you some things myself.”

 “You mean about what Damon told you,” Arras said, “about what that suit means to me.”

 “That’s right.”  When she went quiet again, he tried to bring her back.  “I’m not trying to pry or anything; you said there were things you felt I didn’t need to know, and I’m fine with that.  I just…  I was hoping you could tell me that much.  I mean, I don’t even know how this suit works—why it works, or where it goes once it disappears.”

 “I’ll answer your questions, the one’s I think should be answered,” she consented, not looking at him.  “That is, if you answer my questions, too.”

 “Fair enough.”

 “The other day, the suit gave off some strange readings…”

 “I didn’t even know you could monitor the suit like that.”

 “Even if it’s tied to you,” Arras explained, “part of its… programming still trusts my nano-net.  It may have made you a nano-net of your own, but it still remembers mine.”

 “And what did your net tell you when the suit started to shut down?”

 She watched him from the corner of her eye, leaning her arms onto her knees so she could rest her chin.  “Your heart rate elevated, so did your breathing, though they weren’t necessarily abnormal.  Your brain activity, however…”

 “My brain?”

 “Though the suit doesn’t always stay with you, you’re still connected to it at a neural level.  Though we were able to activate the suit with your survival instinct, it’s your mental connection to its operating system that sustains and utilizes your bond—the degree to which you and the suit can synchronize with one another determines how well it works.  Does that make sense?”

 “Mostly,” Danny said, looking back at her.  “I get the idea.”

 “Now for my question.”

 “Shoot.”

 “The ionic currents in your brain were firing like lightning, and it looked like you were trying to fry your own amygdala and prefrontal cortex.  What happened to you?”

 Danny let out a soft though nervous laugh, laying back to stare up at the light-choked sky, seeing only a couple stars.  “Believe it or not, I’m still not sure what happened myself.  But I know what I saw.”

 “You saw something?”

 “My father.”

 “Why would that shut down the suit?”

 Curling his lip, Danny hummed, not sure how to answer.  “How about you answer another one of my questions now?”

 Turning back to the city, covering most of her face in her arms again, she said, “What do you want to know?”

 “What happened to the suit when it disappeared?”

Danny thought this was a rather boring question, yet, if she was finally opening up, he decided to get what he could.  Perhaps her answer could give him an idea, some way to reactivate the suit—maybe even how to use it.

 “When my parents designed the suit, they never intended for it to be worn by its operator all the time,” Arras began.  “They also imagined the suit having a much larger arsenal than you or I could carry all the time.”  Turning her head to a random direction, she looked as if she was searching for something on the ground.  “I’m not sure where the sun is right now, but…”

 “The sun?”

 “In order to contain the suit in a safe environment, as well as to provide it with a larger inventory, my parents took a derelict space colony, retrofitted and repurposed it—and put it in orbit around the sun.”

 Feeling somewhat floored, Danny tried to imagine such a thing.  “I guess that would make sense—if I can even say that at this point.  Put something close enough to the sun, theoretically it could siphon energy—maybe even catch antimatter from solar flares—providing it and the suit with a virtually limitless source of energy.  Plus, I’d imagine it’d be damn hard to detect.”

 “Precisely.  Power and discretion were my parents’ top priorities when they drafted designs for this platform.”

 “And how does it get to the sun and back again?  The suit, I mean.”

 “You and Eli seemed as if you understood our communications technology well enough, at least in theory,” Arras said, sitting upright again.  “This is ultimately no different.”

 As she said this, Danny realized what she was describing was part and parcel with what he had spent so many years studying, something like quantum entanglement: a particle in one location interacting with and influencing another particle clear across the universe, regardless of time or distance, as if the two particles were never distinguishable in the first place.  Something like a method of teleportation could theoretically follow.

This left Danny amazed, and made him feel relatively unintelligent.  While he lived in a world composed of strings and branes, completely reducible to math, perhaps even to one unifying equation—for him, this was all in the realm of theoretical physics.  Somehow, the Enqelins had taken what to Danny and his own world were only theories and postulates, and turned them into engineering projects.

 “It’s one thing to manipulate something like an electron or two,” Danny said, trying to get a hold of himself.  “But you’re talking about moving complex objects in their entirety—or, at least, creating some pretty intricate responses between two points of entanglement.”

 “We used technology that even my own people had never seen before, not to that degree.  Now I get to ask a question: why would seeing your father shut down the suit?”

 This time Danny was the one to go quiet.

 “Answer me, and I’ll answer you,” she reminded him.

 “I know,” Danny said.  “I’m just not sure how to put it.”  Leaning up from the gravel, he suggested, “How about I just tell you what books I like to read?”

 Her brow creased a little.  “I want to know about your father.”

 “Not for nothing, Arras,” he said, serious once again, “but that answer costs more than a crash course in particle physics or engineering.”

 “What, then?”

 “My dad isn’t the only person I’ve seen since I got this suit.”

 “That ‘presence’ that led you to me.”

 “Well, yes, but that’s not what I mean.  I’ve seen someone else, too.  A woman.”

Danny didn’t notice Arras flinch.

“I can never make out her face,” he continued, “but she’s always dressed in white.  Do you know who she is?”

 Trying to hide her face a little more, Arras answered honestly.  “She’s my mother.”

 Danny studied Arras for some time, watching her slip into silence again, before turning to look back down at the lights and sounds beneath them.  The cityscape reminded him of what lay beyond the doors of that chapel in the rift, though this force failed to penetrate him so deeply.

 Finally, he attempted to ask.

“Why would I be seeing your mother?”

As soon as he asked, the answer started to come.  Though it was vague, something still beyond him, he began to intuit what Damon meant when he said the suit was more to Arras than a mere weapon.

