The art district was a colorful beehive of hexagonal plazas with statuary of various kinds on the display in the center. Once upon a time there was probably a theme behind the displayed art and the shops. The statue of a maiden holding a rose could have represented the classics, and the rearing horse could have been a sign that cat sculptures were nearby.

Whatever the original plan had been the art district was now a microcosm of civilization, an eclectic mix of legal businesses, illegal enterprises, food shops, and housing that moved against the background of a musician playing a haunting melody on a dulcimer.

The spring wind knocked pale pink blossoms to the ground and Sciarra sent her a flash image of her framed by the falling petals.

Selena shot him a quelling glare, but stored the image in her implant. It had been a long time since she’d felt beautiful, and even longer since someone she trusted told her she was. Sciarra undoubtedly wanted something. The fleet economy was built on barter, but for the moment she didn’t let it bother her. Their quarry was up ahead, winding through the narrower streets lined with makeshift apartments, and her way was clear.

Prow’s signal vanished.

“What happened?” Sciarra asked.

“He probably crossed into the boundary of another tech baffle. They’re woven throughout the area so no one can teleport in and out with ease. It was the one thing the Tarrins insisted we do before Landing.”

Sciarra followed her out of a plaza with the statue of a winged lizard and into an alley. “Were they that concerned we’d steal something?”

“Invade their homes, rob their banks, desecrate their holy places. The grounders have a long history of seeing the fleet as savages. In most their literature we’re slavers and pirates.”

“That’s awful.”

“It’s why Tarrin let us land. Their city was built be colonists who mutinied en route and landed without permission. It’s a point of pride for them.” She walked slowly, dragging her hand across the daub and stone walls of the older buildings. Beneath the surface she could feel the metal bones of a ship that had been stripped for parts to build this place.

By bouncing a signal through the building she could get an impression of how many people were moving inside. Not many right now. It was mid-day and even the most reclusive introvert in Tarrin would venture out to find a quick meal from a street vendor. Half the apartments didn’t have running water, let alone electricity to preserve food.

Her scan caught the presence of telekyen.

Selena looked over at Sciarra. “Do you read that? Upper southwest corner?”

Sciarra closed his eyes. “One level from the top, a minute amount of telekyen. Small enough to be a comm or a weapon.”

“Do we want to call him, or just drop in?” There wasn’t movement in the apartment that she could sense, but there was a heat signature.

“I prefer the element of surprise.” Sciarra stepped in front of her, opening the door and heading for the stairs.

Selena was about to object, but that would lead to an argument. Trained guardian verse trained undercover Jhandarmi. Life would be so much easier if she knew the fleet would accept the joint operation. Or even entertain the slim possibility of a joint operation.

The inner walls of Prow’s building were constructed of weathered cyprus wood, aged, but still smelling faintly of the brakish waters found east and west of Tarrin. Other smells where there too: sweat, garlic, a sharp scent of cheap cleaning products.

“If this were a ship I’d give them a new environmental system,” Selena muttered. “I wouldn’t even trade for it, just gift it.”

“If you have one lying around, I know a ship that could use one,” Sciarra said as he walked up the warped and creaking stairs.

“I don’t have on in port, but two of my ships have undamaged environmental systems in orbit. I could teleport up and get one if I need them.” Her poor Pomona and Anhur wouldn’t be able to handle the stress of flying through Malik V’s dense atmosphere, but the ships were there still hers even if they were only good for salvage.

Sciarra’s shield bumped against hers, fusing into it again his emotions and surface thoughts became like a second line of her own thoughts. He was worried about her, and feeling more protective than he had a right to. Even as a guardian.

Gently, she pushed his thoughts away, mentally imagining them like a translucent bubble that she could blow away.

“I’m fine.”

“You already had one flashback today.”

“I was finding my balance,” she grumbled, refusing to think of where her misstep had led. She’d fallen into Sciarra, literally, and it was as confusing as it was revelatory. She’d forgotten how wonderful it felt to be cared about, to have the constant mental touch of a crew member.

Borrowed crew member.

Warmonger, she told herself sternly, trying to push Sciarra back under his assigned label. Sciarras and Carylls weren’t meant to be allies.

She bumped into him, not realizing he’d stopped.

His green eyes were bright, even in the shadows of the poorly lit hallway. “If Prow turns violent-”

“I can handle myself,” Selena promised. “I don’t like killing, and I hope I never have to kill. I know it changes people. But, if it comes to that, I can. Shields are prepped, and I think I could punch a hole in the baffle if we need to teleport. Hopefully, Prow will remember we represent his employers and remember how much he likes the generous salary we offer him.”

“That would be nice,” Sciarra said. “But if he doesn’t, your top priority is teleporting back to Enclave.”

That wasn’t going to happen, but she buried the thought deep. Tyrling’s informants were very good at their jobs. If they said that one of the guardians was being targeted she was willing to believe it.

Sciarra held out his hand, scanning the building and nodded to the second door on the right. The weathered green paint was peeling and if there had been a number before it was gone now.

Selena leaned passed Sciarra and knocked.

The door fell open with a squeak.

“No lock?” Sciarra touched the doorframe. “It’s not damaged.”

“I thought I picked up a body when I scanned earlier, but maybe he’s out? Or he forgot to lock it before he fell asleep?” The crime in the art district was usually limited to theft from the shops or an occasional pickpocket, no one in these buildings had anything worth stealing.

