Selena Caryll pulled her hands away, shields on high, and he felt only skin. There should have been a tug, the warmth of friction as their shield fought to separate, but there was none. Their shields were identical.
The corner of his lip twitched up in a smile.
He hadn’t been the only one projecting. Fear and anxiety were high on Caryll’s mind, which was normal all things considered, but he’d also caught a memory of her watching him with a sense of appreciation.
She didn’t hate him.
It was a slender reed to build a house of dreams with, but what had Fleet Marshall Tandroi said during the third wave of colonization? ‘All great achievements begin with a single thread of hope.’
Caryll froze halfway to the door, almost making him collide with her. She shook her head and he felt rather than saw her run a diagnostic. There was an accusing glare on her face when she turned. “Did you say something?”
Titan shook his head.
“It’s just… my implant pulled up famous quotes by Fleet Marshall Tandroi and highlighted one. It’s a subroutine left over from Academy…”
“I was thinking about one of his quotes,” Titan admitted. “I probably had famous quotes set to add to my shield scroll…”
“… and since you just worked on my shield, the information uploaded automatically,” she finished. “Let me shut that down real quick.” Her eyes turned a brighter blue for a moment but he saw no other change.
“Try adding something to your scroll.”
He put the symbol for Allied Crew on his scroll.
“Stop setting a bad example. Lying is a crime, you know,” Caryll chided.
“Things change,” Titan said. “Allegiances change. If you knew my captain, maybe you’d get along with her. Maybe our crews would be allied.”
Her laugh was sharp and bitter. “Poisoned honey, Sciarra. The rose’s sweet scent conceals the biting thorn.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means any good offer from fleet is a trap. Allied crews?” she scoffed. “At what price? My blood? My genes? My tech? My crew?”
“We’re not like that-”
“You’re fleet,” Caryll said, cutting him off. “You’re all like that. Crew first, the rest of humanity can breathe vacuum.” Her skirt snapped and swirled as she turned angrily away. “You’re all the same.”
Titan watched her walk to the door in confusion. It was obvious there was a crucial piece of data missing in his analysis of Selena Caryll, but he didn’t know where to go looking for it. If she’d accused him of being like the other warmongers, he would have understood, even if he disagreed. But the same as the Silars? As Carver? As Marshall? Those were her friends and allies.
Unless… they weren’t.
He watched Caryll greeting the arriving police officers. Her shoulders lost some of the tension they’d been holding, and she smiled at the officers as if welcoming familiar faces. She shook their hands in the grounder style. And the dark cloud of fury didn’t return until she turned to face him.
:Is everything all right?: he asked over a tight beam.
Across the dark warehouse Caryll stared at him. Motes of dust danced in a lancing sunbeam and the silence seemed to stretch to the ends of the universe.
She turned to a dark-skinned man with a bright magenta streak in his coarse, black hair. :Everything is fine.: A smile flashed across her face, dangerous as a shark’s fin cutting through the waves. “Detective Jamar Hastings,” she said as she pushed the dark-skinned man forward, “this is Guardian Titan Sciarra.”
Hastings held out his hand.
For a brief second Titan considered refusing the gesture of equality, but he caught himself and reached out to shake the man’s hand. No shield. No augmentation. No protection.
In the fleet, Hastings would be no more than a low-level enlisted sailor.
“Here I thought everyone in fleet was as pale as you, Lena.” Hastings smiled and nudged Caryll’s shoulder.
Titan’s smile grew tight.
:Your shield just went to battle mode,: Caryll said.
:That’s not the correct diminutive of your name.:
:I get to decide what I take as an insult.:
:I’m the guardian here.:
:And I’m the captain.: Cold, blue eyes met his. :Behave.:
Hastings coughed. “I feel I’m missing something.”
“Only a silent debate over protocol for this particular situation,” Caryll lied. “I think I’ll work with the crime scene techs and leave you two to argue with the Jhandarmi officers over who gets to canvas the neighborhood for information.”
“I hate knocking on doors asking for info,” Hastings complained.
Caryll shrugged. “Not my jurisdiction, I’m afraid. My hands are tied.”
Hastings sighed as Caryll walked away, pulled out an electronic tablet, and turned to Titan with an apologetic half-smile. “Guardian, my apologies, I suppose we are more informal than you’re used to.”
