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?”
“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?”
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.
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.”
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.”