“We can’t think of it like that. If we do, we’ll end up overthinking every move we make. It’s just another job. A grab and go.” But Andi had a hard time believing that herself. She’d been to plenty of dingy, destroyed places in Mirabel. Pirating had a way of drawing her and her crew to the darkest sides of the various planets and moons they’d visited. But if half the rumors she’d heard about Xen Ptera were true, then she had to be strong. If not for herself, then for her crew.
Her past actions had gotten them into this mess. She had to keep them alive to the end.
“Whatever you say, Androma,” Breck said. “If you don’t mind, I’m going to take little Gilly here down to check out the new weapons. With the supplies the general gave us, we can make Sparks large enough to destroy an entire moon.”
“Go ahead,” Andi said. “But I want you both back here before we take off.”
A selfish part of Andi wished General Cortas hadn’t been the one to give the gunners their new weapons. For the past several months, they’d been low on their most beloved supplies. She wanted to be able to provide for her girls, but so far, all she’d done was put them in danger.
Andi sighed, knowing this line of thinking was foolish. Gilly was grinning ear to ear as she and Breck left the bridge, and as long as they were both happy with the new weapons, it didn’t matter who actually supplied them.
Lira remained behind, watching Andi with those all-seeing Adhiran eyes of hers. They’d been together the longest, shared countless stories over bottles of fizzy Cosmic Cram until their eyes became as glassy as the stars.
Andi would never forget the day she met Lira at a fighting ring on Zerpro7. They’d stood side by side, two girls intent on winning their bets. But the fights were slow that night, the brawlers not very skilled, and soon Andi found herself conversing with Lira.
They should put me in the ring, Lira had said, sighing as she leaned over the dirty railing, peering at the fight below.
You sound confident, Andi had answered.
I’m confident enough when it comes to fighting, Lira said, but flying is my true gift.
They’d talked long into the night, and hours later Andi had offered Lira a test run with her ship. They’d flown away from Zerpro7 and never looked back.
“You’re not okay, Andi,” Lira said now. “I can see it as clear as varillium, so stop trying to pretend that you are.”
Andi sighed, running her hand through her tangled white and purple hair. It was going to take her hours to work out the knots.
“I’m fine.” But she knew Lira sensed the lie the moment it left her lips. “I’m just...” She sighed. “I need some time with my thoughts, Lira.”
Lira looked at her doubtfully, but obliged. “I’ll be in my quarters if you need me.”
Andi watched Lira leave the room before turning to look past the clear glass wall and at the inside of the Tracker ship. Men in blue Arcardian Patrolmen uniforms scuttled around like ants as they finished their final checks on the Marauder.
Andi was exhausted, both mentally and physically, the kind of exhaustion she doubted sleep could fix. For once, she wasn’t positive what the next step would be, besides rescuing the general’s son. Beyond that was an expanse of complete uncertainty.
A death sentence pardoned. An entire planet waiting for her. But after all that had transpired and with the wounds she still held inside...could she ever really return?
With a sigh, she picked up her swords and began tallying the day’s kills. As she dug into the metal, Andi’s thoughts drifted to the past.
She wished, desperately, that she’d never been chosen for the sacred Spectre position, that she’d simply become a regular soldier like her father. Her earliest memories of their time together were of training days, bruised fists and bloodied knuckles. Fighting is in our blood, Androma. We will always defend Arcardius, at all costs.
It was because of her father’s training that she so often wound up in the commandant’s office after fighting with other students at the Academy when her anger got the best of her. It was because of her anger that her parents put her into dance classes, in hopes they would help soften her edges.
And it was because of dancing that she’d met Kalee. If she’d only kept quiet at the Academy, hadn’t made Kalee laugh in their dance classes, hadn’t invited her to eat lunch in her pod...their friendship would never have begun.
General Cortas never would have seen the bond they shared. The fierceness with which Andi defended Kalee from the teasing of their classmates. The way she could so skillfully break a nose and slip back into the shadows without another word. How she excelled in every military class and received top marks in physical combat classes.
It was a series of small choices that led to one large mistake, and because of it, because of Andi...Kalee had died.
The painful truth still clung to Andi after all this time.
This ship and these girls were her only solace. And now they were heading into the mouth of hell.
Gilly was right. This job was bigger than anything they’d ever done before. It was rare moments like these when Andi wished she had a simpler, easier life.
If only she could believe that a pardon from General Cortas would take the pain of the past away. But she knew, as well as the general did, that her future was destroyed when Kalee took her last breath.
“Hello, Androma Racella.”
Andi whirled in her chair, lifting her swords and finding herself face-to-face with someone unexpected.
Something, more like.
Confusion riddled her brain before she put the pieces together. She hadn’t met many AIs in her life, though she’d seen them on the feeds years ago attending to the deep-pocketed aristocrats across Mirabel.
The AI’s face was white like the snowcapped mountains on Solera. It had two eyes and a mouth, legs and arms, but besides that, it was absent any other humanoid traits. The AI’s body was see-through, like the Marauder’s walls, and Andi could see all the gears and wires inside, clicking and whirring silently like an old-era clock.
AIs had been exceedingly rare since The Cataclysm ended fifteen years ago, when they were outlawed across Mirabel. The Olen System had weaponized AIs during the war against the Unified Systems, and if not for the advanced military tech developed by New Veda and Tenebris to combat the AI army, the Unified Systems would’ve fallen. It wasn’t until six years ago that the artificially intelligent beings had been integrated into society again, primarily as servants and errand-goers and mechanics—and sometimes chefs, which Breck had so often begged Andi to obtain for the Marauder.
After staring at the AI for a few more seconds, a whistling from down the hallway pulled Andi’s attention away. Dex strolled into the bridge with a smug grin on his face.
“Oh, I see you’ve met Alfie,” he said, looking between the two of them.
“Alfie?” Andi asked, confused by the name.
“It stands for Artificial Lifeform Intelligence Emissary,” the AI said, staring at Andi with those strange eyes. “But you may call me Alfie.” He bowed slightly.
Dex patted Alfie on the shoulder. “He’s the general’s. His job is to babysit us on this trip and report back to the big guy on Arcardius.”
“Wonderful,” Andi said. “I’ve always wanted a babysitter on my ship.”
Dex crouched down next to her, lips level with her ear. “You know, you were a lot more fun three years ago.”
It was like he wanted her to kill him.
She turned and immediately felt flustered when she realized they were separated by mere centimeters. He was so close she could see the pores in his soft brown skin, the deep brown of his eyes and the raised scar on his temple, a souvenir from a fight he got into with an ex-convict just after he and Andi met.
That scar was nothing compared to the one she must have given him on his chest the day she stole this ship from him. Tenebran Guardians were known for taking pride in their battle marks, but the scar she gave him—whether it still existed or not—was not one he should be proud of.
It was a sign of his weakness. A disgusting reminder of how he’d chosen money over love.
Her heart, the traitorous thing, fluttered for a moment like it used to when he looked at her. She used to love his eyes, the unspoken words in their depths. The feel of his skin against hers during their passionate nights.
Now those thoughts made her cringe. She guarded herself against those memories, which were no longer part of a blissful present, but a hurtful past.
“A lot has changed in three years, Dextro,” Andi said calmly. “Now, if you don’t move, I’ll give you a new scar, and this time, it will be across your neck.”
He put his arms up in defense before rising, distancing himself from her.