Chapter 26

 

Passing a pair of binoculars back and forth, Virgil and Damon watched the ship descend inaudibly from the sky, with the golden premonitions of an impending sunrise as its background.  Even with the stealth systems, the exterior of the ship seem to glimmer ominously in the daybreak.  And as Danny and Val went on ahead to the ship’s landing zone, the four of them felt something altogether foreboding, looming, as if saying farewell to someone, or maybe something.

Val took the pilot’s seat, with Danny in the support seat next to her.  Together they made the necessary preparations, finding Aurin’s latest deciphered coordinates already queued into the nav computer, waiting to be executed by the FTL drive.  And as Val reignited the engines for vertical takeoff, they bid their goodbyes to Damon and Virgil through the radio.

At first Danny and Val traded information on the ship’s status; however, both were soon captivated by the morning view as they gained altitude.  A dense orange layer of troposphere gave way to a gradation of white and blue stratosphere as they accelerated to escape velocity.  From there, the ship’s navigation system took control, their course to the back of the moon already plotted.

Left to wait, they watched the multicolor sky transition before their eyes as the sun continued to crawl over the planet’s surface, creeping up behind them.  The occasional patch of turbulence jostled the ship, though the synthesized gravity left the two of them relatively unmoved, allowing them to enjoy the view.

“It’s funny,” Danny finally said.  “I sometimes forget how abnormal it is that I get to experience stuff like this.  There’s very few people on my planet who can say they’ve flown at this altitude, let alone left the planet itself.”

“And I suppose you’re the only one to travel to another planet altogether,” said Val.  “Before I came here, I considered it incredibly uncommon for someone to have never left their homeworld.”

“I guess it can’t be helped, not for my people, anyway—not yet.  Still, it would be nice if everyone could see this view.”

Quickly, all sound disappeared as the ship left the planet’s atmosphere.  As Earth slowly shrank beneath them, curving ever more distinctly as they traveled on, what had been a tapestry of warm and cool colors became a cloudy ocean swirling in on itself.

“Danny, I…  I owe you an apology.”

“No you don’t.”

Neither of them looked away from Earth as they spoke.  Danny’s response was sincere, though it felt dismissive at first to Val, and so she persisted.

“I really do.  I owe Arras an apology, too.  The way I’ve behaved recently, how I’ve treated the two of you…  I’m sorry.”

Val wasn’t sure what more she could say than that, and Danny couldn’t bring himself to carelessly dismiss her apology again.

“Val,” he said at last, “I accept your apology.”

She smiled gratefully, though tiredly.  “Thank you.”

“I guess I don’t have to tell you you’re not the only one of us that’s been thrown through that loop.”

“No, I suppose not.”

Danny sank deeper into his seat, staring out into the familiar flurry of stars.

“Truth be told,” he said, “I have a hard time hearing you apologize to me, mostly because I don’t think you’re the only troublemaker in our group.  You’re no black sheep.”

“How do you mean?”

Keeping his eyes on the stars, Danny sighed, then said, “I think we’ve been pretty unfair to you since you joined us.  When we first met, neither Arras nor I really knew what to do with you…  Well, that’s not it.  It’s more like…  Neither of us really knew what we were supposed to do with you in until the mission was over.  So we tossed you a gun, taught you to fly, and—honestly—ignored everything else you might’ve been going through.  And for that, I’m sorry.  I really am.”

“I didn’t really know what to do with myself either,” she said, letting her hands fall from the controls.  “Maybe that’s what left you two so at a loss in the first place.  When we were on that first platform, Ekren… he told me I needed to decide for myself why I came with you, and what I was going to do now that I was in the thick of things.  I really didn’t know how to answer him then, and I’m still not sure if I can now.”

Each time she thought of Ekren, of watching him carry his broken body from the ship and back into the platform, she felt a surge of pain.  But now, breathing easily, what had been a constantly tense atmosphere, something so pervasive and seemingly permanent that she had simply forgotten it was there, continued to ebb away.

