When her mags were empty, Arras traded weapons with Damon. She aimed his assault rifle over the hood, joining Virgil in returning fire on the marines holding them where they were.
Damon inched his way to the edge of the vehicle, then signaled for Arras and Virgil to stop shooting.
“Cease fire, cease fire!” Damon yelled out to the marines, trying to at least buy himself and the others some time. “We have unarmed civilians with us. They are not able to defend themselves. We are requesting a ceasefire!”
But the bullets didn’t stop. Arras and Virgil resumed firing back, aiming only to push the infantry back. However, were both quickly running out of ammunition; it wouldn’t be much longer until they were overtaken.
“Sorry, Damon, but they aren’t going to listen to you,” Aurin said through a closed channel, keeping what he said from Eli, Laura, and Milo. “I heard it myself—these people have declared your friends ‘acceptable losses.’ They aren’t going to earn you guys any mercy.”
“They must be out of their minds!” Damon replied, looking back at the people they had come to save, hunkering down with their eyes shut and their heads covered. “Is there anything we can do to convince them otherwise? Or maybe another trick we could pull?”
“Sorry, Damon, but I think we’re approaching the end of the road.”
Overhead, Val continued to hover only a few yards above the clear runway. At last, she found a spot she thought would suffice—it was by no means what she wanted, but she saw no other options.
The ship touched down just over twenty feet away, placing the vehicle everyone had hidden behind for cover between this new landing zone and the incoming marines. Bullets continued to hail against the hull, but Val decided it would be best to at least prepare for everyone to board so they could make a quick getaway.
“I’m here!” Danny announced through the radio.
A crimson and black blur landed among the marines, stunning them with disbelief, though only for a second. Though they attempted close quarters combat, their blades would never pierce his armor, and Danny’s arms and legs would not bend in any direction they did not intend to go. The infantry coming down on his friends was utterly powerless against him—against Ridarin.
However, for every marine Danny grounded, a handful more seemed to take their place. Every able-bodied person on base must have geared up for this ordeal, Danny thought, as countless more combatants approached him. To make matters worse, Ridarin detected high-powered explosives among their inventory.
His heart racing, Danny couldn’t keep up with the amount of people coming down on them, not by non-lethal means. Even firing warning shots did little to slow them down.
“I can’t hold these guys back forever,” Danny informed the others. “Now may be your only chance to get to the ship. I’ll keep them off you as long as I can, so go!”
Responding with the same urgency, Damon, Virgil, and Arras each chose one person to cover on their way to the ship.
At Laura’s insistence, Virgil took Milo first, keeping him under his body as they ran for the gunship’s open hatch, diving into the cabin. Once they were safely aboard, Damon took Laura, covering her the same way Virgil had covered Milo. Bullets bounced off the ground around them, some reverberating off the hull, dangerously close. However, they didn’t slow down a bit—this was the moment when everything would either come together or fall apart, and they all knew it.
Arras and Eli remained behind cover for a moment more, looking out once more at the waves of infantry inching their way closer. Ground assault vehicles also began to roll into the action from the inner parts of the base, heading straight for them, carrying heavy artillery and more manpower.
“They’re trying to overwhelm him,” Eli told Arras, ducking back behind the vehicle.
However, Arras was busy trying to read their line of fire. Most of the rounds fired didn’t seem to be aimed at the vehicle they were hiding behind; if they landed against their cover, it was only because of where it was relative to their true target.
“They’re aiming for the ship, not us,” Arras realized. “Come on, we need to move now!”
Together they dashed for their only way off the battlefield, where the others were already waiting to receive them. The engines were still running hot, and the ship twitched against the ground as the lower thrusters eagerly awaited the coming liftoff.
Perhaps it was because of her padded eye, or maybe she was too focused on their destination, but Arras did not notice the team of marines that were about to flank them on the left. Eli, however, caught sight of them right as they opened fire. Without thinking, he threw himself on top of Arras, pulling her to the ground as a swarm of bullets zipped past them.
Danny looked back to see Eli and Arras taking cover on the ground, bullets popping against the concrete all around them. Even the inside of the ship wasn’t completely safe as the marines continued to open fire on the open hatch that awaited at least two more passengers.
Giving up on his previous position, Danny fell back to the ship, to Eli and Arras. Standing tall over them, he materialized an M72 LAW, firing one warning shot at the flanking marines and two at the horde of infantry and vehicles coming from his previous position. Fire then black smoke billowed up from the three individual crash sites, and the assault seemed to lull. Ridarin could detect no fatalities, but the influx of combatants slowed, then fell back a bit, buying them only a few seconds.
“Get up, you guys,” Danny yelled down at them. “We’ve got no time to lose!”
But neither of them would move. He turned back, looking first at Arras, who was covered in blood. Danny panicked at the sight; but his panic increased exponentially when he realized the blood was not hers, and when he saw where she was looking.
Time seemed to freeze altogether when Danny laid eyes on his Eli.
Dark blood poured from the back of his head, his eyes still open, the rest of his body limp. He was already gone. In an instant. So quickly that he seemed to have not realized it himself. Though his face was somewhat vacant now, his last thoughts seemed to remain in his eyes—no fear, but no peace either.
