“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.
“Well, this is a nice planet,” Andalusia muttered under her breath as she palmed her fringe out of her face. She was walking along a shielded section of grating that separated docked ships from one another.
They’d landed on Phobius One.
Her fingers were already itching with the desire to pluck up her missions and start making money.
“I have already switched to silent thought mode. There is no need to speak out loud. Doing so will only alert people to the fact that you are not normal,” Veri said in her mind, his communication unit around her wrist relaying his voice directly through her nervous system.
“I know. This isn’t my first rodeo. Not the point. This comment was for everyone else.”
“I’m assuming that all of the mercenaries, merchants, and other riffraff around us already recognize that this is not the nicest planet in the galaxy. I imagine that is why they have chosen it as a suitable location to ply their ill-gotten wares.”
She snorted, scratching at her ear and shifting to the side as she walked past a massive brute of a mercenary. There would’ve been a time when the old Princess Andalusia would’ve been startled at such a sight. She’d had a pretty sheltered existence. Now as Andalusia shifted several steps to the left, her gaze ticking up and down the man, her mind instantly calculated how good he’d be in a fight. The answer was, pretty damn effective. If she wanted to beat a brute like that, she’d have to use speed and agility.
They weren’t about to get into a fight, though. That wasn’t the point. Andalusia had learned pretty early on in her job that the only way to survive was to always stay a step ahead.
“I have accessed the location of the first mission.”
“Great, direct me there now.”
“Head to the lifts at the end of this platform,” Veri said efficiently in her mind.
“You mean the only way to get down from the docking bay? What, you don’t want me to hook my hands over the railing of the platform and jump?” she thought back sarcastically.
“I am calculating the likelihood that you would survive such a Fall. It sits at 1.2 % Would you like to risk it?”
She stopped herself from rolling her eyes. Despite the fact that was her primary response to Veri’s terse wit, a part of her could appreciate that she would have him no other way. If he’d been simpering, she would never have made it this far. If he’d pandered to her every whim, she would’ve fallen long ago. It was only because he was the equivalent of a sarcastic drill sergeant that she’d gotten this far.
Shoving her hands into her pockets, her stone armor making her right pocket bulge while her left one sat neatly over her hip, she whistled to herself as she reached the lifts.
There were plenty of passengers coming and going, and every single one that passed her got the same treatment. She would assess their strength, armor, weapons, and the likelihood that they would attack. She knew Veri was doing the same, though probably more effectively.
They were a good unit when it came to taking down foes. Especially in silent communication mode. Veri didn’t have to communicate with words in her mind to affect her choices in battle. Sometimes he could just direct pulses through her nervous system, making her foot twitch or her hand shift, letting her know where to punch out or kick or run.
He was silent now as she walked into the elevator, her head instantly turning to the left to assess the elevator controls, not the view behind her. There were three other passengers with her, and to a T, they all stared out of the glass back of the elevator as it shot down the side of the docking tower.
Phobius One stretched out before them, up, down, and to the sides. It, like most other highly built planets in the galaxy, made full use of the space given to it. It was so built-up, she imagined the towers stretched right down through the rock until they reached the magma of the continents below.
Was it pretty? It was nothing, suffice to say, like the Royal Palaces on Xantos Prime. Her back itched just thinking about those clean, vast halls. Every room in the Royal Palace had been filled with the art and sacred objects of the various races of the galaxy. There’d been so many curiosities, that the mere thought of traveling elsewhere to see the wonders of the Milky Way had seemed futile. Why go out when every beautiful object this vast universe had to show was right at her fingertips?
So she didn’t look at the view. She kept her back to it as her gaze sliced over the elevator controls. She couldn’t turn off the part of her mind that kept dividing things into what they were worth. At going commodity rates, the metal plating would be worth 100 Galactic Credits an inch. As for the control console? If she managed to rip it out intact, it would be worth at least 2000.
Was she about to interrupt her mission to do a little impromptu stealing?
But that wasn’t the point.
The point was, it distracted her, and any distraction was good.
It was one thing acting brave on her own ship where there was no one but her and Veri. Whenever she came down to a place like this – especially a highly populated transport planet – her nerves would rise through her like smoke from a fire.
There was always the chance that this time her identity would be revealed. There was always the chance that this time she would make a mistake and Winters would come.
Her back stiffened, a cold sweat slicking down her shoulders.
Veri didn’t tell her to calm herself. He was far more effective than that. “I have found a mission worth at least 500,000 credits,” he said, drumming up the perfect distraction.
Her eyes widened, and she was damn lucky that all the other passengers in the lift weren’t looking her way. “What?” she thought. “500,000 credits? What is it? We’ll do it,” she added before he could answer.
“Unlikely. It is an assassination,” he said smoothly.
Her cheek twitched, the involuntary move tightening the muscles up her face and into her brow.
Though before, back on the ship, she’d promised Veri that there wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do for money, that was wrong.
She had rules. And not killing people was one of them.
She could transport goods. She could run guns. She could even take people from one destination to another. But assassination?
Just thinking of it made her hand curl into a fist.
The kinds of people who were assassinated, were usually the kinds of people who had protection details.
She knew that, because she’d been one of those people her entire life. She’d had whole contingents of guards. And yes, over the years people had tried to assassinate her. And yes, over the years her guards had lost their lives to protect her.
So that was a line she could not cross.
“Why the hell did you tell me about this mission, wetting my appetite with the promise of 500,000 credits, if you knew I wouldn’t take it?”
“To distract you. Though there is also merit in knowing the most expensive mission on the planet. It will help you to predict how much competition will be out there for pirate missions.”
He had a point, though she didn’t let him know that. She pressed her lips into a frown. “We already know what kind of competition is out there. You said the Gallant Group are already here.”
“Indeed. But if there is a $500,000 assassination mission available, I am assuming there will be yet more competition.”
