“Tip your head up, Princess. Stare at my dream.”
Duke Winters’ harsh words cracked out like whips by her ear.
As Princess Andalusia felt his fingers wrap harder around her throat, there was nothing she could do but as he said – tip her head back. It was that, or his cast-iron grip would break her neck.
“Crown Princess Andalusia, watch what we’ll make together.”
Tears ran down Andalusia’s cheeks, slicing across her Royal tattoos, trickling over her chin, and dashing against the collar of her perfect white tunic dress.
“As soon as we’re wed, the galaxy will be ours.”
She couldn’t speak. His grip on her throat was too tight. The words wouldn’t come, anyway. In their place, all she felt was horror at what she knew would come next.
The war. The very one her betrothed had been planning his entire life. As soon as he ascended to the throne after marrying Andalusia, he would use the Xantos Forces to wage war on every other race in the Milky Way. Under Andalusia’s name, he would rule. And under her name, all who stood in his way would die.
“What do you say, Andalusia?” His voice was harder, snaking out like a punch.
Winters’ fingers gripped her throat so tightly, there was nothing she could do to fight against him. Unlike him, she was not genetically engineered to fight suits of armor with no assistance. He was of the warrior breed, the soldiers who were meant to protect Xantos Royal interests and wage war on their enemies. They had been crafted over thousands of years to be the strongest, the best, and importantly, undefeatable.
In theory, they were also built so they could never turn against the Royal family.
The theory was wrong.
Winters’ fingers tightened around Andalusia’s throat until she swore she heard something cracking in her trachea. She spluttered, trying to suck in a breath, but there was nothing she could do.
His eyes became wider with hatred as he pulled her off the tips of her feet until her toes dangled in the air. “What do you say, Andalusia? I will bring the galaxy to your feet. What do you say?”
“To hell with this.”
The words cracked around Andalusia, echoing through her dream.
Because this? This was just a dream.
They were the same words she always used to wake herself up. And as she forced her way past her fugue, they worked.
She pushed up with a rattling start, the last few dredges of that dream shifting around her like unwanted shadows clinging to her soul.
Groaning, she shoved off the smooth white-blue console in front of her. “What the hell? How long have I been out?”
The large, inch-thick bangle permanently locked around her left wrist vibrated, and an orb-like apparition shifted from it and floated 20 centimeters in front of her face. “You have been resting for approximately 2 hours and 42 minutes.”
“I wasn’t resting.” Andalusia planted a hand on her face, pushing her fingers through her sweat-caked fringe as she shoved it out of her eyes. “I was dreaming. And I told you to always wake me up when I’m dreaming.”
“I would have intervened, but you woke yourself up.”
“Veri,” Andalusia growled, “I don’t need you to provide me with opportunities to become stronger. I’m already pretty darn strong. Plus, this is an order from her Royal Highness.”
“You abdicated your throne when you fled the Xantos Royal family,” Veri said bluntly.
Twitching back from the flight control panel, Andalusia stood to her feet, clamped her hands over the edge of the console, and turned her gaze to the softly bobbing ball of light. “I didn’t abdicate; I ran. Not the point, anyway. You’re my computational assistance unit, and for the last damn time, when you detect that I am in REM, you wake me up.”
“It is important for the restoration of your memories and general mental health that you go through at least four periods of REM a night.”
“You care about my mental health? Then you wake me up next time. Every damn dream is always the same,” Andalusia muttered under her breath as she pushed away from the flight panel and walked across the small, cramped bridge of her single-person ship.
It was a far cry from the expansive, beautiful halls of the primary palace on Xantos Prime. There, you could walk for days and never leave that Royal house. Here? It took approximately 4.2 minutes to circumnavigate this ship. A couple more if you wanted to crawl through the service ducts to reach life-support and the gravitational controls. Hardly a palace.
Which was good.
Andalusia had left her life far behind her.
Bringing up the base of her palm, she ground it against her forehead, drawing her fingernails down and scratching them hard across her skin.
“It is not suggested that you scratch your prosthesis.”
“What, now you care about me?”
“This assistance unit has always cared about you. You are my primary task. The protection of you is the only mission I have.”
“Great,” Andalusia growled, “so wake me up next time.”
