Chapter 23

 

 Though he wasn’t entirely certain when morning would arrive, Danny tried to wake up shortly before the next sunrise.  The night before, he and Arras were taken to the compound’s housing sector and given separate rooms.  Rising out of a firm bed that looked more for dignitaries than ragtag aliens, he looked out the window.  He could just barely make out the tops of the buildings outside the compound, their lights glowing over the lower skyline walling him off from the rest of Felicity.

Trying to translate his morning routine into this new environment, he stepped into what he guessed was the bathroom to try bathing or something.  While the architecture was definitely different from anything he had seen before, Danny didn’t have too much trouble.

Dressed in a fresh set of clothes—some sort of black and beige getup they had laid out for him the night before—he left his room and made his way to Arras.  He knocked at her door and waited for some time, knocking a few more times before cracking the door.

“Arras, are you in here?  You mind if I come in?”

When he received no reply, he cautiously opened the door further, finding a completely empty room.  Arras must have gotten up long before he had.  He guessed that meant their espionage would be on an individual basis.

Not at all sure where to begin, he found a guard at the main entrance of whatever building they had tossed him in.

“Hey there,” Danny said in greeting, trying to sound polite.  “Do you know where I can find some food?”

The towering soldier looked down at him from behind a silver helmet and black eyes.  Without a word, he pointed to a blank panel on the wall.  Unsure what the guard might be trying to say, Danny approached the panel, staring at it for a moment, looking back and forth between it and the guard before venturing to tap the surface.  The panel lit up, text scrolling across the screen, telling Danny to touch the panel for directions—he was starting to get the hang of Ridarin’s translations, able to keep better track of when he was dealing with an interpretation rather than just understanding what someone or something said.

Pressing his hand to the panel, a number of names and locations, superimposed over a map of the compound, appeared before his eyes alone.  He selected what he guessed was a cafeteria; in response, the menu disappeared and a trail of green drew its way from the wall, under Danny’s feet, and out the door.  He followed the trail, not bothering to say anything else to the guard, wondering if anyone else could see the path or if it was just him.

After finding the cafeteria, followed by somewhat scatterbrained negotiations with a cafeteria worker, Danny got a meal and sat down at one of the many empty tables.  Taking inventory of the food, he had some basic green items that he guessed were like vegetables, another side dish he wasn’t quite sure how to describe, what looked like a piece of meat, with a cup of what he hoped was normal water to wash the mystery meal down.

“You’re up early,” said someone across the table, taking a seat.  Danny looked up to see Visk with a meal of his own.

“Is it early?” Danny asked.  “To be honest, I have no idea what the hell time it is.”

“Planets like Zero Point—places we typically choose to support large human populations—don’t typically differ too much.”  Visk cut into the meat on his plate.  “Still, I do know a thing or two about trying to transition to a new day-and-night cycle.  For your information, though, right now is what most people in Felicity would call ‘early’—well done.”

“Thanks,” Danny grumbled back, trying a piece of green.  If he had gotten up so “early,” then he wondered just how “early” Arras had left her room.  More than that, he wondered what she might be doing.

“I guess your time-traveler gave you the slip,” Visk said.  “Where’d she run off to?”

“No idea.”

Taking another bite of meat, sensing Danny’s recalcitrance, Visk bumped up his eyebrows.  “Suit yourself.”

Looking around the cafeteria, Danny could see only a few other people, each dressed in civilian clothes.  Visk was the only military officer.

“Not to be rude—” Danny said.

“Word of advice,” Visk cut in.  “If you have to start a sentence like that, chances are it’s going to be a little rude.”

“Fair enough.”

“Ila’s Voice is in dry-dock for repairs and resupply,” Visk went on after a gulp of water, anticipating Danny’s question.  “We won’t be leaving the system for another day or two.”

“So you decided to come spend some time with me?”

“More or less.  Thought it might be worth my time to visit the two kids that managed to rile up the entire College.”

“They detained us,” Danny said.  “I guess they were pretty upset.”

“They didn’t detain you because you upset them,” Visk said, leaning over the table.  “They were never planning on letting you go.  At least, not Arras.”

“Nice to know I’m just the third wheel.”

“Is that something your people say a lot?  I don’t get it.”

“Never mind.”

They went back to eating for a while before Visk broke the silence again.

“There are a lot of people wondering why you and Arras are still here,” he said.  His words seemed far less blasé than before, more invested than some apathetic observer.  “I’m one of those people, by the way.”

