Danny turned onto yet another vacant road, sided by thick foliage, choking the scene into a homogenous green, sliced right through by a soft blue sky and two-lane asphalt ahead and behind. Eli fidgeted uneasily in the passenger seat, trying to hide his discomfort by glancing out the window at trees that held no real interest to him—anything to hopefully avoid some more pressing questions.
“Are you sure about this?” Eli finally asked, looking over at Danny. “I mean, if something really is wrong, shouldn’t we just call the police?”
With an almost halfhearted shrug, Danny attempted to dodge the question. “Whoever it was, they contacted me. I don’t know why, but I’d like to figure this out.”
“It could be dangerous, you know,” Eli added.
“Now you tell me.”
“I’m serious. Even if whoever this is intended to contact you, that doesn’t mean this isn’t… well, kind of stupid.”
“I know.” Danny gave an apologetic smile. “It’s just… I feel like this is the right thing to do. Besides, it’s not like we’re going in there without protection.”
Eli stared at Danny for a few more seconds before sighing in defeat and leaning back in his seat, not comforted in the least. He could feel the .38 revolver in his jacket pocket, his grandpa’s old firearm from his days as a sheriff in Seneca county—a little insurance, just in case. He wasn’t sure how he could get away with using it. Eli’s dad had only insisted on him taking the gun to Ithaca for home defense, but he wasn’t going to let himself or Danny get hurt on some reckless gamble.
“We can turn back,” Danny said. “I can take you back to Ithaca, if you want.” He tightened his grip on the wheel. “But you have to understand, I’m still gonna do this.”
“There’s really no convincing you,” Eli stated, “I get it. I’m with you. I’m just saying, let’s be as cautious as we can be, take our time, make sure we aren’t dropping ourselves into some terrible situation.”
“For sure,” Danny said, keeping his eyes on the road.
“I mean it,” Eli insisted. “If things start to get even a little weird, we leave. We even contact the police.”
“Agreed,” Danny said. “Look, I’m not trying to toss myself into harm’s way here.”
“But we are, Danny. This is way out of the ordinary, which makes it risky.”
By that point, Danny’s phone announced that they would be arriving at their destination in just a few hundred feet. Once they had reached the end of the line, they found themselves in the middle of the road, hugged on both sides by trees except for a narrow opening to their left, carved out by an unpaved road. Both Danny and Eli stared down the side road, coming to the same conclusion.
“What d’you think?” Danny asked, not taking his eyes off the uncharted opening in the road.
“I think we both know what I think,” Eli admitted, “I just don’t know if we’re in agreement on what to do next.”
“Not too late to bail out.”
“Like I said,” Eli insisted, “I’m with you. Let’s just be careful.”
With a nod, Danny turned the car off the asphalt and onto the dirt path, slowly first before pushing to a steady speed. As they drove on, the path seemed more open than it had before, smoother too. Though the ground was unpaved and off the grid, it seemed to be more than an inconsequential detour. After about a mile, the dirt road turned into loose gravel, before coming to an end another few dozen yards farther.
“Well,” Eli said, leaning forward to get a good look out the windshield, “that sure wasn’t on the satellite map.”
Danny slowed the car, making a turn onto a circular driveway, rocks crunching and shifting beneath his tires. Once they came to a stop, the two stared out the passenger-side window at a massive house surrounded. Surrounded by an open field, the house stood tall and untouched.
Without hesitation, Danny got out of the car and looked over the roof, trying to get a better bearing on the scene. The home looked old, perhaps built up to two centuries ago, and the exterior betrayed many secrets; the place looked to be abandoned, and seemed to have been for most of its lifetime. Like a tomb, broken down, yet imposing, the home stood two stories tall in dark colors that let the structure impress itself upon any viewers while allowing itself to slip into the background when viewed from a distance.
Eli got out of the car, getting a better look himself. “Looks like no one’s home,” he said, turning to Danny. “What now?”
With a nonchalant hum, Danny said, “Let’s go knock.”
The two of them made their way up a short run of rickety wooden steps, likely tempered beneath by stone or something less likely to rot with time, to a single door. They looked at one another before examining the door carefully. Eli was the one to make the first move, taking a step forward and knocking politely though resolutely on the dense wood of the door. They didn’t exactly expect anyone to answer, but neither seemed ready to risk breaking and entering, even if the owner of the home may have let the place go to hell.
