“What’s keeping her?” Danny thought aloud from his chair, his feet hoisted up onto a wobbly table.
In the dim light of a few candles, he eyed Virgil, who stood as still as a raven on a telephone wire, watching the rest of the room around him.
“Patience, Daniel—this will take time,” Virgil replied, leaning against the wall. “I’m sure she’ll be prompt, but only within her constraints.”
Neither Virgil nor Danny really bought that, though. They were both worried, if for no other reason than instinct alone.
In another corner of the room, Val sat quietly, lost in thought. They had been there for more than a day now, having arrived at the old shack the previous night. In all that time, they hadn’t heard a thing from Arras—or Aurin, for that matter. The anticipation intensified with each passing hour, leaving them uneasy.
Virgil lazily pointed upward. “At least we have your gunship.”
“I guess,” Danny sighed, bowing his head. “It just feels like having an itch you can’t scratch. We have everything we need—we just need her to give us the signal already.”
“You’ll need to keep a level head,” Virgil counseled. “If you really plan to execute a rescue operation on a US base of operations, you’ll need to be present.”
That last word caught Danny like a hook. He lifted his eyes for a moment, then sank into memories of a few months ago. After one of Damon’s sparring sessions, when he had first met the man, he had told Danny much the same thing.
“Teleios,” Danny muttered to only himself, returning to balancing on the back two legs of his chair. “You’re right; I’ve got to stay in the moment. Besides, Arras would be royally pissed if she knew I was fussing like this.”
Hearing that, Val felt an uncomfortable twinge, something down in her soul. It was a feeling that had followed her since the day before, since she had struck Arras in that parking garage—a subtle though distinct pinch of guilt. Yet she had shaken it off all this time, insisting that she had nothing to feel guilty about. Arras was the one being selfish, and Val knew it. In fact, everyone else probably knew it, too; maybe even Arras herself.
Still, she couldn’t help but wait anxiously with Danny and Virgil.
“I’m going to go check on Damon,” she finally said, getting to her feet, heading straight for the door.
“Oh, okay,” Danny managed to say as she stepped out, surprised by her sudden change of gears.
As if carried by the cool breeze, Val walked carefully down the grassy hillside, one tree after another passing her like people on a dark street. Up in the sky, a myriad of stars, pinpricks of light in so many colors, watched her. The sight was a little surreal to her; she had seen many stars before, but only ever from space colonies or ships—never from the surface of a planet. Never with the scent of real plant life, or the breeze of fresh terrestrial air.
For a moment, it felt like a dream—though, all a dream could do was hand her over to her own unconscious, where that inexplicable, vexing guilt had taken up residence.
In that dark night, despite the stars overhead, the search had taken longer than she had liked. Damon wasn’t far at all, though; few yards from the edge of the nearby lake, sitting beneath a tree, she found him staring into the glowing screen of a tablet. Val had seen him with that tablet a number of times before, though she wasn’t sure what he was reading.
Damon apathetically stroked the tablet’s screen, only noticing Val when she was within a few feet. Looking up from the bright display, allowing his eyes a second to adjust, he smiled when he saw her.
“They haven’t declared me MIA, have they?”
“Uh, no… I just thought I’d come join you. It’s a really beautiful night after all.”
Damon hospitably patted a patch at his side, inviting her to join him before he returned to his reading.
Val rested her back against the trunk of the firm tree, feeling a strange aesthetic surge—a moment of connectedness, an almost holistic circularity between herself and these trees, these hills, this air. The moment passed quickly, though it left her with no confusion as to why Damon might choose this spot to read.
For some time, Val continued watching the sky. Now and again, she could see a blinking dot coasting past the other stars, something she knew meant that a satellite of some kind was passing by. She wondered what kind of orbitals people on this planet would need at this stage of their development, or if they perhaps used such equipment for different purposes than the fledgling worlds of the Coalition ever had.
Yet this was a question she had no intention of answering; it was just enough to numb the guilt.
“Well, here we are again,” Damon suddenly said, not looking away from his reading.
“I… I’m sorry if I’ve annoyed you at all…”
“You haven’t,” he assured her, “not in the slightest. Still, it seems that since our last conversation, I’ve been able to, shall we say, psychoanalyze you a little.”
Even in the cool air, Val could feel her face burn as she played through the drama at the parking garage and on that abandoned subway platform. Her whole frame sank a little as she wallowed in what she considered to be some of her most shameful moments.
“I guess you know what’s been going on, then.”
“Somewhat. I don’t have all the details, of course; every person I’ve ever met has always been an individual mystery to some degree. Would you like to talk about it now?”
“No, I… Well, yes, I would. But I have no idea what to really talk about.”
Val brought her knees to her chest, holding them close, lowering her eyes. She could remember that first Rededication installation now—those final moments she had shared with Ekren, the hours just after having left Nulem behind.
“There’s something wrong with me,” she said from behind her knees. “I just don’t know how to put it.”
“There’s nothing wrong with you, Valiya, not at all,” Damon replied simply. “What you’re experiencing is entirely human. As hard as it may be to accept, you certainly aren’t the first person to put their palm to another’s face—I dare say you also may not be the first to contemplate slapping our dear Arras, of all people.”
