They glided through the courtyards like ghosts, watching people bolt in all directions with their guns, cutting one another down. No one stopped them as they went; one of the militiamen from the silo must have already vouched for them to the others. A body on the ground would pass them by now and again as they ran, with Ekren leading the way. No one in the group felt unsafe, not with Ridarin—but that didn’t settle their stomachs in the least. None of them felt calm at the sounds breaking the night, the cries, the pain and fury. They were in the middle of a warzone.
Ekren led them to the compound’s aerospace port—this time, no ships went in or came out. The building looked completely vacant, though a row of men with guns silently kept guard outside. The line of rebels fidgeted in their line, all eyes mostly on Danny—on Ridarin.
“Do I need to take them out?” Danny asked.
“Not sure yet,” Ekren replied, still taking the lead. Approaching the men first, he revealed the chevron on his face, watching them register the symbol, replying with chevrons of their own.
The line broke without a word and the four of them were granted access to the port, only to be met inside by a familiar face.
“It’s about time,” Endriss said, holding his rifle to his chest. “You sure did take your sweet time; I have to get back to Ila’s Voice soon.”
“I certainly hope no one suspects you or our dear commander,” Ekren said, following Endriss further into the facility. “I see you’ve also made some new friends today.”
“No one saw this coming,” Endriss said, keeping his eyes forward. “We’re just grateful they’re on our side.”
“Who are those people?” Valiya asked, trying to keep up with her place between Danny and Arras. “They have that mark like the rest of you, but you don’t know who they are?”
“They’re much like us,” Endriss explained, “even if they aren’t associated with us.”
“Same philosophy,” Danny said, “different cells.”
“More or less,” said Endriss, taking them outside to a landing pad. “The important thing is we all want the same thing.”
Just ahead, they could see a ship idling on the pad—the very ship Danny and Arras had taken from Earth.
“Visk sends his regards,” Endriss added, turning on his heel to face the party behind him. Resting his eyes on Danny, suited up, and Arras, standing quietly toward the back, he sighed. “We’re all relying on you two, so don’t screw this up.”
“Easy for you to say,” Danny countered, approaching the ship. When he realized he was the only one leaving, he turned back to Arras. “Are you coming?”
Snapping back to action, Arras stepped past Danny to the ship. However, she stopped just short of the hatch.
“Valiya,” Arras said, not looking back at the proxy.
“Yes,” said Valiya, stepping past Ekren and Endriss, into view.
“Why did you come with us?”
Valiya paused, not sure how to answer that question herself. She looked away, thinking of how to put it.
“You do realize,” Arras said, “there’s no going back now, right?”
“I do,” Valiya admitted, her voice soft on the wind. She looked back to Arras, straightening up. “But I don’t intend to go back, not so long as the rest of the College refuses to see the danger in Rededication.”
“Perfect,” Arras breathed. “You’ll be coming with us, then.”
“Uh, hold on a sec,” Endriss cut in. “You can’t just take a proxy, especially not one who’s actually in favor of destroying Rededication.”
“Are you going to stop me?” Arras asked plainly, glancing back at the soldier.
Endriss seemed to recoil, though only slightly. Even if Ridarin weren’t with them, something about Arras Enqelin seemed to strike the others as almost too formidable.
“He’s right, Arras,” Ekren said, defusing the tension. “Where you’re going is no place for a delegate of the New Pact, even if she’s separated herself from the College.”
“Valiya Zoa,” Arras said, turning about and approaching the proxy. “Val—do you really want your people to understand just what Rededication is capable of?”
“I don’t want them to be deceived,” Valiya explained, “regardless of the College’s intentions.”
“Then we’ll need you,” Arras concluded.
Before either Endriss or Ekren could protest again, Valiya delivered her answer.
“I understand,” she said. “I’ll come with you.”
“If she’s going,” Ekren said, “then you’ll need to take me as well. I’ve been Val’s guardian for years, even before she entered the College. I won’t be sending her off on her own.”
“I’ll allow it,” Arras said, turning back to the ship to open the hatch. “Let’s get moving already; we’ve wasted too much time as it is.”
Endriss watched, feeling almost powerless as Ekren and Valiya followed after her, with Danny bringing up the end.
Danny looked at Endriss as he walked past, shrugging. “What can I say? She’s pretty tenacious.”
“Just don’t let the Madam Proxy get killed out there,” Endriss said, not looking pleased with this arrangement. “You’re taking our only real political voice with you.”
