Chapter 3

 

 Despite the late nights that came after he left Cornell, sleep still came easily enough to Danny.

 He sat passively in that same backyard from his childhood, letting the dew from the grass soak into his jeans.  Sitting with his feet out in front of him, his hands holding him up from behind, Danny enjoyed the scene, watching himself as a kid run around the yard with his little brother.  Sometimes they’d topple over each other, then get into a wrestling match, which their dad would quickly break up.  With a soft smile, Danny watched his mom and dad sitting on the stoop of their backdoor, taking in their own view, watching their sons scamper ceaselessly through a small yard that to them seemed to be an unending plane—whatever their imagination might need it to be, it could be.

 The two children suddenly stopped, however, standing up straight and staring back at Danny.  No, not at him; behind him.  Danny peered over his shoulder to see a woman in a white sundress; he couldn’t see her face, yet she felt familiar.  At her side was another person, someone even more obscured and yet all the more familiar—a presence Danny knew well by then.

 In his daze he turned back to himself as a child, himself and his brother, but they weren’t looking back at him.  They were turned toward the porch.  Toward their mother.  She was alone now, clutching a coat close to her chest, burying her face in the medals and badges of a decorated army officer, weeping.

 He knew this scene even more than he knew the people circling all about him, the woman in white, the children, and that other someone he still didn’t know.  He kept his eyes on his mother, though, watching her grow more hysterical as her sobs became clearer, until, at last, she let out one shrill scream into the coat.

 Danny’s eyes opened and he rolled over on his couch.  He stared into the cushions; his eyes were moist.  He rubbed at them with the sleeves of yesterday’s shirt, rolling onto his other side.  Down on the ground he saw a couple neatly folded blankets and a pillow.  Still waking up, Danny put his feet to the floor, sitting up.  Trying to play through last night’s events, he remembered that Eli had spent the night.

 With a groan, wondering why he had taken the couch and not his bed, Danny got to his feet and made his way to the bathroom, feeling a little hazy still.  He used the toilet then made his way to the sink, washing his hands before splashing cold water onto his face, trying to wake himself up.  Drops of water dripped from his chin and slid down the mirror as he stared back at himself.

 “Wait,” he muttered, “where’s Eli?”

Stepping out of the bathroom, he thought his friend may have taken off.  His investigation ended quickly as he heard Eli’s voice coming from his room, sounding unsure about something, interrupted occasionally by what sounded like plastic snapping.

 Grumbling to himself, Danny pushed the already cracked door to his room out of the way, revealing the scene.  He saw Eli looking back at him, seeming nervous, turned toward a woman with dark hair and determined eyes.  The scene jolted him awake.  As he remembered what had happened the day before, the shock of it all gradually melted into discontent.

 “What are you doing?”

 “Danny, I tried explaining to her, but…”

 Danny looked down at Arras’ hands—his laptop, manhandled, split open, a few of its wired pieces dangling from the open shell.

 “What did you do to my computer?” Danny instantly protested, making his way across the room to Arras, getting no real response.  Once he had closed the distance, though, Danny saw dull strings of blue light crawling from where Arras’ fingers met a small piece of green material, the network interface controller, plucked from his laptop’s insides.

 “She’s learning, I think,” Eli answered when Arras stayed silent.  “She’s connected to the internet.”

 “Oh, is that all?” Danny asked, still mourning the mess of plastic and wires that used to be his computer.  “No, you’re right—if she wants to get on the internet, who needs browsers?  That’d be too easy!”

 “You’re too loud,” Arras stated, looking up from her handiwork.

 “Loud,” Danny repeated, still having none of it.

 “I think she’s trying to catch up on what she missed,” Eli explained.  “Since she’s been away since… well, the seventeen-hundreds.”

 Danny looked back at Eli in disbelief, then asked, “And that required destroying my laptop?”

 “It wasn’t working,” Arras said.  “It could only receive so much information at a time; it was too slow.”

 Danny watched the light continue to travel from his laptop’s network card to her fingers, disappearing past her wrist.  Then he realized: she was wearing one of his shirts and a pair of shorts.

 With a heavy sigh, Danny waved his hand as a white flag and made his way to the door.  “Whatever.  Just don’t blame me when you find the porn.”

 “Oh, she already found it,” Eli said, sounding a little embarrassed.  “A lot of it.”

 “Your planet’s full of reprobates,” Arras said, looking back down at the computer to hide her face.

 “If nothing else,” Danny said, leaving the room, “at least we’re creative.”

 Eli looked back at Arras before following Danny to the kitchen, finding him making a bowl of cereal.  Danny opened the fridge to find a quart of expired milk, grumbling one curse after another under his breath.

