Corra was so engrossed in reading that she didn’t even notice when she was no longer alone in the Beacon’s bridge. Even when Finn said a word of greeting and sat down in the seat beside her, she didn’t tear her eyes from the screen enough to pay attention. It was only when she felt a tap on her shoulder that she recognized his existence at all, primarily by jumping in her seat in surprise.
“Woah there, only me,” he insisted, holding up his hands in surrender as Corra scrambled to right herself in her chair. “Sorry, didn’t mean to sneak up on ya.”
“No, I’m sorry, I just--” She ran her hand through her hair and shook off the moment. Just wasn’t used to having other people around again, she almost said. “Just didn’t hear you come in,” she said instead.
Finn tapped his ear knowingly. “‘Cause I’m real quiet-like, that’s why.” Corra lifted her brows at him in interest and realized, as his breath mingled in the air in front of her, why the statement seemed an odd one.
“You smell like liquor and tobacco.” When he just grinned in response, Corra laughed, “I take it the job went well?”
Finn and Alyx had been out running a quick trade gig most of the afternoon. It had been too long since they’d had paying work, Alyx had said, as she arranged the setup. And Finn, who had seemed a bit bored watching Cyrus and Addy run experiments on the Transmitter or watching Corra read every relevant ancient legend and anecdote and record she could find, had readily agreed.
Apparently the task had been fruitful.
“Oh, very,” Finn cooed. “Even walked away with a bit of a bonus for speedy delivery.” He delved his hand into his pocket and pulled out a stack of credits he rubbed between his thumb and forefinger. It was, however, a small stack of credits which must have put some confusion on Corra’s face because he immediately amended, “I mean, there was more than this...But Alyx and I thought we deserved a bit of celebration so…” His voice trailed off.
“No judgment here,” Corra assured him through a chuckle. “Have a good time?”
She saw his glazed eyes frown and then perk up to focus on her. “Oh, yeah! That girl can drink. And talk.” He nodded slowly, his eyes moving to his hands in his lap as he muttered, “We talked about a lot of things…” Corra couldn’t fathom what was going on in that tipsy mind of his, but when he finally flicked his gaze back up to her, he steeled his expression (as best as he could anyway) and changed the subject abruptly, “So what’s so interesting, huh?” He nodded towards her console.
Well that was strange. Briefly, she wondered what Finn and Alyx had talked about. Her, clearly, if his intoxicated body language was to be believed. But she pushed it from her mind for the moment and instead relayed her own news.
“Well. Addy and Cy did some tests, right?” she began. “And they were telling me that they don’t know how the Transmitter can really transmit anything. It doesn’t have enough power.”
“And it’s tiny,” Finn added, trying to be helpful.
“Exactly, it’s tiny!” Corra agreed. “Which leads them to believe that it’s not meant to function on its own. To transmit its message, it needs something else. So I stopped looking for mentions of the Transmitter and instead started searching for mentions of something that could boost message signals. Boost them far enough to send something to the Origin.”
Finn nodded, though he seemed to be straining to pay attention. “To the Origin, right,” he repeated in a mumble, but moments later, a mental light switch must have clicked on. “Wait, so that’s definitely what it does then? Send something to the Origin.”
Corra grimaced and lifted her shoulders in a half shrug. “Not definitely. But it’s where all the stories point. And Addy says the message itself is some sort of generic SOS. The Transmitter doesn’t have any way to program its destination so we’re thinking it’s set to go somewhere specific. Is that the Origin? Maybe. It’s a working theory. And I may have found something to support it.”
Finn’s brows lifted in interest and Corra went on. “I was reading all these documents from the first Division War.” Her fingers tapped the screen of the console. “And in them, there’s records of these ships being used to defend Archeti. Ships they were nervous about using because they were so important, but they were out of options so they had to be risked. Ships that were made from the Ark itself.” To Corra, this was fascinating. Pieces of their entire civilization’s creation actually accounted for and not dismantled and lost like the rest?
Finn, however, didn’t seem too impressed. He blinked back at her emptily.
