“Do you think they’re all right?” Valiya asked, sinking back to the floor, bringing her knees to her chest.
“Arras Enqelin and Danny have already proven their fortitude,” Ekren admitted, though he still paced the deck. “They should be just fine.”
Valiya only hummed in response. Ekren watched her from a distance as she slipped deep into thought.
She could see Nulem’s face, as if right before her eyes. If she focused, she could almost hear his voice, too. Once the sight of his face, the sound of his voice, from just a few hours ago came to her, she fought it off with memories of better times. In resistance, she tried to call up her earliest memories of Nulem, her fondest memories.
“What troubles the Madam Proxy?” Ekren ventured, feigning a little ceremony.
Looking back at him, Valiya looked a little taken off guard. She turned her eyes back to her knees. “I was thinking of him.”
“Nulem,” Ekren said.
“I see. If you don’t mind my asking, what comes to mind as you think of him?”
“What a bold question for a hired servant,” she teased, giving him a little smile.
Ekren couldn’t help but laugh. “When have you ever known me to be overly formal with you, Val?”
Looking back down, she said, “I think of when he and I first met. I don’t know why, but...”
“Does it help you not to think about the All?”
“The All…” Raising her brow, this time she was the one to laugh. “I never took you for the spiritual type, Ekren. You were never that way growing up.”
“A lot changed when I left home,” Ekren said reverently. “When you’re called to arms, you see things. You learn to respond to them in a certain way. I found the All to be a useful metaphor, at the very least.”
“I suppose I don’t know what you mean, then.”
“You’re running from the All, if I’m correct. You’re trading in things as they are for things as they were.”
“Did this bold boy almost get swallowed up in the military, too?”
“Have I gone too far?”
She shook her head, though she hugged her legs closer. “Did you see his face?”
“Yes, though I doubt I saw him as clearly as you did.”
“He didn’t know what to do. He just watched me run away.”
“We all ran away, Val.”
“You didn’t leave behind the only person you’ve ever really loved.”
Ekren shrank. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”
He sat down beside her; she didn’t move an inch. Together, they sat quietly for some time.
“Why did I come?” she asked softly, not looking up.
Ekren didn’t respond; that would be a question for her to answer herself. Taking in his surroundings, Ekren found himself lost in thought, memories of his own. He thought of Val as a child, only a few years younger than he was. He could remember the last time he saw her before shipping out.
“You were an adorable child, you know that?” he said.
Valiya looked up, her cheeks flushed, not expecting that. “What’s that?”
Unable to keep from laughing again, Ekren said, “You heard me. You were always this starry-eyed little girl, always outgoing, always so kind.” He settled himself again, his voice now more sober. “I remember when I came back to be your guardian. You were different.”
“In a few ways, yes. For one thing, you weren’t the naïve little girl I knew years before—you seemed to take the world around you a little more seriously. You felt the gravity of the All more deeply.”
“The All again.”
“I hope you don’t find me superstitious,” Ekren said, waving a hand. “When I talk about the All, it’s more or less to talk about life. The first time I saw you, after my discharge from the fleet, I saw a woman who was more mindful of the world. You seemed more conscious than a little girl ever could be.”
“What’s this have to do with anything?”
“Quite a bit, actually,” he said, smiling back at her. “To tell you the truth, almost anyone can be that conscious of their surroundings. But it’s like being locked in a room full of people you know very well; it doesn’t guarantee any sort of character, only that someone is aware of the people around them.”
Sighing, she buried her face in her knees again. “I forgot you like to talk like an ancient. Trade in your riddles for some plain speech.”
“Let me put it this way, then: Valiya Zoa has always been someone you can trust to make the right choice, even when she’s not especially conscious of everything going on around her.” He put a hand to her shoulder, getting her to lift her eyes. “You don’t always know the path your choices will lead you on, yet you always seem to make the right choice.”
“You think I’ve made the right choice,” she said, “deciding to come with Arras and Danny.”
“Admittedly, I’m a bit biased,” Ekren said, “but I would think so.”
“I still think you’re looney.”
“Fair enough. Why don’t you answer your own questions, then?”
“My own questions?”
“First and foremost, why did you come along?” He looked her right in the eyes. “Why did you leave Zero Point, Felicity, the College—Nulem—to follow after a couple supposed terrorists?”
“I don’t know if that was the choice I made, though,” Valiya confessed. “You make it sound like I knew precisely where I was going; in reality, I think I just decided where I didn’t want to be.”
“And where were you? What made you want to leave?”
She tried conjuring the words. “The College I left was not the College I joined.”
“The difference between the two?”
“Fear.” Stretching her legs out, she sighed. “There was so much fear. And I couldn’t go along with the decisions that that fear led them to make.”
Another moment of silence came and went before Valiya went on.
“Why would he choose Rededication?” She only glanced back at Ekren. “Why would Nulem go along with the College like that? It’s not like him. He’s not…”
“Genocidal?” Ekren asked bluntly, getting no response. “Of course he’s not. I would even say that the majority, if not the whole of the College isn’t genocidal either. But fear does strange things to otherwise saintly people.”
