His arms folded, Damon drummed his fingers, waiting for Henrietta to explain. She had already pulled him, Virgil, and Arthur into a separate room, with no guards to watch, away from prying ears. The meeting that would transpire here would be historic, but she preferred that no one but the four of them witness it.
“The past few days have been… enlightening, to say the least,” Henrietta began. “However, there are still some things I don’t yet know.”
She looked at Virgil, studying him for a moment.
“For instance, who are you really?” she asked. “And what are you doing with these people?”
Virgil remained silent, stonewalling her without the slightest hesitation.
“Got it,” she mumbled. “Setting that aside for now, there are a few things we need to discuss.”
“Indeed, there are,” Damon agreed. “You’ve given us plenty of time to think on our own today, but we’ve had our demands prepared from the beginning.”
“Demands?” she asked, caught between outrage and admiration. “What sort of demands?”
“Nothing inappropriate, I assure you,” said Damon. “However, before we begin, I must first understand where we stand. Answer me truthfully, Madam President, if you would be so kind: are we prisoners?”
A tired smirk sparked across Henrietta’s face, crushed in an instant under the weight of their circumstances. Though the idea amused her, she wondered if that was as apparent to Damon as it was to her.
With a sigh, she confessed, “I really would be a fool if I still thought I could detain any of you. Today’s events have proven me quite wrong on a number of fronts. I thought I could control the weapon you have, but you’ve shown me that I can’t. In all honesty, I’d like to line Daniel Eick and Arras Enqelin up in front of a firing squad and be done with them, but I imagine they’d still find a way to turn the tables on me before I could even give the order. I’ve also thought a great deal about something Arras told me…”
Henrietta looked out the window at the wrecked portion of Nellis Air Force Base; even at this distance, they could still see the smoke and hear the cleanup crews.
“If she and her family felt the need to build such a weapon,” Henrietta went on, “and if they had any doubt as to whether or not they could truly succeed… well, I shudder to think what Rededication might really be. I was afraid you would Rededication to Earth, but now that fear seems so irrelevant. It’s not whether it ever finds us that’s most pressing, but the fact that such a terrible thing even exists. I wonder what stopping you from destroying it would even accomplish…”
“Are we free to resume our mission, then?” Damon inquired, trying to stay sympathetic to the president as she dealt with having her paradigms turned on their heads.
“You should know I’m not the only one who has the urge to just execute your friends,” Henrietta confessed, as if she hadn’t heard his question. “So many people died today—including Eli Vale. The ones who survived today believe that Daniel and Arras are to blame. The guards I have posted at the infirmary aren’t to keep your friends where they are; they’re to keep anyone on this base from getting to them. They’re angry. But I know that the blood of the people who died today isn’t on Daniel Eick’s hands, or Arras’, or anyone else’s but my own.”
“There was no way any of us could have known things would escalate like this,” Damon reassured her. “What happened today was a tragedy, but we don’t have to let it be a black mark in our history. We could make it our collective wakeup call, Madam President, the day each of us—from various countries, and even planets—was humbled enough to act.”
“Do you believe Rededication will find us?” Henrietta asked him frankly. “Is our world under threat of invasion?”
Damon hesitated to respond. Had she asked him a week ago, his answer would have been unequivocal. However, ever since Danny and Val had returned from their last strike, ever since they had met Truth, things had changed—and certainly not for the better. There were still a number of mysteries left unsolved, even for them, but it seemed that their situation had changed only because they had grossly underestimated Rededication.
He decided for himself that honesty would be for the best, especially considering what was at stake in light of the facts.
“We have reason to believe that Rededication may already know where Earth is,” Damon said without trepidation.
Virgil and Arthur both looked at him in disbelief, but Henrietta maintained herself, just as Damon did.
“We’ve taken every possible precaution when engaging Rededication,” he continued. “In utilizing faster-than-light travel, we’ve taken all necessary measures to prevent ourselves from being tracked. The fact is that the Coalition already knew Earth’s location, as you well know from the facilities they left behind, but their civilization fell in a relative instant. As a result, not only did they never return to Earth to remove their outposts, but Earth’s location was lost altogether. Moreover, we have never given anyone information that may lead them to our planet. All of that said, we believe that by means we do not yet understand, Rededication may have already located Earth.”
“How long do you think it’s known?” Henrietta asked, still not allowing any sort of impulsiveness to throw her off course.
“We only began considering the possibility within the last day or so. There’s no way to be sure, but, if I had to estimate, I would say it could have been anywhere between a week and two centuries ago.”
“Hang on a second,” Arthur said. “If Rededication has really known our location for so long—a week, even—why hasn’t it invaded? Doesn’t it know that you and your people are here?”
“There’s no doubt it knows that,” Damon answered. “As for why we haven’t been attacked yet, I can’t say. Maybe it really doesn’t know where we are, but I think it’s best that we don’t assume too much.”
“We may be racing a clock,” Henrietta reasoned in a hushed tone, “and all we’ve done is slow your progress…”
“I’ve made my decision, then,” she declared. “Damon, I’m granting full pardons to you and Daniel Eick. Both of you will be restored to good standing in the eyes of the United States. As for Teleios, I’m sure we can clear up any misunderstandings that may have occurred recently.”
