Caught in the courtyard outside the housing units, Danny watched as men and women in august outfits cut across the stony expanse to the main capitol, followed by a soldier or two. He wasn’t sure why, but he decided to keep his head down, laying low behind a nearby building to watch the procession. Though no one heading to the center of the compound seemed to breathe a word, it was clear to Danny that something big was happening.
From his subpar hiding place, he could see one man walking against the scant current of people, heading straight for the housing units. Pausing for a moment, the man suddenly pivoted and headed straight for Danny, giving him no time to escape.
“There you are,” the man said. Danny didn’t recognize him immediately, though he seemed familiar.
“Here I am?” Danny could only say, his back against the wall.
Getting a better look at the man, watching him survey the surrounding courtyard, Danny remembered where he had seen him—this was the bodyguard he had stood next to yesterday. Though he had no idea why he would talk to Danny, why he would be looking for him.
“Am I in trouble, then?” Danny asked, not sure what else to say as the bodyguard turned back to him, as if he had forgotten Danny was there.
“You will be if we don’t move,” Ekren said. He grabbed Danny by the arm, their nano-nets intertwining. “At least your tracker’s still working.”
Pulling Danny by the arm, Ekren led him around the building and through a backdoor, into an empty room veined with pipes and wires. He closed the door behind them before speaking into his transmitter again.
“I have the boy,” he said, eyeing Danny as he spoke.
“Keep him out of sight for now,” someone replied through the device—another familiar someone, though he couldn’t identify this one. “We may need to extract him sooner than expected.”
“And the girl?” Ekren asked.
“The girl?” Danny repeated. “Arras? What’s going on? What about Arras?”
Ekren put up a hand to hush Danny, receiving immediate obedience—something about Ekren seemed to demand a certain respect from Danny.
“Do you think we should extract her now?” the transmitter asked.
Taking a moment to think, Ekren then said, “I believe we should wait a little longer. There seems to be more going on here than the girl getting herself arrested.”
“You think she planned this?”
“It’s a possibility.”
“Understood. Proceed with caution, and signal when you’re prepared for extraction.”
Pocketing the transmitter, Ekren looked back at Danny. “Sorry about that.”
“Who are you?” Danny asked, taking a step back, looking over his shoulder for a possible exit.
“Ekren Appya,” he said with a charming smile. “Guardian to Valiya Zoa. I monitored your conversation earlier, by the way. She seems to think highly of you.”
“Okay, hang on,” Danny said, putting his hands out to stop Ekren. “First off, what the hell is going on? Was Arras really arrested?”
“I’m afraid so,” Ekren almost sighed, though maintaining his consistent dignity. “It seems our dear lady has gone and made a mistake. She was discovered trying to break into one of the compound’s secured databanks. Almost in plain sight, actually.”
“That doesn’t sound like Arras,” Danny said.
“I doubt I know her as well as you do, but I’m inclined to agree.” He looked back at the door they had entered through. “Though, it would seem the College has no qualms with the situation.”
“So what’s going to happen to Arras?”
“The proxies are being gathered now, including the lower echelons of the College. They’re going to hold a trial.”
“They’re going to convict her?” Danny almost laughed. “What happened to finding Rededication?” He paused, then it clicked; he couldn’t explain it entirely, but he knew something was off.
Recognizing the look on Danny’s face, Ekren wagged a finger. “Precisely. Though each of the proxies feels differently about what should be done with Rededication, I suspect Visum and a few others are going to play off of the College’s mutual anxieties. No one believes Arras doesn’t know where Rededication is—they think she’s hiding something.”
“But she doesn’t have the location,” Danny insisted, backing down the moment the words left him.
Ekren studied his response. “While I may have entered this mess assuming the two of you would keep secrets, I would appreciate it if you filled me.”
“Who says I’m hiding anything?” Danny asked. “Why doesn’t anyone think we’re actually being straightforward?”
“Wishful thinking, Danny,” Ekren said, leaning against the door. “Even if you really have told us everything, no one would believe you. The strange thing about Rededication is that it breeds distrust and violence even in its own absence.”
Danny didn’t speak. Standing still, he stared back at Ekren—his resistance more than apparent.
“You can trust me,” said Ekren, stepping toward Danny, trying to speak sincerely. He seemed more unassuming than he had a moment ago, more concerned.
“How can I believe you? Talk’s cheap. I’m sure every proxy in the College would tell me the same thing.”
With a little reticence, Ekren raised his left hand and brushed it over his face, leaving a trail of lights in his net—a flickering chevron, from his brow over his eye and to his cheek, from his cheek to his ear and through his hair. Danny recognized the symbol immediately, revisiting the memory Suo and Aurin had shared with him.
“I am a friend of Ila Enqelin,” Ekren said, “and of anyone who lives for that which she sacrificed her very life. You don’t have to tell me everything, Danny, but I don’t want to leave you with any ambivalence—I am here to help you. I and many others want you to succeed in your mission; we want to see Arras destroy Rededication.”
