Chapter 16

 

All sense of direction and motion left Danny, floating alone for longer than he could process—he wondered where he had gone.  As if drowning in deep sleep, coherency was gone.

Gradually he realized his feet were once again on solid ground.  Standing, he found himself in what looked like the hallway of a school, one he recognized immediately—this was his middle school, back in Fayette.

Walking aimlessly down the hall, he spied through the windows of the doors, finding no one in the classrooms.  The sun was out, but there was no one to fill the desks.  A wave of images sputtered across the wall, memories of his school days, coming and going, their complementary audio emulsifying, becoming unrecognizable.  At the end of the hall, he could see Aurin passing through a door.  Moving like a cloud, thinking at initially minimal capacity, Danny followed after him; as he became more grounded in his own head, he managed to run.

Behind the doors, he didn’t find Aurin, but a library.  As he rushed through the doors, he entered a library; he didn’t find Aurin, but a woman behind the front desk shushed him before staring back into an old monitor, clacking away at a keyboard.  Ignoring her, Danny scanned his surroundings, weaving between bookshelves, trying to spot Aurin.  He didn’t remember the library being too big; his search wouldn’t be too difficult.

Coming out of an aisle, he found a few tables, one of which was occupied by a scrawny boy with glasses, his nose buried in a book Danny always remembered—Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Danny stopped in his tracks, understanding what was going on.  He watched himself as a seventh grader walk nervously to the same table as Eli, sit down, and begin to read a book of his own, something a little lower-brow than Clarke.  Some time passed before Eli set down his own book and greeted Danny.  No one ever really sat in that section of the library—that was why Eli would go there, and why he was so surprised to meet Danny—but that was a time when Danny really needed such a space.  Instead, he found Eli.

He watched the two boys talk for the first time as more images flickered across the floor and walls, crawling over the shelves and tables, pulsating from the two students as they spoke with one another for the first of countless times to come.

“Here’s an interesting train of thought,” Danny heard from across the library.  He looked up to see Aurin watching him and Eli at the table.

When Aurin caught sight of Danny, he wheeled around and broke one of the windows leading outside, jumping through the opening.  Danny leapt through after him, tumbling hard onto grass, rolling over himself onto a slab of concrete.

“Danny, Milo!” he could hear a familiar voice call out.  Rolling over, he looked at the backdoor of his old house, seeing his father dressed in his uniform, standing at the ready as two young boys leapt into his arms, hugging him tightly.

Reaching out to him, out to his father, Danny felt bolted to the ground.  “Dad,” he said, letting his arm fall.  “Dad.”

With his two sons in his arms, Eddy Eick stepped back into the house, followed closely by Aurin.

“Stay out of there!” Danny roared after him.  He slammed his hand to the ground, exerting what strength he had to crawl his way to the back door.  “Stay away from them, Aurin!”

As he crossed the threshold of the door, he could feel the weight lift.  Pulling himself up by the countertop, he watched his mother on the phone.  She rubbed at her forehead, listening to the voice on the other end of the call.

“So they’re keeping you out even longer?” she asked, trying not to sound frustrated.  “Do you know when you’re coming home, then?”

Walking past his mother as her phone call descended into an argument, Danny made his way into the living room, finding a much younger Milo sitting on the couch, watching TV.  Danny watched himself as a child join his little brother on the couch, the two of them listening to their parents argue over the phone.  He could remember trying to distract Milo whenever their parents got into it.

The sound of heavy footsteps around the corner reminded Danny of his chase.  He made his way through the living room, past the memory of two brothers trying to make sense of what was to come, still pursuing Aurin.

“You listen to me, Aurin,” Danny called down the hall, watching his old home warp into arrangements he knew never existed—endless halls, countless doors, random rooms—all the product of a younger, less precise mind.  “You get the hell out of my head already!  I’m warning you.”

“You think these memories belong to you alone?” Aurin asked, though Danny couldn’t find where he was.  “No, they belong to you, to your mother and brother, to your father.  And ever since you were sealed to my wife, they became hers, too.”