Eli turned around to take in the surrounding landscape. From the porch, he could see the opaque wall of trees and greenery they had emerged from moments ago. Past that wall was an open field of hills, draped in patchy, overgrown grass. Turning from the terrain, he looked into the windows of the house’s face.
“It doesn’t look like anyone’s lived here for a while,” Eli concluded.
They both looked back at the door once again.
“So,” Danny said, beginning to sound somewhat unsure himself, “should we go inside?”
“We could, but,” Eli said, “how do we even know this is the right place?”
Danny bobbed his head, considering the question. “While I’m inclined to agree with you, the coordinates led us to where that side road begins, and if that road isn’t on the maps then it would be difficult for them to give us the exact location of the house. Even if they told us exactly where the place is, we wouldn’t know how to get there.” He turned around and nodded to the forest wall. “It looks like there might really be only one way into this place.”
“One someone didn’t want anyone else to know about, perhaps,” Eli mused. “Think about it. This road’s clearly been here for a long time. So why isn’t it on the map? Granted,” he went on, resting a hand on one of the rotting wooden columns by the steps, “this place was obviously left behind before we ever started trying to digitally map things. But why didn’t the house even show up on the satellite images?”
“Yeah, this is starting to feel a little sketchy,” Danny admitted.
“Okay, well, it feels sketchier.”
Their conversation was interrupted by an unexpected chime from Danny’s phone—a text.
“Do you even have service out here?” Eli asked, watching Danny pull his phone from his pocket.
“I don’t,” Danny said, opening the text.
The message came from the same number that had sent the last swarm of coordinates; like last time, however, there were no cryptic numbers. Danny showed Eli the new text.
Suddenly on alert, they both turned on their heels in all directions, looking for someone.
“This is getting too weird, Danny.”
“I’m getting a little sick of this myself,” Danny said, reaching for the door. “Let’s see just who wants to screw with me this badly.”
Despite Eli’s protests, Danny pushed his way through the front door and into the home. With no hesitation, Danny marched into the foyer, stopping between two winding stairwells.
“Hey!” Danny yelled out, hearing his voice echo through the spacious house. “I’m here!” He turned around, trying to find someone who might simply step out of the shadows. “You wanted me to come here? You said someone needed help! Who are you?”
Eli stepped into the house, to Danny, and rested a hand on his shoulder. “Are you seeing this, Danny?”
The two took a more detailed survey of their surroundings; it wasn’t what they saw that caught their attention, but what they didn’t see.
“This place looks a little bare, doesn’t it?” Eli asked.
They looked around the house, finding only naked walls and floors, open rooms with nothing inside, dusty windows with nothing like drapes or blinds to cover them. The home was completely empty. There weren’t even marks on the wooden floor from previous furniture, no sign that the home had ever had any furnishings to begin with.
“What’s up with this?” Danny muttered. “This really is weird.”
“Over here,” Eli announced from the back of the house, near another door leading outside.
Danny followed Eli back outside, down another short set of steps, and onto a flat range of patchy lawn. The backyard—if that’s what it was—was just as open as the surroundings, except for one major difference: just ahead, sitting symmetrically between both wings of the house, was what looked like a stone fountain. They strolled across the lawn to the dark gray pool, looking in on a shallow puddle of algae and dirty water. At the center of the fountain, leaving a strange sense of absence, was only open space, no centerpiece or anything resembling a nozzle. It was too shallow to be a pool, yet it didn’t seem to look much like a fountain either upon closer examination.
“Okay,” Danny said, “I think I’ve had enough adventure for one day. Let’s get out of here.”
“Fine with me,” Eli agreed, subtly reaching his hands into his jacket pockets, feeling the grip of the revolver, reassuring himself that it was within reach. “Let’s go around the house this time.”
Eli was the first to start off toward the side of the house, with Danny trailing behind. Yet Danny stopped once he heard his phone chime. Against his better judgment, unsure of why he would even stop to do so—as if overcome by something outside himself—he pulled out his phone and read the new message.
She’s in the water. Please, help her.
