ROWENA – warning! Long Chapter Ahead! (broken into 3 parts)
Rowena was quizzing Mars on historical battles he needed to know for the officer candidacy test when Titan walked up grinning like a lunatic. She raised an eyebrow. “You look cheerful for someone who had a bomb dropped on his head.”
“Was it an orbital bombardment?” Mars asked, looking a little too excited by the idea. “Rowena said it was, but the official story was that some grounders had a battery cannon that blew up.”
Battery canons didn’t leave streaks of light searing the night sky.
“It was a precision orbital strike,” Titan said in the infuriatingly calm voice he used when he wanted to understate the amount of danger he’d been in. “No one was killed.”
She rolled her eyes and she stood and stretched. “Only the Carylls would design a weapon that has that much precision and doesn’t actually kill anyone.”
“It would kill an intraorbital craft,” Titan said. “A precision strike like that would swat down fighters like flies. It would have been devastating if they’d ever used it.”
“I suppose it’s good she can’t break shields with it,” Rowena said. “Caryll’s had enough fights over the past few years, she could have rattled some cages with that.”
Titan pressed his lips together.
She shook her head. “There’s no shields down there, Ty. We all know that.”
Mars held his breath.
“Titan.” Rowena gave him a warning look.
He shrugged. “There’s a shield. A Balaur shield. Mal offered it up for trade after Landing.”
“To get banishment?” That idiot. Mal always expected as much from other people as he was willing to give, the good and the bad.
“To keep you alive,” Titan said with an apologetic look.
She closed her eyes. Poor Mal. Ancestors keep him.
Mars made a cooing sound. “That’s romantic.”
She glared at him as Titan shook his head.
“It wasn’t like that with me and Mal,” Rowena said. “We were life partners, Old Balaur wanted a Lee as Mal’s spouse, but it was never a romantic relationship. We were friends.” She looked at Titan. “Tell me he didn’t leave a note coded in the shield or something pointless like that.”
“Selena told,” Titan said. “I don’t know if I would have guessed it was Mal’s shield otherwise. It was much more elegant than the ones he made at the Academy. Beautiful work, while it lasted.” He sighed, then frowned. “That doesn’t go past us.” He pointed a warning finger at Mars. “The grounders think the shield was a warning system only. If they knew the Persephone could crack a shield like that we’d all be in trouble.”
Mars crossed his heart with two fingers. “Deleted from my implant already. I didn’t hear a thing.”
Rowena nodded. “Not that a grounder would talk to me, but same. I know nothing about any shields or Caryll death rays.” What a weird thought. Caryll really wasn’t the kind of person who would do something huge and showy. Rowena wrinkled her nose in thought. “I hate myself for asking… was Caryll hurt?”
Titan frowned in confusion. “No. Why?”
“I was trying to figure out what pushed her over the edge.”
Mars clicked his tongue and looked pointedly at Titan.
“Were you hurt?”
“Not significantly,” Titan lied badly. He didn’t look worse than he had before, but she’d known him too long to ignore that tone of voice.
“Should I be taking you near the Sekoos?”
He rolled his shoulders in a shrug. “Honestly? I want to go. They might be the only ones with answers right now.”
“I’ll come too,” Mars said, hopping down from his perch on the Sabiha’s landing gear.
“No,” Titan and Rowena said in unison.
Mars’ face crumpled in hurt shock. “What?”
“They’re not a crew for you to spend time around,” Titan said.
“What happened to equality and all fleet’s the same, respect every crew?” Mars argued. “You can’t say the Sekoos aren’t ‘our kind of people’ when you’re spending time kicking your heels with them.”
Titan looked over at her for support. “This is different. The Sekoos aren’t expecting you.”
“They’re scavengers,” Rowena said, cutting across Titan’s delicacy. “Users. What’s the heart of every crew?”
“Kids and research,” Mars said automatically, looking baffled.
Rowena nodded. “The Sekoos have neither. They take in disaffected people from other crews, the ones who can’t learn to keep their hands to themselves or never know when to shut their mouths. The strays bring old tech. ”
“There’s a place for them,” Titan said in his tight, calm voice that sent most people running for cover. “The Sekoos have skills the fleet needs, but that doesn’t mean you have a place near them right now.”