There was a ping, and the elevator arrived. Andalusia waited for the other three passengers to file out before she strode out behind them, one hand in her pocket, the other tapping out a beat on her thigh. She twisted her head to the side, her gaze darting left and right as she took in the customs hall in front of her. Despite the fact she’d already shared her identity to be able to land on the planet, Phobius was still a transport hub, and as such, you needed your identity checked twice.
“Do you have my papers ready?”
“When are they not? Your identity chip is fully programmed and ready to bypass even the most sophisticated sensors. Keep your game face on, though,” he added.
She arched an eyebrow at that, falling into step behind two large Maracaibo warriors who were grunting to themselves in low tones. Though she didn’t understand the Maracaibo language, she picked up bits here and there, and appreciated they were talking about the pirate missions, too.
She let her gaze sweep up and down their backs, taking in not just their size and strength, but their armor and weapons. She also made a quick mental calculation, judging if they were solo operators or part of a gang.
Nobody outside of the Maracaibo themselves was meant to know their language, but the thing about being a Crown Princess of the most powerful empire in the galaxy was that diplomacy had been her whole life. She hadn’t learned any useful life skills, but she had learned countless languages and social taboos.
Veri, just like she did, locked his full attention on the conversation. It wasn’t until the two warriors shifted to her left, joining a different customs line that she heard Veri speak. “They were discussing the assassination mission.”
“I got that much. You think they’re going after it?”
“No. They may be competition on our two chosen missions, though. First analysis suggests we will be able to take them easily.”
She didn’t bother to smile at that. Her brow scrunched down and she stopped herself from frowning as she took several more steps toward the customs line in front of her.
“Who did you say this assassination attempt was on again?”
Though she appreciated she’d interrupted Veri several times, he was a distributed intelligence, for God’s sake, and it was hardly as if distracting him would make him forget what he was talking about. No. He would only be taking his time revealing this information for a reason.
Her back started to itch.
“It is on Senator Dalia.”
Her chin twitched, one lip drawing down hard. “I know that name, don’t I? I’ve met him.”
“Her. And you are correct, you have met her. She is a representative of Planet Earth.”
“Why is there $500,000 out on her head?”
“The mission report does not share its motive. Only specifications as to how and when she will be killed and the amount her assassin will be rewarded with.”
“Any guesses, then? What’s Dalia done to have such an impressive amount on her head?”
“I have already assessed all available local and intergalactic news. Though she was instrumental in the recent Senate vote to disallow a new transport route through the Bandai Sector, she has done nothing of note since. I assume she has made enemies for another reason.”
“… Yeah,” Andalusia took a moment to think back. Now Veri had pointed it out, she could remember Dalia. It was hard, to be fair, because as the Crown Princess of Xantos, Andalusia had met so many dignitaries. They’d all mashed together after a while, but now she put her mind to it, she remembered Dalia. A simple, direct woman, Andalusia couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to assassinate her.
… It almost tugged at her heartstrings, then she hardened her expression as the couple in front of her pared off, heading to one of the terse looking customs officers.
“This conversation will end until you are through customs. You have an inability to control your expression when you are thinking of something that bothers you.”
Andalusia almost replied that Dalia’s assassination didn’t trouble her – just intrigued her – but she didn’t bother.
… Andalusia appreciated that Veri would be able to see through her act. Though most of the time Andalusia attempted to put on a face that she didn’t care about the brutalities of the galaxy, they still touched her.
“Next,” the large customs officer behind the gate in front of her called.
Andalusia took several steps forward, then stopped, her feet resting on a black ring painted over the smooth metal floor.
“Arms up,” the officer said as he jammed two of his three thumbs toward the ceiling.
Andalusia complied as she brought her hands up, gracefully clapping them into a prayer position above her head. She started to slowly turn on the spot.
A scanning beam initiated from the circle beneath her feet, pushing through her body one second at a time.
Just a flicker of fear punched through her gut. It always did. She’d been scanned countless times, and every time, Veri had been true to his word, and she’d never been caught.
It didn’t make it easy, though, and Andalusia had to control her mind to ensure her brow didn’t slick with sweat.
Just before her heart could quicken, the scanning beam completed its pass, and there was a dull beep.
“Next,” the customs official called without bothering to tell Andalusia she was free to go.
She dropped her hands, ignored the urge to wipe the sweat free from between her webbing, shoved her fists into her pocket, and walked on.
It wasn’t until she joined the thronging crowd getting out of the customs dock and onto the city streets beyond that Veri bothered to speak again. “I am keeping my attention on those two Maracaibo warriors from before. Thankfully it appears they are not keeping their attention on you.”
“What, they don’t think I’m a threat? People shouldn’t judge others by their appearances.”
“It is precisely because people judge you by your appearance that you have gotten this far.”
Andalusia didn’t need Veri to point that out. Every aspect of her appearance, from her face prostheses, down to her clothes, down to her stone armor was crafted perfectly so she didn’t look like that much of a threat. More than that, so she didn’t stand out.
Once upon a time, Andalusia had been in the spotlight of the Milky Way, at the very pinnacle of fame. She had one of the most recognizable faces in the galaxy, and she still did, if you pulled off her prosthetic implants, reprogrammed her aesthetic field, and stripped her back to the Princess beneath.
That wasn’t the point. Strangely, all those years of standing out had taught her how to do the precise opposite. So it was pretty easy to fall into step behind a couple happily talking about some upcoming event in the capital. She shoved both her hands into her pockets, drawing her left thumb against the inner fabric of her pants as she tried not to think of Dalia.
With $500,000 on her head, Andalusia could guarantee that Dalia would not survive this assassination attempt.
Did that pluck at her heartstrings?
“I suggest you stop thinking about it. There is nothing that you can do. If we warn Dalia, it will only raise the question of how we can access the pirate mission boards. If the authorities do not track the warning back to us, the pirates will, and we will not just lose our license to access the boards – they will track us down and kill us. Remember why you’re here,” Veri’s tone dropped, even though he never bothered to modulate it when he was speaking in her mind.
Andalusia cast her sad gaze to the side.
