The com crackled with static. It didn’t too, Rowena’d had the part on hand for years now, but it was one of the little warnings that told her someone was trespassing into her domain.
Technically the crew, ship, and even her engineering section belonged to her captain, and Hoshi never let her forget it. Bit, since they’d held the same rank until the end of war, she couldn’t really find it in her heart to forgive him.
Now his round face appeared on the screen, thin-lipped and angry. “You have a visitor.”
Crack. She pressed her lips together and surveyed the partially dissected environmental array she’d been cleaning. With a shield over it, it’d be fine. “I can be up in the conference room in ten minutes, sir.” As long as they didn’t mind her looking like she’d gone straight from cleaning fryers in the kitchens to engineering and hadn’t showered since yesterday.
“Don’t bother. I’m sending them down.”
Which meant they were either Lees or …
Titan Sciarra materialized at the edge of the engineering safety doors wearing his all-black Star Guard uniform with the tiny gold leaf for his rank.
“Commander,” she said politely, not bothering to get up off the floor.
“Permission to enter?”
Rowena nodded and dropped the personal shield that kept the Danielle Marie’s engines safe from junior crew and her safe from everyone.
“Spring cleaning already?”
“If I can’t get these filter coils cleaned we’ll have to replace them and Hoshi doesn’t know who to trade for them.” She did, just like she knew almost everything else going on in Enclave, but Hoshi wasn’t going to ask and she never volunteered anything.
Titan sighed as he looked around. “I’m surprised your captain let me in if you’re this busy.”
She knew he didn’t say understaffed because he knew she didn’t let anyone else in the engine room. “Hoshi thinks you might be trying to court me. The Sciarras have better ships and political leverage. He’s willing to trade unwanted kin for that.”
“Um…” Titan looked nervous.
“It’s an assumption they run on, not me.” She put extra emphasis on THEY to differentiate the rest of the fleet from their little dangerous duo. “You’re bachelorhood is safe for another day.”
She shot him a quelling glare. “We’ve been over this. I’m not using a marriage contract as an escape hatch from a bad situation. I don’t want to be Sciarra. You don’t want to be Lee. And, no offense, but I tried kissing you once and licking a wall is more exciting.”
Rowena went back to scrubbing coils. “What are you doing here in your all-blacks? Is this a formal reprimand for last night at Cargo Blue?”
“Nah, it’s a recruiting drive,” Titan said as he leaned against the bulkheads. “I want you to join the Star Guard.”
“Ha. Ha. Funny.” She made a face of distaste. Three years since they’d landfall on this vicious mudball of a planet, nearly 300 executions and banishments, and still the warmonger crew weren’t welcomed into the political system of the fleet.
Seats on the captain’s counsel were nice, and she appreciated that they’d spared her life – most days – but she’d find the Lee’s missing space station before the Star Guard offered her a job.
“What’s this really about?”
“Really? I need your help with something.”
If it had been anyone but Titan she would have kicked them out. But, he was her friend. Her only friend after last night. “Parts and repairs I can handle, but I don’t solve people problems. Unless we’re moving a body.”
“That’s close to my problem.”
She looked up in surprise.
“Do you know of any feuds going on in Enclave?”
“Besides the usual ones?” She pulled up a list on her implant. “I mean, the general Allied verse Warmonger tension is there. A couple of the smaller crews are scrapping over salvage rights. The Silars are baiting as many high-level officers as they can, and giving Carver blue balls in the process. Sciarras. Lees. Crack, I’d start a war if I thought you’d forgive me. Anything is better than this.” She gestured to the parts that should have been replaced a century ago.
“It’s not natural, fleet holding still. We’re explorers caught in this prison.”
“It’s for-” Titan started the standard lecture and she shut him down with an electric shock from across the room.
Rowena glared. “It was about safety. Three years ago. Now, it’s about fear. Cultures that stagnate die. That’s what we’re doing here. We’re clinging so hard to the old ways that we’re going to strangle ourselves.”
“You saying you’re going to go marry a grounder?”
“Not if my ancestors came to a dream and told me to!” She spat on the floor. “A grounder couldn’t keep up with us. Not this generation. But, with training? Maybe my nieces and nephews could marry in.”
Titan nodded agreement. Grounders couldn’t keep up with someone augmented like they were. “How is Nia anyway?”
“Nine months pregnant, acting like she’s eighteen months along, and likely to kill you if you don’t use her proper name. Aronia is married now.”
They both chuckled.
“Ro,” Titan said. “If you wanted to attack the fleet, destabilize us, who would you kill?”
She raised her eyebrows. “What’s my goal?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“What do you know?”
“The Jhandarmi in Tarrin think there’s a credible threat to the fleet and a hitter has been hired to kill an officer. By officer I assume they mean someone augmented, but…” He shrugged. “That’s it. So, who would you kill?”
Rowena stood up. “For pure chaos, Perrin Carver. His crew was allied with the Baulars at one point. He has fire power and respect on both sides. He’s charismatic and well-known by the grounders. Kill the figurehead and we’d have chaos.”
“No, we’d have Marshall or a Silar,” Titan said.