The scent of Caryll’s soap was still clinging to him. Minutes ago he’d been a thought away from public indecency. He cleared his throat. “I can manage with informal.”
“Wonderful.” Hastings smiled. “Perhaps you could tell me how the Star Guard would normally conduct this type of investigation and I can find where our procedures match.”
Titan raised an eyebrow as his implant scanned for the relevant data.
Hastings took a step back, wary.
“Were my eyes glowing?” Titan guessed.
“Yes, is that normal?”
“Only for an augmented officer accessing information on their implant.” He lifted his left arm to signal where his was, buried in the muscles between his radius and ulna. “As for the procedure for theft, we don’t have one. The last theft on record was over seven-hundred years ago.”
“A crime-free society?” Hastings chuckled as he shook his head. “Must be nice.”
“Not crime free, but ships are easy to patrol. Everyone is in charge of something, there’s constant surveillance.” Memories of the fleet before Landing turned his mouth sour.
:Sciarra?: Caryll sent feelings of concern and worry.
He responded with a placating thought as he grimaced. “The crimes that are committed in full view of everyone are often more vile than theft, because you’ve convinced everyone that an atrocity is acceptable.”
Hastings stared at him.
Realizing he was probably scaring the grounder more than was needed, Titan moved on. “Crime is very limited in the fleet. A senior officer knows where everyone in their crew is at any given moment, either by pinging their implant or their call sign.”
Titan touched his shoulder. “A, um, insignia almost?”
:What is the grounder equivalent of call sign?: he asked Caryll.
“A communications device worn on the shoulder. It keeps the children out of restricted areas, opens doors, allows you to find anyone on your ship.”
“That makes finding out if one of your people raided the warehouse easy,” Hastings said.
“If I know the time of the attack, I can check the shield log,” Titan said. “Everyone leaving Enclave is supposed to register with the Starguard and it would be posted on the log.” He altered his shield enough so his voice carried to Caryll.
Hastings drew his head back quickly and muttered a word under his breath that Titan was fairly certain Carver had said was not to be used in public.
“There.” Hastings nodded to the doorway where a bullish man with reddened skin and a bald head was climbing out of a black car. “Tyrling. This is not good.”
It was the same man who’d called Carver earlier in the day. “Why is he bad?”
“He’s the Jhandarmi regional director,” Hastings said as Caryll moved to intercept Tyrling. “If he’s shown up, this isn’t a routine case.” The police officer covered his mouth and muttered another curse.
Caryll caught Director Tyrling and steered him away from the crime-scene techs.
“Detective Hastings,” Tyrling said with a fraternal nod as he approached.
Hastings gave a tight-lipped nod in return. “Director.”
Tyrling studied Titan. “And you are?”
“Guardian Sciarra, sir. You spoke with my commander this morning.”
Tyrling glanced at Caryll before nodding. “Of course.”
“To what do we owe the honor of your arrival, director?” Hastings asked, every sign indicating he wanted the Jhandarmi officer gone as soon as humanely possible.
:What am I missing?: Titan asked Caryll.
Her face remained perfectly blank. :I don’t know. He wasn’t expected.:
“The timing of the crime caught my attention,” Tyrling said as he looked around. “There’s, what, two dozen shelves? How full was the warehouse?”
“There were six-hundred, seventy-three boxes of supplies in twenty-nine large containers,” Titan said with a frown. “Why?”
Tyrling pursed his lips. “The alarm went off less than thirty minutes ago and the place is empty.”
A tight beam of information came from Caryll, approximate weight of the boxes, average loading times. Titan lifted a shoulder in a casual shrug. “With the right people you could clear this place in under six minutes.”
“An Starsider could,” Caryll said. “A grounder couldn’t.”
Hastings raised his eyebrows. “And a person from Enclave would leave a trace in your shield, wouldn’t they?”
Caryll’s mouth pinched into a frown. “There are a few ways around it. The stolen goods wouldn’t need to go back to Enclave-”
“But it wouldn’t make sense to move it in the city either,” Titan said. “And there’d be a trace smell, at least of the explosives. The air smells fresh, not burnt.”
“That’s a problem,” Hastings said. “If we don’t have a timeline, you can’t check your logs, can you?”
Tyrling nodded as if he’d been expecting this news. “There was a similar case two months ago in Wellden. A warehouse was robbed overnight of a large shipment of weapons headed for the militia armory. The alarm went off the following morning, tampered with and preset. Neither the Wellden police nor the Jhandarmi have had any luck tracking down the culprits.”
