Chapter 20

 

 Drifting in and out of consciousness, Danny could feel himself being dragged by the shoulders.  Unable to focus on his surroundings, all he could really see was Arras trailing close behind him, walking with direction, looking positively infuriated.  With a flash of pain, he watched Suo walk ahead of her daughter, approaching Danny.

 Then he drifted back into his own mind, to what he guessed was another memory.

 “It won’t work,” Danny could hear Arras saying.

 “How so?” Aurin asked.

 “You need an AI to work with, otherwise the operator’s mind just splays out—they lose coherency and the psyche dissolves more quickly.”

 “I’m not putting you in there with an AI, Arras.  I’ve already seen the effects...”

 “There’s no other way.”

 “Artificial minds can’t synchronize with human ones,” Aurin insisted, “not to the degree we need.  And not without destroying their partner in the process.”

 “What if we didn’t need an artificial mind?” Suo asked.

  Danny awoke then, slumped over in a padded chair, a large table set out in front of him.  Looking around the room, he knew he was still aboard the ship they landed in; he didn’t have the luxury of not remembering what had happened before, not with his ear throbbing so mercilessly.

 Despite just waking up, he could hear Arras arguing with someone.

 “So you assumed he’s a threat, then?” she yelled, already in the thick of things.

 “It’s protocol, ma’am,” Endriss said, standing up straight, trying to keep his voice steady.  “We’re trained to detain any unregistered individuals who come aboard, hostile or not.”

 “Bullshit,” Arras fired back.  “Why don’t you bring me someone who actually knows what they’re talking about?”

 “I’m going to have to ask you to stand down, ma’am,” Endriss replied, keeping his cool.

 “Or you’ll consider me hostile?” Arras asked, not backing down, though not wishing to get into an altercation.

 “I’m up,” Danny announced, not sure what else to say.  “Who hit me?”

 Endriss stared back at Danny as Arras rounded the table to him.

 “How are you feeling?” she asked.

 Danny wasn’t sure if she meant him or the suit.  “Like I fell out of a moving truck.  How about you?”

 “You’ll be fine,” Arras said, taking his sarcasm as a sufficient sign of life.

 “Who is he, then?” Endriss asked.  “If he’s not on the registry, then he’s not in the New Pact.”

 “Neither am I,” Arras said, “whatever the hell the ‘New Pact’ is.”

 “Coalition ID records were used to make our current databases,” Endriss said.  “Essentially, you’re just a genealogical record, but you’re enough to show up on a scan.  Care to explain that to me?”

 “What’s there to explain?” Arras asked.

 “How I’m staring a myth in the eye,” Endriss stated.

 The door opened behind Endriss, bringing him to attention as another man in uniform entered the room.

 “That’s enough for now,” said the man of higher authority as he entered the room.

 Taking a good look at this new face, Danny could see he was much older than Endriss; he wore a proper uniform instead of body armor, decked with a few pins that seemed to indicate high standing.

 “The guest stars just keep rolling in,” Danny muttered.  “Are you here to take shot at me, too?”

 “Sorry for the misunderstanding,” the man said, making his way to Arras and Danny.  He moved with the same poise as Endriss, the same kind of stride and stature that bled an air of control.  “I’m sure our guard-captain explained his reasons to you, however.  We can’t take any risks.  Not with this.”

 He stood almost toe to toe with Arras, turning from her to Danny, still seated behind her.

 “Are you the commanding officer, then?” Arras asked.

 He nodded.  “Commander Visk.”

 “Visk.”

 Danny stood up from his seat, ignoring the pain in the side of his head.  “Don’t mean to be rude,” he said, happy to finally meet someone really in charge.  “But, if you don’t mind, let’s cut to the chase: are we prisoners?”

 “You tell me,” Visk said before turning back to Arras.  “Maybe you could explain why a ghost landed on my ship.”

 Arras stayed silent.

 “Before the Coalition assassinated Ila Enqelin,” Visk said in an aged voice, “there were rumors that she and her family were involved in some sort of insurrection.  The more influence she gained, the more it became clear she was suggesting shutting down the Rededication program… the more the Coalition started asking questions.  Interrogations.  Kidnappings.  False witnesses, and some true ones—until the story was that the Enqelins were violent revolutionaries lying in wait.”

 “How would anyone know such a thing?” Arras asked in a lowered voice of her own.  “If the Enqelins were ever wrapped up in rebellion, you’d think no one would find out.”

 “They found out,” Visk said simply.  “When they killed Ila Enqelin, there were even more rumors—people were saying her sister was still alive, that she’d be coming for the Coalition.  And here you are, now of all times.  Why?”

 “You tell me,” Arras said, mentally dissecting Visk as she carefully dodged his words.

 “The Coalition’s gone,” Visk said firmly.  “The New Pact took its place after civil war.”

 “I know.  Tell me why I should care?”

 “Because the rumor wasn’t just that Arras Enqelin would destroy the Coalition,” Visk said.  “They said she wanted Rededication itself.”

