Arras could no longer tell if she was in the real world, or if she had left herself altogether.
It became harder to move the farther she advanced, until she found herself having to lean forward, bracing her feet at an angle, just to keep from sliding backward. Her steps slowed as the pressure increased, yet she refused to stop. One foot forward, sliding back an inch, then the next foot, and on and on. She wouldn’t stop. Not until she found him.
Daring to look up, directly into the blast ahead, her right eye instinctively closed tightly. Her left eye, however, remained wide open, staring into the distance, seeing through curtains of constantly rearranging matter. Not too far away, she could see a body, curled up, suspended in softly blooming light. Two indigo ringlets appeared in the epicenter ahead—eyes watching her, staring into the eye that carried Arras forward, an eye that matched them.
She tried calling out to him over the wind, but the form ahead did not welcome her; instead, it lowered its head, as if to hide from her. She called out to him again, plodding forward, but still there was no response.
When she was close enough, she lifted her hand, reaching out to him. Her entire arm shook as she fought the razor wind, still calling his name. Something sharp whipped across her bare arm, slicing the flesh, nicking her across the face. Yet she would not be deterred.
Putting all her strength into her legs and arm, bowing her head under the heavy wind, enduring the additional cuts it stroked across her body, she could sense something. It was as if she could communicate with the person just inches from her fingertips, sentiments and feelings conveyed without words. In that wordless dialogue, she realized this storm wasn’t some active resistance—he was hiding from her, yes, but he was also trapped.
“I know you’re scared,” she said to him, her words at once drowned out and carried by the wind. “But I’m not going back, and I’m not leaving you here. So you might as well let me in. You hear me? I’m not leaving you, so let me in!”
Putting everything she had left into one forward motion, she threw herself forward.
With both eyes closed, she felt her hand travel through the barrier—and extend out into nothing. Her eyes still shut, her heart skipped a beat, and she wondered if he had thrown her away. But before she could look for herself, she felt something; it wasn’t the touch of cold metal, but another warm hand, pulling her from that cloud of unknowing and into the mind of another.
The air thinned and the gusts died down to a gentle breeze. What little sunlight there was disappeared as the ground below illuminated in its place, leaving the sky dark and starless.
Dazed for a second through the transition, she felt the ground shift and crunch beneath her feet. Looking down, she saw gravel; looking up, she could see the night sky, the stars drowned out by light pollution. She was on the roof of Teleios tower, back in Manhattan, on that calm night four months ago.
And ahead, standing on the edge of the roof was Danny. He glanced back at her and smiled, though he looked as if he had nothing to smile about.
“You have interesting timing,” he told her in a soft voice.
“Stay back,” he said firmly before she could advance another step.
Though the light behind Danny hid some detail from Arras, she could see thin red lines snake up from beneath his clothing, over his face—around his forced smile—burrowing back down into his body at his hairline.
“Sorry,” he said, “but I’m not well. Wouldn’t want you to catch what I’ve got.”
“What’s happening, Danny?” Arras asked, staying where she was, despite wanting more than anything to cross the few feet between them. “Why are you not well?”
He looked down at his hand, watching the same red lines crawl around his fingers. “I’m not sure what it is, but something’s infected me. It’s making me… do these things…”
“You mean what’s happening outside?”
He nodded, watching her through exhausted eyes, as if dazed by something. “I don’t know what it is, but I can’t stop it.”
Sliding his feet back, his shoes scuffed against the roof’s edge. Arras caught on when Danny apparently realized he had made a noise.
“It’s just an illusion, right?” he asked her, looking down at the world below, so awash in light that nothing seemed to exist there. “Everything I see, just my brain trying to translate what’s happening into something I can understand… So what would happen if I were to just jump off this roof? Would I die? Would I take whatever this is with me?”
“Danny, please listen to me,” Arras urged. “I don’t know what’s infected you, but if you just let me check—”
“No.” He looked up from the haze below, looking more awake than a moment ago. “I won’t risk letting it get into you, too. It’s already made me kill so many people… I won’t let it do the same to you.”
