Chapter 14

 

 They poured much thought into their decision, weighing numerous suggestions along the way: the goal was to launch without attracting any attention.  Damon listed off a number of remote areas Arras and Danny could launch from; ultimately, they settled on a vacant land in upstate New York, where Damon owned a number of acres.  With no eyes for miles and the ship’s stealth systems, they would have plenty of breathing room to make the launch, and even a landing later on.

 Danny sat nervously at Arras’ side, buckled into his seat, watching her activate one terminal after another as their transport hummed to life.  Through the canopy, he could see a semi-truck almost half a mile away where he knew Damon was observing closely.  Looking back at Arras, already dressed in her spacesuit—something far less bulky than he had expected, though much lower tech than his own suit—she took hold of two handles in front of her as the ship’s growing sounds plateaued then faded into unnoticeable background noise.

 “We’ll be leaving now,” Arras said to Damon through a headset.

 “Best of luck, you two,” came Damon’s reply through the radio.  “And remember: one small step, one giant leap, don’t go quietly into that dark night—you get the picture.”

 “To infinity and—…” Danny muttered, looking from Damon’s distant vantage point up into the cloudy sky.

 At Arras’ command, the ship began its ascent, pushed skyward by an array of vertical-takeoff engines.  The ground sank out from beneath them, first slowly as the ship balanced out, testing its freshly resurrected engines.  They then gradually accelerated as the aft rockets ignited.  They were engulfed in clouds for only a moment before rising into the stratosphere.  Neither of them spoke as they made their ascent.  For most of the procedure, Danny held tight to the sides of his seat, starting to understand just why Damon hated flying.

 The ship began to rattle all around them as they reached escape velocity; yet, only seconds after the friction engulfing their vessel roared into earshot, it died out.  The world outside went utterly silent, leaving Arras and Danny only the deep vibrations of the engines inside behind them as they flew free of Earth’s gravity well.

 With his fingers no longer stapled to his seat, Danny started to take notice of the ship itself.  For instance, he could tell they were moving, yet there seemed to be almost no G-force—even the ride up was far smoother than anything he had expected.  Letting his hands rest on his lap, he realized there was even gravity.

Arras pressed in a few commands at her control console, Danny looked out at the wall of stars in front of them.  Any photographs taken in orbit suffered compared to a view like this; no picture he had ever seen was sensitive enough to truly account for the stars, conveying instead nothing but absolute black.  From orbit, though, through his own eyes, he could look out into a sea of delicate pinpricks of varying brightness and color.  Everything about this seemed so surreal to him, as if a strangely vivid dream—a good dream, something he hadn’t experienced in far too long.

 “We’ll make our first jump from behind the moon,” Arras explained, redirecting the ship, obviously more accustomed to events like these than her co-pilot.  “We’ll come out a few hundred miles from the orbital, then make our approach from there.”

 “I thought you said this thing was cloaked.”

 “It is,” she replied, not bothering to look up from her monitor.  “That said, an FTL event is much harder to hide than a ship.”

 As their vessel tilted and rotated, aided by the quiet bursts of a few small thrusters around its body, each sounding off a dull hiss inside the cabin, Danny and Arras looked up through the canopy at the blue and white ceiling rolling into view above them.  They looked upward at the Earth.  As before with the stars, Danny had seen photos of the Earth from orbit before, but there was something even more majestic in this moment—he couldn’t help but feel incredibly small.

 Beginning their course, they could see part of the moon, most of its surface sunbathed at their angle.

 “It’ll be a few minutes,” Arras said, taking her hands off the controls, letting the auto-pilot take over.  “So settle in.”

 Danny watched the planet—his home world—inch its way over their heads and disappear from the canopy’s view.  Turning his attention back to the expanse of stars before him, he added feeling small to feeling lost.  He knew Arras had come from somewhere out there, though he may not see her star from his position.  Even so, he couldn’t help but wonder what else—who else—might be out there.

 “Arras,” he said, taking his eyes off the stars and the endless space behind them, “what more can you tell me about Rededication?”

 She only glanced back at him from her seat before looking back at the moon.  “What do you want to know?”

 “Can it really destroy a planet?”

 “Essentially, yes,” Arras said starkly, “though that’s not its primary purpose.  Rededication is used first and foremost to clear a human population, anticipating maximum military opposition, without permanently harming a biosphere.  Once the conquest is complete, the Coalition could then step in and rededicate the vacant surface to their own designs.”

 “Such as?”

 “Sometimes military installations or factories, other times political asylums.  On occasion they would even repopulate the area with civilians.”

