Overhead, a great metallic mass was just visible through the window, blocking out the sun and plunging the bridge into darkness as it passed over them. It was an impressive ship, at least impressive compared to the Dionysian, though that wasn’t hard. She was about four times in size, for one, made within the last century and equipped with actual weaponry integrated with her systems rather than a single turret Cyrus had welded on when the war started.
“Our friends upstairs are holdin’ their own, how bout I lend my talents to gettin’ you lot planet-side?” Quin asked as her ship sped off in front of them and started firing in all directions. The swarm of fighters tried to regroup to attack her, but one by one, Leta watched them turn to flames in the atmosphere and burn up into dust. At the very least, the new ship was drawing more fire away from the Dionysian, allowing their shields a break to regenerate. At best, it was clearing out an entire path that would lead them to Satieri.
Fiearius seemed to relax a little as the Dionysian settled into Quin’s quiet wake. “You gonna hold this one over me too, then?”
Quin’s laugh could be heard through the COMM. “‘Course sweetheart. Your debt to me ain’t ever gonna shrink at this rate. You can win this war and free whoever, won’t matter, you’re gonna be workin’ for me til the day you die.”
Fiearius shrugged. “I can think of worse fates.”
“Your optimism is misplaced, I’m puttin’ you on whichever latrine duty I can find.”
“My cruel mistress,” Fiearius chuckled.
Leta tried not to laugh herself at what this had turned into. From a panic-stricken descent with danger flying at them from all sides to a calm pleasure cruise for Fiearius to flirt with his colleague. True, there were still fighters barraging them, but Quin’s ship was blasting them down one by one while barely taking a few hits that bounced right off her superior shields. They were nearly to the planet’s surface which was when the ground defenses started acting up.
A blast from the city below flew right past Quin’s ship, barely missing its hull and Fiearius had to roll the Dionysian out of the way to spare their own.
“Alright, I’m gonna take out these shitty turrets for ya,” Quin promised, redirecting her ship’s weapons towards the surface. “These fuckers are scrambling our radars so cover me?”
“Our gun’s down, but–” Fiearius began only to be cut off by another laugh. He ignored it and continued, “I’ll let you know if you’re in trouble.”
Fortunately, the immediate area had been completely wiped of life. If nothing else, Quin was thorough and though Fiearius kept his eyes locked on the viewport, the skies were clear. And they were truly in the skies now. The city was now laid out in front of them, finally within grasp. They’d made it. Thank the gods, they’d made it. All at once Leta was both relieved and more nervous than ever.
The last turret on the surface erupted in a burst of flames and smoke, which was Quin’s cue.
“You’re all clear, love,” she called to them. “Take care o’ yourself down there, alright? You die and your debt transfers to next of kin and I’ve met that lil brother o’ yours. Don’t think he’d like that much.”
“For Cyrus’ sake alone, I will survive.” Leta couldn’t help but notice how hard Fiearius swallowed before he said, “See you in a few hours, Q.”
“Countin’ on it, hotshot.”
The great ship before them turned away from the planet and started to make its ascent back into the atmosphere to rejoin the rest of the fleet, which was when Leta caught sight of something in her peripheral vision. Something moving fast. Very fast. That ground turret hadn’t been the last, she realized, just in time.
“Fiear–” she got out just barely, sure that he was seeing it too, sure that he would warn Quin, tell them to reroute frontal shields to the rear, surely he would–
The impact shook the Dionysian as a blast of fire and metal from Quin’s ship exploded out into the sky. There was smoke, so much smoke, Leta caught a glimpse of the ship’s front drifting through it just before the second shot hit.
“Quin!” Fiearius shouted into the COMM, his voice cracked in desperation. “Quin, do you read?!”
There was no response. A third explosion.
“Quin, come in! Anyone, please, come in,” Fiearius tried again, his hand that gripped the COMM was shaking. Still, no response. Leta felt her chest grow both heavy and empty at once. There would be no response. Three direct hits from ground artillery? There would be no response.
