“Stay focused,” Arras yelled over the gunfire, holding her earmuffs tight to her head.
She watched Danny launch one tight burst after another at a row of distant targets on the other side of the chamber; his aim was decent enough, she thought, but his grouping was sloppy, even with Ridarin’s auto-targeting mechanism. For every target that fell, there was another that managed to stay standing, even if he did manage to wing the heavy metal plate. It was as if Danny was resisting the computer’s intervention, albeit perhaps unconsciously, insistent that he himself was enough for the task at hand.
Danny had given up defensively yelling back at her, instead trying to follow her directions. While he continued the exercise, she monitored his stats through a heads-up display only her eyes could see. She watched his sync ratio especially as it sputtered between 21 and 22 percent; despite his increased heart rate, as well as other signs of aggravation, he at least managed to hold a steady percentage. For whatever reason, she found that this sort of tension caused him to synchronize more with Ridarin and her mother, though she couldn’t guess why that might be.
The staccato explosions of gunfire stopped. Danny kept the augmented rifle aimed at the remains of the targets he was shooting; electricity snapped and arced up its frame as it crumpled back into an M39 EMR.
As the suit disappeared from his body, he kept his eyes forward, still fixated on the targets.
“You’re getting better,” Arras said, taking her earmuffs off, examining Danny’s handiwork. “It seems Ridarin’s functioning more efficiently, too; it’s able to correct for a lot more. Combine that with your other training, and it looks like we might have something more to bring down on Rededication.”
“About three or four percent,” Danny muttered. He lowered the rifle and glanced back at Arras, looking irritated. “In four months, that’s all I’ve managed to gain.”
“That’s more than we could have ever expected,” Arras said, taking the rifle to disassemble and put back into its case. “For all intents and purposes, you should never have been able to use Ridarin in the first place. But this rifle wasn’t even loaded, which means you’ve not only found a way to operate the suit, but you have more access to the resources the weapons platform can offer.”
“Still feels weird to think your dad can send matter through the suit.” Danny caught himself, taking his mind off of the complexities of applied entanglement, bringing himself back to what was most important. “I still want to get better at this. It wouldn’t be such a war if I could just pull the kind of sync ratio you were supposed to.”
Arras studied him as she locked the weapon in its case. In the few months she had known Danny, he had always seemed so enthralled by Ridarin’s intricacies and technical data—always trying to explain it to himself in concepts and terms that were familiar to him—yet he had refrained from that recently. She wondered if this might be related to the stress evident in Ridarin’s feedback.
“Sit down,” Arras said, taking a seat next to the M39’s case.
She stared up at Danny, who stared back down at her for a moment, looking confused. Finally, he sat down across from her, cross-legged, suddenly attentive.
“Don’t look so serious,” she told him. “You’re not in a battle; this is only training.”
“Weren’t you the one who told me to take training more seriously?”
She smirked. “I mean you need to loosen up. You’re so locked in position, it’s like you can’t even move.”
Danny raised an eyebrow, not sure what she was trying to say. “I’m trying to make it work, but it’s like I’m hitting a wall. I think I get how to make it work, at least the basics. But if that’s true, then why am I only at twenty percent?”
Arras looked as if she were at a loss, though she thought his question over deeply.
“To be honest, I didn’t understand it at first either,” she said. “During the trial runs, I would briefly use an AI instead of my mother, but the principles were still essentially the same. I thought of it like learning to disassemble and reassemble a gun, learning to aim accurately, to pull a trigger. But… Ridarin’s completely different from that.” She rested her hand on the rifle’s case sitting next to her, searching for words. “It’s not like learning how to use a tool, but how to create a painting.”
“Like the nano-net?” Danny asked. “Or the rift?”
“That’s right,” she said, looking back up at him. “When two people network their minds, they can create psychic environments of virtually any kind. While it’s a science to create the nano-net, ultimately its user’s imagination that makes it worth anything.”
“And so Ridarin is supposed to do the same thing?”
“You fired a rifle just now that had no ammo,” Arras answered. “The bullets you fired were fabricated by methods totally dissimilar to anything you or I have ever seen before.”
“I thought Aurin was sending me material,” Danny replied. “Not to sound pompous, but that makes enough sense to me—at least in theory.”
“Despite the synchronization you’ve achieved so far, my father not only has to provide Ridarin with energy and inventory space, but materials. However, that wasn’t the original setup my family planned on, and it’s not how Ridarin functions at its full potential. My father can prepare ammunition from metals and other substances on or around the orbital, then forward them to you, but the majority of his work is spent assisting you and my mother in receiving those materials, giving them coherency.”
