Chapter 21

 

Arras remembered experiences like this well.

When she was still a recruit, in training for tactical infantry, she had been wrestled violently from her cot in the night and knocked out cold—everyone else in the barracks received the same treatment.  By the time any of them woke up, they were already deep in forest outside the base.  She could remember well the heat of the sun, the damp air, the obfuscating foliage, the natural obstacles jutting from the thick soil—and what they had been tasked with.

Sixteen recruits in total, including Arras, were tossed into that forest, given nothing more than a hunting knife, a sidearm, and a few bullets.  They would be given three days to decide who among them was the most qualified for the Coalition’s armed forces.

This felt a lot like that day.

Tilting her head away from the lights above, she eased herself back into consciousness.  Once she recollected what had happened before she was knocked out, reminding herself that Danny had successfully escaped with the gunship, she gradually took inventory of her surroundings.

She could feel warm metal around her wrists, binding her to a table that was bolted into the concrete floor.  Her ankles were also bound, though they were connected with a longer chain, enough to allow her to shuffle her feet.  After tugging her wrists from the table to test the bindings, she surveyed the rest of the room.  No one was there to meet her.  In the corner of the ceiling was a small camera—she stared the camera down, wondering who was on the other end, staring back at her.

It was then that she noticed something around her throat.  Lowering her head to the table so her hands could reach whatever it was, she fingered a tot band, something that felt like a cross between fabric and rubber.  Though the choker didn’t chafe, there was still some disconcerting sensation between it and her neck.  Even working her fingers under the band, separating it from her skin, didn’t make the feeling go away.  Toward the back of the choker was a small piece of plastic, something held tightly against one of the vertebra of her spine.

She supposed this might be some other sort of restraint, though she didn’t bother to analyze it with her net.  Her head was swimming, but that wasn’t terribly uncommon for someone who had been knocked in the head the way she had been.

With a lazy creak, the door to the room opened inward, diverting Arras’ attention from the choker.  Two heavily-armed marines were the first to enter, their weapons already aimed at Arras.  She glowered at them, unimpressed.  It was the third entrant who caught her attention.

Arthur Emmerich closed the door behind him and took a seat across the table from Arras.  For a while he just stared at her, as if he was at a loss for what to say.  Arras decided she would not be the one to speak first either; instead, she waited to hear what this conniving man could possibly have to say now.

At last, he seemed to find the words.

“I imagine you might be a little confused, so I thought it might be best if we spoke personally.”

Arras said nothing, but that was all the response she needed to give.  Her silence alone seemed to discomfort Arthur.  For whatever reason, it was clear to her that the smug man she had met on that roof in Ithaca almost a week ago wasn’t here.

Clearing his throat, intertwining his fingers, Arthur leaned over the table.

“A few days ago, when you… showed me those things…  I reported back to my people, and, after careful consideration—”

“Our answer wasn’t good enough for them,” Arras said starkly.

“Yes and no,” Arthur conceded as he adjusted himself in his seat, avoiding looking at her directly for any more than a couple seconds.  “Your argument was convincing, to say the least.  Perhaps more convincing than you had planned.  When you made your… presentation, there was one key detail I picked up, which my superiors found... compelling.”

“Compelling—in what way?”

“This is about Rededication, Arras,” he said squarely.  “I need you to be honest with me.  It doesn’t know where Earth is, does it?”

“Not yet, no.”

“That was what I surmised from the info you shared with me.  You see, initially we thought you and your friends were just a few miscreants of some sort, people who had stumbled on something they shouldn’t have.  Then we realized that we were dealing with specialists—you knew exactly what you had, and you knew how to use it.”

“Cut to the chase, Arthur,” Arras said sharply.

 “There was another change in plans,” Arthur said, as if confessing his involvement in some crime.  “When I reported what you told me, that one detail stuck out to everyone: Rededication, this weapon of mass destruction—mass extinction—doesn’t actually know where we are.”

Though the pieces were starting to slide in place for her, Arras let Arthur continue uninterrupted.

“Our people are concerned,” he concluded, “concerned about your actions.  They— we’ve determined that if Rededication does not know Earth’s location, then it would be best to keep it that way.”

“Agreed.  That doesn’t explain why I’m handcuffed to a table.”

Straightening up, feeling goaded, Arthur said, “Our government has concluded that it is too dangerous to allow you or your people to continue engaging Rededication, for fear that you will lead it back to this planet, where we have no means of defending ourselves.  Not from…”  He seemed to shudder at the memories of what Arras had shown him that day, the images of sheer carnage.  “Not from something like that.”

“The only reason we’ve ever ‘engaged’ Rededication,” Arras said, “was because we knew we were capable of destroying it.  Our weapon wasn’t built to struggle against Rededication—it was meant to eviscerate it without resistance.”

