Evening had already come, and the sun was set. The ship’s engines burned only dimly in the night sky, and the engine and hull’s insulation suppressed virtually all the craft’s noise pollution.
Val brought the vessel to a safe altitude, then began the short leap to the city. Armored and squirming in his seat, Danny awaited the coming battle. And over their shoulders, Suo stood to watch the flight through the canopy.
“There’s something I still don’t get, Suo,” Danny finally said as they approached the clouds. “Why don’t you fill me in: how’re you even here right now? I thought you were completely buried in my head when I took Ridarin.”
“I was,” she confirmed nonchalantly. “And for months I spent my time bouncing in and out of your subconscious. It’s difficult to describe, but it felt like waking up and going back to sleep, and all the while never having a single dream.”
“I’m… I’m sorry I did that to you.”
“It’s not your fault, not in the least. If we’re correct in assuming Ila led you to Arras and me, then I don’t find it difficult to accept that this is how things were supposed to work out. Besides, I knew that was what would happen to me, even before you were sealed to Ridarin.”
“Do you mean to say you saw Danny coming?” Val asked.
“In a way, yes,” Suo said. “It’s difficult to describe, but let’s just say Arras wasn’t the only one my Ila whispered to in that rift all those years. It seems she was very interested in getting us to trust Danny; by the time he arrived in the rift, I knew I had to seal him to Ridarin.”
“That’s great, but it raises way more questions,” Danny said. “But what’s changed? How are you here now?”
“Truth,” Suo replied starkly. “When Ila came to our rescue, Truth realized she couldn’t take Ridarin. So she settled for eliminating the suit’s control restrictions, which meant uncoupling me from your mind. I was removed only a little on the platform, and then entirely when Ridarin went berserk at Nellis.”
“If you weren’t in the suit,” Val cut in, “then what happened to you?”
“I caught her, of course,” another voice insisted.
From behind them, they could see Aurin appear at Suo’s side, wrapping his arms around his wife. Even as avatars, they still seemed capable of interacting with one another beyond verbal communication.
“She was a fragmented mess of an operating system when I brought her back to the orbital,” Aurin explained. “I repaired her and kept her in stasis until Danny finished his temper tantrum, then I reinstalled her in Ridarin.”
“And from there I began to gradually reawaken,” Suo concluded. “It was as if you removing me from the suit altogether gave me a chance to restore myself. In fact, I believe I owe you a great deal of gratitude.”
“It was nothing,” Danny mumbled halfheartedly, not feeling deserving of any praise. “Really… All it took was getting raped in the brain again, and then going guano on a US Air Force base…”
“I can’t tell you how pleased I am to see you,” Aurin whispered to Suo, bringing his wife close. “It’s been so long.”
“For you especially,” she whispered back to him with a warm smile. “Sorry to keep you waiting.”
As Val tried ignoring the oddly intimate moment they shared, Danny continued squirming in his seat.
“Could you two maybe save that for later?” he asked. “We’ve got an op on our hands here.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Aurin said, suddenly turning on him. “Is reuniting with my wife after nearly two hundred years of absolute solitude bothering you?”
“Aurin, be nice,” Suo teased.
They seemed more like an average married couple than ever to Danny and Val. For whatever reason, all the Enqelins seemed to be almost normal, all beginning on that day. It left them both wondering what the Enqelins might have been like had it not been for their war on Rededication.
“Or should we discuss what kinds of thoughts you’ve been entertaining about my daughter,” Aurin suggested, still digging into Danny. “I’m sure my wife has been forced to witness some lecherous indiscretions while locked away in that cesspool you call a brain. Or have you forgotten that I’ve already had a chance to explore your psyche, too?”
“Can everyone just shut up for a moment?” Val finally interjected. “I’m happy the two of you are together again, but we have more pressing matters.”
They broke through the clouds, coming in over Las Vegas Boulevard South, leaving the city limits as they coasted over the Strip itself.
