The double doors were suddenly thrown open with a bang, followed by the cool clicking of heels on the floor. The lone man seated at the oval table looked up expectantly at the woman whose voice burst over the room.
"You had better know what you're doing, Councillor," the woman spat as she lowered into a chair. Even after all these years working alongside her, he only knew her by the planet she represented: Ellegy. Councillors didn't have the luxury of names nor identity, even amongst one another.
All she had to him was her cold voice and her sharp pointed features which, in this moment, were dark with anger. "Bringing us all together like this?" she went on. "Now? It's dangerous. It's irresponsible. We're practically begging an assassin to come here and wipe us out."
The man's lip twitched in irritation, but his voice was calm. "The Council has met before," he reminded.
"Well, yes," she admitted, exasperated. "But that was important. Building infrastructure on Vescent was important."
"As is this," he informed her simply.
"Is it?" she bit out, her eyes flashing. "I flew all the way to Satieri because I respect you, Councillor. But I must be honest. This rogue Verdant - this Soliveré - that you claim is such a threat? He seems to be entirely your problem. And yours alone."
Before he could respond, the doors were thrown open a second time. They both looked up as the Councillors from Vescent and Ascendia crossed toward the table.
"He is our problem," came the gruff voice of the Vescentian. The middle-aged man moved with a dragging limp, but he was fit and sturdy, with a thick neck and glaring beady eyes.
"He is the problem of the entire Society," he growled as he kicked his seat aside, and then dropped into it. "And Ellegy - " He glared at the Ellegian. " - is a fool to believe otherwise."
The Ellegian Councillor looked unperturbed. She raised an eyebrow coolly. "Is that so?"
"Enough bickering," spat the other arrival as she lowered into her seat. "We need to retrieve the Verdant CID from Soliveré. I thought we were all in agreement on that. We retrieve the CID, and we nominate a new Verdant."
"Must we?" asked the Ellegian. "It's been four years since our last Verdant and we've survived just fine. We've adapted. The position is too powerful, it's always been volatile. If anything, Soliveré's served as proof of that."
The Vescentian snorted. "If Soliveré is proof of anything, it's that we need to be more careful in our vetting process. Whose idea was to nominate him - "
"Aela Nie'riti was the finest candidate available in vetting Soliveré," the Satieran Councillor argued. "Her performance levels were at the top of her department and she was able to get the clearest picture of his temperament by being ideal for assimilating into-"
"Assimilating?" the Vescentian repeated incredulously. "She married the damn guy. That's a little more than assimilating."
"Ms. Nie'riti did what she thought-"
"But the point of vetting is to be entirely unbiased - "
"Regardless," the Ellegian woman interrupted at once. "Regardless. I believe we could be better off without a Verdant. The Verdant is a weak link in our system. The Verdant knows too much and can act too independently. The lack of one has left us more secure."
"The lack of one is the very reason our current Verdant was able to escape." All three sets of eyes turned to the Satieran, who had called this meeting to begin with. "Without a Verdant, we are crippled in emergencies. Without someone with the right knowledge able to reveal themselves, able to speak for us, we cannot react. That's why Soliveré was able to escape."
Silence descended in the room. Finally, the Ellegian Councillor made a small clicking noise with her tongue. "I thought Soliveré escaped because your prized pet let him go…"
At once, a ripple went over the room. "Councillor," said the Satieran evenly. "We all agreed on Desophyles' assignment to the task."
"Only because he was our only option at the time," she snapped back. "And clearly, a terrible option at that."
"The Councillor is right, though," said the Vescentian man. "Putting him on the hunt was a decision we all agreed upon."
"Perhaps. But I do not remember agreeing that he should be told such vital secrets and given access to such levels of information." The Ellegian raised her brows indicatively towards the Satieran Councillor. "And now he, with all of his knowledge and Soliveré, with our most extensive database, are on the loose together."
The Satieran Councillor frowned. "All the more reason we need to pursue the Dionysian."
"And how exactly are we going to do that this time?" the Ellegian Councillor demanded.
"We send someone after it."
The Councillor from Ascendia drummed her fingertips on the table. "Is that not what we did last time?"
"It is. But this time, we will be more selective in our choice of hunter." The Satieran Councillor nodded towards another door across the room.
The Council fell quiet. Finally, the Ellegian woman asked, incredulous, "And you've already made that choice?" Without waiting for an answer, she went on, "This is ridiculous. We're missing half the Council. We can't make a decision like this without them. When are they arriving?"
