From the observation deck, through the reinforced screens, Endriss watched the first personnel transports rise from the deck and into the black. Gaining a good distance from Ila’s Voice and the rest of her battle group, they soundlessly vanished in individual bursts of light, leaving nothing but dark energy distortions. One by one, they left the local space, easing Endriss’ churning gut with every successful outgoing jump.
The announcement continued to repeat itself throughout the battle group, stopping only at the holding tank they had tossed the College into. The order had come from Visk himself for all non-essential personnel to depart from the battle group immediately, rendezvous at the preplanned separatist sites, and await further intel on the situation. In addition to non-essentials, Visk had also given permission to any other crewmembers wishing to disembark, granting them honorable discharge, at least from what was to come after this evacuation.
Endriss replayed the offer Visk had made him shortly before his speech over the comm; a chance to be on one of the shuttles wafting like leaves off the flight deck, bursting into light, leaving this field behind. In reality, that wasn’t the first time Visk had offered him a way out, and it certainly wasn’t the first time Endriss had gratefully though definitively refused. He had followed the old man this far—the least he could do was see things through to the bloody end.
That was it. Raising his eyes to the Rededication platform hanging unsettlingly close by, the reality sank in even more. This was the end. This was their final chapter. Though, that said, with every last breath they could draw, Endriss knew they would be the ones to write that chapter—not the College.
An unexpected flash outside caught Endriss’ attention. His eyes shot wide open when he saw what the incoming FTL event had spat out. Another handful of incoming jumps occurred before the sirens went off and the announcement changed from an encouragement to depart the ship to a declaration of high alert. The time had come. The enemy had arrived.
Called to the command deck, Endriss sprinted through the passageways, as directions were given through the intercom to the rest of the crew circulating around him.
Stepping on deck, he found Commander Visk and stood at attention. Visk dismissed his formalities, nodding up at the scanner displays.
“We’ve got a full carrier group,” Visk explained calmly. “We’ve already arranged the rest of our ships in a defensive perimeter around the platform. But we’ll need to move now.”
“Sir,” Endriss confirmed, though he belayed Visk’s advance for a moment. “Commander, what about the evacuation?”
“Not getting cold feet, are you?”
Even in a moment like this, Visk retained an odd sense of humor.
“No, sir,” Endriss assured him. “I’m only wondering what we’re going to do about the residual effects of their FTL events—the ships that have already departed.”
“Ila’s Voice and the rest of the group have included the active jump sites in their perimeter; they’ll dissipate before the New Pact can get the chance to trace them,” Visk explained, leading Endriss off-deck with him.
“And the rest of the evacuees, sir?”
“What about them?”
“Should they be returned to their posts?”
Visk walked ahead of Endriss as he answered, saying, “I haven’t called off the evacuation. The ships are still departing as we speak.”
“My offer still stands, Keitimas,” said Visk, still not looking back at his subordinate. “I gave them the chance to leave before things got messy, and so long as I can keep up my end of the deal, I will.”
Endriss didn’t push it more than that. The gesture was a generous one, if not dangerous, but it only reinforced for both of them the finality of what was about to happen.
“Are the uplinks ready?” asked Visk as they made their way to the holding room.
“Ready and awaiting our transmission,” Endriss confirmed. “We’ll be networked into every public newsfeed still operating in the New Pact. They’ll see it.”
“Good. We can’t afford more than one take, so let’s do this right the first time.”
Visk and Endriss watched in person as the guards rounded up the proxies, binding them and pulling them from the holding room. They marched as a convoy through the ship, getting a variety of looks from the rest of the crew as soldiers cleared the passageways ahead, holding onlookers back.
Fighting against the brute force of his captors, Nule searched frantically for Visum, finding him just ahead. As the rest of the College shouted questions and threats, he kept his eyes forward, watching Visum, who walked calmly wherever the men directed him, collected as ever. Nulem attempted to emulate him.
Though, whatever was about to happen, he knew it wouldn’t be in their favor. That made it hard to stay calm.
Nule stumbled with the rest of the caravan through a porthole into an auxiliary hangar. With the open deck clear of any equipment or vehicles, the proxies were herded to the back of the bay, where their backs were forced to the wall.
A soldier forced Nule’s hands through extended pieces of the wall before binding the proxy’s wrists again. Tugging at the restraints as the soldiers backed away from their captives, Nule realized what they had done. At a uniform distance from one another, he and the rest of the proxies had been lined up against the wall, made to face the small group across the bay.