She kept going anyway, turning back to her console and reading from the screen, “Listen to this. This is documentation of a conversation between two Archetian generals during the war. They’re losing badly and one of them says, here it is, ‘We should consider sending for help’.” She glanced at Finn, hoping to see him sharing in some of her excitement. He wasn’t.
Corra was not deterred. “‘It’s too soon,’ says the other general. And the first one goes ‘it could be too late’-- blah blah, whatever, they argue for a bit, but here, this part. ‘Even if I agreed, how could we? All the ships capable of getting the message out are deployed.’ And the other one says, ‘dammit, I knew we shouldn’t have sent them in.’ And then they go on for a while longer, but this--” She pointed at the screen, bouncing a little in her chair. “Do you know what this means?”
Finn didn’t need to say no to tell her he didn’t. He said it anyway. “No?”
Rolling her eyes at the perfectly blank expression on his face, Corra jumped to her feet and started pacing the bridge. “It means, if I’m right, the Transmitter only works if connected to one of these ships, the ships made from the Ark and it probably does contact the Origin, because who else would Archeti call in the Division War? Everyone stood against them. And what else would require a special ship to send for help? And if the Transmitter can only work with one of those ships--” She stopped pacing and nodded firmly in her decision. “Just gotta find a ship.”
Behind her, Finn let out a long ‘hmm’ before finally asking, “And...where would you do that exactly?”
Corra’s excited grin faded a little. “Eh. Archeti would be my first guess, but…” That trail had run cold obviously. She spun back around to face him, unperturbed. “I don’t know yet. But it’s a start. And I’ll find one. I’ve got to.” She’d already gotten this far in chasing this thing’s source. She’d stolen it from a disgusting criminal, she’d traversed an ancient archive and she’d even lead a cult ritual in her honor. She sort of had to see it through at this point. And if she didn’t, the mystery would nag at her forever after.
But then Finn fixed her with a worrisome glance and asked, “Then what?”
Her determination faltered again. “Then--well. I guess I’ll have to figure out how it works.”
“Yeah, but then what?”
Corra eyed him curiously. “If you’re asking me whether or not I’m going to try calling the Origin, I don’t know if I really--”
“No, no, I don’t care about that,” Finn cut her off and though Corra felt a little affronted, she held her tongue as he got to his feet and took a few slow steps towards her. “I mean, what are you going to do after this is all finished? When you’ve figured it all out?”
After? Corra opened her mouth to respond and then promptly shut it again. She hadn’t considered yet what happened after. When all she managed was a, “Uh--” Finn jumped in, “I mean, you don’t have to figure it out right now. Alyx and I were just talkin’. ‘Bout you and the Beacon and all.”
So they had been discussing her. And given the state of things, she was fairly certain she knew why. “Look, Riley, if I’m overstaying my welcome,” she said hurriedly, “It’s okay, you can tell me. I’m incredibly grateful for the help you and the crew have given on this little pet project, but if you need to get back to the daily business, I completely understand. I have my own ship, I have other places to go, it’s fine, really. I won’t be offended.”
Now was Finn’s turn to look dumbfounded. “Offended? What?” Suddenly, he shook his head. “No, god, that’s not what we were saying at all.” Finn took another step towards her, this time looking like he was going to reach out and touch her, but his hand got halfway through the gap between them and then turned around to dig into his hair.
“What Alyx and I were saying was that--” He hesitated. “We were hoping you’d stick around. After--” He waved his hand in a circle at her console. “It’s just--well, y’know--Alyx thinks the ship would be better off if you’re captain again.” Which was not what Corra had expected. Her jaw slackened a little as she considered him and Finn, a little out of character for him, looked awkward.
“So, yeah,” he went on, perhaps just to fill the silence. “We were doing really well with you around and, y’know, you’re a good fit with the crew. Alyx, she missed you like hell. And--Cai! God, Corra, he was crushed when you left. Devastated. So for their sake, it’s really not right to just waltz back into their lives and walk right out again once you’re done with them.” He offered her what Corra would best describe as a shaky sideways smirk.
And still, he rambled on, “Not that I’m implying you’re using us or anything! We’re totally okay with this quest of yours. It’s more purposeful than any of the other shit jobs we work. And if you wanna go back to saving allies after all this is said and done? We’re totally okay with that too! Hell, Daelen would prefer it, he hates the criminal life.”
