Chapter 27

 

 “Why did you come?”

 Danny opened his eyes and felt the wind blow against his back.  Arras sat next to him, watching Manhattan in motion below—that night above Teleios.  The scene left as soon as it had come, and Danny felt himself slip away again.  Who knew how much time had passed once he was recomposed, watching Arras through Ridarin’s eyes, standing in that testing chamber, red lights giving way to white lights.  Then that ship, flying to the moon, then the sun.  Trudging through the snow on Eilikh.  Back aboard the ship.

 “Understand that it doesn’t matter what happens to me,” he could hear her say.  “So why did you come?”

 The scene blew away like the wind.

 “I wasn’t going to leave you here,” Danny said, trying to hold on.  He felt like he was caught in a tornado, unable to control himself, orbiting some eye of the storm he couldn’t get to—caught in a world where his cardinal senses were inapplicable.  “Come on, Arras—help me out here.”

 “You made the wrong choice.”

 “I’m not leaving.”

 “Then everything we’ve accomplished will mean nothing.”

 Exerting whatever will power he could, Danny tried to take control of some space in Arras’ mind.  He found himself in an endless corridor, no visible end or beginning, the walls flickering with a collage of memories—none of them his.

 “Please,” he could hear her say, as if in tears, “just get out.”

 One image on the wall expanded, taking over the corridor, engulfing Danny, taking him into a memory hidden deep.  He could see Arras in another lab, men and women in formal clothes watching through a window as a helmet was placed over her head.  Another procedure began, one from long ago, long before Danny had ever known Arras.  An array of lights extended out from the helmet, like needles in a pincushion.

As the people behind the window deliberated, one of the laser needles sank into the helmet, into Arras.  She screamed in response, tears dripping from behind the visor covering her face, as the observers took notes.  The needle pulled itself from the helmet as another sank into her head at a different angle, a different depth, sending her into an almost hysterical laughter.  Again, the needle emerged from her head, her laughter transitioning to panting, literally losing her mind as another needle inserted itself, sending her into a crazed panic.

“Stop!” she screamed from behind the visor.  “I can’t do it!  Stop!”

The room shattered in an instant, sending Danny back into chaotic thought.

“I told you to leave.”

“Arras, I’m not trying to snoop,” Danny almost pleaded.  “I’m just here to get that damn device off your head!”

“It’s anchored too deeply,” she said.  “You won’t be able to get me out.”

“I can’t?” Danny called out.  “Or will you just not let me?”

“Don’t be stupid.”

Taking hold of whatever he could, trying to find his footing, unsure of what it even meant to act in this neural choreography, their mental duet—Danny wondered if he really had made a mistake.

“I’m sorry, Danny,” she said, hearing his thoughts.  “I’m sorry it’s come to this.  Please, you can go.  Finish what we started.”

“Not a chance,” Danny replied, finding a memory to take hold of, a point of reference.  “Arras, we started this together, and we’re going to end it together.”

He watched another scene coalesce: Arras, uniformed in decorated black, hood over her head, lined up with a number of other young men and women her age, each dressed like her.  A military officer, a high authority, walked across the room, taking each one of the applicants into view.

 “There are twenty of you in total,” the officer said.  “You know how many vacancies there are.  The rest of you will not survive if you proceed from this point.  If any of you wish to leave, do so now.”

 A few shaking participants stepped forward—six boys, five girls.  Only nine others remained in line, including Arras.  The officer gestured for those who had stepped forward to continue to the other side of the room, leaving them in confusion as he took a box from a nearby guard, distributing its contents to those who had stayed in line.  The remaining nine participants raised a firearm each at the eleven deserters who went quickly from confusion to begging for their lives.

 “Open fire.”

 The cracking, booming gunfire crumbled the scene again, sending Danny into yet another fit of images and voices.  He could hear a lifetime of memories, some suppressed, some burned into Arras’ conscious mind, others forgotten.

