A number of sirens whined through the air, though only for a few minutes. However, even when the sirens stopped, they knew there was still a threat.
Danny and Arras stared out the window of his room, wondering what might be going on. New columns of smoke rose from deeper within the base, places which had been unaffected by the events of a few hours ago.
“Ridarin’s trying to identify it,” Danny told her, waiting for the suit to glean and process what scant intel it could from this range. “It’s not a lot to go on, but it looks pretty bad.”
The door to the room opened swiftly, and a team of marines stepped inside. Neither Arras nor Danny knew what to expect from them; they felt themselves go instantly on guard.
One of the men, a staff sergeant, stepped forward in a formal stance.
“President Ridge has requested you join her immediately.”
With that, they were swept out of the infirmary and across the base. The men formed a tight perimeter around Arras and Danny, keeping them close, perhaps even out of sight, transporting them as quickly as possible.
Sprinting with the marines, Danny continued to scan for data on whatever had caused the havoc, but Ridarin no longer registered a nearby threat. It was as if whatever it had been had disappeared completely.
The marines hastily ushered them into another nondescript building. Through a heavily secured door, they entered a dark room lit by a number of monitors, filled with the voices of numerous people communicating between their stations. It wasn’t immediately clear to either Arras or Danny where they were or what was happening, but everyone around them spoke and worked as if the sky itself was falling.
Damon emerged from the circulating personnel, taking Danny and Arras deeper into the room. There they found Virgil and Valiya, all of them staring into the large displays lining the wall ahead.
“What’s going on?” Arras asked Valiya.
“We were hoping you might be able to tell us,” Val lamented. “We seem to be in quite a bit of trouble.”
“We have visual now,” a voice announced from the dark.
A number of separate monitors banded to display one image, an aerial view from a helicopter’s exterior camera. The helicopter moved speedily across the desert surface beyond Nellis, attempting to keep up with something. At the tip of a long fan of dirt and dust, kicked up in its wake, the camera panned in to see a figure running at an inhuman velocity.
The sight of violet and blue veins, leading up to the body’s matching eyes, gave Arras and Danny all the information they needed.
“This just blasted its way out of our underground lab,” Henrietta told them, stepping out of the darkness. “Witnesses say that it easily eviscerated every person unfortunate enough to cross its path.”
“That’s the suit you were developing,” Damon breathed in disbelief. “How is it moving, though? I thought it was still under development.”
“It was,” Henrietta confirmed. “But, as you can see, it seems to be complete. To make matters worse, we think we know who’s operating it.”
Redirecting their attention to a nearby monitor, Henrietta called up security footage from the black site’s main lab. A particular segment of the feed played, showing Arthur on the floor, with the suit standing over him, splitting open, and consuming his body. They were grateful for the grainy quality of the video as they watched Arthur’s fuzzy image spew red mist; the armor seemed to eat him alive, swallowing him mostly whole, before lurching. Once the armor calmed itself, it took off from the lab.
“How can that be Arthur?” Damon asked, turning his attention back to the armor that was now outrunning its airborne surveillance.
Arras, however, kept her eyes on the video of Arthur in the lab as it repeated itself.
“Can you show me what happened before the suit overtook him?” Arras asked Henrietta, who obliged.
The video lengthened, showing Arthur entering the lab.
“We’re not sure what was happening,” Henrietta narrated as the scene played itself out, “but it seems he found the assembly equipment active.”
Arras was not listening to her explanations; instead, she watched Arthur closely. There was only one way she could imagine that suit being at all active, let alone capable of mustering the necessary strength and endurance to blast through the desert at speeds exceeding a hundred miles per hour. As the video looped, she mulled over the mystery that 85-11 had already posed, the question of how the US had pulled non-existent or deleted specs from Coalition databanks. From the beginning, Arras had had a theory, though she hoped all this time it was wrong. However, Arthur’s body language was unmistakable.
“He’s seeing something the camera isn’t,” Arras concluded, pointing at the screen as Arthur stumbled backward on the feed, falling to the floor. “Before the suit even starts to move, he’s reacting to something. It’s not the assembly equipment, either.”
