There was nothing about a second trip to the infirmary that made life better. The chief medic from Julia Cattoni had been called in and had lit into him. His captain he reamed him, and then Rowena had sent a blistering, invective-laced tirade threatening to finish the job if he didn’t stop getting nearly killed, and telling him they needed to talk as soon as he was free.
They said they yelled out of love, but what he really wanted from them was to let him sleep. But not until he saw Selena and made sure she was all right.
The Jhandarmi had been invited to Enclave and Carver had decided the old museum was a good place to hold the meeting. Titan stood with his back to a wall of pictures from the first landing and resisted the urge to pace.
A simple black Jhandarmi car pulled up with Tyrling and woman Titan didn’t recognize. Two more cars followed. All with Jhandarmi agents he didn’t know.
He’d expected Selena to be with them. She wasn’t in Enclave. She wasn’t in Tarrin, as far as he could tell. With her implant low she couldn’t have teleported far and there wasn’t a shield strong enough to hide her signal nearby.
“If you stop glaring, this might go better.” Her voice came from a shadowed corner of the room.
Titan spun around. “When’d you arrive?”
“A few minutes ago.” She looked fine. There were a few tiny scratches on her cheek, and her eyes looked tired, but she was alive and had a minor shield up.
A weight he didn’t realize he’d been holding fell away. “How are you?”
“Fine. Thank you. Marshall picked me up and did a scan to make sure I was fit for duty. She told me not to stand near any more bombs, but other than that everything checked out.”
That explained why he couldn’t find her. Marshall could do distance teleports with a passenger.
“How are you?”
“Perfect,” Titan lied. “A few bruises, a new scratch or two, but nothing major.” He kept a tight shield in place so she couldn’t scan him for injuries. “Are you ready to go in?”
She frowned at the gathering assembly. “As ready as I’m likely to be without twelve hours of sleep or some paid vacation.”
“Paid vacation? What’s that?”
“Nothing but fantasy.” She sighed. “Let’s go find out what Tyrling is looking so smug about.”
Titan had limited experience with war councils outside the strategy sessions Mal led in the Academy. There at least they’d had some precedent for dealing with strangers from other crews. The way Carver and Tyrling were circling each other it was clear they hadn’t established a working relationship yet.
The Jhandarmi circled like carrion birds, their suits muted grays and browns with spots of color and empty spaces where weapon holsters had hung. The Star Guard were uniformly dressed in their all-blacks, crew patches and rank pins flashing under the too-bright overhead lights.
Selena strode across the space drawing attention. “Director Tyrling, a pleasure to see you again. The conference room is in here.”
Everyone stilled, taking time to adjust their understanding of the power dynamics. And then there was an almost synchronized movement. The Jhandarmi split and went to the north end of the hall, the Star Guard to the south. Tyrling’s lieutenants followed him in and Titan fell into step behind Carver.
He took a seat next on Carver’s left.
Interesting, at least to him, was that Selena seated herself at the far end of the fleet’s side of the table. He thought Carver would want her closer. But maybe she was there to cover the door if things hit a flashpoint of tempers and pride.
The door closed with a mental push from someone and Titan felt a shield go up blocking most communication. The Star Guard channels were still open.
Director Tyrling rested his arms on the table. “Commander Carver, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you. I had hoped we would someday, although I pictured happier circumstances.” For some reason his gaze went to Selena when he spoke.
Her face remained impassive.
“My associate, Agent Hartley,” Tyrling gestured to a woman with dark hair braided up into a mess of knots that ran like a crest down the center of her head, “is from our home office in Royan. She has been briefed on our agreements with fleet. The rest are senior agents whose files I sent to you earlier.”
Carver nodded. “Guardian Sciarra and Captain Caryll you know. The other officers present represent the OIA, and concerned crews within the fleet. You’re free to speak openly in front of them.”
Again, Tyrling’s gaze went to Selena.
Her expression remained neutral but Tyrling nodded anyway.
“In favor of expediting this conversation I’ll be brief,” Tyrling said. “We believe that the open threat to the Star Guard and the theft at your warehouse was done primarily to gain access to confidential Jhandarmi documents. A list of our undercover operatives was stolen, and we believe is being auctioned in the coming days. Possibly as soon as tonight.”
Carver frowned. “What about the attack at the Sekoo holdings?”
“Either a hate-crime, or an effort to destabilize the Tarrin-Enclave treaty,” Tyrling said. “Our techs are still analyzing the debris.”
