BODIES IN MOTION: Chapter 23 (Part 2)

TITAN

Start at Chapter 1

Another section of the hull fractured and buckled under the weight of someone’s rage.

“It’s not a bluff,” Titan said. The smell of fear and desperation filled the bridge. “There are officers who could destroy this ship.”

“They won’t,” Lily said. “We’re allies of the Balaurs. Of the Sciarras! Of the Warmonger crews. No one would dare go to war with us again.” Her face turned dark with rage. “I have other allies. Other weapons. I’ll take them all out.” She whipped around. “Put that out,” she ordered the comtech. “Tell the Allied crews to back away or I’ll fire on their home ships. I’ll kill their children if I have to.”

“No!” Titan strained against his shackles. “Belay order!”

The comtech hesitated, torn between duty to crew and fleet.

Titan sucked in the hot, stale air. “You can’t. Lily, it’s not the Allied crews. Carver would never do this. The Captain’s Council would never allow an attack. They would never get together that fast. This is one person. One Elite.”

She narrowed her eyes. “I can destroy one person.”

“You can’t.” He shook his head, ready to beg. “If it’s who I think it is, she has a ship in orbit that will take us all down.” If it was Selena, she was probably expecting him to rescue himself. “Give me an open line. Let me talk to whoever is out there. I’ll negotiate. For you. Whatever it is you want, I’ll find a way to get it for you if you’ll let me stop this.”

The comtech jerked his chin in an eager nod. The rest of the crew had fallen silent. The Acontinum floated there, wrapped in a deadly cage of telekyen and power.

“Please?” His voice shattered with fear.

Lily drew in a deep breath and her rage returned. “You had your chance. You had thousands of chances to give us what we were owed! You’re a traitor, and I’ll see you die as one.” She nodded. “We don’t need to teleport out. Bring the secondary engines online.”

“The old garbage burners?” The comtech asked in confusion. “Do those work?”

“We used them a few times during the war. They’re slow, but they’ll get us over the wall.”

“But… the shield?”

Lily lifted her chin. “It’ll be down.”

The techs scurried, rushing to secure themselves as the old tub rumbled.

It was a fight they couldn’t win. Maybe with a good crew, an officer or two with elite ranking, and some backup they’d have some hope, but like this? “It’s suicide,” Titan said. “Surrender so your crew doesn’t suffer. Lily, you need to surrender. It’s the only choice.”

“Incoming message from the Golden Apple,” the comtech reported, sounding happier than he should. “They have a sniper trained on the person below. There’s obscuring shield, but they won’t be expecting a grounder weapon.”

Lily smiled down at him. “Surrender is for cowards and traitors. I’m neither. Mister Esmer, tell the gunnery crews to go to their stations. Let’s see what the Allies think when we show them how we’ve spent the last few years.”

“Aye, ma’am,” a deep voice said behind him.

The bridge blurred as war memories threatened to engulf him. The feeling of utter helplessness that he’d felt when he was trapped in the medbay watching Mal and Rowena fight ran like ice through his veins. They’d had each other in the end, but Selena had no one.

He couldn’t let the Sekoos hurt her.

Titan braced himself for discomfort and turned his implant on, it was the only way. Fire and crippling pain crawled up his arm. He focused on the wires connecting him to the torture device, blocking everything. Still, in the background he felt an echoing scream of anguish.

Selena had connected to him and was sharing his agony.

Shaking, he fused the wires, melting them so they fell away from the cuff.

The hull buckled rapidly, sending screams of the terrified gunnery crew into the confusion. Running boots echoed ahead of the stale air rushed inward as the ship was devoured.

Aching, Titan stood as the light flashed out, cut with the power. Out. All he needed was to get out. But he couldn’t draw on teleport coordinates. He couldn’t focus. He closed his eyes, trying to find the one thing that would get him out.

And then the ship was gone.

He was standing outside, in the sunshine, staring at the rapidly constricting hull of the Aconitum crumpling into a ball, eclipsing the sun. The air hummed with a fury and a power.

Staggering, he looked around at the fallen Sekoos lying in the dust where there ship had been. They were all alive, although at least one of the men wearing a gunner’s uniform had a broken leg. He watched them, waiting for a response, but the stayed down.

It was the first smart thing they’d done.

