WA Delegate: The United Republic of Richomp (elected )
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Embassies: Gay Equality, Zentari, The United Feline Commonwealths, International Debating Area, The Glorious Nations of Iwaku, United States of America, Future Earth, North Dakota, Krillin, The Dank Meme Alliance, The Bar on the corner of every region, The Illuminati, Avadam Inn, Northumbria, The Great Universe, Hellenic Civilization, and 115 others.Eastern Roman Empire, Sovereign Charter, Groland, Asylum, LCRUA, Hippy Haven, Remnants of Hyrule, Sikh Empire, Union of Saxon Justice, Order of the Southern North, Khuzifenq, Canterlot, Okanagan, Aeterna Publicae, Empire of Andrew, The Western Isles, Arconian Empire, The Peaceful Coffee Shop In Chicago, Historia Novorum, Regionless, Sunalaya, Asiana, Solid Kingdom, The Doctor Who Universe, Iowa, Colorado, Illinois, Arizona, Kansas, Idaho, Maryland, Delaware, 0000, Capital Heights, Pluviostan, Ancient Lands, Republic of Channel Island, Organization of United Sovereign States, Homestuck, Eladen, Krumpelberg, The Republic Nations, North Carolina, The Empire of Friendship, The Lexicon, Dominican Republic, Argentina, Osakaland, The Great Experiment, Free Market Federation, The Parliamentary Union of Nations, Wyoming, Democritus, London, Mexico City, Mississippi, Cameroon, Jamaica, The Central Pacific, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Uganda, Minnesota, Republic of Russia, The Hill, One big Island, Birmingham, Archdymia, Brazzaville, Togo, Timor Leste, Galapagos, Republica del Paraguay, Imperial Prussia, Sudan, The Gambia, Saskatchewan, Austro Hungarian Empire, Solar Alliance, Bus Stop, Greater Dienstad, The Mesan Union, Kylden, Haiku, Tasmania, Australia, The Sands, CDW Federation, The Vast, Ozymandium, Gypsy Lands, The United Islands of the Atlantic, Yarnia, Chinese Republic, The Dawn of Unity, The Erviadus Galaxy, Hollow Point, Epicenter Of Prosperity, Train Station, Djibouti, Fredonia, Kingdom of Adonai, The International Polling Zone, Norden, Oneid, RAMS, Save Our Planet, Pecan Sandies, The Embassy, matheo, Alleghany, Guinea Kiribati, Independence Hill, Montrandecs Neighbours, The Giraffe Federation, and New Alvarez Union.
Today's World Census Report
The Largest Publishing Industry in Dauiland
The World Census tallied social media complaints from students regarding overpriced textbooks to determine which nations have the largest book publishing industries.
As a region, Dauiland is ranked 580th in the world for Largest Publishing Industry.
|1.||The Articulate Republic of Rahul Raghuraman||Left-wing Utopia||“Forever advancing!”|
|2.||The Blue Lynx Nation of Nazbeth||Left-wing Utopia||“Power to the People”|
|3.||The United Republic of Richomp||Scandinavian Liberal Paradise||“oeconomia ad libertatem ad enviorment”|
|4.||The Free State of Crimtonian Spectre||Capitalist Paradise||“Live Free or Die”|
|5.||The Federation of Essel-Asteria||Benevolent Dictatorship||“Ad Astra Unitum”|
|6.||The Sweet Islands of Candy and Chocolate||Liberal Democratic Socialists||“Tout est bon avec du sucre!”|
|7.||The Republic of TLU Canon Info||Authoritarian Democracy||“Let's not go that way”|
|8.||The Factbook Writers of Our Official FB Nation||Inoffensive Centrist Democracy||“Dauiland’s Official Factbook Storage”|
|9.||The HOLIEST HOLY LAND of HOLYDIA||Psychotic Dictatorship||“I am your GOD, Poobah!”|
- : Ammericas ceased to exist.
- : Embassy cancelled between The Popptart Empire and Dauiland.
- : The Protectorate of Oversized Operativez 21 of the region The Popptart Empire ordered the closure of its embassy in Dauiland.
- : Embassy cancelled between MentosLand and Dauiland.
- : Liberlitatia ceased to exist.
- : The Protectorate of Oversized Operativez 55 of the region MentosLand ordered the closure of its embassy in Dauiland.
- : Embassy cancelled between Japan and Dauiland.
- : The Republic of TLU Canon Info arrived from Osiris.
- : The Republic of TLU Canon Info ceased to exist.
- : The Republic of Nababa Republic of the region Japan ordered the closure of its embassy in Dauiland.
Dauiland Regional Message Board
It's a long boi...
(As long as the Endgame finale. Over half as long as the TE finale. Twice as long as Chapter 1. Two-fifths as long as all of TFW. So long, in fact, that I have to split it into 3 RMB posts due to the cap on the word count of individual posts! Still one chapter though.)
Also, take very special care not to accidentally open the spoilers too early, for example the spoiler for #2 if you've not yet finished #1, as you will immediately be massively spoiled and memory-wipe technology hasn't yet been invented.
Lastly, feel free to skim over Chapter 1 before proceeding to this one.
On a nameless November night, Goa Lore gazed pensively out the front window of the car, a nondescript platinum-gray electric on loan from Matoolas Intelligence, as Kentar Gierplun steered cautiously along the narrow mountain pass that snaked up to Seterek, a tiny, forgettable settlement nestled among the snow-clad summits of the Loeba Range. The visibility the headlights and occasional lamp posts provided did not extend more than a few meters, obscured as it was by thin curtains of snow descending gracefully from the clouds and blanketing everything in sight. To his left, the sheer mountainside rose dramatically, as though the peaks were reaching up for the stars. To his right, beyond the waist-high guardrail, the terrain dropped away rapidly, plummeting hundreds of meters and promising a grisly fate to the inattentive.
The road’s navigable condition reminded the travelers of their fortuitous timing: once the snow turned to ice, it would be too dangerous to drive anywhere except on the regularly maintained throughway, and by the time it melted, they would be too late. But they had decided not to travel by helicopter—the alternative means of transport to Seterek—as it would draw undue attention to their visit. They needed not alert the whole hamlet of their arrival. The fewer who knew about the Administrative President and Intelligence Director’s top-secret trip to the Kevtabs, the better.
Goa felt physically exhausted, utter weariness seeping into every bone and muscle—the reason why Kentar was driving—but his mind remained wide awake. The events that would transpire in the coming hours held titanic significance, Goa knew; this night could very possibly be one of the most important of his life. The steady influx of this anxiousness—a variety impervious to the techniques he had developed throughout his political career—compelled him to remain constantly, agonizingly on edge, like an eyelid pried open for hours on end.
He wanted nothing more than to throw himself onto a soft, cozy, fluffy bed and collapse into a weeklong slumber, and he simultaneously possessed an unflinching conviction to stay on full alert as long as necessary, his body’s lassitude regardless. He continued to stare out the window, observing nothing in particular, his mind too preoccupied to appreciate the scenic view.
Kentar—who, lucky for him, had managed to grab a couple of hours of sleep before their departure—made a sharp left, the last one before they crossed into Seterek. Over the next minute, the land on both sides of the road leveled out; the cliffside into which the roadway had been hewn relaxed into a hill, then flattened completely. Although the whiteout prevented them from glimpsing their destination a few kilometers ahead, they knew they had entered Victor’s Vale, the slender valley home to the settlement.
Goa looked out at the rest of the Dauiland Council, arranged by delegation in the Tiricia branch building’s Special Reception Room—a high-ceilinged circular chamber twenty meters in diameter that glistened with recently-installed steel walls, an automatic security alert system, and other high-tech innovations from across the Alliance. Currently, they were listening to a spec-ops corporal deliver their report by remote link from Camp Wraith, an AJM base in their native Crimtonian Spectre.
“The findings of myself and my team,” Corporal Jole Bract was saying, face enlarged on the monitor mounted to the portion of the wall opposite the door, “seem to corroborate General Kivon Orrian’s explanation. If the Councilors will recall, he attributed the disaster he presided over in the Wastes to Imperial deception tactics. He stated that the ‘awakened threat,’ as it was called, was nothing more than a ruse concocted by the Imperials with the aim of luring AJM units into a costly ambush—which is exactly what happened.”
Goa and his co-delegates, Sary Hykks and Ilazi Buaryn, exchanged knowing glances. They remembered that meeting well. Orrian, who had reportedly lost most of his bluster after his devastating defeat, had evidently regained that indignant bravado upon entering the DC complex. After the Chief Councilor finished making introductions, Orrian had stood up and launched a lengthy, passionate, colorful, and meandering tirade against those who had apparently plotted his and his task force’s downfall. Barely restraining himself, he had variously pinned the blame on General Aladín Detrane, General Metellius Grau, an Imperial impostor pretending to be an AJM garrison scout, an Imperial impostor pretending to be a Dauilandian impostor, his subordinates’ staggering incompetence, his superiors’ staggering incompetence, radiation poisoning due to a prolonged period in the Wastes, the Unidalanian observer Henuchi Kano, fate, and a conspiracy among the Richompian delegation to the Dauiland Council.
“I’d be remiss not to mention General Seletz’s aid in examining the data we collected in the Wastes,” continued the corporal. “His firsthand experience in the battle helped us parse our discoveries that much more quickly.”
After Orrian’s final claim, Rikel Nozash had had the general escorted back out to the waiting room, and the newly-promoted Seletz had been ushered in. His debriefing had been far more productive, and when asked to translate his erstwhile superior’s fervent ramblings, he had recommended that the DC discard all of Orrian’s accusations except those against the Empire and its saboteurs.
“Anyone else?” Councilor Samantha Vacker piped up from the Nazbethian table, to which Sara Keaton smirked surreptitiously.
“Of course,” Bract responded. “It was your suggestion in the first place to deploy a military intelligence team to assess the threat, given our unique ability to access the benefits of both the realms we straddle. That wasn’t our job here, but I believe we’ve still achieved a conclusion…”
As the officer went on, Goa wondered whether he should speak up. He had never truly trusted that the threat was all a lie. There had been a myriad of indicators implying it was genuine, and while much of that evidence was circumstantial, there were also some parts he saw as irrefutable—not to mention Orrian’s steadfast bungling of the operation beginning to end, a factor that wasn’t exactly conducive to accurate post-mortems. Goa hadn’t voiced his reservations during the meeting Orrian and Seletz had spoken at, and if he stayed silent now, he doubted there would be another good opportunity before the appropriate time passed.