“What’s there to wonder about?  They detained us.”

Visk chuckled.  “That’s just cute.  So you and your destroying angel blow through town, when everyone knows you’re packing enough firepower to take down Rededication itself—but now they’ve got you by the balls because they said you aren’t allowed to leave.”  Shaking his head, still chuckling, he started into his vegetables.  “That’s funny.”

Danny didn’t know what to say; he didn’t want to give anything up, though.

“We didn’t come armed,” he finally said.  “You think we would just come to the capital carrying our only asset?”  Actually, that was exactly what they had done.  Though he knew circumstances were a little more complicated than that, he still felt a little foolish.

“Regardless of what you may or may not have brought with you,” Visk said, “the fact still remains that very few people here actually think you’re innocuous enough to hold down.  The real question is: why haven’t you left yet?  What’s the holdup?”  Finishing off the last of his meal, knowing Danny wouldn’t say anything, he added, “Not that you asked, but I think you’re looking for something.  Maybe you knew it was here when we captured you.”

“You’re a pretty speculative guy,” Danny muttered.  “Any evidence for all these ideas of yours, or are you just blowing smoke?”

“Despite what you and Arras may think,” Visk said, taking his last bite, “not everyone around you is an enemy.”  Picking up his plate, and getting out from the table, he stopped.

“More theories you want to share?” Danny asked.

“If I was looking for something,” Visk said simply, “I would make friends with a proxy.  They’re pretty chatty bastards.”

Danny watched Visk bus his plate then leave without looking back.  Alone with his thoughts, he tried to process what Visk had said, though only for a minute.  He concluded that the best course of action might actually be to do what the commander had suggested—regardless of whatever reason Visk had made such a suggestion.

Soliciting another panel in the wall for directions, Danny plotted a route to the central building he and Arras were in the day before.  In the main capitol building, he found himself a little lost—the panels inside seemed less helpful than the others.  Trying to retrace his steps from yesterday, he looked for the College’s meeting room, hoping he might catch a proxy, though he had no idea what he would do if he found one.

Some time passed, but he couldn’t find a thing, let alone a member of the College.  Looking out one of the windows, a few stories off the ground, he could see the sun had risen.  From his elevated spot, he watched more and more people fill the stone courtyards outside, traveling from one building to another, each of them dressed in formal clothes.  He wondered if he might see Arras out there.

“Oh, I didn’t realize you were here.”

Startled, Danny whirled around, locking eyes with someone close behind him—the woman from yesterday, the proxy who had sat next to Nulem.

“Hey,” he almost stuttered, trying to remember her name.  “Uh, don’t take this the wrong way, but…”

Valiya led him outside to one of the courtyards.  They sat on a stone bench at the side of a pool, a few fountains spouting water steadily at its center.  A number of people walked past them, though none seemed to notice the two of them there.  Getting a better look at Valiya, Danny noticed she was perhaps a little younger than him—he wondered just how young people in Arras’ world or the New Pact really got into their professions.

“How do you like Felicity?” Valiya asked, watching the water mist into the air from the openings of a few rocks.

“Don’t you mean to say the compound?” Danny asked her in return.

“I suppose I should.  For what it’s worth, I’m sorry for the inconvenience.”

Tired of everyone involved acknowledging how much of a pain this was to them, Danny decided to stop bringing up the topic.  “Don’t worry about it.  And to answer your question, this place actually reminds me a little bit of home.”

“That’s surprising,” she said, joining Danny in looking out at the skyscrapers peeking up over the compound’s walls.  “I would guess that things here would seem quite different from what you’re used to.”

“There’s dissimilarity, too,” Danny said, his questions from yesterday returning.  “But it’s just how similar things seem that really blows me away.”

Valiya thought for a moment, then said, “For as far back as anyone can remember, it’s still an incredibly rare event to discover something like Earth, another environment with people virtually indistinguishable from ourselves—at least, genetically speaking.”

“Arras mentioned that when I first met her.  How’d you guys ever make sense of that?”

“Truth be told, there were always stories, ancient ones our people passed down for generations.  Our ancestors used to talk about prehistoric beings who had advanced so much that they found there was nothing else to learn.  Instead, they found themselves creating planets and life just like their own—they thought starting the cycle of life and development over again might lead to some new wisdom.”

Danny pursed his lips, looking out over the pool, watching what looked like birds skip across its surface before picking a place to stay.  “And what do you think?”

