Chapter 19

 

 The doors slid aside lazily, allowing Arras and Danny inside with the wind and snow before closing behind them.  With the sound of rushing wind finally gone, suppressed by the doors’ seal, they found themselves in an empty atrium, lit only by the dull white ambiance from outside.  Arras looked down at a device on her arm every few seconds as they moved farther in.

 “Looks like this place still has power,” Danny observed.  He looked up to the ceiling; the lights were dead.  “Not a lot, though.”

 “The building’s directing most of its power to a single location ahead,” Arras said, looking up from her monitor, pointing down a wide hall.

 “What is this place?” asked Danny, looking into the wide porticoes that passed them by on either side as they walked, each one as dark beyond as any other.

 “It was a theater,” Arras said, leading the way.  “We used to come here as children.”

 “You and Ila?”

 “Yes.”

 They stopped at the end of the hall, blocked off by two towering doors.  Something seemed familiar about this place to Danny, though he didn’t know why.

 “Just beyond here,” Arras said, looking from her device to the doors.  “Ready?”

 Danny held out his hand as an M9 flitted into it; gripping the pistol tightly, he took aim at the doorway, waiting for what might be waiting for them.

 Taking one of the handles, Arras yanked the door open, letting Danny take the lead past the threshold.  Moving through the open way, Danny realized what seemed so familiar—he had passed through this very entranceway when he was in the rift, just before meeting Suo.  Just before being sealed to her and Ridarin.

 “Arras,” Danny said as they made their way down a center aisle, between waves of seats, below another layer of seats overhead.  “This place…”

 “I know,” she said simply, staying close behind him.

 “Do you think it was because you remembered this place?  In the rift, I mean.”

 “That would be a little too coincidental.  I just happened to remember the very place that signal was coming from?”

 Up ahead, Danny could see an open stage, bare except for a few veils hanging from the rails above them, draping themselves over the stage, covering the back wall.  They continued their walk as one light after another snapped on around the edge of the down-stage.  Where the rows of seats ended, a lattice of lasers began to form, a net of blue walling them from the stage before making its approach.

 “Not again,” Danny said as the lasers passed through him and Arras.

 Neither moved as the sensors continued all the way to the room’s entrance, disappearing into the wall.  They both remained still, waiting for the worst.

 “They were still blue,” Arras said, her eyes darting around the room.

 “Is that a good thing?”

 Arras straightened up, taking a look around the room once more before turning back to the now unblocked stage.  She lifted her helmet from her head, letting it hang behind her by its collar.

 “They were expecting us to come like this,” she concluded.  “They were expecting both of us, and for you to be wearing the suit.”

 As if she had just given the winning answer, a hologram erupted above the stage, extending out over the seats as it assumed form, stopping itself a few yards from Danny and Arras.  Various videos played at once, alien language blaring against itself as numerous people spoke over one another, narrating sequences of gunfire and explosions, of collapsing buildings and crowds of people in uproar—sometimes in protest, sometimes as if they were running for their lives.  Absolute chaos in form and content.

 Arras took a step toward the dysfunction, the various colors flashing over the floor around her as she made her approach.  Reaching her hand toward the display, her nano-net kicked in and strings of light flowed from her hand, dissolving into the disorder.

 “It’s a history,” Arras said, her head hanging back, her eyes almost vacant as she took in the information.

 “Who’s history?” Danny asked, taking a spot next to her, still trying to make sense of the mess of data.

 “The Coalition’s—everything from the day I went into hibernation.”  She closed her eyes, sifting through an influx of unbelievable size.  “They fell into war.  There was a civil war.  They demolished themselves.”

 Staring into the three-dimensional images, Danny decided to take a closer look.  Reaching his hand into the air alongside Arras, he watched his own nano-net intertwine itself with the holograms.  It felt like running through Aurin’s mind all over again; he soared past countless images and videos of people rushing into battle with one another, of ships bombing planets from orbit, smaller craft in dog fights, civilians being mowed down by armed soldiers.  Hardly able to keep pace with the data, Danny watched an entire civilization approach critical mass, then self-destruct.

 Pulling his hand from the ether, he recoiled, supporting himself with a nearby seat.  “What happened to them?  They completely turned on each other.”

 “I’m not sure yet,” Arras said, still working her way through the history.  “I think I’m almost through it.”  In an instant, her eyes widened and she yanked her hand from the air, stumbling backward before landing on the ground.

