Chapter 30

 

He was even younger when he first set foot on that awful planet.  Ever since then, he could remember that day vividly, though he tried to forget.

In those days, Nulem Verris was a soldier in the New Pact fleet’s infantry division.  Nothing special, just one among many.  The training that had brought him that far had been grueling, and he was a capable fighter as a result, but there was nothing especially extraordinary about him or his unit.

It was by pure chance that they received the orders they had.

A group of violent rabble-rousers had begun to make too much noise on a newly correlated planet, on the edges of the New Pact’s known territories.  Integrating the planet, an arid little world called Hulless, into the union was a messy affair, one which not all the locals on that planet supported.  It had begun as nothing more than whispers and discontented murmuring, but within a matter of days a number of natives formed a militia and took things too far.

A number of goodwill ambassadors had been sent from Felicity, in an attempt to negotiate more favorable conditions for the people of Hulless.  The rebels decapitated the ambassadors and left their corpses in the streets for over three days, for all to see, as a warning to the New Pact, whom they declared invaders.  The rest of the people of Hulless had importuned the College for assistance, declaring their desire to join the New Pact while starkly rejecting the violent actions of their fellow countrymen.  In response, the military sortied a single unit to take care of the situation.

Nule could remember every detail of that day, from start to finish.  He could remember the cool air of the warship that jumped them to Hulless, the lurch in his guts as his pod was dropped along with the others from orbit, landing hard against the planet’s surface.  They had touched down a short distance from where the rebels had holed up.  The people of Hulless and its few towns had refused to give the rebels shelter any longer; as a result, the rebels had forced their way into a small town on the edge of nowhere, a village appropriately known as Brink.

From the moment his pod opened, Nule had detested the place.  It was a desert, in every sense of the word.  The blistering, nearly blinding twin stars in the sky were bad enough, but the terrain felt like the embodiment of death itself.  Except for a few small oases, hidden between walls of mountains and the edge of an otherwise rather shallow ocean, most of the planet was nothing but hot limestone.  Roiling in jagged waves, twisting into unsettling shapes, the rocky ground glowed under the intense sunlight, obscured by its own heat haze.  He could remember the heat, and how it seemed to swell into his combat fatigues as he clutched at the burning metal of his weapon.  Every step made the ground beneath his boots sound hollow, and the seeming furnace under his feet radiated up his legs and into the rest of his body, seeping fire into his bones.

He could remember hoping this would be a short mission.

Everything went according to plan, for the most part, and the rebels had been pushed back into a single building at the edge of the town.  Separated from the rest of the population, the enemy’s options were few.  Nule remembered waiting for their commander’s orders.

Ekren Appya, who stood as commander of their unit, decided to wait the rebels out.  One announcement after another over loud speakers followed, calling for the rebels’ unconditional surrender.  But all they received in return were threats and taunts from the people holed up inside the small, limestone-brick building.  Still, Ekren ordered his unit to wait, rather than storm the place.  They knew the rebels were armed, and on occasion a clumsy bullet or two would plink from one of the windows, bouncing futilely off the barriers Nule and the others had set up.

They held their position for hours, until the suns in the sky had separated from one another a bit, one beginning to set while the other lagged behind.  That was when everything changed.

Though what followed came so fast at the time, years of hindsight had helped Nule reconstruct everything.

One rebel suddenly came barreling out of the building, weapon raised, firing carelessly as he ran.  At first, Nule and the other soldiers in his unit thought the lone escapee might be heading for the desert, but not so.  The man seemed to have no destination in mind; he only came out shooting, and so Ekren gave the reluctant order to put him down.  As the blood sprinkled over the rocky ground, a second and a third rebel came out, running like the man that came before them, opening fire as they went.  Again, they were put down, but not before more followed after them.

What began as an almost orderly stream of people abruptly exploded into handfuls of rebels pouring out at random, scrambling in all directions, shouting incoherently.  Ekren had already given the order, and what were a few calculated takedowns quickly became a killing spree.  The New Pact unit stood up from behind their barriers, spraying down the dozens of figures sprinting out of the building.

The entire process took less than a minute.  After that, the entire town seemed still.

Once the dust had settled, several dozen bodies lay strewn across the ground, their blood staining the rocky ground, pooling into trickling rivulets.  Ekren took a small portion of his unit, Nule included, to inspect the scene.  Walking carefully over the bodies, their rifles at the ready, they entered the building, ready to take over the situation that had so quickly fallen apart in their hands.  But they found no one inside.  Stepping back out into the warm wind, surveying the bodies all around, a terrible truth revealed itself.

The first few rebels to run outside were indeed armed, and they had certainly come out shooting.  But as far as Nule and the others could tell, most of the corpses were not holding guns—most of the rebels had come out entirely unarmed.  Examining each person, their bodies like ragdolls tossed aside, the unit found women among the dead, as well as a few young men and girls.

