Feeling comfortable again with checking the date in America, Ila found that in New York it was currently the tenth of December, in the year 1795—a new year would soon begin for the people of Earth. As for herself, a new stage of her own would also soon begin.
Together again, an ever rarer occasion, Rahka, Ru, and Ila were gathered in the library. With Ila’s regency completed, they decided to forego anything like a lesson, and to simply enjoy their time with each other. It was uncommon for Rahka to not be involved in the first sphere’s affairs, and given that each of them would only become busier once the Superior General died, they decided to make the most of what free time they had left.
Rahka seemed uncharacteristically distant with Ru and Ila. Nevertheless, he remained cordial with them both. Something had been on his mind that entire morning, and though neither Ru nor Ila could ever guess what it might be, Rahka had already decided he would never say.
Before Ru could work up the spirit to ask him what he was thinking about, the sound of heavy footsteps outside interrupted them entirely.
The library’s doors clattered open, and a trio of automatons entered, walking with purpose across the polished floor. They stopped a few feet from Ila before the forward machine made its announcement.
“Ila Enqelin,” it said in a synthesized, masculine voice, “by order of His Grace, the Superior General, we are placing you under arrest.”
Ila froze, at first unsure if she had heard correctly. Yet Ru leapt to action immediately.
“What’s the meaning of this?” she demanded to know.
“We have received direct orders from His Grace, the Superior General, to apprehend Ila Enqelin,” the machine elaborated. “Please comply, or we will utilize force.”
Like Ila, Rahka’s heart nearly leapt from his chest as it accelerated. He wondered what could have happened. He had strictly forbade Teliya from passing on any new information gleaned from their one remaining prisoner, but he could not imagine why else the Superior General would make such a move.
Taking a deep breath, slowing his heart to a more manageable rate, he turned to Ru. “Ruhnaria, if we’re going to figure out what’s going on, we’ll need to remain calm. We may be in a highly delicate situation.”
“Your presence has also been requested,” the automaton informed Rahka. “His Grace wishes for you to participate in this affair.”
Taking Ila’s hand, staring down the three machines, Ru added, “I’ll be coming as well.”
Unsure of what to make of this, Rahka still nodded his approval to Ru, as if to say they would take care of this together. And though his heart ached to see Ru so readily take Ila’s hand, he swallowed his pride, deciding that for the time being his highest priority must be Ila Enqelin’s well-being and safety.
With Rahka and Ru flanking her on either side, and the automatons boxing them in from behind and in front, Ila was led from the library and through the palace. Ru and Ila had expected to be led out to a prisoner transport; instead, as Rahka had expected, they went deeper into the palace, to one of the few places Ila had never before seen—the meeting chambers of the first sphere.
A gaping, cavernous room received them as the automatons escorted in their prisoner and guests. A semi-circular table lined the walls of the room, behind which sat several young men and women, not much older than Rahka himself, dressed in the blue and black robes of their sphere. At the head of the table, connected to his life support apparatuses, and separated by a sheer veil, sat the Superior General, Halta Esimios Ehdetton, the last surviving member of the prime family’s true first sphere.
Walking ahead of Ru, Ila, and the soldiers, Rahka dropped to a knee in the open space of the table, pointing himself toward the Superior General as he faced the floor. Though Rahka had genuflected himself before Ehdetton, Ru remained standing, still clutching Ila’s hand.
“Your Grace,” Rahka began in reverence, though wishing to rush to the meaning of all this, “if I may inquire, why have you ordered that Ila Enqelin should be placed under arrest and brought before you?”
Ehdetton considered Rahka’s question the way he might a bug on the table before delivering his response. “Earlier this morning, Isstahv Luhotaeva died in interrogation.”
Ila let out an audible gasp when she heard this. Though trying to keep herself calm, she had nonetheless not known that Isstahv had been arrested, let alone put into interrogation. However, she could guess why this might be.
Speaking boldly, though keeping his head low, Rahka replied to the Superior General. “I was not informed of any new information from the former pontiff.”
“You knew?” Ila burst aloud, fixing her eyes on Rahka. “You knew they were interrogating him?”
Though Rahka remained still as a statue, had Ila seen his face, she would have seen a young man filled with guilt and shame. If Rahka had seen her face, he would have found a girl not overcome with anger, but shock and sadness.
Ignoring their prisoner’s outburst, the Superior General said, “I personally advised Teliya to inform me of any further updates in his investigation. I was surprised to find that you, Rahka, had attempted to keep any further intelligence to yourself.”