“It’s a jump from weapons to medicine,” Caryll said.
“With the current population crisis in some of the city-states, it’s not hard to imagine a war,” Tyrling said.
Titan shook his head. “Our medicine was for pregnant women and the elderly. A few vitamins for the children. None of it would be useful in war.”
“It would be useful in a siege,” Hastings said.
The warehouse fell silent for a moment.
Hastings shrugged. “If someone want to de-seat a ruling authority, having medicines of any kind could win people over.”
“Or it could be as simple as a ransom demand,” Caryll said. “This isn’t helping. We need the security footage from the street and we need to talk to the guards. For a heist like this, the thieves had to know how much there was to steal and what equipment they’d need to lift it. These boxes aren’t light or small.”
“Where were they ordered from?” Tyrling asked.
“The shipment came into port in Clyde River and came by tram.”
“The Jhandarmi will talk with the dock workers and the tram operators, since neither belong to a city-state’s jurisdiction. Detective, I trust you’ll be able to secure the security feeds?”
Hastings nodded. “I have people collecting the independent feeds from shop owners now, along with witness statements.”
“That leaves the guards,” Caryll said, and her eyes glowed a soft white-blue. “Martin Larangi has already arrived at the police station voluntarily. That leaves Eton Prow.” She frowned. “I don’t have an address on record for him.”
Hastings pulled out his tablet and began a search at the same time Titan checked his implant.
“Nothing on record,” Hastings said. “His last known address was condemned last month. He’s listed as migrant.” He grimaced apologetically. “Technically it isn’t illegal. He has another six weeks to register a home of address.”
“Guardian records only have the old address,” Titan reported. “He didn’t inform anyone in fleet that he was moving.”
“I’ll put the word out,” Tyrling said. “The Jhandarmi might be able to uncover something.”
Caryll shook her head. “Prow favors the art district.”
Titan turned to her. “How would you know that?”
“I’ve talked to him before. He took this job so he could spend more time working on his glasswork. He was, at least in his own opinion, becoming very talented. And he was given a standard fleet com, an old JK-37.”
He had to check his implant to find something similar. “That’s an antique.” More than an antique—the last working one in the Sciarra holds had fallen into disrepair before the fleet had separated from the colonists. “It worked for him?”
“Once we modified it with some current grounder tech, yes.” Caryll looked to Tyrling. “I might be able to trace that, but not from here. There’s too many tech baffles downtown. I’ll actually need to walk the grid.”
“Fine,” Tyrling said.
“Unacceptable.” Titan shook his head. “The fleet is on lockdown. We can modify something the police have to search for whatever element Caryll thinks is out there.”
“Um…” Hastings looked confused. “What would we use? How would we do this?”
Caryll pinged him with the sign for annoyance. “They don’t have the tech, Sciarra.”
“We can provide Caryll with a bodyguard,” Hastings said.
“Or the Jhandarmi can,” Tryling said.
“Or,” Caryll said, “you boys can stop making this an ego contest and remember that I’m fully capable of walking down a city street all on my lonesome.”
:There’s been a threat against fleet,: Titan told her. :You shouldn’t be alone.:
:I don’t look fleet,: she replied as she smiled at Tyrling. “Sir, detective, I’ll contact you as soon as I find Prow.”
“We,” Titan corrected. He nodded to the two men. “A pleasure to meet you both.” A quick teleport and he was standing outside the door, waiting for Caryll. :You shouldn’t have done that. It makes the fleet look weak. Divided.:
She did something then that cut him off. No ping. No information streaming. Her shields almost vanished.
Titan frowned, trying to figure out what had happened.
Caryll kept going, weaving past the forensic team with her skirt snapping in the early spring wind.
He fell in behind her and sent her a questioning ping. :Shields?:
“My shield is there, but the art district has a lot of very sensitive pieces of tech meant to detect anyone trying to take illegal photos or make recordings of musicians. A shield on full guard will set it off,” she explained. “And I didn’t divide the fleet any more than it was already fractured. I’m doing my job.”
“Technically, you’re doing my job.”
Caryll led him across the street and into a park where a screen of trees hid the view of the warehouses. “OIA handbook section one-thirty-nine, subsection G.”
The relevant data hit his implant hard. “The OIA land officer shall handle the hiring and firing of civilian employees? I’m not sure that applies.”
