The trip began in silence, as Danny expected. He gave her a few minutes to calm down, letting Arras recompose herself as he drove sluggishly through traffic, on their way out of Manhattan. Once the redness in her ears had faded, he thought it might be safe to speak.
“I don’t want to talk about it.” She stared out the window, watching the other cars inch their way forward all around them. “I shouldn’t have pushed her. It was my fault.”
Danny did a double-take, reviewing her words to himself; the fact that she was taking the blame for this surprised him.
“We’re all on edge right now, and it’s only natural that it would get to some of us,” he said. “But I’m sure Val will cool off soon enough.”
“I said I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Good, because I didn’t want to talk about it either.”
This time Arras was the one to do a double-take, pulling herself from the window. She glanced at Danny, though only for a second before staring down at the dashboard.
“Look,” he continued, “my opinion of you hasn’t changed in the past four months, let alone the past twenty-four hours. I don’t know what’s going on between you and Val, but I know you’ll figure it out. What I want to talk about is what we’re about to do.”
“You know the plan,” she said simply, sinking back into her chair. “If Virgil’s telling the truth, then everything should go smoothly; if there’s an issue, you just take the ship by force.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about either.”
Danny looked away the traffic for a moment, his expression more melancholic than usual.
“I won’t ask what’s going through your head, why you’ve been acting the way you have lately,” he told her. “I know you’re worried about your mom, and Ila. But whatever else you may be thinking…”
He tightened his grip on the steering wheel and forced himself to keep his eyes off of her, though now she was staring back at him. There was an uncharacteristic look in her eye, something like perplexity, leading to concern.
“You don’t have to do this,” he finally said. “I can get the ship alone, and you can drive the car to the rendezvous. Damon gave me some coordinates I can transfer to you, and I’m sure you can use your net to figure out the car.”
“It’s pivotal that we find out what these people really have,” she said as a matter of fact, her stern air returning.
“I know, but…”
Danny sighed, accepting defeat this time. Even so, he still had one last thing to tell her.
“Whatever happens, Arras,” he managed to say, “please, don’t put yourself in danger, not if you don’t have to.”
She could feel that same irritation from before coming back, though she curbed it quickly. Still looking back at Danny, she thought he looked much the way he did on that subway platform, when Virgil told him his family had been taken—that look of helplessness.
“I’ll be careful,” she conceded, turning to look back out the window.
The congested traffic started to clear as they continued on to Queens; neither of them spoke the rest of the way to JFK.
Arriving at the airport, they passed through a security checkpoint; when they were asked for their IDs, they put to use the fake ones Damon had included in their go-bags. With security’s approval, they proceeded to a packed parking lot. Picking a space near the edge, farthest from the rest of the airport, they began their trek.
Virgil had provided highly specific directions, which took them through the vacant halls of one of the airport’s terminals. Though neither of them really knew where they were, making them more anxious than they already were, no one came to stop them. In fact, they didn’t encounter a soul.
Down another empty hall, they could see the exit to the runways ahead. Just beyond the door they could hear the roar of engines and the sounds of crews loading and unloading the planes.
Before they pushed their way outside, Danny suited up.
“You sure this’ll work?” he asked as Ridarin engaged its cloak.
“Ridarin has no real limits except for those you and my mother allow,” Arras whispered as the cloak spread from his own body to his immediate surroundings. “It’s just a matter of whether or not you can sustain the cloak.”
“I’ll make it work,” Danny assured her.
Though he didn’t fully understand how it worked, that didn’t matter—it was almost like breathing, an action that came so naturally. Danny waited until he was sure Arras was within the cloak; once she was behind the bending streams of light, Arras held onto Danny’s arm.
“So you don’t run ahead of me,” she told him.
Danny pushed the door open and, huddled together, they stepped out onto the runways.
Ridarin displayed a readout of the directions Virgil had dictated to Danny before, guiding him through mostly unoccupied portions of the concrete strips, until he could see their destination. The sounds of nearby planes idling as passengers climbed aboard made them less nervous about concealing their footsteps.
They could see the massive cargo plane sitting patiently at the far end of the four runways. At the back of the plane, and a handful of armed men were already making their way up the ramp and into the gargantuan aircraft.
Neither Danny nor Arras breathed a word as they scuttled alongside the plane, past its muscular landing gear, and around the plane’s lowered ramp.
Stepping lighter than he ever thought possible, Danny risked a glance or two at Arras as they moved; she seemed perfectly collected, totally in her element. He sometimes forgot she really had been trained for this, and much more.
With the sound of heavy boots against metal deck to camouflage their own soft steps, the two of them stepped up the ramp and into the cargo compartment.