 Danny rushed to her.  “What is it?  What did you see?”

 Arras didn’t answer; she only stared back into the holograms over the stage.  Looking back, Danny found that the display had settled on a single set of feeds.  He watched men with weapons, dressed in what he guessed were civilian clothes, open fire on a group of soldiers—revolt and guerilla warfare.  Each of the men firing on the Coalition soldiers bore a crimson chevron on his face, smeared from his brow, past his eye, across his cheek and into his hair.

 The feed sputtered to another image, of people rallying in front of a massive picture: a white-haired girl with a red chevron hastily painted over her face.

 “Ila,” Danny breathed.  “What happened?”  He watched the people in the feed raise their hands in the air, all yelling incoherently, chevrons stroked across their faces.

 All at once, the presentation vanished altogether, replaced shortly after by a few rows of text floating over the stage, before the veils—Ridarin translated the message automatically for Danny.  A name and two dates.  An epitaph.

Ila Enqelin

6 June 1781—10 December 1795

“They killed her,” Arras said simply, a few strands of data swirling around her fingers, leftover from the previous show.  “The Coalition assassinated her.  They said she was a terrorist.  Just like the rest of her family.”

Danny looked back and forth between Arras and the epitaph.  His helmet left him so he could see the verdict with his own eyes.  A few seconds passed before the epitaph twisted and curled in on itself, separating into two tangles of light.  The two jagged forms glided toward Arras and Danny, stopping just in front of them.  Fixed to the floor, they watched as one of the tangles began to unravel itself, shifting and shaping itself into a cube.

Her hand trembling a little, Arras reached toward the two holograms, her nano-net analyzing both.

“What is this?” Danny asked, watching the one form constantly take new shape, collapsing in on itself, as the other remained a cube, rotating placidly before them.

“Coordinates,” Arras sighed, looking almost relieved.  “An encrypted version, and an unencrypted one.”  Bowing her head, she muttered, “I guess Ila accomplished her task after all.”

“Rededication,” Danny breathed.  “These are coordinates to the Rededication platforms?”

“One of them,” Arras clarified.  “But it’s a start.  Danny, take the decoded version.”

Not sure how to go about that, Danny hesitantly reached for the floating cube, sinking his fingers into it.  As if on command, the cube melted into his hand, pinching off into numerous strands of light, sinking into his armor.  Arras reached out for the encrypted data, taking it into her own net.  With both sets of coordinates in hand, the lights in the room began to fade to black once more, returning them to the dead world.

“Let’s go,” Arras said, making her way to the exit.

As they left the theater, stepping back into the snow and the gusts, they began their seemingly endless mile back to the ship.  Only about a hundred yards in, they heard a booming roar and felt the ground shiver beneath their feet as the theater was swallowed up in a fiery blast, becoming nothing more than a column of smoke, carried out in all directions by the wind.

Looking back at the demolished theater, Danny noticed something pop up before his eyes—an object Ridarin had picked up.  Turning his head toward the sky, the suit gave him more data through a heads-up display only he could see: distance, velocity, angle, even estimated size, though it couldn’t identify the freshly detected bogey.

“Arras!” Danny called out, picking up his pace, “Ridarin’s picking up something in the upper atmosphere.  It thinks it’s a threat.”

“Get to the ship,” she called back, pushing forward at top speed.

Danny kept an eye on the object the rest of the way to the ship; whatever it was, it wasn’t moving from its position.

The moment they could enter their ship, Arras rushed to the cockpit, buckling in and warming up the engines.  The comm console before her flashed and chimed, interrupting her.

“Come on, let’s get,” Danny insisted, buckling into his own seat as the hatch closed.

“We’re getting a transmission,” Arras said, all urgency leaving her as she looked at the monitor.

She tapped the screen to listen to what was coming through.  The language was definitely foreign to Danny, and even somewhat to Arras, though they both managed to keep up; it wasn’t too different from the language Arras had used back on the orbital, giving their nets a chance to adapt and translate.

The message repeated itself a few times over as Arras and Danny listened intently.  “New Pact vessel to unknown ship—do not attempt to leave the planet.  If you activate your superluminal drive, we will open fire on you.  Please respond.”

 “What now?” Danny looked down at his armor.  “We could fight back.”

“No,” Arras said simply.  Getting up from her seat, she opened one of the overhead containers in the back of the ship, pulling out another flight suit and helmet, tossing them to Danny.  “Take off the armor and get dressed in that.  I don’t think these people are with whoever led us here.”

