Through the reinforced windows, Endriss watched a small formation of gunships land on the upper-flight deck of Ila’s Voice. Each ship, their maneuvering thrusters glowing in the silent blackness, twirled gracefully over the deck, landing with mechanical precision on individual elevators. As they sank down into air locks, on their way to the hangars below, Visk cleared his throat.
“I know you’re opposed,” he said, his voice not echoing at all in the spacious, empty observation deck around them. “I don’t need to tell you how backed into the corner we are, though.”
“No, you don’t.” Endriss shook his head, looking up from the choreography outside. “But there’s no getting around the fact that this is the riskiest move we could ever make.”
“The others have already approved.”
“A bunch of untrained guerrillas—they make one semi-successful strike on Felicity, and suddenly they’re experts in war.”
“I also approved.”
Endriss smirked morbidly, but he kneaded that expression into the kind of respectful look he felt Visk deserved.
Quietly, they both continued to watch the outside world.
A stream of fighters launched from the deck, beginning their patrol of the perimeter. Floating in this forgotten pocket of the local star cluster, in territory no one had dared to venture into since the Coalition fell, they couldn’t help but breathe easy. Despite the madness going on in the New Pact’s core planets, out here, in the middle of nowhere in particular, they felt more like they were watching all of that from the outside.
“Since Ila’s Voice is the flagship of the group,” Visk continued, “she’ll serve as the host. The other vessels will keep anyone from getting on or off the ship.”
When Endriss didn’t respond, Visk chose to remind him, “You do realize this isn’t a request, right? You’re my master of the guard, and one of my most trusted men—I need you present for this.”
“I know,” Endriss said with a firm nod, coming back to the conversation. “I may not like this, but you can count on me.”
Visk studied Endriss closely, though this was hardly the first time he had realized how distant his young subordinate had been. Endriss used to be one of the most ardent of his crew, especially when it came to the revolution; he was always invested in whatever order he was given, thoughtfully engaged while never questioning his authorities. Yet now he seemed almost passive.
“You’ve been distracted lately,” Visk told him, “ever since Felicity.”
Endriss turned from the windows, to Visk, with a sincere smile, the kind that belonged on the face of a friend, not a subordinate.
“I just can’t help but feel like things were supposed to be different,” Endriss said frankly. “When those kids left with the proxy and her guardian, well…”
“You expected this to end quickly.”
“I don’t know what I expected,” Endriss admitted. “But I do know I never expected us to set foot on any of the Rededication platforms. I guess I thought Arras and Danny would take care of things before we ever got this far.”
Visk couldn’t help but chuckle. “You know, I was there when the commanders reported on the platform she destroyed—you should’ve seen the look on the proxies’ faces when they heard Arras and the others actually did it.”
“Gutsy move,” Endriss said, “but now we don’t even know if they’re dead or alive. All we know is that the College couldn’t trace them. It doesn’t help that in all this time that we’ve tracking down platforms, we still haven’t run into them…”
He checked the volume of his voice, glancing hastily out at the still-vacant observatory around them.
“Not that I’m particularly interested in getting caught in a battle with them,” he added, “but it would be nice to know if they’re alive.”
“They’re alive,” Visk said firmly. “But we can’t expect them to save us, not after what’s happened since they left. Only one platform is confirmed destroyed, and even though the three in our custody are inactive, there’s no saying that Arras and her red armor could get through the defenses the College put in place. Ever since the militia showed their faces on Zero Point, and when word got out that Arras Enqelin might still be alive… Well, let’s just say it’s foolish to keep talking about a ‘New Pact.’ There’s no more New Pact. The College wanted a preventative measure, but now that everything’s fallen apart, they just want something to put the pieces back together again.”
“So we’ve come to the last stand, huh?”
Bowing his head, Endriss considered the invisible weight of it all; despite his own hesitation, it was a weight to which he had recently grown accustomed.
“There’ll be nothing left for us if we go through with this—it’s do or die,” Endriss said, more to himself than to Visk, who knew all too well the risks they were running.
“Sometimes you have to take a real risk to get what you want.”
“Like throwing an entire star cluster into a gamma-ray storm…”
With an almost involuntary chuckle, he found the feat no more incredible than when he had first heard. Still, he sometimes found it difficult to decide whether that made Arras and her crew trustworthy, or if they might be even more dangerous than Rededication itself.
“A storm is coming, soldier,” Visk grunted. “Everyone else is already battening down the hatches. The only question is, are you ready?”
That respectful smile returned on its own as Endriss looked back at his commanding officer.
“Commander Visk, I trust you to lead us into the darkest abyss—but only because I know you’ll see us through it. Until there’s a real light.”
Visk smiled himself for a moment, tension leaving him as gradually as it left Endriss. Together, they returned to watching over the flight deck, looking out into the darkness beyond, until their eyes anchored on the billowing superstructure in the distance, camouflaged as it were in the black.
“Fitting,” Visk muttered. “If we’re going to end this war, I suppose it should be right before Rededication’s eyes.”
In the following hours, everything moved like clockwork, coordinated to the finest detail. This contingency plan had been an idea for ages, but only since Arras and Danny’s escape from Felicity had it ever been considered an option. Since that day, trusted men and women were positioned meticulously, with only the order to wait.
As Visk and Endriss spoke on the observation deck, the command was given, and the pieces that had been so carefully placed began to move.
Retiring for the night, Nule stepped into his unlit, empty room. Growing ever more sluggish, he looked over his bed, finding the same robes he had been holding earlier—though he tried not to think of her.
Gently brushing the blue and black clothes to their side of the bed, he kicked off his own shoes and laid on top of the covers, staring up at the ceiling. Green and blue auroras danced above him, emitted from the ceiling, meant to relax him. Behind the lights’ transparent glow, Nule could see a thick tableau of stars. Normally the display could calm him like nothing else, inspire him even—the vastness of the universe open to his view, left for him to face as he dreamed—but now all these stars could do was ask him where, in all their infinite locations, she might be.
With one blink after another, the fatigue of the day carried Nule to sleep, and his troubled mind pursued him into what would surely be another night of little rest.
He awoke a short while later from a dreamless sleep. Checking his net’s clock, he realized several hours had passed, though it felt like nothing more than nodding off. He listened to the ships rising and falling over the compound outside, their noise not entirely suppressed by his insulated room, as he wondered what could have awoken him. Letting out a long breath, he rolled onto his shoulder.
It took him a moment to register the sight.
His eyes caught something dark at the edge of his bed. Following the towering shadow upward, he looked into the opaque visor of a soldier.
“Good evening, Master Proxy,” the soldier said in a low voice. “Did you sleep well?”
Before Nule could react, he felt the stock of the soldier’s rifle sink into his face, sending him back under.
In the moments of wakefulness that found him along the way, he could see the ground of the courtyards outside, bathed in the light of the moons; in another blurred second, he could hear the rumble of a ship, and the screeches of firing ordnance, as well as the baritone of their subsequent detonation. Last of all, he saw the flash of an FTL jump before sinking back into his dreams for a short while longer.
Captive, and in an almost unnatural unconsciousness, Nule could still only think of Val.