“Always remember that the crimes you commit now stop Winters from committing a much greater crime through you. That is all you should focus on. Push Dalia from your mind. Her future is not in your hands and never was.”
Though Andalusia knew she shouldn’t, she still took a deep breath and opened her mouth, speaking out loud as she said a noncommittal, “Yeah.”
It didn’t draw anyone’s attention. They were all stuck in their own worlds as they spilled out of the huge glass doors that led to the rest of the capital city.
Shoving her hands deeper into her pockets, as soon as she walked out of the doors, she turned her head up, not down or out or across at the vast view of the city.
As she stepped to the side and tilted her head all the way up, she couldn’t see the lines of hover traffic, the sleek towers, or any other element of the city. From here, she could only glimpse the sky.
Back in her room in the Royal Palace, if she’d stood on the balcony doing just this, she’d been able to see the same. She’d been able to glimpse nothing but the simplicity of space and the atmosphere beyond. It had always calmed her. Now? It did just what Veri had been trying to do earlier; it reminded her of why she was here.
She flexed a hand into a fist, and she pushed off, ready to make some money.
“Isn’t it remarkable that even on semi-decent planets like this, you’re never more than a few kilometers away from a seedy bar?” she questioned Veri as she walked down the rusted gray-green steps into the bar in front of her.
Anybody worth their mettle would be able to take one glance at this place, and appreciate it was full of the most disreputable souls in the sector.
Why the law enforcement agencies of Phobius One hadn’t broken it up, she didn’t know. Though usually bars like this had countermeasures. You never discussed your illegal trade in public, and if you were packing heat, you were discreet about it, and if you wanted a beer, you paid for it and didn’t steal it.
Still, places like this were hubs of activity for people precisely like her.
“Navigate right to the end of the bar. There is a door. There is a panel 20 centimeters to the side of it. Key in the code I give you, and you will gain access to the mission parameters.”
“Got it,” she said as she casually strode toward her goal, not making a beeline for it so she didn’t stick out.
The bar was hardly packed – it was only early evening. Still, there were more than a few patrons. Mostly, they were keeping to themselves, sticking to the darkened, shadowy edges of the room, huddled over their drinks and data pads.
A few of them were speaking, though, and as Andalusia walked past, she kept her ears peeled.
She knew what she wanted to hear, but she didn’t hear it. They weren’t talking about the $500,000 hit on Dalia’s head. They were speaking about some trade signing and an associated spying mission.
Apparently some senatorial dignitary was coming here to this shit-hole planet to sign a trade deal with this sector. There was a spying mission on the boards to glimpse the details of the deal. It wasn’t worth Andalusia’s while, though – only 25,000 credits. Andalusia didn’t get out of bed for anything less than 50.
“Focus,” Veri warned as her pace picked up, her distraction detracting from her apparently casual walk.
She re-centered on her body, controlling her implants as she slowed right down.
“Why does this mission have a sign-in, anyway? And why does it have a physical sign-in?” she complained.
“Presumably so that whoever placed this mission on the pirate boards knows who’s after it and whether and when it is likely to be completed.”
“I get that, but a physical sign-in is such a drag.”
“It is a wise security precaution when you’re dealing with criminals.”
“I hate it when you take on the perspective of our competition.”
“This is not the perspective of our competition. It is plain common sense. Now quit complaining. Approach the door.”
She neared the door, casually glancing over her shoulder to ensure no one was staring her way. Though no one was overtly looking at her, she could appreciate that anyone in this bar who knew about this mission would be focusing on her with all their senses.
“Key in this code—” Veri provided her with the code, and she faithfully tapped it into the console.
A moment later, she felt a discreet scanning beam shift from a unit in the floor, drag up her legs, hips, torso, and head, and end with a near silent ping.
“It has registered your biometric signature and pirate affiliate code. The mission is now set. It stipulates you have an hour to complete it.”
“An hour? Not only do they have a physical sign-in, but they have a time parameter? I thought this was a simple pick-up mission?”
“It seems whoever has placed this mission requires a quick, effective job. It is not too late to back out now, Princess.”
She practically snorted. “As if, Veri. Now, are we good to go? Or do we have to do a rain dance and sacrifice a goat before we get started?”
“If that is you attempting humor, I suggest you stop. Neither is it funny, nor does it make sense.”
“I’m just saying that all of these security precautions are ridiculous. If they want this mission done, just let me damn well go out and do it.”
“Head out. Use the back door. It is approximately 20 meters to your left.”
Andalusia glanced toward it. Casually, she turned and headed out, her hands in her pockets once more.
As soon as she walked out of the back door, she wasn’t all that surprised when Veri snapped in her mind to, “Run.”
She pushed off. Fortunately, this bar backed onto a darkened, lonely alleyway.
“You have 59 more minutes left. Judging by the distance we have to cross, you will need to keep up this pace the entire time.”
She didn’t bother to crack her lips open and waste her breath to mutter out a curt great.
Her mobility implants suddenly locked onto a metal box to her side, charting a path forward and up.
She shoved toward the box, leaped into the air, vaulted on top of it, then flipped to her feet. Above her was a dent in the metal wall. She didn’t hesitate as she leaped toward it, swinging her legs as she gathered momentum before she jumped off and grabbed a grating above her.
“Continue like this. Head two levels up.”
Before she could ask Veri to keep an eye out for any scanners or eyeballs that could witness what she was doing, he clicked. “You’re safe. Run.”
She flipped onto the grating, pushed forward, angled her head to the side, and saw another dent in the wall. She leaped toward it, using her right arm and plunging her stone armor into the dent. It had a weak magnetic lock, but that was all she needed to grasp hold of it, pull her legs up, and push her boots into the wall. She angled her head to the side, saw another dent in the wall, and repeated the move.
“You are slowing down. Your fitness has reduced since the last mission. You should exercise more on the ship.”
“Not helping, Veri,” she quipped as she searched for another handhold.
“To your left, three meters away. Jump to the metal grating.”
“You could’ve made such a jump on your last mission.”
“There’s—” she began, about to tell him there was no way she could make the jump, then his irritating tone got to her.
