BODIES IN MOTION: Chapter 21 (Part 3)

ROWENA

Start at Chapter 1

The coordinates landed Rowena on a grassy hill, under the shade of a pagoda covered in vining plants. It was out of sight of the city cameras, windows, and pedestrians. She patted the knife in her pocket for comfort. After this was over she’d have to find a way to get it back to Silar. It had a good weight to it. She could throw it at his head.

In Cargo Blue while he was drinking would be the best time.

If she could get it to smack into the wall right by his head, that’d be perfect.

Grinning, she headed down to the Jhandarmi offices. She’d never studied architecture, but the white column against the mirrored glass and silver dome was pretty if not functional. There was undoubtedly some long and storied history that the mudders – she caught herself – that the grounders liked.

“Grounders. Ground-siders,” she whispered under her breath. “They are people. I will treat them like people. Even if they are people who don’t like engines.” Highly suspicious that. Who didn’t like the comforting sound of an engine to fall asleep to?

The broad double-doors slid open as she approached and the fresh air smelling of grass clippings was replaced by a rush of chilled office air. The Jhandarmi needed a new filter for their air cycler. And, possibly, soap.

A young woman with brown hair pinned in rosettes at her nape smiled from behind a desk as Rowena walked in. “Good morning, ma’am. May I help you?”

Rowena bit back the need to correct her. Yeoman was an enlisted rank, she wasn’t Ma’am any more. But, according to her implant, the ground-siders sometimes used it as a respectful title for someone they didn’t know. “I’m looking for Guardian Sciarra from Enclave. I’ve reason to believe he’s here working with the Jhandarmi on a case.”

The woman smiled brightly. “Of course, ma’am. If you’ll sign in here.” She held up a tablet. “And I’ll get you a badge. The join offices are on the fifth floor.”

Rowena took the round badge and pinned it to her shirt. “Do you have stairs?”

“The lift is around the corner on the left,” the woman said. “If you have any trouble, come back to my desk and I can take you through the worker’s entrance. The lift is supposed to be fixed though.”

She nodded. The building felt strange, overgrown almost. The ceilings were too high and the halls too wide. Unless they planned on running a regiment through here, they were wasting space.

Around the corner was a bank of silver doors.

Rowena stepped in front of one and tried to trigger it with her implant. There was no data receiver and no telekyn in the doors. “Fifth floor,” she said.

The doors remained inert.

“It’s a push button one,” said a voice behind her.

She looked over her shoulder at a bullish, bald man who her implant hadn’t been able to find because of his lack of telekyen. Her first real grounder. She blinked.

“Tyrling,” he said reaching out and hitting a small, rectangular button. “From Marjori, originally.”

“Rowena Lee off the Danielle Marie,” she said. “Are you going up?”

“I am indeed.” He placed his hand over the open door as she stepped inside, then followed.

“Fifth floor, please.”

Tyrling nodded and pressed a button on a panel. “Danielle Marie, famous scientist from the start of the space age, wasn’t she?”

“Yes.”

He nodded as the lift ascended quietly. “You here on business?”

“Trying to contact someone from Enclave who is working on the theft of fleet property.”

His head bobbed again. “I know that case. Are they expecting you?”

“No, but I needed to get the information I came across promptly.” That seemed like a safe answer. It justified her presence without giving too much away.

The bullish man smiled. “Excellent to hear. The Jhandarmi appreciate fleet support. I’m Tryling, by the way. Director Tyrling.” The lift chimed and the doors slid open.  He motioned for her to proceed. “One of my best field agents is on that. I’ll send her your way. Can I persuade you to take a seat in our conference room?”

“That would be agreeable.”

Tyrling led her to a small room with frosted glass walls and a thick sliding glass door. “Just here, if you don’t mind. It won’t be but a moment.”

Rowena glanced around as she walked in took a seat. At the far end of the hall there was a small gallery that looked like a break room. And on the table a white cup with Titan’s name scrawled across it. She relaxed.

He was here.

The director shut the door with a smile leaving her to watch the spectral figures who passed. They spoke in hushed voices and moved with urgent purpose.

Rowena closed her eyes, trying not to remember the brig she’d sat in for months at the end of the war. The first days had been like this, no news, no contact, only voices of people out of sight.

It made her want to scream.

The door opened and Selena Caryll walked in wearing grounder business clothes. Her shield was muted, offering no information and hidden from all but a direct search.

She stared at Rowena for an uncomfortably long moment then quietly closed the door. “When Tyrling said someone from fleet had come looking for Titan, I wasn’t expecting you.”

“I wasn’t expecting you either.” Rowena refused to take a defensive posture or be goaded into a fight, but every hair on the back of her neck stood on end. “I know Titan’s here. The guardians tracked his shield here and there’s a cup with his name on it.” Her belligerence wavered under Caryll’s quiet stare. “He’s here. If the Jhandarmi are holding him-”

Caryll shook her head and sat down. “No, we aren’t holding him.”

The we rocked Rowena to the core. Selena Caryll was a lot of things she hated, but she wasn’t a traitor. “We? You’ve left fleet?”

“I’m the OIA liaison. Over the course of my work I took the Jhandarmi training.” She took a seat across from Rowena. “I hold rank in both places. It’s all or nothing any more. It can’t be if we want to survive.”

Rowena sucked in a breath, trying to hold back her growing unease. “Where’s Titan?”

“I wish I knew. The cup in the break room was from breakfast. I ordered for him because he didn’t come directly here after his meeting with Lily Sekoo. He didn’t answer when I pinged, but I thought he might had had crew business.” Caryll’s expression was hollow, guarded and worried. She was watching Rowena like she held the secrets of the universe.

“He left with Lily.” Rowena shook her head. “That’s… that’s the last anyone’s seen of him. But the Sekoos say he isn’t there. I went to the Starguard and they tracked Titan’s shield here.”

“Most likely tracked my shield,” Caryll said. “I helped Titan modify his shields when I realized he’d be around grounders. I imagine they’d look very similar. It’ll keep him safe from any local weapons though. Including the obsidian knife in your pocket.”

Rowena started, looking up in surprise. “That wasn’t supposed to be detectable.”

“It’s not… to most people. Carver had five of them; one each for Gen and Hollis, Marshall, me, and one for himself. I added it to my security scans. It makes it easier to track them all down in hurry. Except most of us have quit wearing them since the war ended, and I doubt you bought yours on planet.”

“Silar gave it to me,” she admitted, touching her pocket. “So I wouldn’t be outside Enclave unarmed.”

Caryll seemed to consider this and then nodded slowly. “That’s a very Hollis thing to do. Especially if he thought I was down here in trouble.”

“I’m not your backup.”

Caryll’s eyes flashed a white-blue as she smirked. “I don’t need backup, Lee. I need answers. Where do you think Titan is?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know how to find him.”

“Did you need to find him right now?”

Rowena weighed her options. At the end of the day, Aronia’s life was worth what little pride she had left. “I traded the Sekoos for medicine for my sister. Three boxes, and they got an hour with Titan. We scheduled the trade last night and I sent them an alignment coil for a stabilizer since they put the word out they needed one.”

“Good trade tactics,” Caryll said with a nod. “What went wrong?”

“The medicine wasn’t what we needed. Some of it was, but some had been switched.”

Caryll frowned. “Could it have been switched?”

“No.” Rowena shook her head. “It was repackaged and resealed. Either the manufacturer made a mistake, or someone tampered with it after shipping. I haven’t heard of any recalls on the grounder communiques.”

“Neither have I.” Caryll sighed and sat back in her seat. With a sigh, she closed her eyes. “I have a really bad idea.”

“Sounds like you.”

Caryll shot her a glare. “I know how to find Titan, but I need Sciarra resources to do it.”

“Good luck with that.”

“You’re going to help,” Caryll declared as she stood up. Her sudden smile was not reassuring.

Rowena crossed her arms. “How are you going to convince me to do that?”

The room shifted abruptly, the grounder offices being replaced with a scene of broken chairs and the smell of a burning ship.

“Welcome aboard the Persephone,” an AI voice said as the captain’s whistle rang around Rowena.

Selena Caryll walked across the bridge of her warship. “You should know better, Lee. Captains never ask, they order.”

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BODIES IN MOTION: Chapter 21 (Part 2)

ROWENA – warning! Long Chapter Ahead! (broken into 3 parts)

Start at Chapter 1

Deep in the heart of the Danielle Marie the halls outside the medical bay were silent. Hooks overhead and clefts in the wall showed the age of the ship built before artificial gravity. Welding marks ran along the bulkhead, ripples and patterns that Rowena knew by heart. When she’d been young the old zero-grav hooks had held flowers. She could still remember being carried to the medical bay by her father and trailing her hand through the multi-colored blooms. The plants had been taken down the following year by the new captain, not military enough.

One day… one day she’d bring the flowers back.

The medbay door slid open as she approached and the chief medic looked up. “Yeoman.”

“Doc.” Rowena held up the medications.

Doc’s perpetually worried face melted into softer lines. “Wonderful. I should never have doubted you.”

Rowena handed over the medicine. “How is Aronia?”

“Awake,” Doc said. “I gave her the patch the Sciarras sent over and she seems a little more lively now. Good tech. We’ll have to see if we can get a bit more for emergencies?”

She perked up at the idea of new tech. “No one mentioned anything to me.”

“Maybe they thought you thought you wouldn’t be interested.” Doc gave her a pointed look.

The old woman had never quite forgiven Rowena for not pursuing medical research. Her explanation that she was not a People Person hadn’t gone over well. “I pay attention to tech,” Rowena said, side-stepping Doc and hurrying to the small corner room where Aronia was waiting. Someone, probably Aronia’s husband, had brought in a tiny tree with twisting branches and bright red chokeberries to sit on the table by her bedside. It was the only decoration in the otherwise sterile room.

Aronia smiled, eyes brighter and more alert than Rowena had seen all week. “Hello, Ro, how’s the engine?”

“Still working,” Rowena said, taking a seat so they could be eye level. “How are you two?”

Her sister ran a hand around her swollen belly. “His heartbeat has stopped dipping. Doc says the nanite gel Sciarra sent over is helping stop the internal bleeding. My nanites were trying, but I just can’t produce enough to keep the placenta from tearing.” She took a deep breath and grimaced as she pushed on her belly. “His foot is in my ribs.”

“At least he’s head down,” Rowena said. “And, I’ll talk to Ty about getting some more of the… the whatever.”

Aronia lifted the corner of her shirt to show Rowena a square patch of blue cloth on her side. “It has a gel filled with undefined nanites. They pass the skin barrier, scan for major injury, and gather for repairs. It tickles a little, like being attacked by rogue bubbles. Doc says they’re limited life and non-replicating.”

“I’ve never seen one.” Rowena reached out and scanned the material. It wasn’t coded with any Sciarra signifiers and the nanite structure was one she hadn’t seen. Didn’t mean it wasn’t Sciarra tech, but it was something she would have expected them to use during the war. “Odd time to bring it out.”