 As his thoughts shifted, Danny’s question changed.

 “What happened to your mother, Arras?”

 “What happened to your father?”

 They looked right at each other, feeling something neither of them had felt for the other before—a connection, with a hint of empathy.

 “I think I shut the suit down,” Danny started, “because I’m afraid that if I go along with your plan…  If I go to war, I could become like him.”

 Looking away, Arras said, “My sister.  We sent her back to the Coalition.  That was her role, to seek a peaceful means first and to wake me up if her plan failed.  My parents had a role to play too, more than just building the suit or its platform.”

 “My dad was in the army,” Danny explained, taking her following silence as his cue to hold up his end of the trade.  “In 2001, a few terrorists hijacked a couple planes and crashed them into a couple buildings in this very city, killing thousands of people.”

 “The September 11 attacks—I know about that.”

 “Then you know how the US responded.  My dad wasn’t among the first to ship out, he managed to stay home for a year, but eventually they sent him.  He ended up serving a number of tours in Iraq.  The first one didn’t shake him; he saw combat, but he was doing fine.  It was after his second and third tours that he started to change.”

 Danny paused, looking down, feeling tears begin to form.  Pushing them back, he looked back up at the few stars overhead.

 “He used to take us out onto the roof, me and my brother.”  Danny tried to smile to hold back the emotion threatening to break through.  “We would look at the stars, there were so many.  He’d show us the constellations.  But we stopped doing that after he went to war.”

 “What changed?” Arras asked, trying to tread lightly in ways that surprised her.

 “He came home from and he was just… different.”  Danny looked back at her, having brought himself back under control.  “I didn’t know it at the time, but I guess he had tried to save some kid that had run into the line of fire.  But he couldn’t do it.  Then he watched most of his buddies die in the same firefight.  And when he came home, he wasn’t the same.”

 Deciding it was her turn, Arras went on with her own story.

 “We based the suit off of technology pioneered by Rededication,” Arras said.  “In order to help the brain withstand the profound amount of mental strain operating Rededication would put them under, the human mind would be put into a sort of dialogue with an artificial intelligence, something that could help the mind survive an operation.  The only thing was that an AI wasn’t enough to keep Rededication operators together—the computer would progressively tease out and manipulate the operator’s anxieties, their anger, their paranoia, their depression.  They would sink into madness, which was fine for Rededication.”  She turned back to Danny, hoping not to burden him with an insufficient trade.  “My parents didn’t want that for me when I operated the suit.  They found the flaw in Rededication and realized they could correct it—they could keep me from deteriorating by putting me in dialogue with another human mind.”

 Danny could tell she was holding back something of her own now.  He could see the same sadness in her, the same sadness that had made its home in him after his own life had fallen apart.

 “My father went to the platform,” Arras finally said.  “He uploaded his consciousness to the station to maintain it while I slept and to operate it once I awoke.  And my mother…”

 Only then did Danny finally understand—he understood the idea of sync rates, and he understood why he was seeing Arras’ mother.  He understood why she had been so angry with him from the beginning.  Danny had taken her mother away from her.

 “She became the second mind for you to interact with,” Danny said, putting words to this revelation.  “She’s the suit’s operating system.”

 Clutching at his pants, Danny at last gave up on understanding any of this—allowing ambiguity to have its day, for now—before deciding to fulfill his end of the deal.  He decided to give her the bottom line.

 “I don’t want to become like him.  I can’t do that to my family.  And yet I’m trying to do this for them.”

 Arras rested her eyes on him once again, venturing to say, “You don’t have to become like him.”  Her voice came softly.

Danny watched her look back to the city one last time; the scene below marched on the way it had since long before they had ever arrived on that rooftop, as it would long after they left.

“The people down there—whether or not they chose, they’re woven into the All.  They’re in a world that’s already designed their clothes, their shoes, set their roads, and built their homes.  Decided their companions.  There’s a lot they didn’t choose, a lot that’s just given to them without merit or request.  But that doesn’t mean they’re trapped.  They can still choose what to wear, what roads to take, where to live, and how they want to react to the people around them.”

 She looked back at Danny, smiling in a way he had never seen before.

 “You didn’t choose what happened to your father, Danny.  But you can choose what you do about it.  If you come with me, you will have to kill people.  You will go to war.  You might see innocent people die, despite your best efforts.  You might even see me die.  But what you do about that is up to you—you alone.”

 Smiling back at her, all he could say was, “We aren’t going anywhere unless I can unlock the suit.”

 “I have an idea,” Arras said simply, her smile disappearing into her normal, tepid look.  “I think I know how we can take the suit out of lockdown.  But it won’t be easy.  Not at all.”

 Danny didn’t relent.  “I’ll do what I have to.  I’ve come this far, and I’m not backing out now.  Not when there are so many people relying on us.”

 “When push comes to shove,” Arras said, “remember that resolve.  Remember it so that you can do what you have to do.”

 They both got up to leave.  Danny made his way ahead of her to the door, though he was stopped short.

 “I’m sorry, too,” Arras said to him, catching him off guard.

 “You’re… sorry?”

“That day at the pavilion, back in Ithaca—you told me you were sorry things turned out this way.  I wanted to tell you… I’m sorry, too.”

 With a sigh, Danny said, “If you want, you can make it up to me.  Make me a deal: when we find the guy that put us in this mess—the guy who sent me those texts and tricked me into taking the suit, the guy who did this to you.”  He grinned wildly.  “Let’s kick his ass together.”

 “Deal,” said Arras, a grin of her own flashing in and out of life for the slightest moment before they left together.