Taking a deep breath of air chocked with dust he turned.

Selena stood alone, hand outstretched, glaring at the Sekoo’s ship.

The rest of Enclave was unusually silent, accenting the sound of screeching, tearing metal.

Titan limped toward Selena. Something was wrong. There was something catastrophically off and he was too muzzy headed to recognize it. “Selena?”

She didn’t acknowledge him.

“Caryll? Captain?” He reached for her hand and the air sparked bright green and gold. “Selena!” He shouted to get her attention. His words reached his ears muffled by unmoving air.

Titan looked up.

Nothing was moving in Enclave.

The dust he’d kicked up trying to reach her hung in the air.

Crews who had run outside to find out what the noise was were in a ring around them, silent and unmoving. Soundless. Not breathing….

He took a deep breath and tasted the same stale air. The kind found on dead ships and in very dangerous shields.

Selena hadn’t just put a battle shield up, she’d locked one down. This was a containment field. Isolating everyone. Limiting their movement.

He was the only one able to move through the mess.

:Do something!: It was Rowena on a tight beam.

He looked up, saw her trapped on the edge of the field standing next to his aunt. Their faces were a rictus of fear.

The sound of tortured metal stopped and the sun grew bright again. A ball smaller than his fist – all that remained of the Sekoo’s warship – dropped to the ground like a bomb.

“Selena,” Titan tried again. “I’m here.”

“They hurt you.” Her voice was distant, her eyes unfocused. The pain had drawn her back into the war memories. Whatever she was seeing was a ghost of the past.

The closer he drew to her the thicker the air became. It was like walking through thick mud. Every breath was a struggle. “Selena, you have to let them go. You have to let everyone go or you’ll kill them.”

“They deserve to die.”

“Maybe.” He pushed as far as he could on trembling legs. It wasn’t close enough. “Maybe they deserve this. Maybe the whole fleet deserves this for what we did. But not you. You don’t deserve to take this pain.”

Her eyebrows drew together in frustration.

“You’re not a killer,” Titan said. “That’s the one thing you have that no else can claim. We’re all battle-scarred. We’re all broken. But you’re bloodless. You don’t ever need to fall asleep remember the face of people you killed. You can’t. I know you, Selena. I know your thoughts, your heart, you’ll never forgive yourself for this if you let them die.”

The air shivered between them as a sea breeze snuck through her defenses.

He took a step forward. “Please. Not for them. Not for me. Please let them go because I can’t lose you, and I will. This will destroy you, and then I’ll be alone.” The air was getting easier to breath.

Selena reached out along their shared link, gently assessing the damage. Then the containment field snapped back in place. “They hurt you.”

He fought his way through the shield. “Not that badly.

Titan wrapped his arms around her. The sleeve of her blouse slipped up above her elbow revealing four deep, silver scars that merged into three.

“I don’t want to have another war. I don’t want to hurt like this.” A tear shimmered at the corner of her he.

He smiled, then bent to kiss her neck. “Love, I’m fine.”

Her hand dropped as she shook. The terror and rage were seeping out of her mind like a poison. “They made you bleed.”

“I did that by pulling an IV out.”

“They’re monsters.” The Golden Apple, the Sekoo’s family ship filled with their remaining crew, trembled. An engine collapsed on itself.

Titan held Selena tighter, trying to make her turn away from the remaining Sekoo ships. “Yes, love, but so are we all. Made of flesh and machine, cut off from the stars of our homeworlds. We are not the children our ancestors bled for, but we’re here. Making the most of every day we have. Making good choices and bad, because we’re human, and we’re only human if we choose. Right now, I need you to choose to forgive. To let them go. Please, Selena? Come back to me.” He turned her around so she could see his face.

The blue of her eyes burned brighter than burning copper chloride. “They hurt you.”

“Not badly. I’m a guardian, a Sciarra, I can take a beating.” He felt rather than saw her rage. “No. That’s not how this ends. You can’t destroy all their ships.”

“I could.” Her voice was calmer now, not threatening simply stating a fact.

He believed that. “It’s not the right thing to do.”

Selena took a breath, hesitating, uncertain…

“Drop the shield. Let the guardians take it from here. There’s more here than me being a little bruised. This is an attack on Enclave. On the fleet. And, right now, you’re the biggest threat. No one can breathe.”