“I meant only to prevent unnecessary spread of sensitive information, Your Grace,” Rahka replied, caught between apology and defense.
“Indeed,” muttered Ehdetton, glaring down at the youth bowing before him. “Nevertheless… Before Luhotaeva’s death, he revealed the truth of the matter to Teliya and his investigators. There is indeed a plan to murder the prime family and destroy Rededication by violent means, and the center of that scheme stands before us today—Ila Enqelin.”
Ru risked a glance at Ila, finding that the color had left her face completely, as if she had been turned to stone. She could feel Ila shaking, even from just holding her hand. Tightening her grip on the clammy hand she held, Ru attempted to comfort her, to remind her that she was not alone—to remind her of the promise Ru had made her. The warmth returning to her palm, Ila squeezed Ru’s hand back, and her trembling began to subside for the moment.
“Oh, how could you work such treachery, Ila Enqelin? And in our own home!” lamented Ehdetton in almost theatrical sorrow, with what animation his wretched old body could produce. “We, the first sphere of the prime family, however, have seen to your trial personally and have decided upon your sentencing.”
“Excuse me?” Ru sputtered, feeling instantly foolish that she would even think Ila would be offered a fair trial.
Ignoring her objection, Ehdetton concluded, “For the crime of conspiring against the Coalition and the prime family, with the intent to assassinate government officials and destroy military hardware—the punishment is death.”
On command, four automatons converged on Ila. Pulling Ru away, they put a short distance between themselves, forming an open space to surround their target. Though Ru continued to protest, she could not break free of the machine that had held her back; Ila, however, was not nearly so lively.
A fifth machine approached Rahka, and extended an item to him: a handgun, loaded and primed, ready to fire. He stared down at the weapon for a few silent seconds before turning back to the Superior General.
“Your Grace,” Rahka importuned, “you can’t possibly…”
“You yourself, Rahka, will carry out this execution” Ehdetton replied. “Here and now. Consider this reparation for your abysmal failure to detect Ila Enqelin’s deception.”
“But, Your Grace,” he attempted to object, though his words were failing him. “M-might there be another way? We may be able to use her to locate her accomplices, to use her against them. Surely she is more valuable to Your Grace alive than dead!”
“I will not repeat myself,” Ehdetton grunted in the decorous voice of a true Superior General. “This is the most prudent course of action, to make an example of these dissidents’ ringleader. By this means, we will bring any others who wish us or the Coalition harm into submission to their proper and legitimate authorities.”
With all eyes on him now, Rahka felt his body move almost involuntarily. Before he realized what he was doing, he had already taken the handgun from the automaton and leveled it at Ila. “What are you doing, Rahka?” he could hear Ru scream at him, lashing him back to reality. “How could you even think of pointing a gun at her? I thought you cared about Ila!”
Though to the rest of the room Ru only sounded as if she was caught in the moment, Rahka could hear far more behind her words. Listening to her, he felt his heart break for the second time, just as it had the other night when he heard her and Ila together. But there was something more than mere jealousy inside him—and he realized that now.
“I loved you Ruhnaria,” he told her, his voice quiet though clear. “But I know you’ll never feel the same way about me…”
Though taken aback by his words, Ru knew what he meant. Ceasing her attempts to escape from her mechanized captor, she locked eyes with Rahka in a way she had not done in some time. “Then you know why I could never let you do this,” she breathed, holding his gaze.
As they looked into one another, sharing a conversation without few words, Ila was already busy at work. Coasting through the contacts in her nano-net, she dove through the layers of security. Trying to tune out the fact that she was now staring down a loaded gun, she dug her way down to the only thing that mattered now—to Arras’ wakeup call. Her heart pounded in her ears and her body began to shake again as she moved through one security measure after another.
Struggling to take even shallow breaths, Ila wondered if this was really it, if this was when everything would fall apart and she would have to pull the trigger. Despite the gravity of it all, however, she found herself still hesitating. She turned from Rahka to Ru, then back to Rahka, wondering if she could do this. If she could really forfeit their lives, and with the simple push of an immaterial button.
Having reached his conclusion, Rahka looked back at Ru. “I’m sorry for this, Ru, but please know I will do what I know to be best.”
Ila prepared herself to hit the button, wondering if she would even have a chance to do so after Rahka’s first shot, or if she would need to do it before he pulled the trigger. Her entire frame now quaking, she locked eyes with him, wondering what would happen next—who would be the first to pull the trigger.
It took Ila a moment to register that Rahka had lowered his weapon. When she realized, she found him staring sternly at the automatons around her, his eyes blazing with a kind of authoritative ferocity she had never seen in him before.
