Moving through the black site was even more difficult for Virgil and Damon than the surface had been, even with Aurin’s live instruction. On occasion they would duck around a corner or into a vacant room, waiting for a wave of heavy boots to pass. Despite the obvious sense of being in hostile territory, they both felt more anxious at how much control Aurin seemed to really have, redirecting entire teams of marines just enough to keep them out of sight.
At the same time, Aurin was already migrating the majority of the black site’s personnel to one side of the underground, away from their prisoners and the lift they planned on using in their escape.
“Stop here,” Aurin said suddenly; he was instantly obeyed. “Around the corner, that’s…”
Virgil risked peeking around the corner with a curved scope. He pulled back the moment he saw them.
“Bugger all,” he hissed, “that’s the bloody president.”
Around the corner and down a few yards, Henrietta and Arthur stood at the center of their group of marines. While Arthur looked apprehensive, still trying to process how Arras had escaped right before his eyes, how she had killed a man—and how she had spared him—Henrietta was busy at work.
The sergeant handed her his radio, allowing her to listen in on the sitrep from the surface.
“We’re not sure what he’s trying to do,” a voice called through the channel, speaking over the rattling, tinny sounds of gunfire. “But we have him pinned down. Target is armed and dangerous, but we think we might be able to take him out.”
“Copy, Colonel,” Henrietta replied. “If you cannot apprehend the target, the use of deadly force is authorized.”
“Roger so far,” the colonel replied through the radio. “We’re doing all that we can, ma’am. But whoever this guy is, he’s pretty tough.”
“With any luck, he doesn’t know where to find what he’s looking for,” Henrietta replied starkly. “We cannot afford to let him do as he pleases on this base. Make it happen.”
“Roger wilco, over and out.”
Clicking her tongue in thought, Henrietta handed the sergeant his radio.
“Our first priority is to capture Arras,” she told the sergeant. “I think she might be heading for our other guests. Send a team to the cafeteria; I want Eli and the Eick family with us in the safe room.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the sergeant said.
As the president, Arthur, and the rest of the marines continued on, the sergeant relayed the orders down the line. He received immediate response that another team was en route to the cafeteria.
Once they were out of earshot, Virgil let out the air he had been holding in. “I certainly hope you intercepted that transmission, Aurin.”
“And then some,” Aurin replied. “Not only is there team not going to pick up our people, but the guards they had posted at the cafeteria have already been ‘called’ to another part of the base. Eli, Laura, and Milo are wide open and ready for pickup.”
Damon and Virgil grinned at each other as they listened to the good news.
“Can you imagine if we had this kind of asset in the past?” Damon asked excitedly, keeping his voice to a whisper still.
“My friend, there wouldn’t be anyone left to fight another war if we did,” Virgil replied.
“Hang on,” Aurin cut back in. “There’s a slight detour I need you two to make on your way.”
“What sort of detour?” Virgil asked.
“I found her. She’s awake.”
Wasting no time, they listened carefully to Aurin’s directions, moving more quickly than before. They encountered no one along the way, leaving them free to sprint down the halls.
They didn’t travel far before Aurin stopped them at a particular door. “In there. Check in there.”
Cautiously, their weapons ready, Virgil pulled the door open as Damon looked inside. Behind the door was a simple supply closet. Looking at the ground, however, nestled between the metal shelves, was Arras, aiming an M9 at them.
“Damon,” she sighed in relief, though her weapon only lowered slightly.
“Arras,” Damon replied, just as relieved.
He lowered his weapon and slowly stepped into the storage room, lowering himself to Arras’ level. She seemed completely frazzled, her nerves shot. Carefully he swept her handgun to the side, then wrapped his arms around her.
“I’m so glad you’re all right,” he told her.
“Sorry I didn’t call you,” Arras said somewhat weakly. “I was a little tied up.”
“You have nothing to apologize for,” Damon assured her. “You did a wonderful job.”
Leaning away from her, he then noticed her wrapped head and padded eye.
“It’s nothing,” Arras said before he could ask. “I’ll explain later.”
“We should keep moving,” Virgil warned them, speaking tentatively, not wanting to intrude on their reunion.
“He’s right,” Aurin seconded. “I can’t keep those guards off the cafeteria forever. We’ll save the celebration for when we’re out of this place.”
“Can you stand?” Damon asked Arras.
“Yes, I’m fine,” she said, getting to her feet on her own. She checked her handgun, reassuring herself that there was still a round in the chamber. “Ready when you are.”
“And your eye,” Damon added, “can you still aim?”
“I can,” she insisted, speaking more to convince than berate. “Come on, let’s go get the others.”
The three of them tuned into Aurin’s channel together, making their way to their next destination, trying to stay conscious of their uncomfortably nonspecific time limit.
They found the entrance to the cafeteria unguarded. Entering strategically, Damon and Virgil stayed back to watch the door as Arras proceeded farther in.
“Are you all okay?” she asked as she approached Laura, Milo, and Eli. “We need to get moving. Just follow us.”
