Fidgeting, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, Danny stood alone—waiting. He knew what was coming, they had talked it through for a few days already. There would be no real surprises, only the question of whether he would do it or not. Sliding his fingers down the tactical vest strapped over his chest, he thought of the call he had made to his mom the night before.
“Just wanted to let you know I’m doing alright,” Danny told her, “and that I love you—Milo too.” It was his way of saying goodbye without saying goodbye. Last words, just in case; if he couldn’t tell them what was really happening, this message would have to do.
Looking upward to the window of the observation deck, Danny could make out Damon and Arras, though they were faint at that distance.
“So we’ve come to this,” Damon hummed.
“He agreed to it.”
“This isn’t like last time.”
“It can’t be,” Arras answered with none of Damon’s hesitation. “The first time we activated the suit was a controlled experiment, an attempt to trigger a predictable response. We’ll unlock the suit by the same methods, it’s inevitable.” She clutched at her sleeves. “This time, though, we’re not just trying to reactivate the suit.”
“You say that so casually, as if this truly is nothing more than a repeat of our exercise in the woods.”
“I’m not trying to downplay the risk we’re running,” Arras said, looking down at Danny through the window. “Neither is he.”
“I suppose we don’t have a choice, not at this point,” Damon said, trying to placate himself, leaning back in his chair.
Arras watched him from the corner of her eye. “You were really relying on his cell phone to give us a clue, weren’t you?”
“Yes, and I’ll be the first to admit that I probably put too much hope into that. But I thought… if the texts were coming through a real phone number…”
“Only, they didn’t originate from a phone or even come from a cell tower.”
“Unfortunately so,” Damon said, looking back at Arras. “I don’t suppose you could explain why those messages were coming from that rift you were hiding in.”
Seemingly caught up in her own thoughts, Arras muttered back, “All we can do is try to contact my father—he might have some answers. Other than that, we still need to move out as soon as possible.”
“You think Aurin might know something we don’t?”
“It’s possible. However, that doesn’t change our primary objective.”
With a sigh, Damon turned back to his console. “Right, then. Let the killing begin.” He activated the speakers to the testing room, looking back at Danny standing at the far end of the chamber. “Are you ready, Daniel?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” was all Danny could bring himself to say. There wasn’t much he could do to prepare for this; all he could do was push forward.
A strip of the floor elevated next to Danny, raising a rack with one firearm: an FN P90 with a magazine already loaded into the top of the frame, sights attached. Danny took the gun, understanding that this was all he could be given for their gamble to even have a chance of paying off. Just enough for him to put up a fight; not nearly enough to win.
“At least no one will miss our test subjects,” Damon muttered to himself. “The military didn’t want them, but they’ll do well for today’s exercise. Beginning, now.”
Danny breathed in deeply, taking great lengths to keep calm. This would be different from his run with Arras through the woods; he would need to unlock the suit on his own terms, and his stimulus this time would be lethal. At all costs, they would force the suit to respond—they would force her to respond.
Two portions of the wall to his left lifted, elevators bringing up their load. Danny watched two tangles of metal move from the openings to the ground, crawling their way down the wall. A loud klaxon blared out, announcing that the testing room was now locked down and the test had begun. Holding the P90 to his chest, Danny took a few steps forward, his eyes darting to either side of the room, waiting for the attack.
“If you can hear me…” Danny said in a hush, making certain neither Damon nor Arras could hear him. “If you can understand me—then you probably know this is it.”
The sound of grinding machinery stopped him in his tracks. With almost instinctual timing, he anticipated his enemy’s location, firing a burst across one of the shipping freights as a blur of metal and joints sped over the container and out of sight. At first confused by his own perception, he brought himself back to the moment.
Keeping his weapon up, crouching a little more, he snuck over to one of the demolished cars, leaning against the other side of the vehicle for some cover.