With a sigh, she knocked on the open door. “Prow?” she called into the dark room. “It’s Selena. I’ve brought a friend. I wanted to check on you. Prow?”

There was silence ahead.

She stepped into the apartment, little more than square with thin, lacquered walls subdividing the small space even further. Sunlight peeked through a dirty window covered by a heavy, black curtain and fell out around the edges. “The com is here. Look in the back room.”

Sciarra nodded and turned left.

There was a smell to the apartment that was off. A sour, bilious smell. She pulled the curtain open and looked at the worn furnishings, an oblong cloth sack overstuffed, and only vaguely couch-like, a turned-over metal crate for a table.

“Captain,” Sciarra’s voice from the back room was tense, and his shield was blocking his emotions.

“What’s wrong?” :Are you all right?: she asked on a tight beam.

:You need to stay out there.:

She teleported across the apartment to stand behind Sciarra.

Prow lay on the floor, a seeping pool of blood under his head, a shocked expression on his haggard face.

Her breath caught in unexpected terror.

Sciarra’s reaction was to step in front of her and flood her with a sense of peace, his versions of happy memories bombarded her. Faces, snippets of music, pictures of roses…

“Please stop.” She gave him a mental shove. “Step out while I scan the body.”

“Why? He’s very obviously dead.”

A pale blue light fell from her fingertips. “For explosives. Someone must have sanitized the reports you saw.” She didn’t want to, but the memory of her mother’s lifeless body returned.

Her fighter had been attacked and the Balaurs agreed to return the prisoners in life pods if the Carylls agreed to pull back. Selena wasn’t sure if her mother had been alive when her fighter was captured, but the Balaurs put her in the life pod dead, and booby trapped.

Sciarra’s hand wrapped around her forearm. “Stop.”

“I need to do a secondary scan.”

“You need to stop and ground yourself.” He stepped between her and the body again. “Look at me. You’re shaking. Your heart is racing.”

It was. The sense of panic never seemed to go away no matter what she did to distance herself from the war.

Sciarra stepped closer, trying to physically block out the light and sounds of the building. “Look at me. Listen to me, name five things you see right now.”

“Green eyes. Black hair. White shirt. Yellow wall.” She looked up. “Yellow-ish ceiling? That’s a terrible color.”

Sciarra ran a soothing hand over her back. “There. Do you feel more in the here-and-now now?”

“Yes.” But another thought invaded. :Stay here I need to find the comm.:

Her scans put it somewhere in the kitchen area, although calling it a kitchen was generous. The room that shared a half wall with the entry area had a shallow sink, a shelf, and a small washing unit for clothes, and drawers. She checked them all until she found the black, palm-sized com unit issued to Prow.

Laying the com unit on the ground she made a fist, focusing and connecting to the com unit, and then opened her hand wide.

The pieces of the com unit flew apart, every individual piece hanging in the air was if caught in time. One piece didn’t belong. Selena plucked it from the air and shielded it, then let the com until fall back together.

“Impressive control,” Sciarra said. “What did you find?”

“A listening device.” Selena held about the round, red piece for him to view. “It’s not a style I recognize, but the Jhandarmi might. Prow is freshly dead. I scanned him walking not ten minutes ago.”

Sciarra frowned. “I scanned telekyen, and enough to be a com unit, but we don’t know that was Prow.”

“Who else would it be?”

“I don’t know, but Prow is already cooling. I think he’s been dead more than ten minutes, and we didn’t pass anyone on the stairs coming in.”

She frowned. “We need to call Hastings. Poor man. I’m going to need to buy him flowers to apologize for all the extra work the fleet is asking him to do.”

“Maybe you could buy him some roses.” Sciarra winked at her.

Despite the stress, she giggled. “I don’t think he’d appreciate that.”

“There’s no accounting for taste,” Sciarra said with mock condescension. “Give him a call, I’ll start looking over the body.” He was just a little closer than he needed to be, close enough that when he reached out to touch her cheek she didn’t have time to pull away. “Do I need to take you back to Enclave first? I can call Lieutenant Silar and have her meet us at the OIA building if you need someone. Two triggering events in a day isn’t healthy.”

She let his hand linger on her for a moment longer before touching his wrist and pulling him away. “I’ll be fine. This is an unusual series of events on an emotional anniversary. But I want to be here. I knew Prow. I want to help catch his killer. If I leave now… If I leave now than I really am the coward everyone thinks I am.”

“It isn’t cowardice to let other competent people do the job when you feel emotionally compromised. It isn’t dereliction of duty to take care of your mental health.” He reinforced his words with a sense of acceptance, a silent way of saying he would support her either way.

It was unprofessional to let someone support her this much, but she allowed the connection between their shields and their thoughts to grow.

:It isn’t unprofessional,: Sciarra said. :A guardian is meant to protect a captain when they’re away from their crew. This is exactly what I’m meant to do. And it’s what friends do.:

Regret twisted like a knife. FRIEND. What a bloody, dishonest word. She closed her eyes, hiding her pain from Sciarra. Hiding the hurt of a thousand betrayals and the terrible regrets she’d built her life on.

Turning him away was the easy way out. It was what she’d done with everyone, a stalling tactic that gave her room to heal. Or for wounds to fester. She knew that she couldn’t stand outside both the fleet and the grounders forever, but reentry was going to suck.

She gave his wrist a squeeze and let go. “Thank you, guardian.”

“You’re welcome, captain.”


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