The woman ran off as Dez, not needing to be told, climbed on top of an electrical box near the opposite building and shouted for attention. His voice boomed through the street and despite the madness and panic, Fiearius felt at least some level of consideration return to him.
“The tunnels!” he called out to whoever was listening. “On Mari’lea! If you can get there yourself, help those who can’t!”
There was a few shouts of agreement, at least one, “Fuck that!” and thank the gods, a number of people who returned to assist those who had been injured in the fall or simply didn’t have the strength to make it. Neighbors picked up extra children that their parents couldn’t carry. Some of them even hauled luggage onto their backs.
“Blast site?” Dez asked, reading Fiearius’ mind, as he always had. A bastard he may have been, but damn did they work well in unison.
“Blast site,” Fiearius agreed, spotting Leta emerging from the apartment finally, her arm over her mouth and her eyes squinting through the smoke. She met his eyes for just a moment before he tore them away and ran off after Dez down the street towards the real damage. A building had been hit. There was a fire raging in and around what was left of it. Fiearius could smell the blood and burned flesh from here. He’d caused this, but he was going to fix it. With Dez and with Leta, he could fix this. These were his people. He was going to save them.
But then another blast hit.
He heard it coming, but not soon enough. By the time he realized this vwhirr was headed straight towards him, by the time he looked up and saw the bright light from the sky growing larger and larger as it came closer and closer, it was too late.
Fiearius didn’t see the explosion. He didn’t hear it either. His senses were overblown instantly, his good eye hazing over, his hearing turning to just a single high-pitched ring. For a few seconds, he couldn’t even take stock of his body. Was he breathing? Did he still have all his limbs? Was he even alive at all?
But finally, the shock of it all started to fade. He was alive. Presumably. His lungs, previously absent, felt suddenly heavy as they gasped for breath. And though he had, to the best of his memory, been standing up, now he was lying on his back in the middle of the street. There was a cut on his head. His arm felt hot and scathed. Slowly, tiny pinpricks of pain started to send signals back to his brain from all over, but he was alive.
Gradually he became more aware of his surroundings. The building they’d been next to had been directly hit, he realized. Now, it was aflame and the sky above him was pitch black, so dark it could have been nighttime. Dez was on the ground with him, sprawled out as he was, just north of his head. There was something familiar about this. The two of them, laying defeated in the shadow of a burning apartment building. Just like the night they’d killed Pieter Rowland.
Maybe he was still delirious from before. Maybe it was the smoke getting to him, but Fiearius, for reasons he couldn’t explain, laughed. “You alright?” he asked, just as he had, all those years ago when he’d been seventeen and he’d emerged from the worst night of his life alongside his then best friend.
“I’ll live,” was supposed to be Dez’s answer, but it didn’t come. Fiearius glanced back at him. “Dez? You okay?” he tried again.
Nothing. That was when the panic hit.
“Dez?” he said again, forcing himself up. Pain shot through his arm, but he ignored it. He reached out to grab the man’s shoulder and shake it. His head rolled to the side. His eyes were open. He still didn’t respond.
“Fiear!” It was Leta, rushing towards him, waving the smoke away from her face. “Fiear, are you okay?” She reached him, crouching down at his side and quickly checking over him for injuries, but he waved her off.
“I’m fine, I’m fine, but–” He was still staring at Desophyles, lying motionless on the ground. There was blood coming from his head, he realized suddenly. A lot of blood. Too much blood.
Leta followed his line of sight and was by Dez’s side in an instant, her fingers on his throat. She stayed like that, frozen, frowning, for what seemed like an eternity. Fiearius saw her eyes flick over the wound on his head, the red pool on the concrete beneath it. And then she looked up at him. There was a sadness in her stare that made his blood run cold.
“Fiearius,” she spoke calmly. “We need to go.”
“The longer we stay, the more damage they’re going to do. We have to go. Now.”
Fiearius was shaking his head, but she got to her feet, looped her arm around his and pulled.
He resisted. “No, we can’t just–” He’d wanted to kill him before, sure, but–but not really. Not really. And gods, not like this. One minute there, the next gone. This constant presence in his life since childhood. This friend, partner, enemy, undefinable person. No closure, no poetic ending sent by the dov’ha just– boom, dead? All over? It couldn’t be. This wasn’t right.
“We have to, Fiearius, we can’t help these people.” She tugged again. “We’re only hurting them by being here.”
This time, he let her drag him up, but he felt like there was a part of him that didn’t follow. There was some piece of him that stayed there on the ground beside the lifeless body of Desophyles, even as she lead him away from the fire, away from the destruction and back towards the ship. A part of him, even then, he was sure he wouldn’t ever get back.
“We should hail them now, let them know we’re coming,” Leta was saying as Fiearius stumbled behind her down the block, rejoining the flocks of people fleeing the area. It was probably meant as an order more than a suggestion, but he didn’t quite have the level of consciousness to follow it right away.
“Fiear.” She squeezed his hand too tightly, jolting him out of his daze. “Call Gates. Tell him we’re done here.” A few miles off, another shot zoomed across the sky. Right. There was no time for this. He had to pull himself together. Fiearius remembered where his COMM was, put his hand to his ear and swallowed hard.
“Gates, come in.” Except they still weren’t responding. “Come in, Carthian fleet.” Total silence. “Any of you Carthie shits listening at all?” Of course, nothing. Fiearius groaned and started to reach out to someone else, “Qui–,” before catching himself. “Aeneas,” he said instead, “Do you read me?”
“Affirmative, Soliveré, what’s going on?” came the voice of Quin’s assistant who presumably had taken up leadership of the fleet in her absence.
“Can you get in touch with any of the Carthian ships?”
“That’s a negative, sir, we lost contact the shortly after we arrived in Exymerian space.”
So it wasn’t just his COMM causing problems. Well, that half solved the mystery. “Do you know why they’re attacking?”
“Been trying to figure that out myself for a while, sir. We’ve been following your orders and holding off the Society battleships, but they’re overwhelming us and the military fleet’s been too focused on this planet-side barrage to help.”
“Great.” Gates had better have a damn good reason for this. “We’re heading back to the ship just now.”
“A retreat would be most timely, sir,” Aeneas replied, the sound of shipfire audible in the background behind his voice.
Retreating sounded all at once like what he’d always wanted and what he couldn’t bear to do. He’d made it to Satieri, delivered her into shambles and now he would abandon her again til who knew when? The entire war, the last five years, had melted away. This was what mattered. This was what he wanted, what he had always wanted. But he was still tangled up in all the stuff and nonsense. So retreat he would. Retreat for now.
“Almost there, ready the fleet,” Fiearius barked into his COMM as Leta dragged him around the corner to where they’d docked the Dionysian and came to a sudden crushing halt.
Fiearius tumbled right into her, tripping over his feet and hers and only barely managing to stay upright. Finally grasping her shoulders and steadying himself, he tried to figure out what had stunned her so badly. It wasn’t hard.
“Wait–” Fiearius began, refusing to believe his eyes. “No, we–we didn’t dock it here.” He looked around the cross streets frantically. There was no way. “We didn’t dock it here. It must be somewhere else. It has to be–”
“Fiear–” Her voice was barely more than a whisper shaking in her throat. “Call Aeneas back. We’re going to need a ship to pick us up.”
“No, we–it’s somewhere else–” Fiearius said again, his own voice sounding like it was miles and miles away. “It’s somewhere else. They’re somewhere else.”
But in the very depths of his gut, he knew where the Dionysian and its crew was: buried beneath the rubble of a direct hit from the skies above, so crushed and shattered by the impact its hull was left only in pieces.
She was gone.
What the hell had he done?