Chapter 6

 

 He made the call earlier in the day.

 “So you’re not moving back after all?” her voice echoed from the phone, sounding a bit confused.

 “It looks that way,” Danny said, apologetic at this point.  “I had everything put together, really—then things got hectic.”

 “What changed, then, if you’re staying in Ithaca?”

He could hear all the concern of a mother in her words, each one, making him feel all the more guilty for the cover story he was peddling her.

 “Well, funny thing is I… sort of got a job.”

 “A job?”

 “That’s right.  They actually offered me the position—it was pretty unexpected.”

 “That’s fantastic, Danny.  I’m sure Milo will be disappointed you’re not coming home—”

“I’m sure he’ll be just fine,” Danny muttered.

“—But I’m so happy to hear that.  What will you be doing?”

 “Well, you know, just some research and consultation.  I guess they were interested in getting someone with a physics background.”

 “And who’s ‘them’?  Who are you going to be working for?”

 Taking a hard gulp, wondering how this would really go over, Danny took what felt like a plunge—though he would’ve taken this moment over what awaited him that afternoon.

 “I don’t know about this, guys,” Danny said, trying to get someone’s attention.  “This seems a little excessive.”

 “That’s the point,” Arras answered, trading strands of light between her hands and a Remington Model 870 12 gauge shotgun.  She adjusted the stock against her shoulder, trying to find a comfortable fit.  “Because the suit is designed solely for combat, it also has built-in security systems.  You’ve encountered one so far.”

 “When it sealed itself to me.”

 “That’s right.”  She racked the shotgun’s pump, feeding one round directly into the chamber through the ejection port before loading a few more rounds into the tubular mag through the underside loading gate.  “We’re going to try to activate another security protocol.”

 “I get that,” Danny said, not comforted in the least, “but is this really the only way to do it?”

 “If you’ve got any other ideas,” Arras hummed, still feeding the rounds into the mag.  “We’ve been sitting around for almost a week now, and you still haven’t managed to reactivate the suit.  This is extreme, yes, but last resorts usually are.”

 “I’m sorry to say, Danny, but she’s right,” said Damon through their earpieces.  “Don’t look so worried, she’s not carrying anything particularly life-threatening.  She’s using a special, non-lethal ammunition Teleios itself has developed for use in law enforcement.  So long as you maintain a safe distance, nothing she fires at you should cause any lasting damage.”

 “Lasting, huh?”

Danny looked through the distance of trees; he couldn’t see Damon or Eli, but he knew they could see him.

 Eli kept his head down, listening to the conversation through his own radio, looking over at Damon, who was just as pressed to the ground.

 “Are you really sure about this?” Eli asked, sounding even more nervous than Danny.

 “Of course,” Damon said firmly, peering through a pair of bulky binoculars, looking as if he were surveying the evening’s entertainment.  “That Remington’s been outfitted with the finest sound suppression equipment, and Teleios has used this land in the past to test other small firearms—no one will notice us.”

 “That’s not at all what I meant.  You understand that he could really get hurt doing this, right?”

 He put the binoculars down, his sly smile gone.  “I am very much aware, Eli, I assure you.  But Arras is right: Danny hasn’t managed to reactivate the suit on his own, so it’s time to introduce a stimulus that will elicit a predictable reaction.”

 “He doesn’t even have a vest, Damon.”

 “I’m sorry, Eli, but this is how it has to be,” Damon said with finality.  “Whatever physical injuries Danny may receive in the process can be treated.  Given that he’s technically one of my employees, and considering his ‘position,’ he definitely has a fair healthcare plan.”  He returned to the binoculars, focusing back in on the distant scene.  “Besides, the more Danny understands the gravity of the situation, the better.”

 Unconvinced, Eli lifted his own binoculars, watching Arras and Danny speak with each other, preparing for the exercise.

 “Danny,” Arras said, “once we begin, there’s no saying to what degree you’ll panic.  Given that you’re not accustomed to gunfire, your body may start to shut down on you.”

 “What, you mean like a panic attack?”

 “Yes.”

 “Okay, I already knew that,” Danny said, his stomach churning.  “Is that supposed to reassure me?”

 “No, it’s supposed to prepare you.  Even if you find yourself paralyzed, regardless of how you may feel, you’ll need to persevere through it.”

 “What?”

 “The whole reason we’re doing this is to get you to activate the suit out of self-preservation.”  She adjusted her grip on the shotgun, fingering the safety off.  “No matter what you come to feel, embrace it.”

 “I realize this is a fairly tense situation,” Damon said through the radio, “but there’s one of us over here—and I’m not saying—who is certainly not getting any younger.  It’s time to rip the band-aid off, boys and girls.”