She closed her eyes. For a moment it was like holding a statue; he couldn’t even see her inhale. The shield fell as she opened her eyes.

Air rushed back into Enclave with a clap of thunder.

Noise returned, a babble of voices and chaos.

People pinged him for information. The guardian’s channel was in an uproar. Every Sciarra demanded to know where he was.

Selena stood still, cold and beautiful as moonlight in the darkest night.

“Titan!” Elea pushed through the crowd with Rowena on her heels. “What happened to you?”

He opened his mouth to lie when a scream interrupted him. Turning, he saw Lily Sekoo stumbling forward.

Lily staggered to her feet, her face a rictus of pain and wrath. “How dare you?”

The crowd widened, leaving room for what everyone likely saw as a personal matter.

:Carver,: Titan pinged his commander. :Now would be an excellent time to stop the next war.: It was all he could do to stay standing and keep Selena from going nova.

Perrin Carver and Hollis Silar teleported in front of Lily.

She screamed wordlessly.

“Technician Lily Sekoo, you are under arrest,” Carver said, voice low and calm.

“You have no rights! No right! I’m a pureblooded daughter of the Empire. I was born to better things than licking grounder feet and bowing to weak fools.” Lily glared past the guardians to Selena.

Selena started. “Weak?” Her voice cut through the morning air like a knife. “You think I’m weak?”

“You let me live,” Lily said.

For a moment Titan thought Selena might change her mind about that.

Then she nodded. “Yes. I did. You will live. You will remember every choice you made. You will remember every single thing you did. It will replay in your mind until you lose your sanity. And even then, it will flay your soul so when your broken, withered body finally falls silent, there will be nothing for your ancestors to find. I let you live. Welcome to hell.”

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BODIES IN MOTION: Chapter 23 (Part 1)

TITAN

Start at Chapter 1

The engines were coughing. It was a stupid thing to think when he felt like he’d been hammered to the ground, and his implant wasn’t responding, but that was his first thought. The engines needed a tune up. Maybe he could convince the Lees to loan him Rowena for a week.

Titan opened his eyes, blinking not at darkness, but the half-lit gloom of a damaged ship that wasn’t the Sabiha.

A support beam leaned against the wall, cracked. The flooring had been ripped up to repair the wires. Ancestors, if his chief engineer saw this mess, the man would weep. The wires weren’t meant to be tangled. He shook his head, tried to turn on his implant, and screamed as his arm burned.

“Finally!” Lily Sekoo stepped in front of him wearing cast-off Baular battle gear with a Sekoo patch inexpertly stitched on. “I was beginning to think you’d never wake up.”

“Not to be cliché, but where am I?” Titan asked. His brain felt like it was swimming through oatmeal. “Why…” He looked down at his arm. Tubes with red and blue liquid ran from needles in his skin and a poorly constructed wrist cuff with more wires strapped him to an interrogation chair. “Ah.”

Lily paced in front of him. “This should have been finished hours ago, but your encryption is good. We’ll crack it in time. Don’t worry. But it is causing us an inconvenience.”

He rolled his eyes. Those exact lines had been in a very popular holovid when he was a teen. What was it called? Eden’s Fall? Something like that. The Baulars had been the villains in that one. Kidnapping a guardian and forcing him to reveal where the Eden was hidden. As if the guardians knew where the old space station was. He rolled his eyes. “Whatever it is you want, this isn’t the way to get it.”

“You may not feel it yet,” Lily said, “but your implant is draining. The nanites are being destroyed by the serum. You may not want to give up the code for the shield, but I don’t need it. As soon as your implant loses its charge, the shield will drop.”

Only if he were an incompetent idiot who kept the largest shield in fleet hooked to his personal energy source. He didn’t even have his implant on. It was the one major change he’d made after the crash; if his implant misfired, it turned off. Being unconnected from his crew and mechanical memory was annoying, but infinitely better than burning alive again.

He looked around at the broken ship and slumped in frustration.

Hopefully someone would notice he was missing before suppertime, because he could spend the rest of his life waiting for the Sekoo’s plan to come to fruition. Even Rowena couldn’t get this ship in the air again.

The sound of running boots on metal flooring made him twist to look over his shoulders.

