BODIES IN MOTION: Chapter 18 (Part 2)

TITAN

Start at Chapter 1

“Taking your victims home is messy,” Titan said. “Unprofessional. Your DNA will be all over her.”

“Don’t worry,” Kaftan said. “I’m good at making these things look like accidents.” He smoothed his hand over his pants. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to go circulate. Can’t get a good auction if you don’t have buyers frothing at the mouth.”

“Kaftan?” Titan said, stalling.

The man turned. “What? What I says goes. Done is done.”

“This is a side matter, something personal.”

Kaftan slowed and pivoted back to him. “I’m listening.”

“During this operation, my employer hired some local talent. Sent orders outside our usual chain of command. Me and my fellows had a bet about who’s name was to be rubbed out. Care to give me a hint? I can make it worth your trouble.”

“Shame I’m a thief, not a liar, I’d love to take your money. But I don’t know. The supplier said it would be easier for them if a certain officer of the law was scrubbed out. Would have put the city on high alert if any more of them dropped. It was bad for business. If the supplier wants to do something now, that’s their business.” Kaftan shrugged as he walked off.

Titan stared after him in horror. Employers and suppliers did not add up to a small operation. He turned just in time to see Arwel sweep through a group of giggling women who were enjoying an anecdote from a dark-haired model.

“Sir! I apologize, I didn’t catch your name when you came in.”

“Ty is what my friends call me.” He watched as Selena moved out of view following one of the illuminated paths into the artificial jungle. “Was there something you needed?”

“Need? No. I want to introduce you to someone if you feel inclined to socialize.”

More like he wanted to steer his unvetted visitors away from the black market traders, but at this point any information would help. He hadn’t missed a mission briefing since he was fourteen, now it seemed like he’d have to reset the clock.

His host gestured for him to follow along a flagstone path. “Are you enjoying the garden?”

“It’s… interesting,” Titan said.

“Different than the formal gardens in Descent I imagine. I’ve been to Kytan, of course, it’s practical a requirement if you love horticulture, but it was the wind forests in Essan that really captured my imagination. The little rock pools and hidden forests tucked away in the rills and valleys were quite breathtaking.”

Titan nodded as he made a note to look up the places Arwel was naming.

“That couldn’t be done here, naturally,” the man continued on as the path snaked across a decorative creek and behind the crashing sound of the waterfall, “but I think my designer did a good job of catching the creative spirit of the original. There are hidden vistas around

every corner. And hidden beauty.” He stopped and smiled.

It took Titan a moment to realize that Selena was standing in the shadows of the artificial rocks watching the party. Their approach hadn’t triggered a response.

His approach hadn’t trigged a response. He’d expected their shields to synch again, but they weren’t. She’d reconfigured hers in the brief time they’d been apart.

Arwel winked at him and mouthed, “Good luck,” before slipping away down the path.

For a moment Titan let the moment be. Selena Caryll, alone in the moonlight and shadows, waiting for a chance to step into the spotlight. She was beautiful.

And tired.

There was the first dark shadow of fatigue under her eyes, a hint of strain around her eyes, a pinch to her lips that spoke of anger, weariness, and control. He wanted to take away her worry, rush her away from her, or fight the battle, or do whatever needed to be done to wash the darkness from her eyes.

Stepping loudly he walked up behind her.

Selena pivoted, a wide-eyed expression of startlement and fear on her face. For a drawn out moment she stared at him uncomprehending? “Titan?”

“Yes?”

She shook her head in disbelief, shields and data tight as the night she’d punched him. “You’re not supposed to be here! You need to leave. Now.”

“I will, in a moment.” If she gave him no other choice. “But I behaved badly earlier and I wanted to apologize.”

He expected her to draw up her shoulders and nod knowingly the way most people did when he acknowledged he treated them poorly. Selena only looked at him in confusion.

“This afternoon,” he said, slowly trying to feel his way across the sudden gap between them, “I left. With Lily Sekoo. Because she was injured, and I didn’t check on you. As your partner I should have followed up.”

“You were concussed, bleeding, and your implant was exhausted. You didn’t to do anything but get to the Sabiha’s medical bay without collapsing. Which it seems you did. Well done. Go home.”

“I came to make sure you were okay.”

Selena shrugged. “I received the medical treatment I needed. Does that satisfy you?”

“Not really,” he admitted. Again, he felt there was a key piece to the puzzle that was missing. None of her reactions made any sense. Immediate forgiveness was probably unlikely, but being locked out hurt.