Veri, as she called her personal computational assistance unit, didn’t reply. It was never a good sign.
“Have you fixed the matter calibration unit yet?” she grumbled.
“I am unable to fix it. We do not have the requisite supplies.”
“So there’s no water?” Andalusia brought up a hand and slammed it against the side of the drab, rusted brown metal wall behind her.
The entire ship was rusted. Apart from the flight control panels which were the only thing she ever spent money on, the rest of the ship was a tin bucket that miraculously flew through space without breaking apart.
Back on Xantos Prime, Andalusia’s personal ship as the Crown Princess had been the best in the fleet.
It had been kilometers long. There’d been countless crew to fly and service it. There’d been so many matter calibration devices, that if she’d wanted a glass of water, all she’d had to do was demand one, and a computational assistance unit would go get one and deliver it to her in seconds.
“Correct, there is no calibrated water. You’re going to have to use reclaimed water instead.”
She groaned. “I hate my life.”
“At least you have one,” Veri said dryly.
Andalusia rolled her eyes as she grabbed hold of the hatch bar, pulling herself through the small cramped doorway out of the bridge. From there, she had to climb down a short ladder until her old boots banged against rusted metal grating.
Two steps away, she turned into another low door, hauled herself through, and accessed the reclamation unit. It didn’t just reclaim water from waste. It reclaimed it from the very air. Any moisture at all that was lost on the ship was drawn back into this unit.
It didn’t taste like anything, but she still preferred the calibrated stuff.
Jamming the base of her palm against the big red button that sat to the side of the reclamation unit, she had to put up with the entire thing shaking for 20 seconds until it filled the metal tub with water.
Dragging her thumb across her brows, she grabbed it up, leaned hard into the wall beside her, and drank it.
She closed her eyes. A mistake. As soon as she did, she saw him.
Her betrothed. The man who’d been planning to use her to claim the entire galaxy.
And who was he?
Once upon a time he’d been the head of the Xantos Guards. He’d made his way up into the Army, then he’d made his way up into the Court. Then the Court had approved his betrothal to Andalusia. And then? She’d finally seen his true colors.
“It is suggested that you do not think about the dream,” Veri said as he followed her, bobbing several meters behind.
She snorted so hard, she almost choked on her water. “Great suggestion. Pretty hard considering it’s the only dream I’ve had since I abdicated.”
“You did not abdicate, Princess – you ran,” Veri said, parroting her previous statement.
She half opened one eye and shot the hovering hologram a treacherous look. “Thanks for that. Not the point. You really need to wake me up next time.”
“And you really need to push past that dream. It is unhealthy and unwise to prevent you from ever going into REM again. This unit is calibrated to protect you. And thus, I will not wake you up from those dreams. You will simply have to find a way to endure them.”
Veri usually wasn’t this blunt. Maybe he’d had enough of Andalusia’s whingeing. It had been three years, after all. Three whole damn years since Andalusia had fled the palace, escaping the horror that had awaited her.
To the rest of the galaxy, she’d been kidnapped. That was what her people had claimed, and that’s what had spread throughout the Galactic news. Whether any of her people knew the truth, she didn’t know. She suspected, however, that at least Winters did.
Duke Hercules Winters. Harry for short. Just thinking of his name made her want to ball a hand into a fist and punch it into the reclamation unit. Do that, however, and she’d just have more things to fix. She was running right up against her budget as it was. It was only Veri’s assistance that was helping her stay alive, let alone out of her people’s clutches.
The disappearance of Princess Andalusia was the greatest story of the modern galactic age. Theories abounded everywhere, and every two-bit merchant or shady mercenary she came across in equally shady bars across the backwaters of the galaxy had their own theories. Some thought they’d seen her. Some had even abandoned their usual illegal practices to track her down. There was a considerable sum on her safe return, after all. A sum that could easily buy someone their own moon.
It made Andalusia laugh. Every time she sat across from some down-on-his-luck mercenary in a seedy diner and listened to him theorize about where she was, it was hard to keep the smile off her lips. She’d often felt like pointing to herself and saying she was only meters away, but she wasn’t so foolish as to do that.
Everyone in the galaxy was looking for her. It was only with Veri’s assistance and pure grit that she’d managed to stay out of their clutches.