“Limited supplies maybe?” Aronia sighed. “Don’t worry about it.”

“I’m not!”

“Liar.” Her sister reached for her face. “Are you okay? You look like you haven’t slept all week. I heard the formation running past in battle gear and Doc keeps pacing by the door. Want to tell me what’s happening?”

“Not really.”

Aronia dropped her hand.

“You don’t need the stress. And it isn’t…” She was about to say a threat, but that was a lie. “It isn’t a direct threat. Just a little SNAFU downtown. Someone triggered the security shields in Tarrin and suddenly everyone’s jumpy.”

“Do you know what triggered it?” Aronia asked.

Doc cleared her throat loudly as she walked in. “A malfunctioning piece of tech,” the old woman said in a firm tone that meant she would accept nothing else. “Yeoman, your sister needs her rest. Come here, please. Now.”

Rowena looked apologetically at her sister. “I’ll be back tonight once I’m off-duty. Rest up.” She squeezed her sisters hand and trundled out after Doc. As soon as Aronia’s door was shut she said, “I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to stress her out.”

“No one is,” Doc said in a kinder tone. “But I need you to look at something all the same.” She led Rowena into her small office space where a bulging pipe had warped the ceiling and wall, and motioned to two piles of pills on her desk. “The white ones are the bio accelerant we need for Aronia and the baby. The pink ones came from the other, sealed packs. They’re meant to treat bacterial imbalance in the intestines. Is that what you traded for?”

Her heart stopped in fear. “No.” The word sounded so small in helpless. “No… I… this is a misunderstanding.” It had to be. “I’ll contact the supplier immediately.”

Doc nodded. “Thank you. We have enough for five days, and that might be enough to get Aronia to a point where she can deliver the child safely, especially with the Sciarra patches, but…” She shrugged.

Doc was old fleet, she’d survived two civil wars and at least four hostile command changes that Rowena knew of. Who knew what in-fighting the old woman had survived to get to be the chief medical officer of the Lee flagship. Her generation expected things to be done a certain way. Giving them bad medicine made Rowena look bad, it made the Lees look bad, it there were captains who would interpret it as a declaration of war.

“Can you avoid telling Captain Lee until this evening?” Rowena asked. “Give me time to sort this out? It’s an allied crew, but I used back channels to expedite things.” Because Hoshi would drag his heels until Aronia died. I’m not ready for another war.

“If it was the Sciarras, I will contact them directly,” Doc said. “They owe me.”

Rowena shook her head. “Titan helped with the payment, but it was a C-class crew.”

Doc wrinkled her nose in distaste. “Unfortunate.”

The rebuke was well-earned. “I was desperate.”

“It made you stupid.”

“I’ll fix it,” Rowena promised. “Give me an hour. I’ll fix it.” She teleported to the safety of her engine room. Double-checking her perimeter she pinged Titan. No response.

She tried putting a quick trace on him. It would have gone better with the right tech, since she was essentially hacking the Enclave security system to scan for his image, but nothing turned up. And the Lees didn’t have access to a satellite.

Hands gripping the console of her communication station with white-knuckles she stared blankly ahead as she assessed the options. None of them looked for appealing.

“Crack my hull.” She punched in the code for the Golden Apple.

After a moment the screen showed the face of an older veteran with a long scar running past his ear. “Golden Apple, who are you?”

“Rowena Lee for Lily Sekoo, please.” Polite wasn’t easy, but sometimes it worked with the older generation.

The man snarled and stepped away from the com screen. A few minutes later he returned. “Lily’s not in coms range.” The screen went dark before she could ask for anything more.

Frustrated, she dialed the official code for the Sabiha.

Jata Sciarra came on screen looking grim as he ever did. “This is Lieutenant Sciarra of the Sabiha.” He blinked. “Yeoman Lee?”

“Is Titan on board?”

Jata shook his head. “He left this morning and hasn’t checked back in or crossed our shield.”

“Is Mars available?”

Jata didn’t need to check, he shook his head. “He’s in training for the rest of the morning, then goes to do his crew rotation at fifteen-hundred. Would another officer be acceptable.”

Rowena sighed. “Captain Sciarra, please.”

The com officer gave her a look derision. “Yeoman?”

“It’s an urgent matter. Patch me through or I’ll come over in person.” She might have been demoted after the war, but she’d be trained for command. A little ice in her voice and a stern look was all it took to make Jata look away.

“It’s your career,” the com officer muttered. “Patching you through to Captain Elea Sciarra now.”

The image on her screen waivered and the com officer was replaced by the sharp angles and black eyes of Elea Sciarra.

Rowena bowed her head out of habit. “Captain Sciarra, thank you for taking time for me.”

“The com officer said it was urgent. Talk.”

“I need to know where Guardian Sciarra is,” Rowena said. “He was helping recover the medicine my crew needed.”

“I’m aware of that.” Captain Sciarra’s voice was cold as vacuum.

Rowena met her eyes with unfeigned rage. “Titan secured three packages of medicine my sister desperately needed, but they were tampered with. I need to let him know so no one is injured. Where is he?”

The captain raised her eyebrows and crossed her arms. “Last I saw him he was leaving in your company to contact the Sekoos. We haven’t heard from him since and I know he hasn’t left Enclave. The Jhandarmi director reached out to us about ten minutes ago asking for Titan’s presence.”

“Has he ever gone off coms before?”

“Since Landing?” Captain Sciarra’s face wrinkled in thought. “A few times when he was in the lower levels of the Star Guard complex. There are thick walls meant to prevent communication. It’s possible he’s there. I could find send a runner.”

Rowena quickly shook her head. “I’ll go. There’s no point in having a Sciarra run over when I’m the one with the information.”

The captain nodded. “Yeoman?”

“Ma’am?”

“The Sabiha has an opening in our engineering section. With all the changes that are imminent I feel you should know you will have allies here, should you ever need them.”

“Thank you, captain. I’m quite comfortable with my current assignment.”

Captain Sciarra tilted her head, accepting the rejection. “Let me know if the situation changes. And, when you find my nephew, tell him to check in. Our medic says it’s bad for my health to worry about him this much.”

“I’ll have him signal you first thing,” Rowena promised.

The Starguard…

The com deck went dark and she took a deep breath. Thus far she’d avoided the Star Guard’s vault of paperwork and Allied fighters.

Off the top of her head Rowena could only think of three things worse than having to go deal with the guardians. Letting Aronia die and letting Titan die were the top two of the list and the third was such a wild nightmare that the chances of it happening were too low to worry about.

Even if it did involve a Silar.

Rowena shrugged off her coverall and looked down at what was left, a plain black combat tee, her six-pocket pants, and her combat boots. She patted herself down for contraband weapons. Picking up misplaced wrenches and knives wasn’t a bad habit, but there weren’t any Warmongers besides Titan in the Starguard.

Going unarmed and looking helpless was her best bet for getting cooperation.

Once she was sure she couldn’t kill anyone with anything other than her bare hands, her bootlaces, or her implant she took a moment to wash her face. With the water, she slicked her hair back and tied it into a tight knot out of the way.

There. She looked suitably defanged and helpless.

Teleporting to the OIA building she took a deep breath, and then pushed the door open and stalked down to the dungeon-like offices. Titan said they remind him of deep space, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that it needed engines. If there weren’t engines, it wasn’t meant for living in. And no amount of citrus-scented cleaner was ever going to erase the unpleasant organic scent of dead leaves and dirt.

She pushed open the doors to the main bullpen and scanned the room, desperately hoping Titan was somewhere in the maze of desks, cubicles, and glass-walled offices.

“Yeeeeeoooomannnnn Leeeeee.” Hollis Silar stepped into view, stretching her name out and accenting all four syllables. He sized her up with a predatory smile. “From the battle shield you have up I’m guessing you aren’t her to flirt. How disappointing.”

“Guardian Silar.” Her jaw clenched as she bit off his name.

The red-head held up a hand. “Wait!” His eyes glowed a deep gold as he accessed his implant. Quiet seconds ticked by.

Rowena raised an eyebrow.

Silar snapped his fingers “Seventy-three!”

“What?”

“This is now our longest civil conversation on record. The last civil interaction we had lasted seventy-two seconds.”

She remembered easily. If there hadn’t been a drill instructor nearby, and if her place on the Academy flight team hadn’t been at risk, she would have broken his jaw. “You’re an idiot,” she muttered, hoping it was low enough Silar would miss it.

“Ninety-eight seconds. A new record.”

She rolled her eyes.

“Should we push for two minutes? You’re looking remarkable non-combative now.”

“Can you be serious? I’m not here for your sadistic entertainment.” Rowena resisted the urge to strangle Silar with his obnoxious, too-long hair. It hung above his collar, and even tied back it made her eye twitch. Pressing her lips together she kept herself from starting another civil war. Barely. “Where’s Titan?”

Hollis shook his head. “No idea. He’s on medical leave.” He shrugged. “Did you check the Sabiha?”

Rowena narrowed her eyes. “For the love of… Of course I checked the Sabiha! There’s protocols.” Taking a deep breath she counted to ten and changed track. She tried smiling. “Guardian, let me rephrase this; I know you have ways of tracking everyone traveling in or out of the Enclave shield and you can find anyone from the fleet anywhere they are. Right?”

Silar walked in front of his desk, casting an intimidating shadow, and then sat down so he was nearly eye level. He was a big bastard. Somehow she always managed to forget how small he made her feel.

Habit made her take a fighting stance, feet slightly apart, muscles tensed.

If Silar noticed, he didn’t say anything. “Now, Lee, you know I couldn’t confirm or deny that sort of thing. The tech the Star Guard uses is classified and can’t be shared with individuals who do not have the appropriate clearance.” He was going to bury her in red tape, is what he meant.

“I don’t need you to confirm,” Rowena said slowly enough for his one functioning brain cell to process. “I need you to do. Find Titan for me. He’s not responding, his crew has no clue where he is, and neither do you. Under some law I’m sure this qualifies as an emergency and reasonable use of your tracking skills.”

Silar raised an eyebrow. “Guardian Sciarra left a message saying he was going to meet with Lily Skeoo off The Golden Apple last night. I’m not one to judge-”

“You better not!” Rowena snapped.

“- but shouldn’t you check to see if he’s there first? He isn’t scheduled to work this morning. Maybe he decided to go… relax.” Silar’s smile managed to be suggestive, pitying, and dangerous all at once.

She took a second to look around the room. There were four other guardians in view, all carefully pretending not to watch. Violence was out of the question. “Titan is not looking to court Lily.”

Silar rolled his eyes to the ceiling. “Not to tell tales, but most the women in fleet don’t mind spending time with a man like Sciarra without a promise of commitment.”

“But he wouldn’t,” Rowena insisted.

Silar’s brown eyes locked onto her with interest.

Internal alarms flared. If she wasn’t careful, she’d give away more than the Lees could afford to lose.