“If you want to help me,” Danny said, staying cautious, “then help me rescue Arras.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that,” Ekren said, the chevron vanishing from his face.
“You said you would help us.”
“That’s precisely why I can’t rescue her right now.” He furrowed his brow. “I believe Arras allowed herself to be arrested; what I don’t know is why. For now, we should wait—at least for a little while. We need to assess the situation further.”
“You don’t want to interrupt what she might have planned.”
“If I’m right, the College will vote to use the most extreme methods necessary to forcibly extract whatever information pertaining to Rededication may be locked away in Arras. I think she wants that.”
“Why would she want that?”
“This is only a guess,” Ekren admitted, “but I believe she knows that wherever they may choose to plumb her mind, there the encrypted coordinates will be.”
Danny thought this through, considering the possibilities. “Even if she can’t get to them herself, I might be able to. She lures out the coordinates and I nab them before anyone realizes what’s going on.”
“With respect, Danny, I doubt you’ll be able to get past their security.”
“Believe me,” Danny said, curling his fingers, “this isn’t some delusion of grandeur. If I can really trust you, then you’ll have to trust me, too. You have to trust me when I say I can get to her.”
Ekren looked back at Danny, almost squinting. Without warning, he grabbed Danny’s arm again, rifling through his nano-net. After only a second, he let Danny go.
“I’ve just deactivated the trackers that have been placed in your net,” he said. “That should allow you to travel more freely through the compound, though it won’t protect you if they spot you. Stay low, and if you’re telling me the truth, when the time comes to strike—we do this together.”
“Deal,” Danny said. “Just don’t slow me down.”
“Likewise,” Ekren said, opening the door to leave. “As for myself, all bodyguards will be required to attend this meeting. I’m surely already late. I’ll relay the proceedings to you through your net. Don’t get distracted.”
With that, Ekren left. Danny followed close behind, though he soon took a different route. In unison, they proceeded to the main capitol.
As he moved across the courtyard, dodging glances and pulling the hood closer to his head, he could almost feel the suit on his skin—he could almost feel Ridarin pulsing through his veins. He could almost feel Suo walking beside him.
“I promise,” Danny finally said, giving her the answer she had never received in his last dream. “I’ll get her out of there.”
Ekren arrived in the chamber with the rest of the College’s lower echelons, each dressed in black and green, taking their seats. The fifteen proxies were seated in a semi-circle at the lowest level of the room as dozens of lesser proxies scavenged for seats in the upper rows. Judging by the conversations he overheard, Ekren confirmed that few members of the College already knew why they had been convened.
Proceeding as he normally would down an aisle of steps, Ekren took his place behind Valiya. She peeped back at him as he arrived, giving him a gentle smile as a greeting; he smiled back at her. Nulem also looked back at him, a smile of his own; Ekren only nodded. Once the doors to the chamber were sealed, Ekren began to relay the audio around him to Danny.
“We, the fifteen sustainers and builders of the New Pact,” Nulem said, rising from his seat, “now call this trial to order. Please bring out the accused.”
Many of the proxies let out audible gasps as the rest slipped into whispers, finally seeing the reason they had been called into session so quickly. With two guards holding her by the arms, neither of them seeming to trust the shackles on her wrists and feet, Arras was dragged to the open front of the chamber for the entire College to see. Two more armed guards followed behind her, keeping their weapons at the ready.
“What is this?” one of the fifteen called out. “Nonsense. Unbind her this instant!”
“Arras Enqelin stands accused of espionage and conspiring with terrorists,” Visum said calmly from his seat, looking unnerved though determined. “This is the proper procedure for such crimes.”
The whispers continued. Ekren could see Valiya looking back and forth between her fellow proxies and their surprise defendant.
“I do not approve of this,” Valiya protested.
“Agreed,” said a few other members of the fifteen and a number of the lower echelons bold enough to speak up.
“Arras Enqelin was found attempting to steal valuable information pertaining to Rededication,” Nulem explained, putting a hand on Valiya’s arm.
She looked back at Nulem for a moment, trying to calm herself, eventually falling silent.
“Again,” Visum said, rising from his seat, “the charges are as follows: espionage, cyber terrorism, and aiding in the efforts of other terrorist organizations seeking the general downfall of the New Pact.”
“What?” Valiya almost sputtered. Nulem tried to calm her again, but she wouldn’t have it. “How in the darkest depths has Arras Enqelin aided any terrorist cells? She’s been confined to the capital since her arrival.”
Arras kept her eyes down, staying quiet as the politicians debated among themselves.
“We have determined that Arras Enqelin is in possession of information vital to the continuance of the New Pact,” Visum said, staring out at the defendant bound before them. “Upon request, she has refused to share this information with the College. Anyone unwilling to share such information does not have the people’s best interests in mind.”
