“Incoming message,” the cool female voice said.
Alfie looked up, tilting his head sideways. “An Artificial Intelligence on the mainframe of a pirating ship,” he said. “I have never observed such a thing.”
“We stole her on a job last month,” Gilly explained. “Breck installed her.”
“Incoming message,” Memory said again, “for Dextro Arez.”
Dex stood, the legs of his chair scraping like a wailing ghost against the cool metal floor. “My informant awaits.”
They’d been going back and forth with different plans for hours, finally settling on one that pleased everyone—and most importantly, General Cortas. The general had his claws sunk deep into Andi’s back, even from halfway across the galaxy. He’d already rejected several plans, which seemed to defeat the purpose of hiring Andi and her crew to do a job that he lacked the experience to carry out himself. Their short, often heated calls made Andi long for her days as a Spectre. Back then, he’d respected her, even praised her during rare moments when he’d let his general’s mask come loose. She’d seen him through a soldier’s eyes, trained to gain his approval. He’d given her the freedom to do her job, even allowing Andi to take up residence in Averia so she could stay by Kalee’s side at all hours.
How far she had fallen since then.
Like it or not, General Cortas had to bow to her will on this mission, to respect her methods. She’d told him as much on their most recent call.
“Bring him back to me, Androma,” the general had said, “and perhaps I will.”
Now Andi and Dex had finally settled on a plan. Her crew surrounded the table as Dex left the room, Alfie trailing after him, saying something about conversing with his fellow AI.
The girls waited until they were gone to speak. Lira stood across from Andi, blue eyes searching her face. “You’re looking a bit troubled.”
“I’m fine, Lir,” Andi said with a growl as she examined her chipped red polish. She’d have to ask Gilly to repaint her nails soon. “I thought you said you were going to keep Dex busy. He won’t leave me alone.”
The pilot shrugged. “Dextro is a man with many talents, the most obnoxious of which is that he knows this ship inside and out.”
“That,” Breck added, her massive hands curling into fists as she slumped back into a chair too small for her muscular frame, “and his little leech, Alfie, seems to always be ten steps ahead of us.”
Gilly giggled and wiped bread crumbs from her face. “I’m going to lock the AI in the waste bay.”
Andi smiled at the thought. “The sooner the better. You could lock Dex in there, too.”
This was how it should be, just her and the girls making plans to strike it big. Without a self-righteous, Krev-worshipping man on board.
“We’ll make our first move soon,” Andi said, filling the girls in on the latest part of the plan. She glanced at her Second. “Lira?”
Lira nodded and reached out to swipe a hand across the map over their heads, which was programmed to respond to her and Andi alone. Much to Dex’s dismay, Andi thought with a smug smile. He’d asked her to give him access at least a dozen times already, and she’d shut him down each time. With pleasure.
At Lira’s touch, the planets on the map began to swirl, their muted colors deepening, the sun blazing bright as it spun around the room. Lira tapped a black spot on the map, enlarging the space before using her fingertip to trace a glowing red circle around it.
“That,” she said, pointing to the circle, “is where we are now, in the Junkyard.” The Marauder was currently hidden within the large husk of a fallen warship. If anyone happened to come through this area, their ship would easily be mistaken as a piece of the larger one. That had been Lira’s bright idea, and the exterior damage the Marauder had recently sustained was helpful camouflage.
She drew a line from their current location to Lunamere, where Valen was being held captive.
“This is where we need to be,” Lira said, right before Andi took over.
“The plan is that in two days’ time, we will be meeting Dex’s informant, Soyina Rumbardh, at the Dark Matter Pub, located just outside the security border of Xen Ptera.” Andi tapped a spot on the map just to the left of Lunamere, where a small silver orb hung in the darkness. The satellite pub. “There, we’ll finalize the escape plan with Soyina and initiate the rescue. Dex and I will enter Lunamere while the rest of you head to the rendezvous point.” Andi looked at Lira, catching her in the middle of an eye roll.
Her Second wasn’t happy that Dex and Andi were going in to Lunamere without her, especially with the plan they’d come up with. High risk, possible reward. But it was the best option they had, and they needed Lira to pilot the ship. Plus, as much as Andi hated to admit it, she and Dex did know how to work a job together.
It was what first brought them together, and later tore them apart. They simply had to get through this without killing each other first.
Andi swallowed hard and continued. “At this point, all we need is a map of the prison. Without that map, we’ll be screwed. But luckily for us, our informant should be sending it to Dex as we speak.”
Soyina could be described as a shadow hiding in darkness with few records to be found about her on the galactic feeds. She was a tricky woman who had refused to let anyone but Dex see her face, which meant Andi had to go in blind when she met the woman in person. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but she’d faced worse before.
“I know I’m not the most experienced at this stuff,” Gilly said from across the table as she polished her golden gun, “but it all seems a little too easy. How do you know we can even trust this so-called informant Dex has?”
Breck barked out a laugh. “How can we even trust Dex?”
“We can’t,” Andi said. In her mind, she saw Dex’s face years ago on Uulveca, the very first time she’d met him. That sideways smile, his hand wrapped around her throat. His pouch of Krevs coiled in her fist. She should have known that day what he was. What he’d push her to become.
“Dex’s trademark is double-crossing people,” Andi continued. An old dent in the wall of this room was proof of that. Andi still remembered the brain-bashing she’d saved Dex from in the days they’d shared this ship. “That’s why I have a plan B.”
“And that is?” Breck asked, raising a brow.
“Well, ladies,” Andi said as she leaned forward, face glowing in the light of the map. The stars rippled out and away from her touch, as if made of water. “I think Dextro needs to be taught a little lesson in the element of surprise.”
Chapter Fifteen (#u2c495123-a205-5bed-8b1b-b7611314f030)
THE HISS OF the whip sang through the darkness.
A crackle, a pop, and with it, the stench of singed flesh.
The electric whip bit into Valen’s skin, over and over, until he couldn’t suppress his screams anymore, until his throat felt ragged and blood coated the floor like a warm, wet carpet.
They were unraveling him, bit by bit.
I am Valen Cortas, he thought. But as the whip came down again, a crackle of blue that lit up the splatters across the stone walls, it drowned out his own voice in his head.
His torture had begun three months prior, when he arrived at this prison—first with starvation, a hunger so deep he’d felt as if his stomach was shredding itself apart. Then came the questions, the beatings and, shortly after, the floggings.
Since then, Valen had lost track of the times he’d been slashed by the whip or pummeled by the guards’ electric gauntlets.
If he sunk into the blissful oblivion of unconsciousness, they would bring him back with an injection, a prisoner to the horrors he couldn’t escape. The cycle continued without end, until Valen thought the walls had grown claws that tore at him. Until he thought he’d drown in his own blood. Until the very mention of his home planet of Arcardius brought forth maniacal laughter from his lips. Home was nowhere as he drowned in pain in the darkness of Cell 306, a place without color or laughter or light.
I am Valen Cortas, he thought as the whip kissed his skin again, tearing at the tendons beneath. Vengeance will be mine.
More than once, he’d wondered if he had died and been dragged down to hell. But even hell couldn’t possibly be this cruel.
Hiss, rip, singe.
On and on it went until his mantra was replaced by something else.
Why are you taking it? Fight back! a small voice said in his head. Valen nearly laughed as the whip came down again, drowning out the voice. But then it came back, stronger this time.
Don’t be weak like your father thinks you are. Fight back!