“Automatons,” he roared like a general. “Prompt registry authentication: Rahka Vali Ahrman Astayya; clearance code, asha ahma ai tei hao, yks ydek ydek kolma. Cancel current command. New command: lower your weapons, add profile Ila Enqelin to protection list, then standby for further orders.”
With all the machines in the room at full attention before Rahka, they lowered their weapons and relinquished their captives. None of the young men or women of the first sphere seemed able to utter a word, some of them wondering if what they had heard and seen had really happened. Yet the Superior General quickly found his voice.
“What in the darkest depths are you doing, Rahka?” Ehdetton demanded to know in a wheezing hiss.
Ru, now free from the machine that had been holding her at bay, ran to Ila, throwing her arms around her to hold up her still trembling and now weakening body. Struggling to stay on her feet after what had just happened, Ila looked up at Ru, grateful for the support. They both then looked back at Rahka.
Without a word, Rahka turned and in a brisk stride approached the Superior General. The rest of his robed colleagues remained as speechless as before as, with a single step, Rahka stood on the table, before and above the Superior General himself, looking down at Ehdetton with nearly expressionless eyes.
“I cannot comply with your demands,” Rahka told Ehdetton plainly, staring down at the decrepit old man with growing passion. “I’ve thought about it for a long while now, why it would be that the people are so afraid of you and Rededication. I know there are cover stories for what we do—I even believed them myself for a time—and yet people still fear the program and our family. They know there’s something behind all the cover-ups and duplicity.”
“You weak, insolent piece of human trash!” Ehdetton spat at the young man above him. “Have you lost your sense, boy?”
Alive once more, Rahka casted a morbid smile down at the Superior General, disregarding his curses. All his life, Rahka had met the Superior General with a tinge of anxiety, having seen him as a real authority in his world, the absolute that governed all else. Yet right now, for the first time he could ever remember, Ehdetton seemed like an ordinary man, weak and frail, with a name no more extraordinary than Rahka’s own.
Perhaps, had he not discovered what he had, Rahka would feel inclined to look back at Ru in this moment. But not now. He didn’t feel the need. She was not his anymore, he knew—she may have never been.
“I’m surprised at how unafraid I am of you right now,” Rahka sighed at Ehdetton, who quaked in his seat, behind the thin veil partitioning him from the rest of the room. “I can’t believe I ever was.”
Unsure of what would happen next, the other interim members of the first sphere fidgeted in their seats, not daring to get up. Instead, they called out to Rahka, telling him that he should obey, or at least step down and hand over his weapon. But he ignored them all. Just as Ehdetton held no more power in his eyes, neither did any of them.
“I will not kill Ila Enqelin,” Rahka told Ehdetton. “And I never will… Because… Because it would make Ru sad.”
Ru jolted in Ila’s arms, then grasped what was about to happen—what Rahka had in mind.
“That’s enough!” Ehdetton barked, lowering his eyes to the automatons across the room. “My soldiers, kill him now, then Ila Enqelin and Ruhnaria!”
Both Ila and Ru tensed up against one another, yet Rahka didn’t move an inch, and neither did the automatons. Ehdetton gawked at the machines, then repeated himself, still receiving no response.
“You should already know,” Rahka explained to him, inching his foot toward Ehdetton. “The automatons are programmed to never open fire on a member of the prime family or anyone on their list of special interests—which would include Ruhnaria, Ila, and myself. It would take more than verbal commands to undo that.”
In now brimming fright, Ehdetton lifted his old eyes back up to Rahka, shaking all the more, baring his teeth in anger and uncertainty.
“Machines can’t defy orders,” Rahka said smoothly. “Humans, though…”
Rahka raised his handgun and fired one shot, hitting Ehdetton in the forehead, killing him instantly. The gunshot echoed harshly through the chamber, but it was not enough to drown out the screams of the rest of the first sphere. Robed figures, caught in a panic and calling for help, leapt from their seats and ran for the exit. Passing Ru and Ila without care, they pushed through the doors and scattered into the corridors outside.
Only Ru and Ila remained, left to stare up at Rahka, who remained on the table. They called to him, but his expression did not change.
“I really did love you, Ruhnaria,” he said, glancing back at her from the corner of his eye, as if unable to look at her directly. “And I still do. I would have done everything I could as your husband to make you happy.”
In a smooth motion, Rahka began to raise his handgun once more, up high until the muzzle’s side rested against his head. Despite Ru’s screams, he would not be deterred, not now.