“I’m sure it will be more than easy to explain why the FBI decided to raid my headquarters,” Damon said. “I would consider such a pardon, a kindness. However, what does this mean for our mission? Will we be allowed to proceed?”
“If your records are clean,” Henrietta said, “and if Arras and Val don’t technically exist, then I would see no reason to monitor you. You would be free to live your life as a private citizen, outside of any atypical surveillance.”
“I understand. Thank you, Madam President.”
“There’s one final matter to take care of,” she added, not slowing her pace. “I understand that you and your friends are concerned about 85-11. Am I correct?”
“The armor you’ve been developing is our primary concern. I’m afraid that allowing you to retain it would be to turn a blind eye to technology our civilization simply is not yet ready to possess.”
“After today’s events, I agree wholeheartedly.”
With that, Henrietta turned to Arthur, who looked back at her with anticipation and discomfort—he knew what was coming.
“Arthur, I want you to personally see to the dismantlement of project 85-11, including the total disposal and destruction of the armor.”
Damon could see it very clearly in Arthur’s eyes, that look he had seen in Valiya, as well as himself. He could see how badly Arthur wanted to argue against Henrietta’s decision, but he relented—as difficult as it was, Arthur had seen the same things she had that day, and he could not deny that.
“I’ll begin immediately,” he told her.
With Henrietta’s approval and dismissal, Arthur left the room without a second thought. As if the rest of the conversation had become irrelevant, Damon followed him into the hall.
“Arthur,” he called, keeping close to the wall as he walked after him, hoping his leg would not give out on him then. “Wait, Arthur.”
Hearing his name, Arthur turned around, surprised to see Damon hobbling after him. He met him halfway, saving him some struggle.
Somewhat winded by the short stretch, Damon kept his hand to the wall, trying to think of what to say. Even he was uncertain as to why he had followed Arthur, but something seemed to drive him.
“I’m sorry,” Damon finally told his old friend.
Shaking his head, Arthur insisted, “I should be apologizing to you, Damon. I’m the one who’s caused you the most trouble, not the other way around. Not at all.”
“But, Arthur,” Damon breathed, “I know what’s just happened… I know what this means to you.”
Hearing that, Arthur seemed almost relieved, though he had already consigned himself to what needed to happen.
“Then you know I never wanted any of this,” Arthur said. “I never wanted this to devolve into a manhunt, let alone an all-out war. I never wanted to take things this far. It wasn’t about the weapons…”
“You haven’t changed at all,” Damon mused with a modest smile. “Not even after all these years.”
A faint smile came to Arthur as he revisited fond memories. He could remember the day well, though it had been almost twenty years since.
“No one thought you could make Teleios work,” Arthur chuckled. “When your father died, everyone thought… Well, we expected another CEO. But we got a raving entrepreneur instead.”
“I was much younger back then,” Damon said, also caught laughing at old memories. “I seem to remember you being much younger, too. They told me you were the top engineer we had, and all I could think was how young you seemed at the time...”
“I was furious when you let me go from the company,” Arthur admitted, “but I was more confused than anything when I found out you had gotten me a position at Stanford.”
“It was because I realized what kind of person you are, Arthur,” Damon replied, “and it’s why I know you haven’t changed. You were working with an arms manufacturer that was only interested in finding new ways to kill, all to defend the homeland. But you didn’t care about that; all you wanted was the thrill of discovering something new. You wanted to learn, not to kill.”
Accepting Damon’s analysis, Arthur leaned against the wall, still smiling.
“Project 85-11,” he muttered at the ceiling. “Do you know why they called it that?”
“Haven’t a clue.”
“When they first discovered the Coalition outposts,” Arthur explained, “no one knew what to make of them. What they found was so advanced, they knew it couldn’t belong to us. They searched for any explanation to account for how otherworldly their findings were. Eventually, when they had to commit the project to any form of paperwork, someone suggested a verse from the Bible: the eighty-fifth psalm, eleventh verse.”
He cleared his throat and recited the passage with precision, speaking with a reverence born from that to which his predecessors had attached the line.
“ ‘Truth shall spring out of the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.’ They believed that, whatever they had dug up, it was the beginning of something new; and, ultimately, that it had come from others outside of our world who wanted us to have it. We dug up something almost sacred that had fallen out of the sky, and I wanted was to learn everything possible from it.”
“You wanted the thrill of exploring what the heavens themselves might’ve given us,” Damon sighed. “It sounds a lot like my reasons for trying to finish what Asael Mack and the Enqelins started.”
“I suppose that’s the case,” Arthur said, lifting himself from the wall. “But I’ve spent so much time allowing others to defer that desire of mine. There’s no denying that 85-11 is too dangerous for us—at least, right now… But I think… I think, when this is all finished, I’ll find something else to study—something that’ll help me understand this universe a little more, and perhaps allow me to contribute to it.”
“You have contributed, Arthur.” Damon also pushed himself from the wall, his leg having found its strength again. He stood before his friend at full attention, to pay due patronage. “Just before our meeting, Arras informed me that you saved her life. And I know you didn’t just sit on your thumbs when Ridge declared war… We wouldn’t be here without you, Arthur.”
Not knowing what else to say, Arthur simply bid Damon farewell. On his own he made his way down the hall, on his way to the closest lift back down to the black site—all the while, his heart finally at peace, wondering if this was what absolution really felt like.