“I didn’t mean… I feel so stupid for doing that. It was childish.”
“Yes, but it wasn’t entirely unmerited.”
Val avoided the urge to agree with Damon, feeling as if all that would do is validate her. Still, she listened.
“We sometimes get into strange habits,” Damon went on, when Val said nothing. “We don’t even realize them at times, even when they negatively affect those around us. For whatever reason, we’re so existentially exhausted that we sometimes even try to hide the truth from ourselves, as well as others. It would seem Arras has become a professional at hiding the truth from herself—though, perhaps that’s how she’s survived everything she’s been through…”
“Do you think she really doesn’t know?”
The question seemed to slip out of Val involuntarily, though that only told her how much she wanted to know, how much she wanted someone else to confirm her suspicions.
“Maybe,” Damon hummed. “More likely, she just won’t let herself accept it. Arras is an incredibly self-sufficient person, but she still carries an abject amount of guilt on her sleeve.”
“Guilt…” The thought took Val by storm, lifting her head from her hiding place. “She feels guilty?”
“After everything she’s done, I would be surprised if she didn’t. She was an operator in the Rededication program before her parents let her in on their revolution. It seems that was a moment when Arras woke up to herself, when she reflected on herself. I can’t imagine what she must have felt when she realized… Something her parents did caused Arras to realize what she was doing was wrong—much like a slap to the face. But who can say how she received such a revelation?”
Val’s shame grew into self-loathing as she hid her face again.
They were both silent for some time, until the thought occurred to Val, and she steeled her heart against herself—enough to ask.
“Damon,” she breathed. “Would you please… would you slap me?”
“Figuratively, I mean!”
Her cheeks burning again, Val laid her head back against the tree trunk behind her, staring back up in the stars through the lightning-like branches overhead.
“I’ve hidden my feelings from the rest of you all this time, and now look where it’s landed me,” she sighed into the air. “I’ve not only made a fool of myself, but I’ve actually hurt someone—someone I never wanted to hurt. I’m asking you to please wake me up to whatever it is that’s causing me to act this way. I know that’s a lot to ask, but… you said you understood a little of it…”
“I first saw it that night in Ithaca.”
Casting her eyes down from the stars, Val found Damon smiling over his shoulder at her.
“I noticed it well before then,” he continued, “but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until that night. It was something in your eyes, when you were looking up at the sky, just like now. I could see that longing. I recognized it like an old friend.” Bowing his head in reverence, he turned back to his tablet, feeling abnormally vulnerable as he spoke. “I know what you’re going through, what you’re thinking, because I’ve gone through the same trials myself. You want Nulem back.”
“I do,” Val admitted, “but I didn’t think that was much of a secret.”
“It’s not,” Damon confirmed. “What is a secret is that you don’t actually want Nulem—you want the Nulem you’ve constructed for yourself, the one in your head.”
Hearing that, Val felt as if she might cave into herself, the breath leaving her chest, as if all life had been squeezed out of her. Yet, despite the blow, something told her that this was what she needed. She was sleepwalking, and, as traumatic as it might be, she knew she needed to wake up.
“Have I gone too far?” Damon asked.
“No,” Val said firmly. “Please, continue.”
Thinking this through, watching her from the corner of his eye, Damon could see what he had said had hurt her more than she would let on. And yet she asked him to continue.
“When I was much younger,” Damon said, changing his approach, “our world was at war with itself. Tensions were high, and one wrong step could have resulted in global violence, with nuclear weapons leading the assault. There were no major battles; rather, it was a war of anticipation, of wondering who would be the first to pull the trigger and end the world—so we called it the Cold War.
“Toward the end of that conflict, there was a group of radicals who managed to steal a nuclear pile from a superpower called the Soviet Union. They took it to a country called Iraq, where they planned to make a bomb. Once the weapon was built, they would detonate it then and there. They thought that if the world could see an actual nuclear blast, if they could see what it really did to people, it might wake the world from its own sleepy war.”
“I guess our worlds are a lot alike,” Val said. “We both seem to struggle against our own.”
“We also both seem to deal with those struggles in the same way,” Damon confessed. “At that time, I was associated with the CIA, an American agency that operates exclusively in foreign lands. To recover the nuclear pile, we secretly worked with the Soviets and formed a team of no more than ten. Our mission was to enter Iraq, extract the pile, and exterminate anyone who knew of its existence.”
“And did you succeed?”
“We did. At least, the mission was a success, but…”
“As I said, Valiya, I know what you’re going through all too well.”
They traded almost ghostly looks as Damon pried from himself a story he had kept hidden for decades, one which only he knew—one which used to pain him to the core. It was a story that he thought would set Val free, if only a little. So he would tell it gladly, if only to see her let go the way he had.
“I met a woman, a Soviet operative,” he said. “Her name was Sofia. We worked together for months in Iraq, and we were… highly irresponsible in our relationship.”
“You fell in love?”
“To say ‘we fell in love’ would be an understatement, for both of us.”
“What was she like?” Val asked eagerly, her eyes brighter than before.
