“There had better be a good explanation for this, Cordova,” greeted the steely cold voice from the console speakers in the bridge. Desophyles leaned back in the pilot’s seat of his ship, examining the small black sphere of the Caelum Lex in his hand. He had one ear turned to the speakers patiently as other voices chimed into the meeting.
“To come so close to your target and to, yet again, allow him to escape,” said another man, full of ice. “We’re growing weary of this pattern.”
“You swore to us that you could handle this hunt,” spit out a woman, another member of the Council. “And yet four years have gone by and you’re still coming back empty-handed. Perhaps its time to reconsider your assignment.”
It wasn’t the first time the Council had threatened to reassign him. They had often considered the notion, but each time, they had come to the same conclusion: if anyone could catch Soliveré, it would be Dez. So far, he had not been successful.
But that would change. Soon.
Calm and formal, Dez replied, “I’m not empty-handed.”
“Yes, this…device you mentioned in your message,” the first voice went on, “Presumably you saw it within your rights to decide that this…thing…is worth more than the stolen property in Soliveré’s possession?”
“Of course not,” Dez told them simply. “But this ‘thing’ is a Caelum Lex, the missing piece in building a new terraformer. The only one in existence. The things we can use it for–”
“ — are not nearly as important as getting back what we’ve already lost,” interrupted one of the voices nastily. “You have one assignment, Cordova, and that is to retrieve Soliveré alive and return him to Satieri. It is not to independently collect assets you deem significant. Retrieve Soliveré. Return him. That’s it.”
Dez restrained the urge to bite back. He put his forehead in his hand, thankful that they couldn’t see him through the screen. “Which I am doing,” he said. “Acquiring the Caelum Lex was just a side effect of the plan.”
“Oh so you actually have a plan?” one of the voices snapped. “We were beginning to think you just enjoy wasting our time.”
“I have a plan,” Dez confirmed, ignoring the slight. “The girl.” Absently, he glanced over to another screen where an image of the Vescentian doctor glowed on the screen beside a list of records. “She’s the key. She’s his weakness.”
“What do you mean,” spat an impatient voice, “‘his weakness?”
“He’ll risk a lot it seems for her wellbeing. Lets down his defenses even. I can use that. I can use her.”
“Well for your sake, I hope you’re right,” said the voice bitingly. “This is your last chance, Cordova. Bring him back.”
The COMM system switched off as the Council disconnected one by one. In the silence that followed, Dez smirked in the darkness, still watching the image of the girl curiously. “Yes, sir.”
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
“One: When I was a teenager, I got too high, thought I was a trapeze artist in an opera and jumped off the balcony,” Fiearius was saying easily, leaning back on one hand as he swung a leg over the edge of his bed. “Broke a dozen bones in my body.”
Mid-drink of whiskey, Leta nearly choked on her laughter. “You what?”
“Two,” Fiearius went on briskly, reaching over her lap to snatch the bottle from her hands, “I threatened to kill my high school principal’s prized show dog if he told my parents I hadn’t been attending for two years. And three: before I bought the Dionysian, I had never been off-world nor stepped on a ship of any kind.” He smiled proudly and tilted the whiskey bottle toward her face. “Guess away.”
As it were, Leta wasn’t particularly good at Two Truths and a Lie, although they’d been at it for a half hour now. It was the only drinking game Leta knew and she was failing, wonderfully and miserably, as the whiskey bottle dwindled between them.
“The uh — last one?” she guessed. “Is that last one a lie? Although I hope it’s the one about the show dog. You’ve done a lot of terrible things, but that’s got to be the worst.”
“I’m sorry, your answer is incorrect. Drink.” Satisfied in his victory of stumping her, Fiearius smirked broadly. “Don’t worry, I didn’t kill the dog. Nor threaten to. Did steal it though.” He shrugged. “Pretty sure the little guy was happier with me regardless. Anyway,” he said quickly, “Your turn.”
Leta crossed her legs together and sat up straighter on his bed, giving a distinct, important clearing of her throat. “One, I was devotedly religious until I was about seventeen,” she offered, her voice even and measured. “Two, I was valedictorian of my high school. And three, I almost went to school to study literature but my dad threatened to cut me off.”
