Nulem spent the next several days in nearly perfect silence.
Since Ishka and Thiossus had left for the core worlds, he had been alone with Truth—but interaction with her had been sparse, to say the least. They had discussed the details of their next move, as well as his role in it, but after that, Truth had virtually vanished. Or rather, she had stepped into the background. She hadn’t left him alone and to his own devices, however. Though he considered it only an intuition, a rather primal instinct, Nulem had the impression that Truth had been watching him all this time.
Sitting cross-legged on the deck in the control room, Nule let his eyes close with all the tenderness of petals descending onto water. Gradually, he loosened every one of his muscles, breathing slowly and deeply. He allowed everything but what he deemed most essential and necessary to evaporate from his mind. And there he sat, alone with the most principal components of his being—what he most desired.
This sort of meditation had served him well during his captivity aboard Ila’s Voice. The practice granted him a moment to shun everything outside of himself, to flee from what pained him. While he was a prisoner to the rebels, he meditated to better handle the situation, to more ably embrace the whole of what was happening. That ultimately required him to accept everything outside of himself as it was, to meet that which he could not control with unconditional gratitude and embrace—that was where they told him he would find the All.
After his captivity, though—after what he had seen—he disagreed.
Meditating now, he pushed the outside world away once again. However, he rejected the unconditional and uncontrollable altogether, burrowing into his own self. Digging deeper, he explored what was there, that which he had hidden under psychological topsoil, and which he had forgotten, ages ago. That was where he felt the All.
A single twitch in his brow broke his serenity, wrenching him up a few more levels from inside himself, toward the outside world once again. That twitch came from a single thought. Visum taught him to meditate like this, when Nule had joined the College; he wondered if Visum would reject what Nule had done with his meditation.
In this nearly apoplectic state, thoughts seemed to carry Nulem involuntarily where they would. Visum’s name tugged him as if by the wrist to days before, showing him the body of his old friend, strung up on the bulkhead, left to hang until his shoulders dislocated. The holes in his abdomen. The pained look on his face. And his last words—“Don’t let them kill you. And don’t let our world kill itself.” Nule wondered about how much of that promise he would be able to keep.
A new presence appeared in the room, at last making itself known. Nulem allowed the intrusion to pull him from his trance. Truth looked down at him with a strangely satisfied look on her face. Getting to his feet, he felt his belly knead itself as he looked back at the spitting image of a woman he had first seen at the top of the steps of the Felicity capital compound. He still had not gotten used to seeing Arras Enqelin each time he spoke with Truth.
“Does this look make you uncomfortable?” Truth asked in a tone that made Nule question her sincerity.
In reality, she knew it did. She had been monitoring him all this time. Though she could not dig in and mine anything like coherent thoughts from his brainwaves, she had still managed to gather a consistent profile of Nulem Verris. What she had found continued to please her.
“I suppose it’s time, then?” Nule asked, ignoring her question.
Truth only seemed to enjoy herself more. “The preparations are complete; all we need is you.”
Nule rose from the floor and stood toe to toe with Truth. She smiled back at him with Arras’ smile, and he found himself having to fight to speak. He had spent most of his time in meditation, carefully planning out his next steps. But now that the time had come to make the first leap forward, he struggled.
Even so, he would not be repulsed. Not now.
“Is something wrong, Master Proxy?”
“You want to force Arras Enqelin into the open,” Nule stated to Truth. “However, so I understand our goal more fully, what do you wish to do with her accomplices?”
“Daniel Eick should be terminated as soon as possible,” Truth said bluntly, answering almost before Nulem could even finish his question.
“Well enough,” Nule replied diplomatically. “And the others?”
“They have a handler of sorts on Earth named Damon Hale,” Truth replied, as if to blatantly toy with him. “He’s an asset to them and therefore must also be terminated. However, in the grand scheme of things, he’s inconsequential.”
Nule’s stomach continued to knot up, but he pushed on.
“And what about… Valiya Zoa?”
Something like vertigo overtook Nule as he watched a subtle grin crack across Truth’s face. With narrowing eyes, she resembled something like a predator. But that wasn’t what made him uneasy. It was that she clearly felt no need to hide it anymore. However, seeing Truth show her true colors, even if only a little, fueled Nule with a few precious drops of determination. Just as she was unafraid of him, he was unafraid of her.
“What about Valiya Zoa?” Truth asked innocently, her expression betraying what her tone only playfully conveyed.
Keeping his line of sight tightly wound with hers, Nule held his ground. “You want Arras alive,” he told her. “Well… I want Valiya alive.”
An uncertain pause followed. Truth only stared back at Nule with the same smile, as if waiting for something more. This only aggravated him.
“The others don’t see it,” he said, “but I do. I may not know what you’re after, but I do know you’re keeping secrets.”
Truth continued to watch him quietly, as if patiently enjoying a show.
“You told us that Arras is the only person who can operate you, but I doubt that. We could train another operator. There are plenty of prodigies and sociopaths who could obediently and effectively execute orders.”
While Truth remained silent still, her expression did not change. But with a nauseating abruptness, she took two steps toward Nule. “And why would I lie to you?” she asked, taking a couple more steps forward until her face was only an inch or two from Nule’s.
“I don’t know,” Nule confessed, not flinching at her proximity. “But I do know I’m the only one who sees it. You’re not just doing questionable things, but all your actions seem to a serve an end other than our own, and I don’t think that end is to revive Rededication.”
Another pause followed, leaving Nule to Truth’s up-close smile. Everything about her made his guts sink inside of him, but he didn’t move an inch.
“I could kill you,” Truth whispered to him, not bothering to be coy anymore. “I could blame it on Earth, or even the rebels. They would never know what really happened to you.”
Nule looked deep into her eyes. Irises of radiant blue coaxed him toward the absolute black of her pupils, voids of starless space. Standing face to face, intimately close, he descended into Truth through those borrowed eyes. And yet he still did not flinch.
“I know,” he told her plainly.
With those words, Truth slinked back several steps, like a kite lost in the wind—her perpetual, bloodcurdling smile all the same. “I suppose we’re much the same, you and I,” she said, sounding quite amused. “You sensed something in me, as I sensed something in you, and yet neither of us could fully discern what that ‘something’ was. Even now, you’re an enigma to me, Nulem.”
“As are you,” Nule replied, widening Truth’s grin.
For a few elongated seconds, she pondered their situation, all the while keeping Nule in her sight. Finally, she reached a decision.
“I believe we can help each other,” she said.
In an instant, all the consoles and displays in the control room sprang from hibernation, snapping to almost blinding life. In the unintelligible brightness of the glowing screens, Truth watched Nule with the same twisted smile.
“You’re quite the puzzle,” she said. “I can assure you, Valiya Zoa detests Rededication with all her being—in a way, she must in order to carry on. But I suppose I don’t need to tell you that. Still, I’m curious: what will you do with Valiya once you have her?”
This time it was Nule who would meet her query with nonnegotiable silence. This only made Truth laugh.
“I suppose it’s none of my business, then.”
There was something odd in her voice, more than sarcasm, as if her words were not just a jab, but something else. Like a challenge. She was challenging Nulem. But to what, he could not guess.
“Well, then,” Truth continued, breaking his train of thought, “let’s proceed.”
“Yes,” he said. “Let’s.” Allowing her to escape into the brightness of the monitors, Nule decided this was all he could have hoped for.