 “Why are you trying to keep me out, Arras?”

 “There’s no chance, not anymore.  The device is tied into too many parts of my brain.”

 “I don’t believe you.”

 She fell silent.

 “What are you trying to hide, Arras?  I want to help you, but I can’t do that if you lock me out like this.”

 As the words left him, he felt his feet hit solid ground.  Suddenly wearing Ridarin, he stood in the middle of Sage Chapel, during a service.  Looking to one of the pews in the back, he could see himself from a few years ago, attending at his mother’s request—he had only just arrived in Ithaca.  Before he knew what had happened, Danny realized that he himself was sitting in that pew, no longer standing in the aisle, no longer armored.  And Arras sat next to him.

 “You never intended to leave Zero Point alive, did you?” Danny asked, watching as a preacher spoke his sermon from the pulpit at the front of the chapel.

 “Not once I saw what they had,” Arras admitted.  “Not after I heard they wanted Rededication.  While it wasn’t certain this would be a suicide mission, I still knew the risks.”

 “You didn’t have much time to think about it.  What was that, a day?”

 “It was something I had decided on long before today, Danny.  In a way, I made this decision hundreds of years ago.  I decided I would do whatever it took to stop all the senseless killing, the abuse…”

 “You were gonna ‘Ridarin’ yourself.”

 “If you want to put it that way…”  Looking at her feet, she smiled a little.  “I’m tired, Danny.  I’m just so tired.  I was asleep for those two centuries, but it feels like I ended up just like my father.  It feels like I was awake the whole time.”

 Danny didn’t say a word, though he watched her from the corner of his eye.

 “You have Ridarin now,” she said.  “You can still complete the mission.”

 “Can you imagine me trying to finish this job on my own, Arras?  I mean, really.”  He smiled.  “You know better than that.”

 “I can’t do anything to Rededication,” she muttered, “not as I am.  At least with Ridarin you have a fighting chance.  It’s well armed, it can engage in cyber warfare, and the more you synchronize with my mother the easier you’ll find this war to be.”

 With a sigh, he said, “You keep describing yourself like a tool.”

 A little taken aback, she looked at Danny.  “Excuse me?”

 “You heard me,” he said plainly, looking right back at her.  “Everything you said, you make yourself sound like you’re only as valuable as you are useful.”

 “I appreciate the sentiment, but we’re not dealing with problems of low self-esteem here—we’re facing off against death itself.  There’s no room for anyone who can’t fight back.”

 Eyeing the preacher once again, looking at the altar where he had once seen a sarcophagus when he was in the rift—when he first met Arras—he thought about what he had seen since entering her mind.

 “Those memories I stumbled into,” Danny finally said.  He paused, then went on.  “I’m sorry.”

 “What?”

 “I remember what we talked about on Eilikh, about how I didn’t need to know everything about you,” Danny explained.  “I get it.  And, to be fair, there’s a lot of things about myself that I haven’t told you.  That’s just how life is, I guess: even the people we’re closest to still have secrets.  But I’m not here for your secrets.”

 She looked away.  “I understand that.”

 “I don’t know if you do.  You want to hide these memories, and that’s fine.  It’s not my business.  I didn’t come here for them.”  Danny got to his feet, looking back at Arras, holding out a hand.  “I came here for you,” he said.  “I came here because I’m not going to let you die, not if I can help it.  And if that means I have to untangle whatever machine they’ve got you hooked up to from even the darkest of thoughts floating in your head—you know I’m going to do it.”

 Arras looked at his hand for a moment.  A certain look in her eye surrendered the truth—she was on the verge of freedom, she knew the price; now she was left to contemplate whether she was willing to pay that price.  That look faded to a quiet resignation.

 “You don’t want to see what’s in my mind,” she said, looking away again.

 “Because I’ll think you’re as bad as the proxies?” Danny asked, getting her attention again.  “Or maybe because I’ll think you’re as bad as the Coalition?  Maybe just a little worse?”

