They could still hear the fighting outside. As the noise grew louder, the proxies feared the battle might be drawing closer. Yet while the others simply wanted to flee, Nule found himself wrestling with a different anxiety—a drive to act, to do something. Something, but he wasn’t sure what.
“Why can’t you just take us now?” one of the proxies asked the guard at the door. “You came here with a ship; take us back in it!”
“I’m sorry,” said the soldier, “but this ship and the rest of its group have already prepped their weapons systems. If we disconnect from the hull now, we’ll be caught in their phalanx and get shot down.”
“So we have to wait for you to take over this ship?”
“I’m afraid so.”
The debate went on, and with every word Nule’s anxiety intensified; soon, his desire to move grew into irritation—he became irritated himself and everyone else around him.
At last, he let it out.
“Instead of complaining,” Nule yelled at the one proxy, “why don’t you pick up a gun and go out there yourself?”
“Excuse me?” the politician asked, first taken off guard to hear another proxy scolding him, then enraged by the young man’s audacity. “I was called to the College to lead, not pull a trigger!”
“And a fine job you’ve done,” Nule replied coldly. “As you can see, we’ve all done a splendid job at leading our people, haven’t we? They respect us, trust us, so much so that I bet if we walked out of here right now, they might just let us leave!”
“How dare you!”
Nule stood up, raising himself above the proxy. “The kind of position you want is reserved for peacetime. We’re at war. Or have all of you forgotten?”
No one could bring themselves to answer him. Remaining in their seats, they dodged his glance.
“Eight of our friends are dead,” Nule reminded them. “Eight! Killed in cold blood. And all any of you can do is fear for your own lives.”
The soldier watched Nule with curiosity, but the growing noise outside the ready room pried him from the younger proxy’s speech. Opening the bulkhead, the soldier intended to check on his comrades outside.
A sudden bang echoed like a poltergeist through the small room as the soldier fell to the deck, his head split open. Before anyone could react, as if lost in trying to process what had happened, a small canister flew through the opening of the bulkhead, clattering onto the floor.
Instinctively, everyone dove for cover, but it was already too late. The canister exploded with a blinding light and a deafening screech, incapacitating everyone in the room.
The sound of gunfire, muffled by his own damaged hearing, was all Nule could discern. Heavy footsteps and the thuds of bodies hitting the deck joined the clinking of shells ejecting from rifles. The roars of other soldiers came from the distance, somewhere outside the room, and more gunfire followed, this time in the corridor. More heavy footsteps, then someone speaking into the ready room.
“This is terrible.”
“Come on,” urged another voice. “They’re still close. We can take out the rest of them.”
Eventually Nule’s vision returned, and he found himself under a heavy pile. Pushing the cumbersome loads away, his sight cleared enough to show him what he had been buried beneath—the robed corpses of six proxies.
Nulem’s fear threw him to his feet, and he stumbled away from the bodies. As if paralyzed, he stared down at the last of the College as their empty eyes stared in all directions. Frantically checking himself, Nule realized not a single round had hit him, yet he was covered in blood.
The pile of bodies shifted. Another two proxies cautiously lifted their heads, blood smeared across their terrified faces. One of them was Thiossus; the other a woman named Ishka. They both stared up at Nule, who looked back at them.
“The others are…” Ishka murmured, her voice shaking, her fear evident. “They’re all…”
Thiossus attempted to comfort her, but she seemed to have already tuned out the world around her, wallowing in her own distress.
A faint voice could be heard from somewhere in the room. As Thiossus continued tending to Ishka, Nule located the sound: beneath another proxy, there was a radio, attached to the soldier who had been guarding them. Nule plucked the radio from the guard’s body, listening to the transmissions.
He heard mostly orders he could not understand, having no context for where any of these people were. He listened to the conversations of New Pact infantry teams as they reported on engagements with the rebel soldiers throughout the ship. All their reports angered Nule even more than he already was. The hand with which he held the radio shook as he listened to one voice after another, until one single message came in, one which washed his anger away—returning his desire to move.
“Savin Visk is on his way to the command deck… Can’t stop him… Recommend backup to… Repeat: Savin Visk and his team are heading toward the command deck…”
An idea formed for Nule. Looking up from the radio, he saw a couple more bodies just outside the ready room, both of which were dressed in the uniform of a crewmember of Ila’s Voice. One of the uniforms was riddled with holes. The other was only slightly stained, the person wearing it having taken a bullet to the head.
“What are you doing?” Thiossus asked as Nule approached the intact uniform, dragging the body into the room.
Nule closed the bulkhead door and slipped out of his robes.
“What in the darkest depths are you doing, Nulem?” Thiossus exclaimed as Nule began to undress the dead crewman.
“I’m not waiting here to die,” Nule told him plainly, slipping into the uniform. “They say we can’t leave until this ship’s taken. I for one don’t intend to wait here until then. I’d rather get shot in battle than in a cage.”
“But, Nulem, what… What could possibly possess you to do such a thing?”
Strapping the tac vest on, and checking the sidearm, Nule prepared himself mentally. Overall, he tried to not let himself be afraid. He had meant what he said, and he had no intention of going back on it, even if it really did lead him to his own death.
Ignoring the other questions Thiossus threw at him, he stared down at the black and blue robes he had taken off. They were draped over a nearby chair, the sheen of fresh blood gleaming off their material under the ready room’s lights. He wondered what it would mean to leave those robes where they were. He expected it to feel like her leaving all over again, but it didn’t. He couldn’t feel a thing. Not at all, not for those clothes, not any more. They weren’t Valiya. They never would be. He didn’t want her memory; he wanted her.
She wasn’t in that ready room, nor even on that warship—so he decided to look for her elsewhere.
Running out into the passageway, with Thiossus calling fruitlessly after him, Nule knew where he was going. Checking the ship’s layout through his net, listening closely to the transmissions of the New Pact soldiers through one radio, the reports of the rebels through another, he wove his way through the metal cave. The sounds of nearby combat rattled around him, but he didn’t care. He didn’t care if he lived or died, not now. He had one goal, one idea, and if it failed, then so it was—but if he could make it work…
He stopped when he saw a few men down the corridor. They rose from their cover, their guns aimed right at him, studying him closely. After a few seconds, they lowered their weapons and waved him over.
They wore the same uniform Nule had stolen.
“Welcome to the last bastion,” one of them said to Nule, a lack of hope perforating his voice. “Maybe if more of you guys show up, we might at least be able to hold the line.”
“Hang in there,” Nule told him as he passed. “I’m sure it’ll be all right.”
Taking advantage of the chaos, not waiting for those men to recognize him, Nulem stepped onto the command deck. The officers who normally manned the surrounding stations were long gone, some of them having left their bodies on the deck. Only soldiers remained, standing guard.
And in the middle of the open room, he could see him.
Commander Savin Visk stood at the centermost terminal of the deck, busy at work through his nano-net.
Unhindered, Nule approached him, stepping down a short row of metal steps and onto the lowest level of the room. His heart raced the closer he came to the old man; he tried to keep his hands from shaking.
A few feet from Visk, he made his move.
“Commander Visk,” Nule said, his sidearm already drawn and raised to the old man’s head. “That’s enough. I’m placing you under arrest.”