“My techs have finished,” Carver said. He held out his tablet and floated it across the table to Tyrling.
The Jhandarmi shifted uncomfortably in their seats.
Selena’s voice cut through the tension, “The tablet is meant to do that. It’s a standard adaption for low-gravity work. Director Tyrling?”
The director reached out and grabbed the tablet.
“As you can see,” Selena said, “the bomb was constructed mostly of local materials with an antique starter that is fleet tech but can be found in some legal markets. It was also all readily available in the Sekoo yard.”
Tyrling nodded. “I see where you’re going with this. No one’s claimed credit.”
“No,” Carver said. “Although not all anti-fleet groups would.”
“But, if your Captain Caryll is correct, this device could have been put together by a child playing in the yard. Or caused by improperly stored canisters of something.”
The expression on Carver’s face changed from mildly annoyed to insulted. It was a subtle downturn at the edge of the lip and a tightening around the eyes that the guardians knew meant trouble was coming. “There are very few prodigies in fleet, and fewer idiots,” he said in a measured tone.
“But it isn’t enough to go to war over,” Selena cut in.
There was a pressure against Titan’s shield and he realized that he was synching with Selena again, and that Carver was trying to send her a message.
She was purposefully blocking Carver’s silent communication.
Agent Hartley shifted her weight, drawing attention to herself. “Caryll is correct. The explosion, while notable, is not our primary concern. Kaffton’s behavior breaks from his known psychological profile.”
Carver shrugged. “People change. Why are you concerned?” he asked, voicing the question most the fleet was likely thinking.
“Prior to today Kaffton has not carried a weapon,” Hartley said. “He was wanted in questioning for one murder, but not as a suspect. He was an known associate of the victim and a possible witness. Emery Kaffton has never been caught with a weapon, it’s one of his selling points.” Her tone grew angrier as she spoke, slowly marching from cold calm to wintery wrath. “Today he killed Kasey Lear of Tatap, Descent. The Lears are a first-wave family and while they are not powerful themselves, they have powerful friends.”
A quick burst of data from Carver detailed the powerbases of Descent. It was similar to the dynamics of fleet allyship, with a few customs that were uniquely grounder.
Titan raised his hand. “If Lear was well-connected, why was he in a forgotten tunnel under Tarrin going to a dead drop we suspect Kaffton used?”
“Kasey had trouble in his younger years,” Tyrling said. “The family was able to sweep it under the rug and have the records sealed, but he was banished from his native city-state. The fleet equivalent would be?” He looked to Selena.
“Banishment and loss of rank,” she said.
Like Mal. Ancestors forgive him. It was the fate of a living death. Lear must have done something truly savage to warrant such a brutal punishment.
“But, unlike fleet, his family wouldn’t have been punished for keeping in contact. Lear couldn’t return to Tatap, but he was welcome other places,” Selena said. “In most cases the family would arrange a… tutorship?” She frowned and shook her head.
“A foster situation,” Tyrling said. “For the world leaders. For poorer families they might arrange a patronage or an apprenticeship at someone’s business. The Lears didn’t.”
Carver raised an eyebrow. “What did the man do?”
Tyrling looked to Hartley who shook her head.
“It’s a matter of speculation with the gossips in Tatap,” Hartley said. “The records were sealed and destroyed. There were no acts of extreme violence or criminal disturbance in that time period that were unresolved.”
“It’s possible Lear was banished by his family,” Tyrling translated. “His work record his spotty, so is his public imprint. No home of record, no phone, bills in his name only here and there.”
Titan frowned. “Can a grounder live outside a city? Without the resources of a government?”
The Jhandarmi had mixed reactions at the word grounder. Several frowned. Hartley sneered. Only Tyrling seemed unfazed by the politest word the fleet used for the descendants of the colonists.
“They can,” Selena said, finally making eye contact. “It’s rare for the native Maliki to leave the protection of a city-state, but there are small farming crofts in some areas, and there’s always the possibility of living off the land.”
:What does that mean?: Titan demanded. :Don’t they all live on land?:
:It means they hunt and sleep in dirt,: Selena said with a touch of amusement. Out loud Selena said, “The proper term is out of network, meaning they aren’t connected to any tech or social network available. It’s an option only used by the very antisocial.”
