The world blurred in and out of focus, tantalizing Nule with snippets of what was happening before shoving him back into the dark.
In blinks and echoes, he watched a number of men and women in black and blue stumble and scramble across the oxidized metal floor of a dimly lit room, pushed along by figures in heavy armor, their faces covered in black.
Now and again, he found himself staring into Visum’s face; the old man peered deep into his eyes, their faces close, asking questions that Nule either didn’t understand or to which he did not know how to respond.
With sickening gradation, he reentered the conscious world. Incrementally details dripped back into him, as if he could only perceive the world through a leaky pipe.
He recognized the people around him by their clothes, the proxies, though he didn’t think to count them.
Memories of the day before returned, reminding him of the pangs of disappointment Rededication had brought him and the rest of the College. He could remember the auroras over his head, falling asleep to their motion as they ebbed in and out of sight.
Then he realized—he remembered the end of the rifle shoved into his face. The pain of the impact shocked and burned the bridge of his nose, as if only reactivating once he recalled what had left such a wound on his face. The constant crushing feeling led him the rest of the way between his dreams and the waking world.
“Calm, Nulem, calm,” a strained voice whispered to him.
As he picked himself up from the cold ground, Nule looked back into Visum’s face once again, at last able to process what he was saying.
“Don’t overexert yourself—we aren’t going anywhere.”
The name carelessly fell from Nule’s lips. He looked from his old friend to the other proxies around them.
The room seemed barren except for the few robed men and women grouped together, sitting in clusters on the sprawling floor, boxed in by high-rising walls. Up the walls, he could see what looked like the outline of a web of catwalks; they were obscured by blaring spotlights, but the sounds of footsteps against tensile grates gave away their overseers’ presence.
As his eyes adjusted to the high luminosity, Nule could make out the hazy silhouettes of soldiers, each one carrying what looked like a rifle.
“Where are we?” Nule finally asked, looking back down at Visum. “What’s going on?”
“We’re aboard the New Pact vessel Ila’s Voice,” Visum answered soberly, sitting cross-legged, his robes draped over his knees. “Perhaps I should say, the former New Pact vessel.”
Nule took a quick head count; there were thirteen other proxies in that room, and he and Visum brought the total to fifteen.
“The whole College is here.”
“We’ve been abducted,” Visum went on. “For what purpose, I cannot say. But yes, they’ve managed to gather us all.”
“Is this the work of the militias?”
Nule felt the stab of the gash on his nose again, wincing at the sting.
“Yes and no,” Visum hummed. “Yes in that these are indeed separatists and rebels; no in that I believe we’ve grossly underestimated how far they’ve infiltrated our ranks.”
Visum glanced back up at the soldiers on the catwalks, tracking the ones he could see the most clearly between the lamps. The ones obscured by the light stood still; he guessed these were the ones who had already prepared to open fire, should the need arise.
“Ila’s Voice,” Nule repeated, giving the room another survey.
Only then did he realize he was wearing the robes of a proxy. Not his robes, though—they were the ones that had been lying next to him when he was taken. Their scent was even fainter now.
“I’m guessing they took the time to dress you as well,” Visum observed, watching Nule examine himself, curious about the look of frustration on the young man’s face. “It seems we were all changed into our proper apparel…”
“Why would they do that?”
Nule didn’t bother looking at Visum when he asked, the question wasn’t for him anyway. He clutched the material of the robes until his knuckles turned white. Whoever had put these clothes so carelessly on him, with no regard for how it might destroy her remnant…
The screech of metal grinding against metal directed everyone’s attention to the bulkhead door across the room. The door opened and a handful of armed guards entered. Followed after them came a man in military attire, bearing the emblems of a commander.
“Savin Visk,” hissed Visum, as if he had just found a bad taste in his mouth.
“Visk?” Nulem repeated incredulously.
Looking the aged officer over, he recognized him immediately, though he hadn’t seen him in person since the first attack on the Felicity compound.
The commander was followed closely by another group of soldiers, headed by Endriss, who was dressed in a battle-durable uniform, a short rifle hugged to his tactical vest. Endriss ordered his men into a tight row, standing at the ready, separating the proxies on the floor from Commander Visk.
“Master of the guard,” called a raspy though commanding voice from the catwalks above, “as requested, we present the prisoners of war. Fifteen in total.”
“Confirmed,” Endriss called back in just as commanding a voice. “Prisoners of war are now in our custody.”
“Prisoners of war, indeed!” spat one of the proxies, an elderly woman sitting on her own. “What is this? Do you have any idea what kind of—”
The madam proxy’s speech was cut short by the merciless cracks and clinks of warning shots, bouncing all around her, inches from her body. She covered herself, looking totally defenseless when the brief sputter stopped. None of the members of the College dared to speak after that; the defeated woman crawled to another two proxies, who held her close, keeping their eyes on either the men above or the master of the guard.