“I hope no one’s hoping to keep this a secret now,” Danny said, unbuckling from his seat and proceeding to the rear cabin. “Because we’ve pretty much tossed the whole concept of ‘classified information’ right out the window.”
Val wished him luck before sealing the cockpit off from the rear cabin, leaving Danny with Aurin and Suo as their portion of the ship depressurized. The hatch lifted, letting in the roaring winds as the ship slowed, remaining far above the street, with no intention of stopping.
“Take care of this quickly, Danny,” said Aurin, serious once again. “Rededication doesn’t operate with such theatrics, meaning something’s very much amiss. Finish this as fast as possible, and maybe the joke won’t be on us this evening.”
“He’ll be fine,” Suo replied. “After all, Ridarin’s never been more ready for combat than now.”
“Let’s hope you’re right,” Danny said. “The sooner this ends, the better.”
Ridarin’s helmet slid over his head, his eyes flashed to life, and the blue veins over his body ignited.
With a single step, once the ship was low enough, he leapt from the cabin, through the hatch, over the short-wing, and into the open air. For a couple seconds, the wind brushed roughly over his body as he fell like a stone. His feet hit the ground, and he threw his hands forward, hoping to break the fall with a roll. The street beneath him shattered, throwing hunks of asphalt in all directions.
Looking up from his landing, he could see a few cars still around, though no one was inside them. All around the street, a line had been formed to keep the public back, manned by local police in riot gear. They were outgunned to be sure, and the only thing keeping law enforcement on their feet by then was the promise of en route reinforcements from local Air Force and Army bases, as well as the National Guard.
Down the opposite end of the street, southward, Valiya took the ship back up through the clouds and out of sight. Below her position in the sky, north of Flamingo Road and Las Vegas Boulevard, Danny could see him.
Thrashing against empty cars, throwing himself in arbitrary directions, as if overcome with excitement, there was the pale armor—the oddly close semblance of Rededication’s personal warrior and the Enqelins’ own machine. And inside that flailing creature were the remains of Arthur Emmerich.
Daniel slowly made his way over, wanting to give Suo an opportunity to analyze their opponent as much as possible before they engaged him.
“That’s strange,” she said as they drew nearer. “I’m detecting more than just Arthur in that armor.”
“Are you saying there’s an AI in there?” Danny asked. “That would make sense. If he’s operating at this kind of capacity, I guess he would need one to lighten the load.”
“I’m picking up two AIs, actually. I’ve seen their signatures before...”
Before Danny could ask, his heads-up display gave him an answer. Over the raging armor ahead, three names were listed; at the top, “Arthur Emmerich,” and below him was “The Recognition of Law” and “The Surcease of Enmity.” Just seeing their names again left Danny irritated.
“I’m getting real tired of these guys not actually dying,” he said.
“Well, then,” Suo replied, “let’s finish the job, shall we?”
Arthur caught sight of him long before Danny was close. Hunched over his mess, Arthur turned his head to greet his crimson lookalike.
“Daniel, it’s so good to see you!” he said blithely, as if he were seeing an old friend after so many years of separation. “I was beginning to think you weren’t coming, and after I took all this time to gather an audience.”
Though much of this portion of the street had been evacuated, there were still people a short distance from the sides of the boulevard, held back only by police and their vehicles. Despite his hopes to the contrary, Danny knew he wouldn’t be able to open fire on Arthur with anything that would actually pierce his armor, not without risking a stray shot going into the crowds of people around them.
“What’re you doing, Arthur?” Danny asked him. “You’ve got to know this is insane.”
“No, no, no,” Arthur replied hurriedly. “There’s nothing off about this, Daniel. I’m here to set up a test. That’s it. That’s all!”
“Then let’s take this somewhere else.”
“But then we would lose our testing environment! I need to make certain the circumstances are just right to ensure my results are accurate. You’re a man of science, Daniel, I’m sure you can understand.”
Danny read over the names once again, trying to remind himself consistently that this armor was much more than an American prototypical copy of what he had seen before.