“I’m telling you, Aurin,” Danny said, his voice shaking with anger, looking down each end of what appeared to be an infinitely long corridor.  “Get out, now!”

“I need to know a little more, Danny,” Aurin replied.  Something in his voice had changed, though; he didn’t sound as wild as before.  He sounded more reserved, almost reverent.  “I hope you can forgive me for this.”

A nearby door slammed shut.  Danny seized the handle, yanking open the door and finding himself in his old room.  Looking down at his bed, he saw himself, about twelve years old, listening to a CD player, eyes closed.

“No—please,” Danny whispered.  “Not this.  Don’t do this, Aurin.”

He could already hear the crash downstairs, the first sounds his younger self wouldn’t immediately pick up on.  Another crash came and went before the yelling started.

“Get up!” Danny yelled, turning back to the boy on his bed.  “Get the hell out of bed!  Hurry!”

Pulling the headphones from his ears, both he and his younger self stared at the door, hearing their mother plead, their father growling something inaudible.  Milo crying.

 “God damn it, go!”

 Danny ran with himself down the stairs, skipping handfuls of steps along the way, landing hard on the wooden floor below.  Fueled by the yelling, the twelve year old got back to his feet, racing into the kitchen just in time to see Eddy drag Milo into the garage, shoving Laura out of the way.  With his mother yelling after him, Danny followed himself into the garage, after his father and brother, the door closing behind them.  His mother’s voice seemed to disappear.

 The sound of firm fists connecting heavily with a small body pounded all around him, as if shocking Danny’s heart further to life with every reverberation.  He could remember the throbbing in his throat and chest, the angst and fear, the bewilderment.  He watched himself get thrown back, his first attempt to save Milo a failure.  Standing above himself, both he and his younger self caught sight of the same object—the aluminum bat in the corner of the garage.  Danny seized the bat and in one motion cracked it over Eddy’s shoulders, sending him to a knee.  Milo lay still on the ground by then.

 Before Danny could go to his brother, he found himself knocked back, landing against the car, the window shattering against his face on his way down.  He could hear the bat scrape against the concrete.  Looking back up, still feeling that throb, unable to breathe, he stared into his father’s maddened eyes, and the bat clamped tightly in one of his hands.

 For the first time in years, Danny remembered the look on his father’s face—vividly.  Eddy looked almost inhuman, consumed by fury, squeezing the bat so hard his hand shook, his knuckles and fingers white.  Then, all at once, that madness was gone.  For a moment, Danny looked into his father’s eyes, seeing his humanity return, his rage replaced with horror and fear of his own.  The bat clattered against the car as Eddy sped away from his floored sons, through the door, past Laura, and up the stairs.  He heard the slam of his parents’ bedroom door.

 Danny watched that twelve year old boy from long ago get back up and rush to his brother, checking to see if he was still all right.  His heart full, he turned back, making his way back through the door—to the memory he knew would follow.

 Everything else came in an incoherent flurry; Danny’s memories weren’t so pristine here.  He knew it was about three days later, and that Eddy had locked himself in the bedroom that entire time, refusing to speak to Laura.  She slept on the couch those three days, waiting for Eddy to open the door.  That third morning, however, she and the boys woke to the sound of a gunshot.  The only clear moment Danny could remember was being the first to find his mother weeping uncontrollably, holding Eddy’s limp body on their bed, the rifle on the floor, the wall sprinkled near the headboard.  Laura screamed at Danny to stay out, to keep Milo in his room.  To just stay away.

 Unable to take anymore, Danny turned and left that bedroom behind.  Making his way to the stairs, he could see Aurin standing by the front door, looking back up at him.

 “I had no idea,” Aurin said, watching Danny walk down the stairs.  “I had no idea there was so much madness in you.”

 Suddenly losing all control, Danny leapt at Aurin from the stairs.  The two of them crashed through the wood of the front door, flying with the splinters into the unknown, into unorganized thought, tangled up with one another.  Though there was no physical way to conceptualize it, Danny felt himself in a fight with Aurin, struggling for dominance.  Aurin had the power before, but now Danny had all the drive.