 “You don’t know what I’ve done.”

 “I don’t.  But, believe it or not, I do know a little bit of what you’re feeling right now.”

Letting his hand fall to his side, Danny surrendered a few memories of his own.  The chapel melted away, giving way to the garage of Danny’s childhood home, to that kitchen where the struggle began, to his parents’ room—where it all came to an end.  He held that bat in his hand, the same bat he had swung over his father’s shoulders, the same bat his father would consider turning on his own sons.  The bat that woke him up.

As Arras watched the scenes, the memories, the reality unfold, she felt a portion of Danny’s own heart.

“I blamed myself for so long,” he said as the actors played their parts around them.  “I felt like I put that bat in his hands.  I felt like I put the barrel of that gun in his mouth.”

“Why are you showing me this?” she asked, feeling a familiar agony.

“Because I want you to really understand—I know what it feels like to want redemption.  To want forgiveness.  To want someone to know the very worst crimes you’ve committed and still be able to look you in the eye.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, “but what I’ve done…  It’s… it’s more than this was.”

“I don’t doubt that.  And I won’t pretend for a second that our experiences are exactly alike.”  He took her hand as memories gave way again, leaving them in a storm of their shared thoughts.  “I will make you a promise, though: whatever I see, I won’t condemn you.  I won’t leave you.  Because I know that loneliness, and I won’t let you sacrifice yourself to it.”

Holding onto his hand as they lost shape and context, she warned herself not to fall into false hope.

“You can’t make that promise.  You haven’t seen anything.”

“That’s the thing, Arras: I’m willing to pay whatever price to keep that promise.  If it means you can feel some kind of peace…  If it means you’ll come with me.”

The two of them separated, slipping into an indiscernible mix of finally open memories, a circulation of neurons and synapses, of thoughts and emotion, of chemicals—of everything that composed them as distinct, living beings.

“Trust me,” he said.  “Just trust me a little more than you already have.  I won’t let you down.”

 “I might.”

The memories flowed from there, the dams broken.

Danny stood among countless other people, all huddled into the streets of a city on a planet he had never seen before.  They all looked into the air, many pointing, others screaming in terror.  He looked up just in time to see the rockets plunge into the city, the buildings shattering to the force, imploding into themselves, spewing a suffocating wave of rubble and dust through the air as they plummeted.

The ground shook as the air cleared.  Danny watched the fires build.  He watched the edge of the city crumble into the nearby water, the water overtaking the city, lapping up to the streets and starting to flood the land.  The people continued on in shock and horror until, finally, madness seemed to overtake them.  He could see the looks of panic on their faces, the fright that came as delusions crept into their minds, a million nightmares handcrafted for each of them.

 They started to kill each other.  Parents and children, siblings, friends too—they all started turning on one another, each one struggling against apparitions and hallucinations that weren’t there.  Writhing in their own heads, cut off from the others around them, they descended into bloodshed.

 Civilian craft fell from the sky, shot out of the air by invading forces.  Down the street, through the unraveling people, rows of armored figures marched toward their prey, weapons raised.  Once they were within range, the figures opened fire on the distracted masses, mowing them all down—the men, the women, the children.  Everyone fell and the blood pooled beneath the flames and the heavy footsteps.  Lightning barbed the sky, heralded by deafening thunder, interrupted now and again by brief moments of silence as the world fell to pieces.

 Looking into the sky, Danny could see a strange shape, something barely visible.  The planet flew away from him as that object grew in size—what looked like the crumpled remains of some goliathan beast, sawlike wings stretching far past its body, cast in dark materials.  The abstract mess of a station sent out and received transports of mechanized troops and vehicles, carrying out its execution of the human population below.

 Traveling through the walls of the station, through the guts of a genuine beast, he stopped in a specific chamber, placed before a suit of black and white, lit up in a violet glow.  Those eyes looked up to Danny, the body still suspended, trussed up and bound.

