The war room was crowded again. This time, everyone suffered from a state of exhaustion, worry, and turmoil. Bowing her chin toward her collarbone, Leta found she could barely summon the necessary strength to meet anyone’s — even Fiearius’ — eye. She folded her arms and listened as the murmur of discussion lifted and fell, lifted and fell, over the course of hours. Half of her mind was elsewhere, in the station’s medical ward, where Finn lay unconscious, still in critical condition, undergoing another round of surgery …
Leta blinked her eyes and straightened up, tuning into the discussion. A military officer had just brought up the map of Vescent, where it shimmered in a three-dimensional projection above the table. She recognized every detail of the map, and it was a good thing, considering what they were going to do next …
“So it’s settled then,” grunted Admiral Gates, his voice gruff with seriousness as he placed his palms on the table and leaned in, his eyes scanning over the room. “We head to Vescent come morning.”
Murmurs of agreement rippled through the room. One voice, tinted with uncertainty, said, “And we’re sure Nautilus is being stored there?”
“We are,” came another voice, one of the officers. “The squad that tracked it from Archeti had visual confirmation as it landed in the hangar where it was shut down and remained shut down. It’s still there.”
“It damn well better be,” Quin growled suddenly. She stood across the tremendous round table, glaring at the map with more intensity than anyone else in the room. Though she’d insisted on compensation before, she hadn’t brought it up even once since she’d arrived on the station. In fact, Quin had thrown herself head-first into the Carthian effort the minute she stepped aboard. In the aftermath of Archeti’s destruction, she was emanating rage.
“My ships may only have one chance to drop the bomb on that Sochy shit,” she went on, snarling. “If we ain’t successful in turning it to dust, we’re gonna have a problem.”
Gates nodded. “Destroying Nautilus is now a number one priority of the operation. The device–the weapon–can not fly again.”
Leta nodded, still silent. The toll of its first voyage was already too high. It was as of yet unknown the exact death count from Archeti, but it was estimated to be somewhere in the millions. The first civilized planet of the Span had been reduced to a broiling mess that (supposedly) would be ready for colonization again in a few years.
Few refugees had escaped in time. The Beacon’s passenger load had ended up at the Conduit which had taken them in with little questioning. Quin had pressed Carthis into setting up their own camps for any more lost Archetians out there until a more permanent plan for the future could be arranged.
But there was one person whose future was still hanging in the balance: Finn. He’d been clinging to life when Corra had pulled him aboard the Beacon, and now, days later, he had improved only minimally.
And Corra had disappeared. She’d made sure the Beacon got to its destination, that Finn was handed off to the Carthian medical team and then she’d vanished entirely. Leta could only assume she’d holed herself up in her quarters, gripped by guilt over all that had happened. Leta wanted nothing more than to seek her friend out to console her, but between the med bay and the mobilization against Vescent ramping up, she hadn’t even had a spare moment to herself let alone someone else.
“As important as Nautilus is, however, our other goals remain,” Gates was saying.
Another officer nodded. “Utada’s fleet will handle Target Alpha: Nautilus, as she requested. Division B will take out Target Beta: the ARC facilities. And Division C is assigned to Target Charlie: the Society local headquarters.”
“So all that’s left is handling the missile defense systems to allow Divisions A, B and C access to their targets,” said Gates.
“Our best bet is still a small ship with a ground team to shut the system down manually,” Fiearius put in, frowning at the map. Leta was certain that he, like her, had not slept in days. The dark circles under his eyes seemed a permanent fixture. He went on, his voice low and hoarse, “They’re all connected to the defense mainframe, it’s an easy job. A small ship can land right next to the damn building and someone’s just gotta get in and turn it off.”
Chief Strategist Arsen, one of the top-ranking officers, suddenly grunted his disapproval. “Sir, if we’re going to send a ground team, I recommend a more robust force,” he said to Gates. “Putting all our faith in one ship and a small team is–”
“A larger team is only going to make it harder,” Fiearius cut him off. “The more ‘robust’ it is, the more easily they’ll see it coming.”
“See it coming? We’ll be in the midst of an aerial battle with their fleets, of course we’re going to strike the defense systems. They’re already going to see it coming,” Arsen snapped.
“And if we send a whole mess of Carthies at ‘em, they’ll know exactly where to look,” Fiearius replied shortly. He turned to Gates. “They’ll be ready to defend the missile system. But they’ll be ready to defend it from a full-on battalion. One ship, one or two people, they won’t be prepared for that.”