Taking an at-ease stance she tried waiting him out, but he wasn’t looking away and no one was filling the silence. Finally, she said, “Titan has drafted a declaration of courtship.”

“Congratulations!”

Rowena’s fist moved and collided with Silar’s shoulder before she could stop herself. “Not for me! You crack-brained Silar!” She glanced around to see if anyone else had noticed her breach of conduct.

Silar rubbed his shoulder and chuckled. “How faithful-”

Huffing, she glared up at him, furious beyond words at the suggestion.

“Right. Forget I asked.” He sighed in resignation. “So Sciarra wouldn’t have a reason to go off-coms around Lily so he could have some privacy. Did he go see this other individual?”

She hadn’t thought of that. “Possibly, but he wouldn’t have turned off his com if he were. Not after everything last night.”

“You mean the malfunctioning battery canon?” Silar asked, radiating innocence.

Rowena sucked her cheeks in. “For one minute, Silar, remember who you are talking to. I’m not some numble-brained fleetling that can’t tell an orbital bombardment from ground ordinance. Titan was at ground zero for that, and medical leave or no, he’ll be going back today.”

For a second Silar’s arms sparked gold as he accessed his implant. His growing smile was hard to read, but she knew she’d made a misstep. He looked far too pleased for her comfort. “One final question. Why do you need him?”

She crossed her arms.

Silar held up his hands in mock surrender. “He’s off duty, Lee. If this is a matter another guardian can resolve, we should try that.”

Rowena weighed her options, shut her eyes, and went all in. “The Sekoo’s said they’d found some of the missing shipment. The price of the medicine Aronia needs was one hour of Titan’s time with Lily Sekoo. HE agreed because he knows I love Aronia, and because the Jhandarmi have no other leads on the case.”

“Why do you have better information for this case than I do?”

“Because I’m better than you,” Rowena said flatly. “Titan left with Lily eighty-six minutes ago. He should be back, and in coms range” She looked at Silar to see if he understood.

He nodded.

“The first box had the appropriate medicine but the other two didn’t.”

“And Sciarra could help you how?”

She took a deep breath. “I… He…” She hadn’t thought past forcing the Sekoos to give her the rest of the medicine. “I had to tell him. In case someone else didn’t recognize them, or if the other boxes were packed with something dangerous. It’s his case, and this might mean something. Now… can you check for him? Pl-”

“Please!” Silar’s eyes went wide. “Rowena! Control yourself!” he said too loud for her comfort.

She snapped her mouth shut and glared.

Silar leaned so he was close enough to slap. “There are other people here. If they see you being polite to me, they’ll know there’s something between us.”

“There is,” Rowena said quietly, “animosity and atmosphere. Same as always.”

He laughed and walked around back to his monitor. “See? That’s what life’s been missing. I don’t suppose the Lees would consider letting you become a Star Guardian?”

“Are you not getting punched enough?”

“Combatives training isn’t the same when there isn’t a tiny woman trying to knock your lungs out through your back. You’d be so disappointed,” he said as he typed something into the computer, “some of them have started pulling their punches.”

“Marshall isn’t training anymore?” That was good gossip. Made sense with how much she’d been away.

Silar shrugged. “Nah, she’s around, but I like my eyeballs in my head. Thanks. And Carver leaves me with bruised ribs. Sciarra is good, but he’s been too friendly this past week. I think Selena rattled his brain when she punched him. Poor guy. That is not a woman you want on your bad side.”

“Caryll? He’s on her good side.”

Silar shot her a quizzical look. It quickly became another enigmatic smile. He clicked his tongue. “Caryll and Sciarra?” He shook his head. “Who would have guessed? I had the likelihood of that pairing below twenty percent.”

“Why’d you run the probability at all?”

He shrugged. “I do it for everyone. Want to know who you’re a good match for?”

“No.” That was a trap she didn’t need to walk into. Silar would probably give her some random name, and then tell her it was the name of his charge pistol.

“Ah, well another time.” He twirled in his chair. “Titan is probably in the Tarrin city center at the Jhandarmi offices.”

She frowned. “What? Why? And what do you mean probably?”

Silar spun the monitor around so she could see. “We can track shielding and tech signatures. This is a ninety-nine percent match for Sciarra’s last scan two days ago. He likes to tweak his shields, so it’s a safe bet it’s him. Unless you know of someone else with the exact same tech signature. You know him better than me, but I don’t see Sciarra handing out his shield parameters to anyone, courtship or no.”

“But that can’t be. Captain Sciarra said he hadn’t crossed the Enclave shield. They track that. Why isn’t he responding to coms? I sent him an emergency code.” They were best friends. No matter what, Titan was the one person who had never abandoned her. Never hated her for what had happened. Fear rubbed across her raw nerves. She stepped away, shaking her head. “He… he wouldn’t ignore me.”

Not unless things had changed.

Silar watched her without a readable expression. “There’s no distress signal, no reason for me to send a guardian. But, if you want to go down to Tarrin, you can.”

“No. I can’t.” She looked him the eye, wishing she had an ally here.

He shook his head, not understanding. “Why not? Grounders aren’t that scary. They don’t bite unless you ask nicely.”

“I’m a yeoman. And a Lee. I don’t have travel access without authorization.”

“Oh! Right.” Silar stood up. “You need permission from the Captain’s Council or the senior guardian on duty.”

Rowena nodded, and then looked around for Carver. “Right…” They hadn’t always been friends, but they’d been on flight team together. Maybe he’d let her go for nostalgia’s sake.

“Which is me.”

She looked up at Silar in horror. There went that faint hope.

“There is a form you can use to file a request.” He held out a stack of papers. “Usually you need a senior officer from your crew to vouch for your self-sufficiency but that can be waived under certain circumstances.”

With a scowl she looked at the form. “That’s a declaration of hostile command change.”

“Is it?” His brown eyes widened in surprise. “Well, dear ancestors, how did that get there?” He stubbornly held the form out.

“I’m loyal to my captain.” And not stupid enough to start an internal war with no backing and her sister vulnerable. Clever of Silar though, if she went charging after Hoshi the Silars wouldn’t have to worry about the Lees, or her, ever again. Very neat and tidy.

With an eye roll Silar withdrew the form and picked up a small, green envelope off his desk. “Rowena Lee,” he said, taking out a thick, clear rectangle, “put your thumb on the right side and transfer the requested data.”

“What is this?”

“Take it.” He wiggled the card at her.

Rowena took it and pressed her thumb into the clear gel. Her crew information and face appeared. The rectangle split, forming two thin cards.

“One for you, one for me. This is an official travel card for fleet officers under the aegis of the Starguard. All the travel details are there. You have a code to leave and return to Enclave. Please use it.”

She clung to the card with both hands. That was too easy. “Thank you? I’ll go now.”

“Ah-ah!” Silar reached for her arm as she started to walk away. “I’m not done yet.” His hand hovered at the edge of her shield. “Safety rules. No fleet weapons outside Enclave. Do not use your implant in front of grounders, it scares them. If you run into trouble, send a distress code to the guardians, not your crew. If you can’t communicate for some reason, break the card.”

She frowned down at the travel card. “Break it?”

“Snap it. Smash it. Step on it. Throw it in a fire. Break it. It’ll send out a distress beacon and I will be there in seconds to come get you.”

“You?” She didn’t mean for it to sound rude, but dismay crept into her voice.

“Me, or whoever is the senior field guardian on duty. It’s always someone combat trained. Usually me or Carver.”

Rowena tried to that thought on for size. “My own evil genie.”  She put a shield around the card to protect it and slipped it into her pocket. “Anything else?”

“One more thing.” Silar held up his hand and something flew across the room and smacked into his palm. Most people were careful when they made something levitate, but not Hollis. He’d always been aggressive. It made most people flinch.

She held her ground.

Silar held out a cloth-covered object slightly longer than his hand.

Gingerly, she picked it up and flipped the cloth cover over. “A stone knife?”

“Most shields aren’t programmed to stop one of that size, and grounders can’t detect it. Keep it out of sight. Only use it if you need to. If you do use it, contact me directly, not the Starguard or your crew.”

She wrapped the black knife up again. “Seriously? If I’m in trouble I’m supposed to ask you for help.”

“It’s worked so far.” Something in his voice made her look him in the eye. There was an undertone of sincerity and concern she’d never heard from a Silar before.

Rowena shook her head and offered him the knife. “No.”

“Yes.” Silar pushed it back with a telekyen shove and a smile “Can’t have my favorite Lee going out there unarmed. Be safe.” He turned away, acting completely disinterested. “Let us know if you find Titan.”

The knife was heavy in her hand, but a quick scan came back clean. “I will.” She tucked it into her pant’s pocket and teleported out. For the first time she was free of Enclave.

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BODIES IN MOTION: Chapter 21 (Part 1)

ROWENA – warning! Long Chapter Ahead! (broken into 3 parts)

Start at Chapter 1

Rowena was quizzing Mars on historical battles he needed to know for the officer candidacy test when Titan walked up grinning like a lunatic. She raised an eyebrow. “You look cheerful for someone who had a bomb dropped on his head.”

“Was it an orbital bombardment?” Mars asked, looking a little too excited by the idea. “Rowena said it was, but the official story was that some grounders had a battery cannon that blew up.”

Battery canons didn’t leave streaks of light searing the night sky.

“It was a precision orbital strike,” Titan said in the infuriatingly calm voice he used when he wanted to understate the amount of danger he’d been in. “No one was killed.”

She rolled her eyes and she stood and stretched. “Only the Carylls would design a weapon that has that much precision and doesn’t actually kill anyone.”

“It would kill an intraorbital craft,” Titan said. “A precision strike like that would swat down fighters like flies. It would have been devastating if they’d ever used it.”

“I suppose it’s good she can’t break shields with it,” Rowena said. “Caryll’s had enough fights over the past few years, she could have rattled some cages with that.”

Titan pressed his lips together.

She shook her head. “There’s no shields down there, Ty. We all know that.”

Mars held his breath.

“Titan.” Rowena gave him a warning look.

He shrugged. “There’s a shield. A Balaur shield. Mal offered it up for trade after Landing.”

“To get banishment?” That idiot. Mal always expected as much from other people as he was willing to give, the good and the bad.

“To keep you alive,” Titan said with an apologetic look.

She closed her eyes. Poor Mal. Ancestors keep him.

Mars made a cooing sound. “That’s romantic.”

She glared at him as Titan shook his head.

“It wasn’t like that with me and Mal,” Rowena said. “We were life partners, Old Balaur wanted a Lee as Mal’s spouse, but it was never a romantic relationship. We were friends.” She looked at Titan. “Tell me he didn’t leave a note coded in the shield or something pointless like that.”

“Selena told,” Titan said. “I don’t know if I would have guessed it was Mal’s shield otherwise. It was much more elegant than the ones he made at the Academy. Beautiful work, while it lasted.” He sighed, then frowned. “That doesn’t go past us.” He pointed a warning finger at Mars. “The grounders think the shield was a warning system only. If they knew the Persephone could crack a shield like that we’d all be in trouble.”