"They're not," he said simply, a bitter smirk twisting his lip. "They agree, Councillor. They think this only Satieri's problem. And I suppose they don't respect me as much as you."
"Regardless, we are forced to address this threat without them," he went on. "So I present to you, my choice for the new Verdant-elect." As the door across the way slowly swung open, a small smile came to his face. "Perhaps you will know of her?"
All eyes in the room moved towards the woman who stalked in obediently. A visor covered her eyes and ears, blocking the Council's faces and warbling their voices. But even with her face safely covered, her slick blonde hair, the slim, but firm jawline and of course, the thick black librera tattooed onto her neck were instantly recognizable. After an expectant silence, she moved her lips and introduced herself.
"Ophelia Varisian, Internal Affairs Prime, Satieri," she stated, standing at attention and bowing her head.
The Satieran Councillor glanced at his counterparts and for once, even the Ellegian looked impressed. "Fitting," she mumbled under her breath.
"Isn't it just?" he replied with a satisfied smirk. To Ophelia, he said, "Ms. Varisian, what is your mission and how will you proceed?"
On cue, she recited with absolutely certainty, "My mission is to eliminate the rogue Verdant, Fiearius Soliveré, high traitor Desophyles Cordova, and the entire crew of the unregistered vessel known as the Dionysian-"
"Wait." The Ascendian held up her hand, frowning. "The whole crew? I thought we intended to keep the other Soliveré alive."
"For what purpose?" Satieri wondered gently. "To continue his work on the Nautilus? Now that we have the Caelum Lex, the project's already nearing completion. Even if we did enlist the engineer's assistance, what makes you think he won't just repeat what he did before? He's clearly corrupted. He must be eliminated."
"Well, what of Adler?" grumbled the Vescentian, leaning back in his chair and folding his hands behind his neck. "The woman? She's one of mine. I know her father." He smirked darkly. "So jurisdiction of her punishment should fall to Vesc - "
"Punishment?" asked the Ascendian. "I thought of her as only a bystander."
"Bystander?" The Vescentian barked a laugh. "She's steps away from becoming wanted as a terrorist, she - "
"Councillors," the Satieran interrupted, silencing them. "We have been too lenient. We have slipped up over and over and over again and we are paying dearly. There will be no more mistakes. We will finish this. Once and for all." His eyes passed over the room. "And we will leave no loose ends. None." He nodded to Ophelia, who stood like a statue. "Ms. Varisian. Please continue. How will you proceed?"
"Yes, please," snapped the Ellegian. "We'd all like to hear this."
With perfect obedience, her tone ice-cold, Ophelia stated, "I will locate the Dionysian. I will identify its crew. I will not hesitate. I will eliminate them all."
"Look, 300K is the best I can do," Cyrus was saying, his voice straining as he tried to reign in his impatience. "So that'll get me - "
"40 kilo-gals," grunted the clerk across the counter, crossing his arms. "That's my final offer, kid."
That was all? Shutting his eyes in frustration, Cyrus heaved a sigh. That amount of ship fuel wouldn't get the Dionysian much further than a neighboring moon unless they siphoned a considerable amount from the Beacon. Was it worth it?
At the very least, it would get his desperate crew off this rock. Everyone was in need of a change of scenery - not that this place even offered much scenery to begin with. The dry, dusty town had exactly one pub (which the crew frequented every night) and hardly any work or passengers to take in. Cyrus didn't want to consider the word, but he couldn't help but think it: stranded.
What was it Fiearius used to say when they were out of ideas and at a loss of what to do next? He always said they just had to make a move. It didn't need to be the right move, exactly. Just a move.
What Cyrus wouldn't give for some real captainly advice in this moment. But it wouldn't come from Fiearius, of course: immobile in the infirmary bed, he hadn't uttered a single word in four days. After weeks of shouting hysterical nonsense, for some reason, he'd gone entirely mute. Even Leta hadn't been able to coax anything out of him.
Without making a final decision, Cyrus wandered out of the shop and started the slow walk back to the ship, his mind heavy as he weaved through the alleyways alone in the dimming afternoon sunlight. He'd been at this all day: negotiating for fuel, trying to trade his mechanic skills for a buck. Meanwhile, the crew was getting antsy and worried, and Cyrus couldn't blame them. He'd told them they would stop on this planet for a few days at most.
They'd been here a month.
