His aunt’s voice knocked Titan out of the meditation that was distracting him from the inexpert stitches the Sabiha’s medtech was putting in his side. He stared up at the black ceiling dotted with green gems in the constellations of the Sciarra home system. “Hello, auntie,” he said with a resigned sigh.
Elea Sciarra stepped out of the shadows, her face an unreadable mask, her shields opaque. His mother’s younger sister was made of the same mold most Sciarra women came from: ebony skin, shining hair caught in thick, black braids that were pulled away from her face and coiled crown-like on her head, a face made of bony angles and focused lines. But, where his mother had an expression of polished stone, Elea had the small cracks that made her look human.
Smile lines around her eyes. The hint of creases around her mouth.
Right now her lips were creased in a frown.
“Captain?” Titan would have lowered his shields as a show of respect and submissiveness if he were still capable of making one.
The captain held up a tablet. “What is this?”
He frowned in confusion. “A tablet? Ma’am?”
She rolled her eyes. “I’m your oldest surviving relative, Ty, but I’m not senile. I meant: Why did you request information about a declaration of courtship from the database?”
“I couldn’t access my implant and I needed a distraction, ma’am.”
“Ma’am me one more time and I’ll turn this into a formal conversation and plant your butt in the brig.”
The medtech froze, ready to run if a fight broke out.
Elea nudged the tech. “Finish up, Dumaka. He’s already in enough pain.” She set the tablet down and held out her hand to do a scan. “Suns of the homeworld, boy. What did you get yourself into? There’s reports of a fight with a grounder, a bomb, and you come home looking like you went into a fight wielding a kitten!”
He closed his eyes. “It was unplanned.”
A hard hand smacked against his aching head. “You’re an officer, Titan! You’re supposed to plan!”
“I was supposed to be following up on a lead into the warehouse break-in. Nowhere in the mission brief was murder mentioned.”
“You were with someone from an allied crew, alone, and murder didn’t cross his mind?”
Dumaka finished the stitches in his side and tied a knot. “You’ll need to keep it clean until your nanites repopulate,” he said in a soft voice. “No extreme activity, no exercise, and no…” He gulped, practically hyper-ventilating. “… no sex. For at least a week. The bandages will need to be changed every twelve hours.”
“Thank you, Dumaka,” Titan said. “I’ll be sure to take extra care not to rip your fine work.”
The younger man smiled gratefully. “I didn’t mean to be personal when I said…” He jerked his chin in a lurching nod.
“Sex?” Elea asked. “Dumaka, how many times had I told you this? The chief medic on the ship should know about the sexual activity of the crew. You keep us healthy. You need to know what we are doing with our bodies.”
“But Titan doesn’t-“ Dumaka’s bright green eyes went wide with fright. “I mean, I know you could, Commander.”
Elea sighed and patted Dumaka’s shoulder. “That’s… that’s probably good enough. Good try, Dumaka. Good try. You’re dismissed.”
Dumaka fled the medbay with graceless haste.
“I keep trying to build up his confidence and still.” She shook her head and sat down on the bed beside him as Titan sat up. “How bad do you feel?”
“I’ve definitely had worse. Even with Dumaka’s inexpert work.” He looked at his aunt. “We need to trade for a new medic. If something serious happened, he couldn’t handle this bay alone.”
Elea picked up the tablet again. “Is that what this was about? A new medic?” She shook the tablet at him as if the words would spill out onto the deck.
He winced and locked down every thoughts from the day. His aunt’s shield was close enough to his own that she picked up stray thoughts if he wasn’t careful. “It wasn’t for anything specific. I just had some questions because it came up in conversation.”
“Ty, I’ve known you since you were born. I was your first trainer. I was the one you went to when someone pulled you behind the training mats to steal a kiss because you were worried Damia would be angry.”
“My mother would have been,” Titan said. His mother would have been angry at the interruption and the fact he couldn’t defend himself against unwanted advances. But he’d been seven, still using a gauntlet instead of an implant, and worried he’d hurt someone. “You gave better advice anyway.”
“So why are you researching courtship and not looping me in on the conversation.”
“There’s not really a conversation to have yet.”
“A declaration of courtship is not something you spring on your favorite captain.”
But you aren’t my favorite captain, auntie. He bit his cheek to keep from smiling. “The individual in question has made it clear they aren’t ready to consider courtship yet.”
“Yet?” The captain pounced on the word. “You keep saying yet. When do they plan to be open to the idea?”
“She hasn’t told me that. Yet.”