Sadly, it wasn’t the guardians come to get him out of this ridiculous situation. Or his crew. He sighed and turned back, wondering if he was clear-headed enough to break everything and escape on his own. His focus was drifting, but in an hour or so when the knock-out drugs had cleared…

“Lily!” Another Sekoo stepped in, panting. “Captain Sciarra contacted The Golden Apple.”

Lily crossed her arms. “And someone answered? I gave orders!”

“She’s—” The man sucked in air like he’d run a marathon. “She’s talking about a Declaration of Courtship.”

“What?” Lily looked at Titan speculatively.

He could see her tallying up the advantages. Titan let her do the math. If Elea was offering anything, it was because she was already hunting for him. A little bit of patience was all he needed now.

The man coughed. “Said something about wanting you to transfer to the Sabiha so this one could spend time with you.”

“Oh, Titan…” Lily laughed. “That’s pathetic. Did you think I actually liked you? Did you think anyone forgave you after you betrayed the cause?”

“The cause?” Titan raised an eyebrow. “There’s a cause now?”

She lifted her chin haughtily, ignoring the belief in his voice. “You betrayed the Baulars.”

“I never even fought. How could I betray anyone?” Even without his implant the memories were too raw. Lingering guilt over deaths he couldn’t prevent.

And then he remembered the look on Selena’s face when she stood in the shadows and showed him the scars on her shoulder. If he was guilty, so was she, and he’d never hurt her like that.

“You were there when they banished the Baular heir. You could have saved Mal. You should have! You were his sworn second!”

“In school!” Titan argued. “And once I knew what would have happened when the Baulars won, I didn’t support their goals. Neither did Mal. He knew the war was stupid. That’s why he wasn’t executed.”

Lily sneered at him. “The Baulars promised us land. Power. Positions. They owe us. Win or lose.”

“Then go collect from the Baulars. They’re dead and you will be too if you try to start another war.”

“There’s no need for a war.” Lily’s eyes lit with the fervor of faith. “When the shield is down the Aconitum will rise, like a phoenix from the ash of despair, and destroy the enemies of the cause.”

“On these engines?” For the first time he felt genuinely worried. “Can I get off, please? Before you try to fly?”

Lily stamped her foot. “The engines are fine!”

“They really, really aren’t though. Can’t you hear them? Those aren’t engines you can fly on!”

“All they have to do is make us move.”

“And combat gravity!”

Selena was going to kill him. He wasn’t just going to die. He was going to die stupidly. “This is embarrassing.”

Lily chuckled. “You thought you were so special. A guardian. A Sciarra. The Baulars’ best fighter. How does it feel to be taken down by someone you wouldn’t give the time of day to?”

Titan looked up at the ceiling. “I was supposed to have breakfast somewhere outside the mess hall this morning. I am missing breakfast with a beautiful woman to listen to your bad ideas. Would you just—”

The ship tilted and Lily laughed with mad delight.

“Engines working, captain,” a voice reported from somewhere out of sight.

Titan shook his head vehemently. “No, they’re not. You hear that whine? Those are your stabilizers about to hit max capacity and overload. You have, what, seven of them running? Maybe eight? You’ll get a few meters off the ground at most.”

“We have three,” Lily said.

The Aconitum was a war ship one size smaller than the Sabiha. It ran with a bank of thirty stabilizing energy relays and common Sciarra wisdom was to shut down any ship that didn’t have ten fully functioning. Anything less was courting death.

Titan stared fatalistically at the wall. After all this. I almost had everything. He closed his eyes and pictured Selena standing in front of him. Hopefully she was with the Jhandarmi today.

The Enclave shield wasn’t going to go down, the Aconitum was. Between the shield, the Enclave wall, and the active weapons on other vessels, they’d never get far. Selena didn’t need to see his body pulled from the wreckage.

“We’ve reached an altitude of ten meters,” a man reported.

“Ten more,” Lily said. “We need to clear the wall.”

Titan shook his head.

“The shield’s not down!”

Lily turned to him. “Drop it, Sciarra. I know you’re barely able to hold it.”

“Put the ship down,” Titan said.

Lily took a deep breath and turned. “Activate energy cannons.”

“But—” someone smarter than her started to protest.

“Do it!” The order cracked against the hull.

“The energy will splash back on you,” Titan said. “On us. Your stabilizers won’t be able to absorb the overload.”

