By the time Val and Damon returned to the shack, they found Virgil and Danny on their feet, with a third person standing at the center of the room. Though Damon didn’t immediately recognize the man, Val could remember him from their one time they had met, and Danny looked altogether floored as the man yelled at him with abandon.
Only on one other occasion had Danny seen Aurin so angry.
“You stupid bastard!” Aurin railed at him, pacing the floor with soundless feet, passing through objects and chairs—real only in the minds of anyone in the immediate vicinity.
“It’s not my fault she didn’t tell you!” Danny fired back. “We were in a bind, and she made a judgment call. You expect her to run every one of her decisions by you before making a move?”
“I expect the two of you to keep your heads! Running off like this was idiotic, and you should have stopped her. Now look what’s happened!”
“Excuse me, but…” Damon put out a hand, attempting to calm the room. “You wouldn’t happen to be… Are you Aurin Enqelin?”
Damon stared at the artificial representation of the man he had only read about, who he had only ever encountered in journals and secondhand stories, wondering if this could really be him.
“You must be Asael’s descendant,” Aurin concluded, glancing back at Damon with disinterest. “You don’t look like him.”
“Well, he did die in the nineteenth century,” Damon said.
“Whatever!” Aurin said dismissively, whirling back around to Danny. “As for you—you’re lucky we’re not back on the orbital, or I’d be happy to hammer you into the wall again until you stop breathing!”
“What’s going on, Aurin?” Val asked, stepping between him and Danny. “What’s wrong?”
His anger receding, Aurin looked away from her, refusing to answer. Val looked over him to Virgil, who only shook his head. Then she turned to Danny, who rested against the wall, squinting at the floor.
“What’s happened, Danny?” she asked, her heart starting to pound.
“A complication,” was all Danny could say.
“A complication caused by your own negligence!” Aurin added.
“Why don’t you give it a rest, jackass!” Danny yelled back. “Trying to pin this on me won’t solve anything!”
“Can anyone fill us in, please?” Damon sighed, growing tired of the two bickering children—one, the hope of their mission; the other, his hero—both of whom made him feel embarrassed.
“My daughter’s net went completely offline,” Aurin snarled. “I kept track of her, and out of nowhere, she was gone! You know what happens when someone’s net goes offline like that, Danny?”
“But it doesn’t mean that!” Danny replied. “You said you confirmed it.”
“For us ignorant masses,” Damon cut in once again, “could you give us some more detail? What does it mean that Arras’ net is offline?”
“A net is to remain active at all times; it runs off the vitals of its host,” Aurin explained impatiently. “A nano-net only goes offline when the user’s brain stops functioning.”
“In other words,” Val said, her stomach sinking, “when the user dies.” She took a step back. “Are you saying…? Is Arras…?”
“She’s alive,” Aurin grunted, his eyes still fixed on Danny. “I tracked her movements up until her net went offline.”
With the snap of his fingers, Aurin conjured up a number of images around him, twirling them about for everyone to see. A map of the United States appeared among the data, panning in on a location outside Las Vegas.
“Her net went dark in Nevada, at some place called Nellis Air Force Base.”
“And how do you know she’s still alive?” Damon asked, urgently trying to join Aurin on the same page.
Aurin showed them a video feed, skipping over a number of different timeslots from the day before. As the video played, he said, “I took the liberty of snooping around their security systems. It took some digging, mind you. She’s not in the actual base; she’s in some underground facility.”
As the video skipped from one moment to another, a specific scene caught everyone’s attention. Through the feed, they watched Arras embrace another woman, with two men behind her.
“That’s them!” Danny announced. “Eli, and my mom. Milo, too.”
“It seems they gathered all of them into one place,” Aurin explained. “My guess is that when these people deactivated Arras’ net—however the hell they did it—they were trying to keep her from escaping. I don’t think they were planning on me tracking her.”
“They may not even know you exist,” Virgil said from his corner of the room. “I for one didn’t.”
Aurin stared back at him, as if only realizing then that Virgil was in the room. “You have the accent of the King.”
“I assure you,” Virgil replied, realizing where Arras got her charm, “that was a long time ago.”
“Sorry, he’s a few fries short of a combo meal,” Danny told Virgil.
“Anyway,” Aurin said, dragging his haywire mind back on task, “I wish that was everything. But I’ve listened in on the conversations these people have had with my daughter, and it seems our situation is far worse than we thought.”
“If they deactivated her net,” Val reasoned, “then that must mean they have more than we imagined. But I didn’t know the Coalition ever found a way to deactivate a nano-net. If they made the slightest error, it would be like executing her.”
“That’s the thing,” said Aurin. “The Coalition never had a way to do that. Whatever technology they have, they didn’t get it from us. But the troubles don’t end there.”
The feed shifted from a close-up on the choker around Arras’ neck, to an object a distance from her—a figure everyone in the room recognized, though from varying sources.
“Isn’t that your suit?” Virgil asked.
“It also looks like the Reded armor,” added Val.
“I don’t get it,” Danny muttered. “I thought they wanted Ridarin to… How do they have a suit?”
“They want Ridarin to complete the design,” Aurin said. “As for why they have it… While I don’t know the details, especially since they make as much sense as a device that can somehow stop a nano-net…”
“What are you saying, Aurin?” asked Danny, picking up on his reluctance.
Danny tried to curb his own frustration—in part, Aurin’s mind wasn’t exactly in the best of shape anyway—but there was something he clearly didn’t want to share.