“You’ve got two Rededication AIs in you, Arthur.”
“Isn’t it wonderful?” Arthur said, staring down at himself. “It’s a gift. She gave me a gift, so I could perform my test.”
“She killed you, Arthur,” Danny replied. “Whatever she told you, it’s a lie. All she did was destroy your body and twist your mind. Please, come back with me. Maybe… maybe we can still help you.”
“Help me?” With that, his voice had gone from exuberant to contemplative, almost melancholic. “You think I need help… And after I invited you to participate in my test…”
“Come on, Arthur,” Danny grunted to himself, watching the pale figure before him straighten up. “You’ve got to be in there somewhere.”
“It’s useless, I’m afraid,” Suo told him. “His body is demolished beyond repair, and his mind is no different. Between those two AIs, Arthur Emmerich is already gone.”
“She’s right, you know.”
Danny felt a jolt of fear when he realized Arthur could hear Suo.
“The Arthur Emmerich you met before is gone,” he called out, his glee returning. “I’m a new man, Daniel, don’t you see? I’m not afraid anymore! I’m not afraid to chase after it, after this world’s secrets.”
“It’s over, Arthur,” Danny told him frankly. “Either give up now, or I’ll be forced to put you down.”
Arthur’s entire body sank in cartoonish fashion. Turning his mismatched eyes up at Danny, he shook his metallic head.
“You just don’t get it.”
With one ferocious swipe, Arthur grabbed a sedan by its doors and threw it down the street at Danny. The car tumbled in the air, narrowly missing Danny as he ducked beneath it, allowing the vehicle to roll up the boulevard as he rushed at Arthur.
Arthur threw another car, then a third, attempting to intercept Danny before he closed their gap. However, none of the large objects was enough to stop him. It was as if Danny’s senses were even more heightened than before. Suo was right: Ridairn really was operating more efficiently than ever before.
With a harsh collision, Danny threw himself into Arthur, anything to keep him from carelessly tossing more vehicles. As he tried to pin the madman to the street, his efforts only made Arthur laugh all the more, as if they were simply playing a game.
“They told me this was how you’d act,” he told Danny, fighting him off easily enough. “These two AIs know you very well—very, very well! They know you totally freeze up when there’s people you actually care about around. They remember you, Daniel. They remember when you held back against Surcease, thinking you’d kill your friends in the secondary blasts. They remember when you threw Law from Arras before opening fire on him, and how you put yourself in harm’s way just to keep him from Valiya. You’re truly noble, kiddo, but the fact is they can read you like a book.”
Trying to hold Arthur’s arms down, Danny found himself struggling. He wondered where the pale armor had acquired this much strength and durability, but he didn’t have to think for long. Though the conclusion didn’t make him feel any better.
“With their combat data,” Arthur went on, snarling under the stress of keeping Danny back, “and with her additions to this suit, we’re much more than anything you’ve ever faced before. And so this will be the perfect test! Who is the superior force: the shadowy reaper, built by ancient revolutionaries; or the ultimate weapon of the greatest military superpower the universe has ever seen?”
“Stop this, Arthur!”
“Why stop, when it’s so much fun?”
Sliding his feet up to Danny’s abdomen, with one blow Arthur threw the crimson armor off, sending it flying.
Tumbling through the air, trying to get a bearing on where he would land, Danny could already hear the screams, and his stomach tumbled like his body. Crashing first through the police barriers, he slid a few yards into the crowd, knocking people violently out of his path. Clawing at the pavement, digging his fingers into the solid ground, Danny slowed to a gradual halt.
Looking up from the sidewalk he had stopped at, his eyes traveled up the dark lines he had dug into the concrete, catching sight of the numerous wounded people he had blown through. The fear and panic on everyone’s faces, even the faces of the officers in riot gear, might have fazed him before. But Danny forced himself to ignore them for now.
“Suo,” he muttered. “Casualties.”
“No casualties,” she replied. “We were lucky.”
