Rowena slumped in the back corner seat of Cargo Blue with a heavy shield turning the rest of the bar into blue shadows and faint music. All it took was a day and a lockdown to turn a throbbing mess into a quiet chapel of despair and broken dreams.
Titan pushed a plate of fajitas in her direction. “Eat something. You look like you haven’t taken a break all day.
“Look who’s talking.” She hadn’t stopped since 0400 when she’d been called to fix a seal on the environmental system of the Tenshi crew’s Wángzuò and things had gotten worse from there. It was 2200 and she was nursing her first glass of water of the day like it was her last. And Titan looked worse.
He sat across from her, slouched over, arms folded on the table and his chin on top. Half his meal was eaten and the rest was slowly congealing.
“What happened to you?”
“First we have the Jhandarmi with their psych campaign telling us someone is hunting a guardian.” He rolled his eyes. “Then the warehouse was cleared out. I wound up stuck between a local detective and a Jhandarmi regional director, and then our main suspect was found freshly murdered.” With a heavy sigh he closed his eyes. “Murder should be outlawed just for the paperwork it causes.”
She dipped a chip in the accompanying sauce and eyed it dubiously. The chef was trying to cook grounder-style food, but she wasn’t sure they’d picked the right mesh. Orange sauce and corn chips sounded like a bad combination. “Could have been worse.”
“Not by much.”
“I had a broken environmental system, fleetlings to train, and one of the engineers on the Aryton had a nervous breakdown. Top that.”
“Grounders. More grounders. Dead grounders. And two nervous breakdowns from the fleet officer with me. Both panic attacks triggered, at least in part, by me being there.” He sat up with a scowl. “Am I that bad?”
“Bad?” Rowena scowled back at him. “At what?”
He crossed his arms. “Caryll… I’ve made enemies before. But I’ve never run into a situation where I couldn’t get someone to like me. Am I that tainted now? She didn’t even want to be near me.”
Normally she’d applaud rattling someone’s cage, but Titian looked sincerely worried. Reluctantly, she opened her accumulated files on Selena No-Shot Caryll. It was a slight misnomer. Caryll shot at people, but she never killed anyone, just destroyed ships with reckless abandon and no thought to an engineer’s schedule. Rowena’s files on her beyond the damage done were sparse.
She closed her mental file and sighed. “She has no crew. She has no lovers. Of course she freaked out. It wasn’t you. She pulls away from everyone.”
“I’m not a threat to her.”
“Everyone’s a threat to Caryll,” Rowena said. “She has no crew, no support, few friends. Stars above, even the Silars are pushing for her to join their crew. They’ve been trying to give up her rank and name for over a year now. An isolated fleet officer with their back against the wall isn’t someone you approach without caution. Any one of us might attack in that situation.”
Titan frowned and looked away. “She panicked.”
“Really?” Rowena asked skeptically. “Because we’re talking about someone I’ve been face-to-face with during a hull breach and she didn’t bat an eye. We were both shielding and teleporting wounded out, but if I’d made a move, she probably would have had her first kill. I can’t picture her panicking.”
“I triggered a flashback. So did finding the body. Why can’t I fix this?” A jumble of images came with the words. Titan was in a near panic himself just because Caryll had been moody.
She laughed at him. “You can’t fix anything. It’s not your problem.”
He shook his head in frustration. “I’m Titan Sciarra. I’m supposed to be one of the most influential people in Enclave and I can’t even make someone from an allied crew think I’m serious when I make an offer of friendship. What’s that say about me?”
“That you have poor taste in friends.” She pushed the half-eaten meal away.
Titan locked down his shield and looked away.
She nudged his shield and he withdrew even further. “Seriously? Why do you even care what Caryll thinks about you? Why would you-“ She stopped herself. Her fists curled under the table. “Titan,” she said, warning him. It wasn’t easy to beat sense into a Sciarra, but she was willing to try. “You can’t get involved with her. Not emotionally.”
“When at all possible officers should attempt to make allies of all crews in the fleet to promote harmony of thought and unity of action?” She raised an eyebrow. “You’re talking about allying with the Carylls? The Sciarra crew?”
He leaned across the table. “What would happen if the fleet stopped thinking about allied or unallied? If we stopped being warmonger verse Carver’s Allies?”
She mimicked his body language. “Complete. And. Utter. Chaos.”
“The only things that don’t change are dead,” Titan said. “The fleet is stagnant. We’re dying. This could be our way out.”
Rowena stood up. “Go get some sleep, Ty. You’ve lost your mind. There are some choices we can’t come back from. Lines were crossed, and there’s no way to repair them. Even if by some miracle we erased the grudges, we don’t have enough ships to support everyone. We don’t have the orun to fly the ships. The fleet’s been dead for years. The next step is all of us leaving Enclave and becoming grounders. That’s it. That’s the only option other than mass suicide.”
“I refuse to believe that.”
She spread her hands in surrender. “Believe what you want. The writing’s on the hull. If Caryll is half as smart as everyone thought she was, she’s already found a wealthy grounder to cuddle up to.”
Titan looked shocked. “You wouldn’t do that.”
As if she and Caryll had anything in common. “I don’t cuddle,” Rowena said as she tossed a credit on the table to pay for her meal.
Titan looked up at her. “Are you leaving me alone to wallow?”
“I am leaving because I have to be awake in six hours, and you need time to come to your senses.”