Lily crossed her arms. “They will. This once, they will.”

“Cannons two minutes to full charge.”

Two minutes? How had these yaldson castoffs survived the war? Two minutes was an eternity.

Something metal-sounding crunched, echoing in the dark ship.

Cold terror ran up his spine. “What was that?” It sounded like a hull decompressing. It was a sound that gave him nightmares. He’d been trained since he could walk to run from that sound.

“It’s nothing,” Lily said.

There was another spine-chilling crunch.

Titan’s eye twitched.

“It’s not decompression,” Lily said. She sounded brave but the pulse at the base of her throat was jumping. “We’re not in orbit. A ship can’t decompress on ground.”

Somewhere in the depths of the ship, someone screamed.

Titan focused on the needles in his skin. Teleporting with drugs in the system was always rough. Thankfully, the Sekoos hadn’t had the foresight to use grounder materials. The needles slid out, scraping against his arm, and leaving him to bleed freely.

“Lily!” Two more Sekoo crew came running in. “The engine room is collapsing.”

“Collapsing? How?”

“It’s… it’s crinkling in. Being squeezed.”

She shook her head. “That’s impossible.”

Titan squirmed a little. He’d need to turn on his implant to get the wrist cuff off and it was going to hurt.

Lily kicked him. “Why are you shaking your head?”

“The Sciarras… we’ve done that before. During the first war we had a few people who could destroy a ship by crushing it. We took out a few of the Carylls that way. My captain? She could do it.” Elea’s call to the Golden Apple hadn’t been a signal he was safe, it was a warning to get out.

“Bring on the stabilizers,” Lily ordered. “Whoever is doing this has to have a close focus. We’ll move out of their range to safety.”

The ship tilted under them as the engines whined in protest. There was another sickening crunch of metal and the ship lifted.

Tossing her hair, Lily smiled. “We’re out.”

“Captain?” The man at the com turned, face ashen. “Our… our engines are gone.”

“Then how are be airborne?” Lily asked.

He shook his head. “Someone’s… holding us up? Maybe?”

“Impossible!”

Not for an elite. Not for someone like Carver or Marshall. The only thing holding them back was the political fallout of an attack. Selena. He licked his lips, remembering her crumpling a heavy metal door as it were cobwebs.

“We’re getting a transmission!” The comtech yelled.

“From who?” Lily walked over to the console. “I don’t know that code.”

The man shook his head. “There’s high level encryption behind it. The message says, ‘Teleport out now’ with a countdown.” His voice was filled with panic. “Ma’am, I can’t teleport. I’m not augmented. What… what are we going to do?”

“It’s a bluff,” Lily said. “We ignore it.”

Another section of the hull fractured and buckled under the weight of someone’s rage.

“It’s not a bluff,” Titan said. The smell of fear and desperation filled the bridge. “There are officers who could destroy this ship.”

“They won’t,” Lily said. “We’re allies of the Balaurs. Of the Sciarras! Of the Warmonger crews. No one would dare go to war with us again.” Her face turned dark with rage. “I have other allies. Other weapons. I’ll take them all out.” She whipped around. “Put that out,” she ordered the comtech. “Tell the Allied crews to back away or I’ll fire on their home ships. I’ll kill their children if I have to.”

“No!” Titan strained against his shackles. “Belay order!”

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BODIES IN MOTION: Chapter 22

SELENA

Start at Chapter 1

Persephone’s face filled the cracked screen. “Captain, it’s good to see you alive again.”

“Likewise,” Selena said.

A skitter bot brushed past her like a cat.

“Commander Lee,” Persephone said, using Rowena’s rank from the war, “it has been five hundred years, twenty-three days, and thirteen hours since a member of your crew was welcomed on board.”

“Persephone, where’s my rank?”

“Your rank?” Rowena asked, finally breaking her stunned silence. “Where in the name of the nine stars are we, Caryll?”

Selena looked around the burnt bridge. “This is the Caryll flagship Persephone. In orbit around Malik IV.”

Rowena sputtered in protest. “You can’t just force a teleport from ground to orbit!”

“I can though.”

“She can,” Persephone agreed. “Captain, the rank you threw is under the logistics station. There’s a crack in the computer casing. You threw it with some energy.”

