Chapter 18

 

 She stood before Suo and Aurin, hooded and dressed in black, bearing all the markings of high rank.  Yet she quivered, tears rolling down her cheeks.  Holding her eyes shut, she tried to confess to them, to let them in.  Maybe the pain would go away then.

 “I killed them,” Arras said through her sobs.  “I killed them all.  Every last one.”

 Her parents rushed to her, wrapping their daughter in their arms.  She returned the embrace, bawling, clinging to them.

 “I’m sorry,” she pleaded, burying her eyes into her father’s shoulder.  “I’m so sorry.”

 “It’s okay, Arras,” Aurin whispered to her, cradling her head.  “It’ll be okay.”

 Danny opened his eyes, taking in a deep breath, waking up to the bright gray planet occupying most of the canopy’s view.  Feeling his belts hold him back in his seat, he looked around the ship, waking up quickly.

 “What’s the word?” Danny asked Arras, stretching in what limited ways he could.

They must have been in that system for a few hours by then.  Arras had started a sweep of their surroundings, checking for any signs of life, any threats.

 “I’m not getting anything,” Arras said, looking up just in time to watch a chunk of metal float past them.  “No communication, no energy signatures.  I don’t think anyone’s been here for a while.”

 “Looks like there was a battle,” Danny said as they coasted by the shattered frame of what he guessed was a spaceship—one much larger than their own.  “Do you think this planet got hit by Rededication?”

 “Not very likely,” she said, lost in thought.  “These are warships, yes, but you wouldn’t find them with Rededication—the platforms travel alone.”

 “And the planet?”

 “It’s just a little smaller than Earth, but it was packed with almost as many people.”  Looking into the thick cloud coverage, unable to see the surface, she said, “I don’t think there’s anyone down there, though.”

 A tone from the sensory array called them to attention.

 “What’s up?” Danny asked as Arras surveyed the report.

 “There’s a signal,” she said, looking back up at the planet.  “Coming from the surface.  It must have only just activated.”

 “There must be someone down there,” Danny said.  “What do you think?  Should we go check it out?”

 She checked the communication channels, finding nothing still.  “It could be a trap of some sort.”

 “Maybe.  But we’ve got Ridarin, and Damon stocked me up with a few weapons—if someone tries to jump us, I summon up a shotgun or something.”

 Arras drummed her fingers on the two grips, weighing their options.  Eventually, she pushed the controls forward, accelerating toward the planet, changing their trajectory to enter the atmosphere.  The ship shook only slightly at first, then violently as one ring of fire then another swept over the vessel’s nose, sound gradually returning.

 “Does reentry always feel like this?” Danny asked, feeling grateful for his belts.

 “The weather’s absolutely chaotic,” Arras grunted, trying to keep control of the ship as the fire faded and clouds swallowed them up.  “This can’t be Eilikh.”

 Once the clouds fled behind them, they got a full view of the surface.  Crumbled buildings slashed at them from far below as they flew past, buried in the rough and zigzagged wreckage of other less shapely structures, their gaps filled in with banks of snow.  The wind hounded their ship, more ill-tempered than the upper atmosphere had been.

 “What happened here?” Danny asked, watching the demolished landscape speed by.

 “You think I know?”  Arras continued her negotiation with the controls, trying to keep the ship level, or at least in the air.  “I’ll set us down a mile from the signal—we’ll be on foot from there.”

 “If you say so.”

 Arras found an open space, a flat patch of terrain, covered in an even layer of snow.  As the ship settled in the powder, sinking only an inch or two before hitting solid ground, Danny surveyed the lace-like rubble and ruin scattered around them.  Though he didn’t imagine he could confuse a Coalition city with one on Earth, even in the wreckage Danny couldn’t help but think this could be any place on his own planet.

 Unbuckling from her seat, Arras said, “Ridarin should keep you safe out there.”  She pulled her helmet from the back of her neck and over her head, making a hard seal and taking in a few deep breaths.  “If there is someone out there, then they probably already know about the suit—let’s just hope we don’t need to use it.”

 The hatch lifted and the wind raged its way into the ship; despite their helmets, both Arras and Danny couldn’t help but put up an arm to block the onslaught.  Arras was the first out, followed by Danny, the hatch closing and locking as they disembarked.

The wind seemed vicious at first, but they slowly adapted as their journey progressed, slow as it was.  Though neither said it to the other, they both felt that this should be as short an excursion as possible.  Shallow sheets of snow and ice crunched beneath their feet as they moved.  Even with the wind brushing them as they went, their surroundings seemed totally lifeless.

“Arras.”

“What?”

“Out of curiosity—”

“Another question?”

“Afraid so.”

“Fine,” she almost groaned.  Even through the radio, Danny could register the exhaustion in her voice.

“What did you do before you defected from the Coalition?  I know you were in the military or something, but what did you do?”  Danny’s most recent dream rang through his mind, the image sticking to him relentlessly.  The image of a weeping Arras.

“Why do you ask?”

“I think my brain and your mom’s are starting to cross wires,” Danny admitted.  “I had a dream that felt more like one of her memories.”

“And what did you see?”

“You.  You were in a uniform.  And you were…”  He held back, deciding he might want to keep further details to himself.  “You were wearing some black getup with a hood, and some badges—you looked pretty official.”

Arras didn’t look back, still plodding her way through the snow with Danny right behind her.

“I worked in the same branch as my parents,” Arras finally said.  “I worked in strategy, security, all the little jobs the Coalition needed done with a gun.”