She stopped, feeling almost breathless inside; she could remember feeling this way when she had first come to this realization—when she awoken to Ridarin’s real weight.
“At lower levels of synchronization, the orbital and the suit trade materials through micro-FTL events. However, at higher levels…” She spoke more softly. “Ridarin is a creator, a manipulator. The same way a nano-net can mine a brain and use it to create a world, Ridarin can take the world around it and make it into something else.”
Putting his hands down on his crossed legs, Danny lit up, sitting up straight. “Strings!”
“String theory,” he elaborated, starting to grin. “All matter is made up of protons, neutrons, electrons; then down another level you have stuff like quarks, gluons. But when you get even deeper, theoretically you’ve got a homogenous bunch of building blocks—we call them strings. Strings on an instrument, for instance, can create different notes depending on the frequency at which they vibrate; but the strings I’m talking about can create different particles, depending at what frequency they ‘vibrate’ at.” He looked her in the eye, as if unable to contain himself. “If Ridarin can take matter and transmute it… you’re basically telling me that it can take strings and make them vibrate at different frequencies.”
Arras stared at him for a moment, taken off guard by his sudden exuberance. For the first time in a while, he seemed excited about all of this again—and that made her smile.
“Hey,” he said, “I guess I got it right, then.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
The smile disappeared from her as quickly as he pointed it out. “Anyway, it seems like you’re starting to understand—I think.”
“If I really do understand this,” Danny said, his ecstatic mood settling into a contemplative one, “then Ridarin’s really isn’t just a weapon…”
He looked off in thought, then looked back at Arras, having gone from contemplative to almost grim.
“Arras, what’s in that remaining eighty percent? What can Ridarin do when it’s at one hundred?”
Arras looked away from him, that same moment of realization revisiting her from two centuries ago, the moment she not only realized what Ridarin was, but what it could do.
“In sum—anything,” she said with fleeting breath. Fixing her eyes back on him, she returned to her normal self. “That’s why it’s important that you learn to sync with Ridarin gradually. Everything it does, everything—it’s all linked to your brain. My mother and father may assist with the work, but it’s your thoughts, your mind that conceives anything Ridarin makes a reality.”
“So the sync ratio’s not just about how much your mom and I can work together to operate the suit,” Danny reasoned. “It’s about how much I can control myself?”
“Ridarin opens the floodgates of your mind and translates what flows out into the world around you—it won’t control anything. That’s part of the reason my mother uploaded herself into the suit, and why my father assists from the orbital; they function as intermediaries between your unfiltered psyche and the suit’s creative capacities. Ridarin’s just a creator, which means you have to be the designer, because when synced to one hundred percent, you could create anything.”
“You guys really weren’t screwing around when you decided to take down Rededication…”
The same weight coming down on Arras began to lay itself on Danny. Even with the suit gone, he found himself lost in thoughts he hadn’t revisited since his first days of training. Only now he felt more like he was handling a nuke.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” Arras cut in, pulling him from his thoughts, “speaking of synchronization… Have you… Have you seen my mother recently?”
Danny thought for a moment, then said, “Not like I did a few months ago—dreams, and all that. Actually, I haven’t really seen her at all lately. But… I can still feel her presence. I know she’s still here.”
“I see,” Arras muttered. “And what about… What about Ila? Have you seen her again?”
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but I haven’t. Not since I killed Surcease. Ever since then, actually, it’s like your mom stepped into the background, and like Ila disappeared altogether.”
Arras stared at the ground between them, disappointment creeping into her, overflowing from the look on her face.
“I’m sure they’re fine,” Danny hurried to add. “I mean, if Ila really brought us this far, maybe her absence just means that we’re doing the right thing and she doesn’t need to intervene. And it’s no surprise I haven’t seen your mom as much, not with the low sync I’m pulling.”
“Maybe so,” Arras sighed, grabbing the handle to the rifle’s case and standing up. “I suppose all we can do is continue according to our scenario.”
“Right,” he agreed, rising to his feet with her.
Without warning, Arras shoved Danny forward, seizing him by his shirt and pushing him toward one of the many freight containers strewn around the testing chamber.
“Wha— what’re you doing?”
“There’s two sets of footsteps coming up the hall.”
She kept her eyes on the chamber’s open doorway as she moved herself and Danny behind one of the freights.
“It’s Val and Damon,” Danny protested, pulling her hand from his shirt.
