Her eyes were wide with fear and rage. Her entire body had begun to shake. “Where. Is. My. Crew?”
She sat up so suddenly he couldn’t stop her, the lurching movement so rough that she cried out in pain. The cup clattered to the floor. Her hand became a vise over Dex’s, his fingers crushed beneath hers. She gritted her teeth and swung her legs over the edge of the bed, facing him head-on, and pain flared in her eyes as red began to blossom against the white of her bandages.
“Where are they?” Andi asked. “Please, Dex. Tell me where they are.”
“They’re...” How could he be the one to break her with such news? He’d only just earned back her forgiveness mere days ago, after years spent hoping to find a place in her heart once more, and now he’d betrayed her again. He was a coward. A failure, for not being able to save her crew before Nor had overtaken them. “Godstars, Andi. I’m so sorry. We left them behind.”
He hated the words the second they fell from his lips, but what was he to do? He couldn’t hide a damned thing from her. She’d already seen the answer in his traitorous eyes, and that the moment she left this med bay, she’d find the ship cold and empty, Lon the only other soul aboard.
“No,” Andi mouthed. So silent, Dex could hardly hear the word. She shook her head, disbelief flooding her features, darkening the half circles beneath her eyes. “No.”
“There was no way for me to get to them in the aftermath of the attack,” Dex said, his voice choked. “The last I saw, they were alive. But they were... Andi, they joined with Nor.”
Everyone in that Arcardian ballroom had. Everyone but Dex and Andi and a few others, but Xen Pterran soldiers had slaughtered those other people at once.
He’d never forget the way that Andi’s fierce crew had fallen. How they’d risen again, and hailed Nor as their queen. Leaving them behind had pained him, still haunted him.
He would relive that day forever in his heart and in his mind.
“We have to go to them,” she insisted. Before he could open his mouth to respond, Andi was on her feet, the loose gray pants she wore swishing as she whirled and stumbled for the door.
“Andi!” Dex lunged toward her. “Stop!”
She slammed the red exit button beside the door, then wobbled and nearly dropped to a knee, gasping in pain. But she recovered as the door opened, the silver hallways of the Marauder waiting beyond. Dex leaped in front of her, arms outspread.
“You have to rest,” he said. “You’re going to rip open your stitches even more. Valen almost reached your heart.”
Andi looked down at her chest, as if just noticing the wound for the first time.
“I wish he had reached it,” she said, eyes wide and reddening with tears that Dex knew she wouldn’t shed. “I don’t want to live without them.”
Already, her blood had soaked through the bandage. Andi wobbled, leaning against the door frame. She had too many pain meds in her system. She hadn’t eaten in days. Dex didn’t even know how she was still standing.
“Move,” she growled. “Please, Dextro. Before I move you myself.”
“Don’t you think I want to?” Dex asked. “Andi, I’ve hardly slept since we left them behind. I’ve hardly eaten, hardly done anything but sit by your bedside and relive that night in my mind.”
Gilly. Lira. Breck.
They’d become important to Dex, too. And he’d betrayed them, betrayed Andi, by leaving them behind. Even Lon, normally so gentle and calm, had looked as if he’d wanted to kill him when Dex arrived on the Marauder with Andi and the general in tow, but without Lon’s twin sister, Lira.
Why had it all fallen to Dex? He couldn’t change the tide of this war alone.
He swallowed hard. “There’s nothing we can do. Nothing. You weren’t conscious. You didn’t see what happened to them. You didn’t see how they changed.”
Dex reached out to grab her shoulders, to guide her gently back to the bed, but Andi screamed in fury, slamming the wall with her fist as she stumbled away from him.
“Damn you, Dextro. Get the hell out of my way!”
“Please,” Dex begged. Already he could feel the weakness inside of him, that hideous fear of losing her again when he’d only just gotten her back. “Please, just let me help you. There’s nothing you can do for them, Andi. Not before you rest and heal.”
“You can’t do this to me,” she whispered. Her voice shook. “Please, Dex. You can’t hurt me like this.”
“I’m trying to protect you.” Because I love you, Dex thought. But the words failed him, and his hands fell to his sides.
“I don’t want to be protected,” Andi said. “Not now.” She turned around, shoulders slumping as she pressed one hand to her chest and shuffled back toward her bed, breathing heavily.
Dex ached, seeing her this way. He ached because he was a traitor to her, a traitor to her crew. But there was no way to save them. Not now, at least. Maybe not ever. He still didn’t know how Nor and the Xen Pterrans had taken control, or what was in those silver bullets, or if there was any way to reverse what had been done to everyone’s minds.
And he had no idea how far and how wide Nor’s reign had spread in the days since they’d fled Arcardius. For all Dex knew, Nor now had control of the entire galaxy.
“I swear to you,” Dex said, trailing Andi across the room. “I swear on my life, Andi, we’ll figure out what Nor did to your crew. We’ll figure out a way to get to them. We just have to—”
Andi whirled around, her face a mask of pain as she swung her fist at him.
Dex ducked reflexively, but the hit connected at the last moment. He gasped at the pinch of pain in his neck. Then a languorous warmth flowed through him, as if he was sinking into the hot springs of Adhira.
Dex reached up slowly, dreamily, his fingers clumsily removing the empty syringe buried in his skin. The same syringe that had just been sitting on the bedside table, left there by Lon, should Andi wake in too much pain. The syringe full of soduum, a potent pain medication.
“Why?” Dex gasped. But he should have expected something like this. The syringe fell with a soft clink to the floor, and Dex followed, hardly aware as his knees hit the ground. He knew he only had moments before the soduum would steal him away. Warmth swam through his veins, too fast for him to ignore, already beckoning him to enter the folds of deep sleep.
He heard gentle footsteps and ragged breathing as Andi stepped closer. When he looked up, her features were already melding together, fuzzy at the edges as she stood over him, her chest bleeding bright red in the stark med bay lights. A trickle of blood seeped out from the wrappings, staining her shirt as it slid down her abdomen.
“I’m sorry, Dex,” Andi said, her voice like a funeral dirge as his head hit the floor. “There is no me without them.”
When she left the med bay, she was no longer Androma Racella.
The Bloody Baroness stepped into the halls of the Marauder, a captain who would tear apart the skies to rescue her crew.
CHAPTER 2 (#u01e82320-9dc3-59cd-94d1-d05dea2c1138)
Andi’s bones ached, her muscles screamed, and the wound in her chest pleaded for her to stop moving. But images of her crew flashed within her mind, propelling her endlessly forward through the silver halls of the ship.
If she could just get back to Arcardius...she knew she would find a way to save them.
Lira. Breck. Gilly.
Dex’s words echoed in her mind as she stumbled into the small hallway leading toward the bridge, reverberating through her skull as she held her palm up against the blue access panel to the right of the door.
They joined with Nor.
Andi shook her head, willing away the treacherous notion. Her crew would never join with the queen of Xen Ptera, no matter how threatened. But what had Dex said about them...changing?
Then the door slid open, and all thoughts were driven from her mind as Andi darted inside, quickly scanning her palm on the interior access panel and entering a command to seal off the bridge. She exhaled, for what seemed to be the first time since she woke up, as the door slid shut behind her. It wouldn’t keep Dex out forever—after all, the ship had been his for years—but he’d still have a hell of a time getting in here once he came to.