Mars crossed his heart with two fingers. “Deleted from my implant already. I didn’t hear a thing.”

Rowena nodded. “Not that a grounder would talk to me, but same. I know nothing about any shields or Caryll death rays.” What a weird thought. Caryll really wasn’t the kind of person who would do something huge and showy. Rowena wrinkled her nose in thought. “I hate myself for asking… was Caryll hurt?”

Titan frowned in confusion. “No. Why?”

“I was trying to figure out what pushed her over the edge.”

Mars clicked his tongue and looked pointedly at Titan.

“Were you hurt?”

“Not significantly,” Titan lied badly. He didn’t look worse than he had before, but she’d known him too long to ignore that tone of voice.

“Should I be taking you near the Sekoos?”

He rolled his shoulders in a shrug. “Honestly? I want to go. They might be the only ones with answers right now.”

“I’ll come too,” Mars said, hopping down from his perch on the Sabiha’s landing gear.

“No,” Titan and Rowena said in unison.

Mars’ face crumpled in hurt shock. “What?”

“They’re not a crew for you to spend time around,” Titan said.

“What happened to equality and all fleet’s the same, respect every crew?” Mars argued. “You can’t say the Sekoos aren’t ‘our kind of people’ when you’re spending time kicking your heels with them.”

Titan looked over at her for support. “This is different. The Sekoos aren’t expecting you.”

“They’re scavengers,” Rowena said, cutting across Titan’s delicacy. “Users. What’s the heart of every crew?”

“Kids and research,” Mars said automatically, looking baffled.

Rowena nodded. “The Sekoos have neither. They take in disaffected people from other crews, the ones who can’t learn to keep their hands to themselves or never know when to shut their mouths. The strays bring old tech. ”

“There’s a place for them,” Titan said in his tight, calm voice that sent most people running for cover. “The Sekoos have skills the fleet needs, but that doesn’t mean you have a place near them right now.”

“They’re in trouble,” Rowena translated because she doubted Captain Sciarra had sat her fleetlings down for lectures about the importance of the right allies they way she and Titan had been lectured before going to the Academy. “Lily Sekoo has medicine that was stolen from the fleet. If she went looking for it so she had an excuse to spend time with Titan, that’s one thing. Dubious, but forgivable. If she knew about the theft in advance?”

Rowena shook her head. “The Jhandarmi are the closest thing the grounders have to marines. They’re the major law enforcement entity for the planet. And someone attacked their agents, that’s a declaration of war. The Sekoos are opportunistic idiots. One of them traded short term benefits or lifelong consequences. We all know how that engines runs.” She gestured to the graveyard of ships filling Enclave and the great, domed shield overhead. “Our ancestors, may they freeze in the black for eternity, decided their petty wars were better than keeping enough orun to breath. Now look at us.”

Titan cleared his throat.

She grimaced in apology. “We would have still run out of fuel. But, the fact remains, if you don’t think of the future consequence you aren’t likely to have a future.”

“Do the Jhandarmi want to question the Sekoos?” Mars asked. “Would the Captains Council allow it?”

“I’m allowed,” Titan said. “I’m a guardian and Selena is the OIA liaison with the Jhandarmi and she approves.”

“Selena?” Mars’ lips curled into a frown.

“Get used to it,” Titan advised. “She’ll be one of your in-laws soon enough.”

Rowena’s implant chimed. “We got to go, Ty. The Sekoos are waiting for us.” She nodded to Mars. “Keep out of trouble.”

“I won’t get caught,” he said with an impish grin.

“Mars,” Titan’s voice held a note of warning, “what you heard, it stays between us. You, me, Ro, and the captain. That’s it.”

:And your other captain?: Rowena asked, nudging him.

“And Selena,” Titan said out loud. “She’d aware of the full scope of this investigation. If anyone else asks, you know nothing. If you hear something relevant, you get the info to one of the four of us. Light speed. Got it?”

“Got it,” Mars said. “I’ll be the model of discretion.”

Titan nodded. “Good. Get back to the ship. I know you have studying to do.” He waited until Mars teleported out before turning. “He’s a good kid.”

“If he doesn’t make captain one day I’ll eat my rank,” Rowena said as they walked through the forest of landing gear.

“Sounds yummy. What’s yeoman rank taste like?”

“Stale bread and moldy ration bars.” One day she’d burn her rank. Toss it up in the sky and hit it with a plasma beam until there was nothing but slag.

Titan must have caught her expression because he bumped her shoulder. “We’re trying not to scare the Sekoos.”

She gave him a bored look. “Hate to break it to you, but anyone with three working brain cells knows enough of our histories to shake in their boots when they see us coming. Everyone knows what we can do if we want to.”

He nodded in agreement. “Still rules out the Silars.”

Rowena covered her mouth as she giggled. “Oh, ancestors, Ty! What are you going to do if you actually court Selena Caryll? I mean…” She shook her head in disbelief. “The logistics of it are insane. You realize that, don’t you? Captain Sciarra has to either invite Caryll to the Sabiha or meet her on neutral ground. They have to sign a non-aggression pact at the very least. There have to be introductions, and there are protocols. These things can take years.”

“Elea has until I finish packing my quarters,” Titan said.

“So, what? You’ll go live in Caryll’s hovel of an apartment? Or are you going to knock a wall out in the BOQ so you can push two of those tiny beds together?”

He smirked. “We’ll make it work.”

“You’re crazy.”

“I’m in love.” His smile was kind. “You’ll see. One day when your head is spinning because all you can think about is a person who lights up the night, and makes you feel whole, and loves you even though you know you don’t deserve it, you’ll understand.”

Rowena sighed and rolled her eyes. “Yes, I see that happening. Me? In love? Probably not before the heat death of the universe but stranger things have happened. Even if I felt something, which we all know is as likely as the emperor returning, we’d have to convince them to love me back. There’s not enough mind-altering drugs in the universe.”

“I love you,” Titan said.

“Not the way you love Caryll.”

“No, not in that way,” Titan admitted as he put an arm around her shoulder. “But then again I was never the brightest star in the fleet. Someone will come along and realize what Mal and I knew all along, you’re amazing, Ro. You’re loveable.” He gave her a tight, side-ways hug that made tears sting at her eyes.

“You’re an idiot, Sciarra.”

He let her go with a smile. “So you’ve told me.”

“Does Caryll know that we come as a package deal?”

“I told her,” Titan said as the bulk of the Golden Apple came into view. “You two will get along.” His steps faltered as he got distracted by his thoughts. “Eventually.”

Rowena let it go. It wasn’t that she couldn’t get along with other people. It was that she hadn’t, and there was no reason to expect anyone to forgive her for that. Apologizing wasn’t going to bring back the dead. Guilt and self-loathing wouldn’t erase the war. She’d tried it. What was left was survival.

She fell in step with Titan and pushed away a nagging sense of doom. Her instinct for trouble was well-honed, but it was useless to worry about now. Her best friend was in love, and in time he’d drift away from her, but that didn’t mean she was going to abandon him now.

A Sekoo guard with a too-loose uniform motioned for them to stop as they approached the outer perimeter.

Titan took an at-ease stance and Rowena followed suit.

“You Sciarra?” the Sekoo asked.

“Yes,” Titan said. :Do I look that different from usual?: he asked.

:I’m not in charge of explaining Sekoo behavior,: Rowena said, pushing a memory of utter confusion at him.

The Sekoo walked behind the Golden Apple’s shield and contacted someone with a box device.

:Are none of them augmented?: Rowena asked.

:Most of them aren’t,: Titan said.

:You’d think they would have traded for that by now.:

:No medics, maybe? Or implant allergies? I’ve heard it can happen.:

Lily Sekoo hurried down the ramp, dark hair neatly braided and pulled back. She looked almost professional.

Almost.

Rowena’s teeth ground together as she fought the sense of wrongness in the scene. The two Sekoos lurking by the ram weren’t a problem, probably just chaperons trying to make sure that Titan didn’t woe one of their better techs for the Sciarra crew. She didn’t like Lily’s smile, but that wasn’t new, the Sekoos made her angry. All that tech and they still never managed to do more than scrape by. They kept waiting for a hand out, waiting for help, waiting for the emperor or whatever else. If she had all that tech she’d build a whole new ship.

:Think friendly thoughts,: Titan advised. :You’re shield’s slipping to battle mode.:

:All that pretty tech hoarded by people who want to melt it for scrap,: she complained. :Makes my heart break.:

:And here you keep saying you don’t have one.:

She sent gave Titan a mental kick in the leg. He only grinned.

“Commander Sciarra,” Lily said as she approached. “And, Yeoman.”

Rowen was definitely an after thought.

“It’s good to see you again, Technician,” Titan said. “How are you recovering?”

Lily’s laughed coyly and dropped her eyes.

:Flirting?: Rowena said. :She’s flirting?:

:Some people like flirting.:

:Just get me the meds so I can get out of here.:

Titan smiled. “Do you have the medication the Lees need?”

“Of course!” Lily looked over her shoulder and waved to one of her crew members. “Three boxes, as promised. Enough for the current crisis, and a little extra to set aside for even future misfortunes.”

Rowena watched the box with a knot in her shoulders. Ancestors, but she really was the worst friend ever. Eighteen pills for her best friend.

:It’s fine,: Titan reminded her. :Even if I didn’t need to interrogate the Sekoos, I’d do this.:

She took the offered boxes and checked the seal. “Looks good. Thank your supplier for,” she told Lily. :Do you want me to stay?: she asked Titan.

:I’ll scream if I need help.:

:Scream loudly,: Rowena said. :You’re isolated out here.:

Lily’s eyes narrowed as her smile turned sharp. “Is there anything else, yeoman?”

“Nothing,” Rowena said. “Good trade. Enjoy your, ah, hour.” She stepped away, still trying to shake the feeling of dread. Taking a deep breath, she walked faster. There was time for Aronia and the baby. The meds would buy them more time. “It’s going to be okay, Lee. Believe it.” I want to believe.

 

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BODIES IN MOTION: Chapter 17

ROWENA

Start at Chapter 1

In the evening light, the landing gear of the Sciarra armada stretched like pillars between their shield and the seawall. A forest of shadows and light with loading ramps.

Rowena leaned back in the hastily-constructed chair—a frayed blanket and a metal frame—and watched as Titan paced under the bulk of the Sabiha.

Mars settled in beside her. “You watering the drinks, Lee?”

“No.” She glared at Mars. She wasn’t in the mood for a playful fight.

He was young enough to smile back like it was nothing. Poor kid. “He’s not sitting down. Not holding still. If the giggle water you brought won’t help, I don’t know what will.”

“We could knock him unconscious,” Rowena said. “Hide him in the cargo bay until this passes.”

“Mmm.” Mars frowned and still looked like a younger, happier version of Titan. “Do we have options that won’t require getting my captain’s permission?”