Leta didn’t feel like she could speak or move. The smoke was starting to clear and the ship that had saved them minutes ago — rather the wreckage of what little was left of it — floated helplessly in the sky before them. She could barely stand to look at it, but she couldn’t look away either. Neither could the rest of the bridge crew. She could hear Maya, her wide eyes locked on the viewport, breathing shallow breaths beside her. Javier had finally looked away from the nav console and collapsed into the co-pilot’s seat. And Fiearius–
“No, no, no, no,” he was muttering under his breath, gripping the edge of the console with quaking hands. “No.” He shook the dashboard. “No!” His fist rammed into the metal. As he drew it away, Leta saw the dent and the speckle of blood.
As shattered as Leta felt, she knew she couldn’t fathom what Fiearius was feeling. He stood hunched over the dashboard, his head down, his chest rising and falling in jagged motions, his arms barely holding him up. But as much as it pained her, now was not the time for grief. Now, they didn’t have time for sorrow.
“Fiearius,” she said, her voice sharp and an equally sharp spike of guilt rushed through her. He glanced back at her and the look on his face almost changed her mind. But she steeled herself and stared straight back at him, face stony. They had to keep moving. They had to finish the mission regardless of loss. And he knew it.
It was a long moment of silence. She didn’t want to say what had to be said, she didn’t want to speak the words, and thank the gods, he didn’t make her. At last, he released the breath he’d been holding in his lungs and turned back to the console. It was another moment, his eyes clenched shut, before he got his focus back.
“Right.” His hands gripped the controls. “All power to front shields.”
“You got it, capitaine.”
“Weapons still jammed?”
“Working on it, cap’n.”
“Get it running. Pigeon?”
Javier tapped a few buttons on his console. “Signal’s coming back strong, captain.”
“Great. Keep an eye on that turret for me.” Fiearius heaved another deep breath. “Making our final descent.”
In one swift motion, the Dionysian sped forward. Javier barked something, Fiearius dodged a blast, Maya relayed the shield power and they soared straight through the wreckage and towards the Paradexian skyline, but all Leta could focus on was the back of Fiearius’ head. She wanted to comfort him. She wanted to put a hand on his shoulder, pull him into an embrace, soothe the turmoil that was surely rifling through him.
But she stayed in her seat and let him fly the ship. She said nothing, did nothing, as he and his crew expertly navigated the last few thousand feet to the planet’s surface. She kept her urges to herself as the Dionysian leveled itself and lowered between the buildings and touched down on Satieran ground for the first time in over a decade.
It was only when the shuddering of the ship stopped, the engine powered down and Fiearius rose from his seat that Leta acted at all. He didn’t meet her eyes as he headed out of the bridge and told her, “Let’s go.” At once, she was on her feet, following him through the ship. Javier hurried past them, getting the door to the cargo bay unsealed before they arrived and the outer ramp down. Rhys was there too, with Eve, handing Fiearius a gun, a second gun, patting him on the back. Richelle and Maya rushed in after them, but Fiearius moved through them all like a ghost, perhaps not seeing them at all.
It wasn’t until Fiearius was halfway down the ramp, Leta on his tail, that he looked back at his faithful crew, hovering awkwardly at the top of it in a row. “Take care of the ship,” he managed and they nodded fervently.
“You got it, cap’n,” promised Eve.
“Aye aye,” said Rhys.
“Don’t worry ‘bout a thing,” said Maya as Richelle nodded.
“Good luck, captain,” said Javier.
Fiearius provided them perhaps the weakest smile she’d ever seen grace his face before turning back out and continuing slowly down the ramp. Leta still followed in silence until he stopped again, right at the base of it, staring down at the Satieran ground in front of him like a challenge he wasn’t sure he wanted to take.
“Fiear…” Leta touched his elbow gently.
“I should have seen it,” he said and Leta didn’t have to ask to know what he meant. The shot. The shot that took her down. “I should have seen it coming.”
Horribly, she had thought the same thing when it happened. She had seen it from further back in the bridge. It was right in front of him and he’d done nothing. She had seen it though. She’d seen it–it hit her suddenly–on the left. Unconsciously, she looked over at Fiearius’ glassy left eye.
“It’s not your fault,” she assured him, gripping his arm now. “It’s not your fault at all.”
Fiearius heaved a sigh. “Sure.” He hesitated just one more moment before setting his foot down in the dirt of his estranged home. “Be on your guard,” he warned, drawing his gun. “We’re not far.”