“Shutting down those defense systems is the crux of this entire operation, that seems like a lot of responsibility to lay in the hands of a single individual,” Arsen argued.
“Which is why that single individual’s gotta be good,” said Fiearius. He opened his mouth to continue, but Leta found herself speaking up suddenly, as if her lips were moving of their own accord.
“I’ll do it,” she said. All eyes swung to her. Silence filled the room.
She went on, “The defense department — I’ve been there. Hundreds of times. It’s where my father used to work. And besides, I know the city. If something goes wrong, I can navigate it better than anyone else here.”
Her eyes shifted to Fiearius, who was watching her intently. Presumably, he had been about to nominate himself for the task. But when Arsen laughed and said, “Miss Adler, your bravery is commendable, but you are a doctor not–” it was Fiearius who lifted a hand and silenced him.
“No, she’s right. She’s the best person for it. She knows the lay of the land, she’s got insight the rest of us don’t and she’s got a personal stake in this. So we know she’ll get it done no matter what.”
“Perhaps, but she is still a doctor,” said Arsen again, as though this idea was insane.
A smirk spread over Fiearius’ face. “That’s hardly all she is.” He turned back to Gates. “Leta was under my command for nearly a year. From personal experience, I guarantee she’s more than qualified for this kind of mission.”
Gates pursed his lips together. “She’s also the only person to successfully escape Vescent,” he mused thoughtfully.
“Twice, so I’m told,” put in Quin.
After a short pause, Gates nodded, full of authority. “I trust your recommendation, captain. Ms. Adler will take charge of the ground team. We have our ‘one person.’ And for the ‘one ship — ”
“The Dionysian will take her,” said Fiearius at once. “She’s small enough and she’s got enough Society scramblers already built in, they won’t even realize she’s there. Besides — “ he shrugged. “She ain’t got any artillery, she’d be no good in the air fight anyway.”
“Very well,” said Gates. “We have a plan then. We mobilize tomorrow at 0400. Divisions A through C, reconvene in Hangar 3 for further preparation.”
Conversation broke over the room as everyone gathered their papers and moved toward the doors. Leta found herself hanging back, and Fiearius half-walked, half-wandered in her direction.
With a thin smile, she said, “Looks like I’m coming back to the Dionysian after all.”
“Unintentional side-effect,” he muttered. “Sorry. Figured it was a good enough cause, you wouldn’t mind.”
“It’s only temporary.”
Awkward silence pooled between them, but neither made any movement to leave. She crossed her arms, shifting on her feet, and just as she opened her mouth to speak, Fiearius did as well.
“Well I’ll–” she said.
“Did you–” he said.
Leta laughed uncomfortably. “Sorry, go ahead.”
“No no,” he insisted, shaking his hand at her. “What is it?”
“Oh, I was just saying I’ll go gather my things and come by the ship,” Leta explained hurriedly.
“Right,” Fiearius confirmed. “I’ll…make sure we have a place for you to sleep.”
Leta frowned. “What happened to my quarters? You didn’t get more crew did you?”
“No, no, nothing like that,” Fiearius assured her. “Just…well, we have a lot of stuff, y’know. Cargo and…things.”
She couldn’t believe her ears. “You turned my room into a storage closet?” she demanded incredulously.
“We needed the space!” he defended, taking a step back from her as though afraid she might strike him. “I’ll clean it up by the time you get there, promise.” And before she could scold him any more, he grabbed his tablet and headed for the door.
Leta put her hands on her hips and rolled her eyes. “You’d better, Soliveré.”
Cyrus’ bedroom was growing shadowy and dark, but he couldn’t summon the energy to get up and turn on the light. Flat on his back in his bed, he gazed at the ceiling, both wide-awake and terribly exhausted. He’d been here for hours. Days, maybe. He’d lost track of time. Guilt sat on his chest like a lead weight, pinning him in place. Making it difficult to breathe …
Just then, breaking his hours of deep solitude, a gentle knock came at the door and startled him out of his stupor. He lifted his head and was surprised to see the shape of Addy peeking her head through the hatch.
“Is it okay if I come in?” she asked, her voice hesitant in a way he’d never heard before.
“I — of course it’s okay,” he said, pushing himself to his feet. Naturally she was unsure about him: he hadn’t the strength to face her, but gods, he clearly owed her an explanation. Running a hand through his hair, he muttered, “Sorry I’ve been … “