Chapter 26

 

 The operating room was built like a silo, with three levels of catwalks arranged around the wall, all poised so spectators could clearly see what was happening on the ground-floor.  The fifteen proxies were positioned on the lowest tier, with a few of the lower echelons just above, and a couple of soldiers on standby at the uppermost level.

Down below them all, Arras was strapped into a reclined chair, a helmet placed over her head, her eyes covered by a visor.  She didn’t struggle; she didn’t move at all.  Something about her stillness already had many of the observers feeling anxious.

 Valiya and Nulem stood together, his arm around her waist, neither of them saying a word—like the others, they were captivated by what was about to happen.  Visum stood at the bottom of the operating room, near Arras, his arms folded, his face cut like stone.

Ekren made a lap around the middle tier, his feet clattering over the grated flooring.  Peering over the rail, he played with the transmitter in his pocket.  He didn’t want to jump the gun and call Danny in too early, or, worse yet, call him in when the coordinates wouldn’t even be here.  He started to feel a little uneasy himself—for him, an uncommon feeling, to say the least.

“We’ll begin the operation now,” called out the doctor as he approached Arras.  “If you will please join us with your nets...”

Each of the attendants, minus the guards, synced themselves with the doctor within a few seconds.

“I still don’t like this,” Valiya whispered, still staring down at Arras.

“I know,” Nulem said, holding her closer.  “You don’t have to sync with them.”

“I do,” she said softly, letting her net weave into those of the other proxies.  She refused to miss a moment, even if they were marching into tragedy.

With the party secured, the doctor laid his hands on Arras’ head, syncing directly with the helmet, the operation now underway.

Ekren bit his lip as he watched.  Come on, he thought, where are the coordinates?  He decided to delay calling in either Danny or the extraction team a little longer.

The proxies and the doctor descended into Arras’ mind, though none of them took to the shift well.  While the College collectively observed, unable to participate, the doctor made his way deeper, pushing past her conscious thought, seeking to delve into the portions of her mind that would be otherwise locked off.

The conceptual translation took hold as the doctor found himself in a corridor, with no other doors than the one at the end.  The evenly paneled walls were tangled in tubes and wires, divided by vaulting ribs.  Something about the architecture seemed deliberate, as if it were not a random amalgam of a frenzied mind.  Back in reality, Arras’ body instinctively squirmed as the doctor proceeded through her mind, down the passageway only she recognized.

 Continuing on his way, the doctor watched as the single door ahead slid aside, allowing him passage.  Hesitating at the hospitality, he proceeded with more caution than before, into what looked like the war room of a battleship.  The room was dark but for one computer ahead, which the doctor began to work on.

 “I believe we have safely made a connection,” the doctor said as dug deeper into his patient’s psyche.  “It seems her mind is now translated into my own, suggesting that I have achieved dominance in our connection.  I am now free to conduct my search.”

 The proxies especially took notice of the process, despite how difficult they found understanding the mechanics of it all.  The doctor seemed as if to be performing an ordinary search through an actual database, rather than poking around the more intimate sectors of another human’s brain.  He began by searching for information concerning Rededication, deciding to take an alternate course of action when the search results were more than ample—he would need to refine his criteria.  The trouble wouldn’t be storing the information once it was extracted; no, the real difficulty when mining another’s mind was finding exactly what you wanted amid all the conscious and subconscious content.

 As the operation continued, Danny waited outside the main capitol, the sun having already set.  He felt jittery, antsy as ever, waiting for Ekren’s call, for him to send his location already.  For a moment, he wondered if Ekren would signal him at all, or if he had been duped—though he pushed those thoughts away.  He couldn’t afford to think like that, not right now.

 Arras’ words rang through him again: It doesn’t matter what happens to me.  She would be furious if she thought he was focused on anything other than the task at hand.  This wasn’t a rescue operation, he told himself—this was a heist.

 Even so, as hard as he tried, Danny couldn’t convince himself.

 From his hiding place, he found himself knocked from his internal debates by unusual movement, and a faint but alarming sound from afar.  Listening more closely, he felt a chill as the sound of gunfire cracked through the air.  Off in the distance, he could see staccato flashes of light through the windows of other buildings on the compound, incoherent shadows darting in varying directions, some seeming to topple over.  Jerking his head toward the front of the building he had hidden behind, he watched as a handful of figures, some in black body armor, others in silver, slowly approached the capitol.

 Keeping quiet, pushing himself closer to the wall, he whispered through his net, hoping Ekren would hear him.  “I don’t know how else to put it, but it looks like there’s a group of soldiers heading your way.  I think there’s fighting going on out here.”

