Damon watched Val from the other end of the roof. Despite the crowd between them, her unnatural shade of red hair stood out rather clearly. Though he had wondered about such an unusual characteristic—unusual to Earth, at least—it seemed he had forgotten just how at home a girl with her seemingly extreme hair would be in New York.
After a while, he decided to join her.
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Damon said to her as he sat on the ledge, facing himself toward the party as he spoke, “but I considered you the gregarious type.”
“Oh,” Val said with a smile, as if returning from a trance, “I hope I haven’t offended Eli…”
“It would take a herculean effort to genuinely offend that boy; I’m sure you’re all right. But you do seem to have been dodging the other guests.”
Val looked back down at the road below. “I suppose I just didn’t feel like socializing.”
“It can be difficult meeting new people.”
“But they all seem so familiar…” Looking back up at the party over her shoulder, Val’s smile had disappeared so subtly. “When I first met Danny, he told me how similar he thought my home was to Earth. He was right. I guess being here reminds me of home…”
“Ah yes, the mystery of our ominously identical worlds,” Damon mused, excited by the conundrum. “Who knows what strange hodgepodge of collective unconscious and convergent evolution could’ve come together to make it so? I find it rather fascinating, actually. Though Asael Mack anticipated something like this, even if not in all its specificity. He used to say we are all just unique pinches of the same sand, and that our individuality lies not in our pieces but in the ways we choose to arrange them.”
Val wasn’t listening. Instead, she turned around and sat next to Damon on the ledge, looking up at the sky. She couldn’t see the stars, not with the city around them, but that was nothing new to her. Felicity was even worse. Though, she had hoped not seeing the stars would keep her from thinking about him—instead, the similar sky only made the longing all the more poignant.
“We’ve been here for so long now,” Val said into the sky, “but it feels like we’ve made so little progress.”
“I’m sure Aurin is working as quickly as he can,” Damon assured her. He guessed the way he spoke had been somewhat deceptive; watching her look into the sky, he knew that look in her eye all too well. “It shouldn’t be much longer now, not after having decrypted one location. No matter how resistant their algorithms, Aurin Enqelin is more than a match for them.”
“We have a quantum computer,” Val sighed, tallying everyone’s respective assets. “The College has several, plus their finest cryptographers and programmers. They’ll outrun us, especially since we led them to the first platform ourselves.”
“Arras tells me each data pack contains a number of locations, a track of jumps each platform makes as a security measure. You only led them to one location on one of the tracks, which means the New Pact began with only a portion of one data pack while we had one in its entirety.”
“That might be enough…”
As they slipped back into silence, Damon remembered how poor he was at speaking with people Val’s age; it seemed the older he got, the more difficult it was to relate to younger people. Typically he had others he could pay to do that for him, lawyers and board members who could translate him to the new generation taking over the arms trade. But there was no one he could pay to mediate a moment like this.
He recognized the look Val had as she stared into the few stars in the sky. That look in her eyes, that feeling they illustrated—he had felt it before.
“You’re thinking of him, aren’t you?”
Val’s shoulders sank as she looked down at the party going on around their solitary corner.
“I’m sorry, was that too far? I’ll—”
“No, it’s all right,” Val said hurriedly. “It’s true. I thought I’d be okay, but after Ekren’s death really set in, and after I realized just how much time it would take to finish our task…”
“There’s no wrong in longing for those we love, Valiya.”
“I just wish I could go to him, speak with him, help him understand what Rededication really is. I mean, we have a ship, and…”
“Indeed we do, but I’m afraid it’s our only one, meaning only the most necessary trips are allowed.”
“Only trips to a Reded platform, you mean.”
“That’s what I mean, yes.”
Though they both knew he was right, as she went quiet again, Damon felt a twinge of remorse for shooting her down so abruptly.
“You may not believe me,” he ventured to say, “but I do know how you feel. You’re also not the only one sitting on pins and needles, waiting. I, Daniel, Arras—we’re all counting the days until the next strike.”
Hearing their names, Val sorted through the thinning crowd of people, finding the people to whom they belonged. She found Danny first, and watched him walk to Arras, sitting down beside her. She watched them speak together, watched Danny laugh as if there wasn’t a war going on, while the black hair Arras had allowed to grow out blew in the wind. Val felt her stomach twist.
Suddenly conscious of that feeling, as if nipped by a static shock, Val wrenched herself from their moment, returning to Damon. They traded looks in silence as she wondered if Damon knew what she was feeling, and he watched as she coasted from one mental state to another, each of which he knew better than his dearest homes.
The words interrupted their disjointed back and forth; they both turned in unison, finding Eli standing before them.
“Sorry, am I interrupting something?”
“No, not at all,” Val insisted, her face burning in the cool air, feeling as if she had been psychoanalyzed by everyone on that rooftop.
“Are you enjoying the evening, Eli?” Damon asked, deciding to help free Val from the awkward moment.
With a polite smile, Eli shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “I’m glad everyone could make it. To be honest, though, I’m also glad things are winding down.”
“Meek and mild till the end,” Damon said with a deep chuckle, bobbing his cane at the shy young man adjusting his glasses. “I take it you don’t prefer to be the center of attention.”
“Not really,” Eli laughed along before turning from Damon. “But, if you don’t mind, I was hoping I could meet you, Val.”
Still recovering from herself, Val jolted upright when she heard her name. “Me?”
“I’ve heard Danny speak about you, but I was hoping to meet you myself.”
“Oh… I see.”
“You know, Valiya,” Damon said casually, “I’ve found one can feel at home almost anywhere when they’re among friends.”
Val felt a smile come to her. With a nod, she and Eli launched into a new conversation with Damon. Together they discussed everything from life at Cornell to being a politician on Zero Point, not fearing being overheard as the crowd continued to trickle away.
Feeling her stomach mercifully untwist, Val found herself smiling still. She couldn’t forget Nulem, but she started to feel a certain strength she had almost lost altogether—a strength she could remember from one of her final conversations with Ekren.