Chapter 17

 

Closing his eyes, Nule fled from the world once more.  The cold floor, the proxies’ scared voices, the blinding lights overhead masking his captors—they all slipped away from his senses as he attempted to center himself once more.

Since his childhood, he had known of the All—the tragic gap between the real and the ideal, filled with conflict; neither caring nor uncaring, never conscious yet the totality of consciousness itself.  The All was simply all that once was, that which existed in that moment, and all that may come thereafter.  Visum had always emphasized this to Nule, as his mentor, once he entered the College: the All named that which could not be changed, that with which one could only negotiate, that to which one must ultimately submit and bend the knee.

That was what Nule had decided to do; in an otherwise hopeless moment, he did all he could to embrace the All.  And in this nearly hypnotic state, he couldn’t keep from thinking of her.  Wondering what she must be thinking at that time, at that very second, Nule continued pulling himself from the world in order to heal his fried nerves.  The memories of being with her for so long seemed to become more vivid the longer she was gone, yet he didn’t know if he should be grateful for that, or if he should fear it.  He didn’t want a hollow husk of what she once was, his own frictionless recollections piled into a scarecrow that never told him anything he didn’t want to hear—he wanted her.  And as he became conscious of that desire once more—as he remembered one of their first nights together, as they held each other in the dark, whispering their love to each another—he found his bearings once more.

Nule opened his eyes and raised himself from the ground.

All around him, the proxies continued their fearful murmuring.  Visum had been gone for some time now, though by then no one was as alarmed as when they had taken the first of their numbers.  First they came for Thiossus, who was escorted out by three soldiers, then returned some time later.  Then they came for another proxy, leaving the rest to question freely Thiossus; he said all they had done was speak to him about Rededication, what he thought of the search, and why.  They hadn’t tried to convince him to abandon his views, he told the rest of the College—something which left the rest of them on edge, even if it seemed innocuous on the surface.

Lost in this confusing setup, held hostage by people who appeared to only want to talk, each person in that holding room wondered if they would be the next to go.  Nule’s heart skipped a beat when Visum was taken, but the man’s unchanged demeanor left Nule at least somewhat calm.

A short time after his departure, the creak of the old bulkhead hailed Visum’s return.  A trio of guards walked him back into the room; he made his way straight to Nulem, with the guards on his heels.

“Listen closely,” Visum said to Nule, kneeling beside him, speaking quickly.  “They’re going to ask you a series of questions.  Give them as little information as possible, and don’t let them frighten you.  These are trained men, but you have a higher call.  All we need to do is hold out until our rescue arrives.”

“Do you really think anyone’s coming for us?” Nule asked hopefully before the guards entered earshot.

Visum stared him firmly in the eye, his brow set—he still looked as determined, as immoveable as the sturdy ship in which they were now held hostage.  Taking strength from his old friend’s own resolve, Nule stood without hesitation when the guards came for him.

As he stepped out of the holding room, into a rather plain passageway, he glanced over his shoulder, back at Visum.  His mentor, who watched him earnestly, disappeared behind the closing bulkhead.

Going with the flow of the three armed men that surrounded him, traveling through otherwise empty halls within Ila’s Voice, Nule could almost feel the distance growing between himself and the rest of the College.  The panic and fatigue he had managed to stave off this long seemed to fade away effortlessly, inexplicably.  He almost felt free—though he had no idea why.

He was taken through a porthole and into a small room, walled in cool colors, filled with recessed lighting.  At the center of the room was a table, where the master of the ship’s guard himself sat.  The table was bare, perhaps merely a formality, but Nule was ushered to a seat across from the already seated officer nonetheless.

In each corner of the room was a heavily armed figure, clad in black from head to toe, though he knew they were human.  He guessed the revolutionaries didn’t trust automatons, whose loyalty could be won simply by the right lines of code.

Lining the corners and edges where the ceiling met the walls, a sleek strip of plastic material haloed the room.  Nule recognized the otherwise subtle lining from certain rooms at the Felicity compound; surveillance strips, taking in floods of sensory data from the sparsely populated room.  It didn’t surprise him to know this would not be a private conversation.

“Please state your name,” Endriss directed, watching Nule closely from the other side of the table.

Nule looked from the wall back to Endriss, then studied the numerous guards in the room before answering.

“Nulem Verris.”

“And your position.”

“I serve as a proxy in the People’s College of the New Pact.”

He tried to speak with dignity, but the words seemed almost empty in that room.

“You’re third to youngest in the College, correct?” Endriss asked.

