NOTE: This novel was originally posted as a serial in Summer 2017. The posted chapters are from an unproofed draft and may contain errors.
The final, fully edited, manuscript is now available for sale.
A body at rest stays at rest unless acted on by an equal and opposite force.
– Newton’s First Law of Motion
Selena Caryll lost everything in the war: her ship, her crew, her family. The only thing keeping her going is the hope that somehow the feuding, ground-bound settlers and the fuelless space fleet can set aside their differences. But getting the politically-fractured fleet moving again is more than she can manage alone. For now, she has to settle for working undercover with the planetary police force.
When someone tries to reignite conflict between the planet-siders and the fleet, there’s only one person who has the rank and ability to help Selena protect the fleet: Titan Sciarra, Fleet Guardian—the one man she’s tried hardest to avoid since the war destroyed her life.
In a world where the stagnant weight of tradition can be as deadly as any knife, the only way to survive is to keep moving.
The problem with vacations, Selena reflected as she adjusted her sweater outside of Cargo Blue, was that at the end, reality was always waiting. A quick search of the local security cameras found one that showed the peeling sunburn on her right shoulder blade.
Such was the curse of pale-skinned, ship-born Fleet personnel. Anytime she left the foggy belts covering the city of Tarrin, she barbecued like a shrimp. Otherwise, she’d flee even further from the Enclave and make her home on the equatorial beaches of the planet they were trapped on.
She panned the camera and checked her left shoulder. Black ink, dotted with stars, made a starscape that disguised three silver scars as three shooting stars. The painting covered her shoulder blade and part of her arm. As the artist had promised, the skin-paint had kept her from burning. With a few adjustments, her uniform covered most of the temporary art, which would keep her from having to explain to her fellow fleet officers.
Her arm warmed, an advance warning that someone was about to try to contact her through the tech implant tucked between her radius and ulna. She hesitated too long and the call came through, a persistent ping against her skull as the phantom image of her best friend floated on the edge of her vision.
Selena turned off the visual receiver, and answered. “Genevieve,” she said with a smile as the image of her vivacious, red-headed friend appeared.
A Grounder would have thought she was talking to herself, but Grounders wouldn’t set foot near the Enclave. The fleet ships hulking on the rocky beach served as a permanent reminder of the last war—and Selena’s folly.
Not a mistake. A decision.
The only people with any right to judge her rested with the Lost Fleet, just like the rest of her ancestors—
“Selena!” Gen gushed. “Starcom to Selena. Where are you? I’m covering for now”
“Delayed, but almost there.” Selena hoped Gen wouldn’t hear the lie. She’d been standing in the shadows of the Enclave pub for nearly a quarter hour.
“The Lorenza could get here faster,” Gen said, referencing a long dead ship whose crew were found skeletonized at their stations. Gen blew the hair out of her face. “Stars above, you’re an hour late. The whole fleet is flying faster than you.”
Selena turned on her visual long enough to roll her eyes at her friend. “Ha, ha, funny. That joke needs to be forcibly retired.” Sooner rather than later. The fleet couldn’t fly without fuel, and the Malki system held precious few deposits of the orun crystals needed to power the ships.
“If you don’t come,” Gen said with a note of threat, “I will teleport to your apartment and drag you out in your pajamas.”
“I’m not at home,” Selena admitted. And she wouldn’t have let her best friend come to her new house if she was.
Gen was smart enough to realize that the small palace she’d bought in downtown Tarrin wasn’t paid for by her official OIA salary. The paygrades for the Office of Imperial Affairs had been last updated when the Malik system was still in contact with the empire and were 900 years out of date.
Technically, taking the second job wasn’t treason, but there were enough people in fleet who would see it as a betrayal that keeping it secret felt like the right move. Especially since Gen’s captain was one who would scream the loudest.
Gen clapped. “Selena! Stop stalling yer engines and get in here. This isn’t some Fleet Tribunal, just our friends. You, me, Carver… I left a message for Marshall, you know… people we like.”
The light of understanding dawned over Selena. “Carver? This is so you can snuggle up to Perrin Carver without your parents watching?”
“Yes,” Gen admitted, not looking the least bit contrite.
“You’re only dragging me along so I can cover for you while you make out in a corner, aren’t you?” She masked the relief in mock anger. At least Gen wasn’t trying to set her up with one of her cousins. Or, ancestors forbid, her handsy older brother.
Gen opened her eyes wide with an innocent smile. “Maybe.”
“Gen!” Selena rolled her eyes. “Doesn’t he have his own place?”