 “I’ll give you a head start,” Arras said, locking her eyes onto Danny, as if already targeting him.  “What are you waiting for?  Get going!”

 Without a second thought, Danny found himself bolting down a steep hillside, dodging trees and jumping over surfacing root systems.  He couldn’t see very far past the thin branches whipping him on his way.  The sound of his own footsteps cracked beneath him and bounced from trunk to trunk, steadily being muffled by the bark.  But it wasn’t his own feet he was listening for.

 By this point, the exercise almost didn’t seem real.  How could it be?  It was actually absurd.  He could feel his heart beating, but really only from all the running.  Maybe this wouldn’t be as bad as he first thought.

 That was when the first bullet nailed him in the shoulder.  Losing his footing, he ended up rolling over himself down the hill, coming to a stop once he could grab onto a thick root.  He laid on his side, feeling the throb in his back where the bullet had connected.  Hissing every curse he could conceive through his teeth, he wrestled his way to his feet and made his way to a place where the ground plateaued, still trying to outrun her.

 Despite all the silencing equipment, Danny could still hear the shotgun crack, answered by the sound of a rubber bullet zipping by or of a nearby tree splintering on the surface, neither of which made him feel any more convinced that supposedly non-lethal ammunition would make any difference.  He felt something catch him on the heel; guessing it was a bullet that had come too close for comfort, Danny began to vary his directions, weaving from side to side as he pushed his way past the trees.

 He didn’t dare look back for Arras.

 Eli and Damon watched from their higher ground, catching Danny popping in and out of view behind the trees.  Arras chased him from behind for a while before disappearing entirely

 “Where’d she go?” Eli asked, feeling more helpless than he would like.

 “You have to remember, Eli,” Damon answered, keeping his eyes glued to Danny, “she’s a tactician, and a well-trained soldier.  It’s what qualified her to operate the suit in the first place.”

 Danny kept his eyes forward, only risking glances out the corners of his eyes, even when he thought Arras’ footsteps had stopped altogether.  Feeling the sting in his lungs and throat, he knew he wouldn’t be able to keep up this pace much longer.  Slowing down, he found a small alcove in the side of the hill where the roots of a tree had broken free from the soil.  Wasting no time, he plunged himself into the alcove, landing shoulder first, out of breath.  He thought about how the last time he had been this breathless was when he woke up in the fountain back at the Macks’ abandoned home.

 Only then did it occur to him, despite the panic: he was out of breath after his seizure, once the suit had left him.  Danny couldn’t help but wonder if reenacting the same experiences from before might help him reactivate the suit—somehow.  At the very least, he knew he wouldn’t survive very long in his current state.  If he had any hope of getting out of this with all his bones intact, he would have to suit up.

 Danny was thrust from planning by two bullets, one to the shoulder, the other closer to his chest.  His back collided with the tree behind him, knocking what little wind he had from him.  Sliding to the ground, feeling incapable of breathing at all, he felt the terrible pain in his chest where the two bullets had made contact with him.  It was different from the first impact to his shoulder; this time there was a sharpness and a sheer force that made him almost numb.

 Arras approached cautiously, as if Danny might have a weapon of his own, keeping her weapon trained on him, not skipping a beat.  She racked the pump again, tossing an empty shell out of the chamber and loading another.

 “I won’t stop, Danny,” she warned, firing another round into his knee, still far enough to make things hurt without causing any major damage.

 By this point, Danny wasn’t listening; the pain seemed to drown out all other noise or sights.  Points of tension in his body, they felt as if they were compressing, as if packing all the agony pulsing through him into only the spots where the bullets had made direct contact.  Opening his eyes, Danny first saw Arras, but she seemed to be washed away by something else.

 He felt the same way he had before sinking into the fountain, only that strange presence from before wasn’t anywhere to be felt.  Instead, he could see a woman; though her features were still unclear, Danny instantly recognized her from the rift.  He could sense her approach—or had she been present all along?  Lost in the disarray of it all, Danny could only think of home, of his family.

 “Now or never, Danny,” Eli whispered, gripping his binoculars tighter than ever.  “You can do this.”

 Arras could notice the dazed look on Danny’s face, but she had no intention of holding back now—this was their chance.  It was also the point of no return.  Loading a few more rounds and taking aim at his chest, close enough to break his sternum, she pulled the trigger and sailed a bullet through the air.

 Time seemed to slow for Danny; he watched the rubber bullet spiral toward him, preparing for it to drill into his chest.  However, just before the rubber could pierce his clothing, it stopped dead.

 Arras took in the sight, as did Eli and Damon, each of them petrified.  Watching the bullet drop from Danny’s chest, Arras couldn’t help but smile.