She raised her eyebrows. “What?”

“I thought we’d developed a bit more of a dialog and I’d get more information than an ensign on their first day on the bridge.”

Glancing back through the trees at the part Selena sighed impatiently. “Would you believe me if I said it wasn’t personal?”

“If it didn’t feel personal, yes.”

She glared at him, blue eyes cold as the black between stars. “I did what you suggested and archived my war memories so I could focus on the task at hand.”

Titan expanded his shield so it brushed against Selena’s. It was like trying to catch mist in his hand. “Did I hurt you so much that you had to erase me too?”

“It was a calculated decision.” Her voice was chilly and distant. “Painful. Torturous. I can’t go through that again. I can’t take another loss like I did with the Persephone and my crew.”

“And, you think I’d leave you?”

“Wouldn’t you?” Her forehead crinkled as she let her fear bubble to the surface. “When this is over and you have no reason to keep company with me? When your crew, and captain, and allies start questioning why you spend time with that worthless Selena Caryll, what did you plan on doing?”

“I planned on asking permission to court you.”

She closed her eyes. “Oh, Titan.”

“Did you not want that?” He sorted through every moment they’d spent together trying to find the cues he’d missed.

“As a woman, yes, I’d be delighted to be courted by you. As a senior officer? No, I can’t let you for the same reasons your captain will reject the suggestion: I have nothing to offer.”

Titan took a step closer. “What do you mean?”

“There is no advantage to your crew if you court me. I can’t offer ships, officers, training berths, or even a social boost. I’m worthless.”

Force teleporting a captain somewhere so he could yell at her gave him an estimated survival rate of zero-point-nine percent, his implant informed him. Besides, he didn’t have a suitable venue picked out. Clearly an oversight.

Selena crossed her arms, signaling an end of the discussion.

“What about your intelligence?” Titan asked.

She shrugged. “What about it?”

“Isn’t that something you can offer? Your years of experience? Your contacts with the locals, which are obviously much more developed than you led anyone to believe. My captain doesn’t need ships, she needs to build a future. I need a future.”

“I doubt your crew would accept that argument.”

“Then I find another crew.”

The nearby waterfall seemed to grow louder as the silence stretched between them.

Finally Selena said, “You don’t mean that.”

“I do.” He tried to force a smile. “It was bound to happen anyway, wasn’t it? If you wanted to change crews you would have done it by now. That means you want to keep the Caryll name and any spouse will have to join your crew.”

“I don’t want to ask for that kind of sacrifice.”

“You don’t need to.” He risked taking another step closer.

Her crossed arms became a closed-shoulder self-hug. She shook her head. “You think you know how this ends. You think you’ll spend more time with me, learn my secrets, and still love me. You won’t. Whatever fantasy you’ve built in your head, I’m not that woman.”

“I don’t have any fantasies, not about who you are at least,” Titan said. “I’ve seen you work, and fight, and lead. I’m not promising you every day will be perfect, but the bad days together will be worth fighting for. I know that. Because when I’m around you I’m happy. I have hope.”

“Don’t do that,” she said, her voice breaking. “Don’t make me your source of happiness. I can’t give you that.”

Titan stepped close enough to reach her if he dared. “I’m not asking you for anything but a chance to be beside you every day. The good days and the bad. I promise you, I’ll always be there.”

She shook her head again. “No. No you won’t. There’s things I’ve done-“

“We’ve all done things!” He inhaled sharply to keep from yelling. “We’ve all done things,” he said again, quieter this time. “We aren’t children. We’re survivors of a war and there isn’t anyone here who can’t tell you who they killed, or who they wanted dead, or who killed someone they loved. That happened. There’s nothing you did that would make me think less of you.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Then tell me,” Titan challenged. “Tell me what you did that you think I’ll never forgive. If you’re right, I’ll leave. If you’re wrong…” He spread his hands in surrender. “We’re all wrong sometimes.”

Selena turned away, shields tightening around her.

“If you’re going to banish me from your life, shouldn’t it be like you’re imagining? Let me storm out.”

“Can’t you just accept that you’d hate me?”

He took a deep breath and resisted the urge to start the next civil war at some grounder’s garden party. Luckily, his ancestors had blessed him with a wealth of stubborn women in his life so he knew the right answer here. Very calmly he said, “You do not get to dictate my feelings or my reactions. You can give me facts, but that’s all you can do. I get to choose whether I am angry or not. I’m not an infant who needs protection. Let me take my hits like an adult.”

An angry silence shimmered in the air between them.

