With a blast of heat and EM, they appeared a short distance from Mercury; from there, Arras prepped another jump to visit Aurin.
Their visit with him was brief. Aurin had few words for Danny or Valiya, and only a handful more for Arras. They traded information for a few minutes before Arras brought Danny over to give Aurin the scrambled locations of the eight Rededication platforms, as well as the one unscrambled location. From this, Aurin would create a cipher that could hopefully decode the locations of the remaining seven installations.
“It’ll take some time,” Aurin warned them both. “They’re complicated data.”
“Decode them as quickly as you can,” Arras replied. “If the New Pact followed us to that installation, it means they’re dealing with at least similar intel. They may be working on making a cipher of their own to decrypt the remaining coordinates.”
“I’ll do my best.”
With that, they left the station once again, making a jump to a pocket of space far behind the moon. Their trip to Earth was slow, but as they made their way back through the atmosphere and into the clouds, Danny called Damon on his cell phone. They spoke for only a few seconds; after landing in the very place from which they had taken off a few days prior, the three of them would wait a few more hours.
They each exited the craft, though Danny was the only one to walk around the green pasture surrounding their dirt patch of a landing pad. The air was cool and humid, the wind moving gently over the hilly landscape, brushing the grass as it passed. In a change of clothes he had brought, something a little more apropos to New York than Felicity, Danny sat down on the wet grass. He had no more interest in looking at the sky, not after what he had come from; instead, he took in his more immediate surroundings, grateful for a green world he could call home. Weaving his fingers through the blades of grass, he forgot all about the weight of the cannon, the kick of the guns, the white-knuckle brawl he had been in only about an hour ago. Breathing deeply, he laid out on the grass, deciding to enjoy himself before Damon arrived.
Arras and Valiya sat on the edge of the wing together, both watching Danny sprawl out on one of the hillsides. Valiya had kept to herself most of the trip, except for when anyone addressed her directly. Even then, her answers were monosyllabic at most. Arras watched her from the corner of her eye. There was an almost ghostly smile on Valiya’s lips, something Arras hadn’t expected to see.
“Are you going to be all right?” Arras asked.
“I think so,” Valiya said, “though it all still feels a little strange.”
“It’s still fresh. Give it time.”
“It’s not so much that…”
Valiya’s smile grew a little as she stared up into the clouds, watching them slide by overhead. The only real noise around them was the soft blow of the wind; the world almost felt like outer space for how quiet it seemed then.
“I’ll miss him,” Valiya finally said. “Yet I feel as if Ekren would consider it a disservice to mourn his death. He didn’t die just for me or even the three of us, after all; he died for the rest of the world.”
“If it wasn’t for his sacrifice, we wouldn’t be here.”
With a nod, Valiya said, “That’s how I feel. So I’m not sad. I’m grateful. It’s because of what he did that I think I’ve at last been able to make my decision.”
“That’s right.” She turned to Arras, her smile even broader than before, though still somewhat subdued. “I want to help you and Danny—for my people. Back on the platform, you said you wanted me to see Rededication’s real face, what it really is behind all my people’s hopes and fears. I think I understand now, and I want the New Pact to understand, too.”
Arras looked back at her, suddenly reminded of her little sister. “I can’t promise you anything.”
“I know,” Valiya said, still smiling, looking back out over the rolling hills. “I suppose that’s the thing about life: it’s not ready-made or spelled out beforehand, there aren’t any guarantees. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try, though. I believe that’s what Ekren would want.”
Together they sat in silence, enjoying the fresh air and the free time—the few hours they spent in that rural corner of upstate New York almost felt like a vacation.
Damon at last appeared, traveling alone in a semi-truck. Together, they helped him back the trailer up to the nose of the ship before chaining the craft up and towing it into the trailer. As Arras closed the lift-gate, Damon came around to meet the three of them.
“You weren’t kidding,” Damon said, catching sight of Valiya. “You really did make a new friend. She is a friend, right?”
“She is,” Arras said, ushering for Damon to come shake Valiya’s hand.
As Damon and Valiya’s hands met, her nano-net synced with him, teaching her his language in a few seconds. After that, Valiya looked less confused by whatever Damon would say.
Together again, Danny and Arras counseled with Damon, filling him in on most of what had transpired while they were gone. He listened intently, not daring to say a word, lest he miss something important. Nodding along, he looked enraptured.
“What now, then?” Damon asked. “We’re still waiting on the cipher and the remaining coordinates. Do we know how long that could be?”
“It could be days,” Arras said, “or even weeks. So long as it’s faster than the College, we should be fine.”