Fiearius’ mouth fell open and he jumped at an answer immediately. “You were not devoutly religious. Were not. Not possible.” But he leaned in close to study her face, more intently than he’d ever looked at her. “Well…maybe it’s possible…” he muttered, hesitant. “Valedictorian I can see. Literature I can see. But I cannot ever imagine you on your knees praying for anything. Nor do I want to. It’s far too passive for you.”
“Well you’re nearly there,” she began, trying to bite back her smile. “First of all, I was valedictorian. And I do enjoy literature. Aiden and I had a nice bookswap going for awhile,” she noted, remembering fondly. “And now I have his library left to go through … but, I never considered studying it really. So yes — I was, in fact, religious. Can you imagine if I walked into a chapel now? I’d be struck by lightning.”
Fiearius barked a laugh of understanding, which was prompt for Leta to glance sideways at him in surprise.
“You know,” she mused, “I thought you’d have a stronger opinion on religion. I thought you’d hate the idea of it.”
But Fiearius merely shrugged a shoulder. “Nah, I’m not the one who hates religion. That’s Cyrus. Thinks it causes people to be weak and stupid. Blind, he says. It’s probably true. But I don’t really see the problem. I don’t buy into the whole package myself, but if helps some people? Whatever. To each their own.”
Fiearius stared at his bare feet for a moment before he looked up. “Alright, this is fascinating, but it’s my turn.” He drew a deep breath as though preparing for a performance. “One, Dez and I joined a ballroom dancing club because we thought it would get us more women. Two, I’ve only ever had one truly steady relationship that lasted longer than a month. And three, I had a lisp when I was a kid.”
At that, Leta could only gaze at him in surprise. “You’re good at this game, this one’s even more difficult,” she acknowledged fairly. How much did she want to know about Fiearius, anyway? Sometimes when she learned about him it made her realize, alarmingly, how similar they were; other times, it created miles of distance between them.
In this moment, Leta was determined to keep it light. “When you and I danced at that gala months ago … you were pretty good,” she deliberated, her head quirked sideways as she looked him over. “But maybe you’re a natural. And the relationship thing — you seem like an all-or-nothing kind of guy, so I might believe that one,” she remarked slowly, thinking briefly of his wife, though she did not allow her thoughts to settle there for long.
“But a month is so short,” she continued, almost wincing. “Is your attention span really that bad? And then the lisp one, maybe that’s true. Maybe you were made fun of for it and that’s why you were such a bully,” she commented, and because it was her, and because it was him, this was not an insult. She grinned. “Or maybe you’re just naturally aggressive. But — the relationship one?”
His laughter was loud and warm.
“Ballroom dance club? Really?” He scoffed. “You don’t know me at all. And a month is short,” he agreed with a shrug and then admitted sheepishly, “But yes, so is my attention span. Or perhaps my ability to be stable…”
After a brief introspective pause, he went on excitedly, as though almost proud of this story, “I did have a lisp though. That’s true. Which was a pain in the ass. Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Satierans have an annoying habit of having s’s in their names. Fiearius, Cyrus, Desophyles. Couldn’t say ‘em. So I was just the weird kid with the lisp who couldn’t read. It was fantastic.”
Leta laughed. “Gods, it’s hard to imagine you even having a childhood. In my head you’ve always just been a science experiment,” she admitted, eyebrows raised. “One gone badly wrong. Like if a chemist mixed cheap gin and low-grade explosives.”
Perhaps now affected by the number of shots he’d taken, he burst into laughter at her summation of his contents and creation. “Damn. You’ve figured out my secret. I was so sure that making up stories about my youth would convince you of my humanity, but alas, the real truth is revealed.” He heaved a mournful sigh. “Your turn again.”
“Alright. Here’s a good one. One — I didn’t have my first drink until I was nineteen. “Two, I was named after my mom. Three — I slept with one of my professors in college.”
She paused to let this sink in, and Fiearius arched his eyebrows, looking intrigued and impressed. He squinted at her face, as if it might reveal the right answer. But the longer he watched her — too long, really — the more that thoughtful stare faded and softened into something else.
At last he said, quietly, “I don’t get it.”