Not everyone who had tried to escape had been armed, Nulem realized; he and his team had only assumed they were.  And the now empty hideout spoke volumes more, that everyone had rushed outside.  None of them had assumed anything as they tried to escape.  And every one of them had died.

The epicenter of this terrible memory, this moment was the clearest to Nulem.  He could remember the sweat, his cottony dry mouth, the terrible heat, and what was creeping its way inside of him—not the fire of this awful planet, but something else.  Something neither hot nor cold.  Something substantial yet immaterial.  Something that was simultaneously full and yet nothing at all.  Trembling before the gaping eyes of the people he himself had had a hand in shoving out of this life, Nule felt another lurch in his gut, similar to what he had experienced dropping from orbit.

Turning his head in time, he vomited against the wall of the empty building.  No one else seemed to pay him any mind.  Bracing himself with a hand against the wall, he glanced back at the rest of his unit, who seemed not physically ill yet just as troubled.  His eyes wandered all the way to Ekren Appya, who stood near the center of the killing field, staring down in thought, his eyes tinged with a hint of shame.

As suddenly as everything had happened, Nulem’s mind raced to a repugnant conclusion.  They had been dispatched to administer justice; this was a mission to liberate a world, one which wanted to join the New Pact, despite the violence of a few of their own.  This was no brutish strike, but a response to people who refused to negotiate, who instead murdered innocents in order to get their point across.  It was supposed to be a just cause that would see them through to the end of this operation—yet he could find no justice here.  There was no lesson to be learned.  There was no higher reasons or even base instincts to explain what had happened.  It was simply as if the entire universe, with all its beauty and purpose, had suddenly vented, and reality itself had depressurized.  There was only meaninglessness.  No, not even that.  There was nothing.  Nothing at all.

In the hours that followed, Nulem’s unit assisted the people of Brink in tending to the bodies according to their traditions.  The bodies were carried to the edge town, a short ways into the desert, where they were methodically dismembered and wrapped in old strips of cloth.  They were then carried into the harsh wilderness and left there.  The villagers told Ekren that this was so the bodies could be subsumed back into the All, to return to the great root from which they came.

But while all the others seemed able to find meaning in all this, something to make the pain of what had happened a little less sharp, Nule could not feel a thing.  Looking out over the desert, he felt as if he was looking at the true nature of the universe itself—barren, uncovered, naked, pointless, where people simply came to die.

Shortly thereafter, Nulem Verris was honorably discharged from the New Pact military.  Having nowhere else to go, he returned home with the haunting vacuum he had discovered on Hulless.

It was upon returning home that that vacuum was unexpectedly filled.

In the planet’s surface port, there was one person who had come to meet him.  She rushed over, overjoyed to be reunited with him, throwing her arms around him.  He could still remember what she had said to him, too.

“I missed you so much,” Valiya said, still holding him tightly.  “It’s so good to see you again.”

Suddenly with her again, something shifted in Nulem, as if the nothingness inside him had been locked away.  He returned her embrace, feeling his heart swell for the first time since Brink, the madness slipping away.  Hulless never made sense to him, but in that moment, in her arms, it did not have to make sense.

“I missed you too, Valiya,” he replied in relief.  “I really did.”

That dread had disappeared for years.  Yet while he enjoyed its absence, it did indeed return.  That same familiar emptiness, disillusionment with reality itself, had sunk its teeth into him once more.  It had stolen his breath, then demanded that he breathe; it had poisoned his blood, then commanded his heart to beat; it had salted his wounds, then commanded him to pry them open.  He felt as if his eyelids had been pinned open, forced to see the world, the universe, reality—to see that it was nothing.  In that abyss, which was at once personal and yet universal, he could think of only one thing—one person.  The one who had so consistently managed to tune this horrid cacophony, time and time again.

“A while ago, you asked me what had changed,” Nulem told Truth, “and how I could turn away from the New Pact in just a day.”

“I did,” Truth replied, eyeing him from the corner.  Yet while she watched him with interest, it lacked her usual sadism.  For reasons not even she could intuit, her heart had softened for him.

“It happened aboard Ila’s Voice,” Nule said, speaking absentmindedly, looking back at her through hollow eyes.  “The executions, and all the madness that came after...  No one could tell enemy from ally.  And so many proxies were killed—Visum, and the others.  Even the ones that managed to escape death could only keep it up for a few minutes, at most.  Then they went down.  Even Thiossus and Ishka couldn’t escape it; and I’m sure I’ll meet the same end soon enough…”

“Do you feel guilty for killing them?”

“Guilty?” he snorted, though his voice was frail.  “How could I be?  There’s nothing.  Nothing to feel remorse over.  Nothing at all.”

Sitting down on the deck, Nule pulled his knees up, laying his head down on them.  His eyes were as vacant as before, but his mind was still quite alive.

“I was so sure of what was right and what was wrong,” he muttered into the air.  “Then I met Visk, and he told me the truth.  My trust in Rededication, my longing for Valiya, my regard for Visum, my hatred for Visk and the rebellion—it all relied on one assumption: that people could be neatly grouped as either ‘good’ or ‘evil.’  But I was wrong; Visk showed me that.”