It was Rowena’s turn to grimace. “Has he eaten today?”

“Not that I’ve seen.”

“Run down to Cargo Blue, pick up anything that looks edible, and we’ll see if a hot meal doesn’t work.”

Mars nodded. “It’ll be better than ship’s rations, at any rate.”

When he walked away, Titan turned around, startled. “Where’s he going?”

“To get food,” Rowena said as she stood up, holding another bottle of the drugged water that was supposed to relax nerves and sooth aches. “Here, have another drink,” she said as Mars walked through the Sciarra shield, becoming another ghostly shape in the shadows.

Titan looked away. “I’m fine.”

“For someone who took a beating, sure. But the medic said rest and this doesn’t look restful to me. You’re…” She waved a hand at his jittering leg.

With a muttered grumble, Titan stilled. “I’m fine.”

“And I’m the princess of the flower festival,” she said. “Sit down and stop fidgeting or I’m going to knock you out and lie when Mars comes back.”

“There’s an op going without me,” Titan said as he fell into one of the chairs, making it groan in protest. “My op. It’s my case. I should be out there.”

“With no weapons, no defenses, and no backup?” Rowena scoffed. “Sure. Sounds very sensible.” She sat down beside him. “Should I replay one of your lectures on unity and trust? I have them all saved. From ‘Carver Is A Decent Person’ to the all-time favorite, complete with laugh track, ‘I Can Work With A Silar.’ Some of the fleetlings worked out a comedy sketch to that one.”

Titan’s head lolled to the side, he did not look amused.

She smiled. “We can work with these people. Your words. Not mine.” She lifted her bottle up. “Drink! Forget about them! They are mostly competent and have handled situations in Tarrin without you before. So find something else to think about.”

Titan took a swig of the giggle water. “Selena-”

“Selena?” Rowena asked in shock. “We’re using first names now?”

“Yes.”

“No! Pick something else!”

“Carver?” Titan hesitated.

Rowena shook her head. “You are not good at this game. You’re supposed to think of something distracting but not enraging.”

“Like the Lee’s new candidates for the OIA and Starguard?”

“Yes!” After a moment she punched his arm. “You were supposed to warn me about that. If Hoshi gets backing from another crew, it’s going to be that much harder to throw a coup without dropping bodies. I hate killing family. Even if it’s Hoshi’s side.”

Moonlight danced in the water as Titan waggled his drink in disagreement. “It’s not for Hoshi. It’s so we can pick an instructor from your crew for the new training house. Especially since it’ll be weeks before they let me take a rotation again. Silar and Carver are decent at hand-to-hand combat, but they’re also trying to keep the guard running.”

“Lees don’t do hand-to-hand combat.” Not as a crew, at any rate. She and Aronia had learned because she’d trained with Mal during the war. But… She shook her head. “Hoshi won’t recommend anyone worth having.”

“The training house gets to take whoever they want,” Titan said. “Hoshi can recommend but we don’t have to listen.”

A terrible suspicion flared. “Ty, you didn’t recommend this, did you? You know the Council will shut it down. Warmonger crews can’t recommend promotions for other Warmongers. This is going to blow up in your face.”

He shook his head. “I didn’t recommend it.”

That left… No one that she could think of. The Sciarras were the only crew she was friendly with, and Hoshi couldn’t make friends without bribing them. “Someone is backing the Lees?”

“Not really.” Titan looked up at the sky trying to avoid the conversation.

“Who recommended this?” she demanded.

“Eh.” He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter.”

“It does if it’s a trap!” She set her empty bottle down and stood up. “Did you think of what could happen?”

Titan scowled at her. “Who do you think I am? Of course I checked. I went through every angle and threatened someone with a slow and painful death if you got hurt.”

“Who recommended this?”

“Selena.”

Rowena choked and coughed. All the oxygen had suddenly gone missing.

Titan thumped her on the back. “You okay?”

“Caryll recommended this madness?” Reality asserted itself. “No, that makes no sense. You have brain trauma. That’s what happened. Let’s go to the med bay.” She stood up and grabbed Titan’s hand. “You were hit in the head, now you’re hallucinating, that makes sense. Come on.”

He didn’t budge. “I’ve been cleared. Twice! I’m fit for duty.”

“Titan!” She dropped his hand in frustration. “It still won’t work.” That thought calmed her. “Caryll’s recommendation would have to be supported by other allied captains, and you won’t get that.”

He lifted a shoulder and dropped it. “You’d think, but the Silars backed it.”

“Captain Silar? He hasn’t left his quarters since landing. How’d Caryll get that signature?”

“She has Hollis’s.”

The magnetic poles of the planet shifted under her. Up was down. Down was up. It was possible the stars were in the sea now.

She pinched herself. Still awake and alive. “You must have a concussion.”

“Run a scan!” Titan said.

“Food!” Mars shouted as he teleported in between them, holding three boxes and what looked suspiciously like a nishu book. “Um… Did I miss something?”

“Titan has a concussion.”

Mars shook his head. “Not unless you hit him. The medic ran a check while I was there.”

“See!” Titan glared victoriously.

Frustrated, and not sure she wanted to finish the argument with Mars around, she nodded at the book bound by thin pieces of metal and filled with the yellow-green paper the fleet made from algae. “What’s that?”

“Dinner.” Mars floated the boxes to Titan. “I grabbed a couple of sampler platters. Things deep-fried in grease, a salad, and something with cheese and sugar that Fiona Glenndie says is delicious.”

“Sugar and cheese?” Titan asked skeptically.

Mars shrugged.

Rowena ignored the boxes and gave the book a mental tug. They were always somewhere in the fleet, illegal, single-copy manuscripts written by bored crew members and filled with ridiculousness. Some of them were entertaining. A few showed real artistic skill. Most were smutty wet dreams that someone decided to share—because having sex on a bunk across the room from your cousin wasn’t enough for some people.

With a smile, Mars grabbed the book and held it tight. “You don’t want this.”

“I do, actually,” Rowena said, tugging at the telekyen molecules in the binding. “That’s why I’m trying to pull it away.”

“Who gave it to you?” Titan asked as he opened one of the boxes and poked a cautious finger at lumps of golden-brown things. “And what is that?”

“Tempura vegetables from the islands,” Mars said. He put the book behind his back and raised a light shield. “And I wasn’t given the book. The Ravma crew was out celebrating someone’s promotion and didn’t notice when I picked it up. Not objecting is consent, right?”

Rowena rolled her eyes as Titan said, “No.”

“That’s theft,” Titan mumbled as he bit into the tempura. “And this is… odd. Sweet? Orange. Is it supposed to be these colors?”

“How should I know?” asked Mars. “Do I look like an expert on grounder cuisine? I think that’s a root of some kind, if it helps.”

“Food grown in dirt.” Rowena grimaced, broke Mars’s shield, and teleported the nishu book to her hands. “That’s worse than sleeping in dirt. Grounders.” She shuddered, then flipped the book open. “‘Taking The Captain Captive’,” she read. “This looks fun.”

Mars teleported over and landed beside her with a grin. “Look at the pictures! That’s a decent drawing of Titan.”

It was. And a highly sexualized drawing of Caryll.

Rowena wrinkled her nose as she read the opening. “Oh, suns of the homeworlds. This is… This is nasty! Criminally bad. ‘She looked up at him with limpid eyes blue as the lakes of Rasare. ‘Take me,’ she begged. ‘Take me away from this crowd to your secret place.’” She raised an eyebrow. “You have a secret place, Ty?”

“Yup, right behind my station on the command deck. I have snacks there when I’m working at night.” He grabbed the book and pushed the box of food at her. “Who did I capture this time?”

“Selena Caryll,” Mars said. His grin grew wider as Titan stared down in growing horror.

Rowena laughed. “I told you it was bad!”

“Sciarra grabbed her hair and shoved her against the bulkhead…” Titan read aloud. “Not unless I want my balls cut off.” He shuddered for dramatic effect.

“Unless she likes it rough,” Mars said.

Rowena and Titan turned. She shook her head. “What? No. You’re a youth! You don’t get to talk about rough sex!”

The younger Sciarra made a face. “If there was still an Academy I’d be at it. All of you had sex there!”

“No I didn’t!” Rowena said.

“No she didn’t,” Titan agreed. He turned the page on the book. “This is awful. And illegal. Why did you bring it here? No one is allowed to write non-factual stories about living or recently deceased people. The Captain’s Council could sanction us if we don’t report it.”

Mars waved a hand in Titan’s direction. “You’re a guardian! This is reporting it! Better you than Silar. He’s making the rounds in there and if he found one, he’d probably read it.”

“One of these days we just need to kill Silar,” Rowena said. “It’ll make life so much easier. Carver is busy trying to figure out how to have a wife, Marshall is always gone on Descent doing schooling. We’d have run of the place if Hollis wasn’t around.”

Titan froze then turned to her slowly. “What did you say?” There was an edge of fury in his voice.

She frowned. “Let’s kill Hollis? This is not a new idea. Or a bad one.”

“About Marshall,” Titan said forgetting about the book. “Where did you say she was?”

“On Descent. At one of the big universities there. Her family insisted she get a grounder education. Don’t you listen to gossip? The Allied crews have been talking about it for days. She had some big test today, defending a theorum or thesis or who knows what. A challenge of some kind.” Rowena shrugged indifferently. “She left yesterday and is out of coms range until tomorrow. Unless the challenge kills her. Which would be nice.”

Titan’s smile had turned into a frown of pure rage. “Marshall wasn’t in Enclave today.”

“Not once, as far as I know.” Rowena looked to Mars for explanation. He seemed as confused as she was about Titan’s sudden mood shift. “Why does it matter?”

“Carver said Marshall was seeing to Selena’s wounds.”

Mars frowned. “That seems unlikely.”

“But it doesn’t mean someone else didn’t,” Rowena said quickly, trying to keep control of the situation.

Titan pivoted, fists clenching at his side.

“I’m sure she’s somewhere safe,” Mars said. “She’s a captain. She’ll have found somewhere to hunker down.”

Silence descended as Titan stopped moving.

Rowena held her breath.

Bowing his head, Titan swore. “I’m an idiot.”

“No argument there,” Rowena agreed. “But, for clarification, what were you thinking you were being an idiot about?”

“The Jhandarmi director cut the guardians out of the op they’re running tonight. He said that they have a safe house nearby with a shield provided by the fleet during Landing.” He shook his head with a bitter smile. “The Baluars were out. Carver and Marshall were busy handling the negotiations. That left who?”

“Caryll,” Rowena said. The name left a bitter taste in her mouth.

Mars wrinkled his nose. “It wouldn’t have been her choice. Back then Carver held full control, she was one of his top lieutenants. All he had to do was give her the order, and tell her to classify it. She couldn’t tell you if she wanted.”