She pressed her tongue between her lips, shifted her grip, chased her legs back and forth across the wall to get momentum, then thrust forward.
She could feel the air flattening her fringe and tugging at her simple black jacket. For just a moment, she saw the floor of the street several meters below her, rushing up fast, then she reached a hand out at the last moment. Her fingers clasped the edge of the grating with a metal clang.
Before she could slip off, she activated her implants, and she pulled herself up with a grunt.
“Good work. Keep running. We have 57 minutes left.”
57 minutes, ha? She’d done a pretty good job. Turning her head to the side and locating the back door of the bar, she appreciated she’d already traveled 50 meters.
According to Veri, however, that wasn’t fast enough, and he ordered her to keep moving.
Grinding her lips together, she threw herself up another section of wall.
In her head, she thought of only one thing.
Oh, how far Princess Andalusia had fallen.
Saz Sommers strode down the wide corridor, one hand brushing a nonexistent speck of dust off his perfect, trim blue-black uniform.
Beside him, several of the Xantos Guards strode, all in armor.
Despite the fact Saz wasn’t wearing an armor unit himself, his body was still integrated with cybernetic implants, and retroactive genetic engineering ensured that he could hear every single micro movement of every joint of the soldiers’ armor beside him.
“Coming up on the docking platform, sir,” one of the soldiers said by his side.
Saz simply nodded.
His head was elsewhere.
As they walked toward the docking platform at the end of the long corridor, the wall beside him showed an unrivaled view of the capital city of the planet below.
Tall, glistening spire-like towers rose into the sky like flowers from a field. Hover traffic ran around them like bees, and far down between the buildings, he could see the brown, rusted-like dirt these towers appeared to grow from. That analogy was fitting. After all, the wealth the spires were built on did indeed come from the lower levels of the planet, from the slums, from the downtrodden, from the ordinary Galactic citizens.
And that is precisely why Saz didn’t turn his head to the view. He focused instead on the two white metal blue doors in front of him. As he approached, he felt an invisible scanning beam slice out and dart along every man present.
Saz had various implants in his mind to alert him to the presence of any electronics covertly scanning him.
He felt the scanning beam as a little buzz along the base of his spine. It reached up, tapping at the back of his skull like knocking knuckles.
“Is the Lady ready?” Saz asked as the doors opened, the invisible scanning beam doing its job in identifying him as a Xantos Guard.
“Yes, sir,” one of the soldiers bothered to snap a salute.
Saz briefly thought of ignoring it, but appreciated that wouldn’t just be against code – it would be rude.
He nodded, offering a wan smile, then turned on his shoe and headed straight into the lifts.
Once upon a time, Saz hadn’t cared about what was rude or not. A kid who’d grown up in the pirate slums of the Vandara Complex, the capacity to be polite and caring toward others was not one he had ever bothered to develop. Useless pleasantries would not keep you alive and food on the table.
Then? He’d met her.
Andalusia. The Crown Princess of one of the most powerful empires in the Milky Way. And she had changed him. She’d plucked a boy out of the slums, given him a chance, given him a purpose, and critically, given him something to live for.
“Sir?” one of the soldiers said in a tone that suggested Saz had missed something.
He dragged his mind out of his memories and looked sharply to the side. Before he could bother asking what the man wanted, Saz quickly scanned through all incoming data messages and realized he’d missed a ship-wide report. His nervous system had probably pulsed, warning him of the incoming message, but his mind had obviously been too far down the rabbit hole of his memories.
His gaze darted to the side in the universal language that would let others know he was accessing a neural message and shouldn’t be disturbed.
Saz ticked his lips to the side, a small frown marking his chin. “Do any of you know how current this report is?” He didn’t bother to launch into an explanation of what he was asking. All of the soldiers around him had access to ship-wide communications, and they would’ve all received this message, albeit sooner as presumably they’d been paying more attention.
The message was a danger report on the planet below. Scrounged together from all available resources including data mining of forbidden channels, spies, and general guesswork, it was what allowed men like Saz to safely manage the movements of the Royal family through the Milky Way. They were high profile targets, after all.
Just before Saz could allow that thought to derail him – before he could allow it to drag his memories back to her – he cleared his throat, prompting his men to answer.
“Report is current as of this morning,” the soldier beside him answered with a salute.
Saz didn’t return the salute. Several seconds went by before he forced himself to nod. In those several seconds, no matter how hard he tried to push her memory away, Andalusia rose once more.
He could still remember the exact moment he’d met her.
It had been 15 years ago. She’d been visiting one of the worlds he’d been running a mission on. Someone had attempted to assassinate her. Saz had been in the crowd at the time. He’d done nothing, nothing at all to stop the assassination.
It had been a sophisticated, coordinated attack. A bomb had gone off, disabling her guards, then someone had tried to snipe her. She’d only survived when one of her personal guards had jumped in front of the bullet and shoved her out of the way. Saz could remember every single moment of that attack. When he went to bed, closed his eyes, and concentrated, he could dream of it, too, in perfect detail, almost as if he were back there, right there in that moment.
He could remember the roar of the crowd, the chaotic confusion, the screams, the blood, the smoke, the angry shouts of her attackers – everything. But most of all?
Her expression. It stuck in his head even now. He could draw it. He could sculpt it. And if anyone so much as made an expression like it, it always froze him to the spot. Not that anyone could. There was something unique about it, just as there was something unique about her.
As she’d knelt over the dead body of her guard, her white ceremonial dress covered in his blood, she’d tilted her head up to stare in the direction of the sniper, and she’d looked like the very embodiment of a queen. Regal, calm, and sad, but ready to face death head-on.
And Saz? He’d just stood there staring at her.
Others had run away, others had tried to help. Him? He’d turned into a statue.
He hadn’t died that day, and neither had Andalusia. Her other guards had found her assassins and taken them down.
So how had Saz gotten from there to here?
Her. Everything always came down to her.
Andalusia had remembered him standing in the crowd, watching her the entire time, and for some reason, she’d rewarded him for it.