Corra didn’t quite know what to say so all she said was, “Riley--”
And apparently that was enough to break Finn from his spell of discomfort. “Okay cut the shit,” he said, presumably to himself as he clamped his eyes shut and stepped even closer to her so they were now just inches apart. “Truth is, those eight, nine months or whatever? Back then? When we both captained this ship? That was some of the best times of my life.”
He paused for a moment and then amended, “I mean it turned to shit at the end, but before that? You and me, runnin’ the Beacon, helpin’ the Conduit--And the last few weeks with you? The jobs we ran and just having you on the ship and the dinners and the breakfasts and even the weird bit with that cult. It’s been--Look, I know we’re not just gonna get the old times back. Too much has changed, everything’s different now, but recently, I’ve got to thinkin’ that--some of it maybe--we could?” He was looking down at her now with a sort of intensity that made Corra’s breath catch in her lungs. “If you stay?”
No. No no no, said the reasonable voice in Corra’s head as she met Finn’s gaze. You are not doing this. You were over this man. Completely totally over him and this stupid worthless crush that went nowhere. You swore you wouldn’t fall into this again. But as she looked up at him, so close she could feel the heat emanating off his skin, his jaw firm in expectation and a note of pleading in his eyes that made her heart clench, she knew that she was teetering very very close to the edge and one little push would send her tumbling.
She should just take her work and move elsewhere. Get back to the important things. Figuring out the Transmission. Helping her kin make it to the Conduit. Not getting distracted by boyishly handsome men and the utter temptation she felt to do exactly as he suggested and get back a particular part of those ‘old times’. But even as her mind scolded her for it, she found herself, very subtly, nodding.
Vaguely, she became aware of Finn’s hand coming to rest on her cheek and her eyes half-shut in anticipation, but the universe had other plans as just then, Cyrus came rushing into the bridge, out of breath and heaving.
At once, Corra stepped away, Finn’s hand dropped back to his side and both of them pretended nothing strange was happening. Not that Cyrus even seemed to notice. He was dazed, panicked and in a total state of disarray.
“What--” she began to ask, worry spreading through her, but he spoke over her.
“Something’s happened to Fiear,” he got out, barely. “He’s--dead, injured, I don’t know, he’s on Carthis. Something--I don’t know.”
Corra looked over at Finn, Finn looked over at Corra and then he nodded. “Let’s go.”
Leta flashed the light on his right eye and watched the pupil dilate. Then to the left again which stared back at her blankly, unmoving, its edges bloodshot and iris clouded. Back to the right which dilated on cue. And to the left. Nothing. No response. To the right, which this time squinted and then snapped shut as Fiearius growled in annoyance.
“Aren’t you done with that yet?” he snapped. “Doesn’t matter how many lights you shove in my eye, I still can’t see out of it.”
Leta shot him a glare as she gently placed the flashlight on the table beside the hospital bed. “Do you want my help or not?”
“Keep it up, you’re gonna blind the other one too.”
“For a man who recently died twice and underwent three surgeries, you still have enough energy to be an ornery old ass, don’t you?” she couldn’t help but point out.
Fiearius snorted his indignance. “I’m not old.” Apparently he didn’t feel the need to contest the other two accusations.
By all accounts, it was miraculous that Fiearius was even alive, let alone awake and feeling well enough to argue just a week after the Battle of Ellegy. Sure, he looked and sounded like he’d been hit by a freight train, but even exhausted and confined to a bed, after everything that had happened back in that tower, if he was already a fraction of the Fiearius she knew, Leta would take it.
Certainly the medical facilities and staff on Carthis proper had been a major contributing factor. From the moment Fiearius had arrived on the planet, there had been a constant barrage of people working their hardest to get him stabilized. Admiral Gates himself had apparently issued an order to the chief of staff that Fiearius’ treatment was the hospital’s highest priority. Their top physicians checked on him regularly, the nurses were constantly bringing him anything he asked for and Leta was certain he had the best view of the city in the building. Carthis clearly wanted him to survive this war more than he gave them credit for.
