As the sun continued to rise, Damon and Virgil drove back to the safe house, neither of them saying a word. Virgil seemed strangely distant then, consumed in his own unspoken concerns. It wasn’t until Damon pulled the car up to the shack that the agent finally opened.
“When Valiya and Daniel return,” he started, “what will you do?”
“We’ll make preparations to rescue Arras, Eli, and the Eicks, of course,” Damon said as a matter of fact. “The more Rededication platforms Aurin is able to locate, the more efficient he becomes in doing so. We found the first, then he found the second four months thereafter, then he found this third one only a week after that. If this trend continues, we won’t have much time until he locates the next one—but it should be enough time to get everyone back, safe and sound.”
“I can’t help but notice you’ve left something out,” Virgil said smoothly as the car came to a stop.
“What’s that?” Damon asked, pulling the key from the ignition.
Virgil paused, staring off blankly, before stepping out of the car.
Damon grabbed his cane from the backseat and opened his own door, calling after Virgil once he was out.
“What is it you think I’ve forgotten, Virgil?”
Standing in front of the car, Virgil put a hand to his mouth in thought.
“It’s noble, really,” he said, “how much you want to rescue your friends. I can respect such a desire, admire it even. But you seem to be forgetting what is truly at stake here.”
“The suit your government is constructing—the climax of 85-11, as it were.”
Planting his cane in the soft soil, Damon shook his head. “Of course we’ll deal with it. After all, it’s precisely where our people are—we extract them and destroy the suit.”
Damon turned to walk to the shack, but Virgil stayed where he was.
“That’s not what I mean, Damon,” Virgil called after him. “Eli Hale and the Eick family are not essential to the task at hand—” this stopped Damon in his tracks— “and, considering that Daniel and Valiya were confident enough to combat a platform on their own, it would seem even Arras Enqelin is ultimately inessential.”
Breathing deeply, Damon contained his anger. He turned back around to face Virgil, eyeing him closely.
“Perhaps you could explain precisely what you mean when you call my people ‘inessential.’ You wouldn’t want me to get the wrong idea now.”
“No, I wouldn’t,” Virgil muttered, walking farther up the hill until he and Damon were at the same level, with the sun peeking over the surrounding hills, over Virgil’s shoulder. “However, you seem to have done that yourself.”
“Your country has been playing with the derelict facilities of an alien civilization for almost a century now,” Virgil obliged, beginning to sound irritated. “My country has been well aware of 85-11 since its inception, but we’ve never been able to respond. Perhaps we simply never felt the need.”
“If you think there’s a conflict of interests,” Damon said, “I can assure you, my government has burned far too many bridges between us. There’s no way I would allow them to retain possession of something as dangerous as that suit.”
“You say that,” Virgil replied, “but I doubt you really believe it. Or maybe you don’t care.”
With no hesitation, and with no resistance from Damon, Virgil reached into his holster and pulled out his Glock, holding it at his waist.
“What is this, Virgil?” Damon asked, still trying to contain his anger.
“Over seventy years of research and development,” Virgil said, ignoring Damon’s question. “The United States has played with the Coalition’s technology like naughty children with a highly volatile chemistry set. In all this time, they’ve remained conscious of the rest of the world, never deploying their new discoveries unless another country or inventor somewhere in the world could compete. But this… this, Damon, is preposterous. So long as they have that suit, that scale is egregiously tipped; and if they acquire your armor—this ‘Ridarin’—it could bring about the end of our world.”
“I understand your concerns,” Damon said calmly, not bothering to pay any mind to the gun in Virgil’s hand. “You and I both know that old adage too well to not recognize it when we see it—‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ ”
“And ‘great men are almost always bad men,’ ” Virgil added.
“If we agree, then why hold me at gunpoint?”
“Because we can’t afford to be flippant about any of this, Damon!” Virgil raised his Glock. “You and I, and those children you work with, we all hold in our hands the fate of humankind—every man, woman, and child on this planet! We can’t allow the US to have such a powerful weapon, not even in an incomplete state.”
“What would you have me do differently, then?” Damon asked. “I told you, we will destroy the suit.”