Danny sent Ridarin away before putting his legs into the dark flight suit as Arras responded to the message.

“New Pact vessel, do not open fire.  We are friendly.  Repeat, we are friendly.”

Their answer came almost immediately.

“We have scanned your vessel and identified it as old Coalition technology.  Identify yourself.”

She looked back at Danny for a moment before saying, “There are two of us.  My name is Sarah, and my companion’s name is Daniel.  We are unarmed and mean you no harm.”

The channel went silent.

“Sarah?” Danny asked.

“My mother’s name,” she said, focusing on the console, “when she had to interact with your people.”

“Sarah and Daniel,” the reply suddenly began, “you are authorized to ascend to the upper atmosphere.  You will dock with our vessel.  Do not attempt to deviate from this course or we will open fire.”

The transmission cut out, leaving Arras with a sigh.

“Danny,” she said, getting back into her seat, Danny taking his seat next to her.  “I don’t know what we’re going into, but they’ve got us cornered.  I want you to keep Ridarin a secret, for the time being.  Regardless of what may happen from here, they can’t know what we have.”

“What if they try to kill us?”

The ship lifted from the surface and began its ascent.

“Right now, nothing is more important than our mission,” Arras said.  “The moment we can, we escape.”  She tightened her hold on the controls.  “Understand that it doesn’t matter what happens to me; our primary concern is keeping you alive.  We can’t lose Ridarin, and we definitely can’t let it fall into anyone else’s hands.”

“Understood.”

Rising above the clouds, still fighting the unruly atmosphere, they could make out the silhouette of the warship waiting for them.  He wasn’t sure what to expect, but Danny couldn’t help but think this vessel seemed to look almost like something he could see his own people building someday.  As they approached, Arras sailed their vessel across the long superstructure, keeping a distance from its dark, grooved surface, receiving directions to an open hangar.  Flying slowly into the bay, Arras followed the moving lights on the deck to a landing space as the planet outside disappeared behind the closing bay doors.  The hangar pressurized and a number of figures in full, black body armor made their way to the new arrival; their outfits and the weapons told Danny and Arras they wouldn’t be receiving the red carpet.

One of the men hammered on the hatch before Arras let them in.  Two men made their way into the cabin, their weapons already raised.

“Stand up, slowly,” one of the soldiers commanded starkly.  “Take off your helmets.”

Danny and Arras did as they were told, standing with their hands behind their heads as the men pulled them from the ship and out onto the deck.  One soldier seized Danny and pulled him close to his opaque visor; Danny watched strands of light jut over the reflective surface of the soldier’s helmet before getting thrown back down.

Another soldier did the same with Arras, taking longer than they had with Danny.

“Sir,” the one scanning Arras said to another faceless man, someone Danny and Arras guessed was in charge.  “You’re going to want to see this for yourself.”

The leader of the brigade stepped forward and took a fistful of Arras’ flight suit, wrenching her face close to his own visor, going through the same process once again.

“There’s no way,” he said, gently releasing his grip on her.

Staring up at Arras, watching her kneel before the soldiers in black, Danny wrestled against the knee in his back.  The last man to scan Arras stared down at her as he spoke out loud to someone elsewhere.

“It looks like our two guests aren’t scavengers after all,” he said behind his helmet.  “The boy isn’t registered at all, but the girl…  Well, I’m sending the results now…”  An uncomfortable wait followed, one that left everyone in the bay on edge.

Finally, the orders were received.  “Understood.”  The lead soldier turned to his comrades.  “Stand down.”

Danny wasted no time scrambling to his feet with Arras.  Each of the soldiers pulled off their helmets, staring at their two guests with clearly mixed feelings.  The man who seemed to be in charge stepped forward.  His hair was trimmed short, his face bearing a few days of facial hair, covering a couple light scars.

“My name is Endriss; I’m chief captain of the guard on this ship,” he said gruffly.  “This is the New Pact vessel, Ila’s Voice.  Welcome aboard, Arras Enqelin.”

Danny felt almost as dumbstruck as the soldiers around him.  He looked to Arras, missing the direction Endriss gave the soldier standing behind him.  Hearing someone step up behind him, Danny turned around just in time take a rifle stock to the face.  As he hit the ground, blacking out, he thought he heard Arras calling out to him.