But as well as Fiearius had been doing and as grateful as Leta was that her calculated risk had paid off with the revival device she’d installed in him, his recovery was not without its side effects.
“Unless you can fix this.” Fiearius lifted his hand and waved it in front of his face. As he did, a surge of some sort overtook him, starting in his hand and a shudder that rolled up his arm, through his shoulders and made him grit his teeth uncomfortably. It lasted just a moment before he took in a deep breath and shook it off. “Or that. I’d rather not with the poking and the prodding.”
She sighed as she leaned against the table, crossing her arms in front of her chest. “Are the twitches getting any better?”
“Not as painful anymore,” he admitted. “Just as irritating.”
“What about frequency?”
“Still once every hour or so.”
She tugged nervously on the stethoscope around her neck and crossed the room to pick up the tablet that displayed his chart. “I’d like to prescribe something for them, but I think it’s too soon to risk it,” she mumbled, mostly to herself as she scanned down the screen. “With the way your body reacted to the drugs I had to give you, I’d be hesitant to add more into your system…”
Fiearius, as he usually did when she tried to talk to him about serious medical issues, stopped paying attention. “All I wanna know is if this shit is permanent,” he groaned, dramatically dropping back against the pillows.
Leta looked up at him, feeling an ounce of remorse. It was her device that had caused the troubles that plagued him now that the bullet was removed and his wounds sewn shut. She’d hoped and prayed that it would keep him alive which it had, just barely, but she hadn’t known it would also cause blindness and regular muscle spasms…
“I can’t say for certain.” She could hear the apology seeping through her tone. Her fingers fiddled with the switch on the tablet. “We never tested that amount on a live subject. I’m not sure what the longterm effects are. If the twitches don’t stop on their own with time, there might be something we can do pharmaceutically. In regards to your left eye, I can get you in touch with an opthalmologist, they’d have a better idea of what we’re dealing with and what your options are, but--”
“Hey.” She looked up at him across the room and he was watching her with a frown creasing his brow. “This isn’t your fault, y’know? Well--” He cut himself off and shrugged. “It is, but I’m only lettin’ you take credit for the fact that I’m still breathing at all. The rest of this crap?” He rolled his eyes and lifted his hands helplessly. “My own damn fault for gettin’ killed to begin with.”
Leta felt a smile come to her face. “I did tell you to be careful.”
“And I never listen,” he replied with a grin himself.
“So I’ve been keeping tabs with Javier,” Leta changed the subject swiftly, laying the tablet back on the counter and leaning against the counter. “You have about a thousand messages waiting for you once you’re ready.”
Fiearius’ grin slackened into disappointment. “You have to remind me?”
“Hey, I’m the one who’s fielding everything from Gates for you.”
“I told him to go through Quin, she’s handling the fleet ‘til I’m back in action.”
“Yes, well he doesn’t like Quin’s answers so he goes to me. And I tell him to go to Quin and he just asks for you. And since you’re stuck here--”
“--and not even keeping up with what’s going on out there--”
“It’s a good thing you’re not actually dead, this whole effort would fall apart without you,” she mused. “Anyway, point being.” She crossed the room and patted the edge of his bed cheerfully. “Enjoy your break while it lasts.”
And a true break it was, Leta knew. The Carthian doctors had, in fact, ordered that Fiearius be told next to nothing about the aftermath of the Ellegian battle to keep his stress levels down. For once, he had actually agreed with medical advice. Of course, when it benefitted him, he was the perfect patient. Still, Leta was having a hard time not discussing the situation with him. Especially the piece of information she couldn’t share with anyone else.
Desophyles, to Leta’s surprise and true to his word, had contacted her shortly after she’d landed on Carthis to check on Fiearius’ condition and arrange to return the Verdant CID to her. Not sure how long his good spell was going to last, she snuck away from the hospital the very next night and convinced Eve, Richelle and the rest of the Dionysian crew to take her to the nearby moon to retrieve it from him. It was there on that desolate battle-torn wasteland Carthis had won from Exymeron years past and then promptly abandoned that Dez uncharacteristically provided her an explanation. Or half of one at least. She presumed only Fiearius would get the full story out of him.