 Ekren listened closely, trying to not let his body language suggest to anyone that anything might be amiss.  Taking a few steps from any of the lower echelon, not willing to chance them overhearing him, even if they were in Arras’ mind, he responded at a volume to match Danny’s own.

 “What do they look like?”

 “Some in silver, some in black.  They’re all armed.”

 “A mix of local guards and military.  I didn’t call for an extraction yet.”

 “Hang on.”  Danny looked back around the building just in time to catch small spurts of people in regular clothes, each carrying weapons of their own, approaching the capitol behind the soldiers from before.  “You’ve got civilians too, I think.”

“Stay low,” Ekren muttered back.  “I don’t know what’s going on, but standby for my location.”

Looking back down the silo, Ekren caught sight of Visum who seemed completely at ease, though still standing like a statue, his eyes fixed on Arras.  Up on the tier above him, he could see a few soldiers put their hands to their ear, receive their orders, then proceed to the exits, leaving their counterparts to watch over the operation.

“Talk to me, Ekren,” Danny said.  “What’s going on?”

Danny guessed he had spoken too loudly, because two men in scant body armor, compact rifles held close, started in his direction.  Not wasting any time, Danny ran in the same direction they ran, rounding the building.

“Believe it or not,” Ekren said back, watching as more soldiers from the tier above him left the room, “I think we’re witnessing a coup.”

“I think I have it!” the doctor called from behind Arras, his eyes closed, his hands still on his patient’s head.  In Arras’ mind, he continued typing away at the computer he himself had conjured up, growing ever more excited with every keystroke.  “Yes, that’s it—I have something!  Indeed, they’re coordinates.  I think this is it.  Extracting now.”

“Continue to the next phase,” Visum declared in a booming voice.

At his direction, the space above Arras and the doctor was filled with the eight encrypted coordinates, circling amicably over their heads.

“That’s it,” Ekren hissed, relaying his location to Danny.  “Let’s go, boy—I hope you’re quick on your feet.”

“More than you know,” was all he heard Danny say before the dull echo of gunfire began to seep into the operating room, drawing everyone’s attention.

With their location received, Danny watched as Ridarin combined the signal with a map of the main capitol.  Suiting up without a second thought, he took a sharp turn straight toward the building, a short leap, and felt his fingers sink into the wall—he began his climb, leaving his pursuers to watch dumbfounded as what was only a dark spot scampered up the building and out of their range.

“Extraction complete,” the doctor announced, raising one hand from Arras’ head, pulling with it a wad of light, tossing it up to the eight other holograms above.

The proxies, now out of Arras’ mind, watched with excitement then dread as the freshly plucked data took form—another misshapen object to join the rest.  The sound of weapons going off outside sunk in even deeper then.

“Hang on,” the doctor said, placing his free hand back on his patient’s head.  “There’s something else.  Something’s happening.”

In her mind still, the doctor watched as the control room flew ahead of him, sending him through the corridor he had just come from, as if the world were in motion while he remained fixed in place.  The corridor also vanished, sending him through a complicated mess of wires and circuits, metal braces and frame, bulkheads and indiscernible blackness until he finally stopped.

Turning left and right, he found himself in what looked like a containment room, surrounded by terminals, filled with turrets taking aim at the room’s center.  Just in front of him, suspended by a knot of pylons and cables, was a suit of black and white armor, lines of violet blazing scars across its surface, outshined only by its eyes.  It raised its head to the doctor.

“Have you come to hurt me?” the armor asked in a woman’s voice.

“There’s no way,” the doctor stuttered, suddenly unable to move as the suited figure separated from its tangle, approaching him.

The body moved sporadically, imbalanced, jerking forward with every motion—though, its prey wasn’t moving.  The doctor screamed out in her mind and in reality as the suit plunged its black hand into his head, seizing hold of whatever its fingers could grip, emancipating them with one merciless pull.

To the College’s confusion and terror, the doctor fell backward from Arras’ chair, landing hard on the floor, flailing madly before falling limp.  A trickle of blood escaped one of his nostrils, his eyes agape.

Before anyone could ask questions, a number of soldiers flooded back into the room, covering the bottom floor and the lowest catwalk, securing the fifteen proxies as the sounds of battle grew louder outside.  A number of other soldiers began to fill in the top tier of the silo as the doors sealed shut, the room locking down.

“What is going on?” Visum demanded of one of the armored guards.

Yet the guard’s response never came.  Instead, a banging sound rang through the silo, coming from the ceiling.  One bang, then another, and another.  Until, finally, a piece of the ceiling fell heavily to the floor, bouncing off the rails above before toppling down on a few unsuspecting soldiers.