That was debatable. Technically, Titan was high enough in the Starguard that he should have had access to that kind of priority data. It was the kind of tiny, insulting oversight that could start another war. Stifling her own angry thoughts, she said, “It’s a logical place for a wounded captain to go. She can keep an eye on the Jhandarmi and rest. If she set up the shield she can probably slip into the safe house without even noticing.”

Titan nodded.

She smiled at him. “Nothing to worry about then.”

“I have to go stop her,” Titan said.

“What?” Rowena stared at him in disbelief. “Why?”

“Carver told the Jhandarmi we’d stay out of it. If Caryll steps in, even if she means well, it could damage our treaty. We’re dependent on their good will to get the rest of the medicines back.” He held out his hand. “I have a two percent charge. Come on, Ro. You promised to back me. Even for the stupid stuff.”

She closed her eyes and went through a litany of her grandmother’s best curses in her head. “You’re an idiot, Sciarra.” Teeth clenched, she reached out and touched the back of her hand to is, initiating the energy transfer. Her hand warmed, the pulsing of her heart creating small sparks as she gave Titan the strength he needed. She wasn’t below sixty percent when he pulled his hand away. “Is that enough?”

“It’s just a teleport and a shield unlock. I know her codes. I’ll be fine.”

Rowena crossed her arms. “Fine. Thirty minutes, and then I’m coming for you. Enclave shield and orders can get wrecked.”

“Thirty minutes is all I need,” Titan said. He smiled as he teleported out.

“All Sciarras are idiots,” she muttered under her breath.

Mars jabbed her with his elbow. “Hey now. Look at me. I’m adorable.”

“Like my little brother who outgrew me six years ago,” Rowena said, letting the cadet jolly her back into a smile. “Come on. Let’s try this sweet cheese thing you found while we wait.”

“Do you think Titan will be okay out there?” Mars asked as he took a seat and set up the rapidly congealing meal.

Cold grease had an unpleasant odor that made her push the box away. “He’ll be fine. Boil down Ty’s personality and what you get is loyalty. Once he’s given his loyalty, it’s there forever, whether you deserve it or not. That’s why we make a good battle team.”

“Because you’re loyal?” Mars asked as he held out the second carton and a wedge of something that didn’t look like cheese or sugar.

Rowena poked the creamy lump with a fork Mars offered her. “Because I’m stubborn. Ty knows I’ll come rescue him. If I promise to do something, it gets done.” She cut into the food and sequestered a piece.

“Titan says you have integrity. You always do what you promise.”

“I try,” she mumbled before biting into the grounder food. It was tart with a following sweetness. Not bad considering it had the consistency of caulking putty.

Mars claimed the rest. “How much longer until we go rescue Ty?”

“Twenty-three minutes,” Rowena said as she sat back and stared up at the sky. “Twenty-three long minutes.”

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Good news for Rowena fans!

The hot-headed engineer Rowena Lee has stolen the hearts of more than a few readers. Pugnacious and brilliant we all know Titan’s best friend deserves a happy ending. And, guess what? She’s getting it!

Rowena Lee is the heroine of the next book in the Newton’s Laws series – LAWS OF ATTRACTION coming Winter 2017/2018! Here’s a sneak peek at the plotting notes.

#GiveRowenaAHappyEnding

 

 

Whose name could be hiding on that blue post-it note???

BODIES IN MOTION: Chapter 14

ROWENA

Start at Chapter 1

Three alarms were triggered simultaneously. Rowena jumped to her feet, shoved her wheel-mounted workbench in front of her wall of remembrance, and dropped every shield in the engineering section.

By the time Captain Hoshi Lee arrived the place looked as desolate as he probably hoped she felt. And he looked proud of himself. A sure sign that he’d done something monumentally stupid that was going to get the Lee family in trouble. Again.

She focused on polishing the laser scope and wondered how many hours of free labor she’d be doing for another crew to cover this disaster.

The Danielle Marie let a boatswain’s shrill whistle. “Captain approaching.”Rowena dropped the scope and cleaning gear and came to attention.

Hoshi swaggered into the room. Before acknowledging her he made a show of looking around, examining everything even though they both knew he couldn’t tell a wrench from a flinjammer. “At ease,” he said as he circled. “Today is a very good day, Yeoman. Do you know why?”

“No, sir.” She stared straight at the bulkhead.

He held up a small tablet. “Today, the Lee family will be announcing candidates for the Office of Imperial Affairs and the Star Guardian training program.”

The day I breath vacuum. There was no way Hoshi had found someone to sponsor the crew like that.

Hoshi chuckled. “I can see from your expression that you don’t believe me. But it’s right here. Please. Read.”

Cautiously, she took the tablet. There was a lot of formal language but the gist of it was that the Lees were being offered two training slots, one OIA one for the guard, for candidates of the captain’s choosing. In exchange the fleet training academy in Enclave had the right to take any officer from the crew. It wasn’t the worst deal ever. “Congratulations, captain. I know you’ve looked forward to this day for some time.”

“We all have,” he said, snatching the tablet from her. “Except for you. Ungrateful wretch of a child. If I hadn’t stepped in and begged for leniency, promised the allied crews that I would see you properly punished, they would have executed you!”

“Yes, sir.” She’d been locked in the brig of one of the Wariea ships, she still wasn’t sure which one. The crew hadn’t talked to her, but they’d be kind enough. Two ration bars a day, clean water, and privacy.

She’d expected to be executed.

Deserved to be executed. She’d killed people. It didn’t matter what everyone else had done, or what would have happened if she hadn’t fought on the front lines. At the end of the day she owned her choice. She’d chosen to fight. And she’d chosen to come back to the Lees as a yeoman.

Hoshi circled around. “Aren’t you going to ask who I’m nominating?”

“I assumed you’d make a formal announcement to the full crew, sir.”

“It won’t be you!”

She nodded in agreement. “Understood, sir.”

“Hayato will go to the OIA and Kanon will go to the Star Guard.” Hoshi beamed with pride. “Do you like my choices?”

“Yes, sir.” Hayato was an obedient young man who’d fought in two battles of the war with her. He’d never keep up with the Elite in the OIA, but he’d be good office staff for someone. Everyone needed a reliable paper filer. Kanon was going to get crushed by the Star Guard training, but maybe they’d take pity on her and let her be an assistant.

If they had assistants.

She’d have to ask Titan what in the name of the Emperor he’d been thinking allowing this mad scheme to go along.

Hoshi scowled at her, probably unhappy with her lack of reaction. “The announcements will be made later this evening. I will be throwing a celebration for Hayato and Kanon.”

“I’m sure the crew will enjoy that, sir.”

“You will not be welcome.”

Behind her back her fist tightened and her nails cut into her palm. She was Lee too. She belonged with them. “Of course, sir.” Blood seeped between her fingers and her implant pushed a new wave of nanites out to heal her, but there was no expression on her face or in her voice. She’d never let Hoshi have the satisfaction of beating her.

“Make whatever excuse you require. Visit Aronia. Find something to repair. Go wander the Enclave. But do not be in the public area of a Lee ship until the third shift tomorrow. I don’t want your bad luck polluting the celebration.”

Bad luck? She’d followed orders from the same captain he obeyed. Her jaw ached from wanting to scream.

“Understood, yeoman?”

“Sir, yes, sir!” Rowena saluted, the blood already drying on her hand.

Hoshi waved a dismissive hand. “Your first stop might be the Golden Apple.”

That made her frown. “Sir? I’m not familiar with that ship.”

“It belongs to the Sekoos,” he said the name like they were worms. “One of their techs requested help and named you specifically.” The way he said it implied he couldn’t imagine why another crew would want her services, even though it was her skill that the Lees traded on for everything they had at this point. “You may take your kit and render assistance.”

“Thank you, sir. I’ll go as soon as I clean my work station.”

He wrinkled his nose at the rack of tools that kept the Danielle Marie functioning and shrugged. “Consider yourself dismissed, yeoman.”

Hoshi walked away humming to himself.

Rowena pinged Titan, she needed the support, but his signal was weak. She pulled out her personal com and contacted the Sabiha.

“This is the Sabiha, Ensign Mars Sciarra speaking.” A younger version of Titan appeared. His face was softer, his eyes gentler, but there was no mistaking the young Sciarra for what he was. “Hello, Rowena. What do you need?”

“Hi, Mars. I’m trying to get in touch with Titan.”

Mars made an exaggerated frowny face that was dramatic as it was comical. “There’s a tiny problem with that. He’s in medical right now. Getting yelled at.”

“Why?”

“There was a bomb and his stitches ripped and…” Mars shrugged with both hands in the air. “The captain says it’s a bad combination of testosterone and ego. Personally, I think he’s just stubborn.”

“All Sciarras are stubborn.”

“You say the nicest things!” Mars grinned at the screen. “Do you want me to run a message to him? The EMP bomb drained his implant so he can’t ping you until he recharges.”

She sighed. “No. It’s not urgent. I was just-“ Hurt, because Hoshi was a mud-sucking parasite and because she felt unwanted.

Mars grimaced in commiseration. “Wanna hang out at Cargo Blue tonight? Some of us were going to take Titan out while he was weak and see if he still scares people.”

“I’m not in the mood for Cargo Blue.”

“Titan probably won’t be either, but the captain says you have an open pass to come visit the Sabiha if you want. I can send you the shield code…” It was both a question and a statement.

She nodded. “Yes, that be nice. Thank you.” Titan had given her every code to access the Sabiha since her trial finished, and told her at least twice a week that she could join his crew. But she doubted Titan had told anyone else about his offer, and telling would only get him yelled at more. “I have to go check out something for a tech on the Golden Apple, but then I’ll come over.”

“Great! Bring some of the Giggle Water.”

“You know it has no alcohol, right?”

“Who cares? It makes Titan tell jokes,” Mars said.

Rowena smiled. “Sure. I’ll bring some. See you in a bit.” She turned the com off and rolled her eyes.

Titan need Giggle Water, he just needed to relax a bit.

Grabbing her gear she teleported to the edge of Sekoo territory. She could have gone straight in, their shield was a flimsy network laced with bad code and no real defensive capabilities. They were a war crew. Before the wormhole collapsed they’d been basic scavengers, running errands for the colonists, scooping what resources were available out of the rings of the inner planets, shuttling passengers in and out of the wormhole, or to and from the system’s main space station.

When the fleet and grounders chose distance the Sekoos had gone with the fleet, attaching themselves to whatever crew that would take them.

The man who hurried down the ramp was wearing a frayed pilot’s jump suit with no insignia. And he had no detectable implant. “Can I help you?”

“One of your techs contacted the Danielle Marie and asked for me?”

“Do you know who?”

Rowena shook her head. “All I know is it was a tech.”

“And you are…?”

One of the most infamous people in the fleet, last she’d checked. “Yeoman Rowena Lee.”

“Right.”

Maybe he’d been one of the people who took head trauma during the war. Some of them hadn’t healed quite right.

He wiped a hand across his nose. “Well, you can come in and I’ll ask around. Let me unplug the shield real quick.”