 “This ship’s made three FTL jumps since we came aboard,” Arras said, changing the conversation entirely.  “Where are you taking us?”

 “There are a few people who want to speak with you,” Visk said, ignoring her skilled senses, that she could notice an FTL event this deep into the ship.  “The girl who leapt through time and space just to find Rededication—you have no idea how popular you just became.”

 Visk turned around and made his way to the exit.

 “Tell me one thing,” Arras requested, breaking Visk’s stride.  “This New Pact…  Be honest—is it just the Coalition with a different name?”

 Silent at first, Visk then answered her with what felt like a hint of sympathy.  “When the war broke out, the prime family was the first to be killed.  People had had enough.”  Leaving the room, he called back one last thing: “And it all began with Ila Enqelin.”

 Endriss stepped out with Visk, closing the door behind him, leaving Arras and Danny on their own.

 “What do you think?” Danny asked.

 Arras kept her eyes fixed on the door.  “Nothing’s changed,” she said, sitting in another one of the chairs around the table.  “For the time being, I’d like to find out what’s going on.”

 “If they know about Rededication…” Danny said, keeping his voice down.

 “I know,” Arras said, matching his volume.  “We need to assess the situation before we move on.”

 “Just say the word.”

He tried to keep things vague, assuming they were being monitored.  Arras looked back at him, giving him a subtle nod.

 Time passed in silence, leaving them to pace the room on their own, trying to stay loose.  Sitting back down for the hundredth time, Danny pulled out his phone and checked the time, taking a guess at how long they had been in that room.  Taking a look around—though there wasn’t much to see—he guessed they were in something like a briefing room.  A screen at the front of the room displayed a spinning roundel, what he guessed was the emblem of the New Pact military.

 Staring into the symbol of power that the New Pact could bring to bear, Danny realized he felt no fear whatsoever.  He could’ve laughed, it surprised him enough.  Thinking of Ridarin, laced into his very brain by millions of nanomachines, he couldn’t help but feel untouchable.  Catching sight of Arras, though, he felt that bravado leave him immediately.  If things went south, she wouldn’t have a suit of her own for protection.  He didn’t doubt that she could hold her own in a fight, but if they had to push their way through a battleship like this—he was bulletproof, not her.

 It doesn’t matter what happens to me.  Her words from before hung around him like a fog.

 Some time passed before a tinny voice announced over the ship’s intercom that they had reached their destination, a place called Zero Point.  Shortly after the announcement, two soldiers in battle-durable uniforms came to escort Arras and Danny from the briefing room, taking them through the winding corridors of the ship.  At the turns they didn’t take, there was another soldier or two to clog the way, keeping other shipmates from getting too close.  Soon enough their path led them to a bulkhead, labeled in the same characters Danny had seen back at the theater on Eilikh—the airlock.

 A bit nervous, he followed Arras and the guard leading them into the airlock, straight through to another automated door which slid aside automatically; they crossed the threshold and left of the ship without missing a beat.  Into another tunnel, paneled with reinforced windows, Danny stopped to take a good look at their new location.  Through the windows, he could see the tunnel led to a small space station; a series of tot tethers led from the base of the station down to a planet.  The world below them looked even larger than Earth had—yet just as blue, and just as overwhelming.

 “Move along,” the rear guard advised, getting Danny out of his trance.

 They proceeded through the tunnel to a vast though empty terminal with what looked like elevator shafts spread in a pattern throughout.  Between the shafts they found Commander Visk waiting for them.

 “I can take them from here,” Visk told the two guards, sending them back.

 “No guard?” Arras asked.

 “Not for now,” Visk grumbled, proceeding to an open shaft.  “There’s plenty of security on the surface, though, believe me.”

 “Where are we?” Danny asked, taking another look out a nearby window, seeing a portion of the colossal world below.

 “The planet’s called Zero Point,” Visk said as they strapped into a circle of seats walling the lift.  “The city we’ll be visiting is called Felicity.”

 “So they kept the capital?” Arras muttered to herself.

 “Kept it?”  Visk laughed.  “They rebuilt the damn thing.”

 Through the windows walling the lift, they watched the metal shaft fly away, replaced by a panoramic view of Zero Point beneath their feet, the vision interrupted only by the black tethers their elevator raced down.  Entry into the atmosphere was smoother than it had ever been for Danny and Arras aboard their own ship; it wasn’t until they were about to descend past the clouds that Danny realized they had gone through reentry at all.  As they fell out of the clouds, the lift decelerated to a slow landing inside a seaside structure.

 From there, they exited the lift and made their way through a busy port.  Though the crowd seemed to swarm them, Visk didn’t look bothered; he knew neither of his companions would run, though he kept a hand on Danny’s shoulder, leading him along while Arras followed on her own.  As they moved through the crowd, Danny couldn’t help but lose himself in what he saw.  The fact that Arras or Visk were human was one thing—to watch an entire crowd of humans move all around him, each one in clothing that wasn’t exactly what he had grown up with yet which seemed all too familiar.  He had stepped into an alien world that felt more like his own than he had ever expected.