 With a lurch, Danny awoke on the floor of the control room, sparks flying from the terminals, Aurin’s hand still digging into his head.  Danny managed to raise his hand and seize Aurin’s wrist—he felt almost solid, though Danny knew it was the suit interacting with Aurin’s immaterial presence.  Yelling out, he pulled Aurin’s hand from his head before raising his other hand to Aurin himself.

 “You want to waltz around my head so badly?” Danny asked, fighting to get every word out.  “That’s gonna cost you.”

 Aurin looked into Danny’s eyes, partly confused, partly afraid as Danny’s hand came closer to his chest.  He tried to keep the suit back, but it was too much; with little work, Ridarin broke through every wall Aurin put up.

 “You think this is a trade?” Aurin asked, still trying to keep Danny out.

 Danny glared back at him, teeth grinding, sweat dripping from his face—wrath in his eyes.  “Quid pro quo, asshole!”

 Breaking through the final barrier, Danny’s hand sank deep into Aurin’s chest.  Together, they went on the same ride once again, this time with the tables turned.

 Unlike before, the transition for Danny was quick, seamless.  He found himself in what looked like one of the halls in Thaddeus Mack’s house, with Aurin stumbling to his feet behind him.  Eyeing each of the doors before him, Danny chose one in particular, feeling it call to him.  Though he was rationalizing the process to himself through these visuals, there was more at play than simple doors and halls—he could feel Aurin’s mind mixed into his own.  He wondered if this was what it was supposed to be like between Arras and Suo, together in Ridarin.

 He wondered if this was what a Rededication attack was like.

 Charging through the door, Danny found himself on a breakneck journey through a flurry of memories, collages of thoughts and feelings swiveling past him as he picked one destination.

He found a young boy standing on a massive observation deck, aboard a space colony, overlooking a planet through gaping windows.  The boy watched with eyes wide as a portion of the blue world outside was steadily covered in red and black, a distant object hovering in orbit over the attack site, sending small dots to the planet as others returned to it.  The terror on the youngster’s face was more than apparent as he watched the destruction unfold.

 Danny didn’t stay long, trying to stay ahead of Aurin as he followed.  Diving through a doorway, Danny found that same boy from before, only a little older, in a classroom speaking with an instructor about engineering.  He was gifted, and he was compassionate, those memories of that burning planet seared into him ever since that day.  The images of associated memories flickered one way or another everywhere Danny went, coloring any part of the world he explored.

 With Aurin close behind him, he leapt from one memory to the next.  He watched the boy from before meet a young woman in a white dress, her face at last in view—Suo took Aurin’s hand, and they traveled from there into the memories to come.  Danny swam through a myriad of emotions as another’s mind entered Aurin’s own, at least as he remembered it: preference and likability, then tenderness, followed by a devotion that encompassed their collective frailties and difficulties as their experiences played out like a crashing orchestra fighting for its melody.  A tornado of varying feelings swept Danny off course; entering the eye of that storm, he found an absolute vulnerability, and an undying love—something that fled from before him.

 Scenery became feeling, tension entering in.  Danny sprinted through years of history, picking up pieces here and there, never anything complete.  A daughter born, genetically modified to let her escape some unwanted genes that had been lurking in Suo.  A change of philosophy colored the common memories that followed; another daughter born, this time naturally—everything her mother and father had to offer her, nothing more, nothing less.

 Earth.  Coalition installations and outposts.  Observation, landing in New York.  Aurin and Danny found themselves running at top speed through dark woodland, a younger Aurin just ahead of them as muskets cracked through the cold air of night, lead balls zipping past them until one landed firmly in Aurin’s side, sending him to the soil—the end of one last skirmish between loyalists and colonists.  His body was picked up and carried to a small shop after the battle had died down.  The words echoed all around Danny, though nothing else really presented itself.

“My name is Asael Mack.”

One memory erupted into a fractal of others; it was all Danny could do to keep up, though his heart swelled inside as he lost track of his own feelings and the poignant ones Aurin attached to each memory Danny stepped through.  He wondered how Aurin could have done this before, and if he would be able to proceed much farther as his spirit began to melt before the unadulterated spirit of another.