“It is suggested that you stop thinking of your sorry existence, Princess, and get back to maintaining the ship,” Veri said.
She clamped a hand on her face, opened her fingers, and stared at him through them. “I thought you were meant to help me, not berate me.”
“I find you always respond better to the former.”
Andalusia rolled her eyes. She also balled a hand into a fist, struck it lightly against the wall, kept it tensed there, then pushed away. She finished the few last drops of the reclaimed water, then placed the metal holding unit back in the filtration dock.
The reclamation unit shuddered once then twice, then sent a small electric pulse shifting through the metal to sterilize it.
Andalusia pushed off through the rest of her ship.
Veri was never far behind. “We are en route to Phobius One. I have already accessed the pirate boards.”
“That’s quick.” Andalusia reached another ladder and climbed it quickly, not even bothering to climb the last few rungs and instead jumping up the remaining distance and pulling herself into a roll.
At the base of her feet, she felt her cybernetic implants buzzing, and the tips of her fingers responded, too.
If she thought keeping this ship afloat was taxing on her time and money, her cybernetic implants were a whole other game.
But while she could technically afford to let the ship go, she couldn’t let them go.
They were the only things keeping her hidden.
Apart from programable facial prostheses, Andalusia was equipped with several implants that not only allowed her greater endurance, speed, and agility, but ensured her underlying Xantos physiology could not be detected.
The implants were sturdy but required maintenance. And to maintain them, she needed money. How else would a runaway princess make money in this galaxy than through crime?
“We are running perilously short on capital,” Veri answered her earlier quip. “So, yes, I have already accessed the pirate boards. There are several missions that I believe we will be able to take on proficiently.”
“What are they worth?”
“In combination? 250,000 Galactic Credits.”
As Andalusia pushed herself up into a low crouch, she smiled, the grin easily pushing high into her cheeks. It was the first time she’d allowed herself to smile since she’d woken up from that dream. “Now that’s something I can get on board with. What kind of missions are we talking?”
“First one is a pickup. The other is a delivery mission, substance unknown.”
There would once have been a time when Andalusia would have cowered at the thought of committing a crime. There would’ve once been a time when she would’ve attempted desperately to tell anyone involved in such an illegal past-time that there was another way. If only people worked together, if only they believed in one another, there could be peace. But here’s the thing – that dream had been shattered. And now Andalusia didn’t blink at the prospect of delivering a substance-unknown without any questions asked.
“There are several other missions available on the pirate boards, but I believe there will be too much competition from unsavory characters.”
“What kind of characters?” She frowned.
“The Gallant Group.”
Andalusia made a face. She went to scratch her right arm, but her fingers stopped as they encountered the metal sheath that ran from the tips of her fingers to her elbow.
It was another cybernetic implant, but unlike the other ones, it was out in the open for everyone to see.
It hid something, too.
Her prostheses and cybernetic implants could only do so much to hide her identity. This metal sheath and the protective armor sitting atop it were the last ingredients in that recipe.
If she ever removed the sheath, which she didn’t do, even in the depths of space, she would see the glowing lines that ran from her elbow down to her pinky finger. Lines that grew in power and illumination whenever she encountered her own technology.
And lines that anyone in the galaxy would be able to use to identify her. For only the Crown Princess possessed them.
Over the metal sheath was a set of stone armor, a gauntlet that always covered her right arm, obscuring the sophisticated metal implant from view.
Stone armor was about the most basic you could get. She couldn’t count the number of snide comments she’d heard in bars about it. As soon as people saw it, they always thought she was a crappy scavenger who didn’t have a chance of going through with a pirate mission.
That served her purposes fine.
“What are the Gallant Group doing on Phobius? I thought they usually plied their trade further out of the ring?”
“Unknown. Perhaps something has attracted them. Perhaps once we finally arrive on the planet, I should do more investigation and see precisely what they are up to.”
She snorted. “Why do you always process out loud? I thought you computational devices were sophisticated enough to process potential plans in a trillionth of a second?”
“We are. I speak out loud so you don’t go insane.”
She spluttered. “That’s the last thing that’s gonna happen. Trust me.”
“I see you have finally grown a backbone and have agreed to endure your dreams. Congratulations.”
She’d walked into that conversation, and rather than reply with a witty comeback, she simply clenched her teeth and growled like an animal. “Just shut up, Veri.”
