The general sighed. “I’d like to offer you a job.”
Andi almost fell out of her chair. “I’m sorry—what?” She didn’t know what else to say, or even what to think, so she waited for him to continue.
“It is desperation, Androma, that brings me to this. And believe me,” the general said, glancing at Dex, who had been sitting silently with his feet still propped up on the table, “I have exhausted every other option.”
Dex winked, and Andi couldn’t fathom why General Cortas wanted Dex to be his personal bounty hunter on this job. Probably just to spite her. He was the general of the strongest military planet in Mirabel. Surely he had other operatives.
The general continued. “My son, Valen, went missing two years ago.”
“I remember,” Andi said with a curt nod. How could she forget?
Valen, Kalee’s older brother, with his dark hair and soft hazel eyes. He had always been kind, but he’d never spoken more than a few fleeting words to Andi each time she visited Kalee’s floating estate on Arcardius.
Except for that night.
He’d seen them sneaking out and tried to stop them, only for Kalee to put him in his place as they slipped out the door of the sprawling Cortas estate. That was the last time Andi ever saw him—he hadn’t shown up to court when she was on trial for Kalee’s death.
Two years later, Valen Cortas disappeared in the night, all traces of him whisked away. Though there was no sign of a struggle, General Cortas swore it was a kidnapping, carried out by a skilled group trained to leave no trace behind.
The news had spread like wildfire across Arcardius, and then into the skies to the leaders of every other inhabited planet, moon and satellite city in Mirabel.
“We suspected a mercenary from Xen Ptera took him,” General Cortas said, “but there haven’t been any ransom demands. No responses to our inquiries. I would’ve stormed their planet when he was first taken, but we couldn’t risk upsetting the peace treaty between our part of the galaxy and theirs. Ten years still remain until the treaty ends.”
He paused. Grief made his voice heavy. Two years after losing one child, the other had been snatched from him, too.
Again, the guilt clawed at Andi from inside.
“So what do you want me to do?” she asked carefully. “If I remember correctly, there was never much of a trail to begin with, and surely all traces of him are long gone by now.”
The general leaned forward in his chair.
“Two months ago, one of our satellites picked up a signal from Xen Ptera’s prison moon, Lunamere. The message was in Arcardian military code, which you no doubt remember from your time serving.”
Andi inclined her head. “I remember.” So many nights, she had stayed awake inside her quarters in Averia while Kalee was asleep. Glowing screens laid scattered across her desk alongside military manuals and scribbled notes and failed attempts at decoding the strange ancient symbols. She’d always excelled at weapons training, but hadn’t taken as much care in honing her mind. But a Spectre was expected to learn all things, and learn them well.
“I was teaching the code to Valen before the kidnapping.” General Cortas ran a hand through his graying hair. “There has been no word since, but we feel strongly it is Valen. The message was a specific word I gave him to decode just before he was taken.”
Andi listened intently. After all this time, most believed Valen Cortas to be dead. There were rumors that he’d run of his own accord and was hiding out on some distant tropical moon, far from his father’s clutches and the strict military life of Arcardius. Others suspected he’d been too wounded by his sister’s death and simply hid away in the darkness of the estate. The kidnapping, Andi had always suspected, was the real truth.
“Why are you telling me all of this?” she asked.
“Because I want you to recover him.”
It was an effort not to let her jaw drop.
“I don’t...” Andi fumbled for the right words. “I can’t...”
“You can’t?” The general barked out a laugh. “The Bloody Baroness does whatever she wants. Even stealing a starship in the middle of the night, crashing it into the side of a mountain and slaughtering an innocent girl in the process. One she was sworn to protect.”
Andi sucked in a breath.
Her chest felt split in two.
“She was to be my heir,” General Cortas whispered. “And you stole her from me. From my wife. From my people.”
My people. They were once Andi’s people, too. Her throat was dry as a husk, her heart hammering against it.
But killing Kalee, even by accident, had been an act of treason. There was nothing to say, nothing she could do to take back what she’d done.
So she focused on the present.
“Why me?” Andi asked. “There are a million Patrolmen or soldiers you could offer the job to.”
“Not without starting a war,” the general said.
It made sense. The Mirabel Patrolmen couldn’t just waltz into a Xen Pterran prison and steal a prisoner out from under the guards without violating the terms of the treaty. The agreement was meant to prevent further war between Xen Ptera and the galaxy’s other major systems, Prime, Stuna, Tavina and Phelexos. Galactic peace had always required a careful balancing act between each system, and when the Olen System rebelled, it had upset that balance.
The Unified Systems couldn’t risk an upset again.
But a pirate, not officially affiliated with any side...
The general tapped his fingers against the desk, drawing Andi’s attention back to the screen. “There is, of course, another option.”
Andi raised her eyebrows, and General Cortas smiled.
“I could send you and your entire crew to the Pits of Tenebris to serve out a life sentence for the crimes you’ve committed. Murder, robbery, forgery, arson.” He ticked off each word on the tips of his fingers. “Dare I go on? I can bury you all, so dark and so deep that you will never see the sun again.”
Andi sucked in a breath. The Pits of Tenebris were where the hardest of criminals were imprisoned, those even worse than Andi. Men and women who took sick pleasure in torturing and killing innocents.
“Or,” the general said, “your slate could be wiped clean. If, and only if, you bring my son back to me. Alive.”
“Clean?” Andi asked. “You mean...”
General Cortas met her eyes. “I will pardon you for your crimes. Lift your death sentence. You could return to Arcardius, Androma.”
Home, Andi’s mind whispered.
A thousand memories suddenly unlocked, poured into her from the place she’d kept them safely hidden away.
Her mother, twirling in a circle as a silver gown blossomed around her. Her freshly painted nails shining under the chandelier light as she pressed a soft hand to Andi’s cheek and whispered, “My daughter, protecting the general’s heir. A true Arcardian dream.”
Her father, later that night, praising Andi as she blocked his attack. “You’ve been practicing without me,” he said, hands flexing as he lunged forward and she slipped easily past him.
Arcardius, full of warmth and laughter and beauty.
Arcardius, full of Kalee’s screams and blood on Andi’s hands, hot and wrong and...
Andi blocked the memory like a hit, before it could fully form.