Saz hadn’t done a damn thing, but in Andalusia’s head, he’d just been waiting for his opportunity to help.
… Even now Saz wanted to bring up a hand, clamp it over his eyes, and hide.
Though it had been 15 long years, he still felt like a fraud.
He hadn’t done a damn thing that day, and yet, because of that day, he was now here doing this.
“… Sir?” one of the soldiers prompted him again.
Dammit, had he missed another message?
Saz tuned back into his neural traffic, but when there wasn’t anything, he tilted his head toward the man. “Yes?”
“Are you going to send a separate team to protect Senator Dalia? There’s $500,000 out on her head.”
Something twitched at the base of Saz’s spine. Back when he’d been a pirate runner, talk of a bounty that large would have whet his lips. Now it did nothing but pull his mouth into a frown. “No,” he concluded finally.
The soldier looked surprised. “But Lady Veta has specifically asked that Dalia is protected.”
“That’s why we’re going to be proactive. She’s already got a detachment of guards from the Senate. I’ve looked them up. They’re worth their while. If we want to help, the best way is to go out and hunt those hunting her.”
The soldier looked momentarily impressed. Saz had seen that look over the years. He wasn’t cut from the same mold as these men. He hadn’t been born on Xantos, and his rough beginnings had given him a perspective other’s lacked.
“What team will you send?” the soldier asked.
… For a moment, Saz wanted to put his own hand up. When he was like this – stuck in his thoughts – all he ever wanted to do was pick up a gun and do something. Because if he was doing something, he could momentarily kid himself that he was actively looking for her.
It had been three years. Dammit, it had been three years since Andalusia had been kidnapped. She was still out there somewhere – he was certain of that. It wasn’t guesswork. It wasn’t a wish, either. He was privy to the inner secrets of the Royal family.
As the Crown Princess, Andalusia was intimately connected to the heart of Xantos technology. Not only did she have glowing lines and symbols permanently marking the outer side of her right arm – they gave her access privilege to the inner sanctum of the Royal Palace and to the armory codes required for Xantos’ most sophisticated technology. Technology that was light years beyond anything most of the rest of the galaxy had access to.
If Andalusia were dead, those access codes would have reverted to the second-in-line for the throne. They hadn’t.
So she was still out there. And Saz should be looking for her.
Dammit, he should be looking for her.
She had been so loyal to him over the years. She had pulled him up by his bootstraps, as an old human saying went. She had given him everything. And now, when he should be fulfilling his basic purpose as one of her guards, he wasn’t.
He was babysitting her cousin instead.
“Sir? What team will you send?” the soldier prompted him again.
“Your team – the Red team,” Saz said after a single second of thought.
“What are our orders?”
“Neutralize—” Saz began, but he stopped. “No, I want to know more information about this plot. Neutralize if you have to, capture if you can.”
“Yes, sir.” The three soldiers behind him saluted.
With the thought of Andalusia running through his mind, Saz finally faced them and returned the salute.
The elevator pinged. It arrived at the protected inner sanctum of the topmost spire of the city.
As soon as the lift doors opened, two fully armored Xantos Guards snapped salutes.
Saz gave them perfunctory nods as he shifted forward, resisting the urge to put his hands into his pockets. Back then, when he’d been a pirate runner, he’d always slouched about, as casual as he could be.
Now? Every single aspect of his appearance, from his perfectly pressed dress uniform to his expressions, to his body language, was neat and exact.
The three soldiers who’d accompanied him in the lift were standing tall, presumably proud that they would be given an actual mission rather than guarding a door and throwing salutes.
Saz ignored them, concentrating instead on the massive door at the end of the corridor. The corridor had windows on either side, and they offered a striking view of the planet below.
He resisted the urge to curl a hand into a fist. Views were luxuries. Yes, it meant you could see out, but it also meant others could see in. He’d specifically requested an inner room without windows. Obviously that request had been denied.
He could tell easily which man had done it, too.
A man who’d once been his friend and, technically, still was. But a man Saz had butted heads with since the day he’d been pulled into the Xantos Guard program by Andalusia.
Vandel Taz. He was everything Saz wasn’t. He’d grown up of noble birth, he’d chosen to go into the guards, and whereas Saz struggled to keep hold of his emotions on a good day, Vandel just didn’t seem to have them at all. It wasn’t to say he was cold and calculating, just efficient and competent.
Was there jealousy between the two men? Yes. A begrudging friendship usually made up for it, but when the two men’s protection styles differed, that friendship would always be thrown right out the window.
“I told him no windows,” Saz muttered to himself as he reached the massive doors in front of him.
This time he didn’t just feel an invisible scanning beam shifting out from the panel in the door to check his identity. The computer announced it. “You will stand still as you are identified. Failure to do so will meet with immediate transportation to the brig.”
Saz didn’t bother to roll his eyes.
Five seconds later, the scanning beam had finished its job, and the doors finally opened.
Saz got ready to find Vandel and shout at the idiot for ignoring his direct order, but as soon as he walked in, he had to flatten a smile across his face instead.
In front of him was Lady Veta, second-in-line for the throne.
Some might say she was prettier than Andalusia, but the prettiness had always felt surfaced-deep to Saz. Her personality had, too, even though that was a fact he would only ever admit in his own head and never dare say out loud.
Veta was just too eager to please.
Andalusia had been genuinely kind. She had this view of the galaxy that had suggested anybody could change and everybody could get by if only they helped one another.
Andalusia had been Saz’s exact opposite, in other words.
She seemed like a Princess out of some book.
She pushed up as soon as she saw Saz, and an enormous smile spread across her lips.
She had ice white hair that ran straight down to the middle of her back. Gold clasps collected it at the base of her neck, the metalwork intricate and studded here and there with glistening red and blue gems that offset her eyes.
She, like all of the Princesses of Xantos, had the strangest eyes.
While the outside was a crystalline blue, the pupils were rimmed with an almost luminescent red. They were the kind of eyes that could easily draw you in.
