It was quiet downtown.
There were no generators running to keep the air pure in the ships; no family arguments spilling out of cargo holds to become fistfights on the rocks. On the horizon there was no wall, and no OIA building standing sentinel.
A light breeze ruffled luminescent leaves, pale and green, on the thin branches of the terraformed trees lining the road. Their soft light was enough frame the row of elegant homes, subdued visions of grounder wealth.
Caryll’s signature this here, but cycling, like she was walking in and out of a shield.
Titan raised an eyebrow and slipped on the Guardian Veil. A faint shimmer gave away a hidden shield over a large house in the middle of the block. There was a wide, inviting porch held up by white columns and three stories of windows.
There were smaller ships in Enclave.
He approached cautiously, testing the limits of the shield. The first layer was a scatter field meant to make people look away. It would discourage random intrusions but not much else. The next layer in—Titan jumped back, mentally stung. He’d wager a week’s pay that the next layer was set to kill anyone who touched the house.
It was not the kind of shield someone put over a Jhandarmi safe house during peacetime. It was a war shield meant to repel everything up to and including an orbital bombardment. Someone had been making a point.
The Carylls had a few shields like that, most of them tuned to attack only things or people with telekyen in their system. A groundsider was probably safe knocking on the door.
Rocking back on his heels, he grimaced. Teleporting home was probably the best option. Selena was safe enough behind that shield.
As long as she stayed there.
Her signal appeared again, inside the house next door to the heavily shielded one. When the Jhandarmi director had said there was a safe house in the area he hadn’t expected the two addresses to share a fence line. But the address was the one Kafftan’s victim had dropped.
Pulling his shields in close so that Selena wouldn’t sense him, he weighed his options. If she’d gone in it was to make contact with the Jhandarmi operative. It could mean nothing. It could mean trouble.
Titan hesitated, watching the movement of shadows in the windows of the house.
The door to the house opened, spilling light into the dark street. “Hey!” a figure in the doorway shouted. “You coming in, man?”
Titan tilted his head to the side.
“Party’s going raw!” The figured gestured wildly.
Telling himself it was due diligence, Titan approached, grateful he’d changed out of his uniform before going to meet Rowena. The long-sleeved shirt meant to wear under a pilot’s jacket and black cargo pants didn’t scream Fleet, although they probably weren’t the height of grounder fashion either.
As Titan drew closer, he could see the man, a tall and muscled man with blond hair pulled back in a bun. He was wearing shorts and nothing else.
Apparently, cargo pants made him over-dressed for this event.
The blond tipped his head. “You new in town?”
“I’m from Descent,” Titan said, a plausible lie. Hard for a Tarrin to check and he knew the accent. All he had to do was think back to Marshall’s first year at the Academy.
“Right!” The man held out his hand. “Arwel, Arwel Art and Design. Come on in. Did you bring swim gear?”
“Um… no,” Titan said as he stepped into the domed entry way. Life-size photographs of women lined the walls, all strikingly beautiful, all painted with elaborate body art.
“Stunning, aren’t they?” Arwel asked. “All mine.”
Titan raised his eyebrows. “All the women?”
“Oh!” Arwel’s eyes went wide in shock. “No, no, no. All the art. I painted them. I’m painting tonight too. Was that… Wasn’t that what you were expecting?”
An honest answer wasn’t going to work, so he found another lie. “I met a woman downtown in an art gallery and she mentioned she might be here. I found myself at loose ends this evening so…” Titan let him fill in the gaps.
“Brunette, blonde, or red head?” Arwel asked.
“Blonde.” Titan’s searched the gallery for Selena’s face, but she wasn’t on display.
Arwel’s face brightened into a wide smile. “Willowy blonde with fair skin and ocean-blue eyes?”
“Selena!” Arwel said. “She brings in the best international clients. She’s out back by the pool. I just finished her shoulder. Unless you’re an artist you probably won’t notice how flawless her skin is, but trust me, she’s the perfect canvas.”
“I’ve noticed she’s flawless.” In so many ways.
Arwel chuckled. “Yeah, good luck with that.” He patted Titan on the back. “That woman is married to her work. I have watched many a man and woman fly to that sun and be burned.”
“Selena means moon,” Titan corrected. “And I’m not Icarus. I doubt I’ll get burned.”
“That’s the right attitude.” Arwel clapped him on the back again. “Come on through the kitchen. There’s a guest bathroom with outfits over there if you feel like taking a dip. Have you been to an event like this before.”
Flight team parties probably didn’t count. “No.”
“It’s more a Tarrin thing, I think. This is a networking event. Jorjes Kerl of Kerl Investments is looking to hire new talent, so he scheduled with me. Anyone interested came come. I provide the venue, the food, the models, and everyone else gets to shine. You will notice the models are exceptionally food at getting your logo seen. Feel free to ask any of them about the advertisements painted on them. Everyone I hire is tested for memory and trained for sales. This is the least intrusive way to get your brand noticed by investors.” Arwel’s sales pitch rambled on.
Titan tuned him out, nodding where needed, as he assessed the situation.
The kitchen had been laid out with trays of food and drinks ready to be taken outside. Tidy packets of swim wear and towels were available for guests. He didn’t reach for one though Arwel made a point of offering the packet to him. Titan’d never learned to swim and didn’t see a reason to start now.
The gray-tiled kitchen flowed out to a seating area, then to a wide deck and a garden beyond. People in a variety of swim accessories moved between tables and lounging areas. Painted men and women worked the crowd, standing and posing in the lights before moving away again.
At the center of the garden was a waterfall, rushing over artfully arranged rocks into a jewel-blue pool lit from within. A plaster gem in an artificial paradise.
Arwel stepped up beside him, beaming at the stage he’d set. “Lovely, isn’t it? All the exotic colors of the islands without pesky things like traveling or insects.”