He muttered something under his breath.
“What was that?”
Titan shook his head. “Would you back me? If I tried to make us a third choice, would you back me?”
“Of course. Always. For anything. Even the bad ideas.”
He grinned wickedly, pure Sciarra daring. “Even if I pursue Selena Caryll?”
“Watching you stumble into disaster is one of my favorite activities. Right up there with plotting ways to kill Silars and erase Hoshi from existence. You want to chase her, I’ll be right here laughing at you. But it’ll be with love.”
“What happens when I bring her home?”
A few of her spare brain cells fused in panic at the thought. She didn’t have a contingency plan for that. Yet. It was something to add to her to-do list for the morning. “I guess I’d make my peace, if she did. I’m sure there are worse things. The heat death of the universe. The sun going nova.”
“I could bring home a Silar,” Titan said perfectly deadpan.
She shuddered and gagged. “See? We already found a worse option for you.”
Their eyes met and they both laughed.
“Can I walk you home?” Titan asked as he stood up.
“I can get there on my own.”
“Yeah, but I know Hollis Silar has the night off and might wind up here. And I was not joking about the paperwork for a homicide being awful.”
She tilted her head in a shrug. “I could make it look like an accident.”
“How about we let him live. Just one more day?”
Rowena rolled her eyes, dropped the shield, and walked out of Cargo Blue with Titan. Even their jokes about killing the Silars were getting stale. Not that she hated them any less, but it was no longer a fiery rage, but a stony hate. A well-worn path of animosity. A hatred as familiar as the frayed blanket on her bunk and equally comforting.
Gravel skittered in front of them as Titan kicked at the rocks. “What would it take to rebuild the fleet? To get rid of all the hate?”
“Mass amnesia?” she said, only half joking. “We did things…” She let the weight of the memories filter in. “Even under orders, I knew some of those things were wrong. But, in the moment, under orders, with everyone watching?” She shook her head as the fear and fury drained from her again. “If I can barely stomach what I did, how can I expect anyone to forgive me?”
“Carver and his side aren’t innocents.”
“But they weren’t the aggressors. We were.” Her gaze fell to Titan’s left arm where the long sleeves covered the damage he’d taken in their first, foolish attack. “For a lot of us – for me – hating them is the only thing that justifies what happened. As long as I can see them as villains, I don’t hate myself so much for what I did. You’re lucky you don’t have to carry that weight.”
A breeze of the ocean brought the smell of brine.
They followed it, winding their way between the forest of landing gear, and the scent of ozone and rust.
Titan stopped at the edge of the Lee shield and looked up at the stars.
Up above she could identify three easily-visible wrecks, and beyond that a stretch of stars that had once been the Lee homeworld. “See how far we have fallen, the forgotten generation, the children of distant stars,” she quoted the old poem.
“See how far we will travel, the rising generation, the ancestors of a million tomorrows,” Titan said.
“That’s not in the original poem.”
“I don’t care. It’s time to write a new line, reclaim the stars, create a new future for ourselves. I’m going to. Tomorrow, I’m going to broker peace between the Sciarras and Carylls.”
Rowena smiled sadly. “What would you do for an encore?”
“I have no idea. But I’ll think of something.” He leaned over and bumped his forehead against hers, something he’d learned from Mal as a kid. “Good night.”
“ ‘night.” She watched him walk into the darkness before teleporting the ramp for the Danielle Marie. There was no night watch posted, Hoshi said the shield would hold.
Hoshi didn’t know what a real attack looked like.
Until the Landing Hoshi had been commander of the Alessandra Giliani, a cargo vessel that sat docked in the Danielle Marie’s smallest hold. He’s only job had been keeping critical components out of the hands of their enemies. Something he’d done by selling to minor neutral crews in exchange for luxury items.
In a fair universe, Hoshi would have been spaced years ago. Instead she was sneaking into her ship trying to avoid questions about why she was coming in so close to curfew.
She ran a hand along the inner plate of the ramp, a scarred section broken by energy lance fire and repaired in a rush. Back then she’d run on pure terror. Slowing down meant watching her ship dissolve around her under the barrage. Running too fast got her reprimanded for trying to overshadow her elders, her cousins, everyone who was supposed to get lauds and honor before her.
It had been terrifying, but easy. She’d never had to think too far ahead. Never planned for anything because they would win or die. Losing, facing life without the engines on, that wasn’t supposed to happen.
Quick, light steps running along the metal corridors made her turn.
Her cousin Lotus turned the corner, long black braids whipping behind her. “Rowena! I’ve been all over the ship looking for you!” Her face was flushed and the pulse in her neck racing.
“Why didn’t you ping me?”
“I wanted to keep it quiet. Not disrupt anyone…” Lotus let the sentence drift away. “We need you in the medical ward.”
Rowena took a deep breath. “Is it the sterilizer again? I can put it on the top of the list for my morning repairs.”
“It’s Aronia.” Lotus pressed her lips together as if swallowing a sob. “She’s… there’s problems with the baby. We need to get the neonatal machines running. Now.”
Before Lotus finished Rowena had teleported straight to the medical bay. Aronia was the only immediate family she had left. She’d fought the war to ensure Nia never had another miscarriage, done everything she could to protect her big sister from the tragedies they faced. She wasn’t going to let one stupid, faulty machine take away her sister’s happiness again.