BODIES IN MOTION: Chapter 24

ROWENA

Start at Chapter 1

Enclave was quiet in the pre-dawn hours. The only sound was the gravel crunching Hoshi’s angry stride and the warble of early morning birds greeting the rising sun.

Rowena kept pace, staying a little behind and to the side of her captain as they approached the OIA offices.

Hoshi led the way through the doors and under the dome to the deliberation chamber that had been sealed after the last war trial. It had been reopened for the week’s events.

Jhandarmi and Tarrin police milled by the OIA exit, giving the fleet’s dark blue crew uniforms curious looks.

“Interlopers,” Hoshi muttered under his breath. “Lazy—” He bit off the insult as Hollis Silar stepped into the hall wearing his Starguard all-blacks.

“Captain Lee, yeoman.” Silar nodded in greeting. “We’ve been waiting for you.”

Hoshi sneered at him. “Then let us in.”

“Yeoman Lee only,” Silar said.

“Why is she allowed in and I’m not?” Hoshi demanded. “I’m her captain! I won’t be locked out of this.”

“Apologies, captain. My orders are to escort Yeoman Lee in and no one else. She’s here to be a witness.”

Hoshi rolled his shoulders back, squaring off for a fight he could never win. “The Captain’s Council will hear about this.”

“The Captain’s Council is equal to the Star Guard,” Silar said. “If you want to make a complaint you’ll need to file a report with the fleet marshal. Yeoman, if you’ll come inside, please.”

“There’s no fleet marshal left!” Hoshi complained as Rowena walked inside.

Silar shrugged. “The Captain’s Council can elect one in times of duress,” Silar said. “The Starguardwould be able to ratify the decision. Good day, captain. The Starguardwill see Yeoman Lee is safely returned to her vessel when this matter is concluded.”

The door shut in Hoshi’s face with a nudge of telekyen. A heavy shield formed, silencing Hoshi’s shouted protests of unfairness.

Silence being a better tactic than braggadocio, Rowena kept her mouth shut.

Silar led her down a narrow back hall, past the courtrooms, and to a small room with a large conference table and an eclectic assortment of people.

At the head of the table on the right, Hermione Marshall sat flanked by two empty chairs. She was wearing her dark gray uniform, shot with gold flecks and her family’s crest pinned where her ship emblem should have been. Captain Carver sat across the table from the door, wearing his all-black uniform and facing Titan and Caryll.

At the left end of the table a woman with a pale pink suit sat, a grounder tablet in front of her, two men and woman who might have been a bodyguard behind her.

Tyrling paced in front of the false windows on the far wall.

“Good,” Marshall said as Silar held out a seat for Rowena. “Now that everyone is here, we can move on.”

There was a murmur from the assembled fleet personnel.

The woman in pink looked at Rowena, appraising her. “Very well. We shall proceed. From this moment on, all conversation will be recorded.” She touched her tablet and pushed it to the center of the table to record. “For the record, will all parties please state their name and reason for attendance. In the case of subordinates, the senior member of the party may speak. I will go first.”

“I am Felila Conn, speaker for the continent of Icedell, Council Member in Full, born of the city-state Omul, descendant of the ship Quiet Way. With me are my advisors and troubleshooter. I speak on behalf the Assembly of Malik.” She nodded.

“Director Nate Tyrling, regional director of the Jhandarmi of Malik.”

“Captain Perrin Matteo Carver, commander of the Star Guard, speaking on behalf of the Starguardand the fleet.”

“Captain Hermione Marshall, member of the Captain’s Council, Council Member in Full, born of the city-state Ryun, junior delegate to the assembly of Mithila, speaking on behalf of the Marshall clan of Descent, the Captain’s Council of the fleet, and advisory chair for the Imperial Officer’s Academy.”

“Captain Selena Caryll, captain of the Persephone, member of the Captain’s Council, fleet-Jhandarmi liaison, lead investigator for the case number 18038-9R.”

“Commander Titan Sciarra, second-in-command of the Sabiha, senior officer of the Star Guard, speaking on behalf of my crew and as lead investigator—fleet—for case number 18038-9R.”

“Commander Hollis Silar, senior officer of the Star Guard, speaking on behalf of myself.” He looked at Rowena.

“Yeoman Rowena Lee of the Danielle Nicole.” She looked to Titan questioningly.

“Rowena is here as a witness,” Marshall said, “and as an Academy representative. She’s taking over as a drill instructor when classes resume next month and has a vested interest in the future of the fleet.”