His breath leaving him, yanking at his bound wrists even more, panic seized Nule. The rest of the College started to pick up on what was happening, slipping into the same growing disorder. Visum remained still, however, standing upright despite being hitched to the wall.
“What’s going on?” Nule said to himself, feeling shock set in as the rebels deliberated among themselves. “Are we… are we going to die, then?”
“Take courage, Nulem,” Visum said resolutely, quelling some of his young friend’s fears with those words alone. “This is but a moment. There’s nothing to say we’ve lost.”
Casting his voice out to the rest of the bay, Visum took charge of the situation as much as he could.
“Commander Visk, what is the meaning of this? If you’ve brought us here to die, perhaps you might do us the courtesy of at least filling us in on your scheme.”
Visk stared Visum down for a moment, then stepped out into the open space between the bound proxies and his own men.
“Let me make myself abundantly clear,” Visk called out. His voice boomed through the bay, quieting the whispers sneaking through the air. “Masters and madams of the College, we have attempted to reason with you, but you clearly will not be swayed. I respect your resolve. However, we did not come here to simply discuss matters, then call it a day. Our attempts to negotiate with you were a concession, a show of good faith. Because our negotiations have failed, I’m afraid we must bring our own resolve to bear.”
“Whatever you wish to accomplish,” Visum replied, “all you will do is mark yourselves as barbarians. None of us will validate the crude brotherhood you’ve formed. You’ll simply have to stain your hands. Know that those stains will appear most prominent to anyone with eyes to see, especially the citizens of the New Pact.”
Staring deeply into Visum, Visk expiated from himself any remaining hesitation. This would not be for Visk or his people any more than it was for the College; this was for the benefit of people wholly other than themselves—let them think what they may.
Without a word, Visk returned to his group. A number of armored guards approached the proxies, tying bands of fabric around their heads, covering their eyes.
Gliding across the deck, a pedestal-like drone approached Visk, stopping a short distance from him, measuring up to his chest. A clear surface at the drone’s head came to life, the sounds of intricate machinery beneath its cover signaling preparation. An array of lenses activated, taking in a view of Visk with the College bound and blindfolded behind him.
“The link’s established,” Endriss said from behind the drone. “Ready when you are.”
With the help of the quantum comm system aboard Ila’s Voice, the image of Visk standing with the hostage proxies behind him penetrated every corner of the industrialized worlds. News services were overwritten, their signals overpowered by this new broadcast, covering all of the core worlds, and many of the outlying territories. What was about to happen—the entirety of the human race, save Earth only, would have to watch.
“My name is Savin Visk,” he told the drone in a firm voice, one befitting a man speaking his last words. “I am the commanding officer of Ila’s Voice, a warship in the New Pact fleet. I also represent the revolutionary movement which opposes the current College and their agenda concerning Rededication.
“Two days ago, Zero Point standard, my men abducted all fifteen members of the People’s College of the New Pact and brought them to this ship—my ship, Ila’s Voice. Since then, we have attempted peaceful dialogue with these fifteen individuals in attempt to convince them of the danger of resuming the Rededication program. All negotiations, however, have failed. And we are left with one final option.
“People of the New Pact, we are broadcasting to each and every one of you today because this event is for your eyes, not ours. Your fate as a people, until now, has been determined by fifteen men and women, whom you originally elected to power, yet who have since engaged in actions condemned by the very people who called them to their positions. Because our attempts at dissuading the members of the College have failed, we are left with no other alternative.
“Our goal is to set the people free from those who would decide their fates for them. We do not declare a new regime or give you an agenda of our own. Rather, we hope to give you the chance… We hope to give you the chance to decide for yourselves what the New Pact can be, outside of the opinions of dictators. Do not remember us as heroes; we don’t care if you remember us as villains. Just know that what we do today, we do for the people.”
Stepping away from the camera, Visk allowed the viewers across the worlds of the New Pact an unadulterated view of the proxies lined up against the wall.
“This can’t be happening,” Nule said, watching the line of men before him take their stances. “They said they wanted to do this peacefully. Please, I’m not…”
“Ready,” Visk roared.
The room seemed to fade away as her face flashed into Nulem’s head once again.
His voice trembled with fear and regret. And more vividly, more powerfully, she came to him.
“I’m not ready…”
Once again, there she was—as if calling to him, beckoning.
“Not like this, no…”
With incomparable clarity, as if this moment was all there was to ultimate reality, as if every second he had spent with her in the past had been the fantasy and this the truth, he could feel her presence—Valiya, standing before him, beckoning to him. Calling to him. Waiting for him.
“I’m not ready to die!”