Titan smiled. “That’s what I thought.”

Selena frowned over her shoulder at him, half question, half condemnation.

“You’re not worried about what I think at all. It’s not my forgiveness you’re doubting.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“If your goal was driving me away, and you had a weapon to use, you’re smart enough that you would have used it by now.”

She turned slowly, unfolding with a quiet fury until she looked every inch a fleet captain. “Did it ever occur to you that I was trying to spare you?”

“I don’t need to be spared.”

Silver-blue lightning flickered in her eyes. “I shot you down. That night Balaur led the strafing run?  It wasn’t Hollis Silar with Perrin and Hermione, he didn’t have the fighters. I did. I took the shot that should have killed you.”

The memory was still raw, the smoke in the cockpit burning his lungs, the alarms and sound, the rushing sensation has true gravity grabbed him and pulled him down. His throat tightened around a remembered scream.

“I shot you down, and you weren’t there when Balaur needed you. You missed the war. You let people die.”

He shook his head, forcing his thoughts to the present. “No. That’s me. That’s survivor’s guilt. You may have heard the echoes in my mind, and I’m sorry for that, but that’s not me. I know if I’d been there for Mal I would have either died in war or been executed after. The Sciarra crew wouldn’t have survived. My Aunt Elea never would have taken control of the crew. Mars. Rowena. All of them would have died if I hadn’t been there after the war. I was the only Warmonger the Star Guard would take. Carver trusts my loyalty and common sense, and me being free of the war is the only bridge we had to rebuild on.”

“That doesn’t make it forgivable.”

“Maybe it makes it inevitable,” Titan said. “Maybe our ancestors knew and changed your shot.”

She curled back in on herself. “Or maybe I’m a worthless shot. If you’d died we may not have ever gone to war.”

Stepping forward he held out his hand, silently willing her to reach for him. “Our other was starvation. Maybe not for your crew, but most the Warmongers were low on rations. We’d been limiting births, cutting back training, we were dying. Landing at least gives us a chance to live, even if it means changing how we do things. I’m not ever going to be angry that you shot me down. It was the right choice.” He gave her shield a gentle nudge as tears filled her eyes. “Selena, I’m here.”

With a tiny grumble of forfeit she stepped forward into his waiting arms.

Titan wrapped his arms around her, lowering his shields so there was a place for her and her wet cheek rested on his chest.

“If you say I’m beautiful when I’m angry or something stupid I’m going to drop-kick you into vacuum,” she muttered as she hugged him back.

“Not a word,” he promised, though she was always beautiful. He traced the painting on her arm, the stars and comets with silver tails that were three thick, wide grooves in her arm. They started just above her elbow at almost the same place his scars ended.

Selena shivered and pulled herself together as her shield melded with his. Gently, she pushed him away. “I…”  There was a tsunami of emotions flooding his senses. She wanted to apologize, wanted to yell, wanted to run away from all of this, but the core of Selena had always been duty. Loving a captain was like that, it meant loving not only them but their work.

He leaned forward and kissed her forehead. “I know, the job comes first.”

“I need to go keep an eye on Kaftan.”

“He knows you were there today,” Titan said. “He saw you.”

She tossed her wet hair. “I was counting on it.” The words dripped fleet arrogance. With a smile she ran a hand down his shirt. “You really should go, though. You’re exhausted and you’re injured.”

“I’d rather stay nearby even if I’m not involved in the op. Kaftan said something that makes me think we don’t have a handle on this yet, and I don’t want you walking into this alone.” He shot her the conversation as he felt her gathering her objections. “I promise to stay out of the way and only jump to the rescue if you actually need.”

“Hmm, Captain Sciarra trained you how to be a second in command very well.”

He chuckled. “Don’t I get credit for doing anything on my own?”

“Mmmm…” She wrinkled her nose. “No. Not when you’re wounded. Maybe when you can fight back…”

The image of hitting the wrestling mats with Selena made his heartrate jump.

Soft fingers caressed his jaw. “It’s been a while since I had a training partner.”

“I’ll tell Silar he needs to find someone else’s ribs to break.” He kissed her fingertips before she pulled away.

Her smile was pure bliss.

“Couldn’t we leave Kaftan for the night? There are so many better things I can think to do.”

“Tempting, but if the Lees need the medicine, we need information now not later. If we catch Kaftan selling the information we can probably get him to hand over the details of the heist.”