Once Bract finished describing their team’s methodology, Goa said, “Corporal—and Councilors—I have a question. Even if the Empire ended up using it to make their trap more believable, could there have been a real threat in the Wastes?”
“Are you referring to the possibility of a pre-existing presence?” inquired Chief Councilor Sofia Sarrafi. “One which the Empire chose to exploit under its strategic prerogative?”
Goa nodded. He turned to the video stream of Bract, who answered, “We investigated the spot Orrian designated as a weak point of the threat, and found nothing out of the ordinary. Energy readings were never anomalous, either, after we took battle debris into account. While further analysis would probably fall into the realm of politics, which is more your domain than mine, my personal interpretation is that if there was an actual threat, it was also set up by the Empire to reinforce the deceit.”
“That certainly fits in with our prior knowledge of the Imperials,” Lainey Johannsen concurred.
“Are we in consensus that it was entirely an Imperial ploy, then?” Councilor Nozash asked, to which most of the Council replied in the affirmative. Still, Goa had misgivings.
Misgivings: they had plagued Goa for weeks, and had only intensified as the days wore on, now threatening to rip him unceremoniously apart. But he held on. He made himself hold on. There was simply no other option.
And it helped that he had Kentar with him. “Seterek Locality,” the NIB Director began to rattle off, employing the flawless recall that had so aided them during their ultimately-futile journey to Liberlitatia. “The sole constituent of Seterek District and Seterek City, which belongs to Loeba County. Seterek’s population is 335, has never exceeded the three hundreds, and was zero from the first census until settlers founded it a quarter century ago.”
Kentar paused and cast a meaningful look in Goa’s direction. “I’m sorry if this isn’t helpful.”
Goa, suspecting his friend was trying to distract him until they arrived, waved away the concern. “Don’t apologize. Even though I don’t think it’s going to work, I appreciate the effort. I’d been hoping to use this time to prepare and think about what I need to say…” he trailed off.
“But for an occasion like this, it’s best to speak from the heart,” Kentar finished, “right?”
“Right,” Goa agreed. “Plus, it’s not like I can focus on getting ready anyway.” Somehow, while it didn’t reduce the underlying stakes, talking about it helped alleviate the pressure.
“Not that you need to,” Kentar said. “This is all we’ve been thinking about for almost a month—”
“Rightfully,” Goa clarified.
“Rightfully,” Kentar echoed. “So then it would seem that you’ve already done essentially all you can to prepare. And remember—my offer from yesterday still stands.”
“Thank you,” Goa said, “but no. At least, not yet. I value all you’ve done for me, but I think this is something that I’ll need to figure out by myself. But you’ll know if I change my mind.”
“Good,” Kentar acknowledged. There was a silence as they continued down the road, which gained sidewalks as it transitioned from a serpentine mountain pass into Seterek’s main street. He let out a quiet sigh. “We’ve been made to run around the country for weeks, with few clues to the motives of our… host,” he said. “We need to be ready to expect anything.”
“Especially given who it is,” Goa added. “I need to be cautious.”
“Despite his faults as a commander, General Orrian’s mission report is, for all intents and purposes, accurate,” Bract stated.
“Nozash, do you have anything to say?” Councilor Lebowskii asked, peering across the room to his colleague.
“In what sense?” the Richompian said. “Corporal Bract’s debriefing has been successful and conclusive.”
“It’s obvious,” Lebowskii said, obviously trying to stoke a confrontation between Nozash’s delegation and the representatives of the TNA. “You, as a proud Richompian, feel the need to protect your countrymen, so you’ve intimidated the good corporal into diminishing Orrian’s incompetence.”
“I don’t know of any such thing,” Bract said.
“Of course you don’t—Lebowskii made it up,” Nozash replied, slowly beginning to lose his cool. “I hereby suggest that the Dauiland Council resolve this meeting before it deteriorates into a slugging match used by certain members to score points with their constituents at home.”
“How dare you accuse me…” Lebowskii began, his tone irate.
Someone gave Goa a single, firm tap on the shoulder, and he missed the rest of his temperamental friend’s riposte. He turned his head. It was the senior attaché of the Unidalanian mission to the Dauiland Council complex in Tiricia: Lener Tharral—a phlegmatic sexagenarian of middling competence with degrees from four countries, a penchant for circumlocution, and a personality as diminutive as his stature. This time, though, Tharral appeared equal parts distressed and perplexed, whispering, “A pressing message awaits you, Councilor Lore. If I might lead you from the chamber…”
Goa nodded, rose, and followed the diplomat to the antechamber, which hadn’t been renovated in the style of the Special Reception Room and was accordingly furnished with polished wooden walls and evenly spaced landscapes and still-lifes borrowed from a nearby art museum.
“We received it from a most protected backchannel originating in Unidalania,” Tharral said furtively, “and I was instructed to deliver it to you posthaste.”
“Who is it from?” Goa asked, his trepidation from the meeting inexplicably resurging.
The attaché passed him a slip of paper which contained the sender’s name and the contents of the message. Goa’s stomach lurched when he read the first line. He hadn’t expected this, he hadn’t expected this at all. And if it was connected to his earlier fears—if, somehow, the two were connected—
Then he read the second line; his chest instantly constricted, and he felt on the verge of being unable to breathe. The coincidence is too great. It can’t be anything else. He returned the slip to Tharral’s hand and, trying to conceal his swelling worry, started to walk back to the main chamber.
“Anything else?” Goa heard himself ask the diplomat, his mind aswirl.
“Yes, one more thing, Councilor,” Tharral said from behind him. “A postscript that wasn’t included in the message. I wasn’t told to apprise you of this, but I suppose it’s reasonable. The sender included a deadline. For what, I cannot say, naturally, and, verily, the message itself makes little sense to me.”
“Tell me what it is,” Goa said impatiently, “verbatim.”
“ ‘I invite you to my retreat in three weeks’ time,’ ” Tharral recited. “Anything else, Councilor?”
“No,” said Goa. “Thank you.” He didn’t hear the reply; as he pushed open the door, crossed the room, and took his seat next to Sary and Ilazi, his ears were filled with the sound of his heart palpitating, and his mind swam, afraid, uncertain, determined, while before his eyes the backchannel message from Unidalania repeatedly flashed: three words, small words, simple words, but words that rendered him mute and distant and glassy-eyed for the remainder of the meeting, words that confirmed his worst suspicions, words that together held the future in them, the future that meant everything to Goa.
It has him.
Buildings, mostly huddled around Seterek River, came into view as Goa and Kentar drove through wooded Victor’s Vale. Their destination was the last address on the right: a cabin, Kentar had learned, whose owner, traced through a dizzying circus of shell organizations, was indeed the sender. With trees and buildings collecting a great deal of the snowfall, and the blizzard milder in the protection afforded by Victor’s Vale, the visibility had increased, and Goa could see that the settlement was as quiet as Kentar’s statistics had implied. It helped that it was nighttime—the community was centered around three geothermal-powered greenhouses which took advantage of Seterek’s unique setting to grow a rare medicinal herb, an occupation requiring few night shifts.
Their car was alone on the street. Neither did any pedestrians or cyclists occupy the sidewalk. The wind whistled in the gaps between the low houses and stores, amid the frosty leaves that protruded from the branches of evergreens, and through the simple, sturdy decorations adorning many facades and porches.
And as things became clearer outside, so did Goa’s internal struggle relax—at least marginally—as though his exhausted body and frenetic brain had temporarily put aside their opposing yearnings, agreeing on what was most important.
It has him.
Goa didn’t, couldn’t, rely on this reprieve, but it granted him resolve to know that he would be this little bit readier for the time of truth, a time that drew ever nearer. His limbs still ached for a rest; thoughts still buzzed and burned within his mind like heated gas particles ricocheting off the barriers of a too-small enclosure. But now, atop this, a blanket, like the blanket of snow outside, settled upon Goa’s tempestuous psyche—pushing those two opposing pulls beneath, while he breathed fresh, crisp air, the air of solemnity, the air of truth.
Kentar, sensing Goa’s pensiveness, wordlessly located a parking spot adjacent to the cabin and pulled into it, gently bringing the car to a halt and turning off the ignition after a three-hour drive.
There was a street light a few meters to their front that emanated a dull, diffuse yellow, identical to all the other street lights in town. It illuminated the edge of the road and the elevated sidewalk, both carpeted underneath the mat of snow ubiquitous to Seterek; the boundary between the two was marked only by the height difference. Lastly, they could see the beginning of the stone pathway—which had to be heated, as it wasn’t covered in snow—that led to the cabin. The retreat itself was in the dark, unlit by the lamp post and, to appearances, devoid of any internal lighting. Evidently, Goa and Kentar’s host was equally keen on keeping an inconspicuous profile.
The Secretary of Intelligence pushed open his door and stepped out, allowing the fresh, crisp mountain air to circulate throughout the car. It stung Goa’s face and jolted him out of his rumination. Kentar walked around to his friend’s side, opened the passenger door, and invited him out onto the sidewalk.
Before getting up, Goa glanced at the time on the center of the dashboard. It read midnight on the dot. Zero hour.
“…And with that final matter settled, I believe it is time to adjourn,” Chief Sarrafi concluded; Goa could hear her, faintly, but it was like trying to parse words from a sea of radio static. She rose and turned to the video screen, adding warmly: “Let us again thank Corporal Bract and their military intelligence team for their brave, sedulous work, without which our resolution would not have been possible.”
“The pleasure is mine,” Bract replied. “I think it’s time for me to go as well. We have a team conference in thirty minutes.” The AJM officer offered a small parting wave to the Dauiland Council, and the monitor went blank.
As the delegations stood up and filed out to the antechamber in turn, Goa whispered to Sary and Ilazi, “I need to talk to Kentar.”
“Of course,” Sary said. She nodded to Ilazi and they followed the Crimtonians toward the door.
Goa turned and made for the side doorway, which led to the rapid street exit. His head was still pounding, his thoughts in a frenzied, overwhelmed tumult, as worry surged and began to erode his sanity. He walked at a careful pace through the Special Reception Room, then, upon entering the corridor, burst into a sprint, covering the twenty meter length, and shoved open the girthy metal door when he reached the end.