“You could give me a temporary guest code,” Rowena said.

The man stared at her in confusion. “No. We… um… it’s not that kind of shield. You can’t walk through it.”

While he ran back up the ramp she stuck her hand through the shield. Nothing happened. But she waited, politely, because showing someone their weak points wasn’t her job. Even if it made her grind her teeth.

The shield dropped with an audible whine and the man waved at her.

Rowena teleported to the ramp. “So, I assume the shield is what you want fixed? If it’s making that sound the power source is out of phase. I can tune it, no problem.”

“Oh, no, it’s always like that.”

A brief vision of knocking the inept Sekoo unconscious and fixing the shields without permission flashed through her mind. Probably a bad idea. There’d probably be a report of some kind, or a reprimand. As if those were having any effect on her career.

“Rowena?”

She turned at the sound of her name but couldn’t identify the woman walking towards her in the Sekoo uniform.

“Lily Sekoo. I’m the one who asked for you.”

“A pleasure to meet you, Tech Sekoo,” Rowena said.

Lily was… off. The uniform she was wearing was too short, and too wide in the shoulders. Her features were an odd blend of genetic features from several major crews, and somehow it gave the appearance of being counterfeit. It made a shiver crawl up Rowena’s spine.

Maybe Titan was right, she’d spent so long locked up with the Lees that she was beginning to think like Hoshi. The war was over and she was done judging people by who they were born to. Except for the Silars. They deserved everything she thought about them.

Forcing a smile she held out her hand.

Lily ignored it and gestured down the ramp. “Could we talk for a few minutes?”

“Of course.” Rowena blinked in confusion. Her implant said the Sekoos used the same physical greetings as the rest of the fleet. She’d have to update that. “What did you need repaired? The man on sentinel duty didn’t seem to know.”

Lily glanced back at the ship. “Who? Taro? He’s not on duty.”

“Oh.” That made no sense.

“The captain gave everyone leave this week to remember the war and all we lost.”

Rowena carefully hid her surprise. At least a period of mourning explained the mismatched uniforms and the general feel of malaise hanging around their ships. “If I’d known I wouldn’t have intruded. My captain made the matter sound urgent.” But maybe Hoshi was hoping she’d get caught by the bilge crew and die here.

“Oh, it’s urgent, but it’s not something I need from you,” Lily said with what she probably thought was a teasing smile. It made her look like a feral rat. “I have some information I think the Lees will want.”

“Your captain will have to take that to Captain Hoshi. I don’t speak for the Lees.”

Lily shrugged. “Maybe, but in this case you have what I want.”

“Which is?”

They stopped at the edge of where the Sekoo shield would be, under the shade of a derelict battle cruiser being slowly dissected for parts.

“You have Titan Sciarra,” Lily said. “And I want him.”

Rowena raised her eyebrows. There were always rumors in fleet, and when there weren’t rumors there was amateur entertainment in the forms of books, songs, and videos passed around the back channels. Her name was linked to Titan frequently, but never in such a proprietary way.

“I don’t own Titan or have any claim or control over him,” Rowena said. “He’s not an engine I can trade.”

Lily turned, crossing her arms. “Even for medicine?”

“Medicine?”

“We have contacts on the outside that the guardians probably wouldn’t approve of.” Lily took her arm and tugged Rowena along, forcing her to walk. “You know these things go. Some things are easier to handle without all the legal paperwork.”

“Go on.”

“I have someone who found part of the warehouse shipment that was stolen.”

“You need to tell the guardians.”

Lily grimaced. “I would, and I will, but I want it done the right way. Your sister is sick. Don’t bother denying it, I know you’ve reached out to every crew with an infirmary.”

“We need medication for the baby because she went into labor early,” Rowena said.

“A new Lee.” Lily stopped walking. “The person willing to give us the drugs wants a small trinket to sell on the antiques market. It’s worthless to us, but see, this is where my genius lies. I can always find the best solution so that everyone walks away happy.”

Rowena nodded. “And? What’s the solution you see here?”

“Give me time with Titan Sciarra. I’ll buy the meds, and give them to you for time with Titan. That’s all I want.”

“Why?” She stepped back. Titan would do it if she asked, he understood how important her sister was. But she was not going to prostitute out her best friend.

She might offer to sell him and then double-cross the Sekoos, but if Lily hadn’t thought of that it was a Sekoo problem and not Rowena’s.

Lily laughed. “Don’t you see? He rescued me today! Saved me when the bomb went off in our storage yard. If he comes back and spends time with me, think of what everyone will say!”

“You do realize he’s the Sciarra scion, next in line for the captain’s chair. There is no way in this life or any other Elea would let him marry an enlisted sailor.”

“I don’t want to marry him!” Lily sounded appalled at the idea. “I don’t even need him to like me, or hold my hand, or any of that. I just want to spend time with him. Go for a walk on the beach, maybe. Or sit together on the upper deck. Something small is fine. It’ll be enough to show the fleet that the Sekoos are a respected crew. That I’m special enough to have his attention!”

Rowena shook her head. “That’s not how it works. If you’re trying to boost your ego this won’t do it. Trust me. I’m a bit of an expert on being around the powerful and influential. Hovering in their shadow doesn’t make you special.”

Lily stomped away.

“I’m sorry,” Rowena said, catching up to her. “But wouldn’t you rather know now than hope an hour or two with Titan will make you feel better? I’ll trade for the medicine. Name what you want. Your shields? I can make them ten times better. Your implants? I could give you upgraded tech. Engines? Rations? Ships? I have three fighters I own outright, the best machines in this whole cracked fleet. Their yours in exchange for the medicine.”

“I don’t want ships!” Lily shouted. She stomped her foot and a small cloud of dust danced in the waning sunlight. “I want Titan! I want time with him. Why can’t you give me that?”

Rowena tried to formulate a logical answer to an illogical request. “Titan’s time isn’t worth the medicine. It’s a bad deal!”

“Not to me.” There were tears in Lily’s eyes when she turned around. “Don’t you see? It’s all I want. A few minutes to live my dream. To have what I’ve always wanted.”

Attention. Rowena shut her eyes. “Fine.” Ancestors, forgive me. “I’ll talk to Titan tonight and bring him by first thing in the morning.  Can you get the medicine by then?”

Lily nodded with an eager smile. “I’ll get it tonight. Oh! Rowena, I can’t thank you enough! I’ve waited so long for this day to come!”

Rowena nodded. “I hope it’ll be everything you ever wanted.”

“It will be,” Lily promised. “It will be.”

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BODIES IN MOTION: Chapter 7

ROWENA

Start at Chapter 1

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.” Continue reading BODIES IN MOTION: Chapter 7

BODIES IN MOTION: Chapter 3

ROWENA

The com crackled with static. It didn’t too, Rowena’d had the part on hand for years now, but it was one of the little warnings that told her someone was trespassing into her domain.

Technically the crew, ship, and even her engineering section belonged to her captain, and Hoshi never let her forget it. Bit, since they’d held the same rank until the end of war, she couldn’t really find it in her heart to forgive him.

Now his round face appeared on the screen, thin-lipped and angry. “You have a visitor.”

Crack. She pressed her lips together and surveyed the partially dissected environmental array she’d been cleaning. With a shield over it, it’d be fine. “I can be up in the conference room in ten minutes, sir.” As long as they didn’t mind her looking like she’d gone straight from cleaning fryers in the kitchens to engineering and hadn’t showered since yesterday.

“Don’t bother. I’m sending them down.”

Which meant they were either Lees or …

Titan Sciarra materialized at the edge of the engineering safety doors wearing his all-black Star Guard uniform with the tiny gold leaf for his rank.

“Commander,” she said politely, not bothering to get up off the floor.

“Permission to enter?”

Rowena nodded and dropped the personal shield that kept the Danielle Marie’s engines safe from junior crew and her safe from everyone.

“Spring cleaning already?”

“If I can’t get these filter coils cleaned we’ll have to replace them and Hoshi doesn’t know who to trade for them.” She did, just like she knew almost everything else going on in Enclave, but Hoshi wasn’t going to ask and she never volunteered anything.

Titan sighed as he looked around. “I’m surprised your captain let me in if you’re this busy.”

She knew he didn’t say understaffed because he knew she didn’t let anyone else in the engine room. “Hoshi thinks you might be trying to court me. The Sciarras have better ships and political leverage. He’s willing to trade unwanted kin for that.”

“Um…” Titan looked nervous.

“It’s an assumption they run on, not me.” She put extra emphasis on THEY to differentiate the rest of the fleet from their little dangerous duo. “You’re bachelorhood is safe for another day.”

“Ro, if…”

She shot him a quelling glare. “We’ve been over this. I’m not using a marriage contract as an escape hatch from a bad situation. I don’t want to be Sciarra. You don’t want to be Lee. And, no offense, but I tried kissing you once and licking a wall is more exciting.”

Titan laughed.

Rowena went back to scrubbing coils. “What are you doing here in your all-blacks? Is this a formal reprimand for last night at Cargo Blue?”

“Nah, it’s a recruiting drive,” Titan said as he leaned against the bulkheads. “I want you to join the Star Guard.”

“Ha. Ha. Funny.” She made a face of distaste. Three years since they’d landfall on this vicious mudball of a planet, nearly 300 executions and banishments, and still the warmonger crew weren’t welcomed into the political system of the fleet.

Seats on the captain’s counsel were nice, and she appreciated that they’d spared her life – most days – but she’d find the Lee’s missing space station before the Star Guard offered her a job.

“What’s this really about?”

“Really? I need your help with something.”

If it had been anyone but Titan she would have kicked them out. But, he was her friend. Her only friend after last night. “Parts and repairs I can handle, but I don’t solve people problems. Unless we’re moving a body.”

“That’s close to my problem.”

She looked up in surprise.

“Do you know of any feuds going on in Enclave?”

“Besides the usual ones?” She pulled up a list on her implant. “I mean, the general Allied verse Warmonger tension is there. A couple of the smaller crews are scrapping over salvage rights. The Silars are baiting as many high-level officers as they can, and giving Carver blue balls in the process. Sciarras. Lees. Crack, I’d start a war if I thought you’d forgive me. Anything is better than this.” She gestured to the parts that should have been replaced a century ago.

“It’s not natural, fleet holding still. We’re explorers caught in this prison.”

“It’s for-” Titan started the standard lecture and she shut him down with an electric shock from across the room.

Rowena glared. “It was about safety. Three years ago. Now, it’s about fear.  Cultures that stagnate die. That’s what we’re doing here. We’re clinging so hard to the old ways that we’re going to strangle ourselves.”

“You saying you’re going to go marry a grounder?”

“Not if my ancestors came to a dream and told me to!” She spat on the floor. “A grounder couldn’t keep up with us. Not this generation. But, with training? Maybe my nieces and nephews could marry in.”

Titan nodded agreement. Grounders couldn’t keep up with someone augmented like they were. “How is Nia anyway?”