 Outside the port, a car waited for the three of them.  That was what Danny would have called it, anyway; it seemed like a car, at least.  They sat down inside, each in a seat that pointed toward the center of the vehicle as someone at the front engaged an auto-pilot.  Toward the back sat two guards, though the way they were dressed, they didn’t look nearly as brusque as the soldiers back on Ila’s Voice.

 As the car coasted down the road, moving along a preprogrammed track, Danny felt that discomfort he felt back at the port reach a new height.  As they passed into Felicity, he couldn’t help but lock onto each building till it passed, at staring at each turn in the road, each walkway, each person.  Though, as in the port, nothing was exactly as it was on Earth, it wasn’t the difference that floored him.  It was that this drive felt more like a daytrip through some twenty-second century version of downtown New York City than it did traveling through a city at least dozens of light years from anywhere Danny might call home.  He could see the sun rising through the gaps in the buildings, casting a bluish light over the city, overpowering the flashing signs and advertisements crawling over the surfaces of the skyscrapers.

 “Haven’t you ever been to a city before?” Visk asked, deciding to comment on Danny’s apparent excitement.

 Freezing up for a second, feeling like a golden retriever getting pulled back into the car, Danny smiled.  “Yes and no,” he said, ignoring his own embarrassment.

Looking over at Arras, she wasn’t paying much attention to either him or Visk—she was looking out the window, though with not nearly the passion Danny must have had.  Rather, she looked a little thrown off, as if disappointed by the scenery.

The vehicle entered a depot, slowing to a cruise through a security scanner arching over its lane.  Inching its way through, they received a blue light—clearance—and exited the checkpoint.  With just a couple more minutes, the car slowed once more, leaving behind the main city and entering a secure compound.

The grounds in all were organized like one focal point surrounded by rings of security checkpoints.  At the outskirts were what looked like aircraft terminals; people in dark colors walked across concrete pathways to these buildings as the occasional vehicle descended or ascended, transporting passengers to or from one part of the compound to another.  Farther in was what looked like housing, followed by a series of tan colored buildings that didn’t surrender any information about their purpose, not from the exterior alone.

At last, they arrived at the center of the compound, entering into a roundabout before coming to a stop at the foot of a wide stone walkway.  Disembarking the vehicle, leaving it to drive off autonomously, Visk, Arras, and Danny walked up the entranceway toward a towering beige building just ahead.  Banners draped their way down the structure, each one bearing what must have been the New Pact’s emblem—Danny could see similarities between this image and the military roundel he had seen before.

 At the top of a set of stair that felt more like a hillside, they found a man waiting for them.  Dressed in black and blue, a hood hanging from his shoulders, he intercepted them as they approached.  He was accompanied by two men in black and silver armor, their faces covered, each wearing the New Pact crest on their shoulder.

 “It’s a pleasure to meet you both,” the man said to Arras and Danny after greeting Visk with familiarity.  Bowing gracefully, he reached his hands out to them.  Arras took one hand, prompting Danny to take the other; he thought this would be more like a handshake until the man immediately pulled his hands back at their touch.

“My name is Nulem Verris.  I’m a proxy in the People’s College of the New Pact.”

 Though he didn’t quite grasp the duties the title came with, Danny couldn’t help but feel surprised; Nulem didn’t look much older than he did.  Danny’s apparent incredulity didn’t seem to bother Nulem though, as he turned squarely to Arras.

 “I imagine you’re at quite a loss,” Nulem told her.  “There’s certainly much we need to discuss.  I hope you can join me and the College for a special session later today.  The other proxies wanted to convene the moment we heard the news.”

 “You want to meet with me?” Arras asked, raising an eyebrow, analyzing Nulem in and out as he spoke.

 “Very much so,” he replied, “though we can discuss the details in the meeting.  For now—”

 “What about Danny?”  Her question surprised both Nulem and Danny himself.

 “We have accommodations for him,” Nulem said, deviating from what had prepared to say.  “Though, we hadn’t planned on you having a companion.”

 “If your College wants to speak with me,” Arras said, “they’ll include Danny as well.”

 “I see,” Nulem said, turning to Danny.  “May I ask why?”

 “He’s been very helpful to me in the past; I wouldn’t have made it this far had it not been for him,” Arras said.  “Anything you say to me will be shared with him.”

 “I understand,” Nulem assented.  “I’m sure the College will have no issue with that.  This way, please.”

 Arras followed Nulem up the few remaining stairs and to the building’s main entrance.  Danny stayed where he was, watching them leave.  Though he didn’t take Arras as someone who would leave him in the hall for a meeting like this, her insistence took him just as much by surprise then as it had a moment ago.

 He felt a heavy hand rest on his shoulder—Visk.

 “They’ll leave us behind if we don’t hurry,” he said, walking on ahead.  “Don’t want to keep her waiting, do we?”

 Another second of hesitation came and went before Danny strode after Visk, up the rest of the steps and through the front door—into Felicity’s capitol.