Virgil led them through the sewers, though neither Damon nor Arras holstered their weapons as they went. They hiked the dank and dark tunnels for several blocks until the agent declared they had arrived, standing at the bottom of a rusted ladder.
Damon put a hand on Virgil’s shoulder before he could climb the ladder first. Then, looking back at Danny, he asked, “Would you mind taking the lead?”
“Yeah, sure” Danny stuttered in response.
It took him a second to process what Damon had actually asked him; he hadn’t stopped thinking about what had happened back on the abandoned platform. Neither Arras nor Val would look at each other, let alone stand close to one another. The animosity seemed to bleed from them onto the rest of the group, too, coagulating into anxious uncertainty. Had it been nothing more than an argument, he would be inclined to tell them to get over it. But this was different—he knew that much, and so did everyone else.
Danny shuffled past the others and started up the ladder. With an armored arm he quietly set aside the heavy metal disk blocking the way out. He lifted himself onto the damp asphalt of another alleyway, boxed in on both sides by chain-link fences. As if on instinct, Ridarin documented all nearby energy sources and moving objects, displaying the hits over Danny’s eyes. When Suo gave a wordless confirmation, he whispered back down into the sewer that the coast was clear.
Val was the next one up; Danny helped her out of the hole and to the side as Virgil came up right behind her. Then Damon, followed by Arras.
Clearly annoyed by the process, Virgil approached a locked door to one of the buildings boxing them in.
“If I’m going to assist you,” he said “we’ll first need to develop some trust.”
“Trust is earned,” Arras replied coldly. “Blindly trusting others is how you get killed.”
With a shrug, Virgil unlocked the door and pushed his way inside. “Perhaps, but trusting others can also save one’s life.”
Virgil ushered them down a short hall, through a small room that was only occupied by a lone vending machine, and into a capacious parking garage. From there, they took an elevator to the top level, which was empty except for a Toyota Corolla and a Nissan Altima. Nothing about the vehicles stuck out; they were new enough to fit in with traffic, but not so new that they would attract any attention.
“We have our teams, then,” Virgil said, pulling two car keys from his coat pocket. He tossed the Corolla’s key to Danny and the Altima’s key to Damon. “Now, are we satisfied, or would you like to trade?”
“What do I do with the car when I’m finished with it?” Danny asked, unlocking the car to take a look inside. “It’s not like it’s coming home with me.”
“The vehicle itself is of no concern,” Virgil answered. “You can leave it wherever. Your pursuers wouldn’t be able to do anything with it even if they did find it.”
“Excuse me,” Damon said, pulling Danny from the car and away from everyone else, “but there’s something we need to discuss.”
“Sure, sure,” Virgil sighed.
As Damon and Danny spoke alone at a far corner, Arras stared into the glared windows of the Corolla. In their reflection, she watched Val lean against the Altima a couple spaces down. Shoving her hands into her pockets, Arras thought of what to do. Not much time had passed since their argument, but it seemed as if Val had at least cooled down—so had Arras. As much as she wanted to despise Val for what she had said, there was a part of her that wouldn’t allow that, a part that refused to let herself think Val was wrong—the same part of Arras that also refused to acknowledge what Val had even meant.
Her fingers loosening, her whole frame easing up, Arras decided the best thing she could do was at least settle things with Val—if for no other reason than to keep the mission moving.
She approached quietly, though not so quietly Val wouldn’t notice her. Without a word, Arras leaned against the car with her.
There they stood for some time. Feeling her courage threaten to recede, Arras worked herself up once again.
“I’ve clearly upset you, I won’t deny that.”
Val didn’t say anything, so Arras decided to continue.
“Before we separate, though, I… I want to apologize. Anything I’ve done, anything I’m going to do… All of it—it’s all to destroy Rededication. That’s all I’m after.”
Val let out a disgusted hiss, looking away from Arras.
“You still don’t get it at all.”
Feeling her anger return, that sympathy in her atrophying, Arras tightened her fists again.
“What do I not get, then?” she asked Val.
“If I have to explain it—”
“You keep trying to convince yourself that you’re taking some noble path.” Val said in a low, almost ghostly, voice, as if absent. “In reality, all you’re doing is deluding yourself, claiming you’re doing this just so you can get back on the same path you and your family started… as if any of this has to do with Rededication.”