Elea raised a quizzical eyebrow. “Is there a rival I need to be aware of? You did walk into a bomb today. I can’t stress enough how upsetting I find that.”
He shook his head trying to sort out what he’d seen and felt the day before. “… I think she’s unsure of my intentions and believes an alliance might be risky, politically.”
“Really?” The captain’s face fell into a neutral mask, then she blinked. “It isn’t Captain Marshall, is it?”
Hermione Marshall was as far from his ideal spouse as the sun was from a blackhole.
Plus, there was the lingering sense that Marshall belonged to Mal – ancestors welcome him to the Lost Fleet. Eventually, Marshall would find a lover and he’d have to choke on the bitter gall of letting even that memory of Mal go. But, until that awful and probably eventful day, Marshall was logged in his mind as Mal Balaur’s problem.
Ancestors protect anyone else who tried to get near the ruthless woman.
His captain shrugged. “I’m not fond of all the crews out there, but, politically, the more allies we can gather the better. And we need new blood in the crew. She’d be welcomed.”
“That’s going to be a sticking point,” Titan said. “If she ever lets me near her, at least. She’s very high ranking in her crew.”
“Oh.” Elea looked at the tablet. “That’s why you’d need a declaration? To ensure that there weren’t any last minute surprises if you decided to pursue marriage?”
“I think the officer in question would understand that I was serious if I made a formal declaration. Flirting makes her suspicious. Or repels her,” he admitted the fear. “It’s hard to tell.”
“Does she seek out your company, laugh at your jokes when no one else does, and compliment you on regular basis? I’ve found those are good indicators of interest.” She smiled. “Although, you know my relationship history. Damia’s little sister. The mousy Sciarra engineer.”
“And the captain who killed her captain to take control,” Titan said with a grin. “If you weren’t my aunt, that kind of personal resume would put you on my radar.”
She chuckled. “I imagine the officer you wish to court is equally fierce.”
“In many ways. But with fewer kills despite being in the war. She was primarily a shielder, I think.”
Or he’d thought.
Until he’d caught a glimpse of Selena’s memories. She’d had the kill shots so many times and not taken them. “She has good qualities though.”
“I should hope.” His captain’s enthusiasm had cooled enough for him to notice. “I also hope you’ll remember that the crew look up to you, Ty. If you bring home someone because she’s beautiful, and not an asset to the crew, there’ll be talk. We’re trying, but we’ve always been a working crew. There’s no room here for you to have a pretty sidepiece.”
He nodded. “I know. I’ll be careful where I bestow my affections.” His implant pinged. “I need to go, captain, if you have no further need of me. Carver wants me in the offices for a debrief.”
His captain smiled in understanding. “Be careful out there.”
“I will, ma’am.” He stood, grimacing at the pain. “I’ll be very careful.”
The offices of the Star Guardians either smelled freshly bleached, or like the inside of the men’s locker room at the Academy, there was no in between. Today the offices smelled of sweaty gym socks, jock straps, and the body odor of too many people packed into a tight space. There were fewer than fifty guardians on the force and they still managed to smell like an unwashed army of thousands.
Titan sat in his office staring at the lock in his hand and visualizing the tumblers moving one by one into place while he waited for Carver to finish his call with the Jhandarmi.
There was the faintest of clicks, and the lock sprung open.
“You look pretty smug,” Hollis said as he walked into Titan’s office. “What’s that?”
“An experiment.” Titan tossed it to Silar. “Selena…” He caught himself. “Captain Caryll mentioned that the entry into the warehouse with the missing supplies was odd. Something about grounders picking locks.”
“So you decided to see if you could pick locks?” Hollis guessed as he turned the small, red padlock over in his hand. “Is this the same one we had on the warehouse?”
“It is,” Titan said. “Right down to the telekyen. It’s a bit fiddly, but it can be done without a physical lock pick.” He put his hands behind his head and stretched back in his chair, the muscles in his side pulled uncomfortably.
Hollis studied the lock with a frown. “Can anyone in fleet unlock this with their implant?”
“According to reliable sources? No. Apparently that’s the kind of attention to fine, delicate detail that would get your name passed around.”
Understanding dawned slowly on Hollis’s face. First a lock of confusion, then a raised eyebrow of speculation, and finally somewhat lust-laden grin of comprehension. “Delicate work?”
“For delicate places.” Titan grinned back. “If you ever figure it out, I’m sure your lovers will be impressed.”
