There was nothing worse than being called by the commander to handle a disturbance ten minutes before the end of shift.
Titan checked the time as he left his desk. Cargo Blue had been open less than three hours and already there was a fight that would close it down if someone lodged a complaint with the Captain’s Council. He pulled up his shields and a Guardian Veil that allowed his implant to produce a visual representation of the shields everyone was wearing.
Then he sent Rowena a ping telling her to stay on the Danielle Marie until he sorted this out. They’d have to celebrate her birthday elsewhere.
Rowena sent a memory of bright blue drinks tinged with anger and humiliation. She was already at the bar.
Titan ran, skidding on the loose gravel outside of Cargo Blue. It was a tangle of blue lights and yellow-green shields. He could see the information eddying there, everything someone might think a potential lover might want to know: name, rank, age, crew information, battle record… it swirled a few inches above their skin, data slowly snaking along their shields.
He pinged Rowena again and got a location lock. He tried to send her a message, to warn her he was coming in uniform and couldn’t help in a brawl, but she was either to focused or intentionally blocking his contact.
It was easier for his nerves if he pretended it was focus. But he’d been friends with Rowena since forever. She only blocked him when she was planning to get into the kind of trouble that started wars.
Pushing through the crowd, he caught sight of Rowena’s black hair, stepped in, and pulled her away from the woman she was arguing with.
An angry fist backed by telekyn collided with his jaw and rattled his brains.
He brought his shields up as he held Rowena back.
His attacker wasn’t someone he instantly recognized. The attacker’s shields were opaque, hiding their body, there was no data stream, and the shield was spiking. They were in full battle mode.
Desperate for a better resolution, Titan pulled on the Starguard files, trying to force more information. His opponent’s shield turned slightly blue… a captain.
Titan looked around. Noted the commander trying very hard to avoid becoming a target. And there, in the streams being traded back and forth, Rowena’s challenge. Was she that eager to enlist in the Lost Fleet?
People were milling, and even with the Guardian Veil making him think faster so time seemed to slow, there wasn’t enough time to make this right.
“Captain,” he said to the angry woman. “I’m on duty for another seven minutes. I’d rather not be here all night doing paperwork.” It was a gamble, but it paid off.
The shields powered down to a quiet glow. Still no data, but now he could see his opponent clearly, a pale, elfin woman, with moonlight for air and deep oceans for eyes. Her wispy skirt matched her eyes, and the thin, white sweater that fell off one shoulder was little more than a wisp of cloud.
She was beautiful.
She was also Captain Selena Caryll, and Rowena was feeding him the memory of their drinking contest and insult war.
Commander Carver stood up, his red-headed lover hiding behind him. “I think we should go home. Silars, Lees, and Carvers are banned from the premises for the rest of the day. Sciarra, make sure they all get home all right.”
Titan nodded. “Yes, sir.”
He turned to Rowena.
“Sorry,” she mouthed as she provided a flood of information. A bad day on the ship, the need to burn some energy, and then seeing Selena Caryll had pushed her over the edge.
Not that she was ever far from it.
He shook his head. Pointing at her cousins, Jion and Alexi, he said, “Get back to your ships. I’ll come by as soon as I get off duty.”
Mars, his younger cousin, appeared at the edge of the crowd.
“Help them,” Titan ordered.
“But…” Rowena looked miserable.
“We’ll have your party in the hangar bay.”
“My captain won’t allow it.”
“Mine will,” Titan said as Mars stepped closer. “Did you hear that?” It would mean calling in favors and taking an extra duty rotation to repay his crew, but it would be worth it. Rowena deserved a celebration and he knew for a fact he was the only person in the fleet willing to wish her happy at the moment.
Mars nodded. “Party at our place. Got it.” He smiled at Rowena, leaving Titan to clean up the mess.
He turned, looking for Captain Caryll, and saw her slinking out the side exit. He was there in time to catch the door as it closed.
Caryll glared up at him. “Is there something else you needed, Guardian?”
“I was ordered to escort you home.” It was close enough to the truth, but she saw through it.
Caryll smirked. “Carver wouldn’t have ordered you to do any such thing.”
“If something happens to you between here and your quarters, he won’t remember that. I’ll walk you home.”
She turned with a stomp and moved forward rapidly, shields on max protection. Less than fifty yards from the door, she stopped. “This is ridiculous. I’ll be sober in a few minutes, and I can take care of myself.”
“That’s what I’m worried about. Row—the woman in the bar issued you a direct challenge.”
That stopped her. “I won’t go off seeking revenge in the dead of night. Review the transcript. I never accepted her challenge, only said maybe I should. Now, can you please stop stalking me?”
“I could walk with you,” Titan offered.
“How about in front, so I don’t feel like I’m going to get a knife in my back.”