“Good to see you again, Arras,” Laura told her, smiling as she said the young woman’s real name. “I hope you don’t mind, but these people told me your actual name. I’m afraid your cover’s been blown.”
Smiling at hearing her own name come from Laura, Arras said, “I’m sorry I took so long to get to you all.”
Looking over Laura’s shoulder, she found Milo.
“Can you help us out?” Arras asked, getting a delayed though determined nod from the young man. “I need you to help us keep an eye out for any hostiles. You see them, let us know—but keep your voice down.”
“Got it,” Milo replied.
Arras found Eli smiling broadly back at her. “I knew you’d find a way out of here.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Arras said, “but this plan’s not mine. And we’re not out of the woods yet.”
“Is Danny with you?” Laura asked, looking back at Damon. “Is he all right?”
“Oh yes, he couldn’t be better,” Damon replied enthusiastically.
Another distant explosion erupted on the surface, with more dust shaking from the ceiling to punctuate the blast.
“Are you guys ready to go yet?” Danny asked through Damon’s radio for all to hear. “They’re shelling me pretty generously up here.”
“Shelling?” Laura mouthed. “What’s he talking about? Is he okay?”
Damon put up a hand, saying, “I can explain later, but believe me when I say that Daniel is the last person in any danger right now.”
Virgil radioed Aurin. “We’re ready to make our exit. If you could kindly clear the way.”
“With gusto,” Aurin replied. “Just give me a second. There’s a few stragglers near the lift you’ll be taking. I’ll divert them somewhere else.”
As they waited, Arras sat down with the others, leaving Damon and Virgil to keep an eye on the door. Though she kept her weapon drawn, having no other real place to holster it in the gown she had been given before her failed interrogation, she forgot about the weight of the gun. Instead, she focused almost exclusively on the woman sitting before her.
“Laura, I, uh…”
Arras thought out what she would tell Laura, considering her words carefully. Even if she wasn’t clear on how to put it all, there was still something she felt she owed Laura, something she needed to tell her.
“I want to apologize,” she pressed on, not taking her eyes off Laura or the two men beside her. “It’s my fault your son is involved in this. It’s because of me that you and Milo were pulled in along with him. You, too, Eli. To each of you, I’m sorry I put you in this situation.”
Laura tightened her lips, mulling over Arras’ apology the way she might an essay from one of her students.
“Apology not accepted,” Laura said frankly.
Arras felt a mild shock hearing this, but she bowed her head and consigned herself to the verdict. “I understand.”
“Not accepted,” Laura repeated, “because it’s simply not necessary. Look, kiddo, when I met you in Fayette, I knew I could trust you. I wouldn’t have let you run off with my son to God knows where if I didn’t. And Danny clearly trusts you, too. Perhaps it sounds a little naïve, but call it instinct; I trusted ‘Arianna’ back then, and I trust you right now, Arras.”
“Yeah, me too,” Milo added, his voice soft but his sincerity unsuppressed. “I mean, you seem pretty cool. I don’t think you have anything to apologize for, not to us.”
“Sorry, Arras,” Eli sighed, “but I’m on their side on this one. If you want us to hold this against you, I’m sorry to say you’re out of luck. We all trust you. Period.”
“But none of you can go back to the way things used to be,” Arras said, feeling almost lost after their responses. “Your lives are—”
“Our lives are just fine—at least, as far as I’m concerned,” Eli told her. His beaming smile dimmed a little, though only with thought. “It’s true, I won’t be able to return to Cornell, not for my PhD, and I certainly won’t be teaching there—but, believe it or not, I’m okay with that. I lived a relatively boring life before those text messages led us to you. No wonder Danny tried to escape it; he couldn’t stand the monotony of it all, I’ll bet! But when I met you, you offered to take me along on your journey, when I was just the friend of the guy you really needed. You may think you dragged me into this, but, actually, Arras, you gave me a gift.” Once again, he smiled broadly, brightly, a smile that warmed Arras. “You took me on a real adventure, and I’ll always be grateful for that.”
“The same goes for me, by the way,” Laura added with a casual smile, dismissing whatever remorse Arras may have had. “It’s been quite the ride since you showed up. And while it’s not necessarily the ride I would have chosen… as crazy as it sounds, I wouldn’t trade it away either.”
“I feel the same,” Milo stuttered, looking embarrassed as he said it. “It was really cool getting to meet you… and I’m glad we got to see you again.”
Arras was rooted to her seat, having never expected their words, yet there was still a distinct warmth in her heart. She recalled what the Danny in her coma had told her—what Ila had told her. And she couldn’t help but smile along with the others.
“Thank you,” she told them, “all of you. Thank you.”
“It’s time to move,” Damon announced, waving everyone over. “Stay close, and keep up. We’re on our way out now.”
Together, keeping Milo, Laura, and Eli at the center of their group, they left the cafeteria and reentered the network of corridors, on their way to the lift, to their exit—to freedom.