Occupying almost the entirety of the hold was a large container, the very one from Damon’s warehouse. With Ridarin’s assistance, Danny stared through the container’s wall, confirming that their gunship was inside. He looked down at Arras and gave her a nod to confirm his discovery.
As a few people in military flight gear slid their way between the walls of the otherwise roomy compartment and the cumbersome container they had managed to slide into the C-5, Danny and Arras followed in their tracks. Timing their movements so as to not accidentally get too close to someone—or, worse yet, stumble into them—they crept deeper into the belly of the plane.
Pressed close to the back of the container, their arms still intertwined to maintain close proximity, they waited. Neither of them was sure how long they would be there, but they both agreed this was necessary to the plan; as messy as things had already become, they would only get worse if civilians at JFK were to see some alien spacecraft rocketing out the back of a military cargo plane.
Cloaked yet in plain sight, Danny couldn’t help but sweat; every person to pass them, every wandering eye that happened to pass over them, made his whole body tense up. Each time he jolted under someone’s unsuspecting gaze or at a nearby footstep, Arras would squeeze his arm, as if to remind him to keep calm.
Almost an hour passed before the sound of veering machinery filled the compartment. The natural lighting from outside disappeared as the ramp was raised, and the few remaining airmen in the compartment strapped themselves into small seats lining the walls. Nothing about their accommodations looked standard; both Danny and Arras concluded that the military had prepared for some sort of conflict. Though their relief was evident as the plane prepared for takeoff, Danny felt almost sorry for all of them—there was no way they would see Ridarin coming, not really. When everything began, he knew he would find these people completely unprepared.
A short while later, the plane started to move. Leaning back against the anchored container, both Arras and Danny prepared themselves for takeoff as the C-5 pulled out onto its designated runway. The growing noise from the engines, like the sound of waterfalls, accompanied the growing G-force as the plane accelerated down the strip. With a single lurch, the landing gear left the ground and the Galaxy took to the air.
Watching everyone strapped to the walls hold to their seats, Danny and Arras waited a few more minutes. Through their own nets, they monitored the plane’s altitude, biding their time until they reached their preplanned elevation.
Extending his hand, Danny materialized a stun-gun. Snatching it from the air, the weapon expanded and pulsed with light. Turning his faintly glowing eyes down to Arras, he waited for her approval.
When she gave him a nod, the operation began in earnest.
The moment Ridarin cancelled stealth mode, Arras darted around the container for cover as Danny sprinted forward.
The looks on the airmen’s faces in those few seconds told Danny just how off their guard these men were—something about it made him sick to his stomach. As Danny pulled the stunner’s trigger, before anyone else could raise their weapons, several strings of electricity sprouted into the compartment, skittering all around the contained area, snapping at the airmen like vipers. The charge was non-lethal—Danny had made certain of that in their preparations—but it would be enough to get through their body armor.
Even after the light show ended, Danny stayed still, trying to catch his breath, as if he had just run a marathon. He stared at the uniformed bodies hanging from their straps on the walls—US Air Force mostly, plus a few from the Marine Corps. Though none of them wore Army patches, Danny resisted the urge to think of his own father. Each of these people could’ve been just like him, just like Eddy Eick from the unknown town of Fayette, New York.
To have openly attacked these people made Danny tremble where he stood; regardless of what had happened these past few days to bring him here, he still felt like a villain. Yet, gritting his teeth, he swept those feelings aside.
If he had to be a lion to men and women who deserved a lamb, in order to keep them and everyone else out of Rededication’s reticle—then he would do what he had to do.
The screech of metal rubbing against metal knocked him out of his reflections. Turning around, he watched Arras open the container, revealing the front of their ship. He walked over and stood beside her, staring into the vessel’s empty interior through the canopy. Though it had only been about a week, it felt like it had been years since they had last seen the ship.
“You know what to do, right?” Arras asked as they stepped into the container.
“Don’t do anything, and let your mom handle everything?”
“More or less.”
“Yeah, I got it.”
Arras put her hand on the hatch; the cold metal sponged the warmth from her palm as she linked to the craft, scanning it thoroughly.
“It looks like they were never able to activate it,” she said, her eyes vacant, her net busy at work. “And they haven’t bugged it either.”
“Guess they really didn’t see us coming, then.”
“In any case, we should be good to go.”
The hatch opened with a hiss as she removed her hand. They stood together on the ship’s retracted wing, looking into the rear-cabin.
“Remember when we fought Surcease?” Arras suddenly asked.
Danny could see Arras looking fondly into the ship, smiling.
“You mean when I almost blew up the whole station trying to get him?” he asked with a smirk.
