“How many illusions do I have to get through,” Arras asked the phantasm standing before her, “before I can get out of here?”
Looking as if she had just told a decent joke, the Danny that had appeared to her stepped farther into the pavilion. He spun on his heel and sat against on the wooden railing, his arms folded, simpering back at her.
“You going to say something?” Arras asked harshly.
“I’m just waiting for you to pull your head out of your ass is all,” Danny said.
“You think we’re just a bunch of obstacles hopping in your way? Arras, we’re you. Those two impossibly adorable little kids, your ridiculously supportive mother, and your surprisingly psychotic dad—and me! It’s kind of counterproductive to see yourself as an obstacle, isn’t it?”
“So you’re going to be exactly like him, then,” Arras muttered, sitting down on a bench, staring back at the machination her own mind had created. “Is this really how I see you?”
“Don’t ask me,” Danny replied. “Or, maybe do? I don’t know. I mean, like I said, I’m just a part of you. So, I guess—do ask me?”
Arras sighed heavily, looking down at the white deck, feeling more lost than ever. To her surprise, Danny stepped from the rail, squatted, and craned his face up to hers.
“Come on, sunshine,” he said, “what’s on your mind?”
He plopped down on the bench next to her, poised to listen.
“Just leave me alone already,” she said, looking away once again. “You’re not… not really him.”
“There’s another interesting thing about you,” he sighed pleasantly, as if he had never been the fool. “You’re at war with yourself, and you crave companionship. You can’t stand yourself or how you see the people around you, and at the same time you want so badly to be with those people.”
Arras didn’t answer; she continued trying to ignore him, hoping that perhaps this tirade of supposed self-reflection would end.
“Is it hate?” he asked straightforwardly. “Is it that you hate the people around you, or maybe yourself?”
“I don’t hate anyone…”
“It might be redundant, but when you say things not even you believe… Well, just try to remember you can’t hide—not in here.”
When she didn’t respond, Danny decided to continue. Launching from his seat, his enthusiasm reborn, he stood before her, his arms outstretched.
“Arras, this could be the opportunity of a lifetime! I mean, there are tons of people who would kill to have a personal, unadulterated Q-and-A with themselves, just like this. Why not take advantage of the opportunity?”
“What’s there to take advantage of? I’m trapped inside my own head, thanks to your people’s blunders.”
“Well, Danny’s people, but yes. Go on.”
“I’m getting tired of being interrogated by myself,” Arras confessed, gathering the courage to look up at him, though only for a second. “I’d rather talk to the people who captured me.”
“You don’t want to face yourself, then?”
“I… I don’t even know if that’s what this is. You’re just a fantasy; what would talking to you actually do?”
“That’s the beauty of all this,” Danny said, squatting down before her again, watching her with a smile until she looked his way. “You literally have access to the very wiring of your psyche right now, the stuff that makes you… well, you.”
“But why?” she asked, finding no answers, no matter how much she tried to dig.
“Why all of this? What’s the point? I have obligations to fulfill, people that need me—and all of this is just a waste of time!”
“Maybe someone’s trying to tell you something,” Danny said plainly, catching her attention. “Maybe this isn’t just you in here. Maybe you’re supposed to figure something out.”
“Even if that were true,” Arras said, “what would that ‘something’ be?”
“Well, your plethora of neuroses for one.”
She glared at him, prompting him to raise his hands in surrender.
“Don’t shoot the messenger, Arras. You asked!”
With a heavy sigh, Danny stood up and paced his way back to the handrail, staring out at the lake. He hummed in thought, as if this was nothing more than a brainstorming session for the two of them.
“Maybe,” he said, “you’re the only one who can actually stop what’s coming.”
Sensing something out of place, Arras stood up.
“If there’s something I’m supposed to stop, I don’t know what it is,” she said, reasoning out this anomaly as she spoke. “Are you saying you know something I don’t?”
Danny suddenly looked tired. Without answering, he continued to look out over the water.
Arras spun him briskly about, holding him by two fistfuls of his shirt.
“What are you not telling me, Danny?”