But as Leta absently thumbed the tiny chip in her pocket, thankfully removed from its previous owner’s wrist, she forced herself to keep her mouth shut. Fiearius didn’t need the stress. Especially that stress. Not while he still had recovering to do.
“Yeah because sitting in a hospital is my definition of enjoyment,” he grumbled, waving his hand towards the window. “Really enjoying this break from the monotony of--” He cut himself off dramatically and put his fingers to his chin. “Wait…”
“Don’t worry, you’ll be back to it soon enough and there’s plenty to do.” Leta grimaced and Fiearius tilted his head, curious, for just a moment, before he seemed to remind himself that he didn’t care, wouldn’t care, shouldn’t care, and shrugged. “Anyway. I’ll let you get some rest, but maybe I’ll swing by--”
Suddenly, down the hall, but loud enough to be heard by likely the entire floor, came a mighty yell. At least, as mighty as a five year old girl could manage.
“O’rian!” echoed through the hospital, followed by the hurried patter of tiny feet running at full speed.
“Kalli, wait!” came a second shout, then the crash of a body meeting a medical cart, a curse and a woman’s laugh.
Leta met Fiearius’ glance and he grinned. The footsteps were coming towards them so Leta stepped out into the hallway and put her hands on her hips as the bushy haired girl plowed towards her. In her wake, papers had scattered, equipment had been dropped and a few nurses looked shell-shocked. Still back by the elevators, Addy was helping Cyrus back to his feet. She glanced up and waved at Leta. Leta waved back just as Kalli slammed on the brakes and jumped in front of her. “A’iya!” she shouted in greeting.
“Right this way,” Leta cooed and swept her arms towards the door. Kalli looked up, met her uncle’s smiling face and burst straight into the room, leaping onto Fiearius’ bed and throwing her tiny arms around his shoulders.
“O’rian!” she shouted again as Fiearius laughed loud and more cheerful than he’d been all week.
“There’s my little monster.” Carefully, he pried her arms from him and held her back to get a good look at her. “L’asi de foriniso p’ahti na?” he asked. She nodded enthusiastically. “Ti’arim!” Then he held up both hands and she slapped them excitedly.
Watching Fiearius with his niece had always been something that Leta found both adorable and, for reasons she couldn’t quite explain, or perhaps just didn’t want to, uncomfortable. Uncomfortable somewhere very deep inside of her and in a way that made her cringe at herself. Why was it that humanity had come so far in evolution and technology and yet she still couldn’t fight off such a simple thing as primal maternal instinct?
Regardless, she felt her cheeks flush as if she’d done something wrong when suddenly Cyrus was beside her asking, “How is he?” Addy joined him moments later.
She didn’t look at them, determined to hide her embarrassment as she answered, “See for yourself.”
Kalli had seized Fiearius’ hand and was jumping up and down with it like it was a prized toy while Fiearius laughed heartedly.
“Issyen,” Cyrus scolded and she looked over at her parents in alarm. And then glee.
“O’rian, p’ahti told me you died!”
Cyrus put his hand on his forehead as Addy asked him, “You told her what?”
But Fiearius just laughed it off and told Kalli as though imparting a mysterious secret, “Oh, I did. I am the living dead.” He raised his hands threateningly and made a monstrous face, but the little girl seemed unimpressed.
“You don’t look like a zombie.”
“Yeah well, just wait til my flesh starts to rot off.”
“Wh--don’t tell her that,” Cyrus finally stepped in, marching into the room and swooping Kalli off the bed into his arms. The siblings continued to bicker as Kalli squealed in delight and wriggled her way out of her father’s arms. Perhaps it was the sudden excess of noise or simply her own exhaustion catching up to her, but Leta tuned them out and turned to Addy.
“I’m gonna take a bit of a break, leave you all to catch up. I’ll be back at the base if you need to get in touch with me.”
Addy just smiled at her. “Take as much time as you need.” She took a deep breath and looked into the room with a determined grimace. “I can handle this lot.”
Leta let out a chuckle, pat her on the shoulder and wished her, “Good luck,” as she retreated down the hall.