“It does.” Caryll stopped in the shade of a large tree out of sight of the police and Jhandarmi. “Your shield is still too loud. Give me your hand.”
Titan held his out so they almost touched. His shield shimmered and even with the Guardian Veil it seemed to vanish, though he knew it was still there. “That’s a nice trick.”
“Don’t try to replicate it, you might explode. And don’t use the glowing eyes outside of here. The grounders will notice.” Her words were tense, agitated, her body language dismissive.
Somewhere, he felt he’d missed a segue. They’d been getting along amiably before the police arrived. Caryll had been almost flirtatious, for Caryll. Now he was apparently an inconvenience. He let his patience slip a little. “I’m going to pretend you said that because you care enough not to want me hurt, and not just because you don’t want to clean up the mess.”
Titan let her enjoy the silence while he sent an update to Carver. “The guardians in Enclave will start making inquiries with the people who have done pick-ups before. And Carver wants to debrief us, the sooner the better. When can I tell him to expect us back?”
Caryll looked unsure for a moment, then shrugged. “Two hours, maybe three?”
“I’ll tell him we have a romantic luncheon planned.” Titan winked at her, just to see what her reaction would be.
It was the same startled silence as before.
He sent her a memory of laughter and the bright blue-green that was the Academy color-code for good fun.
There was the tiniest crinkle at the edge of her eyes. A hint of a smile as she pursed her lips that didn’t reach her eyes. “What would your crew say if they could see you now, Sciarra?” Caryll shook her head as if disappointed, but her smile was genuine.
“That I’m being a perfect gentleman.”
“That has so many meanings in fleet.”
It did, and for a moment he allowed the thought of Caryll naked under him. Or on top, sunlight spilling over her pale skin as her head rolled back in pleasure…
“Titan Sciarra!” Caryll punched his shoulder, not his face, which was an improvement.
But the bright pink blush on her cheeks was not putting his libido in check.
“I’m sorry.” He was, sincerely sorry… at least that she’d caught the spillover of his thoughts.
There was a moment where they were too close, her emotions grazed his mind, touching and leaping off again, leaving cascades of thought in their wake. She’d been stressed in warehouse with so many people around, worried about something going wrong, worried about safety.
“Caryll, you know I wouldn’t let anyone hurt you.”
She stopped walking and stared at him in confusion.
“You were… worried? At the warehouse.” He shook his head as he realized he hadn’t understood her correctly. “You weren’t worried?”
“Not about myself, no.”
None of the thoughts he’d caught from her had expressed concern for the grounders. Which left only him. “You were worried about me?”
Her eyes widened in exasperation. “A little. You’re a high-profile target, easily recognizable, and I don’t know what would happen if you were injured in Tarrin. I can’t even imagine what your crew would say if they saw us keeping company. There are too many variables and too many ways this ends badly.”
“Let me worry about my crew’s gossip.” He took a few long strides to catch up to her. “For now I’ll keep you company, keep my shields up, and make sure your report to Carver won’t include a corpse. Okay? Let me do the worrying. It’s my job. I’m charged with finding ways to make life better for everyone in the fleet. Improve morale.”
Caryll sighed and he could feel her relax just a little. Her tired look became sardonic. “Morale? Does imagining me naked help with that?”
Titan titled his head to the side in an apologetic shrug. “It improved my morale.”
“While crossing the border of decency. What if it made me uncomfortable?”
“Then I’d apologize profusely and scrub those images from my implant’s data bank. But…” he leaned down to whisper in her ear, “it didn’t make you uncomfortable.”
She met his gaze, vivid atmosphere-blue eyes filled with a myriad of emotions. “Anything between us would lead to a fallout of cataclysmic proportions. Your crew would have a fit.”
“I’m not worried about my crew. Only you.” He felt her shields tighten. “Because I’m your guardian today, and my job is to take care of you.”
“Nice recovery, Sciarra.” She tossed her hair over her shoulder and continued toward downtown Tarrin.
He fell into step with her. “Captain, how much trouble am I in and how much groveling do I need to do to get back in your good graces?”
“None,” she said with another cryptic smile. “You were never in my good graces so you, logically, can never fall out.”
“And you’ll forgive the Sciarras as soon as the seas turn red?”