 “People would go for that?”  Danny peeked over his shoulder, as if he could still see Earth.  He tried not to think of his own home, his whole world, in ashes.

 “The people—most of them, at least—believed Rededication was simply a defense initiative,” Arras went on.  “It was described as a last measure when dealing with terrorists or other threats to the Coalition’s well-being.  There were only a handful of occasions when Rededication was ever used for a planet-wide assault…”  She paused, squeezing a handful of her flight suit’s material.  “The people that build on top of the ruins do so under the impression that they’re helping to stomp out violence and discord.  It’s a symbolic action for them, a way of illustrating how they’ve demolished tyranny or terror and built a new world on its remains.”

 “Have you seen Rededication in action?”

 “I know enough about it.”  She stared down at her controls, tensing up a bit.  “A Rededication platform jumps into the star system and establishes a base of operations.  An attack typically begins by first crippling the people’s communication networks, frying their electronics.  Then any forces not already on the planet are neutralized—warships or orbital weapons.  After that follows a series of carpet-bombings, usually to eliminate military installations or any other potential threats or defenses, including infrastructure.  If the people don’t surrender during these initial steps, then Rededication begins its ground assault—execution of the human population.”

 “If they’re not trying to destroy an environment in the process, how do they pull off an attack like that?  They couldn’t just nuke a place, right?  Not if they wanted to keep it intact.”

 “Machines,” Arras said.  “They use mechanized soldiers and various assault vehicles.  Unlike the suit you have now, there’s no human operator inside anything Rededication puts on the ground—not physically, anyway.”

 “Physically?”

 “Rededication is neither wholly automated nor completely manual.  There’s only one operator with a mental connection to each of the soldiers, vehicles, and systems aboard the platform.”

 “That method you mentioned before,” Danny said, trying to fill in the gaps, “someone dialoguing with an AI.  But there’s just one person doing all that?  Can one person really conquer an entire planet?”

 “With the AI, yes,” Arras said.  “However, that sort of strain gradually deteriorates the operator’s mind.  Though, Rededication thrives off madness like that.”  She tightened her fists again.  “The operator uses their machines on the ground to create a sort of neural dialogue between them and their victims, clouding the people’s judgment—blinding them enough to make them easy prey.”

 “You said that Rededication only continues its attack if the people don’t surrender, though,” Danny restated.  “Has anyone ever surrendered?”

 “Everyone does,” Arras breathed, as if answering the naïve question of a child.  “But the public never hears about that.”  She looked up at Danny, appearing more troubled than before.  “Like I said—Rededication was only propagandized as a defense.  In reality, it was just the Coalition’s high authorities trying to maintain their control.”

 They both fell silent for a moment as the moon drew closer, growing exponentially larger every second.  The ship adjusted its trajectory and curved its way into orbit, putting the moon between itself and Earth.  Arras examined the scanner display between the two seats before typing a new set of commands into the navigation console above.

 “Your family built this suit to demolish something like that,” Danny said, looking down at his armored body.  He started to feel miniscule again, wearing something that could destroy a weapon that could in turn destroy an entire planet.  Somehow, this made him feel even smaller than the even the immensity of space.

 Glancing over at Arras, he could see her expression had changed; she looked the same way she had the day they had met in the fountain.  He felt a little guilty, knowing his questions had pulled her into such a state, but he wondered if there was anything he could have done to avoid that.  He needed to know.  Though he already knew that this was harder on Arras than she herself had expected, he wondered how this might have been any different had Arras been alone in this ship, on her way to destroy Rededication singlehandedly—her original plan.

 Trying to lighten the mood as Arras pecked away at the controls, Danny tried to change the conversation.  “Hey, did you guys ever name the suit?”

 “Name it?” she repeated, raising an eyebrow.

 “Yeah.  I mean, it’s a little redundant saying ‘the suit’ all the time.”

 Looking up from the controls, she seemed irritated though not as haunted.  “We had a codename for it.”

 “Which was?”

 “Ridarin.”

 “Oh,” Danny said, not sure if he could repeat the word.  “Not very catchy.”

 “It wasn’t meant to be.”

 “What does it mean?  In English, I mean.”

 “I don’t have time to talk to you about this,” she said abruptly, going back to the navigation console.  “I have to plot a course that won’t drop us into the sun, and unless you know anything about FTL travel...”

 Danny relented, letting Arras get back to her work—the threat of evaporating in the sun was a convincing one.  Despite her new mood, Arras did seem distracted now.  Though, after only a few seconds, she looked back up.