“It’s nothing so tangible, I’m afraid,” a woman’s voice announced from behind them. “But it is someone you know very well, Arras.”
Standing on the center table of the war room was a woman few recognized; even to those who knew who she was, she seemed more like a specter than anything else. She wore a white dress, and her golden hair ran long over her shoulders, swept away from blue eyes that blazed like her oldest daughter’s. With a pleasant smile, she looked down at the people who seemed stupefied by her sudden entrance.
Arras took a clumsy step forward, not taking her eyes off her mother, not after it had been so long.
“It’s good to see you again,” Suo told Arras, her hands behind her back. “But I’m afraid we don’t have time to talk at the moment. Right now, the rest of you need to listen closely.”
With grace and control befitting a celestial being rather than a digitized mind, Suo stepped down from the table. She looked from the video of Arthur’s last seconds in the lab to the armor now plowing through the desert.
“That is indeed Arthur Emmerich,” Suo explained to the audience that craved different answers. “However, he didn’t activate the armor himself. That was the work of an artificial intelligence named the Infinitude of Truth. I sensed her only a moment ago.”
“Would that AI happen to belong to Rededication?” Henrietta asked the new arrival, setting aside her own questions, taking Arras’ clear recognition of the woman as enough for the time being.
“I wouldn’t say she ‘belongs’ to Rededication,” Suo said. “It may be more appropriate to say that she is Rededication. And I don’t know why, but it seems she’s taken your lead scientist and used his brain to operate that suit.”
“For what purpose?” Henrietta asked further. “If this AI’s managed to locate Earth, why wouldn’t she launch a large-scale assault? Why steal our equipment?”
“Why, indeed?” Suo breathed, watching the desert beneath Arthur’s armored feet become cityscape. “It’s strange even to me. If Truth really has found Earth, then she would have no reason not to rededicate the planet, which would be by means of an overwhelming, sudden insurgency. But this… this is something else entirely.”
“They’ve already tried stopping him,” Damon informed Suo. “Armor-piercing had no effect, and he remotely hacked all missile guidance systems and electronic warfare support, turning them on the other aircraft. Since then, however, he’s just been running.”
“That’s because he’s not interested in them,” Suo reasoned.
Everyone in the room but Suo felt sick to their stomachs as they watched Arthur plow through a suburb, tearing through houses and ramming cars aside without losing pace. Despite the horror of it all, however, Suo was correct: Arthur seemed to pay no attention to the civilians around him, unless they were in his immediate path.
“He’s deliberately dodging densely populated areas, including other residential areas,” Suo observed, connecting to the computers around her, analyzing what they had gathered so far. “If all he wanted to do was clear the local human population, he’s done a rather poor job of it. He obviously has something else in mind.”
“Which completely flies in the face of Rededication’s rules of engagement,” Arras added. “This makes no sense.”
“He’s a danger to anyone he comes across,” Henrietta told Suo, as if requesting some sort of panacea from her. “We can’t prevent him from advancing. Unless you can tell us how to stop him, a lot of people are going to die.”
Suo looked back at Henrietta with mild surprise, as if they were discussing the mundane events of any day.
“Pardon me, but I thought you already had your solution,” she said politely before looking at Danny. “The scenario is somewhat different, but we created Ridarin for such an occasions.”
All eyes then fell on Danny. He could feel the discomfort in the room, the uncertainty in everyone who had seen him earlier that day. Not even he was sure if deploying Ridarin was the right decision.
“Target has entered the Las Vegas city limits and is decelerating rapidly,” came the report.
On the screens, suburbs became city, and the buildings grew taller the longer Arthur ran. Finally, Arthur dug his heels into the ground, leaving two long trenches in his wake as he slid to a complete stop, his destination apparent to everyone—the Las Vegas Strip.
In the evening dusk, the lights of the city drowned out the glow of Arthur’s armor. The camera on the helicopter panned in, showing him at the center of several lanes of traffic, shoving cars back by hand, leaping onto their hoods, frightening the people out of their vehicles.
“He’s toying with them,” Suo said, “as if he’s biding his time. Waiting for something.”
“Or someone,” Arras revised.
In the dark, she took Danny’s hand in hers as they watched Arthur set the stage for a pitched battle.