Damon smiled at her enthusiasm.
“She was quiet, and she could be rather curt with others. But I never knew someone who cared more for the people around her—what they thought, what they felt…” That ghostly look from before returned as the story progressed in his own mind. “For some time I thought she had faked all of that, but after a while I realized her personality and what she did were inextricably interwoven.”
“What… what did she do?”
“We located the nuclear pile and the people responsible for stealing it,” Damon went on, his tone darkening to match the night. “As soon as we had them, we were betrayed from within. A few of our own, plus a couple of the Soviets—among them, Sofia.”
Val felt a throb in her own heart, not even needing to imagine what Damon must have felt. It was something she had already felt herself in those final moments with Nulem, and in the months since then.
A question came to her, but she was afraid she already knew the answer. Even so, she needed to know.
“What did you do?”
“In the middle of combat, I found her… and I put a gun to her head.”
Damon stared down at his right hand, the fingers that had held that Beretta all those years ago. Relinquishing the tightness in his chest, he let out a relieved breath.
“And I let her escape,” he sighed.
Val watched him closely as he stared out toward the lake, his mouth contorting to a smile as he held back tears.
“I’ve never told this story to anyone, Valiya. Sofia believed so strongly that what our targets were planning was right, and no matter how much I disagreed, no matter how dangerous I thought she was to herself and others—I couldn’t pull the trigger. So I let her go, and I’ve kept that secret ever since.”
His shoulders trembled slightly, yet from what Val could see, he wasn’t sad. There was something else in Damon—it wasn’t joy or relief, but it wasn’t sadness either. She leaned over, resting her shoulder against his, reminding him that he wasn’t alone.
“So you’re saying Sofia is like Nulem,” Val said.
“In a way, I believe so,” Damon said, receiving her shoulder with gratitude as he rubbed at his eyes with his other arm. “The memory of that day tormented me. I spent years agonizing over what had happened, for being so weak… I couldn’t process why it was that I could despise what she had done so much, and still want to love her. Then I finally realized what it was, what it was that was haunting me all that time.”
Every word he said, Val felt as if she could have said herself in all the time she had been on Earth. Yet there was something just beyond her, something Damon had to offer, and she knew it. And so she waited a little longer.
“If I truly loved her,” Damon said softly, “I needed to let her go. I loved her, but I was trying to possess her, to make her my own. And when she betrayed what I wanted her to be, it left me devastated.”
“She broke your heart. Regardless of the circumstances, it’s normal to feel the way you did.”
“Normal, yes, but just because something is normal doesn’t mean it’s good. I invested so much of myself in her, and she did indeed betray me, but only insofar as she refused to be what I wanted her to be. And so I realized at last, if I loved her… I would have to let her be precisely who she was. I would have to accept her. Not the image I had of her, not what I wanted out of her. I had to accept her.”
Val could feel it now, the brink where her own knowledge ended and Damon’s continued. It felt dark, cold. She didn’t want to hear it, but she knew this was what she had asked for—this was what she needed to wake up.
“Did you ever see her again?”
Damon turned back to the lake, and he spoke as if he was merely narrating a field report.
“After the conflict, I returned to my team, who had managed to secure the nuclear pile. But most of the people who had taken it in the first place had escaped, and Sofia had fled with them. We tracked them for two weeks, and eventually we found them…” He bowed his head. “The people Sofia thought were her friends… had abused her in unspeakable ways. And then they put a bullet through her head—the bullet I just as easily could have fired. In her stomach, they carved a word in Arabic—‘Iblis,’ the name of their personification of evil itself. I never found out what had happened after she left, let alone why those people killed her, but something in me wants to think… wants to think that maybe she had tried to stop them from coming back to kill us.”
Val hugged her knees close again, her eyes closed, her lips tight. She could feel that slap to the face she had asked for, that wake up call. It hurt so badly, and she wasn’t sure what to do with it, but she could feel Damon’s shoulder against hers, jostling her from her own meltdown. And so she looked up one more time and met his empathetic eyes.
“It’s agony,” Damon confessed, “but it doesn’t have to be. I won’t tell you to abandon your quest. But, Valiya, please know this: you have no guarantee. In fact, it’s possible that the Nulem you want isn’t real. It doesn’t mean you have to stop loving him, nor does it necessarily mean that he doesn’t love you. But don’t let what you want blind you to what really is.”
Holding back her own tears, Val nodded and said, “I understand. Thank you, Damon.”
He put an arm around her and brought her close. Burying her face in his tattered suit coat, she started to cry. In the crook of his arm, Val finally accepted it—she accepted that the Nulem she knew may very well be gone. After all, she herself was not the same woman who had joined the College and fallen in love with her childhood friend. She could remember who Nulem had been, but she knew she would have to allow him to be who he was now—regardless if he was what she would prefer or not.
And so she decided to let her dream die, and to stop chasing the pale simulacrum of the love she had left at Felicity.
The ache in her heart felt like it might burst her very soul—and yet, despite the pain, she couldn’t help but feel a real liberation she had been longing for. Even as she wept, she felt genuinely free.