By the time everyone else had left, most of the lights in the buildings around them had gone out—the world seemed genuinely quiet then.
Shortly after midnight, Eli and Danny, and Arras and Val began to pick up the loose cans and take down the lights. Damon watched from his spot on the ledge, enjoying the cold night.
Cleanup was quick and simple, which Danny hoped would leave plenty of time for all of them to linger in Ithaca for a while longer. Once he returned to Manhattan, there would be no telling when he would see Eli again.
Sharing idle conversation, their voices sank into the phones in their pockets, and their movements were noted by observers from concealed vantage points. And as each of them went along their business, another conversation went on all around them, riding radio waves, all on a secure channel.
“Civilians have vacated the premises…”
He strolled up the building’s main stairwell, his footsteps echoing from the dense steps, the weight of his briefcase tugging at his fingers. With every step that passed him by, he felt butterflies multiply in his belly. Wondering what he would say, wondering just how this might go, he forced a smug smile—anything to help these people understand who was in charge here. If he could maintain dominance, he told himself, this would all work out in their favor.
From behind the metal door to the rooftop, he took one last deep breath, then made his entrance.
“Excuse me,” he said as he stepped out onto the rooftop, getting everyone’s attention immediately. He looked all around, checking the head count—recon was right; everyone was there. “I’m looking for some people. Can you help me?”
“Uh, do they live here?” Eli asked, setting down a trash bag and approaching the man. “If they do, I might know them.”
“Oh,” he said, “so you live here, then?”
“Yes, I do,” Eli said, starting to feel awkward.
“Then that must mean you’re Eli Anthony Vale,” the man said cheerfully, feeling the weight transfer from himself to everyone else around him. “You’re middle name, you get it from your grandfather, the retired police chief of the Fayette Police Department.”
Startled to hear this, Eli wasn’t sure how to respond. With an anxious shake, he retreated a step or two back.
“Hey,” Danny cut in, approaching the suspicious man. “Who are you?”
“That’s not important,” he said, still smiling, seizing and sustaining control with every word. “But, judging by your age, I’m guessing you’re Daniel Edward Eick. You’re one of Fayette’s two modern-day intellectual prodigies… Well, you were until you dropped out of Cornell for reasons unknown.”
“The hell?” muttered Danny, feeling almost as uneasy as Eli by then. “And what’s that to you, buddy? Who are you?”
“And you, and you,” the man said, nodding to Val, then Arras, ignoring Danny entirely. “You two have virtually no records, no digital footprint, not so much as a selfie. All I’ve got to go off are your names: yours is Arras Enqelin, and yours is Valiya, but your friends here call you ‘Val’; I don’t have a surname for you, though.”
Val looked more bewildered than scared, though this whole thing had left her without words nonetheless.
As the man spoke, Arras quietly positioned herself in front of the exit, her line of sight nailed to this man as he paced to the middle of rooftop.
“Are you going to read off part of my dossier, too?”
The man spun around, finding Damon already watching him with all the demeanor of someone with real control, consciously throwing this man off his game.
“Your dossier doesn’t do you justice,” he said to Damon, feeling the tension all around begin to infect him again as he fiddled with the cuffs of his sleeves. “It’s good to see you again.”
“I truly hope I can say the same,” Damon replied, getting to his feet, walking with his cane toward the man.
Juggling a mix of emotions, Danny wasn’t sure what to make of this situation. “You know this guy, Damon?”
“We’ve met before. However, I’m sure he was about to introduce himself.” Damon turned back to the man as he spoke. “Isn’t that right, old friend?”
His arrogant smile fading, the man turned to Danny.
“My name is Arthur Emmerich—a pleasure.”
“Arthur is a scientist,” Damon added. “Until relatively recently, he used to teach at Stanford. Now, as far as I know, he works for the government—though there are few details as to what he’s currently engaged in. Most of his work is classified to the nth degree.”
“Planning to level the playing field?” Arthur asked, giving Damon a sidelong glance over his shoulder.
Arthur could feel his palms already starting to sweat—no matter, however. He refused to let anyone else take control of the situation, not with so much on the line.
“You know so much about us,” Damon reasoned. “It’s only fair that they know something about you.”
“Well, in any case,” Arthur muttered, pushing through his nervousness, “now that we have introductions out of the way…”
Damon watched Arthur the way a king might watch his jester, though it wasn’t out of simple arrogance. Something was dreadfully wrong here, Damon concluded. Whatever was happening, he had no intention of letting it explode in their faces.
“Why don’t we get right down to business, then?” asked Damon.
“Why not, indeed?”
Almost glaring back at him, Arthur lifted his briefcase, unlocking the latches. With a certain finesse, he pulled out a folder, gesturing for Damon to come and see.
Taking the file, scanning over its contents, Damon’s brow creased and his smile faded away.