“They’re in trouble,” Rowena translated because she doubted Captain Sciarra had sat her fleetlings down for lectures about the importance of the right allies they way she and Titan had been lectured before going to the Academy. “Lily Sekoo has medicine that was stolen from the fleet. If she went looking for it so she had an excuse to spend time with Titan, that’s one thing. Dubious, but forgivable. If she knew about the theft in advance?”
Rowena shook her head. “The Jhandarmi are the closest thing the grounders have to marines. They’re the major law enforcement entity for the planet. And someone attacked their agents, that’s a declaration of war. The Sekoos are opportunistic idiots. One of them traded short term benefits or lifelong consequences. We all know how that engines runs.” She gestured to the graveyard of ships filling Enclave and the great, domed shield overhead. “Our ancestors, may they freeze in the black for eternity, decided their petty wars were better than keeping enough orun to breath. Now look at us.”
Titan cleared his throat.
She grimaced in apology. “We would have still run out of fuel. But, the fact remains, if you don’t think of the future consequence you aren’t likely to have a future.”
“Do the Jhandarmi want to question the Sekoos?” Mars asked. “Would the Captains Council allow it?”
“I’m allowed,” Titan said. “I’m a guardian and Selena is the OIA liaison with the Jhandarmi and she approves.”
“Selena?” Mars’ lips curled into a frown.
“Get used to it,” Titan advised. “She’ll be one of your in-laws soon enough.”
Rowena’s implant chimed. “We got to go, Ty. The Sekoos are waiting for us.” She nodded to Mars. “Keep out of trouble.”
“I won’t get caught,” he said with an impish grin.
“Mars,” Titan’s voice held a note of warning, “what you heard, it stays between us. You, me, Ro, and the captain. That’s it.”
:And your other captain?: Rowena asked, nudging him.
“And Selena,” Titan said out loud. “She’d aware of the full scope of this investigation. If anyone else asks, you know nothing. If you hear something relevant, you get the info to one of the four of us. Light speed. Got it?”
“Got it,” Mars said. “I’ll be the model of discretion.”
Titan nodded. “Good. Get back to the ship. I know you have studying to do.” He waited until Mars teleported out before turning. “He’s a good kid.”
“If he doesn’t make captain one day I’ll eat my rank,” Rowena said as they walked through the forest of landing gear.
“Sounds yummy. What’s yeoman rank taste like?”
“Stale bread and moldy ration bars.” One day she’d burn her rank. Toss it up in the sky and hit it with a plasma beam until there was nothing but slag.
Titan must have caught her expression because he bumped her shoulder. “We’re trying not to scare the Sekoos.”
She gave him a bored look. “Hate to break it to you, but anyone with three working brain cells knows enough of our histories to shake in their boots when they see us coming. Everyone knows what we can do if we want to.”
He nodded in agreement. “Still rules out the Silars.”
Rowena covered her mouth as she giggled. “Oh, ancestors, Ty! What are you going to do if you actually court Selena Caryll? I mean…” She shook her head in disbelief. “The logistics of it are insane. You realize that, don’t you? Captain Sciarra has to either invite Caryll to the Sabiha or meet her on neutral ground. They have to sign a non-aggression pact at the very least. There have to be introductions, and there are protocols. These things can take years.”
“Elea has until I finish packing my quarters,” Titan said.
“So, what? You’ll go live in Caryll’s hovel of an apartment? Or are you going to knock a wall out in the BOQ so you can push two of those tiny beds together?”
He smirked. “We’ll make it work.”
“I’m in love.” His smile was kind. “You’ll see. One day when your head is spinning because all you can think about is a person who lights up the night, and makes you feel whole, and loves you even though you know you don’t deserve it, you’ll understand.”
Rowena sighed and rolled her eyes. “Yes, I see that happening. Me? In love? Probably not before the heat death of the universe but stranger things have happened. Even if I felt something, which we all know is as likely as the emperor returning, we’d have to convince them to love me back. There’s not enough mind-altering drugs in the universe.”
“I love you,” Titan said.
“Not the way you love Caryll.”