“No you won’t,” Virgil countered. “You’re not focused on that suit; you’re focused on rescuing your friends. Make no mistake, I sympathize with your plight, but imagine how that will end. You’ll blast your way into Nellis, of all places, and you’ll try to extract them. Daniel should be perfectly safe with his own suit, but that doesn’t mean any of us will be—including the people you want to rescue. You want to know how that mission will end? You’ll rush in and retake the hostages, but in trying to get them out alive and destroy what’s beneath that air base—people will die. Everyone may die. Daniel Eick could be the last of us! And then what? You think he’ll have the sort of resolve he needs to keep running forever? You think he has the ability to destroy Rededication on his own?”
“There you go contradicting yourself,” Damon muttered under his breath.
“What did you say?”
“I said you’ve contradicted yourself! You claim Daniel and Valiya will do just fine combatting Rededication without Arras, then you say Daniel alone won’t be able to make it happen. What does that mean, Virgil? Valiya is hardly trained for tactical combat, and Daniel is not much better off. You think they ran off to that platform—you think I let them go—without the least hesitation? Without second thoughts? Our priorities are straight; it’s our resources that are lacking.”
“Don’t give me that,” Virgil insisted, pulling back the slide on his gun, making sure there was a round in the chamber. His hand shook as he reeled in his own righteous indignation. “All you’re telling me is that we can’t afford to let ourselves be distracted with good-will missions. The moment Daniel and Valiya return, we take Ridarin to Nellis and let it demolish anything that isn’t purely American-made.”
Damon chuckled to himself. “And you would leave us with the consequences, would you?”
“You would have to be a fool to think any of you can return to your old lives after this,” Virgil replied coldly. “The writing’s on the wall; everything is set in stone—your country will always see you as a threat. These people will never leave you alone. They will chase you to the ends of the Earth until you are either in their custody, hidden in the deepest and darkest cellar they can find, or dead. Whatever rapport you may have had with them is gone. Your best bet now is to destroy any alien technology you can, and then leave this planet forever.”
Damon’s shoulders sank as he heard Virgil out. Every word the agent uttered, however, failed to show him the futility of their situation. In reality, Damon had thought this over time and time again, wondering if it was indeed worth the labor—and perhaps the trauma—to try to rescue Eli and the Eicks. Yet everything Virgil told him failed to hit home; not because it wasn’t understandable, justifiable even, but because it came from nothing but fear. And fear, above all else, would bring them the truest failure.
“What are we becoming, Virgil?” Damon asked in a hush.
“If we’re to become anything,” Virgil replied, “it’s the kind of men who can see this through to the end.”
“So this standoff—is this all we are?”
As if only then conscious of the Glock in his hands, Virgil stared at the weapon, then looked back at Damon. “We do what we have to, Damon. You of all people should know that.”
“I do,” Damon sighed. “I really do.”
“What will it be?” Virgil asked, keeping Damon in his sights. “What will you do when they return?”
“Do you really think I’m trying to save face at this point?”
The question could have knocked Virgil off his feet had he not resisted. “I think you’re trying to preserve your relations with the United States.”
“You think I don’t want to make a mess of Nellis because America might get upset, then?”
“Whether it’s for the Americans or Daniel’s loved ones, you’ve let your own sentimentalism get the better of you.”
“What will we be, Virgil, if we level that air base with abandon?” Damon paused to let Virgil really hear that question. “What will we be? You’re holding me at gunpoint now because you’re afraid the US will become another Coalition; that they’ll take what they have, advance it even further, and use it to either oppress or destroy this world. You’re afraid they’ll become tyrants, and the rest of humanity will lowered to homo sacer—something less than human, not worthy of life, let alone survival.”
“That’s it precisely.”
“Say I agree with you, then, and we rip through Nellis like tissue paper, ensuring nothing dangerous ever comes out of there again—what will we be then? How will we differ from the hypothetical tyrants you’re so afraid of?”
With no fear, Damon walked forward, closing the gap between the two of them. Virgil squirmed in place as Damon approached, but Damon had already come too close. Damon allowed the Glock’s barrel to press into his chest.