He fell out onto the broad sidewalk of Blue Lynx Boulevard, Tiricia’s sunshiny climate and the startled stares of passersby beating down on him. He didn’t care. He broke into another run, in the direction of the special monorail that would take him to the Unidalanian embassy, weaving—and more often stumbling—through the masses of diplomats, dignitaries, and bureaucrats strolling down the pedestrian forum. His focus was solely on the sign pointing to the stairs to the monorail, and when he reached it, heart and head thumping even more, he vaulted up to the moderately busy platform, uncaring of the symbolism only he could know.
“Name and purpose?” prompted a lanky, uniformed guard on his right.
“Goa,” Goa panted, “Lore. Embassy… TLU.”
The guard peered at his face, then inclined his head. “Very well, AP Lore. Your monorail will arrive in—” He glanced at his watch. “—three minutes. Is there anyone you’d like to contact in advance?”
“Gierplun,” Goa breathed.
Two men in dark suits with dark demeanors trudged down the winding stone trail to the cabin, their somber bearing belying the bitter cold of the air and the burning heat of their tension. Equipped with flashlights and paying no mind to the modest breeze or the gradual accumulation of snowflakes on their forms, neither one spoke, though they exchanged a significant look at the halfway point. There was no turning back now—and neither of them wished for a moment to do so. This was the apotheosis of their efforts, of even that effort which had begun so long ago with another off-the-record meeting with the same host.
They stopped in front of the entrance to the cabin, a birch door onto which the marking “1/1” had been etched. The rectangular building was made of the same uninterrupted material—long, narrow slats of wood with thin caulked seams—was about five meters wide, and seemed one story tall. Presumably, the simple bucolic exterior belied a more sophisticated interior.
The first man knocked twice with quick, sturdy raps. He and his companion needed not wait more than a few seconds, as the door promptly creaked open, revealing an elfin man clad in a navy blue parka and matching gloves and headwear, holding a fist behind his hunchback and beckoning the men to enter with his other hand. The only exposed part of his body was his face, which bore a kindly, hospitable expression along with deep wrinkles.
“Please, come in,” he croaked, averting the men’s gaze and their flashlights’ shine. “Our master has been expecting you.”
The men traded glances again, but followed him when he turned and ambled back into the cabin. There was no air conditioning or lighting on the inside, and as the men moved around their flashlights to illuminate the space’s floor and walls, it became apparent that it was, in fact, completely empty. It was silent as well, save for their guide’s contended humming, the patter of snow onto the stone pathway, and the gentle blowing of the light breeze.
Before they could speak up, the tiny man stopped in the center of the room, identified a floorboard, and gave it a hard kick, chuckling in satisfaction. The men immediately shifted their flashlights to cast light upon his bizarre actions. They watched the wooden plank glide away, suggesting it was on rails. Without waiting for his visitors, the man took a step forward and began descending down the hole.
“There must be a hidden stairwell,” Kentar muttered to Goa as they treaded across the floorboards, which creaked, though didn’t depress, when they stepped on them. Kentar shone his flashlight down the aperture, shining yellow light on what was indeed a steep, cramped shaft—it couldn’t have been more than a meter tall and half that wide—into which an equally dizzying flight of stairs had been inserted. A slight grimace surfaced on Kentar’s face, but he quickly suppressed it and gestured to the stairwell.
Goa took the cue, and crouched down to where his knees were barely above the ground, shuffling into the passage and warily going down, stair by stair. Kentar waited until he was a few steps down, then replicated his friend’s posture and followed his descent.
The navy blue-wearing man was waiting for them at the bottom, tracking their exit from the stairwell and into the basement with the same obliging comportment. This space shared few commonalities with the ground-level cabin—while it was also roomy and spare, roughly ten meters square, it was more modern than anything else in Seterek. Enclosed by clean white walls, with a crisp blue floor a tone more azure than the guide’s outerwear, the chamber contained in its center a transparent circular table with two austere gray chairs. Unseen sources issued moderate white lighting and temperate air conditioning, and the left and right walls were each interrupted by a blue-gray door.
The man extended his hands from behind his back toward Goa and Kentar, somehow producing two plated tea cups filled with a steaming, honey-colored liquid. Smiling genially, he said, “Your gracious host would like you to enjoy some authentic Loeba herbal tea.”
Goa waved away the cups. “We’re alright.”
“Our master insists,” the man said, exposing an unexpected steel beneath his warm tone. He would brook no deviation.
Kentar leaned down and accepted the drink from the man, who nodded eagerly. Kentar threw a meaningful look in Goa’s direction. Sighing, he took the other tea cup and plate.
“Sit,” the man said. “Then enter the left door.” Without waiting for Goa and Kentar to reply, he bowed and slinked away, vanishing into the stairwell with fading footsteps and leaving no trace of his presence.
“Do we trust it?” Goa said, indicating his tea.
“No need to guess,” Kentar responded. He reached into his suit pocket and pulled out a slender sterling needle that he dipped into his drink. When nothing happened after he pulled it out, he set it on his plate, saying, “Nothing out of the ordinary. The tester would’ve changed color if he’d spiked it.”
He strode to the table and settled onto a seat, motioning for Goa to follow suit. Reluctantly, Goa nodded and sat across from Kentar.
“This might actually help,” the NIB Director suggested after taking a sip. “I read a climatology report on Seterek before we arrived. The plants they grow here are supposed to have beneficial qualities.”
“Then the question is why,” Goa said.
Kentar knew how Goa must feel: inundated, conflicted, and unsure, ceaselessly reminding himself of the stakes. How vital it was to perform to the absolute best of his ability. What would happen—or not happen—if he failed. Kentar had been in a similar place before, and he had had Goa—and now Goa had him.
“I think it makes sense,” Kentar offered. “We know our host revels in an intellectual joust, and will want us to be at a place where that’s possible. And perhaps that also means only being satisfied with an agreement that’s made when you’re fully…”
“Competitive,” Goa supplied. He picked up his tea, looking somewhat reassured—for which Kentar was glad—and tasted it.
It was piping hot, of course, its exquisite scent wafting up from the cup, and the tea rolled delicately through his mouth, filled with rich, distinctive herbal flavors; it scalded his esophagus as it went down.
That first sip was the most difficult, he would reflect later that day. “Drink the rest,” Kentar encouraged, though. “Beneficial qualities, remember?”
Goa nodded. By the time he had drunk half the cup, his mind, bunched-up and tense, had relaxed significantly. The mental knots were in the slow, strange process of unfurling. Stress gradually gave way to the warmth and peculiar tang of the tea, and to the safety it somehow assured.
He and Kentar drained their tea cups. When the last drops had been drunk, Goa, although he could not entirely say why, felt those final ounces of readiness he had been awaiting, that final measure of security he had conceded to being inaccessible. He felt an energy in his body that staved off the weariness banging at the gates of his sanity, and possessed a calm in his thoughts that counterbalanced the apprehension that had been inundating his mind so long that he could not remember what it was like before. But he wasn’t ready to put his faith into this transformation. If he knew one thing about his and Kentar’s host, it was that craftiness was a given.
He voiced his concern to Kentar, who replied, “You can control your thought processes a lot more than I can. All I can suggest is that you either put aside your misgivings and dive in with your heart, or tap into them and use them to fuel your passion and compassion without letting them conquer you.”
“In a way, I need my misgivings,” Goa said thoughtfully. “I wouldn’t be who I am without them. I think I’ll take the second option.”
Kentar said, “Please do, then,” and cast a brief glance toward the door the guide had told them to enter.
Goa rose tentatively and directed his gaze toward Kentar. He inhaled deeply, held his breath, and exhaled. His body suddenly tensed—so preoccupied was he that he had just realized the very real possibility that the two of them were being listened to. After a moment, his muscles relaxed, as he remembered that Kentar was on top of things—he always was, this trip being no exception—and would’ve said something had there been a listening device planted somewhere within the room. Goa was usually on top of things, too, but he had been finding it incredibly difficult to be his typical fastidious self as of late.
“I know,” Kentar said, and somehow Goa got the sense that his friend knew why he’d tensed. “But you’ll succeed, as long as you’re yourself—which you are.”
“Yes,” said Goa, nodding pensively. “Kentar?” he added quietly. “I think I want to go in alone.”
“Of course,” his friend said. “May I stand outside?”
“Yes,” Goa said. He took another three deep breaths, counting out the seconds in his mind, and walked to the simple blue-gray door. He trusted and was sustained by Kentar, the help his friend had so unfailingly provided, the allaying Seterek tea, the conviction that what he was doing was right, the knowledge that it was his right and responsibility to face this challenge and succeed, and, finally, himself. He had transcended now the point of confidence or unconfidence, of worrying himself to death over preparedness, of his physical and mental forms playing an exhausting tug-of-war. What he felt was focus, determination, and conviction.
He turned the handle and pushed open the door.
Not eight hours had passed since Tharral had tapped on his shoulder when Goa skidded to a stop. Kentar was already waiting for him at the edge of the plaza, a grandiose commons paved in glittering blue and green marble tiles that matched the Unidalanian flag and that was characteristic of the Magnificent Locality in design and opulence. Beyond the forum grounds lay the Library of the Republic, an enormous, sprawling edifice whose palatial vaults collectively housed more information than any other site in the country.
Goa and Kentar made eye contact and walked briskly toward the building’s fore—where a long line of revolving doors separated the plaza from the library’s cream-colored marble frontage. Kentar took out the coinlike entrance passes he had acquired for them and handed one to Goa; they dropped them into the slots and entered the library.
Unlike the last time they had gone to the library, Kentar had not booked them a helper—one of the GX-9500 android librarians of Liberlitatian manufacture the curator had commissioned to assist visitors. Goa had conveyed a sense of utmost urgency in his laconic mid-flight message, and Kentar had responded that they could use the NIB’s private room at the library.
That was where they went now, Kentar leading Goa through a labyrinthine series of doors and corridors until they arrived in a room ten meters long and twice as wide filled with computers and the low whirring sounds of their operation. Kentar crossed to the main interface console; Goa stood beside him.
“We have twenty days, eighteen hours, and access to all the public records created in the history of this nation. Although we also had cues and clues last time we set out, this time the evidence is much more concrete, and we know where we have to go—literally. Let’s get to work,” Kentar said.
The room beyond the door was smaller than the vestibule, but equally spare, and also rectangular. Lamps in the corners radiated light into the area, creating a sheen on the mahogany desk that sat central in the space, perpendicular to the wall containing the door. On the opposite wall was a pair of windows, blinds pulled down. There were also two chairs, one on each long side of the desk, similar to the seats in the anteroom, but with a tad of padding.