“It’s… something,” Titan agreed.
“Give it an hour,” Arwel said. “It’s early and no one’s relaxed yet. Once they’re done sorting out dominance and using up their best pick-up lines on my models they’ll start having fun. That’s when the real networking begins. Get two people chatting by the pool about what macroeconomics and a year later we have a new company in the commerce district. It’s magical!”
Titan didn’t even feign interest. Grounder commerce and capitalism were – thankfully – above his pay grade. All he was interested in was spotting Selena, and the Jhandarmi operative, before they spotted him.
A man in the crowd noticed Arwel on the patio and waved him over.
“Excuse me,” Arwel said. “I’ve got to go play host. If you need introductions, come find me.”
“I will. Thank you.” Titan nodded as Arwel walked away. A sweeper pass brushed against Titan’s shield like a cold breeze. In it he caught Selena’s now-familiar touch and an echo of concern. She was on guard, but not aware he was there. Yet.
It took all his focus to keep his shield from adjusting and melding with hers.
Behind him someone opened the patio door and then shut it with a slide and a snick. “Are you from Descent?”
“Yes,” Titan said as he turned.
Kaftan stood beside him. A little shorter than he’d seemed in the tunnels, bonier than most grounders, with a sandy stubble on his chin and red-rimmed eyes he looked more like a destitute dock worker than a thief and a killer. But it took all kinds.
“Didn’t I say I’d handle it?” Kaftan demanded, lips curling into a snarl. “Tell your lady I don’t need a bodyguard or a babysitter.”
Titan kept his face emotionless as a thousand possibilities flew through his mind. “I’m not here to do either,” he said carefully. “At the moment, I’m a casual observer.”
“Ha!” Kaftan stalked over to the ledge and gripped the railing like he meant to strangle it. “So you’re the cleaning crew.”
“Only if you need one.”
Kaftan’s right hand jerked to the front pocket of his pants, then darted away. “You can leave. Sonya and I had an agreement; she got what she wanted and I got what I wanted. Almost didn’t because of that fish-brained gizzard-eater who put a hit on the spacer.” He sneered. “It was me that made this work. Not you lot. Without me you’d still be sitting around panting after those parts. I made good on delivery. Any by-product is my profit, not your catch.”
“I’m not arguing with that,” Titan said calmly. “Still, this is a sale.”
“Yeah.” Kaftan shrugged. “What of it?”
Titan looked around. “Sales have buyers. Auctions have bidders.”
Again, Kaftan’s hand dropped to his pants pocket.
“I have money,” Titan said.
“My employer has a far healthier account.” Carver was going to kill him. The guardian’s slush fund of grounder cash wasn’t enough to buy new office chairs let alone the information Kaftan was auctioning.
But Kaftan was already shaking his head. “Not happening. Rules is rules. Can’t do business with the same person twice in a row. It’s bad luck. Starts a pattern. Gets a man noticed.”
“There are different kinds of notice,” Titan said. “My employer is influential, powerful, wealthy.”
The thief’s eyes narrowed in pecuniary speculation.
“The authorities are only a problem if they can find you,” Titan said, dropping to a conspiratorial whisper. “With the right… friends… you won’t need back ally dodges and side hustles. You wouldn’t need to be guests at pay-as-you-go parties.”
Kafftan took a deep breath in, inhaling the possibilities. Then he stopped and shook his head. “No. No! Rules is rules. Besides, I have other things to do tonight.” He nodded to something in the distance.
Titan turned to look just as Selena stepped into view.
Creamy white skin and hair pale as moonlight… She was an alabaster goddess in a single piece of black fabric that Titan hoped wasn’t actually paint. Or maybe he hoped it was. Either way, she was all he could see.
His mouth went dry as Selena tied a sheer, black skirt around her waist and posed in one of the spotlights.
Her left shoulder was painted with a nebula and three shooting stars. When she turned, she was everything: night and stars, fire and magic, promise and hope.
Selena moved, breaking away to pose by the edge the pool. She took off her skirt, tossed it aside, and dove in.
Suddenly, Titan saw the merits in learning to swim.
Kaftan tapped the balustrade, oblivious to the exchange. “Lovely girl. Arwel says she’s here nearly every night. Pity, really, but she was in the parking garage earlier.”
Now that Titan looked at the shield running along Arwel’s eastern perimeter he recognized the familiar whorls of coding that were unique to Selena. A house next door. A job as a model. All those looks between her and Tyrling hadn’t stemmed from the Jhandarmi director’s frustration, they’d been coded orders.
“It won’t be a problem for long,” Kaftan said, misinterpreting Titan’s furious frown.
“Good,” Titan muttered.
Kaftan watched her. “It’s going to be a fun night.”
“Taking your victims home is messy,” Titan said. “Unprofessional. Your DNA will be all over her.”
“Don’t worry,” Kaftan said. “I’m good at making these things look like accidents.” He smoothed his hand over his pants. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to go circulate. Can’t get a good auction if you don’t have buyers frothing at the mouth.”
“Kaftan?” Titan said, stalling.
The man turned. “What? What I says goes. Done is done.”
“This is a side matter, something personal.”
Kaftan slowed and pivoted back to him. “I’m listening.”
“During this operation, my employer hired some local talent. Sent orders outside our usual chain of command. Me and my fellows had a bet about who’s name was to be rubbed out. Care to give me a hint? I can make it worth your trouble.”
“Shame I’m a thief, not a liar, I’d love to take your money. But I don’t know. The supplier said it would be easier for them if a certain officer of the law was scrubbed out. Would have put the city on high alert if any more of them dropped. It was bad for business. If the supplier wants to do something now, that’s their business.” Kaftan shrugged as he walked off.