Icy rain pounded the windows of Leta’s temporary room on the base where she’d chosen to retreat for a few hours. Summer in Carthis, she thought absently as she sat on the sofa, scrolling through headlines on the glowing tablet in her hand. The weather made her wonder how long she would be on the base -- if she would see another famously brutal Carthis winter. If Fiearius would.
A knock made her blink and sit up. The door slid open, and Liam appeared, offering a watered-down smile through the scruff on his face. “Well, Gates is just as strange as you said he would be,” he said by way of greeting, shrugging off his rain-soaked coat. “He was drinking whiskey, too. You were right on all fronts.”
“As usual,” Leta agreed, just as Liam bent to give her a kiss hello. “I’m surprised he even agreed to the interview, Gates is particularly tight-lipped this days.”
“Let’s not talk about Gates while I’m kissing you, hm?” Liam mumbled against her mouth, then drew away. He dropped onto the edge of the sofa, and Leta thought she saw a shadow pass over his face: he was not entirely at ease. In fact, his voice was a little too casual, too light-hearted, when he asked, “How’re you? How’s the other admiral doing?”
“His vision hasn’t fully restored, and he’s still having muscle spasms ... “ Briefly, the horrible image of Fiearius twitching came to her mind, but she pushed it away. “He’s recovering more and more though and his family just landed today so I left him in good spirits.”
“That’s great,” Liam said, though his tone hardly matched his words. “That’s really great.”
This wasn’t like him. Liam was always talkative and enthused and interested in any and all news Leta had for him. At the very least he paid attention instead of absently flicking the top of his shoe. “Are you alright?” she had to ask.
Liam opened his mouth, then closed it again. “A lot on my mind. Like everyone else around here.”
Leta grimaced. “Did Gates give you any updates on the Ellegy situation?”
“Nothing you didn’t already know.” Finally, he leaned back against the couch and threw an arm loosely around her shoulders. “Carthis defeated the Society’s air forces, but the rebels on the ground switched sides to rejoin the Society and amassed in too large a number, forcing them to retreat,” he recited. “They’re still calling it a victory though, y’know? I think they might need to look up the definition of the word.”
“It’s the media calling it that, not the military. Not behind closed doors anyway,” Leta corrected, leaning against him as she sighed. “If the war council meeting we had yesterday was about a victory, I’m worried what it would look like if we lost.”
“So what’s their plan?”
“Right now they’ve got Fiear’s fleet holding the skies above the planet, not that anyone’s contested it, while Carthis is organizing more troops on the ground for a systematic battlefront like they did on Ascendia.”
Liam shot her a grimace. “They’re willingly comparing it to Ascendia? So bloodshed, bloodshed, and more bloodshed.”
“From the sounds of it. The whole operation turned into a mess.”
“What I don’t understand,” Liam posed thoughtfully. “Is why the Ellegian rebels who have spent, gods, years fighting the Society, would suddenly rejoin them in the midst of battle. I know Carthis kind of screwed them by leaving them out of the plans, but that doesn’t sound like a reason to completely change their tune.”
Leta regarded him sideways, her lips pursed and a frown creasing her brow. She couldn’t tell Fiearius what she had uncovered about the battle of Ellegy, not yet, as much as it was killing her not to. But she could tell Liam, couldn’t she? He’d proved enough times over that he was trustworthy with information and frankly, she needed this off her chest before it burst. So though she knew she probably should have stayed quiet, she instead said, “They didn’t. The Society did.”
Liam turned to her and tilted his head. “How do you figure?”
Well she was into it now. No going back. She took a deep breath, swung her legs up onto the couch and turned towards him entirely. “You know about Desophyles Cordova?”
“He’s not--” Leta faltered. Gods, she was sounding like Fiearius. “Yes, him. He was on Ellegy during the battle. Fiear--” She cut herself off suddenly and narrowed her eyes. “This is off the record, by the way. All of this. This can’t get out, I--”
Liam waved off her concern. “Of course, it always is. I’d never publish anything you told me in private. So go on. Fiearius....?”
She drew in another breath. “Fiearius invited Dez to help him with the Councillor mission. They met up on the planet and he went with him for a while, but Dez had this other agenda. One that included blowing up half the city…”
Liam’s mouth fell open in shock. “I thought that was the rebels.”