 “I really did try to stop her, Danny.  And, I mean, she only had that outfit from before, and it wasn’t exactly something…  Anyway, the computer too, I tried to...  Well, as you can probably tell, she’s pretty insistent.”

 “Whatever,” Danny muttered, not wanting to pin this on Eli.  “It just took another loan to get the damn thing.  Who cares?”  He closed the fridge and picked at the pieces of dry cereal in his bowl.  Lost in thought, he found himself running through the day before, starting at their dead silent drive home, going back to their altercation at the fountain, even further to sinking through the ground—to that church at Cornell and the backyard.

 “Are you all right?” Eli asked, opening up a nearly empty cupboard, pulling out a granola bar.  He waited for an approving nod before unwrapping the plastic.

 Danny shook his head, trying to set aside the frustration and confusion.  He put up a hand, saying, “Really, it’s fine.”

 “You should know,” Eli started, leaning against the counter, “I was talking to her for quite some time before you woke up.”   They both looked back toward Danny’s room before he went on.  “I was trying to learn as much as I could about her, and—” he nodded at Danny— “that suit.  For whatever reason, it seems to have vanished.”

 “I guess,” Danny said, rubbing a hand down his arm, then clutching at his shirt.  “The question is, where did it even go?”

 Eli shrugged.  “Wherever it went, she seems to think you still have it.”

 “She said it sealed itself to me.”

 “Yes, she told me as much.  I don’t think she’s too interested in giving us any information, though.”

 “She’s a real charmer.  Well, what do you think, then?”

 Eli let his shoulders drop, looking away in thought.

 “I think…” he started, trailing off a bit before going on.  “I think we should take things slowly.  Whether we like it or not, she was right: we don’t understand what we’ve gotten ourselves into.”

 “She’s pretty weird,” Danny said pointblank.

 “You don’t say,” Eli chuckled.

 “No, I mean— I mean she doesn’t even seem like she makes sense to herself.”

 “How do you mean?”

 “I mean, if she were to explain everything to us right here and now, even then I don’t think it would make any sense.”

 “Well, things probably don’t make much sense to her either, at least not right now,” Eli said.  “She’s rather serious about digging through whatever she can find on the internet.  She said she’s focused mostly on catching up with world history.  It would seem we’re not the only ones trying to get their bearings.”

 Danny picked another piece of cereal from his bowl.  “This obviously goes without saying, but…  Well, to put it simply, do you remember learning about nanotechnology, space-time rifts, or multi-century hibernation when we covered antebellum America in history class?  I mean, yeah, we went to public school, but still…”

 “I know, I know,” Eli sighed, “and it’s something I’ve already considered.”

 Danny realized Eli looked more pensive than usual.

 “Did she keep quiet about that, too?” Danny asked, imagining Eli had a pretty one-way conversation with Arras.

 Eli only nodded, looking back up at Danny.

 Before they could say anything else, they heard footsteps coming down the short passage between Danny’s room and the kitchen; Arras rounded the corner, the broken laptop still in hand, finding Danny and Eli only staring back at her.  Not saying a word, she set the laptop on the counter.

 “Finished familiarizing yourself?” Danny asked halfheartedly.

 “For the most part,” Arras responded.  “You have some strange historical accounts—internally inconsistent, sometimes even contradictory.”

 “Yeah, we’re a real hoot,” Danny grumbled.  “You hungry?”

 Arras looked up, somewhat surprised, though only for a split second before covering up again.  “I could eat.”

 Danny slid the bowl of dry cereal across the counter to her, having lost his own appetite for what felt like broken glass in his mouth.  Arras stared down at the bowl for a moment before picking out a piece to eat.

 “Arras,” Eli said, interrupting her meal and the awkward silence.  “Danny and I were just talking about your…”  He searched for the word, wafting his hand in front of him.  “Your technology.”

 She studied Eli briefly before going back to the cereal.  “What about it?”

 ‘Where’d you get it?” Danny asked straightforwardly.  “I mean, even today that stuff’s way beyond anything we could create.  I don’t imagine anyone two hundred years ago was any less impressed.”

 “You mean this?” Arras asked, lifting her hand, the lights from before crawling in jagged patterns over her hand and forearm.  “You have one, too—” she grabbed Danny’s hand, igniting strands of light over his own arm— “since you took my armor.”

 “I didn’t take anything,” Danny said, pulling free from her grip.  “I got tricked, okay?”

 “Whatever you need to tell yourself,” Arras said, eating another couple pieces of cereal, “but, where I’m from, we call that theft.”

 “And where are you from anyway?” Danny shot back.