Her eyes cast down, Henrietta shook her head. “It’s not like this ever made any sense anyway, but if I had known this was how today was going to go…”
“If there was never a chance of this happening, Miss President,” Suo said, “then my family would have never built Ridarin, and you would have never met my daughter. But here we are. Fortunately, we’re not without a force of our own. You know what you need to do.”
Henrietta knew she was right, though the decision still troubled her. She looked at Danny with a stoic face, the kind she would wear in her speeches to the public; that façade melted away, however, replaced by the humbled mien of someone on their last dime.
“Daniel, I know you don’t owe us anything—”
“You’re wrong,” Danny insisted, shocking her into silence. As downtrodden as Henrietta looked, Daniel looked worse. “I owe you everything. I owe something to everyone on this base.”
The room also fell silent. Danny could feel Arras squeeze his hand.
“You people killed Eli,” he said, “and I killed your people in return. None of us is solely responsible for what happened because we both contributed. So let’s not pretend that I didn’t do something horrible today.”
Arras felt that haunting guilt return to her, yet only insofar as she thought that was what was haunting Danny. Looking into his eyes, though, she couldn’t find that familiar shame—rather, she saw a fire, a fire she had seen in him before. A fire that burned away even the guilt that still tormented her.
“All of that said, that doesn’t mean we have to go on killing each other, or letting others die in our place,” Danny said with renewed vigor. “If you’ll let me, Madam President, I’ll go. I’ll stop Arthur, and I won’t let anyone else die. It’s time for today to end already—so send me.”
Henrietta let his words sink in for a moment before a warm smile came to her, accompanied by a sense of dearly needed relief.
“Don’t everybody look so down,” Suo said cheerfully, as if the day had not been so dire. “Daniel and I are synchronized to a formidable degree, and Ridarin is running more efficiently than ever before.”
“I can get you to the city in no time at all,” Val added. “They let me take a look at the ship while you were out; it’s still ready for a fight—if we can use it, that is.”
“Of course,” Henrietta said, catching Val’s glance. “I’ll have it rolled out immediately.”
With that, Henrietta called out a number of orders, along with the local commanding officers in the room; in response, everyone flew back into action. The spirit that seized each of them felt somewhat fragile, yet it brought everyone to life. Perhaps, they thought, it might be sufficient for just one more op.
The monitors began displaying newscasts, bird’s-eye views of the terror in the pale armor, driving civilians out of their vehicles and down the busy Strip—anything to draw attention. Indeed, if it had not been obvious to anyone else before, it was then: he was waiting.
Danny and Arras watched the screen together, flanked on either side by old friends, even family.
“I know this goes without saying,” Arras told him, her voice low, “but… come back in one piece.”
Danny thought to tease her, but something held him back. Instead, he just smiled back at her.
“I’ll be back before you know it.”
“So is this a ‘thing’ now?” Damon asked awkwardly, waving his hands at the two of them. “Because I think I preferred it when you two were just locked in perpetual sexual tension.”
Suo cleared her throat, causing Damon to flinch, as Danny and Arras dodged their collective glances.
“We should focus on the matter at hand,” Suo reminded them, “such as how we’re going to take on an opponent in such a densely populated area.”
“She’s right,” Val said. “I’ll bet he planned on this. Danny won’t be able to use a firearm, not without the risk of hitting a civilian with a wide shot.”
With an almost defeated sigh, Virgil entered the planning.
“If today has taught me anything,” he said, “it’s to think outside the box in cases such as these.”
“We’re all ears,” Henrietta replied, grateful for a suggestion at this point. “What do you have?”
“A rather crude idea,” Virgil admitted. “However, I believe it will be enough to give Daniel at least a chance at ending this without further loss of life.”
He seemed to hesitate, but pressed onward nonetheless.
“If our primary concern is civilian casualties, then why not simply take the fight to another arena?”
“I don’t think Arthur’s going to let us usher him out of the city,” Danny said, “not if he’s trying to lure me out.”
“I didn’t say we would fool him into leaving,” Virgil replied. “Unfortunately, I also didn’t say that this solution would be an easy one.”