After a few minutes, Val walked over to where Danny was still standing, huddled in his own world.
“Are you going to be all right?” she asked sincerely.
“Yeah,” he said absently, not looking at her. “I’m fine, really.”
By the look in his eyes, she could tell he was thinking hard, though whether it was about how he might find his family and friends again, or if he was trying to suppress the idea altogether, she couldn’t tell. Still, she empathized, feeling as if she knew what he was going through. The physical symptoms that wouldn’t let up, like difficulty breathing, the strain in her head, sometimes even tremors. But none of that compared to the deeper trauma, that feeling of powerlessness, helplessness, loss—as if a limb were suddenly gone, and all that was left were the phantom pain and learning to live without something that felt so natural before.
Val wanted to apologize to him, but she stopped herself short. She didn’t want him to receive it as condolences.
Danny jolted out of his thoughts when he felt a warm touch. He looked down at Val’s hand, her fingers resting on his arm. Looking back up at her, he could see her forcing a smile, trying to give him anything that might reassure him. Danny played through the past few days in his head, contemplating the trouble Val must have been experiencing all on her own; the more he thought about it, the more selfish he felt.
He smiled back at her, though his was no less forced than hers.
“Damon and this Virgil guy are right: we have to keep our priorities straight,” he said, taking a deep breath. “Right now, getting the ship back is our most important objective.”
He tried to convince himself to believe what he was saying was true, at least enough to move forward. But he couldn’t quite do it. Even so, he knew there was nothing else he could do but keep going.
A certain genuineness came to Val’s smile when she heard his words, something that made it harder for Danny to forget his mom, and Milo, and Eli—his family. He kept their faces out of his head for the time being, though. As much as he didn’t want to admit it, the others really were right: getting the ship, keeping all paths back to the battlefield open—that was paramount.
Looking over Val’s shoulder, Danny could see Arras and Damon deep in conversation.
“Looks like they started without us,” he said. “Let’s go see what they’re up to.”
With a satisfied nod, Val continued to smile. And together, they rejoined Arras and Damon.
“It’s quite the gamble,” they could hear Damon saying as they approached. “Really, there’s not much certainty there.”
“You can lose anything in a gamble,” Arras replied sternly. “This isn’t a gamble; we have everything to gain from it, and nothing to lose.”
“Besides you,” Damon quipped.
“Not if we do it right.”
“I hate getting to the movies late,” Danny said, knocking them out of their own arena, as if they had forgotten that anyone else was around.
“What’s going on?” Val asked. “Did the two of you already come up with a plan?”
“Well,” Damon started, though he trailed off.
Looking from Danny and Val back to Arras, he waited for her to take the lead on this.
Straightening up, Arras struggled to look at any of them.
“I’ve suggested an addendum to Virgil’s plan,” she said, adding nothing more.
“If ‘Virgil’ is telling us the truth,” Damon said, pulling out the phone from before, looking over the live stream from JFK International, “then the operation should be so simple a child could execute it—at least, a child with our resources.” He nodded at Danny. “The idea is simple enough: use Ridarin’s camouflage to get aboard the cargo plane. Once the plane has reached a certain altitude where no civilians can get a good look, let alone involved, Danny will exit the cargo plane with the gunship, ascend to a higher altitude, and make an FTL jump. Afterward, we rendezvous at a safe location, where ideally the rest of us will join him.”
“Then we leave Earth,” Val added plainly.
“That was the plan,” Damon admitted.
“Arras?” Damon requested, still not willing to take this question.
Arras looked back at Val and Danny, bringing all her resolve to bear.
“Instead of sending Daniel on his own to recapture the ship,” she explained, “I’ll accompany him. We’ll board the plane together and take back the ship. However, Danny will take the ship back alone.”
That last word left her more weakly than the others; maintaining her strong outer layer, she still felt like she was about to get firebombed.
“Why would you stay behind?” Danny asked, in an instant feeling stupid for even asking.
“You want them to capture you?” Val surmised, her voice soft though already exasperated. “You can’t possibly…”
“Believe me,” Damon chimed in, “I’ve certainly registered the group’s incredulity with her. However, she won’t be deterred. This may shock you, but, while I believe this is quite the risky venture… I think she’s right. We have much to gain from such a move.”
