The girl smiled.
It was a new act. Something she’d only just begun to discover how to do.
She loved the way it made people listen to her. Loved the way it made their minds seem to bow in her midst.
If her dreams were true, then someday she would use this smile for greatness. For glory. For the hope of her people.
Today she stood watching, far above the Conduit, as the red sun rose.
Chapter Four (#u2c495123-a205-5bed-8b1b-b7611314f030)
THEY FLEW LIKE demons sprung from a pit of fire.
Whoever the pilot was, she had one hell of a handle on the Marauder. Leave it to the Bloody Baroness to get the best of the best. Memories of their history together tried to spring their way forward, but he quickly suppressed them, knowing such thoughts and feelings would only stand in the way of his big payday. This was a job, not a social call.
“Androma Racella.” Dex tested her name on his tongue. “I’ve been searching for you for quite some time.”
Two months, to be exact. The longest Dex had ever spent trying to capture someone on the run. He’d been to countless planets in search of her and gotten lost for two weeks inside the Dyllutos Nebula before eventually picking up a blood trail that stretched from one end of Mirabel to the next.
Now he sat on the bridge of an Arcardian Tracker ship, the flashes of fired shots illuminating his face.
Also leave it to the Bloody Baroness to force me to work with the Arcardian Patrolmen, Dex thought as he stared at her image on the holo before him.
In his hands sat a document that included all the information about the Marauder’s captain, including a snapshot of her face. The photograph had been taken by Dex himself when he’d almost caught up to Androma on TZ-5 last week. Unfortunately, she’d disappeared before he could reach her.
She was standing in the shadows of a pleasure palace, a cyborg dancing in the window behind her. Androma’s pale, ghostlike hair was now streaked with purple and peeked out from beneath a black hood pulled low over her face. He could just barely make out her gray eyes and the smooth metallic plates on her cheekbones, a defensive body mod she’d had done years before. But he could certainly see the rest of her: perfect curves beneath a sleek, skintight leather bodysuit, the hilt of a knife sticking out from her black boots. And, of course, outside the hooded cape, her trademark glowing swords were strapped across her back like an X of death.
The ship rumbled from a weapon blast, and the screen flew from Dex’s fingertips, the holo winking out.
“Blazing hell!” he cursed as the ground seemed to fall out from underneath him, then shifted sideways until he was practically dangling from his harness. “Settle her!” he shouted to the pilot.
His borrowed crew scrambled to control the ship as Dex clutched the armrests, gritting his teeth. A little mechanic droid wrapped its hooked arms around Dex’s ankle, squealing as it tried in vain to stay in one place.
Dex growled and shook it away. What good was being the captain when you couldn’t get your crew to do anything worthwhile? And he didn’t even want to think about the Tracker they were flying. Dex swallowed his revulsion.
Here I am, the ship seemed to say. Large and in charge and as undercover as a Xen Pterran carriage slug.
They’d never catch the Marauder. Not like this.
The Tracker was fast, but the “seasoned pilot” General Cortas had provided for this mission had no style. A starship was meant to fly weightless, limitless and free.
Just like the one they were pursuing now, its belly full of lying, cheating lady thieves.
He stared out the viewport, past the laughable pilot and copilot, their heads pressed together as they tried in vain to discover a way to outsmart their prey.
Dex could see her tail up ahead. Each blast of gunfire illuminated her outline.
A sleek, beautiful beast that looked to be made of the stars in which it swam. Deadly and delicious, all varillium glass in the shape of an arrowhead, now concealed by metal shields to protect it during the chase. The Aero Class ship was one of a kind.
He’d catch that damned ship and finally reclaim it for his own. And when he captured Androma, he’d bring her to her knees, get her to agree to his employer’s terms...
“Sir.” A trembling voice pulled Dex from his thoughts. He looked up at the youngest Patrolman on the ship, a boy no older than fifteen with slitted reptilian nostrils. A boy who’d never seen battle. Who didn’t know the feeling of blood on scarred hands. His glowing yellow eyes were wide as he spoke. “They’re making an interesting move.”
“What move?” Dex sighed. “Use your words.”
“It seems they’re charting a course for the asteroid belt.”
“As I said they would,” Dex snapped.
“What should we do?” the boy asked timidly as he took a step back, sensing Dex’s imminent explosion of outrage.
The ship rumbled.
The pilot cursed.
Dex pressed a palm to the bridge of his nose. “You,” he said, glaring at the youngling between his fingers, “will do yourself a favor and go to the passenger bay so you can crap your pants in private. I can smell your fear from here.”
The boy tripped over his own webbed feet as he raced from Dex’s view.
“The rest of you,” Dex said, unbuckling his harness and standing up from his seat, voice rising to a roar, “will catch me that damned ship!”
The glory of his rage was lost in another explosion.
This time, it was so bright and so loud that it lit up the skies. A lurch resonated all around him as the ship went sideways. The little mech droid tumbled past.
“Engine one has been hit!” the pilot yelped.
A lucky shot.
Dex’s temper rose as he unclasped his harness and toppled against the metal siding. This job was the answer. It was everything. It could make or break his career.
And if Dex lost this opportunity now, when his prey was so close, General Cortas would have someone pulverize him when they docked back at Averia—and then Dex would be sipping from a straw for the rest of his life.
Enough was enough.
Dex raced forward, boots clacking on the grated floor.
The pilot looked up as Dex hovered over him, leather gloves squealing with each shift of the wheel.
“Move,” he commanded.
“Sir, I am under direct orders from General Cortas to...”
Dex squeezed his fists. The pilot flinched back as four crimson triangular blades sprung out of each of Dex’s gloves, just over his knuckles. “Move over.”