 “They took everything from you,” Danny said, staring back into her violet eyes.

 “I let them,” Arras responded faintly.

 “That’s why you joined your family.  You knew how to stop Rededication because you knew firsthand what it could do.”

 “This was my first strike.  I made two more just like it on other planets.”

 “You wanted to take back what they took from you.”

 “I wanted to make a remuneration, to pay back what I had taken.  I killed so many people.  I knew I could never make up for that, but maybe I could keep others from committing the same atrocities I had.  Maybe I could end Rededication.  I thought I could stop the killing.”

 Her words echoed into silence as Danny took her in, studying her coarse outer layer—the design that would, in part, spawn Ridarin.

 “You’re right,” Danny finally said.  “There’s no way you’ll be able to make up for this.”

 Arras let her head sink, feeling that fragile hope start to slip.  “I know,” she whispered.  “There’s no going back.”

 “That’s right,” he said.  “But you got something no one else ever gets, Arras.  You got a complete reboot.  You went into that rift, with Ridarin and your mother, not knowing for sure what would be waiting for you when you came out.  You expected a mostly predictable world; instead, you got an unrecognizable Earth and only the distant descendants of anyone you intended to kill.”

 “It all fell apart.”

 “The original plan did, yeah.”

 She looked up at him again.  “It’s all gone.  They wouldn’t have a chance of finding Rededication if we hadn’t shown up.”

 “Then why do you think we were taken on this whole journey?” Danny asked.  “I can’t speak for whoever led us here.  I don’t know who they are, and I don’t know why they brought us here.  All I know is what’s in front of us.  You’ve been given a complete reboot, Arras.  The world you wanted to save died a long time ago.  Rededication is still around, but it’s just a distant idea at this point.”

 “We can’t just let it be.”

 “Absolutely not.  But we can’t pretend like this is the same mission you and your family devised, either.  Things are different.”  He held out his hand again, no armor.  Just him.  “You died to the world you were pulled into destroying.  You died so you could save that world.  Now that that world’s gone, all that’s left to do is destroy Rededication.  Whatever comes after that… that’ll be up to you.”

 She stared at his hand for some time before pulling away from the harness that held her to Rededication.  The severed cables sparked and dissolved as pieces of her helmet fell away, inert, powerless, until he could see her face as she could see his.

 “Whoever woke you up, they set you free in a very real way,” he said, smiling as she drew nearer.  “You and your family gave up everything to save the world.  I think the person to wake you up was trying to help you not just save the world but build a new one.”

 As she reached out her hand to his, the armor continued to flake from her body.

 “What do you say, then?” Danny asked.  “Let’s finish what we started already.”

 “Yeah,” she said, “let’s.”

 They clasped each other’s hand as the device severed its connection to Arras.  Together, they were tossed back to the conscious levels of her mind, to the surface, to freedom.

 Danny stared through Ridarin’s eyes back down at Arras, pulling the helmet from her head before hopping from the armrests to the floor.  She looked back at him for a moment, looking unsure of her surroundings.

 “You ready to go?” Danny asked.

 “Yes,” she said, getting to her feet, leaving the proxies and soldiers, the militia, Ekren, and Valiya in awe.  “We’ve got work to do.”

 Wordlessly, Ekren handed Arras a weapon as Danny took point, heading out of the silo.  Valiya watched them go at first, until, with some trepidation, she started to follow.

 “Val,” Nulem called to her, getting her attention only for a second.  “Please, don’t go!  Val!”

 Tearing herself away, Valiya ran after Danny, Arras, and Ekren, leaving the rest of the College with the militia—leaving Nulem behind.  With tears in her eyes, she caught up to the three of them, not needing to say a word.  Ekren put her in the middle of their group, keeping her out of harm’s way as they exited the capitol, signaling for their extraction.