“And is that how things have worked out for you so far?  Have you managed to destroy Rededication without a real fight?”

“No,” Arras said simply, “because you and your people have gone to great lengths to interrupt us.”

“Don’t tease me, please,” Arthur breathed.

Something about him, this almost pleading tone, and his seemingly unconditional submission to her, left Arras wondering.

“I need to know,” continued Arthur.  “Have you and your people been able to combat Rededication, or has it indeed been a struggle?”

Studying him for a moment, Arras gauged her response.

“Rededication is comprised of eight weapons platforms,” she explained, as if his concerns were simply misplaced.  “As of right now, we’ve destroyed two.  The rest are being located as we speak.”

“My people don’t care—!”

Arthur stopped himself short, calming down as much as he could before continuing.

“They don’t care how much you’ve managed to destroy.  They care that it’s not done yet, and that it’s apparently taken multiple trips to and from our planet to get as far as you have.  It’s been decided that leaving you and the others to freely contact Rededication as you have is far more perilous to our planet than allowing this super-weapon its space.”

“You’re joking.”

“Our attempts to bring you, Daniel Eick, Damon Hale, and Valiya into custody—they’re because we can no longer allow you to leave Earth.”

“Well, congratulations,” Arras said, lifting her cuffed wrists.  “You managed to catch me.”

“We have.  And you should know the only reason you’re still alive is because you’re needed.”

“I can only imagine.  Let me guess: you want to know where my people are.”

“Yes,” Arthur said with a nod, “but that’s not all.  You stole back your ship, and that’s an incredible setback for us.  However, I have a feeling that such a tradeoff won’t matter so much, since we now have you.”

“They don’t need me to complete the mission.”

“That doesn’t change the fact that we need you.  First, we want the location of your people and your ship so we can bring them in.”

“First…” Arras repeated to herself.  Something already felt wrong to her.  “Well, that’s not going to happen, so you might as well tell me what else you want.”

“Locating your partners and your ship are only part of our response to the situation we’re in,” Arthur said firmly.

The more times he had to say it, the more Arthur’s own will power seemed to leave him, like delivering a eulogy, not a declaration of victory.

“What is it you want from me, Arthur?” Arras asked, wondering what might be going on in the head of this suffering man.

“Not me,” he confessed weakly, as if finally giving up.  “I’m not the one who wants this.”

Before Arras could pry any further, the door opened once again.  Flanked over the shoulders by two men in dark suits, there stood a woman.  Somewhat aged, her face was at once beautiful and worn by conflict, framed by swoops of short, blond hair.

“That’s quite enough, Arthur,” she said as she stepped into the room, her heels clicking aggressively against the floor.  “We don’t want to give our guest the wrong impression.”

While Arras watched the woman out of curiosity alone, Arthur looked more like a teenager caught with his hand in the liquor cabinet.  He couldn’t seem to bring himself to respond, though the woman didn’t seem to care.  Instead, she smiled down at Arras—the curl in her lips broadcasted her authority.

“I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to finally meet you.”

“I’m sure the feeling’s mutual,” Arras replied coldly.  “Who are you?”

Not moved in the least by such frankness, the woman positioned herself close to Arras, towering over her—an intimidation tactic that might have made anyone else nervous.

“My name is Henrietta Ridge.  You might say I’m the one who called you here today.”

“Are you the commanding officer, then?” Arras asked.

Conscious once again of her handcuffs, she started to feel strangely anxious, as if this woman just might attack her at any moment.

“You might say that,” Henrietta conceded.  “Tell me, how familiar are you with our country?  Do you understand how our government operates?”

In actuality, Arras had seen the US in its infancy, though even after having leafed through a number of histories upon first reawakening, she could still feel the gap of two centuries gap.  Still, she was fairly certain she already knew what Henrietta was getting at.

“I know enough,” Arras responded.  “It take it you’re the successor to George Washington, then?”

Looking delighted with her answer, Henrietta turned to Arthur.

“She really is quite sharp.”

Her smile growing, she squatted down next to the table, bringing herself to Arras’ eye-level.

“You’re absolutely correct—I am the president of the United States.  I hope you’ll forgive our rather brash approach, but I simply had to meet you in person.”

“What do you want from me?” Arras asked pointblank, growing tired of the show these people seemed to be putting on.

“You must think we’re terrible people,” Henrietta said, sounding almost pouty, while yet maintaining the dignity of her office.  “You’re absolutely right, there’s so much to discuss.  But before all that, there’s something I’d like to show you—something that I hope will show you we’re not the bad guys, and certainly not your enemy.”