Selena knelt in front of the logistics station and blindly groped in the crack until she felt the cold metal of her captain’s stars. A golden circle around a field of golden dots and a single shooting star in the center. She stared at it in her hand until Rowena walked over.

“Why did we come here?”

Selena closed her fist around the rank. “I need to meet Captain Sciarra, and it can’t be informal. You’ll need to do the introductions.”

“You aren’t my ally,” Rowena scoffed.

“Persephone?”

“Yes, captain?”

“Draft a declaration of allyship, effective immediately for one Captain Caryll and Commander Rowena Lee of the Danielle Nicole.”

Rowena balled her hands in anger. “It’s yeoman.”

“No.” Selena stood up. “According to the Persephone’s records, you were never officially demoted. And only senior officers can sign treaties.” The data stream from Persephone flashed across her inner eye. “Here.” She shot the declaration to Rowena. “Acknowledge and sign while I go change into my uniform.”

Her uniform has where she’d left it before disembarking after the war. She’d thrown her rank, because no captain would leave their ship and because she’d been too much of a coward to die like she ought to have. Selena ran her thumb over the stars. It had seemed like the easier choice back then. Walking away from the wreckage and letting herself get caught in the flow of rebuilding. Carver had given orders. She had obeyed. Tyrling had given orders. She had obeyed.

 

For years she’d been drifting. Cut off from family and crew and what was the difference? A little more oxygen. A slower death, but a death all the same.

And then there was Titan.

The memory of his smile, his kiss, strong hands holding her and the promise of so much more. Titan was offering her life after death. And she couldn’t find him.

The wall beside her buckled and Selena jumped in surprise.

“Captain?” Persephone’s face appeared on a corridor screen. “Is everything well?”

She stared at the damage she’d caused. Lashing out was something she’d learned to control when she’d put on her first gauntlet. The Caryll implants were too sensitive to allow someone who couldn’t control their emotions to be augmented. “I need to locate Titan Sciarra and I can’t.”

Persephone’s face split in static lines then reformed. “I have targeting computers online, Captain, but my sensor array is still non-functional. Would you like me to put those repairs at the top of the priority list?”

Selena was about to say no, then nodded. “Yes. Top priority. If this doesn’t work I’ll need them.”

“Estimated time to repair is one hundred fifteen hours.”

“Understood.” In the quiet of the Persephone’s war room, she changed into the navy blue flight uniform with the silvery-gold piping and the Caryll’s twelve-star insignia on her shoulder. She walked out to see Rowena waiting in the center of the bridge. “Are you ready?”

“To rescue Titan? Yes. To get between two feuding crews? Never. But I’ll do it anyway.”

“That’s the spirit, Lee.” Selena grabbed Rowena in a modified shield and transported them down to Enclave on the outside of the Sciarra shields.

Rowena landed beside her, scowl in place. “I’ll go talk to them.”

“They see us,” Selena said as a sailor waiting at the ramp moved toward them. “Give it a minute.”

The sailor approached. He grimaced at Rowena, and his frown deepened when he saw Selena. “Yes?”

“Captain Caryll for Captain Sciarra.”

The sailor squared his shoulders. “The captain isn’t expecting you and isn’t taking social calls at this time.”

Selena glanced at Rowena and nodded.

“I’m here at the behest of Captain Sciarra,” Rowena said. “She asked me to report back on an urgent matter.”

“Fine. What about you?” He nodded to Selena.

“I’m the urgent matter that Commander Lee is reporting on. If you hurry, there won’t be a war.”

His eyes widened in fear as shuffled backward. “I’ll… contact the captain immediately. Please wait here.”

“Thank you.” Selena took a breath and scanned for Titan again.

Nothing.

If he was hurt… She couldn’t let her mind go down that path. She couldn’t give room for the fear that he’d been taken from her after they’d only just found each other.

“Incoming,” Rowena muttered.

The sailor was running their way.

Selena allowed herself a tight smile of victory. “I thought they’d see things my way.”

“Watch it, you’re starting to sound like Marshall.”

“Ma’am, yeoman.” The sailor sounded slightly panicked. “Captain Elea Sciarra welcomes you the Sabiha and requests you teleport directly to her office. If you’ll hold out your hands I’ll transfer the necessary codes.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Selena said. She entrapped Rowena, shield and all, and transferred them to Elea’s office. It was very satisfying to see the look of indignant shock on Rowena’s face. But there wasn’t time to indulge. “Captain Sciarra, thank you for welcoming us.”