“We’re really trying here,” Danny went on, speaking to what felt like no one at all—though he knew who he had in mind. “If you’re in my head like I’m in yours, then you probably know that we still need you.”
Looking up, Danny felt his stomach sink, seeing one of the machines arching halfway over a concrete slab a few yards away. It had six legs, each converging at a spherical body covered in lenses, mounted with three cannons on joints, adjusting their aim with every new movement. The spider took aim at Danny, leaving him only a moment to run from his cover, almost losing his footing from the shock of the vehicle splintering behind him.
Watching the car fly apart like glass, Damon’s arms crossed, he tapped his forefinger to his arm. “You know I’ll shut this down, if I have to,” he said, keeping his eyes forward.
Arras only glanced at Damon, then she looked back at Danny, not wishing to miss a moment of this.
“If he dies, then so does the suit,” Damon added.
“If he can’t start the suit again,” Arras at last answered, “then he— no, all of us, we’ll all be as good as dead.” Furrowing her brow, she watched Danny round one of the freights, with a spider trailing a few yards behind as the second made its way to flank him on the other side of the container. “I have no intention of letting him die, Damon. But, for now, I need him to believe he could die.”
Just as Danny came around the corner, he felt the urge to leap forward instead of completing the turn, narrowly missing a burst of gunfire perforating the corner of the container. Landing hard on his shoulder, he fired back at the second spider, forcing it to withdraw, before turning his attention back to the machine already chasing him, also managing to push it back. Not wasting a second, he got to his feet and sprinted to take cover again, putting a few cars and concrete slabs between himself and the machines.
Taking in another breath, still trying to stay calm, he looked down at his mostly empty magazine.
“We need your help,” Danny whispered, trying to get the words out as he panted for air. “Without you, a lot of people are going to die.”
He tightened his grip around the P90’s frame, hearing nothing beyond his cover—causing him to shrink a little more.
“I’m sorry,” he finally said softly, breathing easily again. “I’m sorry we ever ended up like this. I’m sorry I interrupted you and Arras. I’m sorry I took you from her.”
Looking up again, Danny could see her once again, though she was as obscure as ever—a woman in a white sundress, her feet bare, her face out of view. She stood like a monolith, looking back at him with feelings Danny could only guess.
“I won’t lie to you,” Danny said, meeting her gaze. “I didn’t agree to this because of some grand desire to save the world. I think that if Rededication isn’t stopped, it may cost the lives of the only people I’ve ever loved in this world. My friends. My family. There are people I care about more than anything, more than everything—more than myself. I know you feel the same. I’d bet my life on that. There are people you want to save, too.”
Bracing himself on the ground with one hand, he pushed himself back up to his feet, walking calmly out from his cover. Damon and Arras both felt no small amount of panic watching the two spiders approach Danny in the open. His eyes on the spiders, Danny set the P90 on the crumpled hood of a nearby car.
“This whole thing,” Danny said, feeling the woman approach him from behind, joined now by someone else. “All the threats and danger—it was never meant to trick you out of the rabbit hole. Honestly, Arras and I ended up coming to pretty much the same conclusion.”
He loosened his tightened fists and risked a smile as the spiders planted themselves into the floor, both only about twenty feet away, one to his one o’clock, the other to his eleven o’clock. Their cannons hummed to life as they adjusted their aim.
“I could reactivate you, but it wouldn’t mean much,” Danny confessed, closing his eyes. “But maybe—just maybe—we could also learn to synchronize. Because we both want the same thing. Am I wrong?”
The spiders opened fire, sending two streams of bullets coasting up the floor, chomping their way toward Danny.
“I’m shutting it down,” Damon announced, moving for his console. He never would have made it in time, anyway.
Opening his eyes, watching the bullets cruise toward him, Danny kept his smile. “I trust you,” he said, feeling the woman and that unknown presence from before, each at either side of him. “Can you trust me?”
