Moving from the roof to Eli’s apartment felt like trudging waist-deep through mud. The chill that infested each of them, the unseen weight that hung in them—nothing quite compared to the ambiance Arthur had left behind.
Entering Eli’s apartment, Damon took charge immediately. Locking the handle and the deadbolt to the door, he gestured wordlessly to Arras; once she was near, he leaned in and whispered something to her. When he had spoken his piece, she stepped back, thought for a moment, then nodded before searching the room. Her fingers were alight with blue streams of nanomachines, flowing in tight rivulets in her skin.
As she went to work, Damon turned to everyone else and pressed a finger to his lips.
Finally, Arras settled on a light switch, placing her hands on one of the screws, using that indirect contact to survey the electrical wiring in the entire apartment. Working through the wiring and reading the radio waves in the air, she analyzed the entire unit, starting from the outside and moving in.
A few more seconds passed in perfect silence before she took her hand from the light switch, pointing to a spot beneath Eli’s kitchen counter and the space behind an old CRT television. Following her lead, Damon reached beneath the kitchen counter and behind the television, pulling two button-sized objects from both locations, tossing them on a nearby table.
Arras returned from deeper inside the unit, dropping three more objects like the other two on the table.
With the tap of her finger, Arras fried each of the devices.
Still not breathing a word, Damon pulled his cell phone from his pocket, removing the battery and SIM card, setting the three pieces on the table. He looked at Danny and Eli, who only watched, perplexed at first but catching on soon enough. Nodding firmly, raising his eyebrows, Damon made it apparent what he wanted them to do.
Danny and Eli pulled out their phones and disassembled them in like manner, setting the parts on the table next to the rest of the devices that could be used to listen in on them.
“All right,” Damon said at last, startling everyone with his sudden volume. However, he already looked alert, if not nearly panicked. “In case none of you have noticed, we’re in trouble.”
“Who the hell was that guy?” Danny asked abruptly.
“Arthur is nothing more than an egghead.” Catching himself, Damon’s shoulders sank. “He has multiple degrees in varying fields, more than qualified for whatever research project he’s on now.”
“I’m sorry, but,” Val risked saying, stepping forward. She looked more nervous than anyone else. “Are… are we in danger?”
“I’m afraid so,” Damon said starkly. “Each of you, listen closely: unfortunately, we’ve somehow attracted the attention of one of our world’s most powerful governments, and they want what we have—badly. As you now know, they tapped Eli’s apartment. They likely have other means of surveying us as well, such as our cell phones.”
“How did you know to look for all that?” Eli asked, looking down at the tabletop of confirmed and suspected surveillance risks.
“I suppose I don’t talk much about myself,” Damon admitted, “but I was a part of the CIA and NSA; this was my living, so to speak. And while I may have left those agencies officially, I’ve been supplying them ever since. Let’s not get off topic, though. The good news to all this is that it seems that they don’t know everything about us or our operation. I imagine they came knocking at our door the moment they discovered who they were dealing with.”
“But how did they even find us?” Val asked.
“He mentioned something to do with Higgs bosons and the Higgs field,” Damon recalled, looking at Eli and Danny. “Any theories, boys?”
Trading glances for only a second, Eli was the first to speak up.
“The Higgs field is the fundamental that gives matter its mass. Think of it like trying to move underwater; the water acts against your body, creating resistance. In essence, the Higgs field acts against elementary particles in a similar way, creating inertia. And a Higgs boson is what you get when something excites the Higgs field enough, like protons colliding near the speed of light. Or, to take the analogy further, like a swimmer kicking so hard that they make a splash.” Looking back at Danny, he added, “But we’ve only created Higgs bosons with supercolliders, and it’s not like tracking such a particle is easy close up, let alone at a significant distance. So I’m not sure how they actually found you.”
“They may be tracking the epiphenomena from Ridarin’s connection to the solar orbital,” Danny concluded. “Transferring weapons between the suit and the sun probably creates a lot of quantum ‘noise,’ so to speak. But Arras told me that kind of thing was revolutionary even for the Coalition, so I’m not sure how they could’ve learned to track us from just digging through abandoned Coalition outposts.”
All eyes then fell on Arras, waiting for an answer, though she seemed unable to give anything satisfactory.
“I’m at as much of a loss as you are,” Arras confessed. “To the best of my knowledge, the Coalition never developed such a technology, but that’s not to say that they weren’t experimenting with something like it while on this planet.”
“It seems like whatever method they’re using is pretty underdeveloped,” Val added. “At least there’s that; they shouldn’t be able to track us too closely.”