Titan closed his eyes and sighed. When he’d pictured declaring his undying love to someone he hadn’t factored in the possibility she’d be in the middle of a mission. Although, considering the kind of women he was attracted to, that was a dramatic oversight. He made a mental note to warn his future children that chasing aggressively intelligent lovers would mean chasing them into the field sometimes.

Selena leaned in. “I can hear your brain overheating.”

“I’m making notes.”

“For children we don’t have yet.”

“It’s still something I need to remember.” She’d said YET. He was giddy with hope. “I should let Ro know I’m staying here for a bit before she raises a fuss.”

Nodding, Selena stepped away. “And I need to find Kaftan and convince him I’m enamored with his self-absorption and money.” She winked at him. “How do I look?”

“More beautiful than the moon and stars.”

She sent him a burst of affection and then hurried away through the shadows back to Arwel’s party.

:Ro?: He kept the message on a tight beam so he didn’t trigger any of the grounder’s safety precautions.

:Where in the name of my ancestors are you?: Rowena demanded. :Mars is pacing and I almost bit my nails.:

:Don’t lie. You never do that.:

She an image of a thread she’d unwound from her socks. :We’re worried. And bored. Mostly bored. Are you done chasing shadows?:

:I’m staying here tonight.:

Rowena responded with a memory of her banging her head on the hull of the engine room.

:It’s not what you think. Selena is helping the Jhandarmi and I’m being a perfect gentleman.:

:I know what that means,: Rowena said caustically. :And I can’t imagine you have the energy to make their whole team that happy in one night.:

He smiled. :I’m a talented man.:

:You’re going to be a dead one if you-: Rowena cut herself short.

Titan waited, then pinged her. :Ro? Are you okay?:

There was the faintest tracery of contact, a simple message on a distress frequency.

He pinged Selena and felt the message break apart as soon as it left his shield. Someone was jamming fleet communications. They were under attack.

 

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BODIES IN MOTION: Chapter 18 (Part 1)

TITAN

Start at Chapter 1

It was quiet downtown.

There were no generators running to keep the air pure in the ships; no family arguments spilling out of cargo holds to become fistfights on the rocks. On the horizon there was no wall, and no OIA building standing sentinel.

A light breeze ruffled luminescent leaves, pale and green, on the thin branches of the terraformed trees lining the road. Their soft light was enough frame the row of elegant homes, subdued visions of grounder wealth.

Caryll’s signature this here, but cycling, like she was walking in and out of a shield.

Titan raised an eyebrow and slipped on the Guardian Veil. A faint shimmer gave away a hidden shield over a large house in the middle of the block. There was a wide, inviting porch held up by white columns and three stories of windows.

There were smaller ships in Enclave.

He approached cautiously, testing the limits of the shield. The first layer was a scatter field meant to make people look away. It would discourage random intrusions but not much else. The next layer in—Titan jumped back, mentally stung. He’d wager a week’s pay that the next layer was set to kill anyone who touched the house.

It was not the kind of shield someone put over a Jhandarmi safe house during peacetime. It was a war shield meant to repel everything up to and including an orbital bombardment. Someone had been making a point.

The Carylls had a few shields like that, most of them tuned to attack only things or people with telekyen in their system. A groundsider was probably safe knocking on the door.

He wasn’t.

Rocking back on his heels, he grimaced. Teleporting home was probably the best option. Selena was safe enough behind that shield.

As long as she stayed there.

Her signal appeared again, inside the house next door to the heavily shielded one. When the Jhandarmi director had said there was a safe house in the area he hadn’t expected the two addresses to share a fence line. But the address was the one Kafftan’s victim had dropped.

Pulling his shields in close so that Selena wouldn’t sense him, he weighed his options. If she’d gone in it was to make contact with the Jhandarmi operative. It could mean nothing. It could mean trouble.

Titan hesitated, watching the movement of shadows in the windows of the house.

The door to the house opened, spilling light into the dark street. “Hey!” a figure in the doorway shouted. “You coming in, man?”

Titan tilted his head to the side.

“Party’s going raw!” The figured gestured wildly.

Telling himself it was due diligence, Titan approached, grateful he’d changed out of his uniform before going to meet Rowena. The long-sleeved shirt meant to wear under a pilot’s jacket and black cargo pants didn’t scream Fleet, although they probably weren’t the height of grounder fashion either.

As Titan drew closer, he could see the man, a tall and muscled man with blond hair pulled back in a bun. He was wearing shorts and nothing else.

Apparently, cargo pants made him over-dressed for this event.

The blond tipped his head. “You new in town?”