As he pulled himself up the Dionysian's ramp, he looked up to see that someone else was walking down it: Dez. Before Cyrus could give a start of alarm, he saw the man's hands were tied behind his back and Corra was on his heels, gun in hand.
Cyrus almost didn't have the energy to ask. Almost. "What the hell are you doing?" he asked, exasperated.
"Taking him for his bi-weekly walk," said Corra, jabbing Dez in the back with the rifle. "Trying to be a humane captor, y'know. Give him some fresh air. We're gettin' to be quite close friends, aren't we, Cordova?"
Stony as ever, Dez said nothing, but he leveled Cyrus his cold, empty stare. Cyrus knew exactly what was coming.
"Let me talk to him," growled Dez for the thousandth time. "Let me see Fiearius." He'd been asking ever since they'd left Satieri, and Cyrus' answer never changed.
"No," he said at once and, turning his back on the two of them, continued up the ramp.
"Let me talk to him, Cyrus," Dez called back, his voice just strong enough to make Cyrus slow in place. "I can help."
Without turning around, Cyrus stopped at the top of the ramp and took in a deep breath. Clamping his eyes shut, he said in false, impatient cheer. "Okay. Sure. Let's go talk to him. Right now." He turned back to look at him. "You and me. Let's go."
Dez just stared up at him, empty and hollow as always. "No. I need to speak with him-"
"Alone," Cyrus finished for him, nodding slowly. "Right. So you've said." He gave it one more second before he provided Dez a sharp glare and snapped, "And until you change that stance, you're not going near him." Turning back towards the cargo bay, Cyrus walked on, waving his hand absently in the air. "Enjoy your walk."
Eager to get away from the unsettling sight of Dez - and confident that Corra had things under control taking him back to his cell on the nearby Beacon - Cyrus trekked downstairs.
For reasons unknown, he'd begun to visit the Dionysian's infirmary every few hours since Leta had moved Fiearius there, although he had no reason to. Though she claimed being in familiar territory would ground him, nothing about his condition would be different now than it had earlier. There would be no news to report. Fiearius would be on the exam bench (that Leta had turned into a makeshift hospital bed) and Leta would be bustling around the room, avoiding his eyes, trying to act as business-like and normal as possible. Nothing would be different at all. And yet ...
"How're things?" he asked Leta in the hallway. She was exiting the infirmary, pulling the door closed behind her.
"About the same," said Leta calmly, though her expression told a different story: redness circled her eyes, her hair was limp and unbrushed, and she looked dead on her feet. And of course she did. Leta barely afforded herself sleep now, and Corra had to beg Leta to sit down for meals. Between Ren and Fiearius, she was running herself to the ground as a caretaker.
Pity touched Cyrus' chest. But he also knew she wouldn't have done anything differently, no matter what he said otherwise.
"Vitals are good," she went on. "And he is getting stronger on his feet now. But ... "
Cyrus felt a smirk come to his face. "But still feels like you're talking to a wall?"
Through the door, Cyrus glimpsed Fiearius: sure enough, he was slouched against pillows, jaw rigid, staring straight ahead like a mental patient.
Leta began to smirk herself, sadness in her eyes. "And just think, I used to wish he'd be this quiet. Now I sort of regret telling him to shut up so many times ... "
"I don't know which I like less," Cyrus remarked grimly, "the silent treatment or the inane babbling before. I guess at least he's not shouting at his hands anymore … "
Leta's smile thinned from her face. Suddenly, she tilted her head at him in earnest. "Hey. Why don't you give it another try?"
Cyrus hesitated, watching as Leta stepped back and opened the door for his entry.
"If anyone can get him to talk," she said gently, "I'm sure it'd be you."
Cyrus said nothing. His heart clenched in his chest. He wanted that to be true. He really did. He wanted to help.
But the vacancy in his brother's eyes was reason enough for Cyrus to falter and mumble, "Uh - maybe later. I've got some work to take care of. But hey, come by the bridge later, I want to check in with everybody. Just in case something, somehow, miraculously, has changed."
Unsurprisingly, Leta's expression fell with hurt and disappointment. But she slowly closed the door behind her and like the true friend she was, she didn't push the subject.
"Right," was all she said, averting her eyes as she started to walk away. "I'll meet you in the bridge in a bit."