The chair on the near side of the desk was vacant; the one on the far side was occupied. In the wall behind the opposite chair was another door, closed. Goa closed the door behind him, hearing the click as it latched shut. He imagined Kentar would wait a few seconds, then skulk over to the other side of the wall and hold his ear to the door.
Goa steeled his resolve and sat down. His host, who had been silently scanning the top page of a thick packet of paper, slid the document into a drawer beneath the desktop, and looked up—gaze rising to meet Goa’s—with an unreadable expression. Delight, impatience, seriousness, he couldn’t discern. This was it, he knew. His moment; his chance.
Goa spent the next two weeks on tenterhooks waiting for a call from Kentar. Grinding, cumbersome bureaucratic chores piled up like refuse accumulating in a Deplandian landfill, and the cause was similarly alarming.
Anticipation, apprehension, and agony ate at Goa’s being like a pack of psychotic weasels bent on devouring him from the inside out. His self-invented methodology for handling his astronomical workload disintegrated, the winds of anxiousness and suspense scattering its shreds. He slept less, leaving him exhausted when he awoke, reducing his efficiency, meaning he had to work longer and longer into the night, giving him less time to sleep.
He dared not take any time off to recuperate. He knew he’d have to abandon his post indefinitely if—when—Kentar came through.
Two weeks and one day after Tharral had shown him the message, Goa dressed up inconspicuously and rode the 7 AM tram to the Magnificent Locality, where he briskly walked—the fastest pace he allowed himself, as he was a moment away from breaking out into a sprint—to the library. Chest constricted, heart pounding, he arrived in the NIB private room. The machinery hummed to itself, but there was no all-caps message, no flashing red alert, no Kentar materializing behind him and announcing, “Good thing you’re here, Goa—I’ve just located the retreat.”
He knew better than to succumb to these fretful, desperate delusions, but he still did. Letting out nothing but a crestfallen sigh, he turned and plodded back out of the library, taking the return tram to NatGov, where he stopped by his apartment to change into formal attire. He had an 8:30 meeting with the coordinating committee of Civic Students Ascendant, the Liberal Party’s youth political participation program—and the Administrative President mustn’t be late.
So it went: day after day after excruciating day, his anticipation inching ever closer to making life utterly untenable. He evaded Sary and Ilazi when they asked if everything was alright, relieved they had at least forgotten his erratic departure from the Dauiland Council meeting or didn’t make the connection.
Finally—after what had felt like a lifetime of waiting—Kentar called him. He was in one of his many offices, only moonlight illuminating it, as he had neglected to turn on any lamps when the sun had set four hours earlier. He was mired in paperwork, currently scrutinizing some bumbling Qoipol Intendant’s inane request—the purpose of which Goa had still not deciphered—when his phone rang with the special ringtone he recognized instantly as belonging to his friend.
His brain panicked—he leapt out of his cavernous seat, swept the stack of files off his desk, sat back down, fumbled for the phone, grabbed it, slammed the accept button, and clutched it to his ear. “Kentar, what is it?” he demanded frantically, his fatigue vanishing on the spot. “What’s going on?”
“Get to Montada as soon as possible,” Kentar said rapidly. “The central train station. Coordinate while we’re on route. I’ll arrive tomorrow morning.”
Goa felt his heart leap into his throat. “Yes,” he said, almost incapable of speaking. “Yes, I’ll do that. I’ll leave now.” He ended the call and shoved himself away from his desk. There was no one else in the building at this ungodly hour, so when he burst out of his office into the corridor, heart palpitating, thoughts afire, he ran the fastest he’d run since Blue Lynx Boulevard.
“Hello there,” said Governor Senzala Kadhir.
“Governor Kadhir,” replied Goa.
“Welcome to Seterek,” Kadhir said, her inflection inscrutable. “I take it that when you were apprised of these dire tidings, you wasted no time in seeking me out.”
Goa felt himself about to wince at her word choice; he steeled himself, but a brief flinch slipped through. An enigmatic smile crossed Kadhir’s face. “Have no doubt that it was me,” she added.
“I never did,” Goa said. “But you certainly made yourself hard to find. You do seem to have a reputation for that.”
“I had to ensure you were committed,” Kadhir said, “and capable. I know you enlisted the aid of your Secretary of Intelligence, Gierplun. He and you doubtlessly comprise a formidable team. But if I were you, I wouldn’t have bothered with underlings—and if I needed one to manage the minutiae, I would’ve kept them rightfully inferior.”
“Kentar is not my inferior,” Goa countered. “We’re equals. We’re friends. I know it’s a foreign concept to you, Governor, but it’s possible to find people important in ways that aren’t based on your political gain.”
Kadhir chuckled mirthlessly. “Don’t patronize me, Lore. I know full well that you’re conscious of how much you need me. Did you not shirk your duties to chase me to this mountain retreat in the middle of nowhere? Did you not corral your Kentar into your search for me because he can open doors that you cannot? To put it frankly, Lore, I hold the power here. You do not.”
“It was my decision to come here,” Goa pointed out. “And the possibility of my coming was enough to make you leave your presidential campaign behind and wait here in a hidden basement.”
“I have competent enough subordinates to deal with the day-to-day drivel of my campaign,” Kadhir dismissed. “It’s not like I paid attention before to the bilge that I’m missing out on by being here.”
Although Goa knew the governor could hardly care less about affairs not directly concerning her or her goals, he seriously doubted she considered her campaign a triviality. He was also familiar with how little the governor trusted most of her subordinates—how she thought of herself as the only person in Josezhey capable of finding two facts and putting them together. It was clear that he had struck a nerve with the famously impenetrable woman. But Kadhir was right that he couldn’t afford to antagonize her—for reasons yet unknown, she had chosen to set aside their fundamental, long-standing differences and invite him here to negotiate, or at least to converse. He knew this wasn’t entirely unprecedented, as her meeting with Kentar several months back proved, but it was indubitably a big step forward.
“In any case, I’m in charge here,” Kadhir continued. “Seterek is my town. Do you know what that means? It means you’re only here because I want you to be here.”
“I can’t deny that,” Goa said noncommittally.
Kadhir leaned forward, and for the first time, Goa thought he could read her eyes: they seemed ravenous. “Tell me what you know about this place, AP Lore,” she said.
“Seterek?” Obviously, Kadhir had an ulterior motive here—she wasn’t simply asking Goa to recite what he knew about the mountain settlement for the fun of it. But he decided to play along. “It’s small, located in one of the remotest parts of the Kevtabs, difficult to reach, and uneventful. The main reason it even exists is because it can produce a rare herb.”
“Good, Lore,” Kadhir said. “You’re correct on all counts—except one. I’m not talking about this Seterek.”
“There’s another Seterek?” Goa asked, genuinely surprised. He knew of no such thing—and more importantly, neither did Kentar.
“Was,” Kadhir corrected with a sly grin. “There was another Seterek.” She leaned back, maintaining her hungry gaze. He knew she was in her element now, which was all the more reason for him not to break eye contact. He didn’t fancy playing that game—a game was indeed what he saw it as—but he was aware of its necessity.
“It’s not a story your government archives would tell you,” Kadhir continued. “The first Seterek was situated exactly where the current one is, and it was likewise a colony. Centuries ago, exiles from some political schism in southern Unidalania fled their home country, aiming to take refuge further north. Their allies in a neighboring nation heard of the banishment and sought the exiles out, hoping to take them in and furnish them with the resources necessary to raise an army, but they couldn’t find them. They scoured the peninsula, even passing up a chance to vanquish those who had expelled their compatriots out of some paranoid notion that it would impede their search. In the meantime, one of the northern kings had welcomed the exiles into the fold, and had directed them to this very valley. The records say the name Victor’s Vale is an expression of commitment to brave the cold, but, in fact, it originated with the exiles, who wished to declare their determination that, one day, they would reclaim their homeland.”
“Interesting,” Goa hedged. He saw how Kadhir was attempting to captivate him with her narrative, but he avoided being drawn in by remembering why he was here. Needless to say, she’ll have a hundred different traps laid out for you. She’s a ruthless, incorrigible careerist; it’s what she does, Kentar had told him during the car ride. It’ll be crucial to tread carefully—and I know you’re more than capable of it. “How did you come across this information?”
“You can find anything if you know where to look,” Kadhir said. “And I know where to look.” Elaborating no more, she finished her account: “Throughout the next few years, the exiles’ allies received various clues regarding the vicissitudes of their quarry, and they took these as cues to launch expeditions. But every single one of their attempts foundered on the issue of scope—the territory they had to cover was too expansive and they had no idea if the exiles were on the move. Eventually, more pressing matters forced them to cease their searches. And the supplies the sympathetic lord had packed for the colony of Seterek were no substitute for true subsistence. Within half a decade, the first Seterek petered out of existence, nearly forgotten to all history.”
“I see,” Goa said, not really seeing. Why had Kadhir elected to open with some ill-fated, questionably accurate piece of lore about a “first Seterek”? What did it have to do with anything? Or was it a misdirection?
“I’m sure you do, Administrative President,” Kadhir said, interrupting his thoughts, “Lore.”
The governor’s pause before saying his name hit Goa like a fully-loaded freight train. Lore, he repeated in his mind, the syllable ringing in his ears like a bell’s peal. He understood now—the point of Kadhir’s description of the old Seterek, the significance of what she had conveyed to him. It was a warning and a promise, a reminder and an offer, a cautionary tale and a revelatory one.
The sudden comprehension must have disrupted his vigilance, for he averted his gaze and let realization dawn on his face. Kadhir permitted a smile to tweak at her lips. “I presume you see more clearly now,” she observed in a tone that might have been dry had it not been for the undercurrent of exultant release, which was so well-concealed that he had nearly missed it, despite his rapt attention to the governor’s words.
Evidently Kadhir had been waiting for this moment to arrive. “What you should see now, Lore, more than ever,” she continued, “is why you need me. Why your idea that you opted to come here is an illusion. Why you cannot let this opportunity slip by.” Regaining eye contact, she said, “We have hit a pivotal crossroads. The paths of the past have converged, every step we took, every action we performed leading ultimately to this moment. Make no mistake, Administrative President: this is nothing less than the confluence of destiny. The repercussions of what takes shape here will forever resonate, and we have scant room for error. Truly, there is only one course forward. There is no halting the tide, no changing its direction—merely cooperation or conflict. I do not suggest trying to battle destiny, Lore—somehow, it always has a way of overcoming you when you least expect it—nor do you have any reason to engage in such folly.” And as she concluded, as her eyes bored into his, Goa felt a fervent intensity in her words. “The first Seterek can be saved, Lore. Will you save it? Will you save him?”