Without any other warning, the room watched in horror as a streak of red dropped through the ceiling, tossing itself from one metal hold to another, twisting in midair, as if in flight.  One by one, the armored men on the top tier dropped, some thrown over the railing, as the booming sound of gunshots crashed through the room.  The members of the College were scattered to the ground-floor as one guard gave the order to open fire at their attacker.

Nulem tossed himself on top of Valiya, keeping her safe from the bullets that came flying back down, piercing their way through the guards’ armor with ruthless precision, dropping them by the handful.  The doors around them suddenly opened, allowing in armed men in black armor first, followed by a few men and women in nothing more than civilian clothes, taking aim at the members of the College.  The screams and yells continued as the room descended into further panic.

Danny dropped from the top tier of the silo to the bottom floor, passing through the circle of holograms, taking them with him.  The entire room seemed to freeze when he landed.  He stood up straight, his feet on either armrest of Arras’ chair, raising two Benelli M4’s so everyone could see them.

“Stop screaming already!” Danny called over the dying uproar.  He bobbed his head at the militia that had just entered.  “Who are you guys?”

“Who are you?” one of the men asked, sweating like the rest of the room.

“I’m the one who’s gonna knock Rededication on its sorry ass,” Danny said plainly.  “Nice to meet you.”

“If that’s true,” the militiaman replied, a chevron wafting across his face, “then I’d say we’re friends.”

“I don’t know where the lot of you came from, but I’d prefer to be friends myself,” Ekren said, standing up with the rest of the militia, his own chevron coming to life for a moment.

“What is this?” Visum growled, minding the rifle just inches from his torso.

“Retaliation,” the same militiaman said, not giving Visum a second glance.  He looked back up at Danny.  “You really on our side?”

“I’m on whatever side’s ready to stop Rededication,” Danny said.

An explosion outside commanded a moment of silence.

“I’d say that’s our cue to leave,” Ekren said.

“Not yet,” Danny said, reaching down for Arras’ helmet, hooking his fingers under the visor.

“Stop!” Valiya yelled, seizing his arm.  “Danny, please.”  She looked up at him, recognizing his voice.  “She’s still synchronized with that device.  You’ll kill her if you remove it like that.”

The sound of gunfire outside grew louder as a few members of the militia left the room, returning to battle.

“We don’t have time,” Ekren said.  “We need to leave now.”

Valiya turned to Ekren, recognizing him for what felt like the first time.  She didn’t say a word.

“You’re all traitors,” Nulem said, getting to his feet.  “You’ll kill the New Pact if you destroy Rededication.”

“Nulem,” Valiya said, turning to him.  “Please, don’t exacerbate the situation.”

“There’s nothing left to say, Val,” Nulem replied.  “These are the very terrorists who’ve been sowing unrest through the New Pact.  We can’t just let them get away with this.”

A nearby soldier turned his rifle on Nulem, forcing him back to his knees.  Valiya watched him fall, still on her feet, clutching at the blue hem of her robe.  Taking in the sight and sounds, the war going on, the looks on the proxies’ faces—the look on Nulem’s face—she made her decision.

“Danny,” she said, turning back to Arras and the armored figure standing over her.  “If you go into her mind yourself, you might be able to sever her connection to the device.”

“Not to be rude,” Ekren chimed in, stepping forward, “but I mean it very much when I say we don’t have time.  Does no one else hear the calamity going on outside?”

“I’m not going to abandon her like this!” Danny fired back.

“You want to get yourself killed?” Ekren said.  He jabbed his finger at the doctor dead at their feet.  “That’s what happened to the last man who thought he could run freely through Arras Enqelin’s mind.”

“Ekren, please,” Valiya said, turning to her bodyguard.  “Your family has watched over my own for generations.  You know us.  I understand what’s going on, but I imagine…  If we want to destroy Rededication, we’ll need her.”

“Val!” Nulem yelled out, a firm hand shoving him back down.  “What are you saying?”

“I’m sorry, Nule, but I agree with her—I won’t be an accomplice to genocide,” she said, unable to look at him, holding back a wave of emotion.  “Danny, Ekren is right; we don’t have much time.”

“Got it,” Danny said, not entirely sure of what he was about to do.

“Just come out of there alive, will you?” Ekren capitulated.  “We won’t exactly be able to ‘knock Rededication on its ass’ if your mental capacity is reduced to that of… well, the good doctor over there.”

“She won’t do that to me,” Danny said, his confidence ebbing and advancing, dancing from fortitude to futility and back again.  “In any case, I’m not leaving her behind.”

Leaning down, Danny laid his hands on her head.

“Come on, Arras.  Come back.”