Chapter 9

 

Nothing about this felt right to Arras.

Still dressed in her clothes from the night before, having had no sleep since their meeting on the rooftop, she felt her stomach curdle.  Damon looked as if the lack of sleep was weighing on him, but, like her, he kept any unease hidden behind a well-composed face and a steady pace.  His cane hit the pavement at a slow, steady rhythm; Arras tried to match her heartbeat to the metronomic sounds.

Having left Damon’s car in a nearby lot, they walked past the Ithaca Sciencenter.

Arras watched a few families rush into the building, small children orbiting their parents, skipping, dancing.  Combining the sight with the sounds of a few cars and snippets of conversations going on around them, it felt as if nothing was really out of the ordinary—as if nothing ever had been.  As Damon led the way, she watched the green scenery and the people, and she wondered.  She had spent so much of her life feeling like a pistol with its hammer pulled back; when was the last time she had ever been like these people?  Content, unburdened, ordinary?  Or had she ever been like that?

“That’s not a bad smile,” Damon said, nudging Arras with his free arm.

“What?”

She only then realized she had been smiling along with everyone else around them, as if entranced.

“A good memory?”

“Not really, no.”

Her smile vanished as suddenly as Damon had pointed it out.

“I was just thinking…”

Bringing herself back to the situation, shaking off those thoughts, she left that moment behind.

Damon stopped beneath a certain tree, skirted with a thick, green bushel.  Just before the tree, rising modestly out of a sea of faded-red bricks, was an obelisk.  Arras followed its glossy surface from the ground up, all the way to its pointed top where she found a symbol she didn’t recognize—some fusion of two letters, but she knew it hadn’t come from the alphabet she had learned from Danny.

“Pluto,” Damon said, taking in the obelisk with her.  He stared into a clear window near the top of the obelisk, at a speck encased therein, meant to represent the dwarf planet.  “I have to hand it to him, this is a pleasantly appropriate place to begin our discussion.  Though, it’s also somewhat backward…”

“How so?” Arras asked, looking away from the golden symbol.

“This is just one of a number of obelisks scattered through downtown Ithaca,” Damon explained.  “They’re meant to lead people on a tour of the area.  However, the tour is meant to end at Pluto.  Interesting…”

A particular set of footsteps tipped both Arras and Damon off to their guest.  Turning around, they found Arthur approaching, his eyes covered by a pair of opaque sunglasses, which he removed as he came closer.

“Right on time,” Arthur sang.  “You’re as punctual as ever, Damon.  But I can’t help but notice we’re missing a few people.  Did they oversleep?”

“You won’t need anyone more than us,” Damon replied.

Arthur looked from Damon to Arras.  “I hope you’ve had enough time to consider my offer.”

“I have,” Arras said simply.

“And?”

“We’ve decided it would best to walk and talk,” Damon said.  “After all, you chose such an inviting place.  Why not take advantage of the Planet Walk?  I’m sure you agree, it’s not every day we’re in Ithaca.”

“What’s there to say?” Arthur asked.  “The answer I’m looking for is fairly simple: yes, or no?”

“You want it to be simple,” Arras amended.  “You may have found us, but the fact is that you don’t yet understand what it is you’ve actually found.”

“Oh?”

“We want to explain who we are,” Arras said, her voice lowering.  “We want you to understand why we have the suit, and why we can’t hand it over to you.”

Arthur’s smirk returned.  “If you really think you can convince me…  You have a little less than a mile to make your case.”

Holding out her hand, Arras said, “We’ll have more time than that.”

With a confused look, Arthur stared at her hand; hesitantly, he reached out and took her hand in his.  In an instant, his eyes jolted open, then settled back to normal.  His body continued to move, but he was gone.

Heaving one breath after another, Arthur stood in the middle of nowhere.  All around him was nothing but white, a perfectly smooth landscape extending in all directions, far enough that the white above the horizon and the land beneath it seemed to coalesce.  Whirling around, he found Arras watching him adjust to the new environment.

“Where are we?” Arthur demanded, stumbling as he turned to review his surroundings.

“We’re right where we were a moment ago,” Arras said, as if nothing had happened.  “Right now, we’re walking with Damon, enjoying the local landmarks.  However, I thought it would be best to move our conversation to a more private setting, so as not to attract attention.  And to ensure we don’t step out into traffic, Damon offered to lead us along the path until we finish our business.”

“I don’t understand,” Arthur admitted.  “Is this some sort of virtual reality?”

“In essence.”

Arras lifted her hand; blue tessellations wafted up her skin.

“I’ve allowed you to temporarily enter my mind,” she informed him.  “I thought it would be easier to show you this way.”

“Show me what?”

“Last night, on the roof, I said you didn’t understand why that weapon you’re after was even created.  Nor do you understand why we can’t give it to you, or even allow you to study it.”

The lights around Arras’ arm separated from her, branching into the air.  From the air, the strings sharply dove, burying themselves, splitting the glassy ground.  As the unformed world began to fracture, a number of thoughts flooded in.

Arthur watched with excitement and fear as the nothingness all around became something.

“What is this?” he asked as his mind was invaded, brought into dialogue with Arras.

“It’s everything you need to know about Rededication.”