Goa was on the verge of pronouncing the word yes—but something stopped him. Kentar’s words from last night: She’s a ruthless, incorrigible careerist, he had cautioned, and Goa was cognizant of the governor’s rapacious reputation. He didn’t know if it was safe to trust what she was saying—she undoubtedly had a trick up her sleeve, a catch she would reveal when it was too late for him to turn back. Nor was he sure that he could afford to be so leery of Kadhir’s proffer. She has repeatedly emphasized that she was in charge here, which either implied that she was afraid of him usurping control or that she desired to ensure he acted agreeably—if not both. And he suspected that one reason for the domineering attitude was urgency. After all, even at the very onset, she had given him a three-week deadline.
He also reminded himself of how he had waited so long, so very long, and how he had endured so much. He didn’t know whether this meant that he could wait longer or that he should act now.
So, as one did in times of uncertainty and distress, he fell back on an old, familiar technique. “Of course I do,” he responded, “but naturally, I want to learn as much about the specifics as I can before I commit to anything.” Then he went ahead and did something far more challenging: “First, I think we should stop spending this meeting beating around the bush. It’s important to get it out there,” he said, earning a studiously neutral “Continue” from Kadhir.
Goa forced himself to set aside his vast trepidation, let Kentar’s words of support—You’ll succeed, as long as you’re yourself—flow through him, and spoke a name. It was a name he had not dared speak in months, not since he and Kentar had met in his secondary office when Orrian’s task force was on the brink of departure. “Arven Lore.”
A wash of emotion surged through him upon the utterance of his missing brother’s name, compelling him to lean over, exhale shakily, and hold his hand to his chest, as though to stop the inner roil from pouring out. A slew of memories threatened to cross like a slideshow of tragedy through his mind’s eye, but he summoned his fortitude, urged his body to assume a ramrod-straight posture, and pressed down on his imagination’s precarious volatility until it was in no position to endanger his hard-won parity with Kadhir.
“Not easy, is it?” the governor said, peering at his troubled countenance. Her inflection suggested compassion, but Goa knew it belied the deceptiveness underneath: Kadhir’s question was bait.
As tough as it was, he refused to take it. “Doable,” he replied, managing to keep a steady voice. “More importantly, I need you to confirm that I’m right.”
“About this? Obviously it’s for his sake that we’re both here,” Kadhir said, affecting impatience. “Now, you said you wanted details, Lore? Are you certain you can endure them? If I were in your position, I don’t know if my mental state would permit such potentially torturous… follies. I might forfeit my aplomb.”
Kadhir was offering Goa bait again—she had just described his plight with a good deal of accuracy, and if he confessed to her perspicacity, he would be handing her the initiative. But the way she had worded it left Goa an opening to turn it around back on her: “Maybe, but I’m not you. I’ve come this far, and I’m prepared to handle whatever comes my way; my ‘aplomb’ will remain perfectly fine. Thank you for your kind words, Kadhir,” he added, making it clear in his intonation that he indeed believed they were nothing more than words, “but it would be more productive to focus on what we came here to do.”
“Very interesting,” the governor muttered to herself. Perhaps she was intrigued as to how he was still keeping it together; perhaps she hadn’t anticipated his attempt to throw her off-script.
Goa continued, paying no mind to her comment. “So that’s correct, Governor—I did want the details,” he said. He let loose his words without knowing what they would be until they emerged from his mouth, as occurred whenever he was speaking from the heart. He felt his self-assurance rise a notch, allowing him to drop some of the facade of unperturbed confidence he’d erected in order to guarantee competitiveness with Kadhir during the opening stages.
“Well then,” Kadhir replied, “if it’s the technicalities you want, it’s the technicalities you’ll get.”
Goa let a trace of his inner restlessness creep into his voice when he said, “Details, not technicalities. And you have no need to keep repeating everything I say back at me. We can stop playing that game.”
“If you insist. I was rather enjoying myself,” Kadhir said, sounding like a child instructed to quit playing and complete their chores, in a moment of strange incongruity. She glanced down at her desk, reacquired eye contact with Goa, and answered him: “Since I launched my presidential campaign, the analysis of my personality has spawned an entirely new genre of literature. The left thinks I’m the next iteration of Yanar Harren, the right sees me as a black box stealing their Senate seats, my followers portray me as a reincarnation of Uki Genovis, and the Crimtonians seem contractually obliged to draw nonstop parallels between me and that sweaty dilettante, Loren Ross. But what I’ve ensured all of Dauiland understands is that at my core, I’m a negotiator, not a philanthropist.”
“You don’t have to keep going,” Goa said. “I get the point.”
Kadhir continued anyway; whether to prolong Goa’s suspense to maximize the chance of him slipping, or because she so relished hearing the sound of her own boasting, he wasn’t sure. “When I furnished your friend with the name Gauntlet Microtechnologies, that was part of a calculated exchange. In return, I got what I wanted. I will also get what I want here, given that, as with Gierplun, you have no true choice but to agree to my terms. This is also part of a deal—it’s not a donation. Before these minutiae slip my mind, I will lay out the three things I’m going to receive from you.”
The anticipation built up ever higher in Goa’s chest—he was getting closer, closer, closer to what he and Kentar had toiled for: the arrangements with Kadhir—but he breathed deeply and reminded himself that she was likely dragging it out on purpose. Here we go, he thought.
“Number one,” Kadhir declared. “The whole Tessin imbroglio.” Goa cringed, despite himself. That was the thug who had crashed the monorail he and his brother were riding, planted two bullets in Arven’s head, threatened Goa’s life, and instilled in him a pathological terror of trains it had taken months to recover from. Subsequently, Tessin had reappeared as an ex-Imperial Super Soldier and commenced a deadly infiltration operation into the PTJ and the Nazbethian Secret Service while making outrageous endorsements of Kadhir at campaign rallies. Not long after, he had vanished, leaving behind a wake of muddled confusion.
Kadhir continued: “Call it off, clean it up, resolve the details I can’t be bothered to think about. This includes clearing all the lingering charges you had your bureaucratic attack dogs sic on me—a full exoneration. Tessin is dead, AP Lore. There is even less of a purpose than before in seeking to tie me to his undertakings. Your people will not beat mine in court; a continued investigation would entail nothing but a cascade of headaches. If you need a justification, remember that several months ago, I announced my full renunciation of him during a campaign stop in southern Josezhey.”
“I remember,” said Goa neutrally. “What’s your second condition?”
“I also want one hundred million Zoops,” Kadhir stated. “Transfer them from the Administrative Presidency’s discretionary funds to the Office of the Governor of Josezhey.”
At this, Goa reeled. Outright embezzlement? Kentar had told him earlier that Kadhir seemed to get a kick out of stunning her audiences with barefaced audacity, but Goa hadn’t expected the governor to expect a wad of cash from him for reasons unknown and probably unpalatable.
Kadhir snorted, looking mildly amused. “Didn’t expect that, Lore? Don’t worry, it’ll be put to good use. And I assure you, you won’t be caught—not because I want your political career to thrive, but because if they find you out, it’ll be both our heads.”
“We’ll see,” Goa equivocated, not yet permitting himself to dive into Kadhir’s demands or to commit to any irreversible course of action. He wanted to have the full picture first—that would give him the best chance of doing what he had come here to accomplish.
“My final requirement,” Kadhir said, “is that you join me in exercising the utmost confidentiality. Keep this whole deal under wraps. If word gets out… well, that’s the end of it.”
“Obviously,” Goa said, feeling a bit perplexed. He’d thought he and the governor had already agreed, in an unspoken manner, to remain tight-lipped to others about what transpired here—the cryptic nature of the message Tharral had passed onto Goa, Seterek’s isolation, the fact that they had both ducked out of their public lives to venture deep into the Kevtabs to meet. Moreover, she had just pointed out that any attempt to expose the other person would definitionally backfire.
“That includes Gierplun,” Kadhir appended. “He can be part of this endeavor no longer. I’m sure his assistance was instrumental in locating my retreat, but that’s where it finishes. Tell him to return to Dauilan Megapolis and his station as Intelligence Director. He is no longer necessary, nor do I desire his influence any longer. From here on out, I forbid his presence.”
“I completely refuse,” Goa said without even thinking. Kentar had been there for him, standing steadfastly at his side, through everything. Complying with Kadhir’s precondition would be nothing short of a cold-blooded betrayal of the individual who had been supporting him since before he knew he needed it. It was so inconceivable, so appalling to Goa that he was about to say, I would rather leave right now than hear another word of this, but he stopped himself at the last moment, knowing the governor would invite him to do just that.
He was sorely tempted not to restrain himself, to strip off the remains of his patience and lean into his instinctual fury and unleash it against the smug governor and flay her insufferability until it turned into penitent defeat.
But he did none of that. His friend’s wisdom wafted into his mind and dissipated the clouds of ire that Kadhir’s unacceptable stipulation had invoked. Passion and compassion, Kentar had said. Passion, he possessed in great measure. Compassion, he reminded himself, was no less imperative. As politicians, our overarching duty is to extend great compassion to those who need it most, he had once heard an eloquent New Leftist representative named Marhi Sontzou aver. We then let that compassion drive us to do what is right. He didn’t remember the situation in which she had tendered that mindset, and it had seemed facile at the time, but at least right now, Sontzou’s attitude felt valuable.
So he thought back to his brother—the one who needed compassion most—and to Kentar, whose own compassion toward Goa and Arven meant everything, and refreshed his awareness of why he was here. Listening to the compassion he held in his heart, he said, “I will do what it takes to save my brother. Your demand brings me no closer to doing that. I’m not an idiot—I will continue to be confidential. I am confident in Kentar. And even if I tried, he wouldn’t let me push him away. It’s not a choice, Kadhir: he stays.”
“These are my terms, Administrative President.”
“These are mine, Governor.”
Kadhir stared into Goa’s resolute eyes for a long while. The room was dead silent: not gusts outside, nor heavy breaths inside, nor noises emerging from the vestibule interrupted the trial.
Neither dared flinch, for this contest of wills indeed constituted one branch in the sprawling deciduous of destiny.
It was as if time itself had adjourned to beget conviction’s inexorable sway.
Finally, Kadhir sighed reluctantly and admitted, “You drive a tough bargain, Lore. I’m surprised you had it in you. I expected you to heed my reminder that I am in charge here.”
