The ringing in her ear did not let up, but she could hear enough to know things had not changed.
Val could hear Endriss shouting her name over distant gunfire, trying to find her, still locked in combat with the machines. Perhaps Vasda was alive, too, but there was no way for her to know. She wondered if these automatons, unlike the others they had found on the platform, were directly tethered to Nulem. Or perhaps Truth had meant to lead them this far. Maybe this really was a trap.
No, she forced herself to set that aside, to stay focused. Though her ear was pounding, she could still see the sparks of bullets ricocheting off mechanicals around her. She ducked around every corner she could find, weaving her way through the crowded lower deck. It was dark, but she didn’t need light to tell her where he was.
“Please, Valiya,” she could hear Nule pleading. “Please, stop running. Just come out. There’s nothing that can be done now.”
“This isn’t you, Nulem,” she yelled back before changing positions again. “Truth’s making you do this. You have to fight her. You’re the only one who can stop her now.”
“You always were such an optimist,” he mused. “But this isn’t something you or I can fight. Truth is fate; there’s no resisting her.”
“You don’t have to do this, you know that. We can still leave this place together.”
She could hear mild sobs breaking his voice again, but he persisted still.
“I don’t want this either, Valiya, but it can’t be helped—not anymore. It’s like I’m sleepwalking and can’t wake up. How can I even know if this is the real world? Every time I blink, it changes. I’m aboard the platform, then I’m back in Felicity. Another blink, and I’m a soldier in the fleet again. Another blink, and I’m back on our home world…”
“In those fields…”
Listening to him through the throbbing in her head, she leaned against a metal pillar, reliving once more that previously forgotten memory of their childhood, when they had disappeared into the fields and shared their first kiss.
“I have to ask you where I am,” he told her, his voice echoing from nearby, “because I can’t be sure. Am I aboard this platform and dreaming of those other places, or am I elsewhere and dreaming of this? I don’t know anymore… I just don’t know!”
Val moved in time for another couple shots to pop close to where she had been. But when she took another hiding place, she felt something press against her back as she leaned for cover—the holstered sidearm she had been given before the mission. Carefully, quietly, she slid the weapon from its holster and examined it. It was loaded and ready.
Perhaps out of sheer coincidence, the entire bay was nearly silent for one moment, long enough for Val to hear the soft sounds of Nulem reloading his gun. And as she listened to the battle above pick back up, drowning out his reloading, Val stared down at her own weapon. In a reminiscent flash, she was once again by that lake, sitting with Damon against a tree beneath the stars. She could nearly hear him, telling her she needed to wake up; when she asked how she could wake up, he suggested something deceptively simple.
A slap to the face would do just fine.
Closing her eyes tight, squeezing her handgun, Val took a deep breath and decided there was no other options left to either her or Nulem. She could do nothing more for him than this.
“I’ll wake you up, Nulem.”
With no more fear, Valiya stepped out of her cover, meeting Nulem in the open. By the time Nulem noticed her, Endriss and Vasda reappeared on the catwalk above, craning their rifles over the railing, aiming at Nule. They were superficially wounded, but they had subdued their attackers and were hungry for more.
“We’ve got a shot,” Endriss called down to Val before turning his attention fully to Nule, who already had his weapon raised to her. “Master Proxy, I will not warn you twice. Drop your weapon or I will drop you.”
Neither Nulem nor Valiya were affected by his words.
“Both of you back off,” Val called to Endriss and Vasda, not taking her eyes off Nule.
“You’re joking!” Vasda blurted.
“I’ll handle this myself,” she replied curtly. “You’ll only get in the way.”
A firm hand rested on Vasda’s arm, taking him out of his irritation. “Give her a moment,” Endriss told him before heaving a soft sigh. “But if Verris takes a shot, kill him.” Though neither of them lowered their rifles, but they did as Valiya requested.
Nulem’s hands trembled, rattling his weapon. “I don’t want to do this, Val.”
