The order was given and the shots fired, yet Nule couldn’t feel a thing.
Had it not been for the uproar going on just past his blindfold, he might have thought he had died without even realizing. The cackling of gunfire combined with the scrambling boots of servicemen were overcome only by the yelling—commands and directions, taunts and curses, wailing for the lost. It was a dreadful choir, composed of combatants and noncombatants, all in the midst of a fight where no one was off limits.
The blindfold was yanked from Nule’s head, and he felt two hands around his wrists. One of the soldiers, who had until a second ago been aiming at Nulem and the others, was now cutting him loose from the wall.
“Are you all right, Master Proxy?” the soldier asked Nule as he pulled him from the wall.
Nule couldn’t answer, rendered utterly speechless by what he saw. Empty shells littered across the deck, sprinkled between bodies, all wearing the same uniform, yet not all of them were on the same side. Had there been some sort of mutiny, or had the New Pact done exactly as the rebels had done to them? He could hear the sound of more gunfire outside the hangar, along with the same yells—the battle was far from over.
A number of proxies were rubbing their wrists, a couple others going on ahead with their armed escorts. But not all had been cut from the wall.
“We need to get you to a safe place, Master Proxy,” the soldier continued, taking Nule by the arm. “Come with me.”
“Who are you people?” Nule demanded to know, pulling his arm from the soldier.
The force spun him about enough to really see the wall he had been bound to a moment ago—along with the bodies, still strung up by their wrists. Slumping under their own weight, Nule counted eight dead or bleeding out from fatal wounds. Near the center of the eight wounded or slain, he found Visum, sputtering blood from his mouth, hanging by his own dislocated shoulders.
Nule ran to Visum, dropping to his knees so they were on eye level.
“Someone, please, we need a medic!” Nule called out, looking left and right at any of the soldiers who would look at him. “What are you doing? Don’t just stand there. We have to save him!”
“I’m sorry,” said the same soldier from before. “There’s nothing we can do for him now. We have to leave, Master Proxy.”
Nule turned back to Visum, who continued to wheeze a few weak words. Unsure of what he was saying, Nule leaned closer to his lips. Drops of red splattered against Nule’s face as Visum breathed his last.
“Don’t let them kill you,” Visum struggled to tell him. “And don’t let our world kill itself.”
With that, Visum’s expression became vacant, and his body sank the uncomfortable rest of the way to the floor, no longer concerned with the stab of his shoulders.
Nule screamed Visum’s name again and again, shaking him, trying to get him to wake up. After all, that was all this was, all it could be—what else could it be? He had fallen asleep, and so had Nulem. Because this all could be nothing more than a bad dream. Or perhaps a terrible postmortem vision. Was this what awaited him after death? Nulem had never considered ideas about an afterlife anything more than archaic superstition, something a majority of his world no longer believed—but what, then, was this?
“Master Proxy!” roared the soldier, heaving Nule up to his feet. “We have to leave now, sir! Come on!”
Forcibly boxed in by a handful of loyal troops, their backs pressed to all sides of Nule’s body, he was shuffled out of the hangar.
The threatening sounds of bullets ricocheting all around couldn’t pull Nule back to reality. The image of Visum’s corpse had stained his eyes the way the blood had stained his face—the blood not only of Visum, but of the proxies next to him who had been splattered against the wall. And Nule had simply lucked out. All because their rescue had arrived just in time to save him. Because of nothing more than happenstance. Nothing more.
A distinct gunshot cracked the air and one of the soldiers pressed against Nule fell to the deck. The circle around Nule closed in even tighter to make up for the loss, and the fallen guard was left behind to drown in the sea of bullets and screams.
The backs of these men slammed into Nule hard as they moved through the corridor. Sometimes they moved amicably, but mostly they found themselves racing bullets and barking directions at one another. Yet the harsh jostles and blows seemed to call Nule back to life, to wake him up. And as he woke from his bad dream to the similar nightmare all around him, Visum’s last words were all he heard.
Don’t let them kill you. And don’t let our world kill itself.
With his hands on the backs of two soldiers, and his own back against the man directly behind him, Nule attempted to read their movements as they scuttled on. Rather than be dead weight or luggage, he would do his best to travel with them. They would be his shields, but he would not have them die for him simply because he slowed them down.
In one sudden moment, the circle around Nule broke and he was left in the open. He looked back at the soldiers who had been guarding him as they ran back the way they came, straight back into the battle.
All around Nule were countless other soldiers, each one having marked their shoulders and helmets with a distinct blue mark—something to distinguish them from the insurrectionists dressed exactly like them. From the ceiling, through a hole that had been cut out with a plasma torch, one man after another dropped to the deck, sprinting farther into the ship the moment their boots touched solid ground.
“Through here, Master Proxy,” said an automated soldier in an abnormally calm tone.
The towering figure, standing at least a foot above Nule’s own head, led him to what had been one of the ready rooms. The heavy bulkhead closed and locked behind him as the mechanized giant returned to its post, guarding the door.
Inside, Nule found the other proxies, the seven who had made it out alive—two women and four men, including Thiossus—the only one of the bloodied faces he could immediately recognize. As the others huddled among themselves, none of them sure what to do, Nule strolled deeper into the ready room.
Walking past a blacked out display, he caught a glimpse of his own face. Across his left cheek was a lengthy gash, open and bleeding. A stray bullet must have narrowly missed him—just barely. Yet he knew not all the blood on his face was his. There was more than he thought on his ear where Visum had gasped his last counsel, and the rest of his face was streaked with the blood of the proxies who had been bound beside him. His robes, too, even in black, were still clearly covered in the blood of others—whose blood, though, he wasn’t sure.
He fell like a bag of sand into a nearby chair, feeling his heart pounding in his chest. Looking down at Val’s robes, glazed with dark red sheen and speckled with human tissue, he felt the cool chill of his own sweat. Pressing a fistful of a clean portion of his sleeve to the open gash on his face, he tried to regulate his breathing. But the breath wouldn’t come. All he could think of was them—three people.
Clutching his robe, he thought of Valiya.
Wiping the blood from his face, he thought of Visum.
And staring down at the copper-scented blood smeared on his fingertips, he thought of only one other: Commander Savin Visk—one of the men responsible for ruining his life.