Chapter 22

 

More questions began to prick at Arras the longer they walked.  In time, she decided which ones might be safe to ask.

“You seem pretty confident,” Arras said, getting increased attention from her armed escorts.  “I don’t know many military commanders who would allow their prisoner to walk around unchained, let alone show them time with their people.”

“I’m sure you know why many commanders would never do such a thing,” Henrietta replied simply.  “It’s because they’re afraid of their prisoner.  Even prisoners, if given an inch, can still take a mile.  But that’s what it means to be a real prisoner, Arras—to lose every possible inch.”

She stopped dead, prompting the rest of the group to do the same.  Turning on her heel, Henrietta took a step closer to Arras.

“There’s no denying that you’re well trained,” she admitted.  “But please don’t underestimate us as we initially underestimated you.  Any suspicious movements, and we won’t hesitate to put you down.”  She aimed one of her painted nails at her own neck.  “Your collar is remotely operated and constantly monitored.  If you so much as sneeze in the wrong direction…”

Feeling a chill, Arras raised her hand to the choker, pulling at it gingerly.  That same strange sensation returned to her, like bugs crawling under her skin, circling her neck.  Nothing about this device scared her before, yet now something seemed abnormal—almost otherworldly, even for her.

“You’ll notice that little pack positioned directly over your spine,” Henrietta added.  “That is a low-grade explosive.  Attempt to remove that collar manually or leave this base—or, for that matter, if you manage to upset us enough—then it will detonate.  Not a terribly desirable death, I’d say; if the blast itself doesn’t kill you, then the blood loss will.”

The look on Arras’ face must have conveyed to Henrietta just how pointless such threats were.  This was hardly the first time someone had threatened her life; her training had made such threats, though real, somewhat impotent to her.  Despite Arras’ immovability, however, Henrietta seemed amused by that defiance, that Arras had made some childish assumption.

“I know you think you have the advantage, even now,” Henrietta said, taking another couple steps forward, standing right before Arras; she reached out and ran her fingers over the curvature of the choker.  “But if you want to stay useful to us and therefore alive, I’d suggest you come to terms with the situation.  We know far more about your bag of tricks than you give us credit for.”

As Henrietta stepped away, that chill in Arras intensified.  Something was definitely wrong; she could feel it in her gut.  Holding back the panic boiling in her chest, Arras touched the collar again, attempting to analyze it with her nano-net.

But there was no response.

She tried again, but still nothing happened.  The harder she tried, the more her head would throb.  Reaching from the collar to her head, feeling dizzy, she looked at Henrietta, who only smiled.

From over Henrietta’s shoulder, Arthur watched dejectedly as Arras realized what they had done to her.

“We’ve learned a lot from what your people, Arras,” said Arthur, sounding almost sad as he spoke.  “That collar has neutralized your nanomolecular network.  There’s nothing you can do to disable it, not without killing yourself.”

“I must admit,” Henrietta added, “we never thought we would have a use for such a countermeasure.  After all, no one on Earth has countless nanomachines spliced into their entire body.  Though it makes sense that your people would design something like this.”

Arras tried to stay calm, but when she heard this, she found it hard to stay in control.  Her panic was starting to peak, catalyzed by something far more poignant than bare fear.  This didn’t make sense, for multiple reasons.

“What are you saying?” she asked Henrietta.

“We found the schematics for that device only a few months ago,” Henrietta answered, “along with something else I think you’ll find interesting—I know Arthur did.”

Arthur dodged Henrietta’s gleeful glance, walking on ahead.

Setting aside her confusion for the time being, Arras followed Henrietta and Arthur to a massive steel door.  Arthur’s fingers danced over a keypad, entering a lengthy passcode, prompting the slab of steel to move aside, granting them access to a large laboratory.

Pushed firmly over the threshold, Arras stumbled onto a catwalk.  Looking over a safety rail, she saw a sea of familiar equipment, numerous items she remembered from the Coalition’s military outposts.

And at the center of the hangar-sized lab, hanging from a trellis of thin mechanical arms, was something that made Arras’ heart stop.

“I’m sure you understand now,” Arthur muttered from beside her, as if whispering secrets.  “I’ve been involved with 85-11 ever since they discovered its specs, shortly before we first detected you and your weapon.  You can imagine why I wanted to approach you personally.”

“Amazing, isn’t it?” Henrietta asked with brimming pride.  “It’s not yet complete, but once it is, this will be our world’s first and last line of defense.”

Arras’ panic escalated to what threatened to be all out horror the longer she looked at it.  Feeling as if her heart might have just stopped, she stared down at the metallic echo of a figure she had seen time and time again.  Suspended in that net of tensile metal, under the surgical operations of meticulous metal arms, the armor was displayed openly.  Though it was indeed not yet complete, it was close enough to resemble its original—it was the spitting image of the Rededication armor.

Arras steadied herself on the metal rail, feeling nauseous.

“How did you…?  How could you even…?”

“I thought we made this abundantly, Arras,” Henrietta lamented.  “Ever since we located the first underground base your people left on our planet, we’ve been mining your databases for anything we could find—that’s about seven decades of research, and we’re still making new discoveries.”

“There’s no way you could figure it out…”

“The language interfaces were what made all of this possible,” Henrietta replied.  “We may not have anything like your computing technology, but it seems your own attempts at convenience ultimately just shot you in the foot.”

“What are you talking about?  What language interface?” Arras asked.