They were easily more startling than Andalusia’s eyes, and yet, as always, they only felt surface-deep.
Saz tried to press a deeper smile over his lips, but he knew it didn’t reach his eyebrows. They were pressed low over his eyes as he sliced his gaze toward the massive bank of windows in front of where Veta had been sitting.
Though she’d already pushed to her feet, her white hair sashaying around her shoulders, she stopped abruptly, swinging her gaze toward the windows. Her brow crumpled, and a cautious grin marked her lips. “Sorry. I just love to see the cities of the galaxy. Vandel said it was okay.”
“Because it is okay,” a familiar voice rumbled out from across the room.
Saz didn’t startle. He’d known full well that Vandel was in the room; Saz’s implants had alerted him to the fact that there was another Xantos Guard close by.
Saz didn’t even bother to twist his gaze toward Vandel. Do that, and the anger Saz was holding back would mark his features. It was one thing fighting Vandel on his own – another to do it in front of the Princess.
Though Saz hated to be put on the spot, he forced his lips to twitch up. “I guess it’s okay,” he managed.
Veta’s expression lit up.
From behind, Saz heard Vandel choke down a laugh.
That made Saz’s mind up for him. Whenever he got the opportunity, he’d turn this into a real fight. For now, however, he had a job to do.
“Have you ensured Dalia’s protection?” Veta asked before Saz could get a word out.
Saz nodded. Though he hated Vandel for being able to control his expression, at times, when it counted, Saz could switch off some part of his brain. Which is precisely what he did now. He let nothing show as he nodded. “She’ll be fine.”
“You’ll put the best guards on her protection detail, won’t you?”
“Yes.” It was a barefaced lie. Though now he’d said it, he would have to put a small detachment with Dalia. It wouldn’t work, though. He could redistribute half of the Xantos Guard contingent on this planet to Dalia’s protection, and it would still be a gamble.
Saz knew precisely the kind of man he was dealing with here. As a pirate runner, he’d come across the mercenaries who’d specialized in running assassination missions. They were always kitted out with the best gear, had the greatest experience, and knew precisely how to run a seemingly impossible mission. In other words, they were wildcards. And the only way to win against wildcards was to pull them out of the deck.
Veta did not need to know what Saz was planning, though. It was best for the Princess’ fragile conscience that she had no idea what her Xantos Guards did to keep her interests safe.
“That’s good. Thank you. How have you been?” she asked abruptly.
Saz never knew what to do when Veta asked about his welfare.
How had he been? Did she really want him to answer honestly?
Saz had been in precisely the same state for the last three years.
He’d been off-world the day he learned Andalusia had been kidnapped. And from that day, all he’d wanted to do was get out there and find her himself. But he hadn’t been allowed. There were Xantos Guard teams searching the galaxy for her, but they were covert specialists. Apparently his job was to keep the next in line for the throne safe and hope and wish and pray that soon Andalusia would be found. But there was this niggling voice in the back of Saz’s head that could never be silenced. It told him that she’d been gone for three years. Three damn years. The kidnappers had never come forward. They’d never made demands.
They’d just swept her away like a dream in the night.
“Saz? Are you okay? Is something bothering you?”
“Not at all, Princess,” he said smoothly. “I just remembered something I need to do, that’s all.”
“Whatever it is, I’m sure you’ll get it done. I have complete faith in you,” Veta said. Then she smiled in that specific way that always told him Veta was far fonder of Saz than she should be.
He returned the smile, but only with half her warmth. He nodded. “If you please excuse me, there’s something I need to see to.”
“Of course.” She placed her hands on her knees and bowed once low.
She shouldn’t bow to him as a Xantos Guard, and he’d tried to point that out on multiple occasions. Now, he bowed back, ensuring his was much lower and more deferential than hers.
Though he didn’t have anything to get done, with that, he turned and walked out. He made meaningful eye contact with Vandel on the way past, and Vandel just returned the stare blankly.
“Good luck,” Vandel said as he reached the door.
Saz sliced his gaze over to him and didn’t bother to modulate his expression. “Thanks.”
“Decided to go after Dalia’s potential assassins on your own?” Vandel asked point-blank.
Saz’s cheeks twitched. He swung his gaze back to Veta and appreciated that a surprised expression was slackening her features.
“What’s this?” she muttered.
“Nothing to worry about, Princess,” Vandel said in a smooth voice. “There’s a reason Saz is the head of your Xantos Guard protection unit.” If Vandel were any other guard born of nobility, this was where he would point out that Saz had been a criminal and was therefore better placed to understand his own kind. Vandel didn’t say that, though.
Saz had known Vandel long enough to appreciate that wasn’t how the man thought.
Instead, Vandel fixed his steady gaze on Saz and said once more, “Good luck.”
Saz ground his teeth together and walked out.
Now he had no option, ha? As he swung his gaze toward the expansive view of Phobius One beside him, he slowly curled a hand into a fist.
He hadn’t intended to go out there personally and hunt down Dalia’s assassins. But now Vandel had let the cat out of the bag, he didn’t have an option.
Saz strode away, not bothering to glance at the city below again. Why stare at a place a place he’d outgrown?
“Hurry. You’ve only got 30 more minutes,” Veri said through her thoughts.
“Shut up. I don’t need a second-by-second countdown. I’m going as fast as I can.” Andalusia swung her feet to the side, narrowly managed to grab a railing, and pulled herself up. Without bothering to check in with Veri’s extended sensors, she appreciated that 30 centimeters above her was an opening to a window, and just beyond it, some residents of the house whose wall she was currently climbing.
She kept down low, one leg spread to the side, one elbow locked on the railing, her body crunched forward.
“Jump now,” Veri directed.
She twisted to the side, planted her fingers on the wall, ran up it, shifted past the open window just as the occupants inside turned their backs to her, and managed to grab an external light fitting on the outside of the building. She locked her fingers into it, squeezing her stone armor until her grip was as strong as a vice. She pulled herself up.