“I am unable to do that. My primary remit is to keep you safe.” He said his favorite saying which he cracked out at least 10 times a day. “And to do that, unfortunately, I must see to it that you work. I am downloading the details of this mission into your subcortical processor. I suggest we do the pickup operation first. We will leave the substance-unknown until later. Though I don’t usually have quibbles about such operations, I would like more information before we agree to that mission.”
Andalusia was keenly aware that the old her would have known the answer to that. When somebody wanted you to deliver a substance-unknown from one location to another, it was because they wanted that substance to remain unknown. It usually wasn’t flowers, let’s put it that way. Maybe it was viruses, maybe it was medical tech that was banned, maybe it was a damn kidnapped prisoner. Who knew? The point was, it was a moral minefield.
Once upon a time, Andalusia would’ve cared about that. Now she just gripped her right hand into a fist. “How much is that mission worth?”
“200,000 Galactic Credits.”
“Then we’re doing it. No questions asked.”
There was a pause.
“Don’t you dare tell me that I’m an immoral bitch.”
“Such words would never pass my processors. I am simply pausing so that you can come to your senses.”
“Look, I don’t care what we’re delivering. I care about the money. The money is the only thing that can keep me out of Winter’s clutches.” She tried to control her voice. What was the point? There was nothing she could do as it wavered.
Veri looked at her impassively, even though, of course, he couldn’t produce expressions as a mere holographic orb. That wasn’t the point. Over the past three years, she’d gotten to know the computational intelligence’s moods, and it was clear he was trying to be patient. “Trust me, Princess, when I say that you do care about what we’re delivering. While staying out of Winter’s clutches is our foremost goal, you don’t want to end up in prison, either, do you?”
She rolled her eyes. There’d been a time long ago, when she’d been the Crown Princess of one of the most powerful empires in the galaxy, when she would never have rolled her eyes. Back then, she’d been the perfect picture of emotional calm. As pretty as a picture, as well-behaved as any preeminent politician, all she’d ever done was sit there and smile.
She slipped a hand down the side of her trousers, scratching at the top of her butt.
“Very dignified,” Veri quipped.
“I tried dignity a few years ago – got me nowhere. Seriously, though, we’re going after that mission. I don’t care—”
“You do care. Stop pretending,” Veri said bluntly. “And leave the mission up to me.” There was a note of finality in the intelligence’s voice, one Andalusia knew from experience she couldn’t fight against.
Rolling her eyes petulantly again, appreciating she’d devolved into nothing more than an irritated child, she reached the right room, hooked a hand on the handlebar next to it, and pulled herself in. She twisted with her hip, shifting gracefully as she brought up a leg, pushed it into the already dented wall, and lost no speed.
“There is no need to run in such a cramped abode,” Veri tried.
“I’ve got to keep my skills up. I get the feeling,” she brought up her hand and thumbed her nose, “that they’re going to come in real handy down on Phobius One.”
Veri didn’t bother to correct her. Which meant one of two things. He’d grown bored of the conversation and was now distributing his processing power to a far worthier task, or he thought she was right.
Dropping down to one knee, she reached a box under an apparently nondescript cargo unit, grabbed it up, and pulled it out. The metal ground against the floor, an unpleasant screeching practically itching through the air. It made the hair along the back of her neck stand on end, but she ignored it.
Swiping her thumb lengthwise across the top of the box, she activated the hidden biometric scanner. It reacted with her implants, a line of light trailing across where she’d touched it. A second later, that light infiltrated two channels, joined up, and connected at the locking mechanism. There was a click, and the box opened.
She pressed her lips together, driving her tongue against the top of her mouth as she opened the box.
There, were her life savings. All that was left of it, anyway.
“Why do you always do this before a mission?” Veri had apparently grown bored of their silence, or had a legitimate question. After all, Andalusia knew perfectly well how much money was in her storage box. Approximately 157,000 Galactic Credits. She’d had to use up a chunk of her savings when she’d fallen 50 meters on one of her last missions. It had been on a barren planet, and she’d only taken it at the promise of a 50,000-credit bonus.
Well, she’d finished the mission, but the damage to her implants had cost her $300,000 to fix.
