In the days since their last meeting with Arthur, Damon felt as if he had been holding his breath. Only recently had he allowed himself to really decompress—as much as his genuinely normal life would allow, anyway.
Glancing over his shoulder, he looked out over the city, still very much alive in the night. Turning back to the laptop on his desk, he continued down a long line of unread emails. With a tinge of embarrassment, he looked for the most urgent messages, starting from the oldest. Truth be told, he had allowed these emails to pile up for quite some time; ever since Danny and Arras had returned from their first strike, much of his time had been spent overseeing and participating in training, strategizing, and supplying.
Opening one particular email—from a member of the board; something about plans to grow Teleios’ influence in the civilian arms market—he couldn’t help but feel a certain absence of something. Though at times he felt silly for thinking it, let alone saying it, Damon lived for this, for the motion of a growing enterprise. Teleios had been tenderly cared for and handed down for generations, ever since its inconsequential beginnings in the mind of Asael Mack, and Damon had managed to catch the wave his family had passed along since the American Revolution. But now something felt different. Ignoring that seeming vacuum, he tried to draft a reply to one of his many emails.
A knock at the door interrupted what little momentum he had gathered. Before he could answer, the glossy wooden door opened a couple inches, and Val poked her head into the office.
“Sorry to bother you,” she said, “but… would you mind if I joined you?”
Damon welcomed her, and she politely took a seat on one of the couches adjacent to his desk. As he continued his busywork, loathing the tedium, Val kept quietly to herself.
As much as he tried to stay busy, Damon took an occasional glance past his monitor, watching the scarlet-haired girl occupy herself with nothing substantial. This wasn’t the first time she had come to visit him in his office; in fact, her visits had become more frequent as of late.
Val caught sight of a book sitting on the table before her. In one of her first visits, Damon had walked her through the numerous books that lined one of the walls of his office—he had seemed more than eager to be the first to introduce her to Earth’s various cultures and their worldviews—but she had never seen him leave out a book. Val picked it up and peeled back the front cover. When it came to English, her reading level was still somewhat remedial, and it didn’t help that the title contained a word she couldn’t recognize.
“Excuse me, but—”
She cut herself off, reminding herself that Damon was working. However, before she could recede back to the enigmatic book, Damon had already taken the opportunity to forcibly close the lid of his laptop, rising from his chair as the computer clapped shut—all in one fluid motion that made Val jump a little.
“What’s that?” Damon asked her, seizing the opportunity for a break with both hands.
Still a little startled, Val wordlessly held the book up so he could see the front cover.
“That’s right,” he sighed, taking the book with a smile, sitting down on the couch across from her. He leafed through the pages, his fingers finding an old receipt he had used as a bookmark. “I forgot I left this out.”
“I was just wondering what it was; I can’t read the title.”
Val sounded almost embarrassed to say it. Perhaps it was the part of her that considered herself a de facto ambassador, wanting to grasp her new environment more than she could.
“Not to worry,” Damon assured her, handing her back the book. “The title’s a little obscure. It says ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra.’ ”
Scanning over the cover once again, she squinted at the last word.
“Were you planning on getting into a little German philosophy?” he asked with an eager smile.
“I was… well…” Val set the book back down on the table, not taking her eyes off the cover. “I was thinking of what you told me the other day, at Eli’s home. I thought it might be a good idea to familiarize myself with this world a little more. Maybe I could find something to take back to…”
“I’m only now realizing how terribly difficult that might be for you, even with something as sophisticated as your nano-net,” Damon thought out loud, eyeing the worn paperback. “That book is quite unique. In truth, our world is more diverse than I think even we sometimes realize. Though, I can’t imagine the kind of diversity one might find among the planets of the New Pact…”
He could see her sink into the thin cushions of the couch as he said this, that same look in her eyes from the night on Eli’s roof.
“Are you researching our little world to keep your mind occupied?” Damon ventured to ask.
“Flight training’s kept me busy,” she replied. “But the ship’s mostly automated, so there’s not much to practice.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
She looked more defeated than anything now.
“There I go, prying where I shouldn’t,” Damon said, shaking his head. “We don’t have to talk about it, really.”
“No, please, we can talk,” she said hastily. “Honestly… I feel like you’re the only one I could really speak to.”
“While I’m honored that you would want to speak with me,” Damon said, “I must confess, there are others who know more about losing a world than I do. Arras, for instance.”
“I know, but…”
Leaning back in his seat, Damon rolled his cane between his fingers and thumb, feeling its engraved Aries emblem. “I imagine I’m not the only reason you’ve been coming to my office.”
Val looked away once again, staring at the door. Though she no longer looked defeated, she seemed on the defensive.