“And it doesn’t fit Lear’s profile,” Tyrling said. “He was working, probably getting paid off the books and rooming either in company housing or with friends he made. Lear left home at twenty-three and has spent nearly thirty years staying mostly on the right side of the law.”
“Then we need to look at his most recent associates,” Carver said.
There was a bump on Titan’s shield.
:Tell Caryll to open a channel for me,: Carver ordered. :She’s here to observe.:
Titan risked a side glance to catch Selena’s expression.
Her smile was placid, her body language calm. She knew something she wasn’t sharing.
:Sir, I don’t have a priority connection to Captain Caryll,: Titan lied. :She sent my orders to shut up, but that’s all that passed between us.:
There was an answering flurry of angry faces mixed with a tone of exasperation. Carver didn’t like being challenged.
Hartley took a small, translucent square as long and thick as her finger from her suit pocket and proceeded to unfold it. “This is a, ah, priority tech,” she glanced at Tyrling, “belonging to the Jhandarmi. It’s a portable screen.”
“Very adaptable,” Selena said.
Carver’s nose wrinkled in annoyance.
The screen Hartley unfolded filled most the table and it lit up with a map of Descent. “The icons show where we can confirm sightings of Lear in the past month.”
Tyrling half-stood looking at it. “That’s the weapons depot in Ranten. And another in Quairismoor.”
“With several return trips to a Lethe training center,” Hartley said. “Lethe Corp controls the majority of our world’s transportation.”
Guardian shields throughout the room rippled with annoyance and sudden, silent communication as the fleet bristled at the phrase our world, as if the grounders had some special claim the fleet didn’t.
Hartley continued on oblivious to her unintended slight. “Hypertrams all belong to Lethe or one of their subsidiaries. The Lethe family has controlling interest in the two major airlines. The own a major car manufacturer.”
“Lethe also has a sizable intelligence arm,” Tyrling said with a sigh as he sat back down. “You have a Marshall on your payroll, don’t you, Carver?”
“Hermione Marshall,” Carver said.
Tyrling chuckled. “There’s only three million Hermione Marshalls. Commonest name for a woman next to Hermia. But, yes, a Marshall. I bet you used their intelligence when you arrived.”
Caver’s face went completely blank. “I’m sure we didn’t.” It was an obvious lie, but a polite one that was expected.
“My point,” Tyrling said, “is that if Lear worked for Lethe he could have been tracking a theft for them. Kaffton has taken his little stop-and-rob act international before.”
Hartley nodded. “And the information stolen from the Jhandarmi during the incident at your warehouse is something the Lethes would buy. For political leverage if no other reason.”
“Speaking of the theft,” Carver said, “how close are we to recovering our medications? I have fourteen individuals in critical need of care.”
“It’s not a priority,” Hartley said.
“We’ve handed the case to the Tarrin police force,” Tyrling said, speaking over Hartley. “We don’t believe they left our borders, and the we’re stepping on their toes as it is.”
Under the table Titan squeezed his knee to keep from reacting. The Lees needed their medicine.
“If we don’t have a lead by tomorrow evening,” Carver said, “I’ll send my guardians out to find it. Political toe-stepping or not.”
“Or,” Selena said, “instead of turning this into a matter of ego we could provide the police with scanners programmed to detect telekyen. We have some sitting empty the OIA building.”
A dozen guardians lit up Titan’s com with pings objecting. The very idea of tech being shared was going to make Selena the villain of every fleet story written between now and the next war.
“That would need to be discussed with the other captains,” Carver said, showing unusual diplomacy.
“Stupidity and pride have gotten us two corpses, an empty warehouse, a burning city lot, and fourteen people with life-threatening health problems,” Selena said with a cutting smile. “Under the circumstances, I think both sides can manage to play nice.”
Tyrling coughed and Titan was fairly certain the man was hiding a grin.
“What about the address Lear had in his pocket?” Selena asked as more guardians chimed in, some with objections from their captains.
:We’re losing the closed and private part of this meeting, sir,: Titan told Carver.
:I noticed.: Carver followed that with a cease and desist order to everyone else.
Hartley tugged at her map and began folding it. “It’s possible that the data we want will be auctioned tonight. It’s also possible that the medication stolen from you will be available at that auction.”
“We’ll send guardians,” Carver said. “I have a few who can blend well enough.”