“No, not in that way,” Titan admitted as he put an arm around her shoulder. “But then again I was never the brightest star in the fleet. Someone will come along and realize what Mal and I knew all along, you’re amazing, Ro. You’re loveable.” He gave her a tight, side-ways hug that made tears sting at her eyes.
“You’re an idiot, Sciarra.”
He let her go with a smile. “So you’ve told me.”
“Does Caryll know that we come as a package deal?”
“I told her,” Titan said as the bulk of the Golden Apple came into view. “You two will get along.” His steps faltered as he got distracted by his thoughts. “Eventually.”
Rowena let it go. It wasn’t that she couldn’t get along with other people. It was that she hadn’t, and there was no reason to expect anyone to forgive her for that. Apologizing wasn’t going to bring back the dead. Guilt and self-loathing wouldn’t erase the war. She’d tried it. What was left was survival.
She fell in step with Titan and pushed away a nagging sense of doom. Her instinct for trouble was well-honed, but it was useless to worry about now. Her best friend was in love, and in time he’d drift away from her, but that didn’t mean she was going to abandon him now.
A Sekoo guard with a too-loose uniform motioned for them to stop as they approached the outer perimeter.
Titan took an at-ease stance and Rowena followed suit.
“You Sciarra?” the Sekoo asked.
“Yes,” Titan said. :Do I look that different from usual?: he asked.
:I’m not in charge of explaining Sekoo behavior,: Rowena said, pushing a memory of utter confusion at him.
The Sekoo walked behind the Golden Apple’s shield and contacted someone with a box device.
:Are none of them augmented?: Rowena asked.
:Most of them aren’t,: Titan said.
:You’d think they would have traded for that by now.:
:No medics, maybe? Or implant allergies? I’ve heard it can happen.:
Lily Sekoo hurried down the ramp, dark hair neatly braided and pulled back. She looked almost professional.
Rowena’s teeth ground together as she fought the sense of wrongness in the scene. The two Sekoos lurking by the ram weren’t a problem, probably just chaperons trying to make sure that Titan didn’t woe one of their better techs for the Sciarra crew. She didn’t like Lily’s smile, but that wasn’t new, the Sekoos made her angry. All that tech and they still never managed to do more than scrape by. They kept waiting for a hand out, waiting for help, waiting for the emperor or whatever else. If she had all that tech she’d build a whole new ship.
:Think friendly thoughts,: Titan advised. :You’re shield’s slipping to battle mode.:
:All that pretty tech hoarded by people who want to melt it for scrap,: she complained. :Makes my heart break.:
:And here you keep saying you don’t have one.:
She sent gave Titan a mental kick in the leg. He only grinned.
“Commander Sciarra,” Lily said as she approached. “And, Yeoman.”
Rowen was definitely an after thought.
“It’s good to see you again, Technician,” Titan said. “How are you recovering?”
Lily’s laughed coyly and dropped her eyes.
:Flirting?: Rowena said. :She’s flirting?:
:Some people like flirting.:
:Just get me the meds so I can get out of here.:
Titan smiled. “Do you have the medication the Lees need?”
“Of course!” Lily looked over her shoulder and waved to one of her crew members. “Three boxes, as promised. Enough for the current crisis, and a little extra to set aside for even future misfortunes.”
Rowena watched the box with a knot in her shoulders. Ancestors, but she really was the worst friend ever. Eighteen pills for her best friend.
:It’s fine,: Titan reminded her. :Even if I didn’t need to interrogate the Sekoos, I’d do this.:
She took the offered boxes and checked the seal. “Looks good. Thank your supplier for,” she told Lily. :Do you want me to stay?: she asked Titan.
:I’ll scream if I need help.:
:Scream loudly,: Rowena said. :You’re isolated out here.:
Lily’s eyes narrowed as her smile turned sharp. “Is there anything else, yeoman?”
“Nothing,” Rowena said. “Good trade. Enjoy your, ah, hour.” She stepped away, still trying to shake the feeling of dread. Taking a deep breath, she walked faster. There was time for Aronia and the baby. The meds would buy them more time. “It’s going to be okay, Lee. Believe it.” I want to believe.