Danny looked over his shoulder, back at the fountain. The sound of Eli’s footsteps seemed to slip away as he stared directly at the stone circle behind him. There seemed to be more than there was before. He almost couldn’t comprehend it; there was still nothing at the center of the fountain, yet it felt almost as if there was a person—a simple, naked presence. Familiar, yet also foreign, it was a feeling Danny associated with the text messages that had poured into his phone over the past few weeks. Though this time it wasn’t just a feeling, but a being—someone.
He walked slowly back to the fountain, not hearing Eli calling back to him or the stream of texts that were once again flowing into his phone, all saying the same thing.
Help her. Help her. Help her. Help her. Help her. Please, help her.
Eli started back just as Danny was stepping over the stone wall of the fountain, into the puddle of water that stretched over the entire basin. The water didn’t rise over the soles of his shoes, but it seemed to ripple slightly with every step. With Eli still calling out to him, Danny stopped at the center of the fountain, where the presence had been.
“Danny, what’s going on?” Eli managed to ask one last time.
Without a word, Danny stooped down to the water. As his fingers touched the puddle, the stone beneath him seemed to turn to liquid. He sank quickly through the ground and out of Eli’s sight.
The sound of his name faded into nothingness as Danny felt the rush of something all too unknown embrace him, sinking into him, saturating him. Disoriented, his head throbbed and his thoughts surged uncontrollably, taking on a life of their own, almost as if stirred by something inside him yet not him. Soon enough, the sensation faded and Danny was lucid.
He suddenly found himself in a place he hadn’t seen in a long time. He stood in the middle of the Sage Chapel back on Cornell’s Ithaca campus. Pews walled Danny on either side as he stared down the central aisle to the front of the chapel, where there normally stood a podium and altar, barred off by an ornate gold rail. Now, however, there was only open space, looked down upon by stain glass windows and intricate murals of saints and angels, all in ghostly silence watching over what seemed their ward. Under the gaze of the holy figures was the white, rectangular base of what looked like one of the chapel’s sarcophagi, only what lay atop the stone box wasn’t a sculpture.
Not sure what to make of this scene, Danny made his way to the front of the chapel, feeling called in a strangely instinctive way. Chandeliers watched him from the ceiling, wafting gentle waves of light into the aisle to light his way, answered at the head of the chapel by the iridescence sent down by the saints and angels in stained glass. The sound of his footsteps echoed through the church, bouncing from the floor to the vaulted ceiling and back. There was something disorienting about it all, and yet something that felt so clear. He had never spent much time in the Sage Chapel, though he had visited once after he moved to Ithaca—a small pilgrimage brought on by a mix of curiosity and his mother’s insistence.
Danny crossed the line where the rail would have been and stood at the side of the stone bed, getting a sight of what he had been called to see—to whom he had been beckoned. On the flat top of the sarcophagus lay a woman. Dressed in black and white, her clothes seemed almost casual, though they didn’t seem to resemble any particular style Danny had ever seen before; they were plainspoken and formfitting, as if something else was meant to go over them. Danny looked into her face, which was surrounded by thick waves of black hair descending no farther than her chin. Her eyes were closed, her hands rested over her stomach—she was asleep.
Before he could fully register the sight, another familiar feeling called to him—that presence from before. Behind him. Down the aisle. Two heavy, carved doors blocked the exit to the chapel, veiling what felt like the presence from before, that ineffable something Danny thought he felt at the center of the fountain. With greater speed than before, he made his way to the doors, intent on figuring out what was going on.
“Listen up, whoever you are,” Danny spoke into thin air, words he hoped would find someone. “I don’t know what you’re trying to pull here, but I don’t like it.” He stood before the doors; they towered with an even more intimidating presence than the old house. “Whatever this is, I want out.”
Danny never heard the girl stir from sleep as he seized the handles of the doors and wrenched them wide open. He expected there to be a foyer or something, yet there was nothing but light—blinding light. Recoiling, he stepped back and shielded his eyes with his arm as a terrible screech resounded through the chapel, piercing through his eardrums, as if trying to drill into his head. The light, like the sound, was unhalted by his arm and penetrated its way into his eyes with all the finesse and pain of a scalpel.