“Nine months pregnant, acting like she’s eighteen months along, and likely to kill you if you don’t use her proper name. Aronia is married now.”

They both chuckled.

“Ro,” Titan said. “If you wanted to attack the fleet, destabilize us, who would you kill?”

She raised her eyebrows. “What’s my goal?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“What do you know?”

“The Jhandarmi in Tarrin think there’s a credible threat to the fleet and a hitter has been hired to kill an officer. By officer I assume they mean someone augmented, but…” He shrugged. “That’s it. So, who would you kill?”

Rowena stood up. “For pure chaos, Perrin Carver. His crew was allied with the Baulars at one point. He has fire power and respect on both sides. He’s charismatic and well-known by the grounders. Kill the figurehead and we’d have chaos.”

“No, we’d have Marshall or a Silar,” Titan said.

“Killing Marshall is always a tempting thought, but it’s not a smart play. She’s nearly as powerful as Carver, held her own against the Baulars, and her family has political connections on all three continents. That’s not an anthill you want to kick.”

Titan nodded in agreement. “One of the Silars?”

“But which one?” Rowena asked. “There’s a few thousand of them. I’d murder Hollis myself if I were ever alone with him without witnesses for no other reason than I want to wipe that smirk off his face. But, there’s the problem.”

Titan raised an eyebrow. “To many witnesses?”

“No, too much skill. If you or I wanted to kill someone how hard would it be? Warmonger or not, we’re still among the elite. Who could take you down?”

He grimaced. “Carver and I are evenly matched. He has more brute force, I’m better at shielding. Hollis Silar…” Titan made a disgruntled face, “he’s wicked fast with a knife. Lots of brute power but low focus. It’s be anyone’s fight. Marshall is better at me with a shield, but doesn’t have finesse.”

“Marshall doesn’t need finesse. I’ve seen her kill with augmented force and her bare hands. Even if you won the fight, her ghost would kill you.”

“Which leaves you,” Titan said, “maybe my cousin Mars. My captain.” He paused. “Caryll?” It was a question, not an addition to their list of elites.

Rowena rolled her eyes at the name. “No-shot Selena? Perfect aim, decent shields, and no kills to her name. She’s too nice. And that’s beside the point. What I’m saying is that if we wanted someone dead, it wouldn’t be a matter of if but when.”

“Right.”

“Fleet doesn’t hire hitters. Especially not mud-loving grounders. Not for a personal vendetta.”

Titan crossed his arms. “So it isn’t personal.”

“Or the person is very weak.”

“It could be someone from outside the fleet hiring. Anyone around here would just find a warmonger officer.”

“Rowena,” Titan’s voice held a note of warning.

She held her hands up. “I’m just saying! If you wanted someone discretely vanished, all the fleet knows to ask a Lee. Unless they wanted you dead, of course,” she said as a bit of a joke.

Titan sneered at her. “You wouldn’t take work from a Silar anyway.”

“True.” She rubbed a hand over tired eyes. “This isn’t helping, is it?”

“We have six people who probably didn’t hire the killer,” Titan said.

“Out of how many billion on the planet?”

“Keep it simple. Let’s assume the client and target are both local. A grounder hitter means outside Enclave, because they can’t get past my shield without help.”

“So your victim is someone who might leave Enclave,” Rowena said. “That narrows it down a bit.”

Titan nodded. “A bit, but not enough.” His eyes glowed for a moment. “I’ve got an incoming transmission.”

Rowena nodded to her board. “It’s secure.”

The board turned on showing Perrin Carver looking furious. He nodded. “Rowena.”

“Commander.” She looked up at Titan, trying to guess how serious he’d been about the recruiting drive joke.

“Sir?” Titan looked wary, which was promising in some ways.

Carver eyed her and grimaced. “You need to get back here, Sciarra. We have a situation with the delivery.”

Rowena raised her eyebrows.

“Sir, you sent me here to get information,” Titan said. “It’s Rowena. She’ll know in five minutes even if we don’t tell her, and there’s a decent chance we’ll have to come back and ask her to use her connections to gather intel for us anyway.”

Carver frowned. “Why don’t you work for us?”

Rowena looked up at the catwalks running over the engine. “Mmmm… almost everyone in the Star Guard has tried to kill me at least once, and I’ve killed some of their family, and Hoshi would have a temper tantrum if you recruited me before one of his nephews. Oh, and I hate you all.” Her smile was sharp enough to cut bone.

“Wars over,” Carver said as Titan said, “She’s joking.”

:Am not.: She sent the thought to Titan on a tight beam. :None of them were there for me when I needed help. No one defended me.:

:This is me defending you. No more wars.: Titan’s voice stayed impassive but there was a rush of emotions attached.

She rolled her eyes. “Sorry, hangovers make me grumpy.” It was a weak excuse but Carver looked ready to forgive.

“There’s a problem with the supply delivery in Tarrin,” he said.

“I’ll take a squad to pick it up instead of sending two people,” Titan said. “It won’t be an issue.”

Carver shook his head. “It was dropped off last night and the alarm went off ten minutes ago. The Tarrin police called me and the Jhandarmi. You need to get to the main office and handle things here while I go figure out the situation.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll be there immediately,” Titan said.

“Are you out of your star-crazed mind?” Rowena demanded.

:Rowena Eden Lee!:

:Titan Sa’ĩr Sciarra!: Rowena gave him a mental push. “Perrin, we’re on lockdown. Did you slam your head against a hull this morning?”

Carver looked confused.

“You can’t go, sir,” Titan said. “If you die, there’s going to be chaos.”

“I can’t send a pair of rookies out there either! I’m not getting anyone else in the fleet killed today.”

The need to volunteer choked Rowena. She’d trained for this. Worked her butt off for years to know how to handle exactly a situation like this.

“I’ll go,” Titan said. “Captain Sciarra won’t mind, I’m a neutral party so none of the other captain’s will feel insulted, and my crew is stable enough that if something happens to me they’ll survive.”

“No!” Rowena protested in unison with Carver.

Agreeing with him left the taste of bile in her mouth.

On the screen Carver leaned back in his chair. “I know Tarrin. I grew up here.”

“I make a better defensive shield,” Titan argued.

Carver shook his head. “You don’t look like a grounder. You don’t move like one.”

“I’ve taken the training to leave Enclave,” Titan said. “I know all the distribution routes. If you’d let me go out to guard a minister from the OIA why not to do this? All I need to do is go to a building and check the records. It’ll take less than an hour.”

“A little bit more,” Carver said. “Teleporting in is going to attract the kind of attention you can’t afford.” He shook his head. “I’ll go. The family that adopted me after the crash still sends me clothes on my birthday every year.”

“I’m serious, Carver,” Titan said, standing up. “Sir. If someone’s going to get shot at, let it be me. I can take the hit. Even if I get killed, it won’t endanger anyone else. I’ll let my captain know I volunteered. Rowena is my witness.”

:This screams trap in big, blood-red letters.:

:Let someone try,: Titan said silently. :Let them see a Sciarra.: For a moment a flame-blue knife flickered into existence in his hand away from the screen, then burned out.

Carver looked unhappy.

“You know it’s the best choice,” Titan said aloud.

“Doesn’t mean I like it,” Carver said. “Fine. Go. Report back as quick as you can. Lee?”

Rowena raised her eyebrows in question.

“If you hear anything on the back channels about this, tell me immediately,” Carver ordered. When she didn’t respond quickly enough he snapped, “I mean it!”

“Yes! Fine! Good grief, Carver. You’re commander of the Star Guard not the hull cracking Marshal of the Fleet!” She rolled her eyes at him. And to think they’d almost been friends once. Ugh.

Titan slapped the com console, turning it off and making it wobble.

“Gentle with my tech. I don’t have the replacement parts for that.”

“You should have been polite.”

“I should also be a ranked officer who isn’t treated either like a pariah or a child,” Rowena said, trying to check her annoyance.

He winced. “I’m sorry. It’s not…” He closed his eyes and dropped his shield enough for her to catch the terror he was carrying. The fear that one wrong move would plunge them all into unending darkness.

Carefully, she wrapped an inner layer of her own shield around her sympathetic thoughts and then sneered. “All doom and gloom, Sciarra? Living in this gravity well is making your brain melt. This isn’t a problem. It’s a temporary setback.”

His laugh was weak, unbelieving. “And last night?”

“Bruised egos,” Rowena said. “I was mad Silar was paying more attention to No-Shot than me.”

A guffaw of laughter burst from Titan’s mouth and he gripped his abdomen. “Oh, ancestors! No! I have this image in my mind.” He covered his mouth and shook his head.

Rowena smiled. “See? It’s not all bad.”

“Remember when we did those training flights on the old fighters and the environmental system malfunctioned on mine?”

She nodded.

“It feels like that. I’m frantically trying to reset the system, telling myself not to panic, an praying to my ancestors that the light will flip back on. Every breath is getting harder. And… the lights not coming on.” He bit his lip.

“You survived.”

“I keep thinking my luck’s run out.”

She picked up the coils, working with her hands helped her think. “You crashed, that night. Mal and I thought you were dead. But you got home. Ancestors, or guardian spirits, or random chance… whatever. You teleported from the planet’s surface to the medical ward on your own power.”

Titan ran a hand over his damaged left arm. “I don’t know if I was entirely alone. It never felt that way.”

“And you aren’t alone now. I’ve got your back. If you get in trouble out there, holler. I’ll break your shield and come get you.”

He smiled. “Thanks.”

“Go on.” She waved him out of her engine room. “Go be a good little guardian and save civilization.”

“See what you can find out about all this? Please? Names of anyone who might be outside the shield, and anyone who might be nursing a serious grudge.”

Rowena nodded. “I will, but only because it’s you asking.”

“You’re the best, Ro.” Titan stepped into the hall to teleport out.

“Stay safe, Sciarra.”

She watched him wink out and then reset her shields.

An assassination and a theft. She hadn’t seen those coming.

Somedays she missed the clean order of battle. It had been awful. People had died by the dozens every day. But people hadn’t lied about how they felt.

If they were angry, they shot at you.

If they were happy, they told you.

If they loved you, they kissed you.

Not that anyone had loved her, and it wasn’t like she’d ever trusted the rest of her crew to have her back, but it had been uncomplicated. She followed orders, shot at her targets, and waited for death to enlist her in the Lost Fleet with her ancestors.

Now… she looked around the poorly lit engine room, silent as a tomb.

Now she had to make other plans. Death wasn’t coming for her, and neither were the living. She was in limbo, the living dead. Unwanted and forgotten by everyone but Titan.

Titan better come back safe.

The only reason she didn’t punch a hole through the Enclave shield and fly one of her ships off to the black was because she knew Titan would be upset. He’d already lost too many friends, suffered through being injured and helpless while people he loved died around him.

She couldn’t bring Mal back, or Titan’s parents, but she could make sure he had a friend no matter what.

 

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