 A splatter of black and white body armor was smeared across Danny’s torso, unraveled at the edges, sitting in a sort of space-time limbo, not fully materialized.  Without hesitation, Arras fired two more shots, one to Danny’s shoulder and the other to his head.  In an instant the blurring edges of black and white expanded to cover his shoulder, revealing a metal layer, and up over his head, deploying half the helmet.

 Danny felt coherent once again, looking back at Arras, watching her lower her weapon.  She looked almost relieved, though he wasn’t sure why.  He watched her through one of the helmet’s eyes, strange displays and menus flickering over his view.  Grabbing onto one of the roots nearby, he gradually pulled himself to his feet, feeling the armor crawling its way over his forearm to his hand.  Taking one step forward, the suit expanded from the torso to his foot, reacting to his movement.  As he made his way toward Arras, the armor continued to envelope him.

 Looking down at himself, at last able to get a good view, Danny marveled at his body.  Damon also took in the sight, his grin broadening with every detail; he took a good look into Danny’s vibrant blue eyes, mesmerized by the chance to finally see the real thing, not just a video.

 The armor covered Danny’s entire body in a black and white base layer, material that looked almost like leather.  Over his legs and forearms were slats of dark crimson metal, laid over the base layer.  Even in the armor, Danny still looked wiry—yet there was something about the suit that nevertheless elicited anxiety from its onlookers.

 Arras raised her gun one more time and fired another round into Danny, pointblank.  The armored figure didn’t recoil in the least, the bullet placidly falling from its target like before.  Danny could feel the black and white material tense up where the bullet had hit him, though he didn’t feel the slightest bit of pain.  He held up one of his hands to his face, watching strings of blue crisscross their way over his fingers and arms, working their way over his entire body before absorbing into the suit, leaving only a few dim lights on the surface.

 Danny reached out to Arras, wrapping his fingers slowly around the muzzle of the shotgun, taking it from her without a fight.  As he made contact with the weapon the nano-net came to life once again and pulsed over the Remington.  What came next took all but Arras off guard.  Blue ribbons of light carved themselves into the firearm, cracking open the frame and blatantly altering the weapon’s very structure.  Holding a weapon that only vaguely resembled the Remington 870, Danny aimed the gun with one hand at the tree under which he had tried to hide himself, pulling the trigger, watching the weapon jerk in his hand.  A chunk of the tree ahead of him shattered into pieces, leaving a deep gash in the trunk.

 All eyes were fixed on the havoc Danny had unleashed with what was supposed to be a non-lethal bullet.

 Feeling proud of the display, Danny turned back to Arras.  “What do you think?”

 Just as the words left his lips, he turned back to the demolished tree and felt his very soul turn to stone at the sight.  Beside the tree, dressed in an army combat uniform, stood a man Danny recognized instantly.

“Dad.”

Danny watched a trickle of blood drip from the corner of his father’s mouth, down his chin, outmatched by the dark, wet patches soaking his shoulders.

 Something triggered in Arras’ nano-net, a sudden shift in the suit’s diagnostics—in Danny.  Though the sync ratio between Danny and the suit was noticeably low already, this time it plummeted; in the blink of an eye, Arras watched the suit abruptly lock down.  The helmet peeled from Danny’s head, followed by the shoulders and torso, the suit sweeping from his body and disappearing into thin air until there stood only him and the Remington as they both were before.

 Danny didn’t move an inch, his eyes still fixed on the space beside the tree where there had stood an echo of sorts only he had seen.

 “What did you do?” Arras cried out, whirling Danny around and seizing him by the shirt.

 “What?” Danny sputtered, coming back to reality.  “What’re you talking about?”

 “The suit,” Arras yelled at him, “you shut it down!  What did you do that for?”

 “I shut it down?”  The words left Danny just like the image of his father, melting away like a wisp of air.  “But I had it!  I just had it.”

 “You synchronized with the suit again, even more than before,” Arras said, shoving Danny back.  “Then you...”

 “Arras, Danny,” Damon’s voice sound from the radio.  “What’s going on down there?  What are you two yelling about?”

 As Arras reported back to Damon, Danny stared down at the shotgun in his one hand and the open palm of his other, feeling as if he had watched a train wreck.

 “I didn’t mean to do that,” he said, looking back up at Arras.  “I didn’t.”

 She didn’t say a word.

 “Is the suit gone?” Danny asked.

 Scowling, not looking back at him, Arras started back up the hill.  “I’m not even sure how, but you quarantined all connections to the suit in your nano-net.”

 “So it’s still there?”

 “Yes, but it’ll do us no good in the state you’ve put it.”

 Eli and Damon watched from their post, scanning over Danny and Arras, seeing the weight of what had just occurred in their eyes.  Once he got a look at Danny’s face, Eli felt his insides knot up even more.

 “This certainly changes things,” was all Damon could add.