“Just the bachelor’s dorm. The Carver’s didn’t have any ships except the shuttle his parents crashed in. Making out next door to Mom and Dad? No. And, the BOQ? It’s so tacky. You can hear everything through those walls.”
Selena hid a smile. “I’ll be there soon enough.”
If Gen ever caught wind of how panicky the thought of a relationship made her, Gen would make it her life’s goal to see Selena paired off. And there wasn’t a man alive who she could imagine getting close to.
Her implant helpfully pulled up an image of a tall, broad-shouldered, lean muscled fighter with skin black as the night between stars and emerald green eyes.
She pushed the memory away.
Lieutenant Commander Titan Sciarra was striking, intelligent, and had a body she’d cross battle lines for, but he was also out of reach. There was no point in chasing a man who wouldn’t give her the time of day.
Another crew shuffled past her into the bar, black patches with silver fists on their shoulders.
It was getting harder to pretend she belonged in Enclave, with the fleet. Once upon a time she knew every crew’s patch without thinking. She could name captains, their ships and their seconds by rote. Now she would need to tap into the fleet’s information nexus if she wanted to know who they were.
She stopped at the edge of the door to tug her lightest shields into place. A few minor adjustments would keep bugs away, keep beer off her clothes, and prevent anyone from hacking into her implant. They could still send messages, because disallowing that would have raised eyebrows. And they could still hit her.
But she could always hit back.
Selena rolled her shoulders back and strutted to the Cargo Blue with a confident smile. It was a battlefield, but she was the last captain of the Caryll family, and she wasn’t going down without a fight.
Whatever crew owned Cargo Blue probably hadn’t had much of a decorating budget, but at least they’d stuck with a theme, oversized cargo boxes were piled up to make walls, seating, and tables. Olive green safety webbing draped from the ceiling between blue lights. Fog used for fire drills on the ships was pumped across the floor to hide the concrete beneath.
There was no bouncer at the door, but people were still hanging around the entrance. As a rule, the fleet was cautious, and the young faces she saw belonged to Fleet members who had never ventured outside their own crew more than a few times even though the fleet had been grounded for nearly three years.
Tables to the left, bar ahead, dance floor to the right… and that meant the back half of the cargo hanger had been partitioned and karaoke would be in the back right corner. After a few minutes of weaving through the human crush, she found Gen, already sitting in Perrin Carver’s lap and giggling.
“Selena!” Gen jumped up and hugged her. “I was beginning to worry!”
“How many people are in here?” Selena shouted over the music.
“Everyone under forty?” Gen laughed. With a small hand wave Gen put up a minor sound shield, muting the music. “People are going to stir crazy. Combine that, with the anniversary—“
The day the war began, the day the united fleet died.
They’d been dying for four hundred years, well aware that the reserve of orun crystals was depleted and there was no way to move forward with the ships they had.
Old Captain Baular had seen the deposit of orun on the fifth planet as their saving grace. He’d get it even if it meant killing the grounders. And, coward that he was, he’d ordered his grandson to lead the first attack.
That opening skirmish began and ended in the dark, with Titan Sciarra in the infirmary, and five Academy fighters missing or damaged. But by lunch of the next day, every officer belonging to crews allied with the Balaurs withdrew.
Seven months later, heated words turned to live rounds.
“Selena?” Gen asked quietly, placing a hand on her arm. “You didn’t know the date, did you?”
“I was trying not to think about.” If she had, she’d have cut her vacation to the islands early. Maybe even made her pilgrimage to the small cay where she’d ditched her stolen fighter after driving off the attack. She rolled her shoulder, stretching the deep scars. “It snuck up on me.”
“First round, we drink to the Lost Fleet, and all who’ve gone on to crew it. I’m buying,” Gen said with a touch of forced joviality. “Carver’s been making friends. Tell her, babe.” She pushed Carver’s shoulder.
Perrin Carver was tall, broad-shouldered man with shy hazel eyes that hid a wicked sense of humor.
Selena’s heart fluttered just a little at the memory of a time when she’d fancied herself in love with him. He’d been the ideal starsider: intelligent, good-looking, and charismatic. They’d been friends of a sort, but even that relationship had soured when she’d realized he’d been getting close to her so he could learn more about Genevieve Silar.
Carver nodded and held out his hand. “Hi, Selena. How are you?”
She tapped the back of his hand to hers, letting him test her shields. “Good. How’s the Starguard?”
“Booming.” He smiled, white teeth flashing, but there was a tightness around his eyes. “Everyone hears about guardians going outside the Enclave, or working with the Jhandarmi, and I’m drowning in recruiting requests. Captains of larger crews invite me to Captain’s Mess so they can introduce me to their best and brightest. Half the time I can’t tell if they want me to marry into the crew or take the fleetlings into the guard.” His shield was still attached to hers, scanning her has he talked.