 “Ridarin doesn’t have a precise translation,” she said with a sigh, leaning back in her seat.  “Maybe ‘soldier’ or ‘knight,’ but neither of those really capture the detail.  Ridarin is a proper name.  It comes from an old story my people used to tell.”

 “I’d like to hear that story sometime,” Danny said, smiling nervously back at her, still not thrilled at distracting her too much more.  “But would you mind if we called the suit Ridarin from now on?  We can call your mom by her name and the suit by the name you used to know it by.”

 Arras looked a little taken aback, returning to readying the coordinates.  “Do what you want,” she said, dodging the question.  Her work didn’t last much longer.  “The story…  It’s nothing special, really.  It’s about a warrior a long time ago who rescues her family from a certain death by throwing herself on their fate instead.”

 “She takes on their fate so they don’t have to face it.”

 “She takes it on and exhausts it so no one else ever has to face it again.”

 “Ridarin,” Danny said to himself.  “She sounds like a real badass.”

 Arras smirked.  “My family thought as much.”  As she went back to navigation, Danny stayed quiet.

 The story was vague, but he could see what must have attracted the Enqelins to it in the first place.  Glancing back at Arras, once again immersed in calculations he couldn’t hope to rival or even understand, he tried to empathize with her, tried to feel at least a portion of that weight the story must have carried for her family.  While the ending stuck out to him the most, he couldn’t help but think about what brought Ridarin to that ending—sacrificing her own life.  It left him feeling even smaller, contemplating the kind of sacrifice Aurin and Suo, Ila and Arras had all made.  In reality, they had all given their own lives for their mission—though not quietly, they had willingly gone into that dark night.

 Danny wondered if he could have that same kind of fidelity, that same kind of faithfulness to their vision.  There was clearly something there, he thought to himself, something inside him that didn’t contrast with the Enqelins’ plan; were that not the case, he and Suo likely wouldn’t have been able to synchronize to even this point.  But he was still only a fraction of what Arras and Suo would have been.  Though trembling, full of fear, Danny held tight to the commitment he had made just a few weeks ago at the pavilion—no, to the commitment he had made the day before that, when he decided to answer that text message.  He hadn’t chosen this, not with all its messy details and deadly risks—but he was choosing to hold on tight anyway, to go as far as he could.

 In reality, the Enqelins traveled the same road as the Coalition—they had even gone so far as to build similar weapons.  Their vision was what differed radically.  The construction of a new world, the rededicating of old ruins to new constructs.  Danny wondered what kind of world Aurin Enqelin had envisioned, or if he had envisioned one at all.  Looking back down at the armor—at Ridarin—Danny wondered if the Enqelins had planned on a new world, or if they had only planned to level the old one.

 “Countdown,” Arras announced.  “Three…”

A revving noise kicked up from the stern, shaking the ship’s frame.  “Two…”  The canopy began to darken until the view was almost gone.

“One.”

 The pocked surface of the moon vanished in an instant of pure blackness, replaced in a fraction of a second with an almost unbearable light.  The canopy continued to make adjustments it had started before the jump, suppressing the majority of the sunlight coming from behind them as Arras rotated the ship to face the star.  The sun was nothing less than an absolute barrier, a great wall built only a few million miles ahead of them.  Through the canopy Danny could see only a blackened mosaic, veined with faint yellow and orange, only a few lumens actually making it through the canopy—they would be going in with just their other instruments to guide them, no visuals.  Thermal and electromagnetic detection would be out of the question; the ship would have to find its way with nothing more than preprogrammed coordinates and attempts at short-range communication.  After some time and an uncomfortable amount of jostling, with radiological warnings sounding off, the sensors picked up their target.

 “It’s worth mentioning,” Arras said as the ship adjusted itself to meet its destination.  “My father had the option to hibernate during the years.  We anticipated that Ila would take a long time to assess whether she would need me to enter the scenario, but, as you know, we didn’t anticipate this kind of wait.”

 “Now that it’s been over two centuries, you mean,” Danny said, his heart pounding in his ears as the storm outside pummeled them.

 “I can’t say for sure how long he’s been conscious—he may have been in hibernation this whole time,” Arras went on.  “It’s his reaction to what’s happened that may be an issue.”

The navigation console rang out, registering something outside; the detected object twitched and flickered with the display as the sensors tried to hold onto their target, keeping it from slipping back into the noise.  With a more definite location, the auto-pilot began their approach.

 “He’s your dad.  I bet he’ll react the same way you did.”  Though he didn’t dare say it, he hoped this wouldn’t involve guns as it had with Arras.  “Besides, if you’re around to vouch for me, I’m sure things will be fine.”