Staring through the valley of terrified civilians, Danny found Arthur once again, laughing hysterically in the street.
Danny had wanted so badly to turn this tide, to somehow bring Arthur back. Even if the scientist’s body had been destroyed, when he had made that promise—when he swore no one else would have to die for his sake or for this war—he never dreamed of excluding Arthur. But he could see it now, how unreasonably optimistic that promise had been.
All that was left now was to finish this operation for good. What Suo had said was true: Arthur Emmerich was already dead. And so if this psychotic remnant wanted a test, Danny decided, he would be all too pleased to oblige. He would make the results of that test the eulogy of Surcease and Law, along with their meat puppet. Anything to save these people; anything to save Arthur. And to save Arthur, he knew he would have to put him to rest.
“Suo, I need you to get Val ready.”
“Understood. I’ll ensure the timing is exact.”
With that, tossing aside all hesitation and fear, Danny bolted back down the sidewalk and into the boulevard. Delighted to see his test subject return with such life, Arthur prepared to engage Danny again. He never expected the sheer brutality of the following impact.
Barreling toward Arthur, Danny accelerated with everything he had. His feet met the ground with such brutal force that the street beneath continued to shatter, tossed up as nothing but rocks and rubble behind him. And with an earsplitting crack, strips of white cloud billowed out from behind Ridarin as the sound barrier broke. With uncontrollable speed, he would never give Arthur the opportunity to dodge or attack.
Like a bullet train, Danny collided with Arthur, not stopping when he made contact with the pale armor. Wrapping his arms tightly around him, Danny kept moving, plowing his way southward, down the street as Arthur laughed, as if having the time of his life.
First Danny pushed himself and Arthur past the unoccupied cars. Then he ran up the hood of one, crushing the front of the car as he rocketed off the vehicle and into the air. Amid Arthur’s laughs and nonsensical chants, they flew a short distance, arcing, then descending.
With an unexpected splash, they both crashed into a wide body of water.
Though he wasn’t quite sure what to make of the change in scenery, Arthur only struggled playfully against Danny’s grip.
“If you think a little water can slow me down, then you clearly don’t understand this test at all!”
“No, Arthur,” Danny muttered, more to himself than to the dead man in his arms, “I understand it just fine. This test is over. Be sure to take notes.”
As they slowly sank into the water, Arthur could see the purple hue of lights shining from above the water’s surface, coming from a wide, towering artifice of some sort. Below their two bodies, a number of jets bubbled threateningly. Only then did Arthur realize the stream of nanomachines running from Ridarin, through the water, and to the fountainheads beneath them—altering their structure, augmenting their output.
“What is this?” Arthur asked, beginning to struggle fearfully, no longer playfully. “What are you doing?”
Attempting to use the nano-net forcibly implanted in Arthur to counteract Ridarin, Law and Surcease found themselves in futile combat with a fully lucid Suo. The two AI tried to fight her off, but she kept them at bay with little effort as the ground beneath their respective operators began to crack.
“I really do owe you an apology,” Danny admitted to Arthur’s armored corpse as the jets beneath them bubbled all the more, shaking the ground and disturbing the water. “I can’t help but think none of this would have happened had we never met. Truth is, we’re a lot alike. We are both scientists. And all we’ve ever wanted is to explore the world we live in, to try to understand it—or, at least to be humbled by the mystery of it all. But neither of us will get that chance, not now. And so I’m sorry, Arthur. I’m sorry I took the world away from you.”
Before the crazed manikin in his grip could form a response, one unified jet beneath them gathered all the energy Ridarin’s nano-net could force from them. Like a dragon spitting flame, the jet blasted both Danny and Arthur upward. With the water pummeling Danny’s back, he kept his arms and legs wrapped tightly around the pale armor, waiting for the right moment, hoping that Valiya would time this just right.