Henrietta sneered at first, but that sneer washed away when she registered the sincerity in Arras’ voice, and the look on her face.  She realized the young woman before her, in spite of all her supposed training, was cracking on the outside—and her fears were the first to pour out.

“Each facility we unearthed had a computer network that sensed our presence,” Henrietta explained starkly.  “The first location was discovered by accident by a US Navy seaman, and the facilities have been oriented to English ever since.  With everything translated and even interpreted for us, it was easy to break through the security systems—easy enough, anyway.”

“There’s no such thing…”

“Excuse me?”

With no warning, Arras lunged at Henrietta, seizing her by the lapels of her suit.  The marines aimed their weapons, taking their stances, but Henrietta waved them down—Arras didn’t bother to look away from Henrietta, so neither would she.

“Don’t screw with me, Henrietta,” Arras growled through gritted teeth.  “There’s no such thing as what you’re describing.  You’re making this up.”

“How’d you learn to communicate with us, then?  If there’s no such technology, then I doubt you would be able to make English sound like your first language.”

“The tech exists, but they would never install it in a military outpost, let alone allow it access to the entire database.  So how did you get these designs?”

Abruptly erupting with the same animosity as Arras, Henrietta grabbed the young woman right back, bringing her even closer.

“Everything in this lab that we didn’t invent ourselves, we found in the databanks of the little underground clubhouses your people littered on our planet.  That collar around your neck, for instance.”

“We never invented anything like this,” Arras insisted, shoving Henrietta back and hooking a finger around her choker.  “We outfitted our ships and bases with firewalls and restrictions to prevent unauthorized access.  We never invented something that would nullify someone’s net!  A nano-net isn’t a supplement; it’s a genetic alteration made to embryos—you’re born with it.  You would never be able to shut someone’s net off without shutting their brain down, too.”

Shaking her head and sweeping her hair back from her face, Henrietta would have none of this.

“You must have some real brass ones to think you can still feed us misinformation,” she said.  “You can pretend all you like, Arras Enqelin, but we know what we found.  Though we’ve been slow to leak the more innocuous technologies to the world, we’ve found a plethora of revolutionary devices—advances in medical science, gene therapy, fully operational cell printing—and so much more!  We didn’t just pull those things out of thin air; we found them the same way we found that choker, and the same way we found that god-killer.”

Following Henrietta’s extended finger back to the armor on the level below them, Arras at last broke.  That term—“god-killer”—echoed in her ears like a constant klaxon, a drill to some of her most private memories.

“What did you call it?”

“That was one of the terms we found associated with the specs.  What, is that not what you call it?  We couldn’t translate its actual name.”

Arras’ hands trembled as she realized what was going on, though none of it should be possible.  The collar around her neck shouldn’t be there because it was never invented, and that armor down below shouldn’t be there either because the source material these people used to replicate it was completely deleted over two hundred years ago.  Yet there it was.

She felt like throwing up as she realized she wasn’t staring at a copy of the Reded armor.  These people were trying to fabricate another Ridarin.

“We got rid of the design,” Arras exhaled with fleeting breath, her heart pounding in her ears.  “It doesn’t exist anymore, I made sure of it.  So why…?”

All at once, this made sense, and yet it did not; she could conceive how they could have these things—Arthur and his people really had found them in the outposts’ databases—but the fact still remained that none of this information was supposed to be there.  Arras could return to Teleios and find the prime family sitting down for dinner—they could be there, but their presence alone would never explain away the absurdity.

“Enough of this, Arras,” Henrietta said, all smugness having vanished.  Her teasing demeanor had gone, too, replaced now with the solemn, sober air befitting her office.  She stood resolutely at Arras’ side, staring into her with all the scrutiny and power of her predecessors.  “You and your friends have put us and our planet in grave danger, and every moment we allow your friends to keep that ship is another moment we risk leading Rededication here.  There are two things we want from you.  If you comply, we are happy to let you live; we’ll even let you and your friends lead normal lives.  But you have to deliver.”

“I won’t do it,” Arras replied with trembling voice and bated breath, squeezing the guard rail with white palms.  “I won’t.”

“We can’t assume Rededication will never find us,” Henrietta explained sternly.  “In the event of a future invasion, we must be prepared.  You obviously know this suit well enough.  We need your help.”

“No…”

“You will assist us in completing and mass producing this armor.”

“No!”

“I will not allow you to further jeopardize our entire species, Arras—especially not if we need your help!”

“I will never help you!”

Swinging about, facing Henrietta squarely, Arras seethed with pure and uncontrollable rancor—that calloused immovability she had grown all her life.

“You have no idea what I’ve done to get this far, what I surrendered to destroy Rededication!  Machines like that monster!”  Arras darted a shaking finger at the still, skeletal frame under construction down below.  “Helping you would be tantamount to handing you over to your own extinction!”

“Not helping us is what will cause us to go extinct!” Henrietta roared back.  “If you won’t help us willingly, Arras, we’ll still find a way to get what we want.  It’s your choice!”

“Go to hell!”

“Not now, not ever—and I will certainly not let you escort us there yourself!”

With that, Arras was seized and brought to the ground.  Henrietta gave the marines directions, telling them to take Arras somewhere she couldn’t hear over her own screams.  Thrashing against the men who seemed unwilling to knock her out again, she kept her eyes nailed to the madam president as they dragged her from the lab.

“You’re going to kill everyone, you hear me!” Arras screamed as they dragged her out.  “You’ll kill everyone!”