“Plenty of time to raise hell,” Gilly said as she bobbed up and down on her toes. Her golden gun was sheathed on her hip beside a belt loaded with handmade Sparks. Breck had a matching one—the two girls were plenty capable of igniting chaos with them, if their past jobs were any indication.
“Then we’re all set,” Andi said. A flutter of nervous excitement winged its way through her chest. It was quickly replaced by nausea as she removed her blades. Dex sighed as he removed his gloves and slapped them down on the dash.
“If anyone messes with these while I’m gone...”
“Nobody wants your disgusting palm juice,” Gilly said.
“What the hell is palm juice?” Breck asked.
Gilly sighed. “Man sweat.”
“Where’s Alfie?” Dex asked, ignoring their comments as Lira eased back on the throttle and the ship slowed in response. “I need him to send a check-in to General Cortas before we move.”
Andi turned to Gilly, who was clearly trying to hold back a laugh.
“Why are you looking at me? I have no clue,” Gilly said.
Andi raised a brow.
Gilly smiled innocently back at her.
“I’ll just com the general myself,” Dex grumbled as he walked out the door.
The Marauder angled toward Dark Matter, slipping through the liquid darkness like a weapon ready to unleash itself upon the world.
* * *
Meanwhile, deep in the belly of the ship, Alfie sat alone in the locked waste bay, staring out at the stars.
“Hello, Alfie,” Memory said. “Would you like some company?”
At the sound of her voice, Alfie looked up and smiled.
Chapter Seventeen (#u2c495123-a205-5bed-8b1b-b7611314f030)
ANDI HAD BEEN in plenty of back-alley bars, unruly clubs and pleasure houses that had more going on behind closed doors than what was expected.
The atmosphere inside Dark Matter, however, had a particularly unpleasant feel.
The metal doors screeched as they slid open, unleashing a thick wave of recycled air that smelled a little too much like vomit for her taste. The room was curved, the metal walls dented at random, as if bodies had been thrown against them, leaving their mark. A rusted bartop, thick with stains of both the bodily and the brew type, stood in the center of Dark Matter. The patrons littered around it were all in different states of drunken disorder, some of them slumped haphazardly on their stools, others shouting at the four-legged, six-armed bartender for a refill.
She doubted they’d notice who she was even if she stared them straight in the face with her name tattooed on her forehead.
Andi took note of the exits as they stepped inside. One directly behind them, where they’d just entered. The other was straight across the crowd, the dimly glowing red sign half blocked by a bald man nearly triple Andi’s height. No doubt from New Veda, a planet where the inhabitants were built like giants. Years from now, Breck would likely grow to close his height, a warrior woman that none would dare cross. Andi smiled at that thought.
She hoped Breck, Gilly and Lira would get their exploding Sparks in place quickly, then move out before their plan shifted into high gear.
Across the bar were others Andi recognized from the intel they’d gathered on the ship. A table full of Lunamere guards, likely off-duty, as they guzzled pint after pint, yellow foam dripping down their unshaven beards—or in one case, a spiked jaw. She knew that they all had electric whips on their hips, ready to stun or kill at the flip of a switch, and heavy electric gauntlets to match.
And eyes constantly on the lookout for someone to toss behind bars.
We’ll see you later, boys, she thought. That was, of course, if everything went according to plan.
Beside the Lunamere guards, a woman playing cards whistled and signaled for the bartender to refill her ale. Burns covered half her body, forming a line that neatly bisected her face. Beside her, a four-legged male Tambaruun was puffing on a piece of Adhiran rainforest bark, the cloud of smoke changing colors each time he exhaled. He, too, was covered in burns that ran up his six muscular arms, turning his hands into swollen hunks of skin.
Most of the patrons had burns or scars, mutilated limbs, empty eye sockets sitting like black holes. They were survivors of The Cataclysm’s bloody ground battles, almost every one of them, with the marks to prove it. Since the war, Andi had seen her fair share of people with souvenirs from battle, but this scene was different. This was an entire room full of them at once, broken and bruised, guzzling alcohol to keep the pain of the past at bay.
Andi had an inkling of how that felt. She’d tried it many times herself.
War was a heartless thing, claiming lives left and right. But it was the survivors who had to continue battling even after the fight was over.
“This,” Dex said, spreading his tattooed arms wide and pulling Andi from her thoughts, “is the gem of the Olen System.”
“You haven’t seen very many gems, then.” Andi pulled her hood low over her face as she wove her way through the throngs of people heading toward the bar. “Let’s get on with it.”
Dex followed in silence, his head held high as if he owned the pub. She’d always admired his zest for life, a quality that few had. Andi was not one of those people. She’d choose solitude and silence any day over going out in public.
Dex could enjoy this place for the both of them—Andi was used to finer places in brighter systems, spoiled by all the extravagant balls she’d had to attend on Arcardius, a constant shadow at Kalee’s back. And in the mere seconds they’d been here, she already feared she’d never get the stench of Dark Matter out of her bodysuit and cloak.
The fact that she’d had to leave her blessed, beautiful swords on the ship only added to her annoyance. She’d have to make do with her cuffs as her weapon. They were heavy enough to suffice for now.
“We should split up.” She sidestepped a man hobbling past on a golden crutch made from an old android’s leg. “We’ll find your informant faster that way.”
“We’ll find her eventually.” Dex stopped to survey the room. “I’d rather we stay together.”
Over his shoulder, Andi saw Breck, Gilly and Lira slipping among the crowd. One by one, they’d set their Sparks in place—slipped under tabletops, wedged in dark holes in the metal framing of the room, stuffed into the air vents in the floor. Andi smiled as she glanced away. When the girls detonated them, they’d cause one hell of a scene.
Enough to distract, but not enough to destroy.
“Soyina can be a little...off-putting,” Dex said. “The two of you have that in common.”
Andi gave him her trademark glare.
“I simply meant that you can both terrify any man with a single glance.”
She flashed him her teeth.
He shook his head and signaled for a waitress to join them. A cyborg woman tottered over on mismatched feet, one metal and one skin, both covered in strappy silver heels.
“What can I do for you, Tenebran?” the woman asked, leaning against the bar, giving his marked skin a curious glance. “Haven’t seen you around these parts before.”
“I’m looking for a frequent patron of yours,” Dex said. He took a step closer as Andi took a step away, missing the weight of her swords on her back. “Migratory tattoos, big mismatched moon eyes?”
The cyborg shook her pink curls. “Sorry, Tenebran, haven’t seen anyone who fits that description.” Her eyes flashed as they raked Dex up and down. “But I might be swayed to look a little harder if...” She held out a hand.