Danny looked from Eli to Arras, then back at the ship. He could see sparks and slugs still sparking inside the cabin. He could see his mother and Milo, huddled down on the deck; Damon and Virgil putting themselves in the middle of the danger just to keep them safe, just like Eli. He could see Val, still in the pilot’s seat, her head low, but her hands on the controls, ready to take off at any second.
His field of vision wobbled, and he realized he was on his knees as Arras was tugged at him. She was yelling something at him, but he couldn’t hear her. It felt as if he had just been hit by a flashbang. Nothing seemed to make sense, nothing—especially not the dead body laying at knees.
In that moment, Danny felt as if a lance had travelled through his heart, piercing him to inconceivable depths. It was as if something was making a surgical incision into him, trying to remove something, to bring something to the surface. But all he could feel was the raw pain of a scalpel to his proverbial skin.
“Danny, come on,” Arras screamed at him, ducking for a moment as another burst of bullets whizzed past. “Please, Danny! We have to get to the ship now!”
But he still couldn’t hear her. He couldn’t hear anything. He couldn’t feel anything—nothing except whatever was cutting into him, ripping him open. Whatever was reaching into him to pull out what was inside.
Standing up, he turned back to the incoming infantry, the pain intensifying. Soon enough, the pain morphed, mutated, boiling. That anger continued to rise until, finally, it became all out rancor, rage, pressed against him like a white-hot wire.
“Why are you people doing this?” Danny asked, his words muffled in the deafening silence all around him. “Why don’t you get that we’re trying to save you?”
The silence was gradually overtaken by a singular noise: the aggressive chopping of rotors, and an engine gasping as it sucked in air. Hovering over the tops of the nearby buildings, an AH-1Z Viper attack helicopter prowled menacingly through the sky, its target chosen.
“Stop it,” Danny breathed, his voice trembling with the rest of his body. “Please…”
Two AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, mounted on the helicopters wing-tips, registered as an active threat to Ridarin. Arras continued trying to pull him back to the ship, but Danny could no longer sense her, not like he could these weapons.
“Stop it. Stop.”
The missiles dismounted from the aircraft, their engines blazing behind them, speeding their payload toward him and everyone behind him.
The missiles approached at a fantastic speed, soaring like arrows toward their helpless prey. And, while watching those missiles, whatever was being pulled from inside Danny emerged—and he disappeared into himself.
“Stop it now!”
As Arras ducked for the impact, Danny lifted both his hands, his arms outstretched.
When the impact and blast never came, Arras looked up to see what had happened. As if magnetized, the Sidewinders twirled before Danny, locked in midair, inches from his palms. Though their motors still burned their fuel, trying to reach their targets, the missiles were captive.
Though her nano-net was still dulled, Arras managed to check Ridarin and Danny’s status. What she saw made her heart ache and her stomach churn.
His sync rate was erratic, leaping from one three-digit number to another, and his brainwaves spiked dangerously. Danny had never exhibited these symptoms before, but she recognized the readings instantly.
This was the same profile of a Rededication operator driven mad.
“Oh Danny, no…”
The missiles suspended before Danny’s palms flipped around, the heat of their rockets now spewing between his fingers. As if his hand were stuck inside the missiles, he ripped his arm away from one of the Sidewinders, sending it right back where it had come from. Like a sword through a dragon, the missile traveled through the Viper’s canopy, detonating inside the aircraft. The tattered, flaming remains of the helicopter crashed down on a number of people below, billowing smoke and frying people alive.
Arras continued trying to call out to him still, but Danny could not hear her.
Instead, he ripped his hand from the other Sidewinder, rocketing it into the large group of marines that had been approaching them a moment ago. A number of bodies launched from the ground, their limbs akimbo, their faces either gone or lifeless. The rest were blown back, wounded, shocked into submission.
Danny’s entire frame shook, but not from the nearby explosions. He arched forward and hugged his abdomen, as if sick to his stomach.
Taking what little opportunity she had, Arras got up and tried to pull Danny back again.
“Please, Danny, you have to calm down!” she insisted, shaking him as hard as she could. “We can go now, so come one!”
Her words came to him, but they passed right through, as if none of them had any meaning or definition. Only his own words seemed to carry any weight now.
“They killed him,” Danny seethed through gritted teeth. “They killed Eli. They tried to kill you. They tried to kill everyone. No, no, no, I won’t let them do this. They can’t do this! I’ll kill all of them!”
With one terrible motion, Danny leapt forward, his feet thrown out before him as he soared through the air. Like an animal, he landed at the epicenter of where he had thrown his second missile, in the middle of the recovering marines. Some brave few tried to engage him up close, but their bodies were broken in an instant. Others tried opening fire, but they still accomplished nothing, only attracting this crimson beast to them. One marine threw a grenade, which Danny caught in his armored hand, crushing the explosive in some sort of energy field, compressing the blast into a bead of light which he shoved into a nearby building, bringing the rest of the already crumbling wall down.
In horror, Arras searched frantically for anything she could do. All breath had left her, though. She felt helpless, watching this brutality play itself out, watching her weapon turn into a monster—watching Danny lose himself. She could feel her heart breaking again, that storm of emotion from her coma coming down on her all at once.
And in one futile attempt, she screamed out his name, trying to get him back. Wishing, pleading, begging reality to give him back. But it was already too late.