Fog curled over the hypertram tracks as the steady rain beat a dreary tattoo on the roof. A feeling of alien otherness consumed the station. The walls were stretched too high, the passageways felt too narrow, the people who scurried past with their eyes averted were thin, short, and silent. Titan looked around with a frown. These were the coordinates Caryll has given them in their brief conversation. He was dressed for the mission. But she was missing and he felt like an over-sized idiot.
The timepiece on his wrist was heavy, cold, and useless. The black sweater he was wearing was clinging in the damp air and leaving him chilled not warmed. Caryll didn’t seem like the type to play mind games with him, but is she didn’t appear in the next five minutes he was tossing the tickets in the nearest recycling bin and teleporting back to Enclave.
He turned again, watching the crowds streaming through the main checkpoint and lobby, and his heart stuttered as his other senses flew on high alert.
Cutting through the throng like a shark in the shoals a woman in tight black pants and a silvery-blue shirt rivetted his attention. Her pale, moon-blonde hair was swept up in a sleek ponytail, and even at a distance he saw the dark makeup lining her eyes. She looked up, and his shield cracked open. :Selena.:
:Guardian.: She sliced through the mob of passengers, sleek and lethal, and took the stairs up to the boarding platform as the hypertram pulled in behind him.
Titan held her ticket out. “First-class passenger car, like you asked.” He pinged her with a question mark.
“Thank you.” She watched the slowing tram. :It makes us visible and trackable.:
:I never thought those would be good things.: The face of his watch caught the light of the tram and he noticed it perfectly matched the blue of her shirt. A small smile tugged at the corner of his lip.
Selena turned to him, the bare hint of an answering smile on her lips. “Did you have time to review the data I sent you?”
“I did.” He nodded as the proximity between them allowed their shields to meld. His heart rate dropped to beat time with hers. “Did you bring the identification?”
A whistle sounded and over the station loudspeaker the boarding was announced.
Titan took the lead, and noticed a new weight in his pant’s pocket as he approached the gate. Sliding his hand into the pocket he felt a heavy wallet. :That was a neatly done teleport.:
Selena’s answering thoughts were fuzzy, distracted and tense.
They found their seats near the front of the tram, a comfortable, semi-private booth perfumed by the bright coral flowers in the built-in vase and a lingering scent of rain. Titan let Selena pick her side, back to the front of the train, and sat across from her. “Is everything all right?” Her emotions were swirling just out of reach and he couldn’t gauge her mood.
She pulled on a black jacket cut to emphasize her slender build and shrugged. “I expected things to resolve faster than this. Being used…” Her lips curled in an angry grimace. “I don’t like being played the fool.”
“No one does.”
Another whistle sounded, lower this time, and the doors to the hypertram slammed shut with authoritative finality.
“This should be interesting,” Titan murmured.
Selena’s nose wrinkled in disagreement. “An inefficient waste of time.”
“But remarkably advanced considering what the colonies started with.”
The hypertram slid out of the station, the outside scenery blurring as they raced passed.
Titan put a minor sound shield up, not enough to block out everything, but enough that no one passing by would hear their conversation. “Have you been on one of these before?”
“A few times,” Caryll said, still holding her emotions tight. “We landed in the port outside Tarrin but for a few weeks we were looking at housing some of the crews here in Bellis. The OIA job gave me the right to travel and purchase land and houses, but there was too much push back. The grounders were scared of us, and the fleet was scared of losing its identity.” She shrugged.
“Did you consider taking your crew here?”
The look she gave him was icy. “Briefly. Before they left.”
A memory spilled out over her shield, her fears, and her hopes as she bought apartments for the nearly 600 Carylls who had survived, of seeing a bright future, and then learning they’d betrayed her.
Titan sent thoughts of sympathy mixed with affection. Losing his parents in the war had been hard enough even though they’d been distant in the final years. He couldn’t imagine losing his entire crew.
She scowled at him. “I don’t need your pity.”
“I’m not offering any. I was trying to let you know I understood a bit about betrayal. My last captain tried to kill me, you know.” Neit had been his mother’s little brother, his uncle, and an unholy terror he was happy he helped Elea kill.
“That’s not quite the same.”
“No. Not quite,” he agreed.
A woman wearing a red vest over a pale gold shirt and black slacks stepped beside their seats wearing a name tag that read: JAFFIA.
Titan dropped the sound shield. “Yes?”
“Would you care for a complimentary snack? This tram offers a selection of the finest Bellis food products to all our first-class guests.”
Caryll sent an affirmative signal but didn’t turn away from the window.
“Yes, thank you,” Titan said.
The woman smiled brightly and brought over a basket with the red, black, and gold Bellis flag on it. “Enjoy your morning,” she said.
After putting the sound shield back Titan picked through the food. “Five Winds bramble jam. Five Winds sausage. Five Winds bread. I feel like I’m missing a joke.”
“The Five Winds was the first colonial ship to land on this continent,” Selena said.