Now she grasped up the credit chip in the box, turning it around slowly, allowing her fingernails to drag along the illuminated glowing yellow sides. “Why do I always do this?” she repeated his question after a long pause. Her eyes were open, and she didn’t blink once as she stared at that credit chip. Once upon a time, money had never meant anything to her. Because once upon a time, it hadn’t separated her from her fate. As a Crown Princess, she’d had everything she could possibly desire.
The last three years had been a crash course in survival. To most other people in the galaxy, money didn’t come for free. You earned it with your blood, sweat, and tears. “Because checking my account grounds me and helps me focus on my task,” she finally answered.
There was a pause. “I always—” he began.
She pressed her lips together and made a terse noise. “I know – you always know how much money we have. So do I. That’s not the point.”
“And that’s not what I was going to say.”
“What were you going to say?” She ticked her gaze to the side, wrenching it off the glowing yellow credit chip.
“That I am always here to keep you focused on your task, too. And you will find I am far more exacting than a simple credit chip.”
She couldn’t help herself. She’d been angry with Veri not waking her up, but as one quick grin ticked across her lips, that anger washed away. “That you are. You’re my only friend too, you know? Heck, you’re probably the only friend I’ve ever had. It wasn’t like all my ladies in waiting actually cared about me.”
There was a long pause. “Others cared about you. What about Saz and Vandel?”
She twitched, the move uncontrolled, her fingers jerking wide. She almost dropped the credit chip, but darted in with her right hand, using her sophisticated implants and stone armor to catch the chip before it could fall.
Even though she appreciated the fact that Veri didn’t have any eyes, she could tell he was watching her with every single sense he had.
If she’d hoped to be able to hide her reaction, she wouldn’t have a chance in front of him.
She pressed her lips together, hesitated, then returned the chip to its holding place.
There were a few other objects in the case, but she ignored them, not even glancing at them once. Which was ironic, considering they were worth thousands of times more than the money currently stored on this chip. She’d never be able to sell them, though. Sell them, and people would have valid questions about how she’d gotten the jewelry of Princess Andalusia.
There were two rings, one necklace, and a bracelet. The very same jewelry she’d been wearing the day she’d fled her home planet.
They were made of metal only mineable in the outer sector of the Xantos Kingdom. As for the jewels? They were the rarest in the galaxy. All of it was marked with the technology of her people. If Andalusia grasped them up, and if she wanted to, she could make them glow with the unique energy her people had built their vast civilization on.
So yeah, she couldn’t exactly sell them. She was only keeping them because… because Veri told her to, not because these were the last things binding her to her past. Right?
“Andalusia?” he interrupted. “What about Saz and Vandel? They were your most loyal Xantos Guards. You saved Saz’s life. You grew up with him. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for you. Does he not count as a friend?”
She closed the box roughly, knowing that the outer casing was more than sturdy enough to take her aggression.
She shoved the box back into its hiding place, not that it was well hidden. She pushed up, locking her hands on her knees and using them to pivot in a swift move. She didn’t bother to answer Veri.
There was no point.
She reached a handhold by the door – one of the same hand holds she’d installed throughout the ship so she could navigate it quickly in a pinch. She grasped it, and she almost wrenched it free from its casing.
“There’s no need to take it out on the ship. And the answer you’re looking for, Andalusia, is that you have always had friends.”
She didn’t even pause as her lips cracked open, “Yeah, well I don’t anymore. It’s just you and me, Veri. So shut your mouth and tell me about more missions down on Phobius One. I’m in the mood to make some money.”
“I do not have a mouth. If I had one, I would not be able to shut it and speak.”
“Veri,” she growled as she reached another short ladder, climbed up one rung, then jumped the distance to the top, pulling herself up with ease. She’d been taught a little self-defense as the Crown Princess, but nothing compared to what she’d had to learn since. The last three years had been one hell of a learning curve. After she’d gotten her implants, she’d broken her bones and torn countless ligaments learning how to use them.
Now she was an expert.
“Do you really wish for me to list every single pirate mission available on Phobius One right now?”
“Yes. I want to know how much money is out there. Because money—”
“Keeps us alive. Very well.”
Yeah, money kept her alive. It also satisfied her desire not to be used to claim the Milky Way. And trust her when she said that desire was stronger than all.