“I suppose we’ll just have to find something to keep us occupied until then,” Damon concluded. He grinned at Danny, leaning on his old cane. “Looks like you’re still gainfully employed at Teleios, my friend.”
“Hey, if you keep me off the streets,” Danny said with a shrug, “then we’re fine.”
“Well, class,” Damon said, slapping a hand onto the trailer of the truck before turning back to the cab, “everyone back on the school bus.”
Danny and Arras sat in the back, with Valiya next to Damon in the front. The whole way to New York City, Damon asked Valiya questions about her people and culture, sharing tidbits of information with her about Earth in return—clearly only the things that he considered dignified enough to share with a politician from another planet. He seemed to take speaking with another extraterrestrial woman in stride.
A few hours passed before they arrived at the edge of the city, pulling into a warehouse district, one completely bought out by Teleios. Though the ship felt a little in the open to Arras, the place was nondescript enough to keep their craft hidden. Damon let everyone out of the truck before driving into one of the buildings where another empty vehicle waited for them, something much smaller to take them the rest of the way into Manhattan.
As they waited for Damon, Valiya found her way to the edge of the district, looking out over the Hudson River and a decent view of the nearby cityscape. She was almost overcome with excitement.
“You weren’t kidding, Danny,” she said, leaning over the railing. “It looks so much like our own cities!”
Arras took a portion of the rail far from the two of them, standing alone, staring into the city across the river. Once he caught sight of her, Danny excused himself to Valiya and went to speak with Arras.
“Still the lone wolf,” Danny said, watching the city with her. “I have to say, this isn’t as good of a view as you can get on top of the Teleios building.”
“It’s nice enough,” Arras muttered, still lost in the view.
Danny studied her for a moment, thinking of how to put what was on his mind. Thinking back to his last few seconds with Surcease, of the faces he had seen then…
“Arras,” Danny finally said, stepping away from the rail, “there’s something you should know.”
She looked back at him, drawn in by his suddenly serious tone.
“It was what I saw on that platform,” he continued. “Right before I killed Surcease… That presence that’s been following us this whole time—I saw it.”
“That’s nothing new,” Arras said, returning to the view. “It’s to be expected that it would follow us that far.”
“No, I mean…”
He stepped toward her, reaching out to touch her arm though stopping at the last second. She looked back at him, seeing the look on his face.
“I know who led me to you,” Danny said. “I have no idea how it could be her, and I don’t even know what it could mean. But I’m sure it was her.”
“Who is it, Danny?”
“Ila. It was your sister this whole time.”
Arras looked almost as if he had just slapped her across the face. “That’s impossible. She’s dead. That’s all there is to it.”
“Like I said, Arras, I have no idea how it could be. All I know is that it’s true. Your sister Ila was the one who led us this whole way.”
Arras’ shoulders slumped, the shock still so intense. She turned around and leaned over the rail again. Danny turned away, giving her some space.
“I just thought you deserved to know—”
“Do you think she’s still alive?”
Danny turned back to see her still leaned over the rail, her shoulders shaking as a couple tears dripped from her chin, falling into the river. He stepped in to stand next to her, though he kept his eyes on the city.
“I think so,” Danny said softly. “I’m sorry, Arras, I wish I had more answers than this. But I saw her myself. I felt her presence the very way I’ve felt Suo’s presence before. It’s her. She’s out there.”
A sob escaped Arras. She gripped the rail, overcome, yet it came as a smile. The tears stopped; she looked across the river, her sister’s name on her lips.
“I doubt we’ve seen the last of her,” said Danny, glancing back at Arras. “As exhausting as it sounds to me, we’ve only just begun this mission. There’s still seven more platforms to destroy. I bet we’ll see her again.”
“If she’s alive…” Arras said, her words caught in the breeze for no one else to hear. She turned to look at Danny, that unmistakable look of hope in her eyes—that same hope he had seen in her mind, in that chapel.
“If she’s still out there,” she said, “will you please help me find her?”
Danny smiled at her. “It’d be my pleasure.”
Only then did Damon return, pulling the same SUV from before into view, waving for the three of them to come along. They piled into the car and continued their trip. As they drove into the city, Valiya and Damon continued their lively discussion as she took in their urban surroundings.
Again in the back of the car, Danny sat quietly, reminding himself that he should contact his mother soon; maybe another visit might be better. Now and again, he would take a peek at Arras in the seat across from him, finding her staring out the window. Though she had always hidden her emotions well enough, he could still barely see her reflection in the window.
There was no mistake. She was smiling. Seeing that, he couldn’t help but smile, too.