“I thought it landed in Tarrin?”
She shrugged and looked over at the food. “Both Tarrin and Bellis claim the ship landed in their borders. Tarrin even has part of it on the north end; they use it as a concert hall. But realistically the ground here is too swampy ten months of the year and it either landed on the beach near Enclave or further north near Kivalina.” Her shields stayed tight.
“I don’t think anyone appreciates how much you gave up when the Persephone was lost.”
“Not lost,” Selena corrected. “Lost would be forgivable. I gave up the Persephone. Intentionally let her crash. All for strangers. If I’d lost her in battle it would have been a tragedy. But giving up? The fleet will never accept that.” She turned her attention back to the window.
He leaned back in his seat. “Do you know what my penance was after the war?”
“I didn’t really expect your captain to make you do anything. She took the command with your help, and you weren’t in the war. Officially.”
“True.” Officially he hadn’t been much of anything. Unofficially he’d been in the first attack on the planet. It was a fact he hoped he’d never need to share with her.
He weighed what to say to her. See how far we have fallen, the forgotten generation, the children of distant stars.
Rowena’s words echoed in his mind, “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.”
Here lies a sailor, enlisted in the Lost Fleet too soon. May their name never be forgotten. Death is their captain now. Death their ever-sure companion. The words to a sailor’s dirge older than the fleet.
If he accepted Rowena’s prediction, there was no point in saying anything else. But…
Under the table he rolled up his left sleeve and ran his thumb down the thick, silver grooves in his skin. He should have died in that crash. His implant had overload and he’d never found an explanation for why the electrical overload ended at his elbow instead of following his nervous system to his brain.
Maybe his ancestors had blessed him. Or maybe Death was a coward. Either way, he wouldn’t be a Sciarra if he was willing to go down without a fight.
Danger to the left, danger to the right, ahead a certain death, and behind a certain fight.
The fleet needed a third option. They needed someone like Selena Caryll, someone who could navigate the city-states and see ways to integrate traditions. She’d had a plan once, and he had a feeling that it was the same plan he needed now.
Which meant he had to win her trust.
He sent out a small pulse along their shared shield, a polite request for attention.
Selena glanced at him, expression disinterested.
“Elea, my aunt and captain, saw being Mal Balaur’s second at the Academy as crime enough. My penance was making a projection of what would have happened in the Balaur attack succeeded. I wrote a 1100-page treatise on why following bad orders is horrible using that information and other historical examples. Every year, on the anniversary of the first battle, I address all the under 20’s in our crew.”
“Sounds horrifying,” Selena said without any emotion.
“It made me suicidal,” Titan admitted. “I realized that if Balaur’s attack had gone as planned, the planet would have been uninhabitable and we would have all died within 37 months. Starvation would have killed anyone who didn’t commit suicide.”
That got her attention. She turned, brow furrowed in confusion as she shook her head. “You don’t know that for sure. Balaur may not have attacked in the end.”
“I saw the battle plans.”
Her eyes narrowed “From the medical ward?”
“Someone I knew had a copy.”
“You can say Rowena. Everyone knows she has the best intel.”
He smiled in comfirmation. “Mal sent her a copy at some point. I think he realized something was off but couldn’t pinpoint what. The Balaur projections assumed the strike would free the orun deposit in the south sea.”
“There’s no math to support that.”
“The older Balaurs were better at intimidating underlings and shouting orders than they were at running figures. But I doubt they did even the basic research. Old Balaur ran on pure ego.” The rot had run deep in that crew, ancestors forgive them. “If you hadn’t given up the Persephone, we’d all be dead,” Titan said quietly. “And I don’t think everyone’s ever thanked you.”
“No,” she admitted. “And I doubt they ever will.”
“Thank you.” He backed the words with a feeling of gratitude and hope.
Selena had accented her high cheekbones with a silvery-blue blush that matched her shirt, and as she blushed the color leaned toward the palest amethyst. She bit her lip, then shook her head. “I wish you wouldn’t thank me. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t hate myself for giving up the Persephone. It was my duty. The best way to save the maximum number of lives. And I hate myself for it.”
“You shouldn’t. It was a risk, but you survived.”
She looked in his eyes, opened enough of a channel to let him feel the weight of the memories she was hiding. There was nothing there but despair. “I didn’t survive. I died with my ship. Lost everything. It took a while for my crew to leave, but they were as good as dead when I went into that battle. I failed them. I failed my parents, my ancestors. There’s nothing left.”
He reached across the table and took her hand. “You think that. I know, I see that memory. But there’s something else there too. The seed of something. From the ashes of defeat come-“
“- the greatest victories.” She finished the quote for him and pulled her hand away. “Platitudes won’t give me the future I want.”
“And, what do you want?” This was where faith kicked in. Part of him knew what she would say because it was what everyone wanted. Part of him was terrified that she’d given up hope like Rowena.