The bridge of the Dionysian rarely held so many people at once - but this, Cyrus felt, was the only place they could meet to talk privately. Without Fiearius taking the helm of the ship, the leadership had spread between four people: Corra was in the co-pilot's seat, Leta sat cross-legged on the dashboard and Finn was lounged in the captain's chair. True, it was undeniably unsettling to see anyone but Fiearius sitting there, but this was hardly the oddest thing Cyrus had witnessed in the past month.
"Well, today hasn't been a total wash," Finn was saying to the room at large. "Managed to nab a few paying passengers. One of whom is a pretty ace gunhand, from what I hear. Said she'll work with us for awhile."
"Unless we let some deckhands go hungry, we can't afford to pay a gunhand right now," Cyrus pointed out, leaning in the doorway with his arms folded. "
"Nope, we sure can't," said Finn, grinning at him. "But she said she'll work in exchange for room and passage. I figure it can't hurt to have another gunhand on our side considering it's just Corra and me. And Dez, I guess," he added, arching his eyebrows in question.
"Dez isn't a gunhand," said Leta at once, her expression darkening. "And he isn't on our side."
"Yeah, about Dez," said Corra, frowning. "What exactly are we gonna do with Mr. Grumpy?"
Leta didn't hesitate. "We can't trust him. He's going to turn on us the first second he can."
"Maybe so," Cyrus agreed, "but I'd rather have him here, where we can keep an eye on him. At least when he's locked in the brig I know he's not out stabbing us in the back."
Finn heaved a sigh. "Don't s'pose Fiear's got an opinion on what to do with his ol' buddy?"
"Most days I'm not even sure Fiear knows where he is," said Leta quietly, her eyes on the floor. "Let alone who else is here."
"And Ren?" prompted Corra, although Cyrus wished she wouldn't mention him. It was bad enough seeing Leta like this. "Not much better, huh?"
Leta looked up and shook her head. "He's struggling right now. He really thinks we're all being wrongly disloyal to the Society and he can't understand why we're acting this way. It's like they wiped him clean with that ARC treatment."
"And we still know next to nothing about that ARC treatment," Cyrus grumbled, rubbing his palm on his temple. "Much less how to reverse it. Or if it even is reversible…"
"Of course it's reversible," Corra scolded, reaching across from where she sat and thwapping his arm with the back of her hand.
To everyone's surprise, Finn suddenly went rather serious, furrowing his brow in thought. "You know - back on Carthis, I used to hear people talking about a mental condition the soldiers had when they came back from border scuffles with the Society," he mumbled thoughtfully. "Soldiers who had been prisoners especially. I didn't pay it much attention at the time, but it could be what we're dealing with here. It could be ARC."
Cyrus thought this was perhaps too convenient to be true, but Leta looked so happily astonished, he couldn't argue.
"How did they treat them?" she demanded quietly.
"The military base on Eridan City has a rehab center for POWs ," he replied. "At the very least, they'd be more equipped to deal with this than us. I could call in a few favors, see if they're willing to help us out."
Leta's mouth hung open in shock. Even Cyrus couldn't deny the blossom of hope in his chest.
"That'd be - anything they can tell us-anything could help," Leta stammered. "Can we reach them now?"
Cyrus watched as Leta slid from the dashboard and followed Finn out the door. Perhaps one thing, at least, had gone right today.
Corra moved to follow, but before she could make it to the door, Cyrus remembered with a start he had to speak with her. It was a conversation he'd been avoiding for days.
"Corra," he began uneasily, and she paused in mid-step. "Could you-stay a minute?"
"Sure, Cy-cy." Corra settled herself back into her seat. "What's up?"
As she sat there, staring with those big brown innocent doe-eyes, it became just that much harder to get out what he needed to get out.
"I really hate to ask you this," he began, hoping that would spur his confidence, "I know you have other plans and the last thing I want to do is get in the way of those, honestly. I just-" Cyrus sighed inwardly. "I don't know what else to do."
Corra tilted her head curiously, waiting for him to go on. Taking a deep breath, he did. All at once. "Could you loan the Caelum Lex to me? I know you wanted to sell it and buy your own ship, but if I could just-I'd pay you back. As soon as I can, I swear."
Corra blinked slowly. "Cyrus," she said, but he was too far in to stop his explanation.
"I just need some credits to get us back on our feet, especially if we need to get to Carthis, like Finn was saying. We just don't have the funds and if I could just get a boost and the Caelum Lex could do that so-"
"Cyrus," she said again, harshly this time, putting a hand in the air.
"-if I could just borrow...it…" he trailed off, looking down at her awkwardly as she waited for him to slow down.