“I could do that.” Titan walked a few paces in front of her. He couldn’t ping her. Attempts to get a data hit off her shield had failed. Every tracking measure he used slid off like oil on water. He was stuck glancing over his shoulder every few steps.
Caryll followed along, surly, but moving toward the BOQ attached to the OIA building.
They’d made it half way home before she stopped. Titan turned and watched her wobble on one foot as she rubbed her other ankle. “Did you hurt yourself?”
“I broke my heel.”
His heartrate jumped in alarm. He’d almost had her safe and now he’d broken a captain.
Caryll must have sensed something because she held up a strappy shoe that was, indeed, missing a heel. “My shoe. Not my talus. I’m fine, but I’m going to cut myself on these rocks. Why don’t we have grass here?”
“It’s a fire hazard when ships take off.” He rattled off the rote answer, though none of the fleet ships would reach the stars again. “We could walk on the path. It’s not soft, but it’s not as bad as the rocks.”
“Oh?” She looked to the right. “When did they finish that?”
Titan frowned in confusion. The path had been completed over a year ago, but maybe she’d seen someone sweeping it or repairing it. With a tight smile, he offered her a hand and helped her hobble to the sidewalk where she kicked off her other sandal.
It was the coldest contact he’d ever had with another human being. No information at all. She was furious and locking him out of every normal interaction.
He tried smiling.
“I’m sorry about ruining your evening,” he said, his mind turning over all the ways this could go horribly wrong. He was just doing his job, she’d see that. His recording of her contract would protect Rowena’s life, but Captain Caryll could still sanction the Lees. He winced. “This is probably not how you wanted to spend tonight.”
“Ya’ think?” She rolled her eyes and started walking, keeping pace with him.
“The Cargo Blue set a record tonight.”
“Really?” One word with a ship’s weight of contempt.
“It is the shortest-lived venue ever in Enclave. The previous record was held by Star Shooter, a bar funded by the Alun crew. It burned to the plastic shell in a brawl seventy-one hours after it opened.”
“Who thought booze and grudges were a good combination?” Caryll asked. “Is someone expecting for us to kill each other off? Is this the Starguard’s idea of population control?”
“Oh, no, our idea of population control is hiring Silars.”
She slowed and turned to stare at him in wide-eyed horror.
A misstep. A serious, possibly fatal, misstep.
Titan laughed weakly. “Um… sorry. I know you and Hollis are…”
A pale eyebrow rose over her dangerously dark blue eyes. “Hollis? And I? I don’t think there’s a way to end that sentence well.”
“He tried to come back for you when I broke up the fight,” Titan said. Although, now that he ran through the memory, Hollis had reached for Caryll, but she hadn’t reached for him. She hadn’t so much as glanced at him on her way out. “Maybe it’s a bit one-sided?”
Caryll shook her head. “As far as I know, the only thing Hollis and I share is wanting to spend time with Gen.” She continued walking, but slowed a little when he wouldn’t keep her burning pace. “Shouldn’t you, I don’t know, be checking the perimeter or something?”
“I did that,” Titan said. “We actually had some activity tonight.” That seemed like a safe topic. She was a captain after all. It would be in the reports in the morning. “Someone broke into the old terminal.”
“The what now?”
He pointed across the way to the squat building. “That one.”
“Oh, the museum. Probably someone just wanted to look at the pictures and artifacts.”
“There’s pictures? I didn’t know anyone went in there.”
“Did they break anything?” Caryll asked.
Titan shook his head. “No, it was weird, someone teleported in, but I think they came from outside Enclave. Which is bizarre. The sign-out doesn’t show anyone leaving and whoever did didn’t use their authorization codes.”
“We have authorization codes for going through the Enclave Shield now?”
“We’ve had them for two years. Ever since we put up a new shield.”
Caryll looked upward with a slightly surprised look on her face. “Huh. I hadn’t noticed.”
“It’s there every day. I guess, if you don’t leave Enclave you wouldn’t need to notice?”
She nodded. “It’s a good shield.”
Titan checked it under the Guardian’s Veil and nodded. “One of my best. I didn’t think anyone could slip through it without triggering an alarm, but this person slid along it. It was like they anticipated the code I’d use and wrote themselves a door.”
She nodded again. “Your shield, you say? You were good at them in Academy.”
“One of the best.” His implant pulled up the old rankings. Vanessa Baular – ancestor’s grant her rest – had been the best. Her son, and his former best friend, Mal – ancestor’s grant him rest – had tied with Hermione Marshall for second. Titan has held the third spot until just weeks before the war broke out when he’d been bumped by… “Selena Caryll.”
“Yes?” She turned with a look of confusion and surprise.
“You beat me in the shield test at Academy.”
“Yes.” The word was divorced from any emotion, her face blank and uncaring.
“So you would have the skill level to open a door in the Enclave Shield.”