“But that doesn’t change their goals, I’d assume,” Damon added. “Arthur came here tonight for one thing.”
“They want Ridarin,” Arras muttered.
Damon turned to her, expecting the same trademark fury he had come to expect from her in cases such as these. Instead he found something different, something like gloom.
“They do,” he said simply. “And therein lies our problem. People who bring snipers to a party aren’t really the kind to take no for an answer. Not to speak for you, Arras, but I’m guessing your answer isn’t going to change.”
“That’s right,” Arras said, far more gently than he had expected.
Closing her eyes for a moment, she seemed lost in thought. Finally, she looked at Danny and Eli.
“I recognize that my answer puts both of you in jeopardy, maybe even your families.”
Her words caught everyone off guard; like Damon, they had expected something more like fire, not condolences.
“I don’t like it,” Danny confessed, “but I knew the risks when I signed on. Don’t worry about me.”
“I understand the risks, as well,” Eli added. “While I also don’t like this one bit, I understand that it’s for a greater good. Please don’t worry about me either.”
“I’m sorry, Eli,” Arras said, surprising him once again. “If we hadn’t dragged you into this…”
Eli smiled at her. “Please, don’t be sorry. You didn’t drag me into anything. Remember, I decided to go with Danny to that house, and I decided to stick around to hear your story. Though I’m sure I barely qualify, I consider this my fight, too.”
“Sorry to interrupt, but we still need a plan,” Damon cut in, reluctantly taking lead of the conversation. “We don’t have much time. We’ve established that we’re not handing the suit over to Arthur or his people—that’s a given. However, how are we going to present that to them?”
“Is there a polite way to tell them to screw off?” Danny asked. “It’s not like they’re asking for the last piece of pizza here.”
“I get that,” said Damon, trying to stay patient. “However, though these people consider Ridarin a step above what they have, they still don’t seem to understand just how much Ridarin exceeds all other Coalition tech. We might be able to play that to our advantage. Now, this is only a suggestion, but…”
“We tell them about Rededication,” Arras said softly.
“Do you think there’s a way we can make peace with them, then?” Val asked, already starting to sound hopeful.
When everyone looked to Arras, she looked at Damon. “Why don’t you tell us, Damon? You did used to work for them.”
“Our chances are razor-thin.” Damon rested both hands on the end of his cane, his head bowed in thought. “However, the way I see it, this may be our only chance at getting out of this relatively unscathed. If the United States were to learn about our war on Rededication… if they knew that Ridarin serves a singular purpose, without tipping them off to just how powerful Ridarin actually is… we may be able to make them understand.”
“They seem fairly determined,” Val noted. “I only bring it up because I know that feeling; it’s the same way much of the College seemed to act whenever they discussed Rededication.”
“Please don’t take this the wrong way, Valiya,” Damon said, “but, from what you and Arras have shown me of the New Pact and its history, your people practice war fairly straightforwardly—you identify your threat, and you extinguish it. Our people, however, aren’t above playing the field. This wouldn’t be the first time the US granted autonomy to one potential threat in order to eliminate an even greater threat. If we can get these people to allow us some elbow room, at least until our mission is complete, then we can figure out everything else later. Right now, destroying Rededication takes precedence over all else.”
“And what if everything falls apart?” Danny asked. “I don’t mean to be a buzzkill, but you said it yourself, Damon: our chances are pretty slim. What do we do if they don’t see things our way?”
Damon looked at Danny for some time; it was clear that question had been digging into him this whole time. Despite the fatigue written across his face, whether from the night itself or all it seemed to remind him of, he still mustered some fortitude.
“There have been a number of times in my life,” he said, “when I have taken an oath to serve and protect my country, to seek her best interests as well as those of her people. As a descendant of Asael Mack, such philosophies and loyalties were more assigned to me than chosen, really. Yet I stand by them. That said, I committed myself to principles, not political bodies per se. I’ve devoted my entire life to the ideal that we might be a genuinely free people, never having to fear for our lives or well-being. I won’t allow this country to endanger itself. If it comes down to it… we will do everything it takes to complete our mission.”
He looked each of them in the eye, enduring the silence that followed.
“Agreed,” Arras answered softly, ratifying what he had said.
Eli nodded. “Agreed.”
“A-agreed,” Val said.
With everyone now staring at him, Danny straightened up. As he had said before—though he had hoped all this time the price would not be so steep—he knew there was no turning back. There was no more glorious cause than eliminating Rededication and stopping the New Pact, and each of them was irrefutably right: they couldn’t let anything or anyone—not even their own people—stop them now.