Before he could bring himself to respond, he felt a hand grab his free arm and turn him around. Though the light and sound let up only a little, he found himself coherent enough to see who was staring him in the face. He looked back into deep azure eyes that seemed to pierce like the light, eyes belonging to the sleeping girl. She had an urgent, almost furious look on her face. Where her hand gripped Danny’s arm, strands of light traveled across both of them, pulsating from Danny to the girl, up her arm and disappearing beneath her flesh. Once the pulses stopped, she spoke.
“What do you think you’re doing here?” she demanded. “Who are you?”
“I…” Danny stuttered, still feeling the assault from behind. “I was— I’m—…”
Before he could get the words out, he felt something stab into his shoulder. The look of shock and terror on the girl’s face must have matched Danny’s as they looked back at what looked like a thick strand of white light sticking out of Danny’s back, soon joined by another, then a third, then several more, each rocketing their way into his body, anchoring themselves deeply.
In a panic, Danny looked back at the girl, hoping she might help him, but before either of them could say a thing Danny’s feet left the ground and he was dragged into the blazing cacophony beyond the doors.
The transition was much as it was when he fell through the fountain, leaving him paradoxically unhinged yet grounded, though this next place seemed less coherent than the other, less willing to allow Danny entrance. He found himself on his knees, on wet grass, a tree in the corner, a concrete patio nearby—he recognized the scene immediately. He was home, in his backyard. Clouds of white bloom obscured anything too distant from where he knelt, though he recognized the backyard where he used to play as a child with his little brother as his mother and father used to watch, sometimes joining in—his mom and dad, then just his mom.
He felt something creep up behind him, gentle and subtle, yet making no attempt to hide itself. This wasn’t at all like the being Danny sensed at the fountain—this was something different. Someone different.
The grass gave under a pair of bare feet, standing behind Danny. Paralyzed, as if separating from his own body, he felt a gentle touch behind his head—a hand, a woman’s hand. He wasn’t sure how he knew that, but he felt a sense of concern, as well as trepidation. The touch became a few fingers through his hair, and then a palm gently pressed to his head. As Danny felt his body begin to relax, the hand sank through his flesh and skull and seemed to seize him by the brain.
The scene started to collapse around him as he felt every individual cell, beginning from his head, was needled through and splayed open. For one intense moment, one which seemed to last for hours, Danny felt electric, in the worst pain of his life, dissected for any and all to see—thoughts, memories, ideas, perspectives, feelings, sensations, physiology, biology, all sprawled out to be tinkered with by some unknown force. It felt as if he was being ripped apart from the inside out and then woven back together.
His body returned to him, though it felt heavier; something extra had come aboard, though actual weight meant nothing. A cold material crawled its way across his body, from his chest out to his limbs, up his neck and over his head and face—suddenly, he felt alive again. Still covered in this new and indescribable shroud, he returned to the backyard before getting tugged back to the chapel, watching the scene shatter around him. On the floor of the chapel, he looked up at the girl from before who looked down at him, eyes wide at what she saw, lost in astonishment as the chapel also began collapse into bare nothingness.
“Danny!” Eli called out again, not daring to set foot in the fountain. His mind raced, having watched his friend sink into what he thought had been solid ground only seconds before. “What the hell’s going on?”
Without a second thought he jumped into the shallow pool, feeling the water lick at his shoes as he sprinted to where Danny had fallen through. If Danny had sunk into some well or something, if he couldn’t get out, then every second counted. In the brief moment it took Eli to get to the center of the fountain his mind raced to thoughts of drowning and attempts at resuscitation. Yet before he could reach where Danny had fallen, he was stopped in his tracks.
The mere puddle of water at the fountain’s center started to sputter and ripple, displacing itself, leaving the stone beneath perfectly visible. As the damp ground emerged, so did a figure, someone rising out of the bare stone. A girl, pulling herself up from the fountain floor with one hand, yelling out as she tugged with her other hand another figure. The girl managed to pull herself out and with her other arm yank the other body out of the opening entirely before a surge of energy erupted from where they had emerged, splattering the water in all directions like rain before settling.