Arthur watched a massive planet form beneath his feet as he floated out in space.  The surface looked peaceful, untouched—he wondered if this was Earth.  With abrupt force, he was wrenched toward the world.  A number of dark blurs whizzed past him as he soared downward.  Getting an idea of what these objects looked like, they were unlike anything he had ever seen before; machines, spacecraft, yet they looked nothing like what he found on Earth—the things left behind by the Coalition.

Beneath him, the planet’s surface was pocked with fiery detonations.  He soared toward the planet at the same terrible speed as the objects he had seen, landing on the top of a tower.  All around, he was surrounded by a city that looked familiar, yet which obviously did not belong to his homeworld.  One after another, the adjacent buildings tumbled into themselves, billowing clouds of dust and debris into the sky as they fell.  To his horror, Arthur realized the building he was on was also collapsing.

Flipping over himself in the chaos, no pain or injury attending the battering he surely would have taken, Arthur fell to the ground.  After landing among the wreckage below, drowning in the thick dust filling the streets, he could barely see the people running through the chaos, their screams joining the dust in the air.

Missiles continued to rain from the sky, lighting the city ablaze, their impacts blowing the dust away—revealing the scene.

Petrified like the rubble around him, Arthur watched perfectly normal people tear each other apart.  Their flesh gave way beneath another’s fingers, eyes gouged, bones breaking, heads caved in with heavy blows.  Each person kept their eyes wide open for the carnage, with no remorse evident, as if they were simply predators in the field.

In a panic, Arthur got to his feet, his eyes darting in all directions, his feet constantly shifting beneath him.  He prepared to defend himself, though he wasn’t even sure he could.

“They can’t hurt you.”  Arras stood next to him, watching the scene unfold.  “They’re nothing more than ghosts.”

“What is this?” Arthur yelled at her, still not dropping his guard.  “What the hell is going on?”

Before he knew what was going on, he realized Arras had disappeared.

The sound of synchronized steps cracked into earshot.  No one in the murderous orgy seemed to notice as a wall of towering bodies, each one at least a foot above the wild people, approached with weapons in hand.  All at once, the army stopped.  The first row of figures took a knee and took aim, while the second row remained standing, also aiming.  With no audible signal, the armored figures opened fire on the unsuspecting crowd.  And as the gunmen mowed down the people in the streets, none of whom seemed to either realize or care as they and those around them toppled lifelessly to the pavement.

Arthur stood still, watching the bullets pierce their targets, killing each of them in an instant.  Yet as the bullets passed through him, he remained standing, left only to watch death make its merciless sweep.  Tilting his head one way and another, he didn’t have the luxury of thinking he was dreaming.  Even if the bullets could perforate him the way they had the people around him—the men, the women, the children—the scene would have felt no more real.

As if by instinct, he lifted his head, watching as the sky seemed to divide.  The darkness of space, speckled with distant, uncaring stars, stared back down at him.  And at their center was a crumpled mess of metal, some otherworldly monster, circulating shards of machinery in and out of itself, leading the pogrom below from its impassible perch above.

“Rededication…”

The word left his lips as a whisper as it bored itself back into his head like a drill.

The death above shrank from sight as the ground beneath crumbled, dropping him into a new ocean of thoughts.  For what felt like hours, he was given information he could never have guessed, as the blanks were filled in.  He watched fragments of Arras Enqelin’s experiences from the past few months alone, when she had begun in earnest her assault on this weapons platform—on Rededication.

So much came and went, and Arthur knew there were things he would never be let in on, but he saw enough.  He saw enough…

“Do you understand now?”

The question brought him back to the cool air of Ithaca.  With the breeze fanning his sweating face, Arthur stared directly into the dark obelisk of the sun, standing at the center of the Ithaca Commons.  Taking a few deep breaths, his head floating, he looked first at Damon, who said nothing.  Then he found Arras, who only waited for the answer to her question.

“Was that…?”  Arthur sounded nearly winded.  At last, he regained himself.  “Was that real?”

“Unfortunately so,” Damon answered.  “I take it you now realize what we’ve been doing all this time.”

“I hope you also realize why we can’t accept your offer,” Arras added, looking Arthur deep in the eye.  “What I showed you occurred on another planet long ago, but it can happen just as easily to this one.  As of this moment, we’re the only ones who can keep prevent that.”

“I see,” Arthur breathed.  Still gathering his thoughts, he swept his sleeve over his forehead.  “Well…  Thank you.  That was very… enlightening.  This changes everything.  It would seem that standing back and letting you handle the situation would be... the best course of action.”

“I’m glad you see it our way,” Damon said.

Arthur slumped down onto the base of the sun obelisk, looking as if he had just walked away from a car crash.

“Are we free to go, then?” Damon added, watching his old friend recover from the images he had seen.

“Yes,” Arthur said in a hush.  “Yes, I believe so…”

Damon stood over Arthur and put a hand on his shoulder, smiling down at him.  “Thank you, Arthur.  And please know, it was very good to see you again.”

Without another word, Damon led Arras back the way they had come.

Arthur watched them fade into the distance as he shook himself back to life.  When they had disappeared completely, he pulled his phone from his coat, dialing a number with a single button.

“It’s me,” he said into the receiver.  “There’s been a change of plans.”