“No,” Tyrling said. He held up a hand to forestall Carver’s objection. “No offense to your fine guardians, Carver, but this is a residential district. It’s shielded with fleet-done shields. Part of the landing treaty. There are very few places to teleport in or out and Caryll, who inspects these things for me, tells me the shield would also mute any communication with your support teams in Enclave. It’s not a battlefield you’ve trained for.”
The narrow-eyed look Carver gave the director would have sent even Hollis Silar in the other direction. “Sciarra, is the director’s assessment of those shields correct?” he asked in a tone of barely suppressed rage.
“Sir, I haven’t inspected the shields myself, but I trust Captain Caryll’s assessment.”
“Selena?” Carver turned to her. “I need those meds. Tell me I can go get them.”
Selena looked down meekly. “I’m sorry. I don’t think that’s the best option.”
Carver’s lips curled in a snarl. “The Jhandarmi have no one, the police are understaffed and already lost one person. Who else do you think can go in?”
“We have someone,” Tyrling said. “A Jhandarmi asset who never went to our training house and who has no digital record. I’m her handler, and she is the best choice for this, and would be the best choice even if everyone else was available.” He looked over at Selena.
She took a deep breathe, then nodded. “I know the person.”
Carver’s frown deepened.
“Perrin,” Selena said, hand reaching down the table, “please? Listen? You’d like her, if you met her. She’s quick, and clever, and very good at lying.”
Selena tried to send Carver an emotion without Titan feeling it, but he caught the gist, sincerity mixed with regret.
Carver motioned for Tyrling to continue.
“My operative has an established cover identity in this area. There’s a man who owns a party estate. People pay to come to his house, mix, mingle, drink, and there’s a number of black market deals done on the back lawn while the music is blaring.”
“Is your operative going as a buyer?” Carver guessed.
Tyrling shook his head. “No, but she’ll be known and welcomed and introduced to everyone. But I won’t give any more details with this large an audience.” He nodded at the guardians standing behind Carver. “Their expressions all started matching a few minutes ago. I know you lot have telepathy or some such, and they’ve heard enough. You may trust them, but I don’t. I won’t endanger my last agent because one of your guardians talked out of school.”
Selena’s expression changed for a fraction of a moment and Carver nodded slightly in response.
“Agreed,” Carver said. “Let’s clear the room and you and I can talk. Coms off.”
“I’ll be staying,” Hartley said, lifting her chin.
Tyrling nodded. “Keep one of yours, Carver.”
Titan waited for the order to go.
“Sciarra stays, the rest go.”
“Sir?” Titan looked at his commander. “Captain Caryll is better versed in grounder culture than I am.”
Carver whipped around and scowled at him. “That’s an order, Guardian.”
“I lived in Tarrin. I think I know it at least as well as Selena Caryll,” Carver said with a heavy tone of disdain.
If they’d been alone, or at least back in the Star Guard offices, Titan would have taken Carver to the wall for using that tone on Selena.
But she was already standing. Her eyes looked sad, and her body language was closed off, but she was going without a fight.
:I’m sorry,: Titan said to her on a tight beam. :I’m sure he didn’t mean to come out like that.:
:You don’t need to defend Perrin,: she said. :Just don’t let him do anything stupid.:
He sent her back a quick-flash recital of Carver’s stupidest stunts and most reckless Academy hijinks before the war. :Are we talking about the same person?:
Selena stood. “Director Tyrling, Agent Hartly, it was a pleasure working with you. Have a good evening. Perrin.” She gave Carver a curt nod. “Guardians.” She walked out followed by the others who had been dismissed.
Titan sank back in his seat. :She had good information,: he told Carver. :And you talked down to her. In front of grounders!:
:She’ll handle it,: Carver said. :I was doing her a favor. Caryll hates meetings and it’s clear Tyrling doesn’t like her. Did you see the way he kept looking at her like he expected her to fail? Better to get her out and let him deal with someone who isn’t as easy to push around.:
Easy to push around wasn’t how Titan would have described Selena even before he spent time with her. And the looks Tyrling had given her had seemed more like a request for information to him. He’d shared looks like that with Ro when there’d been things he wanted to say and he couldn’t trust even an implant’s integrity. It was the kind of thing built over years of knowing someone though, so perhaps he’d misread.
As the door closed Carver rested his elbows on the table. “I don’t want to be cut out of this op.”
“You won’t be,” Tyrling promised.
“What are you offering?”
“I trust my operative, but I can have one of my people give running updates on what we have. There are cameras there, a few listening devices. It’s not so well covered that we can avoid sending someone in, but if Kaffton or anyone else on our suspect list shows up, we’ll know.”