 Arras went on eating, not bothering to humor his question.

 “Look,” Danny insisted, “we made a deal yesterday: we’re supposed to work together to figure this mess out.  That means we’re going to need to know a little more than your name.”

 “Enqelin,” Arras said simply, continuing her meal.

 Eli and Danny met eyes before looking back at Arras.

 “What is ‘Enqelin’?” Eli asked.

 “Not what,” Arras grumbled.  “Who.  It’s me.  You’d probably call that my surname or something.”

 “That’s still just your name,” Danny pointed out, feeling irritated again.

 “What do you want to know?” Arras asked.  “Because all you seem to be doing is pussyfooting around with vague questions.”

 Eli glared coldly at Danny.

 “Hey, she didn’t learn that from me,” Danny insisted, raising his hands in defense.  “Maybe she found a forum or something on the internet.”

 “No,” Arras said, finishing the last few pieces of cereal, “that one came from you.  Plus a few other words.  And I understand the concept of swearing, by the way.”  She set the then empty bowl back on the counter.  “So are you going to ask me a proper question?”

 “Okay, Arras Enqelin,” Danny said, pushing away from the counter.  “Just where are you from?”

 “You wouldn’t know the place,” she said simply.

 “Seriously?  That was a proper question!”

 “I gave you an answer.”

 “Arras, please,” Eli said, also pushing away from the counter.  “If we are going to figure this out, we need to know more than what you’ve given us.”

 She looked down at the bowl for a few seconds, then back up at Danny and Eli.  With a deep breath, she explained, “The first thing you need to understand is that this was never supposed to happen.  We were never supposed to meet.  I was never supposed to wake up this late.  And you,” she said, turning to Danny, “were never supposed to take that suit.”

 “We can respect that,” Eli said.  “That’s why it’s important that we come to understand each other.  It’ll help us to trust one another.  How about I begin?”

 Arras looked wary as ever, keeping an eye on Eli as he cleared his throat.

 “My name is Eli Vale,” he began.  “I was raised in a town called Fayette, about an hour north of this city, Ithaca.  My grandfather was in law enforcement, and so was my mother—their job is to protect people from criminals.  My dad owns an auto shop—he fixes vehicles for people.”

 “I know what mechanics and cops are,” Arras said, almost sighing.

 “Right,” Eli said, “sorry.”  He looked to Danny, who didn’t seem interested.  “Come on, Danny; like I said, if we’re going to learn to trust each other, we’re going to need to start by opening up.”

 “Daniel Eick,” Danny said, turning to Arras.  “I grew up in Fayette with Eli.  We moved down here to Ithaca for college a few years ago.”

 “No parents?” Arras prodded, looking unamused.

 “My mom,” Danny stated.  “She teaches high school.”

 “And you, Arras?” Eli persisted, trying to salvage what he could of what was turning out to be a doomed attempt.

 Arras straightened up and looked from Eli to Danny and back.  “Fine, then,” she said before turning back to the counter and reaching inside the laptop again.  Before Danny could speak up, the laptop’s screen came to life.  Arras tipped it so Danny and Eli could see clearly.

 “Your people have advanced in impressive ways since I went to sleep,” she said as indecipherable images, blurs and simple colors flashed in and out of view.  “You’ve catalogued many stars and planets, but I don’t think you’ve found any of mine.”

 Eli or Danny tried to keep their mouths from hanging open as she narrated the flow of images.  One last picture froze over the screen—a star map.

 “Hundreds of years ago,” Arras said, “we found your planet, and with it humans like us.  The Coalition, my people, set up secret outposts on the surface to observe and analyze you.”  She seemed reluctant to go on, but Danny and Eli mustered as much patience as they could, their eyes still fixed on the star map as one dot among countless others began to blink.

 “Once the outposts were prepared, my mother and father were among the first few teams to settle on your planet.  This would have been around the 1770s.  In secret, we watched various populations of humans around your world as they developed, trying to understand their cultures and history.”

 “Were you exploring, then?” Eli asked.

 “Not quite,” Arras said, sounding grim.  “This was a project operated mainly by the military.  Officially, this was called ‘observation and assessment.’  My father and mother were engineers, members of the team responsible for observing the eastern side of North America.”

 “Observation and assessment,” Danny whispered to himself, watching as a map of North America popped onto the screen, highlighting the portion he guessed Arras’ parents were in charge of.  “Observing us.  But what was the assessment part?”

 Bowing her head a little, Arras answered, “My parents and their team were part of a military initiative called Rededication.  They were sent here to observe your people’s capacity for violence and to assess if they might become a threat to our civilization.”