“What do you think?” he asked her honestly, his enthusiasm gone again. “Of everything you’ve seen in here, what’s been the common denominator?”
“Who are you, really?”
He smiled weakly, resting his hands gently on her tight fists.
“I’m exactly who you think I am.”
Twitching under his touch, she released him, taking a step back.
“Does something as simple as human contact scare you?” he asked her. “Or is it because I look like him?”
Arras held her own hands, feeling uncomfortably out in the open. She wasn’t sure how to answer this apparition, or if she even should.
“I don’t care,” she finally tried to say, but she didn’t even manage to convince herself.
“You do care,” Danny countered, matching her step back with a step toward her. “You care quite a lot, in fact. You care about the people around you, even if it hurts to be close to them. You care about your parents, about Ila, about Damon and Val, about Danny. I mean, look at yourself, Arras; you’re only in this mess because you elected to go save his family and friend. You didn’t really care about what a bunch of modern Americans might be doing with retired Coalition tech. You just wanted to give back what he lost.”
“Leave me alone,” Arras said, turning and heading for the walkway off the pavilion.
Before she could leave, however, she found Danny already waiting for her on the walkway. He didn’t stand in her way, but he wasn’t going to let her leave alone.
“Who are you, really?” she demanded to know. “What do you want from me?”
“I want you to realize what you want,” Danny said, “and to realize that you won’t allow yourself to have it. All you are is a frightened little girl, scared to death of the people around you, scared they’ll do the same things your family did to you.”
Walking quickly, she closed the distance between herself and Danny before trying to ram her fist into the side of his face. Before she could land the hit, Danny swept her fist aside, letting her fall against him, wrapping his arms around her. Stunned, she leaned against him as she found her proper footing, not at all sure what to make of this.
“What are you…?”
“Isn’t it time you stopped fighting yourself, Arras? You said it yourself: you feel alone.”
With his arms around her, she felt inexplicably safe. Held by him, even if he might be someone totally other than who she was seeing and hearing, she nonetheless began to allow a number of emotions she had been resisting for months now.
“Why do you try to sacrifice yourself for these people,” Danny asked her in gentle words, “if all you’re going to end up doing is pushing them away?”
“I don’t know,” she confessed. She could feel tears welling up, out of her control, everything she had built up inside, allowed to fester. “I don’t… I don’t get it at all.”
“Are you afraid they’ll use you?”
“No, that’s not it…”
“That you’ll lose them, then? Do you think it’s easier to keep them at a distance, so it’s easier to say goodbye in the end?”
“This mission’s going to end,” Arras told herself. “And when it does, anyone left alive will…”
“You think your friends will just leave you behind when everything’s over?” he asked. “Or are you uncomfortable knowing that they value you more than that?”
She clutched his shirt again, this time to try to keep herself contained. Still, a tear or two rolled down her cheek, and she shook in his arms.
“I can’t ask them for that… I can’t ask him…”
“You mean Danny…”
“I… I’ve taken so much from him already.”
“It’s not your fault he found Ridarin.”
“But it’s my fault for dragging him into all this,” she persisted, lifting her head to tell him face to face. “If I hadn’t encouraged him, trained him, brought him with me into what was supposed to be my fight… Maybe his family would still be safe, all of them. Maybe he would be okay.”
Finally, her tears flowed freely, and she hammered her hand on him as her whimpers grew to yells.
“I’ve killed them! I ruined their lives, and I can’t fix any of it!”
She sank back against him, weeping, hissing curses against herself with faint breath. That tightness in her throat, the ache in her head, all to match the trauma seething from her heart—she could feel herself coming unwoven. And what she found pouring out as a result left her more lost than before.
“That’s it, then,” Danny sighed, looking up at the sky as she hid her eyes in his shoulder. “You want to be with them so badly—you want to be with him—but you really don’t think you deserve it. You don’t deserve the happiness.”
“How could I, after everything I’ve done? And him, he’s the only one who’s ever let all of that go. I don’t get it. I don’t get him!”
“How he could see the darkest side of you, and still love you?”
In a moment, her sobs stopped and her eyes opened, though she kept her head down.