“I mean what you said before you went in for the last fight… at the lift,” she corrected him. “You told me that you hoped that wouldn’t be the last time we would see each other.”
Still smiling, she hopped down from the wing and exited the container. Without saying a word, and with Danny unwilling to break her silence, Arras manually unbuckled the cables anchoring the container down. With the lines loosened, she stood at the opening of the container again, thinking about something Danny could not perceive.
Watching her closely, still not breathing a word, he removed his helmet to see her with his own eyes.
Glancing back at him one last time, Arras seemed to clear her mind, at least enough to say one more thing.
“I think I know what you meant back then.”
With that, she turned around and marched to the back of the compartment, heading for the electrical equipment on the back wall. Through those minor circuits alone, she would get into the rest of the plane, prepping for Danny’s escape while intentionally tripping the plane’s Malfunction Detection Analysis and Recording system.
“Hey, Arras,” Danny called after her. When she looked back him, he grinned. “Don’t make it sound like a goodbye. I’ll see you soon.”
She nodded back at him, and her smile remained.
“See you then.”
As Danny entered the ship’s cockpit and strapped himself into the pilot’s seat, Arras put her hands to a few switches near the compartment’s exit, lowering the wide ramp behind them. Immediately in response, a blaring siren kicked in, screaming over the billowing rush of air outside the plane.
The door at the back of the compartment opened and a handful of armed marines poured through. A few of them surrounded Arras, holding her at gunpoint, while the rest ran toward the ship.
Arras and Danny locked eyes for one last second; with a firm nod, she told him to go ahead. Denying himself any sort of hesitation, Danny booted up the ship’s stern thrusters.
With the ship’s synthetic gravity not yet activated, he felt his stomach rising into his throat as he, the ship, and the container altogether slid out of the C-5. Arras disappeared into the belly of the plane as he departed, freefalling the moment the container left the ramp.
Caught in a violent spin, the container shattered to pieces and flaked away from the gunship. Aided by Ridarin’s own muscle, Danny brought his hands through the weight of acceleration to the controls. With a blast that put the Galaxy to shame, the ship’s rockets kicked in as the vertical-lift engines leveled the vessel out. The synthetic gravity activated, negating the G-force that rocked Danny in his seat. From there, he communicated with Suo on unconscious wavelengths, wordless psychic impulses; together, they brought the ship back under control and began their ascent.
Danny caught glimpses of two F-35s twirling around him at a distance, though the ship managed to ascend faster than they could engage. The scanner sounded no alerts, and escape velocity came and went effortlessly. In less than a minute, Danny and Suo left the atmosphere altogether. The ship automatically engaged its stealth systems before decelerating and entering orbit, leaving nothing to potentially give away its trajectory—nothing to allow anyone a second chance to steal their only way off the planet.
Laying his head back, he relaxed in his seat, letting Suo take care of everything else. With the coordinates set, and their landing zone already picked out, all he had to do now was wait.
So he closed his eyes, though only for a few seconds. He was waiting, he knew, but it didn’t feel like waiting to land. No, this anticipation had to do with Arras—already waiting for her.
It was dusk when he landed among unpopulated hills. Before beginning his walk to the others, he made sure he had networked Ridarin into the vessel before sending it back up into orbit, still cloaked—where this time he hoped it would be safer.
“There’s our hero,” Damon said when he saw Danny, his relief more than evident.
“Everything went as planned,” Danny informed them, catching sight of the Glock in Val’s hand, aimed at Virgil, who sat placidly on the grass. “Looks like he was telling the truth after all.”
Damon politely requested the gun from Val, then approached Virgil, offering him a hand and lifting him to his feet.
Looking back down at the gun, Virgil realized Damon was holding the weapon by the muzzle, offering it to him by the grip. Though neither of them said a word, they seemed to share an entire conversation with each other—when the silent interaction ended, both men seemed to look at one another with a sort of respect, perhaps even admiration.
Virgil took the Glock and tucked it safely back into its holster.
“Welcome to our merry band,” said Damon, “and America’s most wanted list.”
“An honor,” said Virgil. “Mother would be proud.”
Piling back into the car, with Damon at the wheel, they made their way back to the interstate.
In the back, Val chanced a few glances at Danny, though she couldn’t bring herself to speak to him. By the time she worked up the courage to ask him how things went, she realized he had fallen asleep. Even with the bumpy roads, he was out like a light.
Val decided not to wake him. Instead, she followed his example, making up for the hours of sleep she had lost in the past couple days. Regardless of her own exhaustion, however, she was glad he had made it back in one piece; and despite everything else, she was surprised to find herself also wondering if Arras would be all right as she gradually fell asleep.