Sleep evaded Selena like a fighter jet dodging her kill shot. The metaphor was all too apt.
Adding pillows, changing the blankets, nothing settled her. A part of her was subconsciously seeking for the one thing she was forced to live without. Other discomforts had been a choice. She’d given up the Persephone. She’d chose to live outside Enclave. She had consciously decided to cut herself off from contact with the fleet on an emotional level.
But her implant constantly pinged the ether seeking a connection, searching for her missing crew.
After years of the program running dormant and forgotten, it was awake and seeking. Desperately searching for the connection she’d had earlier.
The absence of Titan Sciarra burned like a phantom limb.
Being near him, shields melding, surface thoughts blending with hers… She stared at the ceiling. It had been like finding oxygen again after drowning. Every day since her crew left she’d spent surviving. Limping along.
Today she’d been alive again. Fully aware and awake in a way she hadn’t been in years.
She turned over on her bed, cheeks burning in the darkness. It wasn’t sexual, not entirely. Sciarra was a temptation. If she were a little bolder, if she wasn’t certain the fallout would kill her, she’d rake the risk.
But it wasn’t sexual frustration keeping her awake. IT was the full contact that went past physical, became almost metaphysical. If there were such a thing as souls, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to believe there was life after death, than being connected to crew was spiritual. Being able to experience another person’s thoughts, to know where they were, to beg them for comfort from the nightmares… it was a drug. Before the war she’d never thought of it that way, but once she lost them all, when her crew’s implants cut her off as they left her, then she’d understood what held the fleet together.
It was sheer stubbornness that had kept her alive after she’d been viciously cut off.
The mental anguish had crushed her. She’d lost weeks broken and sobbing, and fought for every millimeter of recovery. And in one day Titan Sciarra had ripped her scars open leaving her bare and shaking.
Their shields had synched. For a few glorious hours she’d felt whole. Now, her implant searched, reaching out for the connection again. And she had to stop it. Had to break down the program and force herself to swallow the pain.
Almost unconsciously she reached out with a thought and tugged at the telekyen handle of her drawer. The knife she wanted floated in the air, the tantalizing promise of relief.
Carver hadn’t realized the temptation he’d handed her when he gifted her the obsidian knife. One for each of his best fighters: Gen, Marshall, Hollis, and her. The others took them as trophies. She could only picture cutting a long slit in her forearms and watching the blood run out, carrying away her pain.
The sheathed knife spun, the hilt catching the moonlight pouring through the window.
It would be so easy…
With a heavy sigh she threw the knife against the far wall, letting it sink hilt deep next to the other marks from the other nights death had tempted her.
She wasn’t going to sleep. But she could distract herself.
In the room filled with shadows and weak light she dressed and teleported to the Jhandarmi offices. There were several days’ worth of security footage to watch and the sooner she closed this case, the better.
Tyrling found her there as the sun crept into the sky. “Is this an early morning or a late night?”
“Yes?” Selena guessed as she loaded the footage of the street taken by a bodega four buildings down from the warehouse.
“Lots of questionable clothing choices, two cases of indecent exposure, and one person who looked out of place but it turned out to be me.” She couldn’t even force a smile. “I’m not sure how they got in, but this one should have better angles.”
Tyrling grunted in encouragement. “I know you’re riveted to the street-style show here, but I’d like to tear you away for a few minutes.”
Selena looked up, and then glanced over her shoulder where a women with intricate braids and dark brown fauxhawk was watching with an expression of disdain. Her implant measured the curve of the stranger’s jacket, her shoes, the hue of the dye… it matched an outfit sold exclusively on the continent of Descent, which meant the woman was either well-traveled in grounder terms, or from the Jhandarmi home office in Chakari.
Tyrling stepped aside, giving her room to stand.
“Of course. I have all the time in the world.”
“Agent Caryll allow me to introduce Miss Elsa Hartley from the information division.”
“Miss Hartley.” Selena nodded politely to the frosty woman and felt the keen absence of augmentation. Grounder customs were so clunky. They’d spend a whole conversation dancing around introductions and social niceties when all they needed was an info packet of relevant data bounced off someone’s shield in picoseconds.
Hartley returned the nod, but held fast to her briefcase, refusing to offer to shake hands. “Do you have somewhere quiet we could discuss this matter, director?” The way she said quiet suggested secure.
Tyrling led the way to a soundproof room at the center of the building. Windowless, with thick walls and a security screen it was the most secure location in the building aside from the lockdown rooms in the subbasement.