“It was. Sort of. When Carthis cut them out, they teamed up with him and his followers. The explosions were all part of this convoluted plan they had to distract Carthis and the Society enough to take prisoners as leverage against each.”
“Oh yeah, I heard something about that. They’re in negotiations to get them back.”
Leta nodded and muttered, “Yeah, update on that, Carthis isn’t willing to give them anything they want...So that’s not looking very promising.”
“It wasn’t the only plan though,” Leta confessed, her voice getting even quieter. There was no chance anyone was listening, but she could never be too careful. It just didn’t feel right to say any of this so loud. “Dez was working with this woman, Ophelia Varisian, I think I told you about her?”
“The blonde psycho arsonist?” Liam put in and Leta couldn’t help but smirk a little.
“They’ve been working together for a while, though with the shit she pulls, you’d hardly know it. She’s been still following the orders of the Society Council all this time, but I guess collaborating with Dez as well, passing him intel, helping him out where she could. She was supposed to reach the Ellegian Councillor before Fiearius did and use her to gain access to the system and call off the Society’s attack. Which was coming. Quickly. The Ellegian fleet destroyed the CORS and turned right around. If they’d arrived, Carthis would have been overwhelmed and lost the air battle too. Our forces would be decimated.”
“But you told me this Varisian was killed,” Liam pointed out hesitantly. “And the fleet still didn’t return…”
“Because there was a second contingency.” Now, Leta glanced over her shoulder. Just in case. “He used Fiearius’ Verdant chip to command the fleet and tell them to turn around.”
Liam’s eyes grew wide. “And the ground troops? He--”
Leta nodded. “Ordered them to join with the Rebels.”
The news had hit her just as hard as it hit Liam now. He stood up from the couch and started pacing back and forth, his hand on his head. “Are you telling me...that that terrorist...is in command of the entire Society arsenal?”
“No no,” Leta assured him, leaning forward. “Only those that listened. A lot are still loyal to their Council over their Verdant of course, but I guess whatever he told them was compelling because the half that didn’t head immediately to Exymeron on the remaining Councillor’s orders did as Dez asked.” Before Liam could rephrase his question, presumably to ask if that terrorist controlled half of the Society’s fleet, Leta added, “And he doesn’t have the chip anymore anyway.”
Liam stopped pacing to look at her. “Who does?”
Leta grimaced uncomfortably and raised her hand a few inches in the air. “But I’m not using it. I’m giving it back to Fiearius as soon as he’s on his feet again.” It was Dez’s only condition to returning it to her caretaking and one she had little trouble agreeing with. Despite Fiearius losing the CID, it was still his as far as Leta was concerned. As for what to do with it--
“Then you have to give it back now,” Liam said suddenly. “Give it back and make him put it to good use. He can call off the Society troops on Ellegy and end the bloodshed before it begins.”
But Leta shook her head. “In his current state, I’m not risking that. The wrong stimuli and he could destabilize, go back to the seizures. We’ve already lost him before, I’m not contributing to that happening again. Even so, he would never do what you’re suggesting. Calling off the Society would mean Carthis plows through the rebels and takes Ellegy for themselves. For once, Dez actually did something kind of helpful.” The words tasted bitter in her mouth even as she praised him.
“Gods.” Liam gazed into the middle distance, looking so struck that Leta reached out to take his hand. He sucked in a deep breath, his eyes glassy. “I wish you hadn’t told me this.”
It was not the response she expected. “What?”
He started to laugh, quiet and strained, a little manic. “It’s just gonna make it so much harder.”
“Make what harder?”
Liam looked down at her and tightened his jaw, as though he was considering something very serious indeed. Finally, he nodded to himself and drew a tablet out of his bag. He switched it on and handed it to her. “Read this.”
Leta took the device, curious as to what this was about, and began to read the document open on the screen. It was a news report about Ellegy, but none of it was right. It described the battle that had taken place a week ago, but it read so wrong Leta barely recognized it, painting Carthis as saviors from on high and the Ellegian rebellion as treacherous scum out to get them every step of the way. The article ended abruptly, like it hadn’t been finished yet, on a line that outright blamed the people of Ellegy for the noble Carthian lives that had been lost.