“Like what?” Val asked.
“When the Coalition fell,” Arras answered, “they wiped their military databases clean. Because of that, no one ever returned to Earth to dismantle the observation-and-assessment outposts. Though the facilities were completely unmanned for so long, the equipment would still remain in prime condition. Ordinarily, this would be a nonissue, but now that it’s fallen into the hands of a less-advanced humanity...”
“Gee, thanks,” Danny muttered halfheartedly. “I get what you’re saying, Arras, but James Bond over there said these guys have been playing around with your people’s toys since World War II. That’s nearly a hundred years, and we still haven’t blown ourselves up.”
Val stayed just over Danny’s shoulder, feeling the tension in her stomach subside as he spoke up.
“I understand that,” Arras countered. “But things are different now. It’s one thing for them to research our firearms or manufacturing equipment, but now they’ve managed to track FTL events.”
Danny cocked his head a bit, remembering that concept from a few months back.
“I thought that was only for tracking where something was going, not just locating an FTL event from nothing,” he said. “And anyway, it took the New Pact a long time to figure that out. You really think my people have it down after just tripping over some Coalition tech?”
“You heard Arthur say they can track Ridarin to some degree,” Arras reminded him. “When a live connection is made between the solar orbital and the suit, it generates a number of localized FTL events, which produced the Higgs particles. Arthur and his people could have found a residual blast radius of sorts, like the New Pact did when we jumped from Zero Point; but instead of trying to find a destination, they found the epicenter of the event itself. That’s pretty close to what your people were working on, isn’t it, Val?”
Hearing her name, Val snapped back, stepping from behind Danny. She looked away nervously.
“I suppose so. I mean, it’s the same principle. And if they’ve figured out something like that, then…”
Though she knew the implication, she didn’t want to be the one to admit it.
“Then who knows what else they have?” Arras concluded. “They may have offered us a chance to help them in their research and development, but Arthur didn’t seem to think our help was necessary. We piqued his interest when he realized we knew what we were dealing with, not that we knew something he didn’t.”
“Arthur’s always been a bit pompous,” Damon said, lowering his head, pressing his fingertips to his brow. “However, Arras brings up a good point. Not only did he not feel especially out of the loop concerning Ridarin, but—even with the change of heart he seemed to have—they don’t seem to care much about potentially losing the suit entirely.”
“So you want to know just what they’re cooking up,” Danny said.
“Like I said the other night,” Arras answered, “I don’t know how they figured out how to track us; to the best of my knowledge, the Coalition never developed anything like that. But adding that to the fact that they seem to consider Ridarin disposable… It makes me wonder why.”
“Just a passing interest, then, huh?” Val muttered.
“Nothing,” she replied softly at first. Looking up from the floor, she stared Arras in the eye. “But what you’re suggesting really is risky. It’s simple enough, but how are we supposed to get you back once you’re captured?”
“My net.” Arras lifted her hand, letting a few blue circuits emerge. “Unlike our ship, my nano-net is always active, so my father can track me through it. I’ll allow myself to be captured, gather what intel I can, then forward my location to you through my father.”
“Then we come pick you up,” Danny said, though he knew such a rescue would not be as simple in practice as it was in theory.
“It’ll be easier than you think,” Arras replied. “I was trained for situations like this. I can fry any security system they may have, and close quarters combat isn’t new to me. Adding Ridarin and our ship to the equation can only equal a good outcome.”
“And what if these guys really do ‘know too much’ about these facilities?” asked Danny.
“I can destroy anything they may have before you extract me.” When no one responded, Arras insistently added, “Whatever we may think of the risks here, the fact is that the people on this planet may possess military hardware far beyond their level of control.”
“That’s where she convinced me,” Damon said. “Being involved in arms manufacturing, this is something I know well. Civilizations advance in a number of ways, including offensively and defensively. One country develops a weapon, and another develops a means by which it may defend itself. The real risk is when civilizations’ offensive capabilities outrun their defenses. If the US has found some sort of weapon that can exceed anyone else’s defenses—including our own—then it could posture our tiny planet for… Well, I suppose I don’t have to spell that out for any of you. The point is that I agree with Arras.”
