The carnage carried itself out for only a few minutes, though it felt like years to anyone observing, and eons to those on the battlefield. The armed forces all around the crimson monster soon surrendered, falling back, realizing they were powerless to stop its advance. What had appeared to them only a few steps above a supersoldier had become instead a Lovecraftian nightmare, and there would be no combatting it—not anymore.
Swinging his head in every direction, his body following in unnatural motion, Danny realized they were distancing themselves from him. Infuriated by the withdrawal, lost in primal aggression, unsure of which direction to attack next, he threw his entire body back, raising his head to glare daggers into the sky itself. The groan of overworking machinery filled the air, distorting into what sounded almost like a sickly, bloodcurdling roar; in turn, all radio channels joined the terrible cry, producing an ear-piercing screech.
The air swirled around Ridarin, kicking up dust, twisting and twirling in ribbons of darkened wind. The growing whirlwind spread outward, widening, and the world around the crimson monster began to change. Debris and bodies, shrapnel and rocks rose and were swallowed up in the spiraling winds, disintegrating and taking new shape. Amid bolts of lightning, high energy pleading to be released, the contents the tornado swallowed up shifted into ashes and dust, shards and swathes of glass, their molecules dividing and reuniting into new chemical arrangements, their atoms disassembling and reforming as different elements.
And the sky darkened, as if nature itself was being pulled into Ridarin’s uncontrollable creative will.
The chaotic column collapsed into a sphere, engulfing Ridarin, before billowing out again, blasting away anything nearby. Lightning continued to sink its fangs into anything unfortunate enough to be in range. In the midst of the lights, the transforming atoms began to accelerate, fracturing into their most basic particulate components. Traveling at a hair short of light speed, colliding into one another, these raging particles were peeled from the Higgs field, and concepts such as mass and space began to lose meaning.
Inside the ship, finally able to lift her head, Val watched the odd formation outside in dreamy bewilderment. Her trance was broken when the scanner intoned an alert, making her heart skip; it was a tone made only if there was a vessel jumping out of FTL nearby. But there was no ship, none but the one she was in. The FTL event the scanner had picked up was instead coming from directly inside whatever chrysalis Ridarin was forming around itself.
“Don’t move,” a stony voice demanded from over her shoulder.
Glancing back, Val saw that they had finally been overtaken; a man in black body armor had his M27 automatic rifle aimed directly at her head. Val peaceably unbuckled herself from her seat, led by the tip of that rifle out of the cockpit, through the cabin, and onto the runway outside to join the rest of her friends. A number of marines and airmen had them surrounded, but none of them seemed to know what to do with their prisoners. Most of them were entranced by what was happening almost a mile away, the cataclysm that seemed to be gradually spreading, while the rest could only hesitantly lift a weapon to the captives in their midst.
Laura held Milo tightly, watching Danny disappear into the winds, tears building in the corners of her eyes. None of this made sense to her, but the context of this situation was merely a list of peripheral details. All she knew was that one of her sons was in trouble, in pain even, and that frightened her more than the death she guessed was on its way.
Damon and Virgil knelt around Eli, arranging his body in a more dignified position, sweeping his eyelids shut. Though Virgil had never interacted with the young man, Damon knew him well enough to feel a squeeze in his chest, a certain breathlessness accompanying tears he refused to release.
Taking in the confused scene, Val went to stand by Arras, who had not moved from where Danny had leapt only moments before then.
“That’s an FTL event,” she told Arras, watching the sphere of circulating light and wind with her. “Whatever he’s making out there, it’s highly unstable.”
“He’s lost control,” Arras said almost lifelessly. “He won’t stop until he’s destroyed everything—including himself.”
“So is this it, then?” Val’s shoulders sank in hopelessness, watching her friend descend ever deeper into madness. “Is this the end?”
Those last words—“the end”—triggered something in Arras. As if involuntarily, not simply recollection but a reminder from someone other than herself or Val, the memory of her comatose dreams returned to her in their entirety. She remembered her father’s hands, her mother’s embrace, and Danny’s words, especially his warning.
“The end of the world,” Arras mouthed.
“What did you say?” asked Val.
“I know what’s happening to him, I know what this is.”
Arras remembered the sporadic sync rates she was getting from Danny before he disappeared, how she couldn’t get a definite read. While the readouts were characteristic of those driven mad by operating Rededication, the sync rate was atypical; only then did she realize why that was, and thus what was going on.
“Somehow, my mother’s lost control of the suit,” she thought aloud. “Because of that, the control restrictions we placed on Ridarin are no longer in place, including all psychological guards for the operator.”
“So he really can’t control himself,” Val concluded.
“It’s getting worse, too, and he can’t stop it,” Arras elaborated as the pieces continued to slide together for her. “It’s like there’s a millstone around his neck and he’s sinking down into the ocean. He’s locked in a feedback loop of unchecked emotion, and Ridarin’s manifesting that rage in the real world... I get it now. I get it.”