Carver shook his head. “Not good enough. What if this op goes nova? Are you going to drop a team in to get your agent out, or are you leaving her alone?”
The word alone resonated deep. Memories that weren’t Titans flowed through the checklist on his implant. Selena was alone. She’d felt alone. Over half their interactions were tagged with signs of loneliness and isolation. He tried pinging her, but there was nothing but silence in return.
Tyrling was still talking, explaining a Jhandarmi safe house in the area. “And, if things do go – what did you call it? – nova and my operative sends up a flare, we’ll contact you.”
“We’ll go in,” Carver said. “If anything goes wrong, my team will go in.”
“Including Sciarra?” Tyrling looked at Titan.
Titan wasn’t sure how to read the other man’s expression. The mouth was too grim and tight for genuine curiosity, but the way the muscles around his eyes bunched said the frown wasn’t from animosity either. On his aunt he would have said the look was reluctant but mild approval.
Carver glanced his way too. “No. Sciarra is on the walking wounded list. I only let him come to this because he’s the only guardian who had worked closely with you. I thought a familiar face would help.”
“In the future, Selena’s enough,” Tyrling said. “We all know her and like her.”
“Captain Caryll doesn’t report to me,” Carver said, “and I can’t always guarantee she’ll be interested in attending meetings. It suited her today. In the future it may not. Sciarra you know. You now know me. In the future, you may meet others.”
With a smirk as if he’d won a private bet Tyrling nodded. “As you say. Hopefully that meeting won’t be tonight.”
While they hashed out the final details and exchanged direct communication numbers Titan scanned for Selena. She wasn’t waiting outside the door like he’d hoped. And she wasn’t in the limited range he could reach in Enclave. Logic said she was probably hidden behind a friendly crew’s shield, but worry still tightened his chest. He wanted a chance to see her again. To make sure she was recovering.
To make sure Carver’s thoughtless comment hadn’t been taken to heart.
When he was back at full power and not bleeding through his stitches he and Carver were going to have a word with how his boss talked to women. Several words probably. Punctuated by punches.
Carver stood and nodded, shook hands with Tyrling, and then looked at him. “Ready to leave or did you have any other questions?”
“I’m good,” Titan said, standing up. He held out a hand. “Director, it was good seeing you again. Thank you for your cooperation.”
Tyrling shook his hand. “Thank you for taking our field work. I won’t forget the favor.”
Titan watched him leave and ran another scan for Selena. Still missing.
“What’s got your face in knots?” Carver asked. “You looked like you bit a lemon. Was it that bad being near a grounder?”
“It was that hard not punching you for what you said to Captain Caryll.” The words ran ahead, beating out good sense. “You don’t talk about fleet like that in front of grounders! You don’t dismiss a captain like that!”
Carver stared at him for a minute then laughed. “First off, I’m the commander. That means I have to put the needs of the fleet over friendships. Selena knows that, and she knows I dismissed her because if it came to tactics I needed you, not her. You know how to run an investigation, what protocol to follow, and how people will react. Selena has battle experience, but she doesn’t know what to do if she finds information except to tell me.”
The very clear memory of Selena scanning the cooling corpse for fingerprints didn’t match Carver’s impression. It left Titan scrambling for an explanation.
“Second,” Carver said, “she’s tired and injured and hadn’t gotten treatment yet. I sent her off to find Marshall who will make sure she’s somewhere safe and quiet tonight.”
That sounded reasonable. Titan took a cleansing breathe. “Understood, sir. I apologize. The tone was…” he hunted for the right word “… not one I would tolerate anyone using on my captain.”
“And I understand that. But Selena isn’t just another member of the fleet or a random officer. She’s a friend. You don’t know how shy she is around new people. I do. You don’t know how much she hates meetings like this. I do. Trust me to take care of my friend, all right?”
“Yes, sir.” Titan bit the inside of his cheek to keep from a terser reply.
Carver thought he knew Selena. Maybe she had been shy before the war. But that’s not the woman he’d seen walking through Tarrin. It didn’t describe the person whose thoughts and memories had comingled with his.
:Selena?: He opened the channel and waited for a response. There was a void, and absolute emptiness. He’d had better luck getting a response the one time he’d drunkenly tried to ping Mal after he’d died.
Rubbing a hand over the cold scars on his arm he walked out of the building and into the falling night.