“Please, girl, I need you to meet me halfway,” Leta begged as she pulled another awkward turn. “A quarter of the way?” To her left, Javier was staring at her as though she’d gone mad. Perhaps, Leta thought, she had. “Give me an inch?”
The next turn, sharper than the last, sent the underside of the ship smacking into the wall. “Oh come on!” Leta shouted, forgetting herself. “Do you just not like me or something? Did I do something to you? Is it because I left? Look, if this is about all those times I called you junk, I meant it in a nice way!”
“Leta–” Javier started.
“Well I’m sorry!” she went on, ignoring him. She was barely paying attention to what she was saying anymore, focused mostly on not getting them killed and letting her mouth do the rest. “I’m sorry I called you junk. But acting this way isn’t doing anything to change my mind, you know! I’m sorry you hate me, but I need you to work for me now, okay?”
“Leta we’re running out of canyon!” Javier interrupted finally and she realized, in horror, he was right. Up ahead, the walls started to close in, coming together in a single cliff wall directly in her path. Behind the ship, their pursuer noticed as well and started a barrage of weapons blasts that zinged by them. She was clearly tired of messing around.
So was Leta.
“If you won’t do it for me, do it for Fiearius,” she demanded, feeling a streak of panic mixed with mania topped with reckless abandon as she hit the forward thrust and plummeted straight towards the dead end. She ignored Javier’s look of absolute terror.
In fact, Leta ignored almost everything. Her vision focused in on only the wall ahead of her. The sounds dropped away, the blasts of shipfire fading out, Javier’s heavy breathing vanishing and as she seized the controls, readying herself for this final move, all she could hear was the gentle hum of the Dionysian. Under her breath, she pleaded, “I like him too, girl, and he likes us. So what do you say we all make it out of this together, huh?”
Surely it was her imagination, but she could have sworn she felt the constant shudder of the ship alter its rhythm.
Either way, when she yanked back the thrusters and slammed them to the left, she definitely felt the Dionysian respond in a way she hadn’t before. She didn’t fight, she didn’t resist, she just smoothly turned directly onto her side to glide through the last few hundred feet of the canyon before turning her nose up and sailing back into open skies.
Leta was too in shock to hear the noise that followed. She was staring at the controls in her hands in disbelief. How had that worked? Why had she even done that?! What–
“Oh my god, it worked!” was the first thing that made it through Leta’s haze. Javier had jumped to his feet and was bouncing up and down in front of the console. “I can’t believe it — it worked, it really worked!”
Suddenly feeling like she’d spent the last ten minutes as someone else entirely now just settling back into her actual body, Leta stiffened in her chair and blinked herself back into concentration. “It did?” she asked seriously, leaning over to glance at the screen. True to his words, the second dot that had been chasing them was gone. “What happened–”
“You didn’t hear it? That explosion?” Javier asked through a delirious laugh, falling back into his seat, overcome by relief. “That was her stupid ship catching on the edge of the canyon. Couldn’t quite make that angle, could she?” He patted the dashboard affectionately. “Not like us. Amazing flying, cap’n. Absolutely amazing.”
Leta smiled at him, though a little shakily. “Good job, girl,” she mumbled. “Good job. Let’s get back before your other captain finds us gone.”
Fiearius’ jaw had clenched shut at the question. He didn’t answer. He didn’t have an answer. No, as a matter of fact, he didn’t truly know why the Council had chosen him for Verdant and that must have been obvious on his face because after a moment, Palano, horribly, smiled.
“No? Never figured it out, have you?” she asked. “Being Internal Affairs Prime? Is that what you thought? A good murderer doesn’t make a good Verdant, Fiearius. It’s something much deeper than that. It takes what we would call ‘moral flexibility’. And you.” She leaned back against the desk again and pointed at him. “Are one of the most morally flexible individuals I’ve ever seen.”
Fiearius wanted to be done with this conversation. He wanted to just shoot the woman and end it now, before she put whatever poison into his head she was dangling over it. But for some reason, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. For some reason, he had to listen. He had to know.
“It means you don’t inherently cling to the comforting belief that there are universal rights and wrongs,” she explained patiently. “Your set of morals changes constantly, seeming to depend on those you respect around you. Your parents, your friend, your wife, your brother. Your doctor.” She raised a brow at him knowingly.