The volley of bullets made contact with their target, ricocheting irritably off of Danny’s body as the armor coasted over him, materializing from seemingly nowhere until he was suited up entirely. His shoulders slumping in relief, he opened his eyes and looked down at himself, turning his hands over. Suddenly feeling electric, he couldn’t sense Arras’ mother or that other presence beside him—they were within him, swimming in his mind.
“Thank you,” Danny said to them. “I’ll try not to let you down.”
Taking the P90 from the hood, he watched it pulse with light; its frame cracked and segmented as swarms of nanoscale influences reshaped the gun. He started forward, opening fire on the spider to his right, watching its legs fly to pieces beneath its body as its companion retreated.
Damon sighed heavily, perhaps more relieved than even Danny. “Looks like our hero pulled it off.”
Looking back to Arras, her eyes were still on Danny. She looked satisfied.
“Shall we begin phase two?” asked Damon, reaching for his console, much more coolly than before.
“Yes,” Arras answered, almost unable to contain her excitement—her hope. “Let’s see what they can do.”
Another klaxon rang out through the testing room as Danny plowed his foot through head of the first spider, already cutting down the second with the amplified P90. On each of the four walls, more panels like the first lifted, unleashing one spider each. Their opaque bodies crawled starkly over the white walls, somewhat camouflaged as red lights began to waft through the darkening test room.
Danny made his way to the center of the test room, stopping in time for two racks to lift from the floor, loaded with firearms and extra ammunition. Leaving behind the P90, he seized two pre-loaded M249 light machine guns, stepping out from the racks and taking aim as the weapons in his hands cracked open and lit up, augmented by the suit. Finally recognizing that unexpected instinct from before, Danny felt it stronger than ever, as if he could sense the motions of the spiders, feeling the suit—Arras’ mother—hack her way into the more superficial regions of their enemies’ computerized brains. Even at this distance, they couldn’t be stopped.
Danny opened fire, ripping containers to pieces, shattering a number of spiders like glass before they ever touched the ground. Once the machines were off the walls, he dropped his weapons, trading them out for two Benelli M4’s, shredding the already demolished cars and crumbling the concrete slabs, blowing away a number of other spiders as they moved in from their cover.
With a mix of anxiety and unfettered awe, Damon watched Danny tear through one machine after another. Damon had designed these machines to be the top of the line in surveillance and infantry; it was a disappointment when the US had decided not to implement them, and yet Damon felt that disappointment wash away, like pouring a heavy bucket of water over a dirty sidewalk, as he watched what he thought were his finest creations crumble at the hands of a force he could never hope to match.
“Amazing,” Damon breathed. “Simply amazing.”
One last spider left, Danny took a Beretta M9 from the rack, letting it shift and adjust in his hand as he approached the spider’s writhing body, still trying to move its failing frame. Putting a foot onto the machine’s round center, he fired one bullet into it; the shell collapsed on the one side and spewed out its insides on the other before the rest of its body went stiff.
“Well, Arras,” Damon almost sang, turning to her, “is that synchronization?”
She shook her head, escaping the euphoria that had taken Damon. “They’re not completely synchronized.”
“Where are they at, then?” Damon asked, turning back to Danny, wondering what else this suit could be capable of.
“At the fountain a few weeks ago, they reached two percent,” she said, letting her nano-net remind her of the logged stats. “In the forest, they reached eight percent. This, what we’re looking at—this is them at about eighteen percent.”
Damon’s mouth hung open slightly as he stared down at the armored body below, coming into clearer view as the emergency lighting was replaced by normal recess lighting, revealing the carnage wreaked on the testing room. The once crisp and clean chamber looked more like a demilitarized zone.
“What on earth did your family create?” was all Damon could manage to say, feeling very small, even while standing so far above the suit.
“Rededication won’t be this easy,” Arras said. “In order to destroy something that could destroy the world, we had to build something with an equal or greater payload. Eighteen percent won’t be enough, but it’ll do for now.”