 “And if we were threatening enough?” Eli asked, pushing up his glasses as he leaned in closer to the computer.

 “Then your planet would be rededicated.”

 “What do you mean rededicated?” asked Danny, looking from the screen to Arras.

 She turned about and faced them both again.

 “Rededication is a military platform designed to wipe out any human population deemed to be a threat to the Coalition.  Once any threat was neutralized, the planetary surface that was affected by Rededication would then be taken by my people for alternative use.”

 “So this was a security measure,” Eli said.  “They would rededicate any group of people they thought were too violent.”

 “That’s what the Coalition wanted to call it, a security measure.”  Arras glared into the static screen.  “They never released too many details to the public; they only presented the program as being in the best interests of the people, to keep them safe from threats like terrorism or even invasion.  The only thing is that it was never so tame.”

 “I guess that would explain why they sent your parents to a planet like ours,” Danny concluded.  “Some random human population…  We probably weren’t very menacing to your people, though.”

 “It wasn’t what you were; it was what you could potentially become.”  She laid the screen face down.  “Rededication, however, was never about preemption or protection.  It was all about paranoia.  The Coalition was corrupt, and most knew it.  No real governance; only oppression.”

 “Rededication was their way of sustaining that oppression,” Eli said, getting only a nod from Arras.  “And you were supposed to change that.  That’s what the suit was for, and why you were in hibernation, I suppose.”

 “More or less,” Arras affirmed.  “It was my father, he was the first to see a problem with the whole thing.  Soon my mother joined in, then me, and then my sister.  Together, we put together a plan to destroy Rededication and dismantle the Coalition.”

 “Why did you hide away, then?  Did something go wrong with your plan?” Eli asked, cocking his head, trying to process everything—though, he was still stuck on the idea that he was speaking with someone he could call, for all intents and purposes, an alien.

 “My father and mother created the suit,” Arras explained.  “I was to operate it.  But before going to war, my sister, she insisted we first try a diplomatic approach.”

 “Diplomatic?” Danny asked.

 “She was always more inclined toward politics than any of us were; she wanted to reason with the Coalition, to see if she could rally the people’s support.  I was placed in hibernation in the meantime.  If my sister’s plan failed, she would send a signal from her own nano-net, which would reawaken me.  However…”  Arras looked down at one of her hands, curling and uncurling her fingers.  “I was supposed to be asleep for only twenty years at the outside.  But now…”

 “Is there a chance that she did send the signal and it was delayed?” Eli asked.  “I mean, considering the distance it would have to travel…”

 “No, I would receive it instantaneously after she sent it,” Arras explained.

 “Hang on,” Danny said, starting to smile, looking over at Eli.  “You hear that?  If she would receive the signal as soon as her sister sent it, that would mean…”

 Eli grinned along.  “A sort of quantum communication.”

 “Meaning it wouldn’t make sense for me to receive it now,” Arras said.  “And let’s not forget…”  Turning to Danny, looking displeased again.  “Apparently someone else entirely led you to me before I woke up.”

 Having almost forgotten, Danny made his way back to the couch, finding his phone on the floor.  “That’s right,” he said, opening up the texts from before.  “They led me right to you.”

 “They presumably helped you enter the rift, too,” Arras added.  “They may have even woken me.”

 “Perhaps he was sent to wake you,” Eli suggested.

 Arras only looked more concerned.  “That said,” she went on, “if someone led you to me…”  She fell silent, looking away from them both.

 “You think your mission may still be on,” Danny said.

Arras didn’t answer.

 “Which would mean that Rededication may still exist,” Eli added.

 Danny felt his stomach twist.  He braced himself against the arm of the couch, the bottom line having at last come to him.  Looking at Arras, he found her looking right back at him.

 “That’s why I need the suit,” she said.  Her look suddenly hardened.  “If Rededication is still operational, that means it’s still a threat.  It could even be coming to this planet.”

 “So we’re screwed,” Danny concluded.

 “Danny,” Eli said, making his way past Arras, stopped short as Danny made his own way to the front door.

 Immediately in gear, Arras chased Danny into the hallway outside.  “Where the hell do you think you’re going?”

 She got no answer as Danny made his way to the stairwell, leaving her in the hall.  Eli came out to meet her.

 “This is a lot to drop on him,” Eli said to her.  “Too much.”

 “We don’t have time for this,” Arras muttered.

 “No, but, as you said at the outset—” he stepped ahead of her, following the path Danny had taken— “none of this was supposed to happen anyway.  But here we are.  So…”  He looked back at her before going downstairs.  “We should probably go after him.”

 Arras trailed behind Eli, no other option left to her than this.