“You pretend to agree with these other moralities, for their sake, which I understand entirely, I’ve done the same, but I think you and I both know it’s a lie.” She pushed herself from the desk and sauntered towards him slowly. “There is no black nor white. You know that the universe is more complex than that and you question it always, it’s obvious to anyone watching. It is that questioning, that curiosity and that freedom that makes a truly great Verdant. What you have, Fiearius, is a gift. That is why we chose you. Because you. Whether you want to believe it or not.” She stopped a few feet away and reached out to prod him in the chest with her index finger. “Are a lot like us.”
More than ever now, Fiearius wanted to draw his weapon and silence her. He didn’t want to hear this, any of it. It would be so easy to end it all and walk out of here and forget any of it ever happened. But all he managed was to growl, “I’m nothing like you.”
“Oh, but you are,” Rebeka laughed, shaking her head. “You care about people and ideals so much, so strongly, that you’re willing to work in the shadows to protect them.” She clasped her glass in both hands and, looking up at him with a blend of admiration and pride, sighed. “You would have made an excellent Councillor.”
It was Fiearius’ turn to scoff. “A Councillor? Sure, if I survived being your damn Verdant.”
Rebeka tilted her head at him, seeming perplexed. “Of course you would have survived. You were far too valuable, we would have kept you alive at all costs.”
“Sure,” Fiearius mused with a grim smile. “I’m sure you told that to the last Verdant too. You know. The one you forced me to murder.”
The woman continued to stare at him in a strange daze for a long moment until finally, some sort of epiphany rose through her cheeks. “Oh, Fiearius. Fiearius, no. No, no no.” She smiled at him sadly. “He’s not dead.”
Fiearius felt his heart stop in his chest. “What?”
“Oh I know it looked like he was,” she explained hurriedly. “But he’s alive and well, I assure you. We wouldn’t waste talent like that.”
Wasn’t dead? The previous Verdant, the man Fiearius had killed with his own weapon, shot straight through the chest, not dead? It couldn’t be. It didn’t make sense. “But the chip –” he realized. The Verdant chip that had transferred its data into his wrist the moment the bullet landed. “If he didn’t die — how did I get it?”
“Well, he did die,” Rebeka answered as though this were all very obvious and dull. “Just long enough for it to pass over. It’s a bit complicated.”
“Complic–” Fiearius began, but suddenly his shock started to wear off. He could still see the image in his head. It was one that haunted him always. The Verdant in a pool of blood on the cold cement floor under the flickering warehouse lights. Beside him, two more bodies. A woman. And a child. The shock was replaced by a fury that roiled through him like his blood was on fire. He took a sharp step towards Rebeka, his eyes fixed on her in a rage. “That man–that man killed my son.”
Rebeka’s calm faltered momentarily as she stumbled backwards. “Ah–yes,” she admitted quietly. “That was an unfortunate turn of events.”
“Unfortunate?!” He took another step towards her. “Unfortunate?!”
“Fiearius–” Rebeka began hesitantly, but she was silenced when he seized her wrist and dragged her back towards him, more rough than necessary.
“Where is he?” Fiearius growled under his breath. She looked up at him, reflecting — what was that? Pity? — in her expression. But she said nothing, she gave no answer so he yanked her closer and rammed his gun into the crook between her chin and neck. “Where. Is. He?!”
Rebeka flinched as he twisted the cold metal against her skin, but her eyelids flicked back open to stare at him sadly as she whispered, “They were right, weren’t they? They were right all along. Aela never told you…”
The words were enough to give Fiearius pause. But before he could even begin to question what that meant, what Aela had to do with any of this, he heard his name called out from across the room.
Perhaps it was foolish. Perhaps he shouldn’t have looked back. As soon as he did glance over his shoulder to find Dez at the base of the ladder, rifle in hand, the gunshot went off, warm liquid splashed his skin and the body attached to the wrist he still held aloft went limp.
It took Fiearius a few long moments before he was able to release his grasp and allow Rebeka Palano to slide to the floor against her magnificent, blood-stained desk. It took him another few moments to realize Dez was speaking to him, standing beside him, shaking his arm to get his attention. What he said, what he wanted, Fiearius couldn’t begin to care. All of his thoughts were focused on one thing.
What had Aela never told him?