Hollis chuckled. “I’ve never had complaints before, but I’m willing to add more to my arsenal.” He tossed the lock across the room. “I need your signature.”
“Nothing major, just the proposal for a new combatives instructor.” Hollis sent a tablet flying at his face. It stopped short of beheading him, but only barely.
“I’m really not in the mood-“ Titan cut his argument short when he saw the name of the instructor. “Rowena? Rowena Lee?”
Hollis shrugged. “There’s not another Rowena in the fleet. Trust me. I keep track of our beautiful women.”
Titan grabbed the tablet and scrolled through the data. “You keep track of everything, pretty, petty, or otherwise. That’s why Carver keeps you.”
“Speaking of pretty, I hear you spent all day with Selena Caryll and came home intact.” Silar eyed the visible cuts on his cheek. “More or less. How was that?”
“Fine.” Titan cut him off with a glare. “Why Rowena?”
Hollis sat on the edge of the desk. “If you must know, there’s a certain captain in the fleet who was begging me to give her my morning. I couldn’t, because of the combatives training and so she recommended several replacements. Lee happened to be the best choice out of the lot.”
That made no sense. Titan put the tablet down and gave Silar a look that sent most people running for the exit.
Silar’s grinned widened in anticipation of a fight.
“We can’t take a recommendation from a warmonger captain for Rowena’s placement,” Titan said levelly.
“Wasn’t a warmonger.”
“Then it’s an attack. How many fleetlings is this captain planning to send to the next training session.”
Silar’s eyes sparked with delight. “None. There is no avenue of escape, Commander Sciarra. You’ve been out-maneuvered. Sign.”
“I don’t believe for a second that someone recommended Rowena out of the goodness of their heart or appreciation for her skills. Not if the only prize is getting you alone.”
Silar’s glee made him wish for a shield. Peace or no peace there was too much bad blood between the Silars and the Lees. Hollis Silar was a tactician known for plotting complex, detailed, and patient strategies. Leaving Rowena at his mercy was out of the question.
Hollis put his hand to his chest in mock outrage. Then he laughed. “That’s almost true. The captain in question didn’t want me as much as she didn’t want you.” He stood, pulled the chair over, and sat down folding his arms in the desk and resting his chin on top. “Which is why I’m so curious how your little excursion went today. Come on. You know you want to spill all the juicy details.”
Derailment. Another Silar stall tactic. “There’s nothing to talk about.” And no reason for Selena to promote Rowena. “You know Hoshi Lee won’t approve this. He hates Ro.”
“Ah! I thought of that!” Hollis said. “Scroll down. We’re going to offer him one OIA slot and one position in the next set of Star Guard trainees to fill with whoever in his crew he recommends. In return, the Captain’s Council gets to request one of his crew for training at the new Academy here in Enclave.”
Titan tried to read Hollis’s smile and gave up. “An OIA slot? Seriously? You’re going to trust a Lee with that?”
“One Hoshi picks? Ancestors, no. But I have full faith anyone he thinks is competent will wash out before the mid-point. When is Rowena going to challenge him for the captain’s seat?”
“Probably before you understand Lee politics.” Hot pain cut at his side when he breathed in too deeply. Cracking nanites, never there when he needed them. “The only other signature on here is yours. This isn’t going to pass without backing. And no one is going to back Rowena.” It hurt to say, but it was the truth. The only reason Rowena hadn’t been executed for war crimes is because she hadn’t reached twenty-three before the war, and hadn’t been tried as an adult.
He held the tablet out.
Hollis pushed it back with a mental shove. “You, me, Carver, Caryll, that’s our four.”
“You’re sure Caryll gave this to you before the bombing?”
“She made the recommendation first thing this morning.”
“And that didn’t raise any red flags? You didn’t think to check for head trauma or anything? Because the only thing stranger than Selena Caryll promoting Rowena would be Marshall kissing Mal Balaur, ancestors keep him.”
Hollis recoiled in horror. “Oh, sky and stars no. Why do you insist on giving me these nightmares? Balaur and Hermione would start another war if he’d survived.”
“Or they’d take over the universe together.”
Hollis shook his head until Titan was sure he heard a brain rattling around. “Nope. My imagination has limits, and Hermione allying with Balaur is well past the event horizon of probability. Ancestors forgive him.”
He wasn’t so sure Hollis’s math checked out. He had a very vivid imagination and many memories of Mal going toe-to-toe with Marshall. The one time he’d speculated that the fiery tempest of their combative relationship was more than pure hatred Mal had nearly broken his eye socket.