“But if I had to take a guess,” she went on, “I’d say my motivations are much the same as yours or Arras’.”

“If we’re being honest here,” Danny sighed, “I’m not sure what Arras’ motivation is anymore.  Something seems totally different about her lately…”

Surprised by his sudden melancholy, Val said, “So I’m really not alone thinking that.”

For another while, they were quiet.  In that solitude, the moon came into view, the majority of its face darkened, leaving only a sliver to glow like lightning as the canopy adjusted its filters.

Watching the moon draw nearer, something came to Val.  The thought had occurred to her before—shortly after she had first joined Danny and Arras, in fact.  For whatever reason, however, she could never bring herself to ask.  Perhaps it seemed simply gossipy, a little juvenile, but now it seemed almost appropriate.

“Danny…  If you don’t mind my asking, I was wondering…  Who is Arras to you?  What does she mean to you?”

Danny almost snorted as he held back an abrupt laugh, turning to her with a sharp smirk, as if she had cracked a joke.

“Okay, okay,” Val relented, feeling embarrassed already.  “Sorry I asked.”

“I don’t really know.”

The answer took her off guard; she turned back to Danny, finding him solemn, contemplative.

“Like I said,” he continued, “you’re not the only one who’s noticed what she’s doing.  But I don’t think any of us can be certain about why she’s acting the way she is; I don’t think she even knows—and that’s the problem.  It’s not that I don’t know what she means to me; it’s just that I don’t know what I can do about it.”

“She seems to feel the same way about you…”

“Does she, though?”  Again, another sincere question that took Val off guard.  “Whatever she’s doing, there’s no saying it’s because of me.  I mean, Earth’s always been significant to her and her family.  It was the founders of the United States, as well as Asael Mack, that ended up inspiring her dad to start his own revolution.  For all we know, she could just be sentimental.”

“Why would she be so eager to risk her life for your family, then?”

With a weak smile, Danny nodded.  “Maybe I’m fooling myself.  Or maybe I’m just trying not to get my hopes up.  Maybe she does feel the same way—maybe—but that doesn’t mean much if she doesn’t want to feel that way.  That’s why I don’t know what to do about it.  I’m still waiting for her to decide what she wants.  And if she decides that, when all of this is over, she wants me gone, well…”

“You’d have to let her go.”

Loud enough that only she could hear it, Val said this more to herself than Danny, conscious once again of those raw wounds and newly discovered vistas.  The whole of it seemed so depressing on the surface, at least to her—to pour so much into a person, only to lose it all.  But did they see it as a loss, she wondered?  Damon spoke of Sofia, whom he never saw again, with the deepest of affections; though the thought of her death obviously hurt him, in spite of that—or perhaps because of that—he seemed whole nonetheless.

“That’s teleios, though,” Danny said, as if anticipating her thoughts.  “At least, I think so.  You do your best to control what you can, and you learn to accept what you can’t control—or something like that.”

The moon overtook much of the canopy’s view; coasting quickly overhead, its pocked, scraped surface reflected the light of the sun into the cockpit.

“You know,” Val mused, “I used to think all of you were so strange.”

“Yeah, I bet a lot of people do.”

“Well, it’s just that…  I expected something completely different when I first heard what Arras and her family called that suit.”

“You mean Ridarin?  What about it?”

“You do know the story, don’t you?”

“Sort of.  Some lady sacrifices herself to save her family from a terrible fate.”

He felt a little shallow with such a bare retelling of what seemed to be a sacred narrative to the Enqelins, but that was really all he knew.

“Would you like to hear the rest of the story, then?” Val asked him, surprised he did not already know it.  “Maybe… maybe it’ll help you understand what the Enqelins are after.”

“You know it?”

“Of course!  It’s ancient, but that doesn’t mean my people didn’t preserve it and hand it down.  The New Pact has always been interested in the excavation and reconstruction of the ancestors who originally settled our worlds.”

“How far back did you actually get, though?”

“Not terribly far,” Val admitted, sounding almost defensive—he had managed to lance one of her more tender political nerves with such a question.  “There’s precious little they left behind, and we’re not even sure where they exit and we enter in the history, but we know a little.  Like the story of Ridarin.”