“Val, I don’t—”
“You say this is all for the mission,” Val pressed on, as if Arras wasn’t even there. “Then you say it’s for this planet. You’re lying, though—to me, to everyone else—and most of all to yourself.”
“If you have something to tell me, Valiya, then just say it already.”
Though Arras was still confused, and though she had to push back against her growing irritation, Val still looked disturbingly calm—like a shade who had long since died.
“It’s staring you right in the face, and you still don’t see it,” Val said. “This was how things were in the New Pact, when you showed up; and you so cavalierly did what damage you could, only to leave my people to kill themselves. And you were fine with that, just so long as you could stay one or two steps ahead of them. For some reason, I was okay with that, too… But now we’re in the same situation as before, and suddenly you’re concerned for this world—and all because of him…”
Holding back those same tears from before, and the fury that came with them, Val ignored Arras still—or, at least, she tried to.
“You never cared about my world, Arras. You never cared about Nulem…”
“This is about him? All of this because you’re worried about your lover? Sorry, Valiya, but this is bigger than you and—”
With a swift lunge and a crack that carried through the whole level of the parking garage, Val slammed her palm across Arras’ face with enough force to cause Arras to stumble against the Altima.
Arras’ eyes were wide, caught between wondering what had happened and why. She looked up at Val, who glared back at her with purest fury.
“You hypocritical bitch!”
Barely able to draw breath, caught in the shock of it all, Arras couldn’t respond.
“Go!” Val screamed at her. “Just go!”
Without a word, Arras lifted herself from the sedan and made her way back across the lot, still processing everything. Her face burned, sore on the side that took the ferocious smack, hot on all sides with a kind of embarrassment she hadn’t felt since she was a child.
“What the hell just happened?” Danny asked as Arras approached, coming back from his private conversation with Damon.
“Nothing, it’s fine,” Arras muttered.
“That’s nothing?” Danny persisted as Damon and Virgil watched. “What’s going on?”
“I said it’s nothing!”
Danny wanted to keep questioning her, but when he saw her face, that dying light in her eyes, he decided to drop it. Yet, even while he tried to let it go, he still wanted to say something, anything—it was as if she needed to be consoled, not questioned.
“Let’s go,” Arras said in a weak voice, getting into the car, sinking in the front passenger’s seat.
Damon, Virgil, and Danny traded looks with each other; Val had already disappeared into the Altima, leaving them alone with each other.
“What was that?” Danny mouthed at Damon.
“I’ll try to take care of it on my end,” Damon said with a nod. “It’ll be fine. Just do what you need to do.”
Seeing no other alternative, Danny wished them luck and got into the Corolla.
Damon and Virgil headed to the Altima as Danny drove himself and Arras out of the parking garage, down the ramping levels, and out onto the street.
Opening the back door to the Altima, Damon leaned into the car, finding Val already seated inside. He handed her his cane, and when she grabbed it, he held his end still.
“Will you be all right, my dear?” he asked softly.
They stared at each other for a few seconds before she gave a small nod, looking away hurriedly. With that much, he and Virgil took their seats at the front two seats; Damon started the car, letting it idle in its spot.
“I can lead you to the safe house from memory,” Virgil told Damon. “Are you ready?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” Damon answered, backing out of the parking spot.
“Take I-78,” Virgil directed as they left the garage, “and proceed until I tell you.”
“Is the interstate really the wisest option?” Damon asked as they found the busy highway. “Won’t they be looking for us?”
“Not likely,” Virgil said without a care. “Were you their usual brand of terrorists, then perhaps they might set up checkpoints. However, after last night’s debacle, they’re scared to death of engaging your weapon again. I’m certain they have other methods, but they won’t find us.”
Though Damon would check with him periodically, Virgil remained silent most of the way, only speaking to tell Damon that he should indeed stay on the interstate. However, before entering Philadelphia, Damon decided to break that silence completely.
“This safe house you have in mind, tell me more about it.”
“Still don’t trust me?”
“It would help if I knew more about where you’re taking us.”
“It’s a house in a rural part of the state, hidden in the hills. The surroundings are remote enough for Daniel to land the ship and even conceal it without attracting attention—that is, if it can cloak itself as Arras says it can.”
“If she said it, then it’s true,” Damon said flatly.
“And what about the things I say?” Virgil asked, watching Damon from the corner of his eye, resting his head against his fist. “You have nothing to fear from me. As I said before, my government is more interested in seeing you succeed than in handing you over.”