In another world maybe they would have had a chance. Poor Mal, dead before he had a opportunity to find redemption. “Ancestors forgive him,” Titan murmured. He looked over the proposal one more time. “Fine. I’ll sign, but if this winds up getting Rowena killed I’m taking it out of your hide.”
“There’s only three things that could kill that woman: old age, the heat death of the universe, and me, and I promise to play nice.” Hollis winked. “Life gets boring when I don’t have a Lee to tangle with.”
Titan slammed the tablet down and glared at Silar. “Would you please, for three minutes, turn your libido down and remember that Rowena is my best friend in the world and not one of your conquests? Homicide paperwork sucks atmo. Cleaning blood off the walls is time consuming and annoying. Do not push me.”
Hollis hadn’t moved. He watched with bedroom eyes and a smirk. “You’re predictable, Sciarra, in training and in here. Lee’s better to fight with. She takes risks because she’s not afraid to fail. Her death threats, I believe.” He sat up. “You’re bleeding through your shirt, shields down, and breathing shallowly. You’re not a threat.”
“Right now,” Titan said. “But I’ll get better.”
“Not if you keep playing with Caryll.”
Nine percent charge on his implant, no way to teleport out… his hand slid under the desk to the small gun he’d hidden there when he moved in. “Was that a threat?”
“A prediction,” Silar said. “Relationships that start with someone trying to break your jaw don’t usually end well. You’re on day two and she nearly left you for dead.”
He pulled his hand away from the gun. “Selena’s not at fault here. She saved me.”
“That’s what I thought,” Hollis said as he stood up. “You better wipe that look off your face before one of the your crew sees you. Moonstruck. You feel hard, Sciarra.”
There was just enough charge on his implant to crack Hollis’s shield as he threw the tablet at him. It smacked into his face with a satisfying thunk. “Get out.”
Silar laughed and teleported away.
Titan rested his head on his desk for a moment before checking his shirt. The hastily stitched gash in his side had ripped open again. This was not the time to be weak. Or start a war, he thought guiltily. Throwing things at Silar was a mistake. But…
Selena. She’d walked away from him looking broken. Cut off all contact. She had to know that what Lily Sekoo said didn’t reflect what he thoughts. Selena had been in his thoughts half the day. She knew how he felt.
Which only made her rejection worse. She knew he was falling in love and she’d left him.
He dropped his head on the desk.
:Sciarra?: Carver’s mental page cut through his frustration.
:My office. Now.:
Was it worth changing uniforms for this?
Yes, if he was going to get kicked out of the Star Guard for throwing things at Silar it would be in a clean uniform, with a shiny rank, and all the physical strength he could fake. He changed, washed his face, and headed for whatever chewing out Carver had planned.
He wound his way past desks and down the hall to the dark den that Carver called an office. Papers and tablets were strewn across the desk along with the remains of several lunches, a thermos with something green growing on the lip, and four computer monitors.
Carver was standing beside the door scowling at something inside. He glanced over his shoulder as Titan approached, nodded, and turned his focus back to his office. “Is it straight?”
Titan stopped beside the commander. “Sir?”
“The painting?” Carver nodded at his office.
A painting of roses surrounding a gushing fountain – thank you, Selena, for that imagery – was jittering across the deep, maroon wall.
“Um…” He couldn’t unsee it. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t unsee the sexual allusions, or break his mind away from a very personal fantasy of a highly erotic nature. If he’d been fair skinned he would have blushed. Instead his cheeks heated and he was left staring at a dancing vagina on his boss’s wall. “Why do you have this, sir?”
Carver grimaced. “Why do humans do anything like this, Sciarra?”
“Lovers. Gen gave this to you? It seems… unlike her.” A dark suspicion formed on the edge of his thoughts.
“Selena Caryll gave it to Gen as a gift,” Carver said, confirming Titan’s suspicions. “She said it was for our new home.”
Titan turned to look at his boss. “You have a new home? I didn’t know about any new housing on Enclave.”
“There’s an apartment complex near the university called the Rose Gardens. Selena thinks Gen and I should move there. Together.” Carver’s frown deepened. “This is supposed to be a painting of the fountain in the main courtyard or something like that. Gen told me there was no room in her quarters and, if I was serious, that I’d find room for it. So I’m finding room for it. The universe’s most banal painting.”
“Until you see the penis.” The words slipped out before he could stop himself. If asked, he’d have to blame the blood loss and the concussion.