“I suppose this isn’t surprising,” he muttered, scrutinizing the contents of the file, simultaneously irritated and intrigued. “It should have been obvious the moment you identified Arras and Valiya.”
Danny was the first to ask, though the question burned inside everyone. Feeling his stomach sinking already, he tried to keep his voice still. “What’s going on Damon? What’s this guy think he’s got on us?”
Exhaling hard through his nose, Damon sharply tossed the folder, letting its contents fan across the ground for everyone to see.
Among a number of wordy documents, several large photos slid into sight. Most of the photos were of a figure in red and black, with blue lights that left any direct shot distorted in some way. Many images showed Ridarin in action in the testing room at the top of Teleios tower. One sheet had a progression of the shots, moving from Danny standing at the center of the chamber to the suit in the middle of combat, ending with Ridarin standing proudly in the middle of the aftermath of its first real test.
Arras looked into each image, her face frozen—she wasn’t about to give this man the pleasure of thinking he had brought anything subversive to the table. Still, she couldn’t ignore that gnawing feeling inside, a certain anxiety, the kind that comes with trying to time something just right.
“We found everything we needed once we knew where to look,” Arthur said, smirking as everyone else sank beneath this checkmate. “I’m sorry to say it, boys and girls, but the jig is up—we’ve finally found you.”
While the others continued to look at the damning evidence, Damon was speed-reading the documents, trying to gauge just how much information had been laid before them. He resisted the urge to bite his lip as he realized how extensive these people’s surveillance had really been.
“This isn’t the half of it, of course,” said Arthur, wagging a finger. “And believe me, we’re finding more every day.”
Before anyone knew what was coming, Arras had made her way between all the others. Catching Arthur unprepared, she jabbed an extended knuckle into the soft tissue behind his earlobe, then swept his feet out from underneath him. By the time anyone had realized what Arras had done, she had one of Arthur’s arms pulled straight behind his back, twisted till it locked in place. She pressed her other palm firmly against the lower half of his face, forcing his head to face the ground.
“Wait, stop,” Arthur grunted, struggling to speak with his head at such an angle. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Arras, hang on,” Damon interjected, taking a step toward the one-sided struggle. “Before you snap his neck, take a look around.”
Looking up from her potential kill, Arras noticed a dot of focused red light on her chest—a laser. She could see one on Damon as well, and she guessed everyone else had been targeted, too. The warning contained by the laser sights was obvious.
“We have sharpshooters ready to take out every one of you,” Arthur breathed through gritted teeth, trying not to fight Arras’ palm too much, lest he do her work for her. “Unless you want your friends to die, you better let me go.”
“Hey, Arras,” Danny said, feeling more vulnerable than he had in a long time with that red dot on him. “This guy pisses me off, too, but this isn’t going to solve anything.”
“He’s fine where he is,” Arras said plainly, staring daggers into the corner of Arthur’s eye that could still see her. “Isn’t that right, Mr. Emmerich?”
“They’ll kill everyone here!”
Arthur sputtered as he spoke, though not because of the position he was in. It was that look on Arras’ face, her resolution and clarity—he wouldn’t be able to convince her, and worse yet, she knew exactly what she was doing.
“You took all this trouble to find us,” Arras told him, “even more trouble to approach us like this, to present your findings once no one else was around. You want me to believe you’re ready to kill us? You’re not here to kill anyone; if killing us was an option, you would’ve done it already.”
“Not all—” Arthur struggled against the pressure she started adding to his head. “Not all of you are essential. Care to guess who would die first?”
“Arras, he’s not bluffing, not entirely,” Damon said from her side, speaking firmly as he rested a hand on her shoulder. “I understand what you’re trying to accomplish, but we have other options. So please, let him go.”
With her eyes still fixed on her hostage, Arras thought this over for a moment. Finally she loosened her grip and let Arthur fall to the ground.
Arthur rubbed the space between his shoulder and neck as he gasped for air, coughing as it came to him. Looking back up at Arras, he radiated fury.
“Careful, Arthur,” Damon warned, positioning himself between Arthur and Arras, planting his cane stiffly into the ground. “You may have the advantage, but I’m afraid it’s only slight. I would explain why you’re here now. There’s no telling how long you might have until our dear lady decides your threat no longer has any real bite.”
“There’s not much I can tell you,” Arthur said once he confirmed to himself that his spine was still intact. “I’m the head of a project called ‘85-11,’ a research and development program overseen by the federal government.”
“Never heard of it,” Damon said, demanding more information with those words alone.
“We know you have eyes and ears all over Washington,” Arthur told him, his smile having left a while ago. “But not even they would know about this. Project 85-11 began in the 1940s when a number of strange outposts were discovered on remote islands around the world, technologically advanced facilities left behind by some sort of unearthly civilization. Ever since their discovery, the role of 85-11 has been to research and replicate the advanced technology found within those outposts.”
“And what business is that of ours?” Damon asked plainly.