“I’m sure,” Damon said with an ambiguous tone. “However, what Arras said before—that trust is earned, not simply given—there’s a deep truth to that.”
Without batting an eye, Damon took a sudden exit off the interstate, driving into a small town. Virgil watched passively as they weaved their way through the sleepy streets of a town Damon seemed to know almost by heart.
“Valiya, if you would,” Damon said as he drove.
Virgil felt a gentle hand rest on his shoulder, a finger pressed softly to his neck. What felt like a constant static fizzed through his skin, causing his hairs to stand on end, as Val scanned his body with her nano-net.
Val reached into his left pocket, removing a cell phone, which she fried in her hand with her net. She reached back again to the back of his belt, pulling a Glock 17 Gen4 from the holster beneath his coat, setting it in the back seat.
“Besides the cell phone, he doesn’t have anything that could track him,” Val reported to Damon.
“They didn’t even tag you,” Damon observed, not taking his eyes off the road.
“My people sent me here with a certain task,” Virgil explained, sounding more frustrated than afraid. “They knew I was capable. Constantly watching over my shoulder would be a brilliant way to tip off the Americans to what would normally be considered a breach in international law.”
“How fascinating,” sighed Damon disinterestedly as he drove onto a vacant road outside the small town. “All that aside, do me a favor and sit still.”
The heavy clicking of his own Glock being cocked beside his head made Virgil comply, though he maintained his composure still.
After a few miles into the empty backroads, Damon pulled over.
“Now,” he said, putting the car in park, “if you would kindly get out of the vehicle…”
Virgil sat wordlessly for a moment before doing as he was told. Val and Damon exited the Altima on the opposite side to avoid any sudden counterattacks. Keeping the Glock low and out of sight, Val stayed near the car, holding Virgil at bay while Damon sat on the side of the hood, his cane against his shoulder.
“I want to trust you, Virgil,” Damon said seriously, locking eyes with the MI6 agent. “However, in our mutual field, you of all people should know that I can’t simply grant you full access to our most vital assets.”
“I understand, though this is a rather cheeky way of going about it.” Virgil kept an appropriate distance from the two of them, though not so much that they would be suspicious of him trying to flee. “What’s to be done, then? How can I convince you to trust me?”
“You can’t,” said Damon simply, waving a hand. “That doesn’t mean we won’t figure this out, though. You see, I was nervous about sending Arras with Daniel, but I know she can handle herself. I also know that the US considers that gunship far too important to use as bait to lure us out, or as a tracker to find us after our little heist.”
“And until you can trust me,” Virgil pieced together, “you can’t trust my safe house.”
“It’s not a flawless plan, I admit,” Damon said, “but plans are seldom perfect when you make them on the fly. But there’s nothing on you that could lead your people or ours to us, which means we can have a pleasant, uneventful afternoon in Pennsylvania while we await Daniel’s return.”
“A flawed plan, indeed,” Virgil said stoically. “How do you know my trap wasn’t going to be at the safe house, once you believed the ship was again in your possession?”
“Call it a gut feeling,” Damon went on, undaunted. “If you know as much about us as you claim, then you know that you don’t stand a chance against us if Daniel is around.” With a smile, he raised his eyebrows at Virgil. “Therefore, if there is a trap—whether set by you or the US—it will be at JFK. So we wait.”
“And if Daniel comes back unscathed, his mission accomplished?” Virgil asked.
“Then I will welcome you to our little team, personally.”
Damon spread his arms and bowed his head hospitably. His teasing dissolved, however, as he watched Virgil stand almost helplessly at gunpoint.
“The truth is,” Damon said, “I do trust you. Really, I do. But it’s not simply me and a few youths making that gamble; we have the fates of countless lives resting upon us. Any decision I make concerning you… it’s not for our safety. It’s for the safety of every human being on this planet, and several others. We need your help, Virgil—desperately—but I won’t put anyone else’s life but my own on the line to receive it.”
Letting his arms flop to his sides, Virgil capitulated. He could hear it in Damon’s voice, what he had heard in a number of world leaders and military personnel, as well as members of Parliament—even Her Majesty at one point. It was the voice of someone who carried the world on their shoulders, and who refused to let it tumble to the ground, who would die before letting the burdensome globe shatter.
“We wait, then,” Virgil finally said.