“Killing Marshall is always a tempting thought, but it’s not a smart play. She’s nearly as powerful as Carver, held her own against the Baulars, and her family has political connections on all three continents. That’s not an anthill you want to kick.”
Titan nodded in agreement. “One of the Silars?”
“But which one?” Rowena asked. “There’s a few thousand of them. I’d murder Hollis myself if I were ever alone with him without witnesses for no other reason than I want to wipe that smirk off his face. But, there’s the problem.”
Titan raised an eyebrow. “To many witnesses?”
“No, too much skill. If you or I wanted to kill someone how hard would it be? Warmonger or not, we’re still among the elite. Who could take you down?”
He grimaced. “Carver and I are evenly matched. He has more brute force, I’m better at shielding. Hollis Silar…” Titan made a disgruntled face, “he’s wicked fast with a knife. Lots of brute power but low focus. It’s be anyone’s fight. Marshall is better at me with a shield, but doesn’t have finesse.”
“Marshall doesn’t need finesse. I’ve seen her kill with augmented force and her bare hands. Even if you won the fight, her ghost would kill you.”
“Which leaves you,” Titan said, “maybe my cousin Mars. My captain.” He paused. “Caryll?” It was a question, not an addition to their list of elites.
Rowena rolled her eyes at the name. “No-shot Selena? Perfect aim, decent shields, and no kills to her name. She’s too nice. And that’s beside the point. What I’m saying is that if we wanted someone dead, it wouldn’t be a matter of if but when.”
“Fleet doesn’t hire hitters. Especially not mud-loving grounders. Not for a personal vendetta.”
Titan crossed his arms. “So it isn’t personal.”
“Or the person is very weak.”
“It could be someone from outside the fleet hiring. Anyone around here would just find a warmonger officer.”
“Rowena,” Titan’s voice held a note of warning.
She held her hands up. “I’m just saying! If you wanted someone discretely vanished, all the fleet knows to ask a Lee. Unless they wanted you dead, of course,” she said as a bit of a joke.
Titan sneered at her. “You wouldn’t take work from a Silar anyway.”
“True.” She rubbed a hand over tired eyes. “This isn’t helping, is it?”
“We have six people who probably didn’t hire the killer,” Titan said.
“Out of how many billion on the planet?”
“Keep it simple. Let’s assume the client and target are both local. A grounder hitter means outside Enclave, because they can’t get past my shield without help.”
“So your victim is someone who might leave Enclave,” Rowena said. “That narrows it down a bit.”
Titan nodded. “A bit, but not enough.” His eyes glowed for a moment. “I’ve got an incoming transmission.”
Rowena nodded to her board. “It’s secure.”
The board turned on showing Perrin Carver looking furious. He nodded. “Rowena.”
“Commander.” She looked up at Titan, trying to guess how serious he’d been about the recruiting drive joke.
“Sir?” Titan looked wary, which was promising in some ways.
Carver eyed her and grimaced. “You need to get back here, Sciarra. We have a situation with the delivery.”
Rowena raised her eyebrows.
“Sir, you sent me here to get information,” Titan said. “It’s Rowena. She’ll know in five minutes even if we don’t tell her, and there’s a decent chance we’ll have to come back and ask her to use her connections to gather intel for us anyway.”
Carver frowned. “Why don’t you work for us?”
Rowena looked up at the catwalks running over the engine. “Mmmm… almost everyone in the Star Guard has tried to kill me at least once, and I’ve killed some of their family, and Hoshi would have a temper tantrum if you recruited me before one of his nephews. Oh, and I hate you all.” Her smile was sharp enough to cut bone.
“Wars over,” Carver said as Titan said, “She’s joking.”
:Am not.: She sent the thought to Titan on a tight beam. :None of them were there for me when I needed help. No one defended me.:
:This is me defending you. No more wars.: Titan’s voice stayed impassive but there was a rush of emotions attached.
She rolled her eyes. “Sorry, hangovers make me grumpy.” It was a weak excuse but Carver looked ready to forgive.
“There’s a problem with the supply delivery in Tarrin,” he said.
“I’ll take a squad to pick it up instead of sending two people,” Titan said. “It won’t be an issue.”
Carver shook his head. “It was dropped off last night and the alarm went off ten minutes ago. The Tarrin police called me and the Jhandarmi. You need to get to the main office and handle things here while I go figure out the situation.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll be there immediately,” Titan said.
“Are you out of your star-crazed mind?” Rowena demanded.
:Rowena Eden Lee!:
:Titan Sa’ĩr Sciarra!: Rowena gave him a mental push. “Perrin, we’re on lockdown. Did you slam your head against a hull this morning?”
Carver looked confused.
“You can’t go, sir,” Titan said. “If you die, there’s going to be chaos.”
“I can’t send a pair of rookies out there either! I’m not getting anyone else in the fleet killed today.”
The need to volunteer choked Rowena. She’d trained for this. Worked her butt off for years to know how to handle exactly a situation like this.
“I’ll go,” Titan said. “Captain Sciarra won’t mind, I’m a neutral party so none of the other captain’s will feel insulted, and my crew is stable enough that if something happens to me they’ll survive.”