Elea Sciarra stood. She looked older than she had across the room at the Captain’s Council. More stretched. More stressed.

“Captain Caryll, Yeoman Lee. I presume you bring news about Titan?”

“We have a theory,” Selena said. “After conferring with Commander Lee, it seems likely that Titan is being held by the Sekoos. Since they won’t communicate with the commander or myself, we’ll need your help.”

Elea looked at Rowena. “I believe her rank is Yeoman.”

Rowena nodded.

Selena shrugged. “The Caryll crew never recognized her demotion, and we will continue not to recognize her demotion. I may not love everything about the commander, but I won’t have a fleet officer insulted.”

There was a ping against her personal shield; Rowena trying to get clarification.

Selena pinged her, sending a flurry of memories of Titan praising her and the understanding that Titan and Rowena would always be close. Rowena was important to Titan, so Rowena was falling under Caryll protection whether she wanted it or not.

Captain Sciarra raised her eyebrows. “Now that you mention it, I can’t find any record of the Sciarra crew accepting the demotion in our records.”

Selena nodded to Rowena.

With a heavy sigh, Rowena nodded back. Her eyes lit up, a glowing black with silver streamers of light. “Now this moment shall be recorded for posterity.”

The formal words sent a shiver of fear up Selena’s spine. Generations had passed since the Carylls had made an alliance like this. Ancestors forgive me. I fell in love. Accept him. Welcome me. The prayer was as long as a heartbeat, and just as important.

“Captain Elea Sciarra, born aboard the glorious ship Hazel Ying Lee, you are an ally of Lee crew, laud and honor to you. I am Yeo-ommander,” Rowena tripped over her title. “I am Commander Rowena Lee, born aboard the glorious Danielle Nicole, flagship of the Lee armada. Captain, I wish to formally introduce you to Captain Selena Caryll, born of—”

:The Diana,: Selena said.

“Born of the glorious Diana.” Rowena took a deep breath and gave her a side-eye glare. :I can’t believe I am going to say this on official fleet record.:

:Do it for Titan,: Selena said, keeping her eyes on Captain Sciarra.

“Captain Caryll is known to me. She is a fierce fighter with combat skills.” Rowena rolled her eyes. “She is praised, and honorable. A good captain.”

Selena could hear Rowena grinding her teeth.

“Before her, enemies flee,” Rowena said. “Or they are destroyed. In the defense of Malik IV she destroyed Bassi, Aryton, Theoano.” All Lee ships. “She defeated the Baular flagship Sárkány. I recommend her to you as an ally.”

Captain Sciarra raised an eyebrow. “Why does that sound like a threat?”

“Because Commander Lee values military might,” Selena said calmly. “What she does not mention is that I have powerful allies who will becomes your allies. I have contacts in the city-states of Tarrin and Royan. Allying with me will open trade for your crew, entry to training programs on Malik IV, and access to the Tarrin universities. I also have lands and holdings should you wish to house your crew in shielded places outside Enclave. Furthermore, I come with a gift of priority Caryll tech.” She held up a datdisk she’d brought from the Persephone.

Captain Sciarra nodded. “Is it the targeting program you used last night in defense of the Jhandarmi?”

“It’s an invasive code that can decrypt an enemy’s code in a matter of minutes, giving you full access to their computers.”

Rowena sucked in her breath in surprise.

“You have something like that?” Captain Sciarra’s eyes narrowed. “If you did, why didn’t you use it?”

“The Caryll senior officers considered it too dangerous,” Selena said, still holding the datdisk out. “I haven’t written a counter program to it. Yet.”

“Commander Lee, the Sciarras offer you our thanks. Captain Caryll, your offer of allyship is accepted.”

The light in Rowena’s eyes died. She shook her head to clear it and wrinkled her nose.

Elea Sciarra took the datdisk. “What is your plan?”

Selena took a deep breath. “I think Titan is with the Sekoos. They’re one of the few crews with access to the grounders, they had rights to the warehouse, have grounder contacts-“

“None of which adds up to them taking Titan,” Rowena argued. “Being a Warmonger doesn’t automatically mean they contributed.”