Valiya smiled then looked up into the blue sky.  “We don’t bat an eye when similar stars form in completely different places and times, completely untouched by one another.  Perhaps common environments evolve common creatures.”

“Human evolution is a little more complicated than star formation,” Danny said.  “Though, I guess nature does get pretty absurd once you delve into quantum mechanics.”

“Quantum mechanics?”

“Let’s just say that used to be my day job,” Danny said with a sigh, his mind suddenly abuzz with memories of Cornell.

“Well,” Valiya continued as the people continued to coast by, “perhaps I should say that when I tell stories like these… to me, they say more about our future than our past.  I don’t know much about convergent evolution, or if some group of people intentionally threw our worlds into motion.  I’m more interested in keeping the worlds spinning.  I imagine that’s something I have in common with you and Arras.”

“Maybe so.”

“That’s all the College is really concerned about: keeping the planets in orbit, spinning on their axes as they always have.  I guess it’s our methods that differ—between the proxies, I mean.”

Danny lifted his hands, weighing nothing in particular in them.  “This guy wants to use Rededication; that guy wants to blow it to smithereens.”

“It’s not so simple, though I wish it was.  Perhaps the proxies would be more inclined to agree were that the case.”  Valiya suddenly looked deep in thought.  “The truth is, Danny, the New Pact is falling apart.”

“I thought you guys were supposed to be the golden age,” Danny said, looking away.  He tried not to insult the politician, but he found it hard not to think of these people in the worst of ways.

“That’s what the revolutionaries wanted once the Coalition fell.  You see, the Coalition was formed by a single family, two brothers and three sisters who had each come to power in some part of space.  To save themselves some trouble and to end petty disputes, they decided to form an alliance with each other.  Then they handed that down to their descendants, leaving them to rule the worlds in their place.”

“The prime family,” Danny concluded.  “I get you—I come from a place that started with some pretty hard feelings toward royalty, too.”

“I’m sure you can appreciate that ending one tyranny doesn’t guarantee another one won’t simply take its place, then.  Even when the people come together and reject a common enemy, it doesn’t mean they’ll always be happy after that.”

“So ‘the people’ think this New Pact of yours is just the Coalition repackaged.”

“People are afraid,” Valiya said softly, gazing wistfully back into the water.  “Believe it or not, this didn’t begin with Rededication.  Deciding what should be done with the platforms came later.”

Danny tensed up.  “Someone suggested using Rededication to bring the citizenry back in line, then.”

“To keep our civilization from slipping back into decay,” she explained, looking back at Danny.  “There are some in the College who feel that Rededication would give us the security we need to continue.”

“And everyone else thinks you’re after the same thing the prime family was after,” Danny inferred.  “Are things really so bad you would actually consider Rededication an option?”

He felt Valiya grasp his arm, then the courtyard disappeared.  Danny opened his eyes to a ravaged street, cars overturned all around him as buildings burst into flames—he was watching a city fall to pieces.  The scene vanished and was replaced with another much like it: another urban setting, this time civilians trading gunfire with what looked like the New Pact military.  Then he found himself floating far above a planet, watching warships fire into the sides of what looked like civilian vessels, crumbling and incinerating them in light and silence.

All at once, Danny was back on the bench with Valiya, the light still pulsing through his arm.

“I really don’t like those things,” Danny said.  He took a deep breath, hooking his fingers around one end of the coarse bench, trying to get his bearings back.

“I’m sorry,” Valiya said.  “But it’s amazing what millions of microscopic devices can convey that words just can’t.”

“The New Pact really is falling apart.”

“It is.”

“Will everything really collapse unless you use Rededication?”

“It’s the most likely outcome.”

“And what do you think about that?” Danny asked, looking back at Valiya.

She opened her mouth to answer, but no words came.  Looking past the fountain, though, she started to smile.  “We’re all scared, Danny.  Some of us just don’t know what to do about that.”

Getting up from the bench, she bade him goodbye and ran around the fountain.  From just behind the water, Danny watched her meet Nulem; they both embraced and shared a kiss.  Turning away, he couldn’t help but feel a little different.  The memories Valiya had shared with him continued flickering through his mind, haunting him in familiar ways.

Setting that information aside for the time being, he decided he should find Arras.  This was enough to warrant a report.  Standing and then stopping short, he realized he still had no idea where she was.  Smiling at his own predicament, he closed his eyes and took in a deep breath of misty air.

“Okay,” he said, “let’s go find Little Miss Destroying Angel, then.”