“Ila,” he said in a firm voice, “take Ruhnaria and get to a safe place. Once you’re out of harm’s way, signal your family so they can carry out your plan.”
Setting aside her surprise, understanding how much Rahka must really know, Ila wrestled to find something to say—yet she could not. She would have told him anything if she thought it would bring him down from that table, if it would make him drop his weapon. But she was without words, and her voice was gone.
“I’m sorry it has to be this way,” he muttered into the air. “If there was a peaceful solution, I would have loved for us all to have been able to walk that path together.”
“Rahka, please don’t do this!” Ru cried out, tears building in her eyes, though she did not dare step forward. “You don’t have to do this… Please!”
“They’ll do far worse to me when they hear what I’ve done,” Rahka replied, peeling the muzzle from the side of his head, bringing it to his face. “It’s okay. It’s okay.”
In an instant, Rahka pushed the end of the barrel into his mouth and pulled the trigger. With a crack and splatter, he fell from the table, gone as suddenly as Ehdetton had left.
Reaching out to him, her other hand over her mouth, Ru stifled a terrible scream. She then turned away from Rahka, hiding in Ila’s embrace, trying to breathe. Holding Ru close, Ila kept her eyes on Rahka’s body, then breathed his name one last time—as well as one final apology.
“He was right,” Ru managed to gasp, raising her head, trying to calm herself. “There’s no way the Coalition will cooperate with us now. They’ve already marked you, and everything that’s happened here will only serve to reinforce the validity of the Rededication program.”
Cupping Ila’s cheeks in her hands, now still and calm as she could be, Ru stared deeply into Ila’s red eyes. “You need to signal your family right now, Ila. Then we’ll run away—together.”
Nodding out of Ru’s hands, Ila said, “All right, I will.” Embracing Ru, feeling her arms around her own body once more, Ila tabbed her way back through her nano-net, on her way to Arras’ contact.
Heavy footsteps outside the open doors of the chamber drew Ru and Ila’s attention. They watched as a squad of human soldiers approached, weapons raised, with a frightened handful of robed interims of the first sphere trailing behind them, returning to the scene.
“Them, both of them, they’re to blame!” cried one of the young men, jabbing a finger at Ru and Ila. “They’re both traitors!”
Letting go of Ila, Ru turned swiftly, getting ready to try to diffuse things—or at least to give Ila enough time to work. But her words were immediately interrupted by the vicious cracks of gunfire. Ru stumbled back into Ila, who turned to catch her. Looking down at Ru, Ila could see four distinct gashes in her abdomen, with blood rhythmically trickling from each wound.
At a loss for words, overcome by shock more than pain, Ru attempted to speak, but her lips merely moved to incoherent mutters. Ila cried out her name before several more shots were fired. In a hazy instant, Ila and Ru were on the floor, both perforated with bullet wounds of their own.
Turning her attention back to the contacts on her net, Ila’s mind began to turn fuzzy. She bled out quickly, and her nano-net occupied itself with trying to manage the fatal blows dealt to her body. Losing coherency as her blood spilled out and her body shut down, Ila could feel her lips tremble as she fully realized what had happened to her—what was going to happen to her—and what would not be able to happen.
“I can’t get it to work,” Ila whimpered. “I-I c-can’t… get it…”
She could feel Ru moving on top of her, resting her head on Ila’s chest, looking up into her wide, red eyes. Despite the pain that seeped through her net’s numbing, and even in her own growing incoherency, Ru managed to smile at Ila one more time. “It’s all right, Ila,” she whispered to her. “It’s all going to be okay…”
Watching the life fade from Ru’s eyes, Ila could hear her mutter her last words.
“I’m grateful to have met you, Ila. I… I love you…”
And that was it. The full weight of Ru’s head sank against Ila’s chest, and she was silent.
Ila couldn’t feel much of anything then, but she managed to bring one of her arms over Ru’s body as what she guessed were tears rolled freely over her face. She could hear the sound of boots approaching, stopping beside her head, but she didn’t care. She didn’t look up at the soldier above her as he leveled his weapon at her. Instead, she closed her eyes, and she thought of Ru’s smile.
“I love you, too,” she said.
The shot was fired, and the world disappeared.
A moment passed, and time yet had meaning for Ila. She wondered after a few seconds if the soldier’s shot had perhaps missed her, or if she had not yet died. But she soon realized what had happened.
She found herself alone, yet not alone at all. Not at all.
The tenth of December, 1795—that was the day she met them, the day she entered their realm.