All he would get from her was polite interest. Her heartrate didn’t spike or dip at the mention of the Jhandarmi. Her smile never flickered.
“Maybe you should lock down Gen,” Selena said. “If you had a spouse, no one would try to get you to marry into the crew.”
Carver and Gen shared a look, and Gen sent a ping of information that Selena’s implant translated as an ongoing debate over crew name and a space to live.
Carver sent something similar; a picture of his bachelor’s quarters and his one ship.
There was no room for them to marry and have a family.
“Enclave is a temporary solution,” Selena said out loud. She’d lost the taste for communicating by implant years ago. “If we-”
A heavy hand wrapped around her waist as someone wearing too much cologne stepped far too close to her. “Hello, Selena.”
Hollis Silar, one of Gen’s many siblings, kissed her temple.
Simultaneously, Selena sighed, sent a shock through her shield to Hollis’s hand, and elbowed him in the gut. “Hi, Hollis. I see you’re still bathing in cologne rather than water.”
He stepped away from her, an easy smile still in place.
It wasn’t that Hollis was bad looking, plenty of women found him handsome, it was that he was equally affectionate with every woman he saw and he couldn’t keep a secret to save his life. Or anyone else’s. He’d chase anyone with a pretty smile and fell in and out of love a couple times a day.
“Nice to see you too, Selena. Now, everyone, you’re all going to look at me, smile, and laugh like I’m my normal, dashing self,” he said, his smile never changing. “You haven’t been paying attention, but I’m not a member of the starguard for nothing. We’re being watched. Now take your nice drinks from the waitress and keep your eyes on me.”
Hollis nodded to the waitress, and handed out four cups with bright purple liquid. “Bruised Stars all around. Guaranteed to make you giggle, or so the guy at the bar told me. Although he’s a Seutaai, so take it with a shield in place.” He handed Selena her drink with a smile, but then turned to glance over his shoulder.
“Big brother, who are we looking for?” Gen asked with a slow drawl. “Is it a friend who you might have forgotten to call back after a night out?”
Hollis shook his head. “No, I thought I saw some of the Lee crew. Make that, I’m certain of it.”
Selena grimaced. “As long as Rowena isn’t here.”
“Did you call me?”
Startled, Selena looked up to the face of her least favorite woman: Rowena Lee. “Hello,” Selena said politely. “I see you’re still alive. That’s…” Unfortunate. She nodded and took a slug of her Bruised Star.
Rowena held up a tray of electric blue shots. “My crew here thinks I can’t out-drink anyone is this bar. I probably can’t go toe-to-toe with an alcoholic like the Silars here. But No-Shot Selena?” Rowena set the drinks on the table. “I can out-shoot you in the stars or on the ground.”
Gen sucked in air between her teeth and sent Selena several urgent pings telling her to ignore the Lees.
Selena muted Gen. “I took plenty of shots in the war. As I recall, I disabled three of your big birds. Bassi, Aryton, Theoano… bang, bang, bang.” Selena mimed firing with her finger. “Three shots. Three silent ships.”
“Not kills,” Rowena said. “A whole war and you never blooded yourself.”
That was it, the memory she didn’t want to face, the time she’d almost taken Death’s claim.
“That’s uncalled for,” Hollis said, trying to step between them. “Selena, why don’t we-“
Selena pushed Hollis aside and grabbed the first shot so hard the glass threatened to break under her hands. She tossed back the potent drink and shattered the glass on the table. “Go suck vacuum, Rowena. You’re a pissant yeoman with no hope of command.”
“I went to the Academy, same as you. I fought for the fleet.” Rowena slammed a shot back. “You fought for the mud-lickers.”
Selena took another shot as the first started to fuzz her judgement. “I prevented the Baulars from committing mass genocide and destroying the civilians along with the fleet.”
Rowena took her second shot. A crowd was gathering and that seemed to feed her cruelty. “The Lees survived the war. We’re still here. How many Caryll captains are there? Oh, right, one. Can you count that high, No-Shot? You have any idea how easy it would be for me to end you right now?”
Selena took the last two glasses and slammed them both back.
Gen pinged her, giving locations, counts, and identities of the Lee allies in the crowd.
Hollis stepped to her flank, ready to defend her.
She stood, anger burning through her veins. “Sure, your crew outnumbers mine. I guess on paper, it’s not really a fair fight, is it, Rowena? You were trained as a flight leader after all, and what do Carylls do? Hand-to-hand combat. Maybe I should thin your ranks, starting with one mouthy yeoman.”