Even having grown up on a spaceship the room made Selena feel claustrophobic. There was something about the silence, the way the room absorbed sound so every voice became thin and reedy, that made her shiver.
“We found the cause of the break-in,” Tyrling said.
Hartley wrinkled her nose.
He shrugged. “The motivation for the break-in and the delayed report,” Tyrling corrected. “All three major task forces were mobilized yesterday. It was the first time we had to do inter-agency checks and someone took advantage of that.”
“An unknown individual called the Jhandarmi home office at 1751 local time requesting a full list of operatives who graduated from the training house at the global complex in Royan. The individual presented the credentials of a Tarrin police sergeant, and the information was released. The sergeant was reported missing this morning. He’d been attacked and unconscious since yesterday morning.”
Selena sucked air in through her teeth. “That’s bold. How much information did they get?”
“The names and faces of every graduate from the training house in a four year period,” Tyrling said. “Which means they have the majority of our undercover operatives unmasked.”
Hartley placed her briefcase on the table. “The information we sent out was sanitized, but there are several ways it could be used.”
“Sold to the highest bidder?” Selena guessed. “If someone staged this for profit, that would be the best way to make money. Unless they’re targeting a single individual.”
From the briefcase Hartley pulled several pages of photos and basic ident: initials, assigned continent, major skill set. “These are the agents we believe are the high risk targets. All assigned to Icedell and embedded with major crime syndicates. We’re doing our best to pull them in. The ones in Tarrin were rounded up and arrested with other criminals on false charges in the early hours of the morning. Until we know their covers are intact, we’re keeping them in isolation cells.”
“The problem is we don’t know where the information is,” Tyrling said. “Or who has it. Or why. And we can’t send the Jhandarmi in.”
“There’s the Tarrin police,” Selena said. “Are they offering any assistance?”
Tyrling and Hartley exchanged a look.
“We’re not ready to discuss all of our undercover operations with the police at this time,” Hartley said. “Not if we can handle the matter internally.”
Selena raised an eyebrow.
Tyrling grimaced as he acknowledged her silent assumption. “You aren’t on any of the lists. You know the city. You could move through the underground with the identity you’ve already established.”
“We’d like someone to move around the art district today,” Hartley said. “Stir up some dust.”
“Look for trouble,” Selena said. “I can do that.”
Hartley nodded and a slim smile spread across her lips. “Excellent. Director Tyrling will brief you. Director, I’ll wait for you in your office.” She repacked her briefcase and stepped outside.
The door clicked shut ominously behind her.
Selena took a deep breath. “This isn’t the same as luring an art thief out. I’ve never worked with violent criminals.”
“You fought in a war.”
“I survived, almost. There’s a difference.”
“Can you do it?” Tyrling asked. “I wouldn’t ask if I had other options. The longer the information is out there, the more likely it becomes that one of my agents will die out there. We still have two we can’t bring in. Jalisa Tam and Kristoff Sands.”
Jalisa had been the one who helped her establish her under cover identity. Selena bit her lip and looked away. Leaving Jalisa and Sands out there… “Okay. What do you need?”
“Remember the business you were trying to create when we recruited you?”
“You legitimized it, didn’t you?”
“It’s legal, but I never did anything with it.”
“Today, you’re going to come to Tarrin and shop for territory.”
Selena raised her eyebrows. The grounders didn’t use that term lightly, it meant actively declaring she was in the area, with a business, ready to compete with the established business in the area. “That’s going to draw attention.”
“And fire.” Tyrling pulled up a map of the city-states. “The hypertram from Bellis leaves in ninety minute to arrive here midmorning. I need you on it, with a ticket and a background that people can check. Dressed like you have money and weapons.”
“I suppose just letting me shop is out of the question? I can do surveillance while shopping.”
He smiled sympathetically and shook his head. “Shopping for art won’t stir up trouble. Shopping for a troubleshooter will.” He pulled up a map of the district. “See the yellow zones?”
“Yes.” Small blotches between buildings. “Dead zones?”
“Exactly,” Tyrling said. “There’s no security feed covering those areas because of art, or signs, or sometimes just poor planning. The security system hasn’t been updated in decades and everyone knows. We let it stay that way because, usually, we can have someone down there monitoring the blind spots if we think something might happen. Today we can’t. But we know Kaffton likes his dead drops. My bet is he’ll use one of these.”
