Andi heard Dex inhale sharply as the feed filled with static for a moment. Then the holo flickered again, and the massive soldier came back into view. Andi leaned forward, utterly transfixed by his words. “Much of the galaxy has fallen to a false queen, but there are still many who have not. To the strong, to those who continue to fight for freedom—I am Arachnid. And I stand as leader for all those who refuse to bow to anyone’s will but our own.
“Find me,” Arachnid urged. “Together, we will build an army. Together, we will destroy the false queen.” He paused, and though he didn’t move, Andi could almost feel the threat of violence emanating from him as he spoke once more. “You cannot compel me, Nor Solis. I know what you plan to do. I know the horrors you will unleash, and I will stop you before it’s too late. Even if I have to drive the killing blade into your chest myself.”
Then the feed went black.
“We aren’t alone,” Lon whispered, but it came out more like a question. The only sound was Havoc’s rhythmic purring as he stroked the fuzzball’s horned head.
Dex slowly shook his head. “By the looks of it, no.”
“Could it be a trick?” Andi asked, wondering if this was all just a ploy to draw the Unaffecteds—as the news feeds called them—out of hiding. Nor wasn’t a fool. She’d managed to outsmart the entire galaxy, Andi and her crew included. Surely she’d do anything to bring others like Andi out into the open, where she could ensnare them once and for all.
“Why would Nor allow uncertainty into the feeds when she’s been pumping them full of propaganda all this time?” Dex said.
He had a good point. Which was almost as shocking as what they’d just witnessed.
“If there is a resistance group of some kind,” Lon mused, looking thoughtful, “then we need to get to them. We have to try, at least. They could help us rescue Lirana and the others.”
“Agreed,” Andi said slowly. “There are two things standing in our way, though.”
“I think there are more than two things,” Dex interjected, but Andi shot him a look that shut him up.
“Two major things,” she clarified. “One is that we are low on everything, and we can’t actually get to the resistance without getting supplies. Which means we have to leave the nebula.”
“But Nor’s forces are out there,” Lon said, blue eyes full of worry.
He’d expressed many times before that he felt like it was only a matter of time before their theory of being Unaffected was tested on him, if and when Nor’s soldiers found them.
“Which brings me to my second issue,” Andi replied. “Nor has control over the galaxy, and we don’t actually know where the resistance is hiding out. Any attempts to find them will probably be riddled with obstacles, so... We need to be smart about what we do. No acting rashly, no arguing on missions. And nobody gets left behind.”
Both Lon and Dex nodded in agreement. They’d all been affected, in their own ways, by the loss of Andi’s crew.
“We can’t hide in here forever,” Lon admitted. “The last month has already depleted us more than I care to admit.”
“So, Captain, what do you propose we do?” Dex asked, arms crossed, as if the answer were obvious.
Hell if I know, Andi was about to say. But then her eyes fell on the holoscreen before them. She pulled up the map of Mirabel, scanning it for what felt like the thousandth time in the past few weeks.
“We go to Solera,” she answered suddenly, tapping the ringed, frozen planet.
Dex’s brow creased. “Why Solera?”
“It’s the closest planet to us, for one,” Andi said, pointing out where they were on the map. “And it has a fairly small population, but since Solera’s a capital planet, we have a good chance of finding the supplies we need.”
“It’s also the farthest away from Arcardius,” Lon added, moving forward to study the map for himself. “Far from Lirana and the crew.”
“True. But it’s probably the worst possible planet for us to land on with a battered ship and limited food reserves,” Dex pointed out. “We’d have to land pretty damn close to a populated area if we want to survive the tundra long enough to stock the ship and then track down this so-called resistance.”
“Not great odds,” Andi agreed. “Look, I’m not saying it’s going to be easy...but we have a lead now, and we should follow it. Or else we’ll just wind up becoming space junk.”
It was something Breck would have said. Andi frowned, thinking of her head gunner, so far away from her now.
“And if it’s a trap?” Dex asked. It was so strange to hear him, of all people, being the voice of reason for once.
Andi glanced between him and Lon, her gaze falling once more on the subtle reminders that the girls were gone. The empty seats, the absence of Breck and Gilly’s laughter, the untouched stack of Casino cards that Lira used to love betting on. It could be a trap, but if they didn’t make some kind of move, the girls wouldn’t ever fill these empty spaces again.
“Then are you boys ready to be on the opposite side of the law again?” Andi asked.
“If we’re going to infiltrate Arcardius, we do need to take some risks,” Lon reasoned.
Dex’s eyes twinkled with mischief. “Risk and reward.”
“I’m beginning to see what my sister enjoyed about this life,” Lon said with a grin, setting Havoc down. The creature yowled before scurrying away, almost as if it were in agreement with the plan.
Andi smirked. “Okay, boys. Let’s go get our girls.”
CHAPTER 6 (#u01e82320-9dc3-59cd-94d1-d05dea2c1138)
Lock. Load. Aim.
Lirana Mette stood with her arms crossed over her chest, listening to the sound of organized destruction. A beautiful melody, really, for Lira had always loved chaos.
A firing squad stood around her, their synchronized motions a cadence in perfect time.
Fifty soldiers slammed their mags into place.
Fifty rounds, swiftly chambered.
Each soldier steadied their breath, squared their shoulders.
Lira had never been particularly adept with a gun, always inclined to raise her fists above anything else. But when Queen Nor’s reign began, she’d quickly discovered that her accuracy as a pilot served her well when aiming for a target. A deep breath, a rush of air from her lungs, and she imagined her hands were not holding a rifle, but delicately aiming a ship toward its destination as she squeezed the trigger. Her bullet shot straight through the center of the target across the warehouse in a single, glorious explosion.
Their mission was simple: keep the planet under control while recruiting new followers to Queen Nor’s rule. Any Unaffecteds they rooted out—their presence like a choking weed that dared to defy Mirabel’s rightful monarch—were to be shot with the silver bullets supplied by Aclisia, the queen’s head scientist.
“Again!” the soldier in charge commanded.
Lira chambered another practice bullet, remembering when she herself had been shot with the real thing. It was terrifying, at first. A moment of pain, then darkness as absolute as anything she’d ever felt before. She hadn’t wanted to go there, to be surrounded by nothingness. But in that dark place, she’d felt herself calming as another presence washed over her, almost ancient in its power. Otherworldly.