“When Arras first joined my wife and me,” Aurin explained, “we knew she could uniquely contribute. We believed that in order to wage a war against Rededication, we would need to at least match it in firepower. So Arras suggested we copy the Reded armor’s design…” He turned back to Danny with a newfound spirit. “But we deleted every last version of those designs. It is absolutely impossible for these people to have them. Even if they happened on a leftover copy in our outpost, they would never be able to get past our security protocols. It simply couldn’t happen.”
“Clearly it did,” Danny replied with spirit of his own.
Aurin cleared the distance between himself and the young man in the blink of an eye, bringing his face close to Danny’s, their noses only an inch apart. Even with Aurin’s immateriality, he still managed to intimidate Danny somewhat with a seemingly hallmark trait of the Enqelins—that alpha personality.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Aurin said before backing away from Danny, “but something is definitely wrong with this picture. The humans on this planet simply cannot know what they know, or have what they have. It can’t be stated enough—this is impossible.”
“Then how?” Val asked. “No one’s had contact with this planet since the Coalition fell. And even if someone from the New Pact made it this far, they wouldn’t know how to create that choker, let alone the armor.”
“By the sound of it,” Virgil added, “the US is under the impression that all of this was already in the outposts anyway. Wherever these things really came from, they think the Coalition left them behind.”
“Exactly,” Aurin confirmed. “I could believe someone from the New Pact sharing this with them, but they found it in the outposts themselves. It just doesn’t make sense.”
“Like finding Google Fiber in King Tut’s tomb,” Danny muttered, pulling himself from the wall. “This definitely complicates things, but it doesn’t change our plan. We know where Arras is, and my family. We even know there really is something we need to destroy. So let’s move.”
“I wish that was all there was to it,” Aurin cut in, bringing down any excitement in the room as quickly as possible. With all attention turned back to him, he waved a three-dimensional object into view—a twirling cube, a shape Danny and Val had seen a few times before. “On top of rifling through that base’s most secure locations, I also finished this.”
“And what is that?” Virgil asked, taking a closer look at the spinning cube.
He could see strings of code, written out in characters he had never seen before, crawling across each face, tangling into one another.
“It’s the next Rededication platform,” Danny said. “You got the next location.”
“You have the ship now, too,” Aurin said soberly, gravely even. “I know things are bleak here—believe me, I know. But we’re in just as much of a time crunch out in space as we are on this planet.” He took in the whole room, looking almost sane. “I won’t tell you what to do, but we need to decide our next course of action immediately.”
Staring into the decrypted coordinates hovering before them, Danny fell back against the wall, as if overpowered. A familiar gravity tugged at him; if Arras wasn’t there to make the decision, the responsibility fell to him.
Val watched Danny quietly; he looked as if he had been called to decide who would live and who would die.
“Arras, then,” she interjected, acknowledged by everyone but Danny. “We should get Arras. I’m sure the College won’t outrun us if we take another day or so. I mean—”
“That’s a good point, but…” Danny finally said. “But the fact is that rescuing Arras and the others, as well as destroying that armor—that won’t just take time. There’s a chance we could take collateral damage, isn’t there, Aurin?”
With a reluctant nod, Aurin said, “It’s possible the ship could sustain damage, and there’s no guarantee that we could destroy their suit while covering Arras and your family.”
Val continued watching Danny ponder this, weighing it down to his very heart and mind. She wanted to speak up, to say the perfect thing, something that could help him. But she held back. Considering what had happened these past few days—these past months even, in all the time they had been fighting this war—something told her this would have be Danny’s choice to make, and no one else’s.
She was not the only one to come to that conclusion.
“Whatever you decide, Daniel,” said Damon, “we’ll support you. There’s only so much any of us can do, but we have your back. You know that.”
No one could know what Danny was thinking then. None of them had been there for that moment. He remembered plodding through the snow and wind on Eilikh, chasing after Arras as she tried to dodge him. He could remember their argument, nearly word for word, and ultimately what she had told him when they were back aboard the ship, ascending to meet the New Pact for the first time.
His chest tightened and he kept his mouth shut as the dissonance in his own mind really took hold. More than anything, he wanted to rush in and save her, to bring her back like some glorified white knight—but he knew that wasn’t what she wanted, not with this choice laid before them.
The answer he had wished was otherwise settled in him.
“We need to destroy that installation.”
With that verdict, the rest of the room followed.
“I’ll forward the coordinates to the ship,” Aurin replied, staring into the young man he knew better than anyone might have expected. Replaying his own indelible memories of going back and forth with Danny in their own minds, that day they first met one another—he was unsurprised by the person that stood before him now. “Best of luck, all of you.”
With that, Aurin vanished.
Danny looked back at everyone, as if to apologize.
“Will you be able to manage if it’s only you and Valiya?” asked Damon.
“I’m sure we’ll be fine,” Val reassured him, speaking more to Danny than Damon.
Despite their confidence, Danny found himself downcast once again, yet he refused to flee into himself. A gentle hand pulled him from his struggle. He looked up to find Val smiling back at him.
“And when we get back,” she said, “we’ll rescue Arras and your family. And we’ll put an end to this whole conflict once and for all.”
Looking back at her, and at Damon and Virgil, he could feel a new strength, the kind of strength that had carried him this far. And he found the courage to truly grin.
“Yeah, let’s do it.”