The move was ruthless, but it carried a point. For better or worse, the College knew the floor belonged to their captors.
“Men and women of the People’s College of the New Pact,” Visk began, his own voice worn though no less dominant—no one dared interrupt him, notwithstanding of the live weapons in the room. “As of this moment, you are divested of all power and authority which you have presumed to hold over the people of the New Pact. You are not sovereigns illegally taken into custody; you are rejected tyrants, and will therefore be treated as such. If you attempt to escape—” the row of armed men standing before Visk raised their guns on cue— “you will be dealt with as any hostile in times of war.”
Breathing deeply through his nose, his face cut like stone as his shoulders rolled like stormy waves, Visum stood up, having no regard for the armed guards threatening their lives. Rather, he and Visk locked eyes, neither man budging.
“Why have you brought us here?” Visum asked plainly, still unmoved even as a few of Visk’s men took direct aim at the midsection of his body. “You say you’ve stripped us of our authority to govern, but if this was nothing more than a revolt, I would wonder why you would go out of your way to gather us.”
Visk studied Visum in silence for several seconds before making a move.
“Master of the guard,” Visk called, not taking his eyes off the proxy, “all guards stand down.”
“All guards, stand down,” Endriss carried on, obeyed as the line of soldiers separating Visk and Visum split.
Visk’s footsteps reverberated throughout the room as he approached Visum. The two men stood only a few feet from one another, though they never broke eye contact.
“The first article of the founding constitution of the People’s College of the New Pact,” Visum stated, as if reading from a text. “ ‘All authority and power accorded to any member of the College will come from the people themselves; no man or woman unworthy of that authority shall receive it from the people, but by the good character of the politician and by the common consent of the people.’ ”
Visk allowed the old quotation to hang in the room before concluding, “Perhaps you’ve become too myopic, but I don’t imagine I have to reiterate to you what’s happened to the various constituents of the New Pact.”
Visum didn’t flinch at this. “The regrettable actions of violent rebels—”
“Not rebels, Master Proxy,” Visk cut in dispassionately. “People. The citizenry itself. The majority of New Pact territories, as officially recognized political bodies, have been dissolved. The union we once had has all but vanished. The head is severed, the body is dead—and the gravity that brought the blade down is Rededication, and your crusade to locate and resurrect it.”
“You’re suggesting, then,” Visum spelled out, unamused, “because a modicum of people have violently resisted their elected leaders, that this legally nullifies the authority of the College?”
“Perhaps the people called you to such authority at the outset,” Visk answered. “However, given the choice, it seems they have since reneged the authority they gave you.”
Nulem felt his chest tighten with every word Visk breathed; he wanted to jump in, to call Visk into question, to contradict him. Yet he stayed where he was when he saw Visum—really saw him—standing like a colossus over Visk, radiating just as much might as this dissenting commander.
“You’ve taken our authority,” Visum assented, as if outlining a hypothetical situation. “What, then, is the point of keeping us here?”
Visk turned his head as he spoke, so the rest of the College could hear.
“You have all been stripped of your authority, indeed, but you still have the opportunity to redeem this situation. That is why you are still alive.”
“And how might we ‘redeem this situation’?”
“Destroy all located Rededication platforms, and officially end your search for the remaining installations.”
Though none of the other proxies felt capable of responding to such demands, Visum shook his head.
“I should have guessed as much,” he said disappointedly.
“Any endeavor that is detrimental to the well-being of the general public must often be interrupted in harsh ways,” Visk went on. “Consider this your opportunity to reconsider your agenda. We have provided you a chance to deliberate among yourselves as a whole, to discuss this issue further, with the gifts of hindsight and clarity.”
Visk took a step back, turned about, and proceeded back the way he came as the guards returned to their line, blocking their commander from the rest of the College.
“Setting aside the debates,” Visum called after Visk, “all the arguments and discussion—what if we don’t change our minds?”
Pausing his stride, his back to the proxies, Visk’s answer was final.
“You know how to end this; there are no alternatives.”
Altogether, Visk, Endriss, and their men funneled out through the bulkhead. The same screech from before pierced the proxies ears as the bulkhead was locked back into place, and the rattling of the metal catwalks above resumed as the soldiers returned to their pacing.
Visum remained where he was, with all the poise and dignity he had mustered already—standing like an immoveable cliff over the chaotic sea as the other proxies flooded the room with their fearful whispers.
“Visum,” Nule hissed, drawing closer, though staying on the floor, “what are we going to do?”
“We’re in a dire situation, Nulem,” Visum confessed, “though not for the reasons you might think. We must remain constantly on guard.”
“What do you see that I don’t?” Nule asked.
Visum furrowed his brow, scowling at the bulkhead through which Visk and the others had exited.
“There’s something the commander isn’t saying,” he grunted. “I just don’t know what it is yet.”