“I suppose.” She shrugged and her sweater slipped an inch, exposing raw, red skin that was peeling from an energy burn.
His breath caught in fear. “Is that from tonight? Did Rowena do that?”
Caryll looked at her shoulder and tugged her sweater back up. “It’s a sun burn. I’m fair skinned.”
Titan tried to picture how anyone could get a sun burn in uniform. Even if she’d stripped down to a tank top for sparring outside, Tarrin in the spring was a cloudy, rainy, dreary place. And a tank top would cover more skin. “How?” His mind slipped to ways that a body could be fully exposed to the sunlight, like on the top of a ship, lying naked on a blanket with a lover.
He squashed that thought as fast as he could.
Selena tugged her sweater closed. “I was visiting somewhere warm.”
He pulled up the Starguard log, as much to distract himself from his lascivious thoughts as anything else. “There’s no travel itinerary for you.”
“I didn’t file one,” she said as they approached the building.
“You traveled out of the Enclave without a guardian and without letting us know where you were?” That was not going in his report. Captains were way above his pay grade. But… she should have let someone know.
The door opened at her silent command. “I handle land deals for the OIA and the Captain’s Council. If my contact says they have an opening in three hours, I don’t have time to file an itinerary and get Carver’s permission. Besides, what’s a guardian going to do that I can’t?”
Her smile was cold. “I’m a captain. If I can’t handle it, a guardian won’t be able to either.”
“We’re trained in unarmed combat. Non-lethal techniques.”
She stomped to a halt, furious and threatening even with tousled hair and a thin skirt. “I’m a Caryll. I know in your shriveled Sciarra brain that probably only means Traitor and Idiot, but I was training in non-lethal combatives when you were learning how to pee standing up. The Starguard training manual was written by a Caryll, and all it has is the basic moves. Trust me, I’m fine.” She stormed towards the Enclave’s outer doors.
“The doors to the bachelor’s dorms are to the left.”
She came to a stop, barefooted under the empty dome of the OIA lobby.
“You didn’t know that, did you?” Titan asked as he put the pieces together. “You don’t have a ship to sleep in. You don’t have a lover, or you would have called for them by now.” Her back stiffened. “You teleported in because you don’t live on Enclave.”
When she pivoted, the look on her face could have peeled paint. “Bravo, Sciarra. You’re a genius. If you check the fleet registrar, what’s my residence listed as?”
He pulled up the file. “An apartment.”
“Across the street and outside Enclave.”
In the wastelands between the Enclave and the main part of Tarrin. Filled with vagrants, people running from the law, drug dealers…
It was a security nightmare, but technically it was her crew’s security nightmare, not his. Which meant he couldn’t justify walking her home.
“I never sign in or out because it’s a bother. Carver knows where to find me if there’s an emergency. So do the captains on my contact list. Is there anything else you need from me before I retire for the evening? I’m tired. I’m sober. I want to go home, soak in the tub, and get some sleep. Maybe order some take out. I haven’t decided yet.”
Titan hesitated. Every instinct told him to do his job, protect the fleet, keep the captain safe even if she hated his presence. But he couldn’t.
He sighed. “If you’d like to press charges for the evening, I’ll need you signature on some paperwork.” He hated himself for saying it, but the fleet had rules. Rowena had lost rank after the war, and with it she’d lost the right to start a fight with Selena Caryll.
Caryll wrinkled her nose in disgust. She looked away at the wall with a sour expression. Then, she shook her head, the distaste vanishing behind a captain’s placid gaze. “Rowena was having a bad day. We all were.” Her angry scowl softened slightly. “How’s your jaw?”
He touched the cheek she’d punched. “Sore. I’ve got a split lip, but I’ll live.” With some of the officers he could have teased them, asked them to kiss it better. Trying that with Caryll would probably get him a black eye. Or worse. That didn’t mean he didn’t imagine soft lips and a smile of apology.
“Are you going to file a complaint?” There was a guarded look in her eyes. She was expecting the worst. There was no reason not to, their crews had never been friendly.
Titan silently measured the power differential between them. A captain with no crew, from one of the youngest crews, against the Sciarra names and traditions.
The wrong move her could start another war. So he shook his head. “As you said, we were all having a bad day.”
There was a ping, finally, the image of a purple-pink cloud used in the Academy as code for gratitude.
He smiled in understanding. “Have a good night, captain.”
“Good night, guardian.” She stepped out of the Enclave, passing through the shield like it didn’t exist and then winking out of sight. She’d teleported without sound or light.
It wasn’t meant to be erotic, but evolutionary fleet genetics were in play: power was alluring. The combination of power, brains, and beauty were practically hardwired into his brain to trigger all sorts of chemical cascades. He could pick it apart, even halt the progress of the nascent emotions, but he didn’t see a reason why he should.
Besides, there were bigger problems than a minor attraction.