Though Andalusia had bought the finest cybernetic implants she could afford, there was still a limit to her endurance, and she was rapidly reaching it. Half an hour of throwing herself up towers and along streets without being detected by passing police force ships was not her usual exercise routine.
“When we get back to the ship, we will have to address your flagging fitness levels,” Veri said like a drill sergeant.
She just opened her lips and smiled.
“Wait approximately five seconds. Then leap out to your left.”
Andalusia didn’t have the time or breath to ask why the hell Veri wanted her to leap off the wall and face a 300 meter drop down to the street below. She just waited the requisite five seconds, then she did as she was told, and she jumped.
The air had two seconds to flatten her cheeks and pull her hair around her, then she thumped onto the roof of a large hyper transport. Rather than slide off the edge and bounce down like a ball striking the wall, she instantly flattened her body, pressed her limbs out, and made a magnetic lock with her stone armor against the hull of the ship.
She waited for half a second, her breath caught in her throat before she thought, “You think the occupants detected that noise?”
“You fell like an elephant. I thought we trained you to fall more gracefully than this?”
“Not now, Veri,” she snarled in her mind. “You think they detected me or not?”
Veri paused for several seconds. “No. I believe the hull plating is thick enough and this ship’s engines unconditioned enough that they did not detect you. Now get up. Crouch down low and get ready to jump to the base of that food cart truck several meters up.”
“Are you mad? They’ll definitely detect that. The food cart is open and currently serving customers.” As Andalusia tilted her head up and to the side, the weather fields in this section of the city thankfully stopping her from being torn right off the rapidly moving transport, she saw that the food cart was servicing one of the streets above. She could just see an alien arm reaching out and handing some unspeakable meat dish to the patrons waiting in line.
“Trust me. Now,” Veri commanded.
Andalusia didn’t have any option. She flung herself forward, but just at the last moment, the transport she was on top of rapidly slammed on its brakes. She was jolted to the side, and as her feet left the roof, it changed her momentum.
She didn’t have time to scream. Veri didn’t have time to suggest anything. Andalusia reached out with her stone armor, pushing into her shoulder, stretching her fingers wide, using all the force she had. And just at the last moment, she snagged hold of a handy maintenance bar on the base of the food cart.
Her armor did the rest, her fingers clamping together and creating a magnetic lock that held her in place as she swung beneath.
The city streets and the lines of hover traffic flashed below her, a fate she’d narrowly avoided.
“Well done,” Veri managed.
Veri never complemented her. But when it came to not dying, that was something to be proud of.
With a muffled grunt, considering the pedestrians only several meters up on the lip of street that connected to the food truck, Andalusia brought her other hand up and secured it over the maintenance bar. Then she swung her head up and down, looking for a way to get off this truck onto the street above.
“You can’t just hang here. Passing motorists will see you and will have already done so.”
“It was your damn plan. What the hell do I do?”
“Wait several seconds and then drop—” Veri stopped abruptly. “Pull yourself up now, now.”
Andalusia didn’t have time to ask what Veri meant, so she yanked up with her arms, bringing up her legs and flattening them against the base of the food truck. It stank. Not just of engine oil, but of cooking grease and meat and whatever the hell this food truck specialized in.
That didn’t stop her from grinding her face against the questionable sludge as she pulled herself flat against the base of the ship with nothing more than her forearm strength.
“What—” Andalusia began, about to demand what Veri was doing. Then she saw it herself. A clearly marked security vessel shifted past, only several meters away.
Andalusia didn’t need Veri’s assistance as she shifted further back, hiding behind a thruster compartment in the ship’s base. “You’re blocking my biosensors, right?” she thought frantically.
“Of course. Now do not distract me. Remain where you are. You may have to hold this position for several minutes.”
He said that so casually, but it sure as hell wasn’t an easy task. Yes, Andalusia could use her armor gauntlet to ensure her grip on that maintenance handle did not fail. She was still planking her body underneath the ship, though, and her leg muscles were already starting to fatigue.
Veri did not take the opportunity to point out yet again that her fitness was substandard. For the next several minutes as the security vehicle hovered by, apparently looking for something, he didn’t make a noise.
Andalusia had been in some relatively perilous situations since she’d fled her kingdom, and to be honest, this wasn’t even the worst. While her heartbeat quickened, it didn’t punch through her chest like the moment when Winters had pulled her off her feet and revealed his true character by trying to strangle her.
She locked onto that memory some reason, using it to bolster her, using it to prove she could get through anything. And sure enough, she got through this. Approximately five minutes later, the security vessel swept away, rapidly descending through lines of hover traffic to get to the base of the city below.
“We are all clear. You can relax now.”
“Really? You want me to relax? That would be a great way to fall 300 meters to my death.”
“Correction. There would be no we – I would not die.”
“No, you’d just have your data banks completely pulled apart when they appreciated what you were and who I was. Now, can you get us out of here please?”
“Reach approximately a meter across to another handhold underneath the ship. It is just in front of you.”
Andalusia didn’t grumble. She tilted her head to the side, let her legs fall down, and she found the handhold in question. She just managed to grasp it, her fingers snagging hold loosely until she managed to swing through and grab it tightly with her stone armor. “Now what?”
“Wait until I give the order. You will come in the back entrance of the food truck.”
“I’m thinking whatever questionable alien is running this joint is not going to be happy with that.”
“You will knock him out.”
Andalusia’s gut twitched. She didn’t like unnecessary violence on missions like this.
Before her conscience could get the better of her, she heard Veri click in her mind. “It is necessary for the good of the galaxy. I do not give you orders unless they are required for your continued survival.”
That was Ver’s attempt at compassion, and it got her through. She complied with his order. She shifted her hands forward, brought her legs up, and reached around until she grasped the lip of metal that ran along the back hatch wall.
This was where she was completely exposed. Any passing hover traffic would be able to see her. “Tell me you’re putting out a jamming field blocking any footage from being taken?” she demanded as she swung up, managed to grasp the outer hatch manual release, and pulled herself up until she was straddling it, her feet locked on the hull.