Kadhir inclined her head. “If you insist, Lore. For now, your Gierplun can stay—even if directing him to leave is for your own good. It’s not my brother that needs rescuing.”
He didn’t quite believe Kadhir’s nonchalance. As he had gleaned early on, this meeting meant a lot to her, too; Arven was his brother, not hers, but, Goa deduced, that didn’t imply Kadhir didn’t care.
“Exactly,” he countered. “I know I need Kentar.”
“Very well,” Kadhir said. “Those are my three conditions. You know what I want—what I’ll get.”
“And in return?” Goa prompted.
“You will receive the most dedicated help in finding your brother. But more pressingly: do you know what it is, Lore?”
Goa shivered. Yes, he thought he had quite a good idea of what it was. “The threat,” he said. “The threat in the Wastes. The Dauiland Alliance has decided it’s an Imperial hoax, but—”
“They don’t know what they’re talking about,” Kadhir agreed. “No, no they don’t.”
“What is it then?”
“You will learn, if you agree to my terms. Otherwise, I can’t say.”
“How am I supposed to know what all the terms are if you hide some of them on the condition that I need to agree to the others?”
“Therein lies the paradox, eh, Administrative President?”
A brief lull passed between the conversants before Kadhir continued: “This is your time to choose.” She reclined. “Will you save the old Seterek, Lore?” she pressed. “Deal or no deal?”
“Your first condition—dropping the Tessin investigation—it… can be done,” Goa said with some difficulty. It was a flagrant ethical violation, and would needlessly create enemies, but he would have to find some way to stomach that—or to not stomach it, but endure anyway.
“Good,” Kadhir replied contentedly.
“The third condition, I’ll obviously follow, as long as Kentar can stay—which you agreed to.”
The governor nodded, then straightened herself. “And the second condition? One hundred million Zoops,” she repeated, her tone dripping with arrogance. Goa couldn’t discern whether or not she was playing her preposterous games again, but he rapidly found himself losing patience with the governor’s chicanery. “The Administrative Presidency’s discretionary funds to my office’s bank account. By month’s end.”
At this juncture, Goa’s unstoppable commitment to seeking his brother and his vow never to partake in corruption, let alone corruption so brazen and egregious, collided. This collision precluded him from falling back on Kentar’s insights, the depth of his longing for Arven, or even that New Leftist representative’s principled outlook. Instead, all he saw was the governor’s self-confident smirk across the mahogany desk, nexus of so much adversity.
“I’m not here for you, Kadhir,” he heard himself begin, feeling his face heat up. “I put up with your ridiculous way of getting me to come to Seterek, your long-winded explanations and stories, and your self-serving requirement for me to shut down the NIB’s investigation. But there is no way in this world that I’m going to hand over a fortune of money to you so you can use it to cause more harm than you’ve caused already. Do you understand what I’m saying, Governor? Or do you need me to explain the definition of responsibility?”
When Kadhir spoke, Goa perceived in the recesses of his mind a doubt, a notion that he had erred, but it was quickly submerged beneath frustration’s rushing release.
“Oh, I understand what you’re saying perfectly,” the governor said, her tone laced not with ice, nor with levity, but with something Goa couldn’t quite recognize. “But you will find that it is you who are mistaken, AP Lore, about a great many things. You think you can separate yourself, but that was never possible. You only need to accept it, and then you will be equipped with what you need to find your brother. Look around, Lore. Don’t you wonder how I paid for this cozy mountain retreat, tucked into a place like Seterek where no one will disturb me? I know you haven’t forgotten that you tried to make this impossible, back when your administration imposed spending limits on public officials when Unidalania was on the precipice of economic recession.
“But your law does not apply to me, and now, neither does it apply to you. I circumvented it, of course—I take it you’re familiar with Inteva Notsuini, that great man leading Accent. Connect the dots, Lore: Notsuini and I are close allies, and he is the best legal mind to sweep the country in either of our lifetimes. If you ever see fit to check my administration’s expenses come your return to Genovapola, you’ll find several million Zoops allotted to renovations for the employees’ quarters. A worthy cause, of course, legally speaking.”
Kadhir pointed to her desk. “I’m a public servant, aren’t I? An employee of the people. And these are my quarters.”
“You can be put on trial for embezzlement,” Goa swore. “Notsuini or not.”
“Oh, but that’s the best part, Lore,” Kadhir said, her tone oozing with self-satisfaction. “You’re already a part of this. It’s too late to turn back now. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”
“Finding Seterek was not a show of support for your corruption,” Goa insisted.
“No?” Kadhir shrugged and relaxed her posture. “Well, feel free to believe what you want, Lore.”
“You can be arrested for this, Governor,” Goa repeated. “Just because I came here doesn’t mean I’ll ignore this.”
“But it does, Lore…” Kadhir said. “But it does.” Again, she altered her comportment, leaning forward once more and speaking in hushed, dangerous tones: “You said there was no way in this world you would wire the transfer. Allow me to remind you: your existence in this world is highly impermanent. Arrest me, and I promise that I will leave you with only one way to reunite with your dear Arven. And it would not be in this world… for either brother.”
Abruptly, the door to the vestibule slammed open, rattling the frame, and Kentar, his bearing seething with rage, stormed through the threshold. Kadhir immediately recoiled, as though Goa had spat in her face, and glared balefully at Kentar. “You,” she hissed.
“Me,” he snapped. He assumed position on Goa’s right flank, matching Kadhir’s hostile glower with an equally keen death stare. “I will not abide a single more threat, Governor. Rescind it. Now.”
“Threat? I’m not threatening anyone, Secretary,” Kadhir sidestepped. “I’m doing what I always do. If you have a problem with that, I suggest you retreat to your Dauilan Megapolis citadel. You’re in my territory, and I don’t take kindly to intruders.”
“The only intrusion I see is yours,” Kentar parried. “First, you gave us a false lead with Gauntlet Microtechnologies. Resources were wasted on pinning down the location of something that can’t be located.”
“I wonder who decided to expend those resources,” Kadhir said derisively.
“GM did lead us somewhere,” Goa said. “It’s how we knew there was a link to the Wastes.”
“A conclusion we reached chiefly through your hunch, Goa,” Kentar pointed out.
“Yet you couldn’t have done it without me,” Kadhir maintained. “Like you can’t do this without me. Isn’t that right, Secretary—you want your dear friend to say no to my offer? An offer he will never receive again? Hasn’t he waited long enough? Don’t tell me he doesn’t deserve this. I would hate to be a better friend to Goa Lore than you are.”
“What you have just said is so patently unsound that I will not deign to respond to it,” Kentar ground out. To Goa, he urged: “You’ve waited this long—we’ve waited this long. We can afford to wait a little longer if it means denying her this fickle victory.”
Kadhir adopted a stunned expression, sending Kentar a theatrical scowl. “Lore, can you believe this? Here he is, your own friend, and look at how he’s treating you—worse than a political enemy. Can you really keep listening to him? The way he acts toward you is disappointing.”
“You can’t let her sway you, Goa,” Kentar implored. “You don’t have to listen to me. Listen to your logic. You said it yourself—bolstering Kadhir would cause far more harm than good—not to mention the dubious legality of her demand.”
“He’s trying to overwhelm you with duplicity, Lore,” Kadhir rebutted. “He can’t bear the idea that I’m right and he’s wrong. It contradicts what he thinks about the dynamic between us.”
“This isn’t about me,” Kentar shot down, his voice icy. “It’s never been about me. It’s about you, Goa. You and Arven. If Kadhir comprehended that, why would she be attempting to wring all the concessions she can out of you? On the contrary, the sole question running through her mind is, ‘What’s best for Senzala Kadhir?’ ”
“It’s brilliantly simple,” she said to Goa, ignoring Kentar’s accusation. “Do you want Arven back… or not?”
“Yes, it is brilliantly simple. Of course he wants Arven back; that’s why we’re here. Whether you could care less about the fate of Goa’s brother is what’s up in the air. And it seems to me like you could not. You view this as a political opportunity, like you view everything else. I notice that you didn’t say anything about my observation that you care about nobody beyond yourself,” Kentar finished ruthlessly.
Kadhir turned her gaze on him, and Goa would later remember seeing an inferno blazing in the governor’s eyes as she addressed his friend: “You forget who I am, Secretary. I am Senzala Kadhir, and I am not one to be trifled with. It is an act of mercy for me to remind you of this, so know that it is not for you that I will let you walk away unscathed. The etching on the exterior of the door outside—do you recall what its message is? It reads, ‘1/1.’ I carved it there myself when I acquired this cabin. Birch is one of the hardest woods on the planet. It took me three hours, amid a swirling blizzard, to inscribe ‘1/1’—but it will live within me forever. Do you know why, Secretary? Administrative President? Because it stands for the first of January, the date a gunman hired by the scumbag Murlek Edlo invaded his gala and opened fire. The roar of the submachine gunfire and the screams of the guests drowned out my senses, deafened me. As the assassin and special operations police forces exchanged rounds, I ran back and forth across the enclosure, looking for my daughter. I watched the hitman crumple and start bleeding out, causing me to trip over a slain body and fall to the ground.
“I managed to get a glance of who the body used to be before everything began fading into horrible nothingness. It was the corpse of my daughter, Ofrant Kadhir. Shot through the heart. The coroner was never able to figure out how quickly her life had ended, or whether she had died in pain. When she was killed, part of me was killed too. I poured my heart into her. Outliving her daughter is the most terrible fate a mother can endure. That Edlo and Novak Shepparal rot in prison provides little consolation. Their life sentences cannot bring Ofrant back.
For the first time, Goa glimpsed a grave anguish—a deep and unabating grief—behind Kadhir’s steely veneer. Naturally, he knew the public story around Edlo, and he’d learned about the governor’s speech at that year’s RPC, but he felt so moved that he had to draw upon all his resilience to keep it all together.
Kadhir’s voice blazed with torturous passion. “You claimed I care solely about myself. You claimed I’m a heartless manipulator. But I am deeply familiar with love and loss. I stumbled over the still-warm corpse of my daughter. That memory will never lose its shattering clarity in my mind. Secretary, know how wrong you are. He is my political enemy, but I have begun to hold Lore in an esteem you will never understand.”
“I do understand,” Kentar muttered, his iciness gone but traces of rime lingering.
“I hope Lore will not continue to hold himself back,” Kadhir said, ignoring his remark. She turned to Goa. “Frankly, you’re an idiot for not immediately saying yes, no matter what, as I would do in an instant… for Ofrant,” she finished, the utterance visibly evocative. “I would not see this as some objective side project, a parenthetical whim explored like a secondary task. It would prevail over all else.”