“You can’t deny it,” the apparition said with a faint chuckle. “After all, he’s never been a terribly subtle person.”
“But why?” Arras muttered. “Why would he…?”
“And why would you?” he asked in return. “Is it because he validates you as a person, gives you some sort of chance to justify your existence, despite all your wrongs? Or is it because he would even put in the effort to do something like that?”
“I don’t…” she tried to reason to herself. “I don’t care about him.”
“Is that why you’re still clinging to him?”
Hearing this, Arras pushed off Danny, stumbling backward. A few feet apart, they stared each other down, the apparition perfectly composed, Arras frantic, as if looking for a place to hide.
“This is the issue, Arras,” he said with an understanding smile. “You’ve spent so long telling yourself that you’re just a monster. And so even when you find someone you care about, someone you even love, or who loves you, you can’t allow them to get close. You might contaminate them, pollute them, cut them to pieces, burn them to ashes. Is that it?”
“Why should I get to have people like that?”
“Damn it, Arras, wake up already!”
With that, a large crack burst across the sky, and the sound of an explosion crashed through the air.
“You hear that?” he asked her, looking up at the glowing fracture overhead. “That’s not just your imagination. That’s the sound of your friends coming to rescue you. That’s him. And he’s coming for you.”
“He’s coming for his family,” Arras countered. “And to destroy the suit they have here. That’s all.”
“You still don’t get it,” Danny said, stepping toward her, even as she tried to back away. “You’re right to say he’s coming for his family, but you’re dead wrong to assume that somehow excludes you, Arras. This is it, what you’ve been trying desperately to tell yourself this whole time, with all these made-up versions of people you know, people you love.” He took her by the hand, preventing her from fleeing any longer. “You think you can do this by yourself, but you can’t. You can’t, Arras. Your head’s beneath the water, you’re drowning, suffocating, and that’s never going to change until you realize one thing.”
“What’s that?” she reeled, trying to pull herself from his grip—from her own grip. From someone that was at once other than herself, and yet rooted in her very being. “What, then? That I need to rally a bunch of people to use as buoys?”
“That’s not it at all,” he said, shaking his head. “It won’t end, and you won’t be able to come up for air, not until you stop fighting the fact that there are people out there who want to keep your head above water. Who are willing to dive down deep into some crushing, dark abyss, just to bring you back up.”
All strength leaving her, her tears threatening to return, Arras stared back at him for a long time. The blue sky above continued to crack and fragment, shards of thought and feeling raining down in chunks all around them, her solipsistic world coming unraveled by something other than herself.
“You’re going to need to make a choice,” he told her. “The fact is, Arras, that the end of the world isn’t coming. It’s already here. And whatever you do next will determine if this really is how the world goes under, or if there’s still hope.”
“I don’t understand…”
“He’s coming for you, but he can’t do this by himself. You have to save him. He’ll be counting on you.”
Smiling back at her, tears of his own rolled down his face. Looking back at him as he looked into her, Arras wondered who this really was, this person who felt so much like him, and yet who could not be.
“What am I supposed to save Danny from?” she asked, stepping forward, no longer resisting his grip.
“The psychosomatic god is about to awaken,” he told her as the world around them continued to crumble. “When it does, it could mean the end of everything you hold dear. You need to save them, and him.”
The apparition of Danny himself started to shatter, disappearing with the rest of the scenes in her head.
“Wait, please, I still don’t understand,” Arras called out to him, trying to pull him back to coherency with both hands. “What am I supposed to save him from?”
With everything around them disassembled, Arras felt that hand she held so tightly begin to pull her out of her own self.
“Save them, if you can,” she heard him say. “And when you’ve saved them, let them save you, too.”
The apparition’s voice shifted from Danny’s own into another familiar tone---the voice of the one truly rescuing her from her own mind.
“It’s your life, Arras. Choose for yourself how you want to live.”
As she rose from the depths of her own unconscious, feeling that familiar presence fade as her words echoed away, Arras felt her heart break. And as she was tossed back into reality by that hand that had guided her this far, she cried out her name—she called out to Ila.