“I’m from Descent,” Titan said, a plausible lie. Hard for a Tarrin to check and he knew the accent. All he had to do was think back to Marshall’s first year at the Academy.

“Right!” The man held out his hand. “Arwel, Arwel Art and Design. Come on in. Did you bring swim gear?”

“Um… no,” Titan said as he stepped into the domed entry way. Life-size photographs of women lined the walls, all strikingly beautiful, all painted with elaborate body art.

“Stunning, aren’t they?” Arwel asked. “All mine.”

Titan raised his eyebrows. “All the women?”

“Oh!” Arwel’s eyes went wide in shock. “No, no, no. All the art. I painted them. I’m painting tonight too. Was that… Wasn’t that what you were expecting?”

An honest answer wasn’t going to work, so he found another lie. “I met a woman downtown in an art gallery and she mentioned she might be here. I found myself at loose ends this evening so…” Titan let him fill in the gaps.

“Brunette, blonde, or red head?” Arwel asked.

“Blonde.” Titan’s searched the gallery for Selena’s face, but she wasn’t on display.

Arwel’s face brightened into a wide smile. “Willowy blonde with fair skin and ocean-blue eyes?”

Titan nodded.

“Selena!” Arwel said. “She brings in the best international clients. She’s out back by the pool. I just finished her shoulder. Unless you’re an artist you probably won’t notice how flawless her skin is, but trust me, she’s the perfect canvas.”

“I’ve noticed she’s flawless.” In so many ways.

Arwel chuckled. “Yeah, good luck with that.” He patted Titan on the back. “That woman is married to her work. I have watched many a man and woman fly to that sun and be burned.”

“Moon.”

“What?”

“Selena means moon,” Titan corrected. “And I’m not Icarus. I doubt I’ll get burned.”

“That’s the right attitude.” Arwel clapped him on the back again. “Come on through the kitchen. There’s a guest bathroom with outfits over there if you feel like taking a dip. Have you been to an event like this before.”

Flight team parties probably didn’t count. “No.”

“It’s more a Tarrin thing, I think. This is a networking event. Jorjes Kerl of Kerl Investments is looking to hire new talent, so he scheduled with me. Anyone interested came come. I provide the venue, the food, the models, and everyone else gets to shine. You will notice the models are exceptionally food at getting your logo seen. Feel free to ask any of them about the advertisements painted on them. Everyone I hire is tested for memory and trained for sales. This is the least intrusive way to get your brand noticed by investors.” Arwel’s sales pitch rambled on.

Titan tuned him out, nodding where needed, as he assessed the situation.

The kitchen had been laid out with trays of food and drinks ready to be taken outside. Tidy packets of swim wear and towels were available for guests. He didn’t reach for one though Arwel made a point of offering the packet to him. Titan’d never learned to swim and didn’t see a reason to start now.

The gray-tiled kitchen flowed out to a seating area, then to a wide deck and a garden beyond. People in a variety of swim accessories moved between tables and lounging areas. Painted men and women worked the crowd, standing and posing in the lights before moving away again.

At the center of the garden was a waterfall, rushing over artfully arranged rocks into a jewel-blue pool lit from within. A plaster gem in an artificial paradise.

Arwel stepped up beside him, beaming at the stage he’d set. “Lovely, isn’t it? All the exotic colors of the islands without pesky things like traveling or insects.”

“It’s… something,” Titan agreed.

“Give it an hour,” Arwel said. “It’s early and no one’s relaxed yet. Once they’re done sorting out dominance and using up their best pick-up lines on my models they’ll start having fun. That’s when the real networking begins. Get two people chatting by the pool about what macroeconomics and a year later we have a new company in the commerce district. It’s magical!”

Titan didn’t even feign interest. Grounder commerce and capitalism were – thankfully – above his pay grade. All he was interested in was spotting Selena, and the Jhandarmi operative, before they spotted him.

A man in the crowd noticed Arwel on the patio and waved him over.

“Excuse me,” Arwel said. “I’ve got to go play host. If you need introductions, come find me.”

“I will. Thank you.” Titan nodded as Arwel walked away. A sweeper pass brushed against Titan’s shield like a cold breeze. In it he caught Selena’s now-familiar touch and an echo of concern. She was on guard, but not aware he was there. Yet.

It took all his focus to keep his shield from adjusting and melding with hers.

Behind him someone opened the patio door and then shut it with a slide and a snick. “Are you from Descent?”

“Yes,” Titan said as he turned.