“No!” Rowena protested in unison with Carver.
Agreeing with him left the taste of bile in her mouth.
On the screen Carver leaned back in his chair. “I know Tarrin. I grew up here.”
“I make a better defensive shield,” Titan argued.
Carver shook his head. “You don’t look like a grounder. You don’t move like one.”
“I’ve taken the training to leave Enclave,” Titan said. “I know all the distribution routes. If you’d let me go out to guard a minister from the OIA why not to do this? All I need to do is go to a building and check the records. It’ll take less than an hour.”
“A little bit more,” Carver said. “Teleporting in is going to attract the kind of attention you can’t afford.” He shook his head. “I’ll go. The family that adopted me after the crash still sends me clothes on my birthday every year.”
“I’m serious, Carver,” Titan said, standing up. “Sir. If someone’s going to get shot at, let it be me. I can take the hit. Even if I get killed, it won’t endanger anyone else. I’ll let my captain know I volunteered. Rowena is my witness.”
:This screams trap in big, blood-red letters.:
:Let someone try,: Titan said silently. :Let them see a Sciarra.: For a moment a flame-blue knife flickered into existence in his hand away from the screen, then burned out.
Carver looked unhappy.
“You know it’s the best choice,” Titan said aloud.
“Doesn’t mean I like it,” Carver said. “Fine. Go. Report back as quick as you can. Lee?”
Rowena raised her eyebrows in question.
“If you hear anything on the back channels about this, tell me immediately,” Carver ordered. When she didn’t respond quickly enough he snapped, “I mean it!”
“Yes! Fine! Good grief, Carver. You’re commander of the Star Guard not the hull cracking Marshal of the Fleet!” She rolled her eyes at him. And to think they’d almost been friends once. Ugh.
Titan slapped the com console, turning it off and making it wobble.
“Gentle with my tech. I don’t have the replacement parts for that.”
“You should have been polite.”
“I should also be a ranked officer who isn’t treated either like a pariah or a child,” Rowena said, trying to check her annoyance.
He winced. “I’m sorry. It’s not…” He closed his eyes and dropped his shield enough for her to catch the terror he was carrying. The fear that one wrong move would plunge them all into unending darkness.
Carefully, she wrapped an inner layer of her own shield around her sympathetic thoughts and then sneered. “All doom and gloom, Sciarra? Living in this gravity well is making your brain melt. This isn’t a problem. It’s a temporary setback.”
His laugh was weak, unbelieving. “And last night?”
“Bruised egos,” Rowena said. “I was mad Silar was paying more attention to No-Shot than me.”
A guffaw of laughter burst from Titan’s mouth and he gripped his abdomen. “Oh, ancestors! No! I have this image in my mind.” He covered his mouth and shook his head.
Rowena smiled. “See? It’s not all bad.”
“Remember when we did those training flights on the old fighters and the environmental system malfunctioned on mine?”
“It feels like that. I’m frantically trying to reset the system, telling myself not to panic, an praying to my ancestors that the light will flip back on. Every breath is getting harder. And… the lights not coming on.” He bit his lip.
“I keep thinking my luck’s run out.”
She picked up the coils, working with her hands helped her think. “You crashed, that night. Mal and I thought you were dead. But you got home. Ancestors, or guardian spirits, or random chance… whatever. You teleported from the planet’s surface to the medical ward on your own power.”
Titan ran a hand over his damaged left arm. “I don’t know if I was entirely alone. It never felt that way.”
“And you aren’t alone now. I’ve got your back. If you get in trouble out there, holler. I’ll break your shield and come get you.”
He smiled. “Thanks.”
“Go on.” She waved him out of her engine room. “Go be a good little guardian and save civilization.”
“See what you can find out about all this? Please? Names of anyone who might be outside the shield, and anyone who might be nursing a serious grudge.”
Rowena nodded. “I will, but only because it’s you asking.”
“You’re the best, Ro.” Titan stepped into the hall to teleport out.
“Stay safe, Sciarra.”
She watched him wink out and then reset her shields.
An assassination and a theft. She hadn’t seen those coming.
Somedays she missed the clean order of battle. It had been awful. People had died by the dozens every day. But people hadn’t lied about how they felt.
If they were angry, they shot at you.
If they were happy, they told you.
If they loved you, they kissed you.
Not that anyone had loved her, and it wasn’t like she’d ever trusted the rest of her crew to have her back, but it had been uncomplicated. She followed orders, shot at her targets, and waited for death to enlist her in the Lost Fleet with her ancestors.
Now… she looked around the poorly lit engine room, silent as a tomb.
Now she had to make other plans. Death wasn’t coming for her, and neither were the living. She was in limbo, the living dead. Unwanted and forgotten by everyone but Titan.
Titan better come back safe.
The only reason she didn’t punch a hole through the Enclave shield and fly one of her ships off to the black was because she knew Titan would be upset. He’d already lost too many friends, suffered through being injured and helpless while people he loved died around him.
She couldn’t bring Mal back, or Titan’s parents, but she could make sure he had a friend no matter what.