When he finally did, she took a breath of her own. "Of course I'd give it to you," she said matter-of-factly and he felt an instant wave of relief. With that cash behind him, they really could get moving again and get off this rock. But that relief vanished when she added, "But I don't have it anymore."
Cyrus blinked, dumbfounded. "You - what?" His eyes narrowed on her. "You sold it already?"
Corra bit her lip and her eyes changed from innocent to quite clearly guilty. "Yes. But also no. I traded it."
Cyrus was perplexed. "With who?"
For just an instant, she looked up at him, but just as quickly, she stared down at the floor. "With Dez."
Cyrus' jaw dropped, but words couldn't escape him. She didn't. She couldn't. In his lapse of shock, she hurried on, "It was just a month ago. When we landed on that planet to meet with him. Leta told me Fiearius was going to get himself killed so I - I offered the Caelum Lex if he'd leave us alone. He accepted and - well. That was that."
Cyrus' senses were returning. And they were returning engulfed in flames. "Well he clearly didn't hold up his end of the bargain," he spat bitterly, making Corra flinch. "Damn, what a surprise, he's untrustworthy."
"Cy, I was just trying to help," she said in despair, her expression crumbling. "And he didn't do anything that time, did he?"
"No, he didn't, because he didn't need to," Cyrus growled. "Because he knew we were going to be on the Baltimore, wrapped up like a Concordia gift a few days later."
"How was I supposed to know that?!"
"What you should have known is not to trust the Society!"
Corra groaned and pushed herself from her seat, making for the door, but Cyrus wasn't finished. "Well at least he's here now, we can just take it back from him."
Corra froze in the doorway. "No. We can't." She slowly turned around. "I asked him about it. He already handed it over. The Society has it."
An icy chill ran down Cyrus' spine. The Society had the Caelum Lex? The Department of Technology had it? All they had to do was fix the Nautilus and-he could see it now. Its great churning engine. Its huge sweeping form. And with the Caelum Lex it could do it. What it was always meant to do: destroy.
"Cy?" Corra asked quietly, taking a step back towards him. His face had gone pale, his bones rigid and whatever hope had been there a few minutes ago had turned to despair.
"You have no idea what you've done," he breathed at last.
Like clockwork, Leta descended the stairs to the infirmary, pushed open the doors and crossed toward the counter. She certainly didn't expect a greeting from Fiearius - or even any form of acknowledgment - but that did not prevent her from simply beginning to speak in his direction, as she always did. It was the kind of forcefully cheery bedside manner she had always found silly. Until now.
"Well, we made a decision on what to do next," she informed him brightly, pulling latex gloves up her wrists. When she approached the edge of his bed, Fiearius cast her a dulled, sidelong stare. Then he returned his gaze to the row of cabinets.
"Finn thinks he can get Ren help," she went on, shifting Fiearius' legs to the side to examine their deep cuts. "On Carthis. In their rehab facilities. It might be risky, given your status, but maybe they can even help you."
Speaking of Ren's condition was painful - it made her throat ache - so Leta shifted directions.
"Our fuel situation is still a problem," she explained quickly, "but Finn also found us some paying passengers. So - that will help." She moved onto his other wound. "And we pulled together enough credits to restock the pantry, so you'll be glad to know your crew won't starve."
Leta paused her examination and looked up at his face. He simply sat there, as empty as a toy on a shelf.
"Your crew, remember?" Leta prompted, unable to stem the sudden impatience in her voice. "Remember them, Fiearius? The crew? And your little brother? They're all pretty eager for you to get back on your feet."
Fiearius did nothing but center his eyes on the wall. All at once, Leta found that she could take no more. Day four of his unending, infuriating silence was too much. Unfinished with the examination, she abruptly ripped the gloves from her hands and turned around.
"Now I'm talking to myself," she muttered heatedly, returning to the counter. "Because you clearly aren't listening so I'm just talking to thin air, like you don't even want to be helped, and I must sound fucking crazy - "
But then, to her immense shock, a voice interrupted her and halted her in place. The gloves dropped to her feet when Fiearius, sounding hoarse and familiar, suddenly grunted an answer.
"You are crazy."
Leta spun around, slack-jawed. Fiearius was sitting up straighter in the bed, scratching his hair like he'd just awoken from a nap.
"Which must sound pretty funny coming from me right now… " he mumbled. Then he flicked his eyes to hers and pinned her in place. "Anyway. You were saying?"