Nulem tightened his hold on Valiya’s arm a little, meeting her eyes. “Val, please, this is our only choice.”
She stared wide-eyed at Nulem, pulling her arm from his hand. “I don’t believe what I’m hearing. This is ridiculous.”
“Madam Proxy,” Visum said, still standing, “you do not have the floor and your comments are therefore not recognized. If you cannot abide by the laws of this court and how such trials are conducted, you will be asked to leave.”
Valiya didn’t respond, leaving Visum to continue. Nulem tried to hold her hand, but she pulled away again, not looking at him.
Visum turned to face Arras. “Having heard these charges, you are now free to respond.”
The chamber fell dead silent, each member of the College on edge as Arras raised her head. She looked exhausted, a couple bruises on her face with others surely elsewhere. Yet her blazing blue eyes asserted an unconquerable dominance that almost shook each member of the College.
“I will only tell you this once,” Arras said, speaking loudly enough for the entire College to hear her. “I will not give you Rededication’s location. Not now. Not ever. If you really intend to use it on your own people, no matter what good intentions you may think you have, all you will do is reign death and destruction on your already dying world.” She looked away again, speaking a little softer. “Whether you believe me or not, I know what it’s like to watch your world die and feel like there’s nothing you can do to stop it. But Rededication is not the answer.”
Looking up again, Arras locked eyes with Visum, making him flinch. “I won’t be an accomplice to your genocide.”
As she finished speaking, she left the room as speechless as before. Not one of the proxies dared breathe a word as an intense gravity seemed to saturate the room, holding each of them down.
“Indeed, our world is dying,” Visum said, breaking the still silence. Furrowing his brow, glaring back at Arras. “However, as for what outcome Rededication may hold for us, that is not for you to decide. You assume that we want the same things the prime family wanted; you assume that you still live in the same time and place. This is a brand new world, one that will slip into anarchy and atrophy, into the same misguided violence and destruction the Coalition created for itself. We are not barbarians, nor are we warlords. We are people, just like everyone else in this New Pact. We are fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends and family. We are here to protect the peace, not murder innocents.”
A number of voices from the sea of black and green robes called out in approval, shouting their support. Their number seemed to grow with every passing second, the crowd growing louder, more passionate. One of the fifteen proxies called for order. The room died down gradually.
“We have no need for witnesses or debate,” Visum said stoutly, turning to the rest of the College. “I move for the authorization of whatever means are necessary in order to obtain from Arras Enqelin all information we require to locate Rededication. Furthermore, I move for the listing of Arras Enqelin as a traitor and general threat to the well-being of the New Pact and its people, sentencing her to the College’s best judgments.”
Danny found himself frozen in a spare room in the capitol, not believing what he was hearing. Ekren watched as Valiya also froze, watching Arras from her seat, looking more helpless than the girl in shackles and surrounded by soldiers.
A screen popped to life before the men and women of the College as their votes were cast. Once again swamped in the same sepulchral silence and unbearable gravity from before, each proxy, high and low, made their choice known as the display revealed the totals.
“Please don’t do this,” Valiya whispered, looking up at the screen, her vote already cast. “Please don’t let us die this way.”
At last the votes were all in—the verdict was clear.
“We will begin immediately,” Visum concluded as the chamber exploded into shouts and argument.
Arras was dragged from the tumult and out of sight. Valiya rose from her seat without a word, leaving the chamber. Nulem chased after her, followed closely by Ekren.
Not too distant, Danny trembled, discerning the answer from the audio alone. He tried to calm down, reminding himself of Ekren’s theory. It made enough sense. Even so, things were getting more dangerous by the second, more lethal by the hour. He had to resist the urge to reactivate Ridarin, focusing on trying to stay hidden.
“Val, please,” Nulem called after her, running down the corridor.
Valiya stopped some distance from the chamber, letting Nulem catch up with her before swatting her hand across his face, leaving him thunderstruck.
“How could you participate in that?” she asked, a tear dropping from her chin to the floor. “You just signed off on her death.”
“But not ours,” Nulem insisted, holding Valiya close as Ekren observed from a distance. “I know this is painful. It’s not any easier for the rest of us. Visum was right; no one in that room wants there to be any more loss of life. But if we’re going to survive…”
“This is survival?” Valiya asked, resting her head under his chin, stifling more tears. “It doesn’t feel like the New Pact. It doesn’t even feel like the Coalition. It just feels like chaos.”
“It’ll be all right,” he whispered to her. “I promise you, things will be all right. Just trust me.”
They held each other closer as Ekren walked away, leaving them to their moment. He wondered if the College would crumble so easily under this weight—he couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed, watching his own friend sway so easily.
“Pay attention, Danny,” Ekren muttered through his net. “Things are going to start moving quickly.”