A feeling of powerlessness arose in Arras as she heard him out, but her memories seemed to be fighting off that feeling, like an army led by the one who had coaxed her into coming this far. The one who had told her she was supposed to do this—that she was supposed to be here.
“I don’t know how,” Arras told him, “but I think I’m here because I can help you.”
“You ‘think,’ huh?” Danny breathed. “Sorry, but it’s not that simple. This… this infection, it’s deep inside me. Like it’s in my bones, driving everything I do out there. I can’t pull it out, but maybe I can take away its motor.”
He stared down over the edge again, lost in thought.
“Listen to me,” Arras insisted, taking a couple more steps toward him. “My sister, Ila, she led me here. She told me I was supposed to come for you.”
“Yeah, I saw her myself actually,” Danny muttered.
Arras felt a shock run through her; she wondered what Ila could possibly be up to.
“I saw her on a Reded platform,” he explained. “Right after you were taken, your dad found… Well, you get the picture. Val and I went to destroy it, and we got ambushed by some AI…”
As if struggling to remember, he trailed off, his eyes vacant—then he realized.
“That freak,” he sighed. “You’d never believe it, but some AI tried to take Ridarin away. It would’ve done it, too, if Ila didn’t fight her off. But it must have left something in me when it realized it wasn’t getting the suit…”
The red veins ran over his skin again, and he twitched with pain.
“The Infinitude of Truth,” he said. “That was her name. What a bitch, right?”
As he forced another smile, the name left Arras anxious, though she ignored that. Taking another step, she reminded herself of why she was here.
“I’m not leaving you here, Danny,” she told him, “and I sure as hell am not going to let you kill yourself.”
Danny seemed to lose his strength to smile then. “There’s nothing either of us can do about it, Arras. It’s not like I want to do this, but I won’t let it do any more harm. It’s so out of control, as if it can’t even keep itself in check. And it wants everyone out there dead. I won’t let it do that… I won’t let it kill my family, my friends—especially not you.”
He turned back to the drop, exhaling every last bit of hesitation he had left. Though he didn’t want this to be the last thought he ever had, he still couldn’t help but wonder if this was how his father had felt at the last second.
“You’re so full of shit.”
Danny whirled around, finding Arras standing right in front of him. He expected her to be angry—he was ready to fight back, to tell her off—but she wasn’t. She was sad, and any will to fight her left him.
“I tried, I really did,” he told her. “I wanted to help you, but I guess, in the end, I really did screw everything up.”
“No, you didn’t,” she said, chuckling as she held back tears. “You did so much… Way more than I ever deserved.”
Her shoulders shook as she tried to hold in the flood, the well of emotions that had building up for months. Everything she had kept in check, watching constantly, vigilantly, every day, every hour, every minute. But now, she couldn’t do it anymore. She didn’t want to.
Danny wrapped his arms around her, resting his head on her as she cried.
“I’m so sorry, Arras. I never wanted to make you cry.”
“I’m sorry, too,” she said. “But this isn’t the end.”
She raised her hand, putting her fingers to his cheek, smiling up at him. Before he could react, the lines of red crawled from him onto her, coasting down her arm, corralled all the way to her left eye.
He tried to pull away, but she wouldn’t let him.
“Arras, you have to stop! This isn’t your mess, it’s mine.”
“That’s not true,” she said, holding him still as the red lines coalesced with the blue lines darting between her eye and her tear-stained cheek. “It’s not your fault this happened. I put so much weight on your shoulders, asked you to do nearly impossible things. And just to add to your load, I threw myself into danger—and you still came for me. You’ve saved me time and time again… and now it’s my turn to save you.”
The red lines swirling around her own eye, collapsing into the black depth, were overpowered by the ring of blue. She looked into his eyes, resting her hands against the sides his face one more time.
“I’m not here because of guilt,” she told him. “I’m not here out of obligation, or because I think I owe you.”
Pulling him in, she pressed her lips to his; shaking off the shock of it all, he kissed her back. The tower on which they stood collapsed beneath their feet, and as they fell, they held each other close.
The wind picked up again, and they held onto each other as they descended into the unconscious depths of Danny’s mind. And as they shared what they feared may very well be their last moment alive, their hearts were calm—content to meet the end together.