In less than a second they left the water and rose high into the air. The face of the Bellagio Hotel sped past them on their way up, bathing them in purple light as Ridarin used the manipulated jets of the hotel’s massive fountain. Rising higher than the towering hotel itself, they stopped in the air, their bodies preparing to fall back down.
“Stop this! Stop it now!” the pale armor screamed in Arthur’s voice. His words began to distort into the raspy gargling, the suit compensating as Arthur’s damaged lungs and vocal cords began to give out under the stress. “You can’t do this to me! I just wanted a test—a test!”
A pair of rockets screeched into earshot just as they began to fall. Reaching one of his hands out, Danny risked letting Arthur have that much more freedom. Still hoping their timing would be just right, he felt himself continue to fall, with Arthur thrashing against him, trying with everything he had left to escape.
But by then it was already too late.
Danny’s hand found what it was looking for. His armored fingers hooked firmly onto a portion of the gunship’s keel. He held on with all his might as the ship ascended again. He and the pale armor slammed against the ship’s belly and each other, flailing dangerously as their altitude increased exponentially.
The wind threatened to strike them both from the ship’s belly as Valiya flew them through the stratosphere. And as Arthur screamed more and more, Danny tuned him out, holding onto him still, desperately hoping this would work.
The temperature and air pressured dropped rapidly the further they climbed, and when the ship stopped its ascent, Danny knew it was time. Kicking off the gunship’s keel, he took the pale armor with him, and together they began a freefall from nearly thirty miles above the open desert landscape.
Finally separating himself from the pale armor, allowing it to flip over itself as it tried to adjust to the change, Danny tilted his head down, going into a nosedive.
In a moment like this, he almost expected something more dramatic or definite, like an appropriate soundtrack to tell him what was happening was right. But the only sound he got was the rushing wind and the distant cries of the voice the pale armor had stolen from Arthur Emmerich.
With his shoulders taking the brunt of the wind, his legs pointed up to the sky as he fell upside down, Danny looked back at his target. Still above Danny, the pale armor continued to fight the air as gravity pulled them both back to the planet.
Once he was certain Val was out of the way, Danny materialized the weapon he had prepared for this op. Until that day, Ridarin had spent most of its processing power altering pre-existing weapon designs, expanding the range and ability of firearms and explosives he had acquired through Teleios and on the battlefield. But what Arras had told him a few days ago, back in the testing room of Teleios, had finally begun to make sense.
The weapon that formed in Danny’s hands was unlike any he had ever handled before—a cannon, which dominated both his hands, its length running parallel to his body. Pinching the burly muzzle between the sides of his feet, he took aim. And as he became conscious once again of the rushing wind at his back, the clouds quickly approaching, he knew he had to take his shot.
The pale armor continued to ragdoll above him, trying to keep itself level, let alone get to Danny. They had counted on such ineptitude; not that Danny was proficient at aerial acrobatics, but he was willing to bet that he was more accustomed to Ridarin than the remainder of Arthur’s broken body would be to the pale armor.
As he lined up his shot, he ensured that the three names he had seen before were still there—Surcease, Law, and Arthur Emmerich. Three people he hoped to put to rest, this time for good.
Danny sighed one last goodbye to Arthur Emmerich before he pulled the trigger and let the blast take its toll.
Channeling all the energy he could from the solar orbital, adding it to anything he could convert from his immediate surroundings, the cannon exploded from the pressure, barely able to shape the blast into a beam as it spiraled apart. A pillar of light, shining white and gold against the night sky, billowed from the cannon’s end and engulfed the pale armor, disassembling it at the atomic level. At the same time, the weapon backfired on Danny’s armored body, blowing him back toward the ground at an even higher speed.
Feeling the unforgiving G-force at last, Danny watched the pillar of light rise, remaining for some time, like a solar flare frozen in place. And as his body lost all strength and he began to lose consciousness, Danny couldn’t help but appreciate the almost angelic quality of the beam above him. As terrible as the blast had been, he found himself admiring it, in a way.
For the first time, he thought Ridarin had actually created something beautiful.