Danny stepped into the ship as the hatch lowered and the cabin hissed, pressurizing.
“One last thing, if you don’t mind, Valiya,” Ekren said. He put a hand to her shoulder, their nets merging. “I’ll deactivate your tracker. We can’t have them following us, not where we’re going.”
“Speaking of trackers,” Danny said, taking his seat next to Arras in the cockpit, his helmet gone, “do you really think they’re just letting us go free?” He eyed Endriss through the canopy, the soldier eyeing him right back, still looking displeased. “Not that they planned on us taking Val, but we are pretty high profile people to them.”
“I performed a few sweeps on the ship just now,” Arras replied, prepping for takeoff. “No anomalous devices were detected anywhere, the jump drive is untouched, and none of our communication systems or sensor boards have been reprogrammed—trust me, my family prepared this craft for much more than transport.”
“I guess they really mean it,” Danny said. “They want to destroy Rededication so badly they’re willing to let us disappear without a trace.”
Taking hold of the controls, Arras raised the ship from the pad, much faster than the previous takeoffs Danny had seen her make. With the smaller thrusters in the nose firing, pointing them skyward, they accelerated with abandon.
“The coordinates,” Arras said to Danny, “put them in. That central console, between the two of us.”
“Right,” Danny said, placing his hand on the navigation console. Though he still couldn’t quite grasp the process, his nano-net seemed to understand precisely what he wanted—the course was plotted without complication.
A growing hum pulsed through the ship as the FTL drive warmed up. Just as they exited the clouds, Arras took a sharp roll over their portside shoulder, dodging a stream of bullets as a handful of enemy craft barreled down on them from above.
“Now would be a great time to jump,” Danny said, starting to sweat.
“Not yet,” Arras grunted, trying to gain altitude while dodging spurts of gunfire. “The drive still isn’t ready.”
“Just a few more seconds.”
“I guess they gave up on that whole ‘keeping you alive’ thing,” Danny said, feeling his guts compress as the ship rolled once again before pulling up sharply, evading another assault as the enemy broke formation around them, roaring past, much too close for Danny.
“They’re pissed off,” Arras said as they reached the upper atmosphere. “They also probably don’t like that you took their coordinates.”
As the heat and friction of escape velocity pressed against them, three large warships came into view, with a number of smaller vessels, all waiting in orbit. The scanner started to go off, announcing the presence of radioactive materials—nuclear weapons—as their communication systems were simultaneously scrambled.
“Can they jam our jump drive?” Danny asked, watching a salvo of rockets discharge from the warships, arcing in the black, barreling toward them.
Arras removed her hands from the controls, planting her hand squarely on the navigation console. “I guess we’ll find out.”
With the press of a button, the rockets vanished from sight. The flames surrounding their ship collapsed into one another, filling the sudden vacuum they left behind as the rockets flew by, their target lost.
Not long after, word reached the rest of the College, secluded in the silo as the fighting in the compound died down. They stood over the bodies of numerous militiamen as the soldiers who had remained loyal—including a few among the rebels themselves—secured the room.
Visum looked down at the dead doctor on the floor, his face contorted, eyes still open. Glancing back up, he clenched his fists till they shook, replaying in his head the sight of that suit dive-bombing from the ceiling, taking the data like it was nothing.
“If they’ve successfully jumped away,” Nulem said, looking down, “then that means…” He thought of Valiya, of her face just before she left. Shaking his head, he tried to stay focused.
“Rest assured, Nulem,” Visum said. “They haven’t escaped—not entirely.”
Nulem looked up, the despair on his face abating. “You don’t mean… But it’s been decided that such technology was illegal.”
“Indeed,” Visum said, “but this is a rather desperate situation, wouldn’t you agree?” Looking around the silo at the twelve remaining proxies, as well as the handfuls of the lower echelons, he raised his voice to a booming level. “My fellows of the College—we cannot allow these terrorists to escape, not when we still have a chance at finding Rededication and stopping their attempts to destroy our future.”
Many proxies called back in agreement as Visum smiled—a hopeful smile, one still weighed down by the reality of it all.
“We’ll get them,” Visum said to Nulem. “You can be sure of that.”
“I have only one request,” Nulem said. “When we find them, we try to bring Valiya back.”
“She’s still a fellow proxy,” Visum agreed, reassuring Nulem with another smile. “We’ll help her understand.”