Nule furrowed his brow.  “If you already know that, then why ask for my name?”

Endriss didn’t answer; instead, he asked, “Why do you think you’re here, Master Proxy?”

“You abducted me.”

“Perhaps I should be clearer, then: why do you think we brought you here?”

“You’re terrorists,” Nule said simply, though even those words somehow felt empty to him here.  “You want something to change, and you’re willing to go to extreme lengths to do it.”

Endriss quietly weighed this response, never taking his eyes off Nule; though Nule stared right back into him, he only saw eyes that revealed nothing about the mind behind them.

“Who’s observing this meeting?” Nule asked, losing his confidence in the silence.

Leaning forward, seeming almost blasé now, Endriss gave a careless smirk.

“You already met the commanding officer of this ship,” he said casually.  “In addition, a number of our allies have joined us to see how this shared experience of ours unfolds.”

Taken off guard by how open Endriss was, Nule felt even more uncomfortable.  None of this added up to him.

“Why am I here?” he finally asked the soldier.

The smirk on Endriss’ face moved from indifferent to satisfied.  “You’re the first of the proxies to actually ask me the same question I’ve asked you.  That’s interesting, don’t you think?  That the rest of them can’t admit it, but you can.”

“Admit what?”

“That you don’t know,” he chuckled.

“I…  I suppose I don’t understand what you mean.”

“You don’t know why you’re here, Nulem, but you’re humble enough to admit that.  The others, they gave the same answer you first tried to give, the stock response: that we’re a bunch of no good, lowdown thugs who would rather shoot a politician than debate them in the courts.”

“You don’t think I believe that?”

“I don’t think you know what to believe.”

Patting his hand on the table, Endriss summoned up a number of images and texts, spinning them about on the tabletop so Nule could see them.  The contents were basic, nothing more than disparate records on Master Proxy Nulem Verris and his various exploits as a member of the College.  A number of news stories also branched off his main portfolio, overtaking the table and running slightly off the edges.

“You have an interesting philosophy, Master Proxy,” Endriss said as the information peeled off of the table and hovered between them.  “According to your voting patterns, you seemed to strive for direct, often forceful resolutions, especially in military affairs.  You’re frank in meetings with other proxies, and you seemed to gravitate to anyone who approached issues in like manner.”

“You’re saying I surround myself with people like me,” Nule said, wondering how such mundane observations could interest this man.

“I’m not saying that,” Endriss answered.  “What I’m saying is you used to surround yourself with like-minded people.  However, that changed at a surprisingly definite point.”

Endriss swept Nule’s records away, replacing them with the records of another proxy.

“You’re the third youngest member of the College,” said Endriss as the new data unfolded itself.  “You replaced Madam Proxy Rezu Eta.  Shortly after you entered the College, however, another member passed away: Master Proxy Taeva Zoa—a family friend of yours.  After his death and the following elections, you can imagine how surprised the New Pact was to find that, of all people to replace him, his daughter would be the one.”

With the records now in full view, Nule stared into a stock picture of Valiya.

“It seems the people wanted more of the same when her father passed away,” Endriss continued, watching Nule’s countenance change as he stared into the picture.  “He was an idealist and a pacifist, and she promised to be the same—and, of course, she delivered.  She was exactly like her father.  And that’s what makes this so interesting.  Though you and Taeva Zoa’s time in office overlapped only briefly, you still butted heads like crazy.  Neither of you could agree on anything, it seemed, and unanimity in the College became a rarity; majority opinion had to be enough to do anything anymore.”

“So what?  He and I saw things differently.  That doesn’t mean he wasn’t a good man.”

“I don’t doubt that, nor do I doubt that you feel that way.”

Those words almost visibly shocked Nulem.  Endriss watched him through the floating display with an unexpected sincerity—something that scared Nule, not because he thought it was a ploy, but because somehow he knew it was real.  For a moment, Nule felt as if he had just woken up, as if the man across the table had been nothing more than an object in motion until that second—until that brief flash when, in a new way, he was a human.

“Taeva Zoa respected you, too,” Endriss said in that same fond tone.  “It was something that startled and yet strengthened the College; they saw a diversity of opinions that still managed to coalesce into civil dialogue.  But that changed after he died and Valiya Zoa took his place.”

“How do you mean?”

“I guess it’s more accurate to say that you changed, Nulem.”

A series of new information streamed up from the table, minutes from meetings and a history of votes made after Val had entered the College.