Eli could only watch speechless as she scooted away from where she had risen, still trying to keep close to the second body she had pulled up singlehandedly. Eli first felt dismay to see that what the girl had pulled up didn’t look like Danny at all, then followed shock when he registered what her haul really was. Laying just a few feet from her was a thin figure clad from head to foot in black and white, coated over in thin layers of dark crimson metal, staring back at Eli with two sapphire eyes and a blank face—armored, so foreign, despite its shape there seemed nothing to keep Eli from calling it some sort of machine.
He looked from the motionless figure to the girl, who looked quietly and anxiously back at him, pushing herself backward till she met the wall of the fountain, not taking her eyes off of Eli.
“Where’s my friend?” Eli demanded, taking a step toward the girl.
She only nodded at the figure on the ground nearby. “See for yourself.”
Though he had no way of explaining it, Eli immediately understood what she meant. He turned back to the armored body, looking down at his friend like a deer in headlights.
Without much restraint, the girl rose to her feet and made her way to Danny, who was still on the ground like a ragdoll tossed aside. Before Eli could say anything, he watched her place her hand on Danny’s brow—or, at least, the helmet’s brow—and kneel in quiet thought as strands of light pulsed up to the surface of the helmet and onto her hand, disappearing beneath her skin.
She let out a heavy though hushed sigh, muttering to herself. “At least it survived the process.”
Taking another step forward, Eli tried to speak, but in place of words came just incoherent noises. The girl ignored him, or perhaps she simply didn’t hear him, continuing to do whatever she was doing before. He tried again.
“Um,” he managed, “excuse me?” It really was more of a question than anything, unsure how to even approach this.
As if things weren’t so absurd, she casually looked over her shoulder at Eli, keeping her hand on Danny. “What?” she replied, sounding disinterested, locking onto Eli with imposing blue eyes.
Eli had no idea where to go from there, and so he fell silent for a moment before the first question really came to him.
“Is he going to be… okay?” he asked, squatting beside her and Danny. She seemed completely unfazed by the approach, just as seemingly nonchalant as before.
“I’m not sure,” she said. “Your friend stepped into something he really shouldn’t have.” Muttering something to herself, she got to her feet and stared down at Danny. “It’s already sealed, then.”
Turning her attention from Danny to Eli, she asked, “What’s your name?”
“Uh,” Eli sounded out again, feeling even more uncomfortable than before. “Eli Vale.” He felt almost foolish for giving his whole name, but there was something about her that stirred a certain anxiety in him—something that demanded his attention and compliance.
“And him,” she said, looking back down at the armored body at her feet. “Who’s he?”
“Daniel— uh, I mean, Danny. His name’s Danny.”
“Are you Americans?”
“Yeah,” Eli said, still feeling out of touch. “But…” He hesitated, only for a second though. “Who are you?”
She gave the question a moment of thought before answering. “Call me Arras.”
Before they could say anything more, they both turned their attention back to Danny, watching—Eli with awe, Arras with borderline rancor—the armor covering Danny’s body peel away and vanish into thin air, leaving him as if he had never been wearing whatever he had been wearing.
“That’s not good,” Arras said, furrowing her brow.
“What do you—?”
Eli stopped mid-sentence once he saw Danny begin to flail and convulse, seizing and tossing with eyes wide and jaw loose. Arras swore again, dropping back down to Danny and putting her hand on his head again, resuming the flow of light from his skin to hers.
“What’s happening?” Eli asked in a panic, drawing closer to put his hands on Danny in an attempt to keep him still. “Is he… He’s having a seizure!”
“Like I said,” Arras answered, still calm though growing frustrated with every toss of Danny’s body, trying to keep a good hold on his head. “Your friend got himself into something he really shouldn’t have.”
“You mean that— that suit? What was that?” Eli lost interest in his own questions as Danny continued to toss, eyes still agape. “Can you help him?”
“Not sure,” Arras admitted. “Try to keep him still.”
Just as the words escaped her, Danny let out a sudden gasp. With his back arched, his gasp became a yell before subsiding. Arras pulled back as Danny continued trying to breathe, Eli helping him sit up, leaving the three of them on the damp floor of the fountain.
“What…” Danny managed to say. “What the hell just happened?”
“You’re alive, then?” Arras asked, not trying to hide her irritation.
“I think so,” Danny said with a cough, still trying to catch his breath.