Nice of someone to tell her that in advance. Considering the Academy had been shut in the early days of the war, she wasn’t even sure how they’d train, but if it made everyone feel better about her presence, then so be it.

Felila Conn nodded. “Now for the matter of the trial.”

“Shouldn’t the Sekoos be here?” Rowena asked.

Conn shook her head. “The Sekoo matter was resolved, according to all reports.”

“Sentenced and transported to one of the coastal prisons,” Tyrling said as he continued pacing. “They’ll rot in the damp.”

Conn nodded. “That matter being resolved, we will begin with the trial of the Enclave Treaty.” She reached out and touched her tablet again. The tension in the room dropped by a factor of 12. “Enough formalities. Let’s hash this out. I’m in the wrong time zone and I want dinner.”

“We are taking war off the table,” Marshall said. “Aggression, submission, and withdrawal of treaty are all off the table.”

“Agreed,” Conn said in a quick way that made it seem as if she’d done negotiations like this a dozen times.

“Upheld,” Tyrling said.

Behind Conn one of her minions made a note.

Carver raised a finger. “Can the current level of peace be maintained?”

“Arguably,” Tyrling said as Conn and Marshall both shook their heads.

“Make a note that both fleet counsel and Assembly reject the option of status quo. Changes must be made.”

“Agreed,” Marshall said as quickly as Conn had.

Tyrling grimaced. “Upheld with reservation.”

“Isolation and the idea of separate-but-equal was unpalatable three years ago and has proven unfruitful at best. Recommendation is full integration.” Marshall’s eyes narrowed, making her recommendation a threat.

Carver held a hand up to object but Conn’s raised hand silenced him.

“Define,” Conn said.

“Full access to lands held by the people under the governance of the Assembly of Malik for the fleet,” Marshall said. “Open enrollment to the Academy and pilot training programs for everyone in the system.”

Rowena tried to tally up what it would take to rebuild the Academy, once a space station for aspiring fleet officers, as something on the ground. None of the buildings were well-suited to the task. Even if they gave up the BOQ there was no place for zero-g training.

Conn shook her head. “No.”

No need to worry about finding gauntlets for grounder applicants than.

“Counter,” Selena Caryll’s voice was a surprise to everyone in the room. “A seat on the Assembly for Enclave, incorporation and recognition of Fleet as a House on the public rolls of the Malik System.”

One of Conn’s assistants leaned forward to whisper something in her ear.

She nodded pensively and turned back to Caryll. “To allow this someone in the fleet would need to own lands untied to another house. If you use the lands of Captain Marshall you will become a vassal of the Marshalls.”

Caryll looked over at Titan as they shared some silent conversation. He nodded, and Caryll turned. “I hold land and companies in two city-states on Icedell, purchased at Landing as housing for my crew.” Her smile was bitter. “We were larger at the time. The holdings have served as rental properties since the time of purchase.”

“What of the company?” Conn asked.

“Kore Information Systems, which specializes in researching historical documents and authenticating antiquities.”

:How did I not know this?: Rowena asked Titan.

:She kept the records very well hidden. It would have been public, but her crew pre-empted the announcement with their decision to leave for other ships.: He sounded smug.

Rowena sent him the memory of an eyeroll.

:Don’t hate me because I didn’t underestimate my enemy,: Titan said. :Selena was front and center in the war, anyone could have courted her.: There was a moment’s pause and then he said. :It’s good she’s on our side.:

Rowena kept her face emotionless. There weren’t sides anymore. There was only chaos.

Conn’s assistant passed her a data tablet and conferred quietly before Conn nodded. “Icedell welcomes Enclave into the Assembly. You are permitted the standard twenty-three member team as other city-states. You will have five years to establish trade agreements with your neighbors.”

“Agreed,” Marshall said.

Shock rippled around the room. Her implant tagged over a dozen different messages pinging around the room. The fleet had always been separate. They had a different history, different reasons for being in-system.

Rowena took a deep breath as she re-coded her decision-making algorithms. The fleet had never had a voice in the government before. Being welcomed in, given equal status and citizenship. She pinched the bridge of her nose. :Half the fleet is going to move out tomorrow,: she told Titan.

:No, they won’t.: He sounded amused. :There’s a housing crisis in the city-states. And even if they move out, they can teleport back for work in the morning. It did just open up the dating pool though.:

She considered this, and shook her head. :All I can picture is the Silars expanding exponentially.:

:A red-head in every house?: Titan sent her the memory of a laugh.

