The dry air was cool against his skin, and he thought he could even see some stars in the dark, cloudless sky. One blue star in particular drew his attention for some time before he realized it was an eye—Arras’ remaining natural eye, the other hidden behind that black patch.
He could hear her calling his name, but it took a moment for Danny to wake up.
She looked almost panicked as she stared down at him. He could hear Suo speaking sweetly to her, as if nothing was wrong.
“I managed to keep Ridarin active until the fall was over,” she told her daughter, who would have none of it, not until he responded to her himself.
“Wake up, Danny,” she told him. “Come on, say something.”
Raising his head from the rocky ground, Danny lifted himself up, staring back into Arras’ one visible eye.
“How long was I out?” he asked.
“Are you injured?” Arras asked him back.
Suo brought up a status report for both of them to see, showing that Danny’s body was unharmed.
“You pushed the suit to its limits with that cannon, and channeling that much energy was no easy task either,” Suo explained as she looked over the report with Arras and Danny. “However, Ridarin was able to absorb the entirety of the impact before deactivating. As for your brain, you’re likely in for quite the headache, but nothing more.”
With that, Arras embraced Danny. Both on the ground, they held each other quietly. Neither of them needed to say anything, not then. All they needed was to know that the other was still there. Though this was still rather new to both of them, something about showing such concern for each other felt completely natural.
Looking over Arras’ shoulder, Danny saw the slope he had come touched down. His armored body had carved a deep gash in the rocky hillside, which tapered into a much shallower trench where he had come to a stop. Sitting at the tip of his own crash site, he could hardly believe he himself had had only a few millimeters of body armor between him and the grinding rocks.
At the foot of that hill, he could see the gunship. Val and Damon were sitting on the end of the short-wing, watching him and Arras, waving when they noticed he had seen them. And he could see Virgil in the cabin, looking pleased.
“Valiya went back to Nellis to pick them up,” Aurin explained, stepping into view to join his wife and daughter. “Believe it or not, Henrietta Ridge told them to conduct the search for your body by themselves.”
“What a grim way to tell us we’re off the hook,” Danny chuckled.
“That doesn’t matter now,” Arras told him as they loosened their arms from one another. “With no one left to hunt us, we’re free to finish our mission now.”
Looking into each other’s eyes, they couldn’t help but laugh, almost giddy at their pardon. Suddenly, with one seemingly offhanded declaration, they were free to go, free to finish what they had started. Only then did they realize how tense each of them had been, only when that tension was at last gone—when they felt genuinely free for what felt like the first time in too long.
Danny looked almost involuntarily past Arras, distracted by something flashing before his eye—an object Ridarin had detected, high above the planet’s atmosphere. Before he could mention it to anyone else, another signal joined the first, then another, and others still. There were six in total.
Arras noticed Danny squirming; she leaned back to ask what was wrong, and realized then that he was looking intently up at something in the sky. She instinctively looked at Suo, whose eyes were also glued to the sky.
“What is it?” Arras asked Danny before looking up as well, unable to see what they were seeing. “What’s coming?”
The answer loomed before her, then became obvious, but she still hoped she was wrong. She had to be wrong. This wasn’t how the scenario was supposed to end; they had not planned for this at all. This was never supposed to happen.
As Arras turned her eyes back to the sky, her left eye flickered unexpectedly, something coming into view in the midst of what had otherwise been a blacked out vision. Arras slid the patch up, her eye conveyed the view to her vividly, the compressed streams of nanomachines taking meticulous notes on what loomed beyond the planet’s exosphere. Decelerating from a velocity of several hundred-thousand miles per hour; width, approximately six miles; length, just over twenty miles, billowing out like a foxtail.
Though she still could not yet see them in the mostly starless sky, she recognized the dimensions of the objects the same way she might recognize the faces of her family. The number of objects, and their size—the answer was clear. Rededication had come.
The six behemoth platforms slowed to a gradual drift, putting themselves into orbit over Earth. Remaining outside the atmosphere, they each positioned themselves directly over the inhabited continents, spreading evenly. Each installation deployed large craft of their own, while New Pact vessels emerged from individual FTL events, placing themselves strategically between the six platforms. Though the overall fleet was spread out, their presence was more than enough, and the message was clear.
Val added the gunship’s sensor array to the report. She stepped out of the gunship and joined Virgil and Damon on the dusty terrain. They gathered with Aurin and Suo, and Danny and Arras. Though Ridarin and the gunship had painted a more detailed situation for them all, each of them still felt drawn to look into the sky themselves. Despite the distance and atmosphere, the night was clear enough, and the light of the moon cast a deathly glow on the largest object among those in view of the naked eye. Among the few stars, a number of dots glinted like satellites, all around a tangled heap of twisted metal, which sprouted a tightly bunched trio of wings, sprawling out like shards of broken glass—a Rededication platform.
Danny and Arras rose to their feet, not daring to take their eyes off the installation. They both recognized this view from various simulations and shared memories they had witnessed in the past, but to stand beneath it in reality was another kind of experience. Sensing the gravity of it all, they kept close to each other, feeling the sweat on one another’s hand.
“Is this it, then?” Danny asked her breathlessly. “Did we fail?”
But Arras couldn’t bring herself to answer him. She could feel the sting of tears in her left eye, and the squeeze on her insides as she looked up into the face of death itself.
Watching all seven of them from the peak of the hillside Danny had skidded down before, in her unperceivable layer of reality, she felt a deep sadness of her own. Each of them looked terrified in their own way, but it was how Arras and Danny looked that left her the most downtrodden. They were not only afraid. They were left wondering if they were responsible for this. After they had exerted so much effort and sacrificed so much, having even watched some of their friends, and even loved ones, die along the way, neither of them could be expected to understand. Not yet. Because this wasn’t their plan, not at all.
But it was hers.
“Don’t cry, Arras,” she whispered down the expansive hillside to her sister, her words as immaterial as her body. “We’ll make this right, so please don’t cry.”
Ila looked up into the night sky, drinking in the same sight as the others. That which horrified them left her only in anticipation. She knew what was coming, she had seen it countless times before.
“I promise I’ll save you,” she sighed into the wind. “The stage is set once again, the actors are in their places. The final act is about to begin—and I promise, this time I’ll save you. All three of you.”