She shrugged, her shields sharing nothing with him. “What’s to forgive? We’ve been at odds since the Empire was still around, and on the opposite sides of two wars. At this point, the matter is settled. We don’t see eye to eye.”
“Our crews didn’t,” Titan corrected. “You and I might.”
“As individuals.” She said it with the tiniest frown, as if she wasn’t sure what she thought of removing them from the safe definitions or crew stereotypes.
Titan was certain how he felt: like he was in free fall. There was a sense of freedom being out of uniform, away from his crew and cohort, alone with Selena Caryll. Or as alone as anyone could get in a city.
If there wasn’t a robbery to deal with, he’d be almost giddy. Although, without the robbery, he wouldn’t have a had this chance. He’d have to thank the thieves when he found them.
Sunlight shot through the branches again, filtering through Caryll’s skirt.
He looked away because it was his job to scan for danger, not because he didn’t enjoy the view. There were a fair number of people walking under the trees and eating lunch at the benches that lined the divide between the warehouse district and the art district.
Gazes followed them, but they weren’t threats, they were looks of admiration.
“Do you have an actual plan for finding Prow, or are you just hoping to catch him out picnicking?” Titan asked.
“The com has telekyen and several other rare minerals. We walk. We scan. We hope we get lucky.”
He chuckled as he adjusted his shields to passively scan for telekyen, a useless practice in Enclave where everything had it, but not here.
The brightly-colored shops had nothing made from the one substance the fleet couldn’t live without. It was a little mind-altering to realize that no one out here but Caryll and himself could manipulate an object with a thought, or teleport, or shield, or share a thought.
Caryll’s focus shifted suddenly to something across road. Grabbing his hand, she pulled him across the cobblestone street to a small art gallery that seemed to specialize in paintings of fountains. “I’ve been meaning to see this showing.”
Titan looked at six rows of nearly identical paintings of a three-tiered fountain surrounded by roses in various shades of pink.
“It’s supposed to be a metaphor for women.” She stopped in front of one and tilted her head to the side. “Although, the red roses look a bit unhealthy if these all represent vaginas.”
His eyebrows went up. “Why did you say that? All I saw was a fountain.”
“But,” she smiled wickedly, “if you look long enough a familiar, yonic shape takes form. Surrounded by rosy buds and gushing forth. The fountain has a nice domed shape, almost like a…”
“Oh. Don’t. No. Gushing?”
“Would you prefer moist, or pulsing?” She was laughing at his discomfort.
Titan shook his head. “You’re a horrible person.” But she was smiling now. Her emotions were melting into her shield again, and it felt wonderful.
“You said you wanted to make me happy.” A pink blush tinted her cheeks as she realized she was emoting again. “Who else was I going to share this with? Genevieve is the only one who would dare come downtown with me and if she knew what this was supposed to represent, she’d buy every canvas and plaster the walls with them.”
A brief vision of Starguard offices covered with vaginal metaphors made him shake his head. “I accept you not buying Silar one of these as a peace offering.”
She lifted a price tag casually. “You know, at these prices, I might want to shock the Starguard more than I want to have peace with you.”
He looked over her shoulder. It was more than he wanted to pay for anything, but Caryll probably had crew funds invested in more ventures than his salary allowed. Although a quick check of his implant didn’t show an official record. If she was living off only the OIA salary, she couldn’t afford a single rose bud, let alone the whole garden.
It was another fact to file away. Caryll was an intriguing puzzle of a person. She’d always seemed comfortable in her own skin. Uninhibited. It was one of the first things he’d ever noticed about her.
The first time he’d seen her in the Academy he’d been struck by the dichotomy she presented; moonlight-blonde hair against the black of her martial arts uniform. She’d always looked so gentle, and yet her skills had marked has as one of the most dangerous people in their cohort.
And now, dressed to blend with the groundsiders, looking sweet and flirtatious, the dichotomy was still there, because in her eyes he saw hardness and deception.
His files on Selena Caryll defined her as a quiet individual with a gift for shield coding and an outstanding shooting record in the Academy. She was supposed to be bland, another face in the fleet, but Titan was beginning to suspect Caryll was hiding more secrets than the Starguard intelligence officers had guessed.
Titan wanted to uncover them all.
Without warning his implant override engaged, bringing up tracking data. Someone carrying small amounts of telekyen was moving down the road one block over.
“That looks promising,” Caryll said. “Ready to go meet Prow?”
“Lead on, captain.”