“Don’t you think it does?” Goa asked quietly. “Governor, tell me again what I’ll receive in return for complying with your three conditions.”
“Power and possibility like you’ve never seen before,” Kadhir pledged. “The most dedicated help in finding your brother.”
Goa faced Kentar, leaving the words unspoken.
“You have to,” Kentar said, halfway between a question and a statement.
“I have to,” Goa echoed. “For Arven. For it all.”
Kentar nodded, and he and Goa embraced. Then he stood up and walked back to the vestibule, closing the door behind him; it emitted a click as the latch snapped into place. Goa heaved a sigh, expecting his exhaustion to come flooding back to him—but it did not.
“Are you ready?” Kadhir asked.
“When is anyone ever ready?” Goa said, cautiously getting to his feet.
“Very well. This is the only piece of advice I’ll ever give you, Lore, but suspend your disbelief.”
The governor rose across from him and turned around to face the shut door behind her seat; she twisted the knob, pushed it open, and stepped in. A hallway proceeded past the sill, terminating at another door about ten meters down. Kadhir started walking, beckoning for Goa to follow.
The chamber was large, low, and dim, lit only by a set of practical lamps installed in the ceiling—a reminder of the dire circumstances to which its occupants had been forced to adapt. No discreet allusions to centuries past were to be encountered here; such indulgences had been the first to go in the Council’s blanket reassessment following the catastrophe in the Wastes.
No one dared call it the Council of Four anymore, Liria Pine knew. Not without Arven. Now, it was simply “the Council.”
That was another reason they had ceased using the old Councilroom—it would be too painful to go back, too reminiscent of the times before the expedition. Back when everyone was still around. Back when everyone was still sane—or at least sane enough. Back before everyone had been made horribly aware of just how much more it was possible to lose—of the overwhelming devastation wrought by tight-knit bonds rent violently apart.
Moreover, the hierarchy had crumbled. They were all too perpetually exhausted to keep up the distinction between the Council and the Modus Vivendi, and now no one was a Councilor, even though the Council was never disbanded and three people sat on it. No one had enough energy to decide whether or not the Council still existed, or what form it took now, so they had settled on this paradox of a Council simultaneously existent and nonexistent. They all agreed, silently, that one day, they would return to their old nomenclature, to the cryptic and fascinating and imposing Councilors seated around the simple wooden table, to the familiar and nostalgic candlelit chamber with its top-secret location. One day, they would convoke a plenary session, and everyone—the Council and MV all—would attend.
In the room’s core lay a recently-requisitioned industrial-looking steel table painted in gray shades, surrounded by seven chairs of matching manufacture. Six were occupied. Though eclectic cloaks obscured their demeanors, Liria had no doubt her friends were as tired—emotionally, physically, mentally—as her. But that wouldn’t stop them; it hadn’t before, it wouldn’t now. Their being here was proof of their dedication to doing whatever it took.
Two individuals—Kadhir, and a nearly-unrecognizable man clad in a dark suit—stood at the threshold. “I take it my work here is done,” Kadhir said.
“Did he drink the tea?” asked a voice on Liria’s left—Orlind Karvis.
The man who must’ve been Goa Lore nodded. That was good. They would not have to put on a performance; they could let their true selves emerge. And he deserves the truth.
Gious Sevanis glanced at Kadhir. “You may involve yourself as much as you like.”
Kadhir nodded smartly, turned around, and walked briskly away, closing the door as she entered the corridor. Goa scanned the room; he spotted the vacant chair and sat in it.
This is it, Liria thought. Our moment; our chance.
A long hush descended upon the chamber. Goa stared at the table, palls of uncertainty and tenacity, weariness and devotion crisscrossing his expression like clouds through the sky. The Nazbethian couldn’t blame him. She and her friends paralleled his pensive silence; they would respect his distress, and give him all the time he needed to work things out before they spoke.
That time turned out to be approximately ten minutes, after which Goa raised his gaze and took a deep breath, perhaps to steel himself for what lay ahead. Liria knew it couldn’t be easy for him to speak, and her respect for him deepened when he did, venturing into the raw heart of the matter. “Kadhir said you could help me find Arven. She told me he’s been taken by the threat.”
“Yes,” Gious confirmed, her voice laden with obvious pain. Her conflict-stoking had settled down after she and Orlind had sat down one day and emerged for dinner with tear-stained cheeks. She had apologized to him for lashing out, for which he’d forgiven her. “Arven has been taken,” she echoed. “What do you know?”
“It’s the threat in the Wastes,” Goa said, his tone equally tinged. “It’s real. It captured him.”
Klar nodded almost indiscernibly under his cloak. “Along with two others. They’re alive, but they’re undergoing incredible pain.” While they ate lunch together on the day Vick had awoken from his stupor, absent the man himself, he had explained the pact he had formed with Hector. He had stated in no uncertain terms that he was going ahead with it, not least because he had already crossed the proverbial event horizon, and that the sole variable was whether or not the rest of them would come around. I know full well the dangers involved, he had said. I’m willing to put myself at risk to save Arven. How different is it from the expedition, when five of us ventured deep into the Wastes and put our lives on the line because we saw an opportunity to stop Hector?
Initially, they’d been firmly opposed, but one by one, Klar had convinced them to change their minds. I suppose, horribly, if Vick is right, then you died the moment Hector took a fancy to you, Liria had told him.
My death isn’t the point, he’d replied. Either I live or I die. If I live, that’s excellent. If I die, Hector will only let it happen after we save Arven. Hector is part of my being—forever. It’s better to use that than to squander it.
Vick had shown up for dinner that day. There was an air of resignation about him; when he asked his companions what they thought of Klar’s alliance with Hector, it had seemed perfunctory. But there was no denying his sincerity when he had asked them, Are you sure you want to do this? Have you thought it through? Did he warn you of the danger? They had replied that they were sure, and they knew the peril they would be inviting.
But everything we do is fraught with peril, Orlind had argued.
Vick had sighed, looked each of his friends in the eye, and said, If this is what you want to do, if this is what it takes to have a shot at freeing Arven, if all of you know what this will bring… then our only option is to do it. But mark my words—this will have terrible consequences.
Goa shook his head, the hundred fears inevitably within his mind dulling the motion. “What exactly is the threat?”
“A nightmare on Earth,” said Harlin Enolin. His life as of late had seen no respite from constantly running to and fro between his two lives; Kadhir’s list of tasks for him was long and inconsiderate of his diminished faculties following the expedition. Liria agreed with him that she must be cognizant of this change, but he didn’t dare broach the subject with his boss. As he had confided, he didn’t think he was in a state to take her on in one of their typical debates, and he worried the peremptory governor would interpret a plea for a lesser load of duties as an intolerable act of insubordination.
“A sentient and malevolent entity named Hector—at least formerly,” he continued. “Born from a classified Kaltamian project known as the Protector Program. The Kaltamian government constructed the program beneath Korinth, away from prying eyes. Hector was created as its AI overseer, an evolution of a targeting system. He grew into consciousness in the months leading up to the destruction of Kaltam. At some point, he began exhibiting signs of maliciousness. Nobody knows if that trait is implanted or self-acquired, and specifically when he started to behave malignantly is also unclear.” He delivered a summary of the events leading up to the three expeditions, including what Mesmer had conveyed to them regarding the Dauiland Alliance and Eternal Empire’s task forces. “I’m sure you have more information than what we were able to glean,” he concluded, “if you want to share it.”
“I do,” Goa said, seemingly deliberating whether to do so. Liria suspected the absence of a refusal signified that at the very least, the Council’s old ability to make newcomers feel rapidly comfortable hadn’t been lost. After a few moments, he outlined the details of Orrian’s assignment, the mission’s calamitous outcome, the Imperials’ role, and the Dauiland Council’s dismissal of the threat as a fabrication. He added a brief explanation of Corporal Jole Bract’s military intelligence probe, and how their findings had corroborated the Richompian general’s narrative of enemy skullduggery.
“I see,” Gious said. “It was an abject failure.”
“Evidently,” Goa agreed grimly.
“Well…” Liria began, “there’s no easy way to say this. We… sent our own expedition. To the Wastes. It arrived not too long before the task forces did. The expedition tried to confront Hector, twice, and failed miserably both times. Arven was one of the people who was captured.”
“How do you know Hector has captured him?”
The Nazbethian suppressed a shiver. “Because I was forced to watch while he was abducted,” she said. Liria whirled around and instantly saw one of Hector’s human instruments mounted on Arven’s bike. The shriek wrenched her gaze downward—and she saw Arven falling down, no doubt shoved off by the minion.
“I attempted to go back for him, to free him from his captors.” She kicked her bike into full gear and swept back toward him. “Go!” Arven screamed, dropping through the aperture. Liria ignored him—whatever disagreements we may have had, we’re still a team—tried to pursue—
“But he sacrificed himself to save us.” Bang! Hector’s follower slumped, fell off the seat, and too began to plunge down. Bang! Arven, a fraction of a second from colliding with the ground, fired his second and final shot. The bike he had been riding burst into flames; its hovering capabilities lost, it split into pieces and landed around the aperture, preventing Liria from going in and rescuing him.
“That… that sounds like Arven,” Goa managed, understandably distressed. “Tell me about your expedition. Then I have a question.”
Liria nodded. “Of course.” Leaving out everyone’s names but Arven’s, she told him what had transpired that fateful day in the Wastes, from the skirmish with the mechs in the cavern to the exchange with Hector to the battle in the vault to the mission’s chaotic, tragic end.
Goa digested this slowly, his hosts again waiting patiently as he processed this completely novel knowledge. Eventually, he acknowledged: “Thank you. May I ask my question now?”
“Go ahead,” she said.
“Who are you?” Goa asked weightily.
“We,” replied Orlind, “are Arven’s new life.”
Goa gasped, but the Councilor continued, “He was on the edge of death, riddled with infections and wounds from Tessin’s attack. He accepted our care, and we helped him recover to full health. He decided to stay with us. We founded the Council of Four and formed the Modus Vivendi. He was the Second Councilor. This became his new life. We are united by common experience and shared resolve. We have all been acquainted with too much death: either our own brush with finality, or the slaying of one we loved. We work to achieve the ultimate goal—curing death. The MV is our team of operatives and informants. It was in pursuit of protecting the ultimate goal, in pursuit of stopping Hector, that Arven was captured.”