“My ship. A new ship, I suppose. A crew.” She drew in a breath and squared her shoulders. “I want the fleet back. I want to be part of something where I’m respected instead of mocked. I want a fleet that thinks about protecting what we know is left of humanity rather than trying to destroy it with petty in-fighting and ridiculous wars.” She sighed. “It’s impossible. Like asking for the sun, and moon, and stars.”
The last time he’d felt this happy had been the day he’d learned Rowena and Mal weren’t being executed. It felt like the first time he’d flown solo. Or like falling in love. “All right.”
“All right?” Her laugh was sharp and bitter. “All right what?”
“You want the fleet back, so we get the fleet back.”
Selena looked at him like he’d lost his mind. “Is your hull cracked? Did you spend the night breathing in engine fumes?”
“You can’t be serious, Sciarra. Ships aren’t something you wish into existence. You can’t say, ‘Let there be purple unicorns!’ and have them grazing in the park. The fleet is fundamentally broken. If there were a way to fix it, trust me, I would have found a solution. I’ve been obsessing over this since the day I lost the Persephone.”
“No one thought Old Baular could be stopped, but you managed.”
She rolled her eyes and looked back out the window. “There were other ways to stop him. Most of them involved a catastrophic loss of life though. So here we are.”
“Look up real quick.”
Selena looked up into the blue sky where the first few wisps of storm clouds were visible on the horizon. “Am I supposed to be seeing anything?”
“What?” She frowned at Sciarra. “Everyone knows you can’t see the moon during the daytime here. It’s not reflective enough.”
From his data banks he pulled an image of a page from a child’s storybook, a woman drwn all in shades of white, and blue, and silver standing against the gray background between a brown woman and blue man. “Once upon a time, Ground and Sky had a beautiful daughter, pale and fair,” he quoted.
“I know the story! What’s the relevance?”
He sent her twin images, one of the moon in her pale dress standing next to the golden sun, outshone and ghostly. Then the same image of the moon woman standing with the embodiment of night, dark and handsome. “When the moon was with the sun, no one could see her brilliance. She had to move to the night so everyone could appreciate her. The moral of the story always was: one small change can make a big difference.”
Selena twitched an eyebrow up. “I thought the moral was: don’t date abusive people who want to overshadow you.”
“That too.” He leaned forward. “We could work together. Be allies. The Sciarras are still a warmonger crew. Limited privileges. Limited access to the world outside Enclave, but eventually we all know that will fall apart. Either the trapped crews will rebel, or the allied crews will have to bend. Someone has to forgive first.”
Her eyes grew cold. “The other crews are all waiting for me to fold. They’re waiting for me to realize I can’t survive alone so that I’ll come begging for refuge. Take a lower rank. Offer then some priority Caryll tech. Something like that. Pardon me if I’m suspicious that you just are here offering to work with me for free on anything. No strings attached.”
“I have crew and tech. I have respect from most the fleet. What I don’t have is a single person who believes there’s a future for the fleet. Except for you.”
She laughed in surprise. “Me? You think I’m optimistic about our future?”
“You’re still here, despite everything. You still care. The fleet needs that. I need that. Everyone around me is willing to give up without a fight, I won’t, but I can’t do this alone.”
Selena turned to the window, looking more like the Moon in the child’s storybook than she could have imagined. “You’re asking a lot of a stranger.”
“I’m asking a lot of a friend,” Titan said. “But I’ll make it worth it.”
A whistle cut through the sound shield and he realized they were approaching the stop at Tarrin.
With a practiced air Selena erased the conflicted emotions from her face. She turned to him, looking as impassive as stone. “I’ll think about. For now, we have a job to do.”
It wasn’t a NO. He pulled out the wallet she’d given him and checked his identity. “Ti Tan of Descent. I work for the Carrilloni Combine?”
She pulled a business card from her breast pocket. “Selena Carrilloni, tech and medical supplies, at your service.”
“Carrilloni? A variant of Caryll?”
“The name my non-fleet ancestors used when they settled on Descent. The line was dormant, but I was able to resurrect it for business purposes. All it takes is a little bit of money and a genetic scan. Half the fleet probably has claims to titles and properties on the planet.”
“That bit of news does not help me convince everyone that the fleet can stay together.”
Selena leaned forward, for the first time finally engaging with him. “If you learned anything at the Academy, it should have been that we need to circulate our people more. Marshall went head to head with the best the fleet had and burnt our engines hard. Some of the people in Enclave need to step out. They were born fleet, but they weren’t born to be like us. Maybe they’ll be artists, or musicians, or poets, or bankers, but they deserve the choice to not be in the stars. They deserve the chance to choose both, or neither, or some third option we haven’t thought of yet. For that, I’m willing to fight.”
The tram rolled to a stop.
Titan stood and held out a hand for Selena. “Miss Carilloni.”
“Mister Tan.” She took his hand and stood. “Shall we go cause trouble?”
“That would be delightful.”