“When Valiya Zoa entered the College, your voting patterns began to shift—ever so slightly, but shift they did.  You went from being the new hothead to being what looked to some like the spitting image of the late Taeva Zoa.”

Clutching the fabric of his robes in tight fists, Nule cast his eyes down.  A sudden swell of anger heated him.

“You think I was simply swayed?” Nule asked.

“Some might say that,” he admitted.  “As for me, I don’t think that’s quite the case.”

Endriss was quiet again, letting Nule stew in his own agitation for a while, before he finally said what he had wanted to say for so long.

“I was with her that evening, moments before she left Zero Point for the last time.”

Nule’s hands released his robe and his head shot up.

“I was there,” reaffirmed Endriss.  By then his smirks had altogether disappeared.  “She was scared, but also very brave.”

“Is she safe?” Nule asked, losing his desire to be on guard.  “Do you know where she is?”

“Why did your votes change, Nulem?”

The question shut Nulem up in an instant, and the words seemed to hang in the air.  He lowered his head again, feeling the memories he had catalogued and fingered through for so long bob and weave around him, mixing with Endriss’ question.

“Valiya and I knew each other well when we were children,” he finally muttered, still not looking up at the master of the guard.  “While I studied to enter the New Pact’s fleet, she only ever idolized her father.  She wanted to be just like him—to fight for anyone who may be marginalized in this world.  Taeva believed we could create a paradise where there had been nothing but terror, and he didn’t want anyone to miss out.”

“Did you think otherwise?”

“In a way, but I just disregarded it as unrealistic.  I entered the fleet and trained for a number of years, but after a while, I started to feel… empty.  So I requested to be discharged and started my way into the political arena.”

“Why such a dramatic move?”

“I was just the effect of other people’s decisions when I was in the military…”  He glanced up at Endriss.  “No offense.  But when I returned, I started to see what appealed to Taeva and Val so much about the College—it was an opportunity to be chosen by the people to handle their own wiring, to be entrusted by them with the care of their most vulnerable layers as a people.  Once I entered the College, though, I realized that Taeva and I were still very different; he thought he could save everyone, and I guess I didn’t…”

Nule felt a new memory surface.  He relived in soothing detail when he was a child, playing with Valiya, his only friend.  And he could see Taeva’s face, that perpetual though never fake smile, his open eyes that seemed to look for wounds to heal—and his daughter, who would follow him anywhere she could.

“When Val joined the College…” Nulem said softly, feeling as if the whole world had disappeared, as if he were only in one of the spacious pastures of their unindustrialized hometown.  “When she replaced her father…  I started to see something that I hadn’t seen in so long, something that took me too long to see when Taeva was still alive.”

“And what is that?” Endriss asked, his own voice softened.  He leaned through the holograms as they flitted away.  “What did you see, Nulem?”

“That even if I couldn’t save everyone…” he breathed.  With a newfound strength, he looked back at Endriss, this time with a power in his eyes.  “Even if people seemed beyond salvation, that didn’t mean it wasn’t worth trying to help them.  That each person was of infinite value…”

“You miss her, don’t you?” Endriss asked, gingerly ushering Nule back to reality, back to that interrogation room.  “You miss Valiya.”

“I do,” he confessed with the faintest of breath.  “I really, truly do.”

“Do you still believe those things?  The things you were reminded of when you were reunited with her before?”

Nulem didn’t answer.  He felt like he was floating on the surface of the ocean, no land in sight.  And with every gentle though immutable roll of the water, the salt seeped deeper into his open wounds.  Yet that pain didn’t make him want to retreat into his own head, not this time.  This time, he found that quietude he had been looking for—he felt alive and awake.

“That should be enough,” Endriss told one of the guards.  “Please take him back.”

The same guards escorted Nule back to the holding room.  With each step, though, Nule continually phased out.  Processing what had happened in that supposed interrogation, he felt as if he should be shaken up.  But he wasn’t.  Rather, he moved with a kind of wholeness and security he hadn’t felt in some time.

“Are you all right?” Visum asked him immediately as he reentered the hold.  “Nulem, are you listening?”

Snapping back, Nule became conscious of Visum.

“Yes, I’m…  I’m well.”

Visum asked him a few more questions, anything to understand what these people were doing to the individual proxies in private.  Yet, as they conversed, Nule noticed that discomfort he had expected before, only it wasn’t from his time with Endriss—it came from how calm he felt afterward.

Talking to his old mentor, sitting among his friends, for reasons he could not explain, Nulem felt as if he was among strangers.