And yet, as Andi stood on trembling legs, surveying the cargo bay of the Marauder, the feeling in her bones was not one of victory.
Rather, it was one of defeat.
Loss was a crippling thing, a beast that did its very best to conquer even the strongest of souls. With each life she took, a voice in the back of Andi’s mind whispered the same question.
How can one truly be an enemy, if they’re being controlled?
Andi staggered forward, a pinch in her side alerting her to the presence of a wound. There was too much blood on her to discover the source, too much exhaustion for her to care.
They’d come for her, knowing she’d survived the attack on Arcardius weeks before. The fight had lasted mere minutes, and the bodies were now scattered all around the cargo bay, still fresh, still bleeding out. All of them wore the sleek, dark uniforms of Xen Ptera. The queen’s sigil, shining gold on their armored chests, glared at her from all around.
She’d won this time, but more would come.
More always came.
Andi growled a curse as she saw movement in the corner, behind the rubble of a smashed crate. A gloved hand, stretching out from the shadows. One of the soldiers, mask still in place, was struggling to hold on to life.
She thought she’d finished them all off.
Andi stumbled forward, and the room wobbled, going in and out of focus. She blinked, suddenly realizing that much of the blood must be from her own wound, and pressed onward, stepping over fallen soldiers until she reached the only other living soul on this ship.
“Please,” the voice begged, the exterior com of the soldier’s helmet crackling. Half of it was bashed in, likely from one of Andi’s hits. “Please.”
The sound of that voice...
Something tugged at Andi from within.
The soldier’s hand lifted, reaching for the helmet, trembling as it moved upward.
Andi leaned forward and removed the helmet herself, wondering why she was doing it, even as the soldier’s face was revealed.
“Help me,” the soldier gasped, this time not through a com, but through bloodied lips.
A young woman with eyes the color of a clear sky. Her skin was an ashen gray instead of its usual ocean blue, and pain filled her eyes as she stared up at Andi, breathing her last few breaths.
“Lira,” Andi whispered. “What are you doing here?” The shock faded, giving way to horror as she stared at Lira’s rapidly paling face. Andi gathered her friend’s fallen body into her arms, choking on a sob. “I’m so sorry, Lira. I can stop this. I can fix you.”
But the blood was pooling out of Lira’s lips now.
“Come closer,” Lira whispered. Her chest rattled, heaved, as she sucked in a breath.
Andi bent down, agony shredding her heart. How had she done this? How had she not known her best friend was inside that uniform?
She felt Lira’s wet lips touch her cheek as she spoke again. “You killed me. You killed us all.”
Then Lira began to laugh. A sickening, howling laugh that struck Andi deep, rattling her bones. She skittered backward, away from her friend’s dying body. Her head spun as she turned, realizing Lira’s laughter had multiplied.
The fallen Xen Pterran soldiers were gone.
In their place, it was her crew who lay dying.
Gilly, with braids the color of fire.
Breck, her beautiful dark skin now coated with blood.
Lira, those sky-blue eyes growing empty and cold.
All of them, barely alive and bleeding out.
“No,” Andi said, nearly choking on the word. “No, this can’t be happening.”
She lifted her hand, realizing she was gripping the dagger again. It was wet with their blood, and yet she didn’t remember any of the hideous act. Andi’s body felt a million miles away, her mind screaming at her to make sense of the scene. To change it.
“Very good, Androma,” a woman’s voice said from behind her. “Now bow to me, before you become like the rest of them.”
Andi turned slowly, her heart filling with dread. For she knew that voice, and the monster who possessed it.
Queen Nor Solis, the leader of the Olen System, stood in the cargo bay of the Marauder. Valen hovered beside her, both of them smiling like demons released from the mouth of hell.
“I will never bow to you,” Andi seethed.
Then her crew members stood, dead no more. They moved to flank the queen, expressions of adoration on each of their faces. And seeing her girls at Nor’s command, like a pack of smiling wolves...
The sight brought Andi to her knees.
She’d lost them.
She’d failed them.
And now she would die.
* * *
Andi woke with a start.
The horrors of her dream were vanquished as a new nightmare materialized before her bleary eyes. Red lights flashed in the doorway to her quarters, in unison with the blaring sirens that resonated across the ship. Confusion racked her brain until realization came rushing inward.
She’d fallen asleep studying a map of Solera, Lon and Dex in charge of charting their course...
Something was very wrong.
Andi leaped up from her cot and ran into the main corridor. With each step, the clamor of the alarms felt as if it was vibrating in her bones. Her tired muscles screamed as she hoisted herself up the ladder, almost running into Lon as she scrambled onto the landing. He was kneeling on the ground before the door to the bridge, twiddling with wires.
“What’s going on?” she demanded.
“The ship is going into meltdown,” he told her. “I don’t know why. But everything is shutting down, including the doors. I can’t seem to get them open.” He dropped the two multicolored wires in a huff.
“Where the hell is Dex?”