“Keep running, Danny,” Aurin called out, his tone much the same as it had been in Danny’s mind—controlled, sober.  “If you really want to see, you’ll have to try harder than this.”

Danny found himself flying past waves of schematics, outlines and hand-drawn sketches of a body—a suit.  Ridarin.  He could feel Suo now, following after him, keeping Aurin back just enough so Danny could make it to the next memory.  He didn’t take time to wonder why she might be helping him, what it was she might want him to see.

All of a sudden, Danny felt as if he had crash landed.  He found himself stranded, stopped dead, looking in on the most coherent scene he had yet encountered.

 Together they sat around the table, all four in silence—the entire Enqelin family.  A pot of thick, crimson liquid sat at the center of the table, captivating each of the women.  Aurin kept his eyes on the others, his wife and daughters; he drank in the sight, deeply, hoping to imprint it in his mind forever.  The room was dark, quiet, like the family; nothing more than the spartan quarters of a couple called on observation and assessment for the Coalition, with accommodations for their youngest daughter.

 Aurin turned his attention to Suo, catching her eye.  They stared for a moment, faint smiles forming as they took each other’s hand.  The work had been difficult, risking their lives, and yet she had stayed by his side through it all.  Circumventing their government would be dangerous enough had it just been Aurin, but having Suo with him made what otherwise seemed petty insurrection into a genuine revolution.

 As mother and father, they turned to their daughters.  Arras their oldest, still young, seemed stoic as always, though they were certain, despite having been trained to not project her thoughts or feelings, that this moment touched her as deeply as it touched the rest of her family.  Her short, black hair rested around her ears and just above her neck, shrouding her pale skin, seeming to bring out the lapis lazuli eyes she had been genetically engineered to have.

Aurin looked to Ila next, who seemed to be holding back tears—even younger, only around twelve years, called into a war he worried she may only have felt obligated to participate in.  Her soft cheeks, paler than her own sister’s, bunched up as she tried to be strong.  Her snow-white hair brought out her bright red eyes, displaying wholeheartedly the albinism with which her parents had allowed her to be born; Arras had been genetically altered before birth, yet when waiting for Ila to be born something changed in Aurin and Suo—they felt to leave Ila the way life would deliver her.  Aurin put his free hand to Ila’s cheek, catching her attention, bringing forward a smile and a break in her defense; tears gently strolled down her cheeks.

This would be their final night as a family, their last chance to be together.

“Are you ready?” Aurin asked each of them, looking his wife and daughters each in the eye to confirm their answer.  “Let’s begin.”

Pulling the bowl of red from the center of the table to the edge, Aurin rose to his feet and dipped the fingers of his right hand into the materials of the bowl, letting it congeal and stain his skin.  He looked to Suo; she would be first.

“Death belongs to the living mind,” Aurin spoke liturgically, bringing one of his reddened fingers to his wife’s forehead, above her left eye and just below her hairline.  He stroked the dark red down her brow and over her closed eye.  “Death has walked conspicuously before you.”  Stopping just below her eye, Aurin stroked the red across her cheek toward her ear.  “You know the sound of its arrival.”  He rushed his reddened fingers through her hair, leaving the material behind, letting his hand remain woven through her locks.  “Death is your comrade, with arm round your shoulder, your companion who was always already here.”

As Arras and Ila analyzed their mother’s face, observing something so outside their own experience and yet so present in their own minds, they found themselves at a loss for words.

“This,” Suo said to her daughters, pointing to the red chevron that ran its way across her face and over her ear, “is the mark our people have given to the dead and dying for centuries.  It’s been the final rite of anyone going to evaporate back into the All.  Tonight, we are going to die to the rest of the universe.  Yet death is not to be feared; death will be our helper and comrade along our way.”