The words returned to her at last, and Arras’ eyes opened wide, as if she had seen a ghost.
“The psychosomatic god is waking up.”
“Does someone want to tell me what in the hell is happening up here?”
All eyes turned to find Henrietta Ridge marching boldly past the wall of marines. With no more decorum, she seized Arras by the scruff of her gown, jabbing her finger out at Ridarin.
“What kind of monster did you unleash on us?”
“I didn’t unleash anything on you,” Arras replied, an almost twisted smile curling across her face as she attempted to suppress the coming hysteria. “You’re the ones who released this monster, not us.”
“We should leave as soon as possible,” Arthur called out from outside of the circle of marines. “There’s nothing else we can do here.”
“There’s plenty we can do,” Henrietta retorted. “We evacuate the base and prepare for combat. We didn’t expect this, but we won’t be caught off guard again.”
A snort of laughter escaped Arras. She struggled to keep her cool as Ridarin approached critical mass, but that didn’t seem evident to anyone else.
“You really are stupid, aren’t you?” Arras told an already outraged Henrietta. “You don’t get it at all. There’s nothing you can do to stop this. That suit is more powerful than you can possibly imagine, and there’s not a weapon on this planet that can stop it.”
“What about an ICBM?” Henrietta suggested, running an actual suggestion by Arras, seeing her as the only opportunity for further intelligence they had. “We load a ballistic missile with nuclear warheads and carpet bomb this area before things get any more out of hand.”
Arras shook her head blithely. “Even I haven’t seen this before, but I know it’s too much for you. You could bring your planet’s entire military force to bear, and you wouldn’t even put a dent in that thing—not as it is now.”
“You can’t possibly tell me that you built something you don’t know how to stop,” Henrietta reasoned.
“I can’t?” Arras prodded. “Who says?”
“She’s telling you the truth, Ridge,” Damon suddenly snarled, rising from his genuflection at Eli’s side. “We don’t know how to stop it because we’re not the ones who put him in this state. You did! You created this horror when you decided people like Eli Vale were—what was it you called them? ‘Acceptable losses,’ was it?”
Henrietta was shocked by how he might know that, not knowing Aurin was with them, let alone what he was capable of. In a quick beat, she recomposed herself; however, it was difficult to retain any sort of composure when she really looked at Eli, at what had happened to some scientist in the making from New York.
“I know Rededication frightens you, President Ridge, as it should,” Arras said, stepping toward Henrietta. “Imagine everything you think Rededication is capable of, along with every atrocity and crime against humanity we showed Arthur Emmerich, and understand that my family built this suit to overpower such a force. There’s nothing you can do. You aren’t fighting a machine or a tool now; you’re fighting a god.”
“And it looks like that god is about to rain wrath down on all of us,” Damon added, looking back out at Ridarin, the event swirling around its body having grown, leaving only its blue lighting visible now. “Whatever that is, it looks like it could blow any minute now.”
“I— excuse me, but I have a proposal,” Arthur interjected, pushing his way past the marines, stopping in front of Arras. “Please, hear me out: we triggered this event after we attacked the civilians in your group, yes? Our men reported that this happened immediately after Eli Vale was killed.”
Arras glared up at him, no mercy in her eyes. “Bottom line, Emmerich.”
Trying to hold to what courage he had in her presence, desperate to help her—to repay her for sparing him—he cleared his throat.
“We can’t fight him directly,” Arthur reiterated, “but is there perhaps some way to restore his mental stability, or to even shut down the suit before it’s too late?”
Before Arras could insist once again that any effort would be hopeless, she felt something pull at her. Some strangely intimate call beckoned her attention away from Arthur and back out to Ridarin—to Danny.
Looking out at the demolished landscape, she thought she saw a familiar face. She thought she could see Ila, standing serenely between her and Ridarin’s catastrophe; with her hands behind her back, and a smile on her face, she mouthed a simple message to her older sister.
In an instant, she was gone, as if she had never been there to begin with.
“Arras?” Arthur asked. “What do you think? Is it possible?”
Without replying, Arras attempted to take a few steps toward Ridarin and where Ila had just been. In response, a number of marines raised their weapons and closed in, demanding that she stay where she was.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Henrietta asked. “We don’t have time for theatrics; we need to evacuate now.”
Arras turned to face the madam president directly, ignoring the men with guns around her—she had become so accustomed to such threats by then. Instead, with undeviating focus, she fixed her eyes on Henrietta. She had no anger, and no fear. Only anticipation as she considered the possibility that they may yet be saved from what would be sure extinction.