“Is that why your family was able to figure out enough about Rededication to make Ridarin?  I guess if you were in the military and the observation and assessment branch…”

She stopped, breathing more heavily than Danny had expected.  Looking back at him, the lights in her helmet illuminated her face in a faint amber glow.  “What are you trying to ask me, Danny?”

“Nothing.  I mean, I didn’t mean anything by it.”  He more surprised at how difficult this short trek seemed to be on her than he was with her response.  Ridarin was good for more than just combat, he guessed, a luxury Arras didn’t have.

“Good,” she said, turning back around and walking on.  “And stop asking so many questions already.  If you need to know something, I’ll tell you.”

“Yeah, because you’ve been pretty damn open about everything so far—I can’t hardly get you to shut up.”

“What do you want to tell me, Danny?”

“What’s up with you, Arras?  You seem even angrier than normal and I don’t get it.  Did I do something to piss you off?”

“What?  I’m sorry, am I not chipper enough for you?”  She threw her arm out to remind him of their surroundings.  “This was my home, Danny!  It never snowed here.  I’m walking through the remains of where I grew up.”

“Don’t screw with me,” Danny shot back, taking a step toward her.  “First you and your dad give me all this crap about how you’ve died to the world, how you’ve let go of everything, and you’re telling me this place is upsetting you?”

“What, then?  What do you want from me?”

“I want to know why any question about Rededication sets you off.”  The words came more calmly than Danny ever expected.

Arras stared back at him, looking almost dumbstruck.  Putting a hand against a nearby wall, blackened and brittle, she sat down on a gashed stone block.  Catching her breath, she turned her head, evading his line of sight.

“What about you?” Arras asked, her voice low.  “You put up this whole façade, make yourself out to be some sort of dumbass—yet you pick up on stuff like that.  You even know enough to at least partially keep up with Ridarin’s design.”

“I guess you’re not the only one who puts up a front, then,” he said, sitting down on the other end of the stone.  “For the record, Arras, I’m not trying to throw you off.  I’m not trying to lead you along.  I’m just trying to help.”

“You think I don’t know that?”

“Whether you know it or not is irrelevant.  It’s whether you accept it or not that’s important.  I mean, look at us: I followed you light years into space to who the hell knows where, I put myself through the ringer just to figure out how to where this suit, I got brain-raped by your dad—what else do I have to do to prove I’m on your side?”

She leaned back against the wall, her shoulders rising and falling as she continued to slow her breathing, trying regain the strength she had given fighting the gust.

“You, Damon—you guys talked so much about how there’s some stuff you just can’t control,” Danny went on, his voice just as low as hers.  “You can’t control that I have this suit, but you can control how you respond to the situation.  Isn’t that what you’ve been telling me?”

“I could’ve taken the suit back.”

The words hit Danny like a train.  “What?”

“I could’ve taken it back, if I wanted.  At least, that’s what my father thought.”  She laughed a little, closing her eyes.  “Part of me already knew that.  It wasn’t certain, but the chances were high enough to try.  The process would’ve fried your brain beyond repair—it would’ve killed you.”

Danny’s shoulder slumped and he looked away, out over the rocky world around them.  “Why didn’t you?”

“I can’t even answer that one.  Maybe I was afraid it wouldn’t actually work.  Maybe I was afraid of killing my mother in the process.  That explains why I didn’t take it from you.  But why I let you keep the suit instead—that’s another question altogether.”  She eyed him from behind, looking at the armor.  “Maybe I trust you more than you think.”

Danny looked back at her, not sure what to say.  He thought of how angry she had been with him since they had met, how hard she had pushed him once he opted into the mission.  Suddenly feeling the armor on his skin, noticing its unnatural presence, he wondered just how uncertain she was that she could take the suit back.

“I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been,” he confessed.  “You let me have the suit.  You had to leave it in my hands and watch what happened.”  With a sigh he got to his feet and turned to face Arras.  “Looks like I’ve made an ass out of myself again.”

She stared back at him, not saying a word.  Unlike her, however, Danny could see into her eyes.  Arras had given him much more now than she probably ever wanted to.  And in those few weeks since they had met, she had let him keep his life without ever letting him in on the secret.  He thought of the questions he had always asked her, why he would press for answers in the first place; some were pure curiosity, and yet others were out of fear, fear that she would leave him ignorant to the point of death.

“I don’t mean to lead you along either, Danny,” she said.  “If I don’t tell you something, it’s not because I don’t feel like it.  If I keep a secret, it’s not because I just don’t want you to know.”  She looked into the glowing eyes looking back at her, feeling almost naked.  “Sometimes I don’t tell you something because I think it might be easier for you.”

“Do you really trust me?” Danny asked.  “That much?”

“I do.  I don’t know why, but something in me…  Something tells me I can.  Can you trust me?  Can you trust me enough to take silence for an answer?”

He walked around the stone and stood in front of her, holding out his hand.  “If you can trust me enough to take Ridarin—to take your mother…  It’s the least I can do.”

Her mouth curled into a tired smile, taking his hand and getting to her feet.  Together they started the last half mile to their destination.  As they moved along, Danny found himself thinking once again about his dream, about Arras crying before her parents and asking for forgiveness, absolution for murder—a memory that lay beyond the boundaries she wished to set.  Danny decided he would respect her wishes, and so he pushed those thoughts away.

They walked in silence till the end, and, for the first time, both of them were okay with that.