“I just…” she muttered into the air, not daring to meet Damon’s eye with her own. “I can’t help but wonder… if she would have done that much for…”
Catching herself, Val shook her head and smiled back at Damon—something forced.
“Never mind; forget I said anything.”
“You miss your home,” Damon said squarely, setting his cane aside and staring back at Val with a look that requested her honesty. “You’re afraid to see what condition your world is in, and you’re wondering if anyone really cares.”
Val found herself captivated by his stare, unable to look away any more, as if she stood before some all-seeing eye. From defense to surrender, her shoulders sank.
“I suppose you’re right.”
Clutching the material of her pants in both hands, she managed to break away from him, resting her eyes back on the book.
“Before he… Before Ekren died,” she said, “he told me I needed to decide for myself why I joined Arras and Danny—and what I was going to do now that I’m with them. I knew I wanted to help my people, and leaving the College seemed like the right choice at the time, but now that I’m here, I…”
Damon leaned forward, waiting patiently for her to finish. He found himself sitting before that same longing look from the other night—the same look he had worn himself. And somehow, in some unintelligible way, it seemed to demand his silence.
“I feel like I can’t do a thing for them,” she finally said, her eyes moist with tears. Containing herself, she loosened her grip on her clothes. “And I feel that, unless I’m doing something that directly contributes to destroying Rededication…”
A sharp chime cut them both off as the wall behind Damon lit up, a video feed sprawling across the previously blank surface. Through the cameras in the front lobby, Damon and Val watched two men in suits enter the dark, empty first floor of the building through the front doors, as if no locks were in place. As they moved past the unoccupied front desk, walking with an unmistakable sense of belonging, Damon stood and returned to his laptop.
“Who are they?” Val asked, following him to his desk. “I thought everyone was supposed to be gone by this hour.”
“They are,” Damon said simply, typing swiftly. “Those men aren’t employees. They also seem to have no regard for our building’s security.”
He pulled up the other video feeds in the building, displaying them on the wall, giving his searching laptop no other criterion to look for other than movement. The only feeds that came up were from there in his own office, the cameras monitoring the two suited men as they entered an elevator, and Arras and Danny sitting together in the testing chamber in the tower’s uppermost levels.
Val watched the two strangers in the elevator, then glanced up at Danny and Arras, watching them sit facing each other, speaking words she couldn’t hear. Then she saw her own face through the feeds, shaking away the look that had come to her so unconsciously.
“I don’t think we’re in any trouble,” Damon said, his eyes still glued to his laptop. “The elevator requires a special manual input in order to reach these—”
An audible ding from outside his office, followed by the sound of sliding metal doors, sank his stomach to the floor.
As Damon returned to typing frantic commands Val didn’t understand, the video feeds on the wall vanished. Damon lifted himself from the computer as its monitor snapped to black, the hard drive formatting itself, destroying any chance at access to the building’s intricate surveillance network—not that he thought it mattered, not if these men had made it this far.
The door to the office opened smoothly, and the intruders stepped through the door as if they were nothing less than close friends. Nothing about the two men stood out; both were in dark clothes, with short hair, clean shaven.
“Gentlemen,” Damon addressed them, leaning on his cane. “I’d welcome you to Teleios, but that would imply that you were invited.”
“Damon Hale,” one of the men said starkly.
The man reached into his coat, forcing Damon to resist flinching, only to pull out a black leather wallet from his inside pocket, flipping it open for Damon and Val to see—FBI.
“We’ll need you to come with us,” the other agent informed them. “You’re both under arrest.”
“Excuse me?” Furrowing his brow, Damon stayed where he was, staring both agents down. “I’m guessing you’re associated with whatever strange group sent us Arthur Emmerich. What I don’t know is why you’re here, much less why we’re under arrest.”
“Come with us, please.”
“I was under the impression that Arthur and his associates had decided to no longer interfere with us.”
“If we have to ask again,” the agent said, with as little emotion as before, “you will be resisting arrest. In which case, we will act accordingly.”
In not much more than a second, a thousand options flew through Damon’s head. He analyzed the men up and down, concluding that he could incapacitate one of them if necessary; but with there being two of them, things would become more complicated—to say nothing of the reinforcements they had brought with them. And then there was Valiya, who was a politician, not a fighter. Any confrontation could lead to her getting hurt. As important as Val’s safety was to him, he also had to worry about Arras and Danny—and Ridarin—though for far different reasons.
Damon and Val’s eyes met for a moment. She seemed out of her element, unsure of how to respond; caught as she was in the confines of a foreign government, Damon couldn’t help but understand that she would look to him.
Heaving a sigh, Damon bowed his head, giving in.
“It’s too lovely a night to spend it in the office,” he told the agents. “I think a change of scenery would be wonderful.”