“If he’s the one reaching out to sell the data.”
Tyrling shrugged in acknowledgment. “Even identifying who is crawling out of the shadows with the Jhandarmi locked down will help.”
“Anything else, sir?”
“Yes.” His semi-permanent frown returned. “We need to manage the fleet.” His expression was conflicted. “It’s likely that there is no direct threat to the fleet or the Star Guard.”
It was Selena’s turn to frown. “Really? We know hitters were hired.”
“If Enclave hadn’t been on lockdown, how would they have handled the break-in?”
“By sending the guardians.” And not allowing the Jhandarmi or police to help. If the thief’s goal had been the Jhandarmi data, they couldn’t allow the guardians to handle everything alone.
Tyrling nodded. “Exactly. The only way to get everyone down there and get political posturing so the list could be accessed was to keep the fleet out of it. But, if we tell them…”
“… then they change their behavior and everyone realizes we’re on to them,” Selena finished for him with a sigh. Lockdown made everyone antsy, but better to have them feeling claustrophobic than have two Jhandarmi officers brutally killed. “Carver can keep a secret, and he needs to know.”
“How many layers do I need to go through to get to Carver?” Her boss’s voice was loaded with cynicism.
“None. I’ll handle him.” She gave him a casual, Jhandarmi salute, two fingers touching her temple. “I’ll contact you as soon as I have something.”
He held up a hand. “Teleport outside, please. If people walk in and never walk out of this room, other people ask questions.”
“Of course. I won’t scare the locals.” She left the office, taking the stairs to the ground floor and stepping outside. A small bird bath marked the one area out of sight of the cameras, and she teleported from there directly to the OIA building.
In a perfect world, she’d have time to change into a uniform, but there wasn’t time to get in that, find Carver and Hollis Silar, change back into clothes for the mission, and reach the hypertram station on time.
The guardians would have to deal with being scandalized.
This time though, she could take the lift. She crossed through the empty offices where she was supposed to work, brushed the dust off the lift’s buttons, and stepped inside. The lift smelled of lime soap and disuse.
From the speakers an off-key song played, but even her implant couldn’t name the singer. From the accent and lyrics she couldn’t tell which crew it was, or if the singer was fleet at all. It was entirely possible the sound system was playing a song from when the space port was still an active port.
The lift dinged, and she stepped out from the calming blue glow of transit to the false-daylight and low ceilings of the subterranean lair the Star Guard had claimed as their own after Landing. She tugged at the edge of her jacket, made sure her knife was well-hidden, and put up her shield banner.
CPT SELENA CARYLL – OIA – ON DUTY
:Selena?: Hollis Silar’s familiar code connected with her implant almost instantaneously. :What’s up?:
She focused on his location and teleported several halls over. “Hi, Hollis,” she said as she fell into step.
He was leaving the main atrium, taking the wide stairs three at a time without noticing, and looking more than a little tired.
Hollis chuckled sourly. “The worst. Tonight it was nightmares about a hull breach.”
“You?” He’d never once mentioned having trouble sleeping. At least not to her. And despite her disinterest in his romantic overtures it felt like something he would have shared.
“Amira’s,” he said, sending her a picture of an angelic little girl with strawberry-blonde hair and the familiar golden-brown Silar eyes. “She’s my second-cousin-twice-removed’s third aunt’s godchild’s great-niece, and I pulled family duty two nights in a row.”
Family duty… on a working ship someone had to take care of the kids, and losing good people to fulltime child rearing hadn’t always been an option. So the crew took turns being the caregiver. The closer a person was related to the child, the more hours they worked. The more distant relatives wound up with other chores, like sitting up once a year with a colicky baby, or tutoring a slow learner.
“It’s been a long time since I did that.” Years. Maybe she could find a crew who needed an extra adult to play with kids for an hour or two.
“I have it once a year, at least until Perrin and Gen finally do something official and give me a proper nibling. But somehow I managed to get the five-month old twins who were teething one night, and Amira’s night terrors the next. And now I’m on my way to go train eager little fleetlings hand-to-hand combat.” He yawned.
That blew her plan right out of orbit. There weren’t many guardians who were trained for the kind of work she was doing, and the thought of another day in close company with Sciarra made her heart race in terror.
She slowed to a stop, pulling on Hollis’s arm. “Could you find someone else to do the training? I need a guardian for something this morning.”