With absolute authority, Henrietta directed the marines standing guard to prepare to transport Arras.  They removed Arras’ handcuffs and the shackles around her ankles, leaving her confused.  As the marines lifted Arras from her seat, she kept her eyes on Henrietta.  At first, she thought this president might have simply put an unrealistic amount of faith in Arras, but then she realized the truth—those bindings were only for show.

Madam President Henrietta Ridge didn’t trust Arras; she simply knew she was in charge of the situation, and Arras was not.

Shoved through empty corridors, orbited by a number of rifles, following Henrietta and a squeamish Arthur, Arras tried to get her bearings.  Nothing about this place seemed familiar, no markings or architectural giveaways indicated where she might be, or even what kind of facility they may have taken her to.  She thought about reaching out to her father now, but decided against it.  There was no telling how soon Danny and the others would come for her once she relayed her location through Aurin, and there was still so much to figure out.  For the time being, she decided, it would be best to hold out.

 At last, they came to a normal looking door; had it not been for the guards outside, no one would find anything interesting about it.  Henrietta allowed herself through without missing a beat, with Arthur and Arras in tow.

They entered a mess hall.  The tables and chairs had been pushed up against the walls, leaving the middle of the room open.  And there, watching Arras and her entourage of guards enter, stood three people.

“Arianna?” Laura asked incredulously, approaching Arras as she stepped into the room.

Arras was pushed forward by one of the marines, left to stand on her own.  Once she reached Laura, she was surprised by a sudden embrace.

“What are you doing here?” Laura asked as she pulled Arras close, before leaning out just enough to get a good look at her.  “You’re all beaten up.  Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Arras assured her, smiling pleasantly back.

It had been some time since she had last seen Danny’s mother, yet Laura acted as if she had known “Arianna” for years now.

Over Laura’s shoulder, Arras could see a young man, no more than eighteen years, accompanied by another man she knew well.

“Milo, Eli.”

“H-hey,” Milo stuttered back.  “Good to see you again.”

“To say the least,” Eli added, grinning at Arras, causing her to smile a little more.  “Is this our grand rescue, or have you just come to join the party?”

“You always throw the best parties, Eli,” Arras said with a tired smirk.  “Though you should probably be more cautious about who you invite.”

The whole interaction felt far more casual than she would’ve expected, as if they had simply run into each other on the street.  Though the reality of it all returned to her soon enough.

“Arianna,” said Laura, “I…  Well, I need to know.  No one’s told us anything here.  My son, is Danny okay?”

Instantly Arras remembered watching Danny slide out of the cargo plane with their gunship; she could even remember seeing him take off.  Though she hadn’t seen everything, she knew the air support around the plane wouldn’t be enough to stop him then.

With a nod, Arras said, “Yes, he’s just fine.”

The relief on Laura’s face was more than apparent as she said, “Good, I’m glad.”

Laura looked over Arras’ shoulder, scowling back at the people watching them from the doorway.

“They won’t explain why any of us are here,” she told Arras, “but they want you and Danny.  Damon, too.”

“I know,” Arras said in a low voice.  She put her hand to Laura’s face and brought her close.  “We’re taking care of it.  But I need the three of you to stay out of trouble.”

Laura needed no help understanding what Arras was really telling her.

“We’ll behave ourselves.”

“Thank you.”

Arras looked back at Milo and Eli.

“Are the rest of you okay?” she asked.

“Fine,” Milo said simply.

“Yes, yes,” Eli answered.  “Other than abducting us from our respective schools, they’ve been quite cordial.”

“Like I said,” Henrietta interjected, positioning herself only a couple feet behind Arras, “we’re not the bad guys here.  As you can see, everyone we’ve brought into custody is alive and well.”

“I try to help my students understand just how relative labels like ‘bad guys’ are,” Laura shot back.  “And for the record, I never voted for you.”

“That’s fine, I never voted for you either.”

Henrietta put a hand on Arras’ shoulder, pulling her away from Laura.

“Now that we’ve confirmed your friends are in good health and spirits,” she said, “I’m sorry to say we’ll need to move on.  Our tour isn’t over quite yet.”

Though Arras was ready to protest such a quick departure, Laura held her hand tightly, getting her attention.

“It’s alright, sweetie,” Laura told her.  “You go on ahead.  I’m sure we’ll see you again soon.”

Taking strength from her words, Arras tried to reassure her in turn.

“Thank you, Laura.  I’ll see all of you later.”

With that, Arras was hastily removed from the mess hall, pulled by her arms back into the bowels of whatever place this was.  Location didn’t matter so much to Arras, though; she didn’t need to know where she was.  All she needed to do was forward her location to her father, and her rescue would come.

Soon enough, but not yet, she told herself.  There was still something else she needed to deduce, and she had a feeling Henrietta was already eager to show her.