“It became your business—or, should I say, you became our problem—the moment we found out that you were in possession of technology made by the same people who built those abandoned outposts.”
“What makes you think that?”
“Don’t play dumb, Damon,” Arthur said, becoming progressively less patient with every dodge.
“I’d rather you didn’t insult my intelligence, Arthur,” Damon countered without hesitation. “What we saw in those photographs is simply the latest project under development at Teleios.”
Arthur couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
“Well, Damon, your supposed ‘latest project’ just so happens to be giving off the same anomalous signal as everything else we found in those facilities. You expect me to believe you developed a weapons suite that just so happens to spew Higgs particles like an anthropomorphic supercollider?”
“Not at all,” Damon conceded, “but that does tell me quite a bit about what you’re working with. So you have something that can somehow track distortions in the Higgs field?”
Arthur froze when he heard this, realizing he had been played.
“Look, what do you want from us?” Danny suddenly asked. “You’ve got us all trapped here, but what do you want?”
“We have a very good idea of what is in your possession,” Arthur said, recovering from his blunder. He walked around Damon, approaching Danny, making sure not to cut off his snipers’ aim. “When we first found out that there was some unknown party running around with alien tech, our primary concern was retrieving it. However, once we learned what was actually giving off the signal, who was involved with it, the kind of control you had over it… Well, we got curious.”
He turned to Val, then Arras.
“Two of you clearly aren’t American citizens, nor do you appear to be citizens of any other country in the world. Under any other circumstances, we would assume you’re simply undocumented, perhaps from some village in the remotest corner of the world. However, given that what we’ve found could not have been made by anyone on Earth… we can’t help but wonder why you’re so seemingly nonexistent. Here’s our hypothesis: you’re in possession of this technology, and you can exercise such control over it, because it was yours to begin with.”
Though Arras didn’t budge, Val clearly tensed up. Arthur smiled, his own questions answered.
“Simply amazing,” he exclaimed, breaking out in an untamed grin. “I don’t even know where to begin making sense of it, but truly magnificent. Two extraterrestrial beings on American soil—and they’re Homo sapiens? We were expecting something like a Xenomorph, not Sigourney Weaver.”
“You didn’t answer my question,” Danny interrupted, knocking Arthur out of his childlike excitement. “What do you want with us?”
“I’m here to make an offer,” Arthur said, spreading his hands, feeling control return to him as he spoke. “Before we knew the who or what of this situation, we at least thought we knew the how. We concluded that your lives were more or less expendable in retrieving what we were looking for. However, the more we learned, the more our plans changed. Your dark-haired alien girl was right, we’re not here to kill anyone. We’re here to make an offer.”
His words wafted away on the wind; it was almost as if he was kidding them.
“That’s right,” Arthur went on. “You, Arras Enqelin, this Valiya, Damon Hale, and even Eli Vale—we want your help.”
“Doing what exactly?”
The question came from behind Arthur; he turned around to see Arras, her eyes still locked on him.
“Serving our country, of course,” Arthur explained. “We face a number of dangers, foreign and even domestic. With what you have, we could keep our homeland safe, as well as our interests overseas.”
“Thinking of fulfilling a few fantasies, then?” Damon asked skeptically. “I suppose it makes sense. Why worry about a terrorist cell when you can simply send a virtually indestructible, omnipotent, walking WMD of your own after them?”
“Don’t make it sound so brutish, Damon, really. You know how this works: we acquire power so that we never have to use it.”
Arthur stared down at the photos and documents strewn across the ground, watching the wind lap at them then drop them back down. His arrogance seemed to wane for the slightest moment—replaced by some wistful spirit.
He looked back at Damon with perfect seriousness, saying, “We aren’t looking to conquer the world here. All we want is security—global security. We may have some trinkets these aliens left behind, but what you have simply puts everything else to shame. With it, we could effectively end conflict altogether.”
No one dared to answer, not one—no one felt they had the right. Instead, they waited for the one among them who could really answer.
Arras’ knuckles turned white.
“You have no idea…” she muttered.
“You have no idea why we even built this weapon, do you?”
“Why does anyone build a weapon? Regardless of the reason, the question is, what can we do with it now?”
“It wasn’t built to give anyone ‘security.’ ”
“Perhaps, but that can change.”
The answer hung in the air for a moment before it finally clicked for Arthur.
“The answer is no,” Arras repeated.
Instead of shock, Arthur smiled at her, as if smiling at a fussy child.
“I hadn’t planned on demanding an answer right away.”
Putting his hands into his pockets, Arthur started for the door. Walking past anyone in his way, as if they were only passersby on the sidewalk, he looked back only once.
“You can give me your final answer tomorrow at noon. We’ll meet somewhere nice and public; I’m thinking the Ithaca Sciencenter, right in front of Pluto. See you then.”
Arthur left the rooftop the same way he had come. The red laser sights disappeared with him, leaving everyone who was left in the cold air at a loss.