Hollis’s smile was sleepy and somehow still wickedly suggestive. “Selena, beautiful, you know I’d love nothing more to let you whisk me away for anything you want to do.”
“It would be work,” she clarified, crossing her arms.
He shrugged, still smiling. “Still. You’re one of my top…” he paused to count, “… top six favorite women in the fleet. You know I’d do anything for you if I could.”
“Ouch, I’m only number six?”
“Well, my mom, Gen is my sister, my cousin Tersa, Marshall of course because one day I can pretend she’ll fall in love with me, my auntie Lottie, and you.”
“I thought you hated your aunt Lottie.”
“I’m a complex person,” Hollis said with a look of complete innocence that meant he was lying about Lottie.
Who he was pining for was a mystery for another day. Selena widened her eyes and tried to look innocent and pathetic. “Please? For me? Couldn’t someone else do the training today? Like… Sciarra?”
“Nice try,” Hollis said, “he had them for the last unit. It’s my turn.”
“In meetings all morning starting in about twenty minutes.”
“Handling crew issues.”
She tried to think of another guardian who was good at hand-to-hand. It wasn’t really a well-developed skill for most the fleet. There was too many variables – from the shields to the maneuvers – and most of the fleet preferred simply shooting their enemies. “Marta Kriswolden?”
“Sprained wrist from training, she’s on profile for another week.”
“A non-guardian? There’s some decent fighters out there. Gen could do it even.”
“She took over Amira when I left.”
“Mars Sciarra?” Titan’s younger cousin was growing up to be quite gifted and she’d heard rumors about him already.
Hollis winced. “He’s a year younger than some of the students. He’d probably be fine, but it would be politically awkward.”
“Eight months pregnant!”
She’d forgotten that. Which left… “Rowena Lee?”
Hollis tilted his head in speculation.
“She can throw a punch,” Selena said. “And block. I’ll vouch for that. Please, Hollis? I’m on a tight deadline here and I need someone who can leave now. I will sign whatever paperwork you need to get her here.”
He sighed. “You have no idea how much I’d love to take you up on that.”
“I hear a but coming.”
Hollis grimaced as he nodded. “Even if we thought Hoshi Lee would let Rowena come work with us, which I don’t think is likely, and even if Rowena agreed to help the guardians, which is also unlikely, it takes at least two weeks to process everything and get all the signatures.”
“I love your enthusiasm for having me all to yourself.”
The urge to punch him was really overwhelming, and she hoped her glare made that clear.
“If you need a guardian, you can have Sciarra.”
“I don’t want Sciarra.”
Hollis started walking again. “Come on, give him a chance, Selena. He’s a cute guy. Nice muscles. Pretty eyes.”
“Do you want Sciarra?”
He shrugged. “I’m game as long as there’s a pretty smile, but I’m not his type.”
“Neither am I. We had to spend time together yesterday and it was… tense.” Terrifying. Soul-crushing. All-consuming. Addictive.
Titan Sciarra was so many things and all of them spelled trouble for her. He made her crave all the familiar comforts and closeness of fleet she’d never have again. It was like begging depression to come and destroy her.
Hollis’s expression darkened, taking on a lean, dangerous look. “Did he threaten you?” His voice was calm, but promised certain death if she gave the nod.
“He was an exemplary guardian and his behavior was beyond reproach.” Aside from the out of character flirting. “But I didn’t enjoy being with him.”
“Your other options are Trimo, Geer, and or one of the Wens,” Hollis said.
None of them could keep up. Most of them couldn’t even teleport to Bellis without needing an hour’s nap and some fluids. “Fine,” she said through gritted teeth. “I’ll take Sciarra. But I won’t like it!”
“I’ll go grab him.”
“I need to talk to Carver too!” she said as Hollis sped up.
“Got it.” He leaned over, probably to leave a kiss on her head, but her shield kept him a hand’s width out. “I feel unloved.”
She crossed her arms. “Focus, Silar.”
He smiled. “Right. I’ll go get those men for you.” He winked and teleported out of range before she could retort.
The jury was out on whether Hollis would wind up being a freelance lover for the rest of his life or if someone would lock him down. It would have to be someone very intense, Selena decided. Someone who could see past the flirtatious smiles to the tactical mind he hid so well.
And someone with a lot more patience than her.
Ancestors help them.
As she walked to the conference room she checked the time, fifty-two minutes until the shops opened. Carver better not dawdle, or she’d be spending the rest of the day on the battlefield with no backup.