“I guess that makes sense,” Danny said with a nod, still thinking this over for himself. “Even if we leave the planet, they could still blow themselves straight to hell.”
Val bit her lip.
Damon looked back at Arras. “There’s a little more, actually.”
With a deep sigh, Arras delivered one last point of consideration.
“We’re assuming they won’t want to pass up on the opportunity to question me. Since Arthur’s already suspicious that Valiya and I are connected to the outposts in some way, then they’ll likely try to get as much information out of me as possible before either imprisoning me or executing me. Since I have something they want, I believe I can make some demands…”
When she didn’t go on, Danny and Val were left to consider this on their own. The answer hit them both at the same time.
“You think you can get them to release Eli and my family,” Danny said aloud.
“They’re not likely to release them,” Damon cautioned, keeping any of Danny’s optimism at a reasonable level. “If you’re still at large, and if the ship is out of their hands, then they’ll want to maintain whatever advantages they can—that means your mother, your brother, and Eli. However, at least this way Arras can confirm they’re safe. And since we’ll have to extract Arras… Well, if she can get them to bring Eli and your family to her, then…”
“So that’s it, then.”
The words left Val before she knew they were even formed, though she didn’t stop. Though her voice was at a low volume, her tone was ferocious.
“You just want to get them back,” she said.
No one breathed a word. Arras and Val locked eyes as Damon and Danny watched nervously from what suddenly felt like the sidelines. The tension skyrocketed as each of them waited.
Keeping her cool, Arras answered.
“My main objective would be to figure out what kind of technology they’re—”
“I get that,” Val replied, her voice shaking. “What I don’t get is why.”
“You’re so afraid this world will implode on itself,” Val continued, tightening her fists, “but you know better than anyone how isolated these people are from the rest of the universe. If they were to blow themselves up, what would it matter?”
“Hey, Val,” Danny cut in. “Come on, that’s pretty harsh.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Val shot back, turning on Danny now. “I didn’t realize it was a grievous sin to think your world is as expendable as you thought mine was.”
In an instant, Danny felt like he had been hit by a train; he then realized what had really been on her mind this whole time, and that it was much more than homesickness. And int hat realization, he felt like a fool for what he had said.
“Not only are you bending over backwards to make sure Earth doesn’t go down in flames,” Val persisted, turning back to Arras, “but now you’re looking to save a few hostages? Why, Arras? What’s different here?”
Val suddenly stopped. Her hands loosened up, and she stared at the ground. Glancing first at Danny, then back at her feet, she felt that terrible flow of emotions from that night in Ithaca—when she had seen Arras and Danny together on the edge of the roof.
Arras wanted to consul her, to assure her that she had it wrong, but the words wouldn’t come. Instead, she could see the small, dark dots form in the concrete where Val’s tears met the ground.
Looking back up at Arras, not bothering to hide her tears or her anger, Val still couldn’t bring herself to say it—to say what she really wanted to say. Instead, she shook her head, teeth clenched, lips tight, groping for the words.
“You can’t even see it, can you?” she finally said under her breath.
Before anyone could say a thing, Val turned on her heel and retreated, wiping at her face, heading back to the vacant corner Danny had used as refuge before. No one followed her, though each of them wanted to.
“I… I didn’t mean to…” Arras, too, was found wanting for words.
Damon rested a hand on her shoulder. Arras looked up at him, her eyes wide, her mouth slightly open; she looked as if she had just made her first kill.
“Give her some room,” he said softly.
Arras looked from Damon to Danny, who was speechless as she was. Though she tried to look at Val in the distance, something in her couldn’t allow herself to do that. So she stared at her feet, left to wrestle inside her own head with what Val had so clearly pointed out—that which Arras wouldn’t allow herself to acknowledge, let alone countenance.
And so she did what she had always done before. She did what she had been trained to do, and what she had trained herself to do. Swallowing it all deep into the back of her mind, she refocused herself on the task at hand.
“We should leave immediately,” she said starkly.
With that, she headed for the edge of the platform, making her way to Virgil, leaving Damon and Danny without another word.