“I want to save them,” Damon confessed, “and I won’t apologize for that. Because if we leave them there… or if we make an attack with no regard for their lives… It would be worse than if we were to lose every last one of them in a botched rescue attempt. I want to save them because I don’t want to lose this war.”
“What’re you saying?” Virgil’s gun began to shake again; he raised his other hand to the weapon to steady it. “If you try to save them, you will lose this war.”
This close, Virgil could see into Damon’s eyes. Where there had been strength before, there was now vulnerability. In a moment of recognition, he was no longer looking at Damon Hale, arms manufacturer or former special agent—this was the bare man few ever had the chance to see.
In all this vulnerability, opening his revealing eyes for anyone to see, Damon didn’t relent—he stared deep into Virgil. If this was to be his last moment of life, he would be sure someone knew what he felt.
“This war isn’t about planet busters or doomsday scenarios,” he told Virgil, “though I can see how you might think that, given your vantage point. If we destroy Rededication completely, there’s nothing to say someone won’t someday build something like it. Ten years from now—a hundred, a thousand—it doesn’t matter when. Someone will do it, I’m sure. So why do we fight?”
“To survive,” Virgil insisted.
“Wrong. If all you want to do is survive, then leave this fight and never come back. Go find a nice home in the countryside, live out your days in silence. That’s survival, and if it’s all you want, then I wish you all the luck in the world. But that’s not what this war is about.”
“What, then, Damon? What do you want so badly you’re willing to risk everything for it?”
Damon’s answer was simple—it was an answer he had had for decades now—ever since he had met Sofia. Ever since he had come to terms with her departure from his life, and his world.
“I want us to retain our humanity, Virgil. That’s all I’ve ever wanted. You may think I’m some darling of the US armed forces, or perhaps a blind follower of my ancestor Asael Mack. But I’m none of those things. If I must, I’ll happily discard those identities, and any others I’ve constructed for myself. Because, first and foremost—like you, and Daniel, and Valiya, and Arras, Eli, Laura and Milo Eick, Arthur Emmerich, and every last person on this planet and elsewhere—I’m human. I’m human, Virgil, and I won’t sacrifice that to destroy a weapon that will just come back again.”
Gently, carefully, though earnestly, Damon wrapped his fingers around the muzzle of the Glock. Shifting the barrel’s position against his chest, he made sure the end was directly over his heart.
“Rededication was born in the minds and hearts of people who saw human beings as nothing more than puzzle pieces,” Damon continued seamlessly. “They were people who thought humanity was nothing more than a profane series of objects and obstacles that needed to be manipulated and conformed to a particular image and likeness. If a tree doesn’t bear the right fruit, or rotten fruit even, we chop it down and burn it—but humanity isn’t a forest, and we have no right to wield the axe or the flame. If we abandon our people—Arras Enqelin, Eli Vale, Laura Eick, Milo Eick—then we’ll be no better than those who built Rededication out of the shattered remains of their own broken humanity. And if believing this makes me your enemy, then you’ll simply have to kill me—because I will not relent.”
Virgil’s hands stilled, and it seemed as if the only force keeping that gun pressed to Damon’s heart was Damon himself. Time passed and daybreak continued to creep over the hills, illuminating their quarrel with warmth and light—the two men standing off against one another, each wondering what was brewing inside the other.
Damon lost his grip on the muzzle as the gun lowered; Virgil returned the weapon to its holster. Even with the gun away, neither of them moved an inch.
“Do you believe we can save them and stop 85-11?” Virgil asked, his voice weak, though his hands had remained still.
“I believe we have to try,” Damon said with finality.
Virgil bowed his head, feeling almost ashamed, not sure where to go. Yet as he lowered his eyes, they fell upon Damon’s extended hand, waiting right before him.
“I meant what I said before,” Damon told him, “when I welcomed you to our team. I trust you, Virgil. Now I’m asking you to trust me.”
Wordlessly, Virgil stared down at Damon’s hand, contemplating what any of this could mean for him. The risks didn’t disappear from his sight, but something inside him seemed different from only a moment ago. Different enough to do this much—to trust Damon Hale, or at least what he chose to believe in.
Virgil took Damon’s hand in his own.
“I trust you. We’ll do this together.”