With one smooth movement, Arras reached into Eli’s pocket, getting her hand around the grip of his revolver, pulling the weapon free from his jacket and getting to her feet. Before either Danny or Eli could blink, they found themselves staring down the snub-nose .38 they had brought as insurance. Neither of them knew how to respond, fumbling backward, trying to catch themselves without taking their eyes off her.
“Stop moving,” Arras commanded, heeded by both her targets. “Now it’s time for you to answer a few of my questions.”
With ease she thumbed back the revolver’s hammer as strands of light pulsed between her and the metal of the handgun. Keeping her forefinger parallel with the trigger guard, she fixed her eyes on both the men below her.
Danny and Eli stayed silent, both starting to sweat. Eli felt a bit of relief once he saw she had kept her finger off the trigger, but it didn’t distract him from the reality of their situation.
“What do you want to know?” Eli asked, feeling a little bold.
“Let’s start with this,” Arras began, placing Eli behind the front sight of her commandeered firearm. “Who are you both and what are you doing here?”
“Like I said,” Eli said, trying to speak diplomatically, or at least in a way that wouldn’t piss her off, “I’m Eli, and that’s Danny.”
“And you’re Arras,” Danny said softly, looking perplexed.
Arras looked almost intrigued. “So you picked that up from me earlier, then?”
“In that church, when you…” Danny looked down at his hand, remembering the light trailing from his body to hers while they were in Sage Chapel—at least, he thought it was Sage Chapel. “What was that you did? And where were we just a minute ago?”
She pointed the gun at Danny, refusing to lose control of the conversation. Weighing things for a second, she finally answered. “I needed to know how to communicate with you. I guess you took some information from me, too—surface-level data. You speak English, but it’s different from what I was taught.”
“You’re not from around here, then?” Danny asked, almost forgetting that he was sitting at gunpoint until Arras reminded him with a single gesture.
“You said you’re Americans,” Arras said, glancing back at Eli. “You two don’t look like any Americans I’ve ever seen before.”
“What?” Eli retorted, more confused than before. He looked down at his plain jeans and coat, then over at Danny in his hoodie. “What do you mean we don’t look American?”
“He’s got a point,” Danny added, leaning back, propping himself up with his hands. He tried to not let his fear show. “I mean, we’re white, male, and we even brought a gun—not American enough for you?”
Arras didn’t respond; taking a step back to get a better view of them, she studied her two hostages closely. A long moment passed, with neither Danny nor Eli willing to jump too eagerly into this conversation.
“You’re Americans,” Arras said with a hush.
“That’s right,” Eli replied, straightening his glasses.
“This is the United States?” she continued, keeping her eyes on Eli, still studying him.
Another silent beat came and went. With each passing second, despite her best efforts, Arras looked more unnerved. Finally, she mustered up the wherewithal to ask what was weighing on her mind—a fear of her own, one she hoped wasn’t real.
“What year is it?”
“The year?” Danny asked with exasperation.
“The year! What year is it? What’s the date?”
Danny reached for his pocket, turning Arras’ full attention back to him, including her aim. “I’m just getting my phone,” he assured her. He slipped his fingers into his pocket and pulled out the phone before sliding it to her feet. “Why don’t you take a look for yourself?”
Keeping her eyes and weapon locked onto Danny, Arras reached down for the phone and pressed what she assumed to be a power switch. The screen popped to life, displaying the time and date. When she saw the year, her heart stopped, eyes as wide as Danny’s had been when he had seized up.
“That’s a lie,” Arras finally said, not taking her eyes off the screen, off the date—off the year.
“What’s a lie?” Danny asked plainly. Despite everything—despite all the unanswered questions, despite the gun, and despite whatever had happened to him just minutes ago—he found himself losing patience with this whole situation. “I don’t know what could be a lie about all this, it’s the truth: someone kept trying to contact me through that phone, telling me I needed to come here, telling me I needed to ‘help’ someone—I’m going out on a limb here, but I wonder if that might be you.”
Arras looked down at Danny, her expression unchanged, though she was trying to bring her emotions back into check.
“You want answers?” Danny went on, losing no bravery or brashness. “So do I!”
“Danny, come on,” Eli whispered.
“You were told to help me?” Arras interjected.
Eli and Danny were both surprised by her sudden openness; though it wasn’t much, it seemed as if Arras was willing to let them in.