Suo dipped her hand into the bowl and marked Aurin’s face the very same way, reciting the same words as before.  With a deep breath, Arras rose from her seat and made her way around the table to her father, taking a knee at his side.  Aurin dipped his fingers into the red again and marked Arras’ face, reciting without derivation the requiem.  Arras felt the material on her face, first cool, then warmed from her skin, subtle yet present to her senses.  She stood again and took her seat.

They turned to Ila, who seemed uneasy yet trying to hide it.

“We know it’s different for you, Love,” Suo said.  “You’ll be away from us, and we can’t say what will happen once we begin, even if you awaken your sister.”

This seemed to be the core of Ila’s emotion; her tears flowed freely.  Suo arose and took the bowl to her youngest, kneeling beside her, embracing her and holding back tears of her own.

“I want you to understand what dies in this rite, and what can never die,” Suo whispered to her.  “When the body dies, it does not disappear; it returns to the world that wove it at first.  The cells and muscles and bones and blood, all from the stars, then the planets, then the ground, the plants, the animals—all come together, just to make you—these return to the All, back to the ground to nourish the trees and plants, the animals and other little girls.  And one day, to create stars and planets once more.  The body evaporates, but it does not disappear.”

Suo leaned away from her daughter, keeping an arm around her.  She stared through her red eyes and into her heart as only family could.

“We, Love,” Suo went on in a hushed voice, “we continue in the same way—your life and our lives together.  We’ve left a trace in each other, and in countless others in this world.  And when we die, we will not disappear.  You were formed first from not just the biology, but the minds and worlds of myself and your father; we wove you from our memories, our perspectives, our opinions and agendas, our understandings and ideas.  And you began to weave yourself as you responded to them.  Then you wove what we gave you and what makes you unique into the world and the lives of others around you.  You handed yourself over to the All in much the same way your father and I handed ourselves over to you.”

Gently, Suo dipped her hand into the crimson, then brought her fingers to Ila’s brow, beginning the rite.

Death belongs to the living mind—it is an end of the old self and the beginning of the new, just as the sunset ends one day and starts the next.”  She stroked her finger down her daughters closed eye, catching a tear as she went.  “Death has walked conspicuously before you—you’ve seen it before, it is no stranger.”  She made the point on her cheek, bringing her fingers to Ila’s hair and ear.  “You know the sound of its arrival—just like you know our voices.”  She held her hand in Ila’s hair, resting her palm against her head, her fingers wrapped in white hair stained red.  “Death is your comrade, with arm round your shoulder, your companion who was always already here—just like the rest of us.”

Suo looked her daughter in the eye once more.  “Yesterday is what dies, but our family will join the All, woven into one another as we have always been, traveling together in life without beginning, without end.  This room, this red, this moment—they will all disappear.  But we will not.  We never will.  We’ll echo on—through the All—together.”

She pressed her lips to Ila’s crown, wrapping her arms around her as Aurin and Arras joined their own tears with those of their wife and mother, their daughter and sister.  Before long the entire family was on their knees, each wrapped around one another, letting out their sorrow and fear—their final moment together, the moment before they went to war.

Danny could hear the door behind him rumble on its hinges—Aurin was close.  He first stepped out of the room, continuing down a train of thought branching from this memory.  Order disappeared once again as the memories unraveled into scattered fragments; he watched Aurin embrace Ila for the last time before sending her on the last ship off Earth, before going to the lab to upload his mind to the orbital.

Danny watched Aurin slump into a chair, motionless, next to his wife’s body, her mind already gone.  Next to them was a cooler of cell-printed organs, copies of Arras’ DNA, wrapped up in one of her uniforms—no matter what, Danny understood, the Coalition needed to think they were dead.  Still, he could feel that final ache in Aurin’s chest, the last physical sensation he would ever experience.

As the lab erupted in a planned explosion, Danny found one last thought to follow.  He found himself traveling with Aurin’s mind through space and time, landing squarely within the orbital station around the sun.  From there, Aurin went immediately to sleep.  He woke up only on occasion, checking for any possible signals, though he knew he would be alerted automatically if such were the case.  First he would wake up every few days, checking in on Arras’ vitals and looking for a message from Ila.  Then he started to wake only every other week, then every few months.  Then every few years.