“It’s already too late for escape,” Arras said definitively. “Even if we took our ship, we would never get out of here in one piece. Danny’s formed what’s called an ‘FTL event’: a distortion in both space and time, created by an unfathomable amount of energy. That FTL event out there could theoretically consume and vaporize this entire planet. Right now Danny’s going berserk, and all he can think to do is eliminate any danger to the people he loves. He doesn’t understand what he’s doing… but maybe I can help him understand.”
“How?” Henrietta asked. “How could you possibly get through to him now?”
“I know that suit better than anyone,” Arras answered, feeling her left eye sting again as she spoke. “And my nano-net’s operational again. I think I might be able to diffuse him.”
Despite Henrietta’s obvious reluctance, Arthur stepped in again.
“This may be worth a shot. Her net is obviously compatible with that suit; she may be the only one who can bring Daniel down.”
When Henrietta would still not respond, Arthur threw his arms out, as if to remind her of the hell going on around them.
“If we don’t do something, then we’re all dead anyway,” he yelled carelessly at her. “What can it hurt?”
Still, Henrietta didn’t say a word. The wind whipping all around them tossed her hair in all directions, but she didn’t care. She seemed lost in herself, as if regretting every one of her decisions until now, crippled by her own remorse.
“Now listen here!” Virgil suddenly blurted, shocking Henrietta back to reality. “We’ve all been brought to this precipice because you and your people believed you could harness this suit. But all you have to do is look out there—you cannot harness that. No one can! All we can hope to do is propitiate it. And the only one among us who can do that is Arras Enqelin. So what’s there left to consider? Let her go!”
Turning away from everyone, Henrietta stared into the quantum hurricane in the distance. It had expanded even further and consumed the nearby buildings entirely, only to advance even more.
“Arras,” Henrietta said softly, “I just wanted to protect this world.”
“I want to protect this world as well,” Arras assured her. “This is the last chancer either of us are going to have to show that. Please… Please let me go to him. Let me stop this.”
A seemingly endless silence followed, the tense atmosphere unable to build any further. With all eyes on Henrietta, they waited for her verdict, for the words that might very well determine the fate of Earth itself.
“Everyone, stand down,” she said at last. “Let her go.”
“Thank you,” Arras said quickly before sprinting away.
Together they watched Arras run without the least hesitation into the chaos, all the while wondering what would happen next.
Val watched Arras disappear in the dark winds, as tears formed, and she smiled fondly after her.
“It really was all for him, wasn’t it?” she sighed. But now, after everything they had gone through, those words didn’t hurt anymore. Watching Arras vanish, going after Danny herself, Val felt what dregs of bitterness that remained in her evaporate.
Bringing her arm up to shield herself from the high-velocity winds, Arras felt the bandages around her head unravel and fly away, revealing her new eye—the ring of blue on a sea of black. And in an instant, she felt her nano-net reactivate; yet it felt different from before. Whereas in the past she had needed some sort of direct contact, to make a circuit between herself and whatever she wished to network with, something about this eye made her feel infinitely freer. It was as if she was no longer bound by distance or circuits, or even her hand’s own farthest reach.
The blue and black eye had settled, evolving her. She realized then that it wasn’t a curse or stigma. It was a gift. And as she moved through the dense sandstorm, breaking through strips of glass and tails of strange matter suspended in midair, she could see Ila in the blurred distance—and she realized from whom the gift had come.
“An interesting lie,” Aurin said to her, appearing only for an instant as she ran past him. He appeared again ahead of her, standing still, allowing her to pass him again. “I thought your net was fried, too, but it seems we were both wrong.”
“I guess it wasn’t a lie, then,” Arras reasoned through strained breath.
“Are you even sure you know what you’re doing?” he asked her, passing by once again. “Do you know if you can stop him?”
“I don’t know, no,” she confessed.
All at once, she relived that dream from her coma, and all the others surrounding it—the moment she had been forced to face the piece of Danny in her heart. Along with those dreams came all the memories she had accumulated over the past months, all the people she had encountered, her friends, the people she loved. The memories circulated around him, around Daniel, as if to push her forward, to call her deeper into this storm.
“I don’t know, but I have to try!”
The wind struck her body hard, but she didn’t stop running. Though she had slowed considerably, and her feet would sometimes even skid hopelessly over the ground, she pressed on.
“I have to try… because he’s always been there for me. He’s always followed me without a second thought. He’s saved me too many times. He’s forgiven me, he’s cared about me—he even bothered to love me.”
She lost her footing for a moment, but caught herself, not losing a single step. She only raised the force she put into every step forward.
“And if he can all of that… then the least I can do is save him!”
With a smile, consigning himself to her unalterable decision, Aurin stopped appearing before his daughter. Before disappearing outside the eye of the storm, he called after her one last time.
“Go save them both, then—your mother, and Danny.”
And with that, Arras vanished from the world, entering the chaotic egg Ridarin and Danny had hidden themselves in for the end of the world.