Watching the moon flee from view, she remembered something Damon had told her about shortly after they had met.  He told her how people on Earth used to gather as camps around a fire in the night and tell tall tales—some of them were even true.  She wondered if this was what it felt like to participate in such a quaint tradition.

“There’re a few versions, and the details differ, but basically the story goes like this:

“Long before anyone can remember, there were people who had learned so much of themselves and the universe that they had become… well, gods.  And as these gods ran out of information to learn, fearing that there was nothing new left for them, they decided to begin the cycle of life over again.  They thought, if they did, that it might present some new knowledge.  So they created planets, like the one that produced them, and which they had outgrown.  And they covered those planets with life, and watched to see which creatures would grow from bare consciousness to high intelligence.

“Humans eventually exceeded these gods’ expectations.  The gods decided to further the humans’ progression, teaching them directly, hoping these creatures might make something new out of it all.  But the humans did just the opposite; instead of unveiling some novel truth, they used what the gods gave them to totalize their world and each other.  The gods were not only angry, but they were afraid, because they had given humanity their knowledge, and thus the power to do them harm.

“Eventually, they gave up on their creation, and went to the one person who lived up to their expectations—a woman named Ridarin.  She possessed all the knowledge of the gods, and she eagerly looked for more, though she never found what they wanted.  Even so, when the gods decided to wipe the slate clean, they chose to keep Ridarin alive and to use her virtues to pattern their next creation.  So they told Ridarin what she should do to survive the coming extinction.  But Ridarin disagreed with the gods.  She thought they were selfish to put such a burden on humanity in the first place, and doubly so to destroy them for what she believed were nothing but petty reasons.  So she did the unthinkable; she took what the gods had given her, and she used it to kill them.”

What she said last stayed with Danny for a moment, giving him a rush; it wasn’t an enjoyable feeling, though, more like a recognition of how heavy such a conclusion was.  It felt almost like watching a gargantuan asteroid plummet into the Earth, standing on the surface, like in a sci-fi movie, when the characters and the viewers start to feel very small in the universe.

Danny muttered, “I wouldn’t call that my favorite story, but I can see why the Enqelins would like it.  It definitely puts some things in perspective.”

“That’s not the end, though.”

Val continued to speak as she warmed up the FTL drive, the coordinates awaiting execution.

“Where do you go after killing the gods, though?  That’s one hell of a shark you’d have to jump.”

Not sure what that phrase might mean, Val decided to continue anyway.

“While annihilating the gods, Ridarin was gravely wounded.  She returned to humanity after the battle, but they couldn’t save her.  But she wanted them to understand what had happened, what she had saved them from, and… well, what she believed they could become.  So she gave them two strict commands before she died: first, never create an image of the gods, either the ones she had slain or any new ones humanity might imagine later; and second, never create any image of the future.”

“Sounds like your run-of-the-mill ancient myth.  Kill the enemy, shame their memory.”

“I think there’s more to it than that, personally,” Val said.  “It’s why I was so surprised to hear all of you call the suit by her name.  Ridarin didn’t just tell the people not to image the gods, but to not even image the future—all in one breath.  I think she wanted them to understand that, with the gods dead, these people had become the gods of their own destiny.  And the mandate to never define the future… maybe she wanted them to understand just what kind of radical freedom she’d given them.”

“Nothing left to determine their identity for them,” Danny reasoned.  “So that’s why the Enqelins wanted Rededication gone.  They weren’t going for some dewy-eyed attempt at universal peace.”

“I think that’s exactly it,” Val agreed, staring out into the stars one more time as the countdown began and the jump drive hummed with a lively vroom.  “I think the Enqelins wouldn’t care if war itself went on to be humanity’s stock and trade forevermore—so long as it was what humanity wanted.  So long as they chose it.”

With a great release of pent up energy, the jump drive activated.  The stars vanished in a momentary blast of light, and their next strike on Rededication began.