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.”
“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?”
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?”
“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 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!”
“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.”
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.
“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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