She snuck a look at Hollis to see how happy he was. She’d expected a smile, but his face was blank, there was no sign he was taking pride in Marshall’s leadership skills or joy at the prospect of flirting freely with the grounders. If anything, he looked a little concerned. There was a tightness around his eyes that didn’t make sense to her.

Silar looked up, catching her gaze with his chocolate brown eyes. His eyebrows lifted a fraction in silent question.

Rowena looked away, feigning disinterest.

“I’d like to make an addition,” Tyrling said, interrupting the silent conversations around the room. “The Jhandarmi request a skills exchange and a Jhandarmi presence in Enclave.”

There was a murmur of disapproval from the fleet and grounders alike. Tech expertise was the only thing the Starsiders had to trade.

“You get Caryll and Sciarra,” Carver said. “They’ll be Jhandarmi and Starguard.”

:There goes my free time,: Titan grumbled on a tight beam.

Tyrling nodded. “The skill exchange?”

Carver looked over at Caryll. “Your call.”

“The Jhandarmi training isn’t anything strenuous. It’s adapted for the unaugmented, so we wouldn’t need to restrict it to higher ranks, and it would be good for the fleet to learn techniques adapted to living in a gravity well.” She looked at the other fleet officers before nodding. “Skills exchange is approved. We’ll train Jhandarmi on how to handle weapons that may have leaked because of this incident, as well as provide consulting experts for unique problems. Weapons specialists will be made available to help review the Sekoo’s records and identify what might be in the general population now.”

“Do you have a weapons expert with that breadth of knowledge?” Conn asked.

Marshall and Carver looked at each other and then to Silar. There was a conversation going on a tight beam. Marshall nodded and Silar turned.

There was a light tap on her outer shield, someone knocking for attention.

Rowena raised an eyebrow and made a place in her shield for the non-priority message.

:Would you be willing to be the fleet weapons expert?: Silar asked.

She let her confusion at his asking instead of Titan slip through.

:Would you?: Silar asked, ignoring the question she couldn’t form.

With a tight nod she accepted.

“Rowena Lee,” Marshall said, it was more question than statement.

“She’s the fleet’s most qualified engineer,” Silar said, smoothly taking control of the conversation. “The Starguard already consult with her on other matters, and she works for the OIA already, so there’s no clearance issue.”

The Jhandarmi director gave her a dubious look. “Do you have much experience with groundside operations?”

“No,” Rowena admitted, “but I’d be happy to take the Jhandarmi training courses you’re offering. In exchange, my expertise is at your disposal. I promise you no one alive knows as much about weapons and engines as I do.”

Tyrling nodded and smiled. “Accepted with amendments. The matter is resolved.”

:Hoshi is going to love this,: Titan said with a chuckle.

:Hoshi can breathe vacuum. And so can Silar. Why was he the one reaching out to me? You’re my Starguard liaison.:

Across the table Titan gave her an apologetic look. :When we were planning the hypothetical Academy here on the ground Carver put Silar in charge.:

:What?: She looked over at Silar again.

He was waiting for her this time, watching, probably wondering when she’d realize that she now reported to him. :What’s that look for?:

:I’m wondering how many of your bones I can accidentally break in training,: she said, sending along the Academy color code for a fight.

He sent a memory of that last time they’d had a real fight, on the desk of the Silar’s crippled warship Aquila. It hadn’t ended well for her. :Looking for a rematch?:

:Name the day.:

Titan rapped at her shield with a stinging shock. :Be good and looking at Silar. You’re making me nervous:

:He’s the one who’s going to go home bloody.:

“Would anyone like to present further business before we adjourn?” Conn asked.

Titan held up a hand. “Were the Jhandarmi able to track the information Kaftan stole?”

The grounders exchanged grimaces.

“We were able to identify one of the injured men as a contract mercenary for the Lethe Combine. Their lawyers contacted the Jhandarmi the next day,” Tyrling said. “The Lethes control a majority of the transportation on all three continents. They’re wealthy, powerful, and very, very careful. There’s no way to prove they did anything wrong.”

Titan looked surprised. “With a smoking hole in Arwel’s backyard and witnesses?”