Kaftan stood beside him. A little shorter than he’d seemed in the tunnels, bonier than most grounders, with a sandy stubble on his chin and red-rimmed eyes he looked more like a destitute dock worker than a thief and a killer. But it took all kinds.

“Didn’t I say I’d handle it?” Kaftan demanded, lips curling into a snarl. “Tell your lady I don’t need a bodyguard or a babysitter.”

Titan kept his face emotionless as a thousand possibilities flew through his mind. “I’m not here to do either,” he said carefully. “At the moment, I’m a casual observer.”

“Ha!” Kaftan stalked over to the ledge and gripped the railing like he meant to strangle it. “So you’re the cleaning crew.”

“Only if you need one.”

Kaftan’s right hand jerked to the front pocket of his pants, then darted away. “You can leave. Sonya and I had an agreement; she got what she wanted and I got what I wanted. Almost didn’t because of that fish-brained gizzard-eater who put a hit on the spacer.” He sneered. “It was me that made this work. Not you lot. Without me you’d still be sitting around panting after those parts. I made good on delivery. Any by-product is my profit, not your catch.”

“I’m not arguing with that,” Titan said calmly. “Still, this is a sale.”

“Yeah.” Kaftan shrugged. “What of it?”

Titan looked around. “Sales have buyers. Auctions have bidders.”

Again, Kaftan’s hand dropped to his pants pocket.

“I have money,” Titan said.

“Your own?”

“My employer has a far healthier account.” Carver was going to kill him. The guardian’s slush fund of grounder cash wasn’t enough to buy new office chairs let alone the information Kaftan was auctioning.

But Kaftan was already shaking his head. “Not happening. Rules is rules. Can’t do business with the same person twice in a row. It’s bad luck. Starts a pattern. Gets a man noticed.”

“There are different kinds of notice,” Titan said. “My employer is influential, powerful, wealthy.”

The thief’s eyes narrowed in pecuniary speculation.

“The authorities are only a problem if they can find you,” Titan said, dropping to a conspiratorial whisper. “With the right… friends… you won’t need back ally dodges and side hustles. You wouldn’t need to be guests at pay-as-you-go parties.”

Kafftan took a deep breath in, inhaling the possibilities. Then he stopped and shook his head. “No. No! Rules is rules. Besides, I have other things to do tonight.” He nodded to something in the distance.

Titan turned to look just as Selena stepped into view.

Creamy white skin and hair pale as moonlight… She was an alabaster goddess in a single piece of black fabric that Titan hoped wasn’t actually paint. Or maybe he hoped it was. Either way, she was all he could see.

His mouth went dry as Selena tied a sheer, black skirt around her waist and posed in one of the spotlights.

Her left shoulder was painted with a nebula and three shooting stars. When she turned, she was everything: night and stars, fire and magic, promise and hope.

Selena moved, breaking away to pose by the edge the pool. She took off her skirt, tossed it aside, and dove in.

Suddenly, Titan saw the merits in learning to swim.

Kaftan tapped the balustrade, oblivious to the exchange. “Lovely girl. Arwel says she’s here nearly every night. Pity, really, but she was in the parking garage earlier.”

Now that Titan looked at the shield running along Arwel’s eastern perimeter he recognized the familiar whorls of coding that were unique to Selena. A house next door. A job as a model. All those looks between her and Tyrling hadn’t stemmed from the Jhandarmi director’s frustration, they’d been coded orders.

“It won’t be a problem for long,” Kaftan said, misinterpreting Titan’s furious frown.

“Good,” Titan muttered.

Kaftan watched her. “It’s going to be a fun night.”

“Taking your victims home is messy,” Titan said. “Unprofessional. Your DNA will be all over her.”

“Don’t worry,” Kaftan said. “I’m good at making these things look like accidents.” He smoothed his hand over his pants. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to go circulate. Can’t get a good auction if you don’t have buyers frothing at the mouth.”

“Kaftan?” Titan said, stalling.

The man turned. “What? What I says goes. Done is done.”

“This is a side matter, something personal.”

Kaftan slowed and pivoted back to him. “I’m listening.”

“During this operation, my employer hired some local talent. Sent orders outside our usual chain of command. Me and my fellows had a bet about who’s name was to be rubbed out. Care to give me a hint? I can make it worth your trouble.”

“Shame I’m a thief, not a liar, I’d love to take your money. But I don’t know. The supplier said it would be easier for them if a certain officer of the law was scrubbed out. Would have put the city on high alert if any more of them dropped. It was bad for business. If the supplier wants to do something now, that’s their business.” Kaftan shrugged as he walked off.

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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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