 “Sure,” she said, glancing back up to the almost completely blacked-out canopy.  “Either way, stay on your toes.”

 The rattling intensified the longer they traveled until, all at once, the ship was still once again.  The canopy let up its defense, though only slightly, enough to see what had stopped their turbulence—nearly a mile ahead was the curve of a dark disk, obscuring nearly their entire view of the sun, all but the occasional parhelia sparking over its edge, stellar fogdogs sparking in and out of life.

 “Are we there?” Danny asked, turning from the filtered flashes of light.

 “We’re docking now.”

 The ship jolted once more before petrifying, as if there was never a solar wind to wrestle.  Arras rested her hand on the scanner display, interacting with the ship through her nano-net; her eyes closed, she surveyed what she could of the orbital station.

 “It looks like oxygen filtration’s still functioning—we’ll have air to breathe,” she said.  “Gravity is nominal, temperature and atmospheric pressure acceptable.  I think we should be all right.”

 “What about your dad?” Danny asked.

 “Can’t tell.  But the security measures aren’t tripping and the docking clamps haven’t ejected us.”  She pulled her hand from the monitor, reassured.  “I think we’re clear to enter.”

 They both looked back at the hatch behind them; under their watch, it lifted itself, opening up to darkness and silence.

 “Remember,” Arras said, getting up, keeping an eye on the open hatch, “be cautious.  I can’t promise anything from this point on.”

 Danny rose from his seat and joined her at the hatch.  Together, they both took their first steps out of the ship and onto the metal floor of an airlock tunnel.  Their footsteps reverberated down the passageway, as if heralding their arrival.

 Outside the airlock they found themselves in a pitch black corridor.  Arras turned on a light buckled to her flight suit as Danny illuminated Ridarin’s blue surface lights.  Despite their best efforts, they couldn’t see far.  The hall was empty, the walls bare—nothing else stuck out.

 “Do you think he’s still asleep?” Danny asked, feeling the need to whisper.

 Arras stared into the blackness ahead.  “I’m not sure.”

 They both turned in an instant when they heard a noise down the hall.  A line of blue light, a strand from one wall to another, had slit the dark a few yards away.  Another line intersected the first, joined by another, and another, forming a haphazard web before inching toward Arras and Danny.

 “What’s that?” Danny asked, his helmet already forming over his head.

 “It’s a scan,” she said, a little unsure herself.  “It’s testing to see who’s here.”

 The weave of lights ran through Arras first before slowing down, turning orange, letting out an almost distressed tone.  It continued to Danny, passing through him and turning a bright red.  Without further warning, as a siren blared out, a number of guns popped out of the walls, taking aim.

 “Shit!” Danny yelled as he and Arras hit the deck, dodging the first bursts of charged particles.

 Keeping low, Danny sped over to Arras, who had already pressed herself flat against the floor; not sure what else to do, he put himself between her and the assault.  The blasts impacted his suit, pushing Danny forward with every harsh blow, though nothing seemed to damage him.  He looked back down at Arras, as if to ask for help.

 Remaining calm, Arras pressed her palm to the floor, her nano-net sliding like water droplets down her skin to the metal surface.  She spoke aloud, calling out over the rapid blasts.

 “Security override: Arras Enqelin.  Extenuating circumstance.”

 She was only a few words into her commands before the turrets went cold and retreated back into the walls.  Without the extra noise, only the sound of her voice, Danny noticed she wasn’t speaking English.  The phenomenon was difficult to comprehend, but she clearly spoke in another language—what he presumed was her original language—and yet he understood it as well as he could understand her all those days before.

 Arras finished her commands, resting her head on the floor, breathing heavily.  She looked back at Danny, still arched over her.

 “You can get off, now,” she said.

 “Right, sorry.”

 Danny got back to his feet and offered Arras a hand; she got up on her own.

 “Thanks for the cover.”

 “No problem,” Danny said.  “What was that all about?  I thought the security system had already accepted us.”

 “I don’t think it knows how to process our arrangement,” Arras said.  “It was expecting me and the suit, not someone else—let alone someone else wearing the suit.”

She stopped, looking down the corridor the same way the first scans had come.  Danny turned around to see what had caught her attention, freezing at the sight.  Even in the armor, an intimidating mien washed over him.  At the end of the corridor stood a man, still and upright, watching them.  He stood under a single light, dressed in black and white—looking about as old as Damon.

“Is that him?” Danny asked, not taking his eyes off of the new arrival.

“Hello, Father,” Arras said stoically, her voice carrying down the hall, her tone serious.

“Hello, Arras.”  Aurin smiled warmly.  “It’s so good to see you again.”