“No, it’s not about them being Warmongers. It’s about the explosion.” The thought had been nagging her all night. “It was out of place. Unless someone was targeting Titan. The Jhandarmi knew there was an assassination ordered, but the assassin didn’t survive. Kaftan blamed his suppliers.”

Captain Sciarra frowned in thought. “Why my nephew?”

“The shields,” Selena and Rowena answered in union.

With a glance at Rowena, Selena nodded. “The Enclave shield tracks anyone who moves through it, and everyone knows Titan wrote the code. Earlier they might have just wanted a window to move goods, but now they’ve lost Kaftan and their contacts, their plan is crumbling, they need to get out. Titan makes a good hostage.”

“How does this work?” Elea asked.

Contact the Sekoos and talk to them. Anything that will keep them connected for at least a minute. The program here will hijack the com link and search for Titan.”

“How?”

“It’ll identify anyone with two implants,” Selena said. “Titan still has parts of the original implant fused to his bones.”

Captain Sciarra inhaled sharply. “That was classified information.”

“There’s only one way Titan got those scars on his arm and no medic in the fleet would have authorized a full removal,” Selena said with an apologetic shrug. “Don’t waste secrets on something anyone with half a brain could figure out.”

“It’s a good way to find Titan,” Rowena said.

She hadn’t expected backup, but it was nice.

Elea nodded. “If I can verify that they have Titan?”

“Tell me which ship they’re in and I’ll handle the rest,” Selena said.

“Shouldn’t we call the Starguard?” Rowena protested. “We don’t want another civil war.”

“Don’t worry.” Selena smiled. “I have every intention of making sure they understand this is a personal matter.”

With a nod, Elea walked back to her desk. A blue shield shimmered into place as she made the call.

Selena looked over at Rowena. “You’ll want to stay back until you see my signal.”

“And what’s that likely to be?”

“When people start screaming, you can come running. If I’m dead…” She smiled. “I’m sure you’ve kept up your combatives practice. Feel free to kill them all.”

“You were weird to begin with. I don’t think I like this creepy side of you.”

“I’m not creepy. I’m angry. And no one in fleet has ever seen me angry.” She chuckled to herself. “Actually, I’m kind of looking forward to this. I’ve never had a chance to let loose.”

Rowena looked skeptical. “You’re going to lecture them to death?”

“Killing people isn’t what wins wars. If you want to truly defeat someone, you crush their hopes and dreams. Let them sit by as everything they love dies. You break them without ever shedding a drop of blood.” She took a deep breath, inhaling the cool, clean scent of ship’s air. “It’s what the fleet did to me.”

 

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Will the ending of BODIES IN MOTION be posted online?

Lovely Reader says…

Hey Liana, I was curious if your serialized version of Bodies in Motion was done at Ch 21, if there are more chapters coming, or if one needs to buy the book to finish the story. Since your site says it’s serialized through 9/8, I just wanted to be sure…

ANSWERS: The original plan was to have the whole book on the blog by Sept-8 (now updated!). That did not happen. The original plan was also for BODIES IN MOTION to be a novella. That. Did. Not. Happen.

So ignore the September 8th finale plans.

Chapter 21 finished posting on Friday, and there are 25 chapters in the finished novel ( which is 88,500 words long – or roughly 350 pages). That means the last chapter will publish after the release date. But it will publish.

CHANGES: With all serial projects like this there are some scenes that get changed in edits. These aren’t major changes, it’s more aesthetic work… fixing the make up, adjusting the typos, giving the pacing a little nip and tuck… If you opt to keep reading the unedited draft on the blog you won’t miss much. If you opt to buy the ebook or print edition you’ll find there’s a little bonus material, including character bios and chapter one of LAWS OF ATTRACTION.

You can pre-order the ebook now for $4.99
Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Kobo | Inkprint Press

Print Editions will also be at Conflux 2017 in Australia. I will, sadly, not be attending Conflux but Amy Laurens will be there with all the Inkprint titles including the Even Villains… series, Bodies In Motion, and her own Roads Between series.

Signed Editions I haven’t found a local bookstore to partner with for signed editions yet so those are going to be rarer. There will be a giveaway for a signed edition next week, and if you don’t win that you can order a signed edition directly from Inkprint Press starting September-19.

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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