“That’s right,” Danny answered, “but I don’t know who it was that called me. I just kept getting texts with directions to this place, telling me that I was supposed to come ‘help’ you or something.” He chuckled morbidly, feeling regret creep in with every word. “What a load of crap, right? But here we are.”
“Here’s an idea,” Eli said, not sure if he was about to make a mistake. “Why don’t we put the gun away and talk this out? I’m sure we can—”
Arras shook the gun at both of them, shutting Eli right up.
“You say someone led you here, but you don’t know who. They didn’t identify themselves?”
“Didn’t think to ask for their info, no,” Danny fired back. As Arras continued to process his answer, he cut back in. “Look, look at us: we’re obviously not here to hurt anyone. We obviously couldn’t hurt you. I’m guessing you’re trained or something. Military?” As he asked, Danny realized that Arras couldn’t be much older than he was; she was almost as old as his dad had been when he first enlisted—he found himself suddenly lost in thought.
Though it took him a second, Danny finally registered that Arras had lowered the revolver.
“This isn’t right at all.” She sounded almost defeated. “What happened?”
For Eli, the pieces had finally slid together, giving him one more question. There was no way it could be, but he guessed it would be no more out of the ordinary than anything else he had seen so far.
“Arras,” Eli said, getting her attention. “This fountain. Well, I’m guessing it’s not a fountain, actually. What is it really?”
She stared down at her feet, down to where they stood, to the stained stone below. “You’re right; this isn’t a fountain.” Looking up at Eli and Danny, it was apparent that she wasn’t going to reveal all her secrets to them—but perhaps one. “It’s a rift, a hidden pocket. It was supposed to be secure, though,” she added, looking at Danny. “You require a nano-net to enter—” a few strands of light pulsed up her forearms— “which I’m assuming you didn’t have until you stole my suit.”
“Stole?” Danny cut in. “I didn’t steal anything!”
Arras answered, “You wouldn’t be able to enter on accident; the way the rift’s constructed, it requires a certain neural interface for anyone to enter.”
“Is that why it looked like a church?” Danny asked. “It looked like a couple of places I’ve been before.” He thought specifically of his old backyard, of his time with his family.
Again, he was met with patient silence; Arras seemed to be analyzing Eli and Danny with every passing second, trying to gather as much intel as possible.
“That’s right,” she said simply. “The mind interacts with the apparatus that constructs the rift to make interaction with the inner-space actually feasible. At least, that’s what it used to do before this rift collapsed.”
Eli remembered the blast of water that had heralded Arras and Danny’s return; he hadn’t realized that was a gateway closing off, though it made sense.
“This rift,” Eli said, trying to get back to his original point, “what you’re talking about—what’s it for specifically?”
Arras thought her answer through, keeping her eyes on Eli. “Storage.”
“What about hibernation?” Eli asked, cutting straight to the chase.
Arras didn’t answer. Slowly, peaceably, Eli gestured at the cell phone in her hand.
“Pardon me if I’m wrong, but you seemed rather startled by the date.” Eli looked down at the phone, then looked back up at Arras. “How long were you in there?”
Danny caught on as well. All eyes were on Arras now, though she stayed silent, closed off.
“I suppose this wasn’t the time you intended to come out of stasis,” Eli suggested. “When did you enter that rift?”
Looking away again, she continued thinking out what she should tell them.
“The twenty-seventh of March,” she finally said. “In the year 1793.” She took a deep breath and relaxed her grip on the revolver. “I was put into ‘hibernation’ more than two hundred years ago—” quickly, smoothly, she pointed the gun back at Danny— “with the suit that’s now tied to your nervous system.”
Taken aback, Danny said, “If you want your suit back, why don’t you just take it? I don’t want it! Take it back, if it means that much to you.”
“I can’t,” Arras said, putting Eli and Danny into further submission as she wrapped her finger around the trigger. “It’s a security measure: once the suit seals itself to someone, that’s it. It can’t be removed. It was supposed to prevent theft once I woke up and reactivated the suit. Only now you’ve completely destroyed that.”
