Someone else had said that to her once, long ago. Before she escaped Arcardius, never to see her home planet again.
Andi chewed on her lip, and the memory fizzled away. She could have given her Second a thousand words, but instead she simply strapped herself in, turned in her seat and said, “Fly true, Lir.”
Lira nodded and took the ship’s wheel, her grip steady and practiced. “Fly true.”
A humming vibration filled the bay before the ship shot forward, like the tip of a crystal spear hurtling through the black expanse.
Chapter Two (#u2c495123-a205-5bed-8b1b-b7611314f030)
ON A GOOD DAY, the Marauder and her crew could lose a tail as fast as an Adhiran darowak could fly, but when Andi glanced at the radar, three little dots continued to blink back at her.
She suppressed a groan and tapped on the viewport in front of her. The glass melded, colors morphing to show a live image from their rear-cam.
Her stomach dropped to her toes.
The approaching ships were still behind them. Two black Explorers, angular and sharp, and in between, a giant Tracker ship. A monster in the sky that tore a memory from Andi’s mind.
A hundred pairs of polished Academy boots clacked on the ground of a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility in the sky. A rigid man in a royal blue suit stood before the crowd, announcing the specs of the new Tracker ship. Andi raised her hand, wincing as she disturbed a bruised rib from a fight, but she was hungry for knowledge, already in love with flying.
“I still can’t see a sigil on them,” Lira said, drawing Andi back to the present. The memory faded like mist. “We don’t know which planet they’ve hailed from yet.”
Andi leaned forward, sliding two fingers against her temple and linking with her crew’s channels. “We’ve got a tail, ladies.” She swallowed and cast a sideways glance at Lira, who sat calmly steering the ship. “Three of them, coming in from the rear. Get to your stations and prepare for immediate engagement. We’re going dark.” She switched the channel off and looked at Lira. “Ready?”
Lira nodded as Andi typed in the codes that would activate the Marauder’s outer shields.
The stars winked goodbye as the metal shields slid out from the belly of the glass ship, like hands wrapping them in darkness. Over and around, until only three viewports remained. One large for the pilot, and two small for the gunners, decks below.
“I warned you before the last job about leaving bodies behind,” Lira said suddenly, banking them left to avoid a cluster of space trash cartwheeling endlessly through the black. Her voice wasn’t harsh. And yet Andi still felt the painful truth of Lira’s words.
Blood trails were far easier to follow than any other. And after all these years of running, it was possible that the Patrolmen had finally caught up to them because of Andi.
“I had to kill him,” Andi said. “He almost shot Gilly. You know that, Lira.”
“The only thing I know for sure is that the ships behind us are closing in,” Lira said, glancing at the radar.
The patrol ships could have come from anywhere in the galaxy, but a nagging in Andi’s gut told her they hailed from Arcardius, the headquarters of the Unified Systems. A planet with cities made of glass and buildings towering on floating fragments of land in the sky, where military life reigned supreme and a pale-haired general ruled with an iron fist.
Home. Or at least it used to be.
After years of work, the Arcardian fleet had finally been rebuilt after the war against Xen Ptera, the capital planet of the Olen System.
These new ships were faster, better equipped.
Lira laughed. “It’s too bad we’ll have to miss their party.”
“Maybe that’s why they’re here,” Andi said. “To hand deliver our invitations.”
“They won’t catch us.” Lira dug her fingers into a metal cup soldered to the ship’s dash, the words I Visited Arcardius and All I Got Was This Stupid Cup inscribed on the side. Andi grimaced as Lira pulled out a hunk of Moon Chew and popped it into her mouth.
“That stuff can kill you, you know,” Andi said as the ship groaned and lurched. She was thrust sideways against her bindings as Lira quickly steered the ship to the right.
“I enjoy flirting with death.” Her Second smirked.
They fell silent as the Marauder soared on, Lira navigating the ship left and right, up and down, the tails trailing them as if this were a mere game of chase.
But this game they were playing rarely ended with laughter and fun. It would end with bodies burning in the sky, the air sucked from their lungs as they succumbed to the void of space.
Andi rapped her fingertips on the armrests. Her rouged nails looked tipped in blood, a playful nod to those who had given Andi her pirating name.
She was frustrated and hungry and, thanks to the nightmares, reaching a level of exhaustion that shouldn’t have been humanly possible to survive. Usually she would’ve been up for the challenge because, in Lira’s terms, she lived for the thrill of a life dangling on the edge of death.
But as she looked at Lira’s hands guiding the ship, a very different image took their place.
In her mind’s eye, Andi saw her old home’s moons, those beautiful orbs of red and blue beside Arcardius, the ice rings circling them like frozen guardians. She saw her younger, gloved hands, the Spectre sigil on them winking in the light as she clutched a traveler ship’s throttle. She felt the rush of adrenaline coursing through her veins. Then that fateful crash of fire and light, the screech of machinery and a girl’s piercing scream. And blood, rivers of it, drying on hot metal...
A voice buzzed into the pilot’s com system, and Andi flinched back into the present.
“What is it?” she barked.
Beside her, Lira punched the engine, the Marauder screaming as it rocketed forward.
“I got ’em comin’ in hot!” Breck shouted. Andi could imagine her gunner several decks below, lying flat before her massive hull gun. “Almost in my sights now. Can’t outrun ’em?”
“If we could, don’t you think we would have done so already?” Andi growled.
“Godstars, Andi.” Breck’s voice was deep and throaty. “I can see the sigil now. They’re Arcardian Patrol. We’re gonna be space bits.”
Andi tapped the rear-cam, zooming in as the ships gained speed. The exploding star of Arcardius stared back at her. Her insides turned to ice. There was only one reason they would have traveled so far from their domain.
So this was it, then. The enemy she’d run from all these years had finally found her.
Though dread threatened to freeze her insides, Andi straightened her spine and steeled herself. She wouldn’t go down without a fight.
Andi reached up and pressed her responder, ignoring Breck’s final words. “You girls in position?”
“Gilly’s on Harbinger, I’m on Calamity. Permission to engage?”
Andi smiled through her fear. “Granted.”
The channel fell silent, and then it was just the captain and her pilot, hearts racing in their throats, stars streaking past them like rips in the fabric of the universe.
And then Andi felt it.