“How does someone slip that far, though?”
“With respect, Val,” Ekren said, “you’ve always trusted me to give you the answers you don’t want to hear. You’re going to have to continue trusting me to do that, at least this one last time: Nulem and the other proxies aren’t what they once were. We all react differently when we stare down the possibility of our own annihilation. Some go quietly, gratefully, even; others thrash about and grind their teeth, even when they know the end is inevitable.”
Looking off into the distance, as if seeing something that wasn’t there but elsewhere—something he had seen long ago—he resisted the urge to shutter.
“When I was with the fleet,” he said, his thoughts somewhere else, his words laden with feeling, “there was one mission we were sent on, a basic op. We were supposed to clear out a number of troublemakers that had rooted themselves in one of the more rural parts of the New Pact. They didn’t like the idea of the College levying any sort of economic regulations on their region, not that far from Felicity, and so they pushed back. Well, we made short work of them. We had them pinned down in a small building on the outskirts of their hometown, unarmed. And they were so overcome with fear, they…”
He broke off, putting a hand to his mouth, still turning it all over in his mind—not quite in the room with Valiya.
“What happened?” she asked gently.
Ekren turned to face her. “They tried to run. Only, it wasn’t like they had an escape route planned—they simply ran. We had boxed them in so tightly, put so much pressure on them, they broke. They ran right into our line of fire, and we mowed them down. All of them. And no matter how many of them we killed, they just kept trying to run.”
Valiya looked paler. “How awful.”
“Fear,” Ekren reminded her. “Protest, resistance. The All of that moment was that they were cornered, no hope of escape. But they still insisted on it. In their panic, they resisted things as they were for what they wanted—even when it would clearly cost them their lives. I sometimes wonder if they knew they would die if they tried to run like that.”
Slumping lower, Valiya listened to his words carefully. “The College is trying to run.”
“I also sometimes wonder if they know that Rededication means certain death,” Ekren added. “I wonder if they even care. Certainly totality-versus-decay is a false dichotomy, but they’re the only outcomes the College wants to see. They want so badly to find security in what they think can be that they don’t see things as they are; they would rather believe that a reaper like this can save the world than accept the reality that their world is already crumbling to pieces.”
“Isn’t that hope, though?” Valiya asked. “I mean, we should be ready to see things for what they are, but doesn’t hope mean that we start to see things as they might be?”
“Hope doesn’t impose itself on reality,” said Ekren stoically, returning to the room. “Hope negotiates with reality. Hope challenges the way things are by compromising with them. What the College has… What those people in that forgotten corner of the New Pact had… That’s not hope. It’s only delusion.”
“That’s it, then,” Valiya concluded. “The College, even Nulem—they’re just deluding themselves. And it’ll just end up killing them.”
“There is one last part to that story.” Ekren got back to his feet, stretched, then returned to pacing the room. “We mowed down the people that flooded out of the building. We thought we had killed them all; protocol mandated we sweep the building anyway. Inside, we found a handful of children, a few women, and maybe five or six men. At one point, after we took them into custody, they were asked why they didn’t run out with the rest. Most of them said they were ready to, but they were stopped once they really saw what was going on.”
“Isn’t that just fear?”
“Not quite, though I would agree it was something close to it. As they watched us massacre their friends, something inside them changed—they woke up to the All and met it with acceptance, not resistance.”
Gazing up at Ekren, watching him slip back into his memories of war, Valiya felt the question come naturally.
“Do you think the College could be convinced to let Rededication go?”
“I doubt they’ll all wake up like that,” Ekren admitted. “But a few might.”
“Nulem,” Valiya breathed, standing up. “Do you think Nulem could wake up like that?”
“That’s impossible to say.” Ekren made his way around a console, sweeping his hand over its matte surface, letting the touch take him to other memories only he could see. “Besides, a certain madam proxy still hasn’t decided what she would hope a certain master proxy would wake up to.”
“I need to figure out why I came along.”
“You need to decide for yourself what you want to do. You may have come along, and Arras may have some need for you, but that doesn’t automatically grant your decision any meaning.”
“What’s that supposed to mean? You said I needed to understand why I chose to come. That’s all I’m trying to do.”
“It’s much like my own motivations, Val, and what I believe were the Enqelins’ motivations.” He looked almost wistfully through the exit Arras and Danny had taken before. “Rededication was the Coalition’s way of defining for the people what they would be; destroying Rededication unleashes an unknown world of radical possibilities, something that’s not ready-made or spelled out for us. Meaning—and hope and fear, for that matter—they don’t exist without us. If you want to wake up Nulem, you’ll first have to wake yourself up; if you want to wake him up, you’ll have to realize that you both will be waking to a blank canvas you yourselves will have to paint. The world won’t create itself—understand?”
“I think so,” Valiya said with a nod.
“I certainly hope so,” Ekren said. “I really do.”