“Hang on,” Danny said, putting his hands out, trying to calm her down. His heart started to pound once he saw Arras’ face—her anger and her control. “I’m not out to rob you, okay? I…”
“That rift,” Arras said, “its support, its operating system—whatever you people would call it—it was programmed to only accept my nano-net. No one else’s. You didn’t just accidentally stumble in and steal my suit.”
The tension peaked; both Eli and Danny’s minds raced, trying to come up with a solution to this mess.
“Arras, please,” Eli said, not turning the gun or much of Arras’ attention away from Danny in the process. “Despite how this may seem, Danny’s telling the truth. We had no intention of stealing from you; we didn’t even know you existed. We’re just as confused as you are. But killing my friend won’t get you any answers.”
“I’m not going to kill him,” Arras stated, maintaining her aim. “If I killed him, the suit would just disappear with his mind. But that doesn’t mean I can’t harm him if I have to.”
“We’re all lost here,” Eli said.
“Definitely lost,” Danny affirmed, not taking his eyes off the muzzle of the gun.
“We’re not trying to hurt you, and I don’t imagine you want to hurt us either,” Eli went on. He waited, trying to gauge Arras’ response. “We’re all in a predicament right now. Danny doesn’t want your suit, but he’s stuck with it; and you obviously didn’t intend to wake up on this date.”
“And you?” Arras asked. “Where’s your part in all this?”
“Danny’s my friend,” Eli said, trying to think carefully through what he was going to say next. “I went along with this whole thing; this fiasco is as much my fault as it is his.”
“Neither of you could understand what you’ve just stepped into,” Arras stated with finality, raising the gun once more to them both.
“Then help us understand!” Danny blurted out, seeming to take even Arras off guard. “If you want to kill or even just maim us, then you really are an idiot. Right now, not only do I have your suit, but Eli and I, we’re the only help you’ve got right now. If you’re telling the truth and you really went into that rift in 17-90-who-the-hell-cares, then I’m guessing you’re going to be pretty lost out here—it’s the twenty-first century, and nothing’s like it was back then.”
She smirked, as if the idea were something amusing. “What’re you suggesting?”
“Don’t treat this like a hostage situation,” Danny said. “Help us understand what’s going on, and let us help you figure out how to proceed. Regardless of what any of us may think of it, we’re in this together.” He met her eyes with his; her blue eyes reminded him of the blinding light from the chapel, pushing their way into his mind. “Let’s help each other out.”
Another tense moment followed, nothing but the breeze filling the silence as all three of them weighed their options. Danny gave Eli a sidelong glance before turning back to Arras.
Not changing her expression, Arras lowered the revolver one last time.
“If you get involved with me,” Arras breathed, “I can’t promise you’ll like what you find.”
“Believe me,” Danny said, “it’s not my first choice, but we don’t have too many options at this point.”
“He’s right,” Eli said. “It looks like, at least for the time being, we’re stuck with each other.”
With a sigh, Arras swung out the revolver’s cylinder, pushing the extractor rod and ejecting the rounds into her hand. She pocketed the ammunition and tossed Eli the revolver. Eli was grateful just to have the gun back, or rather to not be staring down its snub-nose anymore.
“We should leave here,” Arras concluded. “Do you have transportation?”
As they made their way back to the car, Danny tagged behind the two of them, feeling the wind for the first time as it pointed out how much he had sweated his way through that conversation. Clenching a fist, he looked down at his skin, remembering the lights he had seen before—the nano-net, and the suit he had somehow been irrevocably bound to.
There was way too much to take in, at least for now. He watched Arras ahead of him; she moved with confidence, having no fear of the people behind her. Danny decided he couldn’t leave things like this, knowing so little of what was going on; whatever may have happened, whatever he had gotten himself into, he refused to go into it blind. He felt like an idiot, overall. Dragging Eli along, he had gone to this house chasing some sort of adventure, something to make him forget everything—his master’s, why he left the program at all, everything that would come as a result.
Danny watched the fountain over his shoulder disappear behind the house before looking back at Arras. Feeling as mystified as he had in the rift, he knew he had found far more than he was ever willing to bargain for. All he seemed to have done was trade in one question for a thousand others.
With each of them swimming in their own thoughts, none of them noticed the camera watching them from a corner of the old house’s porch. Its iris adjusting, panning in, the camera took in the entire scene.