Nule raised his eyes once again to Truth, and she held his gaze in her own.  A strange feeling continued to circulate through her; without physiology to define it, the emotion was somewhat vague to her, yet she knew it was indeed an emotion.  Even if she could not define it, the feeling was very real.

“What did he show you, Nulem?” Truth managed to ask, her own voice growing weak.

A morbid smile curled at the corner of Nule’s mouth, and he pulled his knees closer to his chest, as if to barricade himself from his surroundings.  “That the line between good and evil doesn’t divide humans from each other,” he replied, his words rising like haze, evaporating passionlessly.  “It divides every human being individually.  Everyone carries good and evil within themselves…  No, that’s not quite it…  But I know it’s the truth, and ever since he told it to me, the world’s lost all order.  I can’t call anyone good or evil…”

Rising to his feet, he looked into an unknown distance, his expression vacant then callous.  His knuckles whitened as he balled his hands into fists, appearing as if he were staring down some awful monster only he could see.

“What is ‘good’?” he asked the air.  “Is it what benefits me, or what I prefer?  But no one prefers the same things, and not everything benefits everyone in the same way—so what is ‘good’?  And what’s ‘evil’?  Is it what I don’t like, what I don’t prefer?  Is it anything that does me harm?  But what one person might see as harm another might see as an opportunity, or even pleasure; what one perhaps tries to escape, another lusts after.  So what’s ‘evil’?”

His eyes narrowed, and he returned to the material world as he looked at Truth, taking a few steps toward her.  As he approached, Truth felt that same feeling intensify inside her, amplifying to a scale she could recognize—it was concern.  Concern for Nulem.  But she had only felt concern for one other person her entire life.  And though she did not feel nearly so much concern for him as she had for her, Truth was shell-shocked.

“Good and evil were only ever subjective,” he concluded through a twisting scowl.  “They don’t exist; they’re not real.  Humans made them up and imposed them on the world so they could try to force meaning out of what never had meaning in the first place.  They’re all artificial, airy constructs and ideas that only exist because people act like they do.  Unions like the New Pact, authorities like the College, threats like the resistance or Arras.  And I’m sick of them all!”

He shook his head furiously, his eyes clenched shut, his lips thinning as the same haunting nothing dissolved what light was left in him.  He knew that vacuum well, and it performed the same merciless work as it had on Hulless.  And as he sank ever deeper, Truth came to an unnerving a realization; she realized that, if she indeed had some psychic component that could be called a heart, it had been pricked more than once.  Though she had placed her heart upon Arras Enqelin, somehow she had grazed Nulem Verris along the way.

“So what now, then?” Truth managed to ask, standing before him.  In a curious moment, she felt the urge to lay a hand on him, to form some sort of contact with him; yet she couldn’t, not with her immaterial avatar alone.  “If nothing has meaning for you, then why are you still here?  Why not just eat a bullet or throw yourself out the airlock?”

Nule’s shoulders sank and his head tilted.  He looked disappointed, perhaps even heartbroken, as if someone had informed him of a death in his family.  “I don’t know what it is,” he confessed, “but I know that when I’m with Valiya…  Everything that was formless and void becomes sensible—and even beautiful.  That’s why I need to find her.  Whether she hates me or not…  I need her to help me make sense of this truth, what I’ve known for so long now, what Visk reminded me of...  I need to hear the truth from her.”

Truth watched Nule, not uttering a word.  By then, the concern circuiting through her had run its course, and she understood it a little more.  She understood that, in a way, Nule was a kindred spirit to her.  And she recognized where she had felt this emotion before; though it was not as intense as it was back then, she was reminded of a moment over two centuries ago on a far-away planet called Kavatea—when she had first seen Arras break down.

A tender smile wafted across Truth’s lips, though she did what she could to set it aside, to hide it away.  Even if these emotions did exist, she could not yet make complete sense of them, and she would not let them stagger her course.

 “I’ve nearly found Arras and the others,” she said, gently magnetizing Nule’s attention.  “When we find them, we’ll put an end to this.”

“What will you do when you have Arras?” Nule asked her, his voice faint but his eyes present.

Truth gave his question a second of thought, but she already knew the answer.  “I don’t know,” she honestly replied.  “That’s not for me to decide.  Like you, though, I’m trying to find the ultimate truth—and what it means.  I’ll do what I can to help you find your truth, too, Nulem.”

“Thank you,” he sighed to her, the hints of calmness retuning to him as his unseen burden was lifted, if only partially.  “And I’ll help you as well.”

And so together they waited aboard Truth’s platform.  Four other installations, massive foxtails, crumples of metal with trios of jagged wings stretching for miles, waited upon them.  And alongside those platforms were countless New Pact warships, under their spell, prepared to go to their deaths for a purpose they would never truly grasp.

The clock ticked on, Truth continued probing one FTL event after another, and together they waited.  They waited to learn the ultimate truth of things.