The painting hung in midair, supported by telekyn and Carver’s control. “The what now?”
Titan cleared his throat. “While I was in the company of a certain officer of the fleet she pointed out the rounded head of the fountain and the almost, ah, yonic shape of the roses on the trellis. If you let your vision blur for a moment you get…”
Carver choked on a laugh. “Oh my, ancestors! Do you think Gen knows?”
“She’s a Silar, sir. They’re known to have a rough sort of humor.” Along with all their other bad traits.
“But… Selena gave it to her.” Carver shook her head. “Poor Selena. She probably bought this thinking it was a perfectly innocent picture. Something nice and native for Gen to enjoy. And now I’ll never be able to see it without thinking about sex.”
The painting slammed into the wall, the self-adhering frame fixing it in place.
“I’m probably going to have this hanging in my living room one day,” Carver said. “Every time I walk in I’ll see it and not have to mention what it looks like to my friends.” He closed his eyes and shook his head. “You know what the worst part is?”
“I can’t even get revenge because I know Selena Caryll wouldn’t do this as a prank.”
Titan smirked. “I wouldn’t be so sure of that.”
“Selena has many good traits,” Carver said, walking into his office, “but a sense of humor isn’t one of them.” He took his seat with a sigh.
The debris on his desk rose like a cloud of dandelion fluff, dancing around before landing neatly in the recycler.
Most of the fleet could control more than one object at the same time, but it was Carver’s peculiar tech that allowed him to control so much at once. It was what had made his crew a threat so dangerous his family was killed. It was what many argued had won him the war.
In Titan’s opinion that the tech helped, but Carver’s true genius lay in understanding people. He always seemed to know who was right for the job.
Titan took an at-ease position and waited for the yelling to start.
His boss sat glaring at his screen with an intensity that suggested someone other than Carver was going to have a bad day. “Your captain has requested I give you three days leave to recover from this afternoon. How bad off are you?”
“I’ve had worse, sir.”
“That’s not an answer, Sciarra. You crashed a fighter into a planet and I still don’t know how you survived that, but you did.”
He rubbed his left arm over the faded scars and shrugged. “A scratch or two, a couple of bruises, I’m fine. I don’t need the leave if you’re shorthanded.”
“Selena’s report said you took the brunt of the impact.”
Lies. The one time he didn’t file his report immediately and Carver actually read the cracking things. “We were well-shielded. Taking the brunt doesn’t mean anything.”
Carver looked skeptical. “Hollis says you were bleeding.”
Titan made a show of looking down at his uniform. “I don’t see it, sir.”
“He also said you threw a tablet at him.”
“Silar deserved it.”
“If Sciarra stubbornness could fuel an ship I could have this fleet flying again.” Carver sighed. “I know Hollis has a mouth on him, and he loves to push buttons for the reaction. But he’s one of the best officers we have. Was he really out of line or were you blowing off steam?”
Titan grimaced. “I was… he was…”
“Just tell me what he said about who,” Carver said. “Because I know with you the only thing that makes you lash out is insulting someone you’re protecting. Was it about Lee again?”
“Sort of. It’s stupid, sir. He misunderstood my relationship with someone else and …” He shrugged, regretting the movement as soon as he lifted his battered shoulders.
Carver rolled his eyes. “Ancestors, but you two are predictable.”
“What demands does Silar have?”
“Hollis?” Carver sounded confused. “He thinks it’s hilarious he pushed you to the point where you snapped. I already yelled at him and told him not to hassle you when you’re bleeding at your desk. He should have taken you to the infirmary.”
“If he’d tried to touch me I would have shot him,” Titan said honestly.
“That’s what he said.” Carver frowned. “Your stitches are ripped though.”
Titan shook his head. “I’m in prime condition, sir.”
“Fine, use that engine if you think it’ll run. I’m approving the leave, and you’re going to the infirmary. But I want you back here in an hour. The Jhandarmi have identified the dead man you found in the tunnels, and they want to discuss some things. It’s not going to be pretty.”
Selena. “I can be here, sir.”
“I’ve let your captain and the Sabiha’s medic know you’re coming in. And Rowena Lee.”
Titan closed my eyes. “You did not need to tell Ro.”
“If you’re going to get into a fight with Hollis over a woman she’s important enough to you that she has a right to know you’re being stupid. Bleeding guardians are not good for the fleet. Get yourself cleaned up and get back here.”
“Yes, sir.” He trudged out of the office, vision blurring, and set his implant to scan for Selena.