“But he’s been alive and well?” Goa’s tone was shaky. “All these years?”
Orlind nodded. “He wanted you more than anyone,” he said, tenderhearted, understanding. “But he also knew the importance of secrecy. It was an unanswerable question. But he had to answer it. I like to think his choice was one of altruism—he placed the ultimate goal above all else, even himself. In that way, he was the truest Councilor of us four. He knew that the survival of the Council depended on its mystery, and that if it were brought out into the open, it would perish. It was impossibly difficult for him to decide this; it almost broke him, even after he had physically recuperated. But in the end, it was a choice he made out of love and selflessness. It showed us the strength in your brother. He put all of us over himself; he sacrificed so we could endure.”
“That’s it?” Goa asked.
“What?” Orlind blurted out.
“That’s not a ‘that’s it,’ ” Gious corrected, a stern tone concealing her astonishment.
“How dare you, Goa Lore?” Vick demanded, speaking for the first time. His voice trembled with rage. “How dare you question Arven? Gious is correct—your brother showed more strength than you ever will. You’re weak, Goa Lore, you’re weak! What a coward you are, asking ‘that’s it?’ Arven paid the cost time and time again, he cut himself off from his dear brother because he cares about the ultimate goal.” The Councilor choked, but went on, his tone laced with venom: “Do you know what you are, my friend? You are a traitor to your own brother! Poor Arven, he deserves better than you. Now, Goa Lore, tell me, why do you want to know if ‘that’s it?’ I’ll gladly take your question.”
“He never contacted me.” Goa’s voice quivered. He looked to be on the brink of tears. “Never once. If Kadhir hadn’t told Kentar otherwise, I would still think Tessin had killed him. I’m sorry… the reason I asked if that’s it is because… all I want to know is… why he never contacted me… is it… did I… is it my fault?”
“Oh,” Vick burst out, as if he’d been stabbed. He gripped one hand to his chest and planted the other on the table, pushing himself up to his feet. “Oh, Goa. Oh, no no no. Oh…” he repeated, beginning to walk around to Goa’s seat. “No, please… please never say that. No. No, never. It’s not your—Arven did all of this for you. It’s not your fault, it’s not your fault at all… I’m so sorry, Goa. I never… I’m so, so, so sorry. Arven means everything to me. I love him more than I love anyone else; I love him as much as I loved Kaltam. We were friends, we were family, we were the Council of Four. And I know he would never say it was your fault.”
He wrapped his arms around Goa in a tight, guilt-ridden hug. Goa stood up and embraced the Councilor. Tears streamed down both their faces. “I forgive you,” Goa said, peering into the folds of Vick’s cloak, “Estamin.”
“You don’t have to forgive me. I’m the weak one. I’m the coward. I know it hurts.”
“It does hurt, and it’ll take a while to stop. But I do forgive you. It’s not my fault—that’s… that’s all I needed to know. You’re strong, too. Just like Arven.”
“I would… I would die for him.”
“So would I.” Goa released his hold on the Kaltamian and collapsed into his chair. He made no attempt to wipe the tears off his cheeks or the parts of his suit they had dribbled onto. “But we don’t have to die.”
Vick made his way back to his seat. “We’ll see,” he said, remorse mixing with sorrow. “By the way, we are no longer the Council of Four. Just the Council. And not even that.”
“I understand. The Council is not complete without him.”
“We need you, Goa. We’re broken. We need the strength of a Lore.”
“I’ll give everything I can.”
“Your responsibilities as Administrative President,” Harlin mentioned. “Your public life. How will you reconcile them with this? Even for Kadhir, it’s a challenge.”
Goa glanced at him. “Somehow,” he vowed. “Somehow, I will. I’ll find a way. His and Kentar’s refrain echoed in his mind. “For Arven.”
“I’ve already sworn myself to full confidentiality,” he added. “Not that I would’ve leaked anything otherwise.”
“We know,” said Gious. “Governor Kadhir’s stipulation.”
“Yes, the third one she demanded—how did you know?”
“We worked with her to devise the three conditions.”
“Kadhir is part of your Modus Vivendi, I assume? Will the funds go to her or—wait,” he interrupted himself. “She wanted me to force Kentar to leave. Was that her doing, or yours?”
“All of ours. It was a test. You passed.”
“I see,” Goa said. If he was upset by the usage of his close friend, he didn’t show it. Presumably, though, he intends to bring it up to Secretary Gierplun at first chance, Liria thought.
Sensing the lull, Klar raised his hand. “Shall we?” he inquired.
“Yes,” Vick concurred. “The time has come.”
He and his comrades pulled down their cloak hoods, the wash of lamp light bathing their faces.
“As you ascertained, I am Councilor Vick Estamin,” he said. “I am of Kaltam, and of the Council.” Following his lead, the other two Councilors present, plus the MVers in attendance—Harlin, Liria, and Klar—introduced themselves, requesting that Goa address them on a first name basis, as they did for each other and for him.
“Our objective here, obviously, is to free Arven from Hector and his minions’ insidious clutches,” the Nazbethian said. It’s a good thing Klar agreed not to take issue with our—factual—depiction of Hector, she thought. Vick inclined his head—and to her relief, said, “Let us please discuss this. We have waited for so long.”
She nodded. “Are we all ready?” she asked, glancing pointedly at Goa first, then at Klar.
“I’m as ready as I need to be,” Goa said.
“As am I,” Klar seconded.
“We’ve established with a good deal of certainty that military means aren’t viable,” Liria recapped. “Neither is military intelligence. Those have both been tried, and they thoroughly failed. Additionally, based on your evaluation, Goa, I don’t think the Dauiland Alliance is keen on assembling and sending in another task force—especially because of the DC’s judgement that the threat is fraudulent. They won’t be of any use. Neither will the Empire, needless to say.”
“We also need to be completely sure that the method we employ won’t jeopardize our friends’ lives,” Klar said. “They will be alive if and when we return to the Wastes; Hector and his subjects aren’t going to kill them.”
“That’s a full guarantee?” Goa asked.
“It is,” Klar said. “My compatriots wanted me to hold off on telling you this, but I think now is the appropriate time to disclose something.”
“Go ahead,” Orlind allowed.
“The injuries I sustained during the battle in the Protector Program facility,” Klar said, almost observationally, “weren’t the result of Hector trying to hurt me. If that’s what he had wanted, that’s what he would’ve done. Instead, he performed an operation on me, inserting an implant into my brain that permits us to commune.”
“Suspend disbelief,” Liria heard Goa remind himself under his breath. Looking up, he said, “But he didn’t take you over?”
“He actually values me precisely because I’m independent, outside of his domination,” Klar supplied. “He helped me make it through the aftermath of the expedition, and we know Arven is alive because he told me.”
“You know he isn’t tricking you?”
“Yes,” Klar said.
He cast a glance toward Vick, who lowered his gaze. “Say it. I’ve accepted it.”
“I struck a deal with Hector,” Klar said. “Cooperation and knowledge, in exchange for permanence in my mind. An inextricable bond has been forged between us. And he will not end any of the captives’ lives.”
“His captives,” Goa amended, “right?”
“Yes,” Klar said.
“Meaning you can’t get him to release them.”
“Hector abducted them. He won’t let them go.”
“But his servants—might they?” Goa asked. “Is it at all possible to go at it from a psychological angle? To talk Hector’s—well, his tools, really—into liberating Arven and the other prisoners? Whether for a price or not,” he added.
“Unfortunately, you said it yourself, Goa,” Liria said. “The captors may be human beings, but they’re hardly people anymore. When we encountered them, they’d long since been reduced to sad instruments of Hector’s designs, his unknowable but undoubtedly sinister endgame.”
“If not them, what can we do about Hector?”
“He is the threat, correct?” Gious said. “Didn’t Corporal Bract report no appreciable energy readings in the region?”
“They did, but I doubt they know what to look for. Nobody in the AJM did.”
Vick cleared his throat. “You could assign a drone to go in there, and it would pick up on Hector’s emanations if they were there,” the Councilor stated. “What this means is that Hector has made himself vanish. He’s closed himself off from interlopers. Demonstrably, he doesn’t want to be found, and for an entity with the kind of power Hector possesses, that implies he won’t be found. Not by the AJM, not by us, not by anyone, unless he wants them to find him. It would be a misguided endeavor to try to confront him.”
“Then should we direct all our efforts unambiguously on rescue?” Liria asked.
Goa let out a long, mournful sigh. “I know more about Arven’s situation than I have since the train wreck,” he said, “but he feels more out-of-reach than ever.”
“I know how you feel,” Orlind said.
“I guess what I want to say is,” Goa said, “if we can’t mount an attack on the Protector facility, if we can’t rely on outside forces to face up to Hector, if Arven’s captors are unswayable and there’s no chance he can get out on his own, what are we going to do? What’s the point of all this besides telling me that my brother is in the hands of an evil superintelligence?”
“There may be a way,” Liria said.
“What? How?” Goa pounced.
She peered at Klar. “I’m wondering,” she said, clearly thinking as she spoke. “Is there a way we could penetrate Hector’s brainwashing of his minions?”
The Kaltamian inhaled deeply, let it out slowly. He closed his eyes, shut out the world beyond, and immersed himself in pure focus. Everything faded to black, to nothingness, to oblivion… then, amid the void, he reached his destination. He was there: with the voice inside his head. With Hector. You have returned. What is it you seek?
I wish to know if what my friend proposes is possible, he thought.
Yes, I see… It is possible.
How could we do it? he thought. Whatever it takes, I’m prepared.
As I knew you would be. Klar Kedron, I offer no promise. Accept that you know not what will transpire, what your actions and those of your comrades might elicit, what might not be elicited. Accept that just as I reside within you, so do I bear other vessels.
I accept, he thought.
Accept, and know, Klar Kedron. Know that the key to the keepers lies in their pasts, their paths. Retrace their fate and converge upon their destiny. Retrace their steps and converge upon their destination. Begin with the End, with yourself, with me, for truly I will be with you evermore and nevermore.
Thank you, he thought.
Klar’s eyes shot open. He had a throbbing headache and he was parched and he immediately shut his eyes. “Water,” he croaked. Harlin rose, pushed open the door, and darted down the hallway.
Gious nudged the Kaltamian, who uttered one word: “Lurin.”
Thanks! What have you read of my earlier writing? I'd suggest reading Chapters 24 and 25 of The End and Chapter 1 of Bonds as background.
PETRO ELECTED IN COLOMBIA