By the time the men holding the line outside the command deck recognized Nule’s net signature, it was too late. They rushed onto the deck, ready to neutralize their surprise guest, only to find him with a sidearm pointed at the commander’s head.
Visk turned around slowly, his hands raised just enough to show Nule he had nothing with which to counter him.
“Lower your weapon now,” one of the guards roared at Nule, getting no response.
They could all see it in him; drive, born of a sense of purpose and a belief that he had nothing left to lose. It was enough to electrify the men on deck, keeping them on edge, lightening their triggers.
“Stand down,” Visk said in a firm tone, loud enough to let his men know that was an order for them, not Nulem. “Everyone, just stand down.”
“Wise move, Commander,” Nule said, trying to remain calm despite having just had several weapons aimed at him again.
“You’re not going to shoot me,” Visk told the young proxy.
“Of course not,” he replied. “That’s the difference between you and me, Visk: I’m not the kind of person who’s willing to kill to get what he wants.”
“So what do you want?”
“I want you to tell the rest of your men to stand down,” Nule said, “and to let my people take control of this vessel.”
Visk didn’t say a word, as if waiting for another demand, or perhaps one that felt genuine, more thoroughly thought out.
“Did you not hear me?” Nule snarled, reemphasizing the gun he had an inch from Visk’s head with a small shake. “Tell them to stand down!”
“You just told me you’re not willing to kill to get what you want,” Visk reiterated. “You keep shaking that gun at me, expecting it to intimidate me, but it won’t work. The way I see it, Master Proxy Nulem Verris, you’re at a real crossroads. You can either shoot me, making yourself a liar, proving that you’re exactly like us, the people you think are such monsters; or you could put that weapon down and accept that you and your people have already lost.”
“I’m no murderer, Visk!”
“Yet you want Rededication so badly. How does that add up?”
“Rededication isn’t murder,” Nule insisted, still trying to keep calm, to not let Visk get to him at this critical point. “All of you think we’re out to slaughter our own, but we’re not! Rededication is our hope for security, for order. If we have to eliminate dangerous groups or individuals, it’s only to maintain peace.”
“Peace through murder,” Visk replied. “Sounds like a killer trying to delude himself.”
“We’re not the ones who kidnapped unarmed politicians from their beds and put them in front of a firing squad!”
“No, you’re the ones who will reign death and terror down on all and sundry once they get the chance. If you want to compare numbers, Master Proxy, you had better be ready to confess your own inevitable kills, not just our current ones.”
“Don’t you believe in law, Visk?” Nulem asked, already exasperated by the man before him. “You swore to protect the order of the New Pact when you enlisted in the fleet. Did that mean nothing to you?”
“It meant everything to me,” said Visk, his words soft while carrying a sentiment as solid as steel. “Laws indeed protect the societies which draft them, but there seems to be one truism you and the rest of the College have so quickly forgotten about law.”
“And what’s that?”
“That law doesn’t exist on its own,” stated Visk. “Law only exists in the lives and actions of people who choose to follow, to obey. But in order to make law a reality, to restrict one’s actions to make that law real, you must begin with freedom. The people must choose law.”
“And what if they don’t, Visk?” Nulem asked, rattling the gun once more. “What if they absolutely refuse a law that could save them, all of them?”
“You want me to validate what your actions,” Visk said, looking past the gun and into Nule. “You think human beings are so banal, so prone to violence. Maybe you think I believe the opposite, that we’re all inherently good. But I don’t, because both views miss the point, Nulem.”
“What point is that?”
“That we are neither inherently good nor inherently evil—we are inherently what we choose to be.”
Boldly, Visk rested his hand on the terminal behind him once again, blatantly reconnecting to the computer through his net.
“Stop that!” Nule yelled, hurriedly pressing the gun into Visk’s brow, forcing him to tilt his head back. “Stop that right now, or I will kill you.”
“Maybe there’s hope for you,” Visk said, smiling as he continued his work.
That smile left Nule more confused than ever, as if there was something he wasn’t seeing, some obvious piece of the puzzle that only Visk realized.
“What do you mean?” Nule finally asked, pulling the gun from Visk’s face, though only slightly.
“You think the world is self-explanatory,” Visk muttered absently, more focused on his work than on Nule at this point. “You think it’s as simple as labeling this or that person as good or evil, but the fact is that it’s never been that simple. Because, Nulem, humans can’t be divided into good and evil—good and evil are both present in every human being. Inside each of us, good and evil, and the countless shades between, are at war with each other. We never admit that to ourselves, because if we did, then we would have to accept that repugnant conclusion: that we can’t conquer evil by just destroying particular lives—we have to destroy a part of ourselves.”
The terminal beneath Visk’s palm gave an approving ring, and a deep hum filled the ship, coming from the aft. Though the synthetic gravity nullified much of the force, Ila’s Voice accelerated so rapidly as to send everyone on board stumbling a step or two.
“What’s happening?” Nule demanded of Visk. “What have you done?”
“If we’re going to keep you from destroying others’ lives in your war on evil,” Visk grunted, lifting himself from the terminal, still networked in, “then one of us is going to have to let their evil side loose.”
The sound of shooting cracked from just outside the command deck, followed by the heavy thuds of bodies falling dead. Dense footsteps grew louder until streams of New Pact soldiers came flooding through each entrance to the deck, either surrounding any separatist enemies or putting them down.
All the while, Nule kept himself focused on Visk, ignoring the gunfire all around. Visk did the young proxy the same service.