“I know, Nule,” Val breathed. “Even if this is a dream, you still can’t bring yourself to kill me. Maybe it’s what the Infinitude of Truth would want, but that’s now what you would do.”
Shaking his head, Nule grew more desperate. “What am I supposed to do? Please, just tell me what to do!”
His weapon quivered precariously in his tightened hand, and his finger was dangerously close to the trigger. Valiya knew that the slightest pressure to that trigger could end her life. She might not even realize if it happened. But she didn’t care about that. Not a bit.
“Fight this, Nulem,” she told him decisively. “Fight Truth. You’re not helpless, nor are you weak. So stop her yourself.”
“But I am weak!” he insisted, his voice cracking in another sob. “I’ve spent so much time and all these resources, burned every bridge I had, and even abandoned the New Pact itself—all because I wanted you. All because you’re the only who can help me process this horrible world.”
“You were wrong to do that,” she said as a matter of fact, her resolve as firm as her words. “I can’t give you any answers, Nulem. I don’t understand this world any more than you do. But I do know you. I know what you’ve been through, and how it’s affected you. I know you’re strong, because you lived through all of that. You’ve done more than that. Truth can’t control you, because you belong to yourself, not to her.”
“She’s so strong,” Nule retorted, staring dejectedly back at her, as if looking into an attractive though empty hope. “She’s stronger than me.”
“You’re stronger than her, Nulem,” Val said squarely. “If you were weak, you would have shrank a long time ago. Instead, you reached out to others, tried to help the world around you. The very fact that you’re hesitating now to pull that trigger tells me that the man I know is still standing before me. So which is stronger, Nulem: Truth’s desire to kill me, or your desire to spare me? You’re the only one that can make that call; not Truth, not me. Only you.”
Lining her up between the sights of his muzzle, Nulem’s delirium intensified, and it took him to a place he had revisited in his mind time and time again. He was on Hulless again, standing above those corpses, holding one of the weapons used to end those unarmed people. Taking him back to Brink must have been Truth’s attempt to distract him, but it didn’t work, not entirely. He could still feel the rough bite of his gun’s grips. Rather than disappearing from the platform to Hulless, he had one foot in both worlds.
In a significant way, he already knew what he was doing was wrong. Yet Truth had trapped him in his own head, like slipping her hand into a glove which belonged to him. Enough of him recognized what was happening, enough of him to feel purest despair. Yet for a moment he could grasp his own mind, and he was in his own body once more. Part of him had been hauled off to Hulless, to stifle his protests, yet part of him still stood before Valiya, holding that gun.
He realized he was only doing what he had done all those year ago. The difference between this moment and then was that it was Valiya standing at the end of his weapon—a woman with a name he knew, the person he loved more than everything else in the world which had tried to eat him alive. This was another nightmare, a repeat of when the world fell apart for him, a second refrain like the first. But now he could hear her. He could hear her calling him, and he refused to do this again. He refused to turn this platform into another Brink, or to turn her into another casualty of war.
In that sliver between reality and phantasm, Nulem escaped himself for a moment, enough to divert his aim. His arm in violent spasms, he guided his aim a few degrees from Valiya, enough to take her out of harm’s way. But it would not last. He was not strong enough, not to take himself back, not to save her—not alone. He wanted now more than anything to do as Visk had done, to turn his weapon on himself, to pull the trigger and dissolve into the unknown. But he could not.
“Valiya, please,” he grunted, struggling against more than himself. “I can’t… I can’t fight her forever. Truth wants you dead. Arras wants you dead, and I can’t stop them. Not by myself.”
Val watched Nule, who had been able to take his eyes off of her, now glaring at his own quaking gun. She could see him fighting Truth, and that was all she needed—he truly was still alive.
“I can’t stop them, Val! They want you dead, and I… I…”
“I know, love,” Val breathed. “But they won’t use you to do it.”
With one fluid swing, Val pulled her sidearm from its holster, aimed at Nulem—and took her shot.