“One of them sounds like Damon,” she said, not letting go of him, still watching the doorway from their hiding place. “The other set’s too heavy to be Valiya.”
Danny stopped breathing the moment he saw who the footsteps belonged to. Two figures dressed from top to bottom in black body armor, each with an MP5 in hand, entered the spacious room. They fanned out immediately, moving slowly, cautiously.
With silence and grace, Arras guided Danny around the container as the three figures in black continued behind them. Effortlessly, Arras led him around the corner and to the other side of the container, moving straight for the exit. Whoever these people were, she had no intention of stopping to speak with them—Danny felt inclined to agree.
“Freeze,” a voice demanded firmly.
Arras looked over her shoulder, staring into the opaque goggles of one of the armed men, who kept his weapon trained on her and Danny.
“Turn around, slowly.”
As the man masked with black material called his comrades over, Arras complied with his command. Part way through her turn, however, she dropped to the ground and lunged like a wolf.
The man in black opened fire, sending a burst of bullets straight at Danny; instantaneously, portions of Ridarin came to life, covering Danny with broad swathes of armor where the bullets made contact.
Leaving the shooter no chance to wonder at what had happened, Arras swept his legs out from underneath him, sending him straight for the ground. As he fell, with unreal speed and precision, Arras wrestled away the man’s MP5 and landed the weapon’s stock hard into his covered face. He didn’t move after hitting the floor.
“You knew that would happen, right?” Danny asked, feeling the adrenaline take him as he stared down at the portions of his body that would have been sporting bullet wounds instead of armor had circumstances been different.
“Of course,” Arras answered. “It’s one of the safety protocols. Now armor up.”
“I don’t want to kill them, but I can’t get close on my own. Armor up.”
Danny did as he was told, recalling the rest of Ridarin. Arras positioned herself behind him as the other two men in black rounded the container, taking aim when they saw their companion on the ground. With hands against his back, she pushed Danny toward the men, guiding him as she accelerated from a walk to a run. Unsure of how to respond, the remaining two men opened fire as Danny and Arras sprinted at them, their bullets ricocheting hopelessly off Ridarin.
“Take their weapons,” Arras commanded when there was only a few feet between themselves and their assailants.
Throwing himself forward, Danny seized both men’s SMGs by the muzzles, twisting them effortlessly from their hands as Arras continued to push him on, sending him between and past the two men in black. As he stumbled away, Danny turned to watch what happened next: moving in strange ways that betrayed that she was not trained by any military on Earth, Arras engaged the two unarmed men with her hands and feet. Though they were thoroughly padded, Arras responded with directed force, finding any vulnerable spot she could. Catching their blows like a tornado, with one move she would both block and attack. The way she moved, caught precariously between the two of them while yet dominating the situation, felt almost like a dance.
In a few swift strikes, both men crumpled like the first.
Shedding Ridarin, Danny looked in amazement at the results of the brief skirmish. Watching Arras tower over the victims who had intended to make her their own victim, he knew he had seen some of the Coalition military’s deadliest training in action. Asking her if she was all right would have been painfully unnecessary.
“Who the hell are these guys?” he asked, stepping forward to examine the bodies closer. “No patches, just guns—and some pretty itchy trigger fingers.”
“I don’t think their primary objective was to kill us, though it seems that was their backup plan,” Arras said, crouching down near one of the men, digging through his pockets, searching for any sort of clue as to who had sent them. “The first one tried to capture us; they only opened fire when we became hostile.”
Examining the other body, Danny found a wire traveling up the man’s neck from his shoulder, under the tight black cloth covering his face. Pulling the cloth away, he could see the wire led to an ear-piece. Plucking the piece from the man, he put it to his own ear. Like a static shock, Danny felt his net hack the device, rummaging through all the chatter passing through its channels. Only a few seconds of listening passed before he caught a few keywords.
“We have Damon Hale and the redhead,” a voice announced through the channel. “Bravo, what is your status?”
“Arras,” Danny said, extending the ear-piece to her. She connected to the piece with her own net, listening with him to the voices calling for response from their second team.
“I’m guessing these guys were the bravo team they’re calling for,” she said, looking over own aftermath. “They’ll know something’s wrong.”
“They’ve got Damon and Val.”
Standing up, shouldering one of the men’s MP5s, Arras held the ear-piece in hand, using her net to pinpoint all devices the piece was communicating with. She found a number of them outside the building, but only two inside the tower itself—both right next to each other, descending.
“Well,” she said, “we better go get them back, then.”