The Jhandarmi director’s calm expression turned into a bitter scowl. “Two months ago Sonya Lethe’s security detail reported her missing. They found her within a few hours with the help of the local police and the Jhandarmi, but she’d been drugged and beaten. The Lethe family told us today they believed family secrets had been taken during the time she was missing and that the Lethes acted within their rights to retrieve their secrets.”

“But, there were witnesses,” Titan protested. “Selena and I weren’t the only ones who were there.”

“Arwel withdrew his claim earlier this morning,” Tyrling said. “The explosion was blamed on an unfortunate sink hole. They do happen occasionally in Tarrin, and someone generously volunteered to pay for repairs as part of their civic charities.”

“Lethe,” Marshall said without hesitation. “Everyone at the party will get a generous donation to their bank accounts and a note telling them they saw nothing out of the ordinary. If they speak out,” she looked pointedly at Caryll and Titan, “they’ll be silenced. She wants to see who she can push, and who she can control.”

Caryll snarled audibly. “So, she’s made herself untouchable?”

“Patience is power,” Conn said. “Powerful families like the Lethes will spend years setting the stage for a power play. Decades. Centuries. It doesn’t matter to them.”

“Why do the Lethes want the information?” Carver asked.

Marshall sat back in her chair with a  chuckle. “Power. It’s always about power. Sonya and I went to school together. I remember her, an unremarkable child convinced she was destined to rule the world. She’s descended from the first governor of Malik, a title that’s been in abeyance since the wormhole collapsed. When we were both eight, she signed her papers Governess Sonya Lethe of Malik IV. For all that, she has only a passing understanding of how power is used. She probably hopes to either curry favor with the Jhandarmi or blackmail them. The Lethes rarely go to battle. They look for chinks in your armor, exploit your weaknesses.” Her words drifted off into a nostalgic smile.

“Power.” Conn shook her head.

“Patience first,” Tyrling advised. “We know where the information is. Now we watch and wait. We attend to the weak spots and let the enemy show their hand.”

Marshall grimaced. “Still, if Sonya has shown her hand like this it means she plans to expand her little empire. Much like the Sekoos, she believes she’s entitled to control of the population. Kaftan wasn’t a stupid man, he would have encrypted the data and kept the key safe until he was away with his money.”

“what are the chances he gave her the key before dying?” Conn asked, looking between Marshall and Tyrling.

Tyrling tilted his head back and forth in thought. “Time of death compared to when he left, very low. He was dead within an hour of leaving. Either the Lethes didn’t anticipate an encryption or they had someone already lined up to crack it. We’ll keep our ears to the ground. Rumors about these things always turn up, you just have to turn over enough rocks.”

“The Jhandarmi will have fleet backing if Lethe moves against you,” Carver said.

Tyrling nodded in thanks.

The meeting closed rapidly. Papers and tablets were passed around the table for signatures and witness statements. Conn spoke with Carver and Marshall, then with Silar. Tyrling had a few quiet words with everyone but Rowena on his way out. History was made with a quick exchange and no fuss. One word—agreed—and everything was different.

Rowena drifted out of the conference room, not quite ready to return to the Danielle Nicole, but at a loss as to where else she could go. A ping from Titan told her to wait, so she stopped at the intersection of a back hall and a service corridor.

At the far end of the hall she heard Titan say, “I love you, I’ll catch up soon.” He kissed Caryll before she teleported away, and then walked to Rowena. “How does it feel to be in the room where history happens?”

“Surreal,” she admitted. “It was all… easy. Like a play. Everyone seemed to know their lines except me.”

“Selena spent most the night filling me in on the political history,” Titan admitted.

Rowena smirked. “What a waste of a first night as a courting couple.”

He laughed and looked up at the ceiling to avoid her gaze.

“Are you here to gloat or did you actually need something?”

“I want to get Selena a proper courting gift.”

“Isn’t it a bit late for that? The entire fleet saw you two yesterday. Courtship declared and accepted.”

Titan rolled his eyes. “I know, but we won’t have the celebration for a few months. Or at least not until Carver and Silar have theirs.”

Rowena looked up in surprise. “Carver finally acted on that?”

“Genevieve told him she was tired of him trying to get killed before their wedding. They were either signing the spousal contract or she was going to find someone else who wanted to be with her. Selena offered them a house in Tarrin since the news about her land holdings was going to be public anyway. They’ll have a celebration in a few weeks. Then Selena and I will have ours.”

“What do you want to get her?”

Titan’s smile lit up the room. “You’ll back me on this?”

“For every crazy plan,” Rowena said. “That’s what friends are for.”

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