The words left Leta stunned.
“What is this?” she breathed.
“My latest piece,” barked Liam bitterly. “What do you think?”
She looked up at him, her eyes round. “You’re joking,” she said flatly, not even as a question. Of course he was joking. There was no way this was real. No chance that this was truly his work.
“I wish I was.” He turned away from her and made a circle around the coffee table. “Obviously not done though. Just wait til I put in Gates’ interview.” He laughed again, even more panicked this time. “It really puts the nail in the coffin, you’ll see.”
Leta got to her feet. “You’re not publishing this.” He didn’t meet her stare. Perhaps couldn’t. “You can’t publish something like this. We need peace between Carthis and Ellegy. Not--” She shook the tablet towards him. “This will just give people another enemy to hate.”
“Oh yes,” Liam agreed, spinning around to face her finally. “That’s entirely the point.”
This didn’t make sense. None of this made sense. Liam knew the delicate balance of politics in this war. He and Leta were on the same page. They agreed. That’s why they had gotten along so well in the first place.
“I don’t understand.”
He met her gaze sadly for a moment and then sighed. “The outlook out there is bad right now. Ellegy was a series of mistakes and everyone knows it. The upper Carthian brass want the media to turn public opinion in their favor. They contacted my editor who contacted me and now--” He gestured towards the device in her hand. “Well you can see the results.”
But Leta was already shaking her head. “You can’t publish this,” she said again.
Liam let out an exasperated laugh. “I don’t really have a choice, Leta.”
“You do. You could not write it.”
His eyebrows shot up on his forehead. “Oh I can just not do it? Gee, why didn’t I think of that?” He rolled his eyes and paced around the coffee table again.
A spike of anger ran through her. “You can just not do it. You should just not do it! Why are you doing it?”
“Because they’re forcing my hand!” he snapped. “It’s not that easy, Leta. Even if I didn’t do it, somebody else would.”
“Fine, but it doesn’t have to be you!”
Liam let out a groan and put his hands over his face. “You don’t understand. This is my job. My career. I can’t just not do it. My editor asks me to write? I write. I don’t write, I don’t get paid. It’s pretty non-negotiable.”
“Non-negotiable?” Leta couldn’t believe her ears. “Liam, these are lives at stake here. This whole war is hanging in the balance right now, one little tilt and everything could fall apart. Everything we’ve worked for. You can’t just let that happen, gods, contribute to it because,” the words fell out of her mouth dripping in spite, “your editor told you to.”
He groaned again, louder this time and tore his hands away to look at her squarely. “Yes, actually, I can. And I will.” Leta opened her mouth to argue, but he cut her off, “Look, it’s all nice that you can stand up on your moral high horse and tell me what’s right and what’s good, but those of us on the ground don’t have that option, okay? At the end of the day, I need a paycheck and a promise of more paychecks so I can just survive.”
“So you’re just willing to completely sell yourself out,” she accused, crossing her arms over her chest and regarding him with disgust. “Sell out all of Ellegy. So you can get paid.”
“Yeah, Leta, I am,” he spat back. “Because some of us still have to actually work and get on with our lives through this war. Not all of us are lucky enough to just get taken in and taken care of by the Carthian military because their ex-boyfriend is an admiral.”
Leta’s mouth fell open in shock. The anger she’d felt suddenly turned to rage. “Excuse me?!”
“You know what, just forget it,” he growled, reaching out and seizing the tablet from her hand and turning towards the door. “I knew you wouldn’t understand.”
“Oh I understand.” It was pure fury keeping her going now as she chased after him. “I understand that you’re a coward. I understand that you’re willing to sacrifice your integrity at the drop of a hat. I understand that--”
“You--” he snapped suddenly, turning on his heel and pointing at her. “You really need a reality check, you know that? Or actually--you know what? Maybe I’m the one who needs a reality check.” He barked a single humorless laugh. “I thought you were passionate and caring and focused. Turns out? You were just self-righteous.”
Before she could get another word in, he swung open the door and walked out. It slammed shut behind him, leaving Leta alone, her mind racing, her chest heaving and her hands at her sides trembling.