“Stop this ship now,” Nule ordered, pressing the pistol back into Visk, who watched him with seeming disinterest.
“If you want to live,” Visk told him, “then I would suggest you leave immediately.”
It was then that Nule looked up at the scanner displays to see where Ila’s Voice was taking them. His stomach sank, even as his own men at last secured the deck. The monitors shivered on their mounts as the ship continued its aggressive acceleration, on its way to nosedive into the nearby Rededication platform.
Nulem turned his attention back to Visk, taking a step away from the commander.
“Stop this, Visk!” he urged him, trying to remain calm as the others on deck realized what was happening. “You can still put an end to this.”
“Yes, I can,” Visk replied. “It’s not a question of whether or not this will really end, Nulem. Just a question of how… But I suppose that will be for people other than ourselves to decide.”
In one sweep, before even the New Pact soldiers could respond, Visk plucked his weapon from his belt. In that instant, Nule’s heart stopped as he watched the firearm rise, tightly held in Visk’s fist. Then he saw the muzzle pass over him and stop at Visk’s own head.
“Until then,” the commander breathed.
Then he pulled the trigger.
The shot seemed to rattle the entire command deck, and all on it, more than the overworked engines of the ship. Echoing from the control room to the corridors outside, through comm channels still open, and into the hearts of all who witnessed or heard—it was as if that final shot had traveled the entire breadth of the New Pact, sounding off Visk’s death to the entire universe.
Unable to move, unable to breathe, as if his heart had stopped like Visk’s, Nule looked at the commander’s body lying on the terminal. A pool of red, dotted with sparkling nanomachines dying outside their host, spread over the console, dripping generously onto the floor.
One soldier ran to the terminal, slapping his hands onto it, trying to belay Visk’s last command to the ship. However, he found that Visk had locked them out of the ship’s controls altogether, having calibrated the security settings to accept only his nano-net—the net that was now sprinkled over the computer and the surrounding deck.
Instead, the soldier grabbed Nulem by the back of his shirt, pulling him forcibly to the exit, hoping they might be able to escape in time. But no one felt like kidding themselves. They knew their time was already up.
That made their deliverance all the more welcome.
With a crash, all power in the ship shut down. Not even the auxiliary reactors were permitted to activate. For a solid, eternal second Ila’s Voice was dark, dead, moving on momentum alone. And as suddenly as the ship had gone dark, it returned to life, this time with new orders.
Before impacting the nearby installation, several thrusters flared at the ship’s bow, decelerating the vessel more brusquely than she had even sped up, bucking all occupants inside once again. With a force that exceeded any safety limits, the thrusters blasted all the fuel they had, slowing Ila’s Voice to a nearly instantaneous stop.
Picking himself up from the ground, Nule looked around the command deck, at all the confused faces and sparking monitors. It was as if some surge had blasted through the entire ship, overloading everything, all to stop the vessel’s advance. Yet what had caused such a surge?
Nule then noticed someone he had never seen before, standing atop the terminal Visk lay dead upon. She watched everyone on deck patiently until they were quiet. When everyone seemed frozen, she looked down at Visk’s body.
“I suppose this is no surprise,” she said. “Not even he expected to live through this, it seems.”
With that, she looked up, resting her eyes directly on Nule.
“You’re just as interesting,” she told him. “You and he are not so different, really; you both desire peace for your world, and you’re both willing to cut away any undesirable constituents to accomplish that goal. It seems the disparity between the two of you is simply that you had the stronger will to live.”
Had she appeared in any other way, in any other guise, Nule might have protested her assessment. But something about her left him stuck where he was, speechless.
As if outside the bounds of gravity, the woman strolled from her perch on the terminal to the lower deck, approaching Nule.
“You think I’m mistaken,” she observed, as if divining his thoughts. “You think you’re different from him, nothing like him.”
“I…” Nule searched desperately for the words. “I don’t want… what he wanted.”
“And what do you want, Nulem Verris?” she asked, coming close. “What do you desire?”
“Who are you?” Nule whispered, unable to look away from her frightening, featureless face.
“I’m the one who wants to grant your wish,” she said simply. “I’m the last surety this universe has. My name is the Infinitude of Truth, and I am the chief intelligence of the Rededication program.”
“Indeed, I am.”
“But… but why are you here?”
Truth felt so pleased by the question.
“It’s just as I told you,” she said. “I’m here to fulfill that ultimate wish of yours, to make the world you envision a reality. I’ve been watching you closely, and I believe you are precisely the person I am looking for—the person to renew the Rededication program.”
Turning from him, she paced the room, speaking so the rest of her bewildered listeners could hear her clearly.
“I know what’s become of the Coalition, and I know who you all are—the ‘New Pact.’ I’ve been watching you closely, hesitant about whether you could be considered the heirs of what the prime family left behind. But today you have proven yourselves. And so I’ve come to you.”
She turned back to Nule, with an introductory bow. Nule crossed the deck, walking intrepidly toward the distorted avatar, stopping just before her.
“On behalf of the People’s College of the New Pact,” he said, “I thank you for saving us.”
“With pleasure,” Truth replied. “Now, before we ratify our alliance, there is something I’d like to show you—personally.”
Before Nule could respond, Ila’s Voice immediately performed an FTL jump. At the completion of the jump, the ship began to shake harshly, and the scanners rang out a number of warnings. The monitors showed torrential winds and turbulence outside as crystalized and gaseous matter swirled all around their warship.
“What is this?” Nule asked Truth. “Where have you taken us?”
“To our first battlefield,” Truth said with delight, “and the beginning of your new world.”