Sooner than he had ever expected, time had left him behind.  Aurin stood in the control room, alone, shaking.  He wanted to hyperventilate, to feel like he couldn’t breathe, but breathing didn’t mean anything to him anymore, not without his lungs.  But the clock had already pierced him, delivering its unwanted revelation.  Shaking his head, he looked for a message that had never come.  Arras was still in the rift on Earth, as was her mother, and Ila had never sent her signal.  No one had ever come for them.

Eighty years had come and gone like a dream.

Danny watched Aurin sink into a fit, thrashing around over the deck, unable to really have the satisfaction of tenable contact with the world around him.  He wept without tears, yelling their names without breath, screaming for them with a broken heart that was no longer there—begging them to come back.

That descent had gone on for days until he decided to end it all.  Standing at the center of the control room, the turrets lowered and took aim, opening fire.  Their bursts coasted right through him, through his hologram of a body, slamming into the computers around him, scorching the room in burns that would forever testify of his misery.  He wanted to die.  He couldn’t kill himself, not with the security protocols he himself had put into place.  But eighty years had come and gone.  And he wanted it to end already.  He wanted to rest with his wife and daughters.  No more war.  No more Ridarin.  No more Rededication.  No more Coalition.  No more revolution.  Only rest.

That same throb in his throat and chest returned as Danny watched Aurin fall apart at the seams.

“Now you know my dirty little secret,” Aurin said to him from behind.  They watched his past self writhe on the floor as the lights steadily went out all around the colony.  “I stayed awake every day after that, for more than a hundred years, waiting.  Thinking that maybe, one day, Ila might somehow call me.  That someone might come for Arras and Suo.  That I might be able to wake them myself.  Somehow.  But nothing like that ever happened.”

Before Danny could say anything, he felt one last memory that made him freeze.  Both he and Aurin looked up to the catwalk overlooking the control room, seeing a figure with no real detail.  A presence Danny knew well by then.

“He came to you, too,” Danny said, keeping his eyes on the figure watching Aurin suffer below.

“Can you feel it?” Aurin asked.  “Whoever that is, they’re crying with me.  Strange, isn’t it?”

“Do you know who they are?”

“Not at all.”

Danny looked over at Aurin; they both felt Suo nearby.  Then it made sense to Danny.

“You wanted me to see this,” Danny said to Aurin.  “You wanted me to step into your mind like this.”

“I wanted to see what your mind looked like,” Aurin said.  “I wanted to see if you could really use Ridarin the way my wife and I meant it to be used.  Once I figured that out, yes, I wanted you to know a little more about me.  I wanted to see if you were strong enough to take these memories from me by force.”

“You’re crazy.”

“I am, and so are you.  That’s why you fascinate me.  Rededication feeds off of madness, exploits it.  You’ve been carrying that madness inside for years, giving it space in your head for so long, while keeping it at bay the whole time.  Rededication wouldn’t be able to take you, not without a fight.”  Aurin looked away, a fond smile giving him a warmth he hadn’t felt in a while.  “I’ve only met one other person who was able to stave off madness, to control it.”

“Who’s that?”

Aurin looked surprised.  “Danny, you came here with her.”

“Arras?”

All at once, Danny felt the air plow its way into his lungs.  He rolled over on the ground, his hand leaving Aurin, Aurin’s hand leaving him, the suit peeling away.  He looked up to see Arras seizing Aurin, lifting him with the hand she had plunged into his back, their nets tangled.

“Wait,” Danny sputtered, reaching out to Arras.  “Let him go.”

“But he—”

“I know,” Danny said, pulling himself up, entrusting the weight of his weakened body to one of the consoles.  “Believe me, I know.”

“He’s perfect, Arras,” Aurin said, grinning back at his daughter.  “Whoever chose him, they chose well.  If it couldn’t be you, then he would be the next best choice.  He’s absolutely perfect.”

Arras looked from her father back to Danny, not sure what to make of the situation.

“I know it looks bad, Arras,” Danny said.  “But trust me—he’s on our side.”