“Of course. That being said, stop wasting time. Open the hatch.”
“No, you open the hatch—” she began. Her fingers slid around the hatch mechanism. She expected it would be locked. If you worked on a crappy planet like this one and you operated out of an even crappier food truck, you would lock your back door, right?
Wrong. As her finger slid around the back hatch, it opened with a click.
She controlled the door’s release, keeping her arm braced against it so it didn’t swing in violently.
With a breath, she dropped down onto the floor of the ship, twisted quietly to the side, and closed the door with the back of her heel.
Fortunately the ship was larger than it looked. She didn’t open the door right into the food-delivery section, and instead, arrived in a seriously despicable kitchen. There was sludge the likes of which she had never seen and assumed scientists around the galaxy would love to study.
She didn’t bother to lock her hand over her nose. She shifted forward, keeping low, her feet always braced and ready for action.
“Move,” Veri demanded.
She reached the door, clasped a hand on it, spun the small manual release, and pushed.
She knew she was running out of time. Though it would’ve been a smarter plan to just lure the guy back into his kitchen by making some funny noises, she didn’t have the time. As she opened the door, she faced him.
He was a Borgazi alien, at least three feet taller than her, and with at least three more arms. Two of them were currently holding containers of meat dripping with sauce, and the other three were holding modified light knives.
He didn’t pause. He might’ve been the kind of guy who left his back door open, but he was also the kind of guy who knew how to use knives.
He slashed toward her with three of them all at once.
She pivoted onto her back, rolled, pushed up onto her shoulders, then shoved out with her feet. The move was snapped and precise, and her feet collected his shoulder, spinning him around.
The guy grunted but didn’t fall down. He shoved one of his knives into the wall behind him, using it to save his balance.
Before he could pull the knife out, Andalusia rolled toward him, pushed up, and kicked one of her legs into his wrist as he slashed toward her with a knife.
Veri had gone into silent mode. That wasn’t to say he was kicking back and watching the fight, letting her do the grunt work of saving them. It was to say that he no longer spoke out loud, because it would divert her attention at a critical time. Instead, he helped her by sending nervous pulses through her muscles, directing her when she needed it most. And she sure as hell needed it as the guy suddenly put on a burst of speed, slashing his knife perilously close to her jugular. Veri told her to shift her leg up, pivot on her hip, and slam her foot forward. It just caught the alien’s leg, shifting him to the side and changing his momentum.
His knife slashed down right in front of Andalusia’s face, driving into the floor beside her.
She watched the glowing tip as it sliced easily through the metal.
She felt her right hand pulse, and the next thing she knew, she brought it up, rolled it into a fist, and slammed it against the guy’s jaw.
“Wrong hand,” Veri barked.
Dammit, she’d used her left hand unconsciously.
Borgazi aliens were a sturdy, tough race. They had a rough hide that wasn’t just hard to cut through; it was hard to push any force through. So punching out with her unassisted left hand, despite the fact it had sophisticated cybernetic implants, did nothing.
She went to punch him with her stone armor, but she didn’t get the chance. The guy locked one of his free hands around her wrist as he pulled the knife out of the metal plating by her face.
Veri was done giving her silent commands. He roared in her head, “Kick him in the stomach with the base of your foot. Now.”
She jerked her foot up. It was a hard task to kick him in the stomach when he was this close, let alone to get the kind of maneuverability required to shift her foot around and use the base of her heel. But she was motivated. And that counted. Just before the guy could bring two of his knives up and slash them through her shoulders, pinning her to the floor like one of the strange meat delicacies he served from this truck, she kicked him precisely where Veri had said.
The guy doubled back, his face turning green as his body obviously twitched in pain.
“The alien’s hide has become weaker around his stomach. Strike it again.” Veri sent his thoughts so quickly, if he’d bothered to speak them out loud, they would’ve jumbled together.
Andalusia kicked the alien once more with the base of her foot, using the magnetic locks she had implanted there to ensure the move counted. Two more kicks, and the guy groaned.
“Stone armor, now,” Veri roared.
She clenched her right hand into a fist and struck it hard across the alien’s jaw.
This time, the blow counted.
She watched his eight eyes roll into the back of his head as he fell unconscious. Before he could pin her to the ground and one of his loosely cupped knives could slice through her, she pivoted to the side, rolled out of the way, kicked into a handstand, and stood.
She patted her jacket down and stared from him down to her stone armor.
… As she’d punched him, she’d felt the markings along her right forearm react. They’d spiked with heat, growing stronger. The stone armor had ensured the illumination couldn’t escape, but she’d still felt it.
“Do not become distracted. Not now. You have witnesses.”
Veri was right.
That fight had gone down at the front of the food truck, and there were currently three surprised customers standing around, staring through the open section of the ship.
She forced a smile. “Sorry,” she shrugged toward the downed Borgazi, “business dispute. Wasn’t paying enough to have his kitchen cleaned.” She twisted her lips to the side and indicated the kitchen behind her, and she brought her hands up. They were completely covered in gunk. “Sorry folks, but your orders are canceled.”
With that, all of the aliens made faces and walked off.
“That was a pathetic story,” Veri informed her as she started to climb out the front of the van.
“Before you go, take one of his knives,” Veri commanded her.
“We’ve gone over this a thousand times, Veri – I don’t steal.”
There was a lengthy pause, one that was presumably perfectly timed to allow her to appreciate just how stupid that statement was. “You make your money off running illegal missions. Tell me, how exactly do you plan to take the moral high ground considering your job?”
“I don’t steal,” she thought back firmly. “This guy hasn’t done anything wrong.”
“He attempted to kill you rather than take you into the authorities.”
“Still doesn’t justify me stealing one of his knives. We’ll make do.” She jumped down onto the base of the street outside, quickly assessing how many people had seen that altercation. “How many of those had recording equipment on them?”
“Two. Do not worry, they picked up nothing.”
“Sure, but their eyes picked it up. We need to find somewhere quiet and you need to change my facial prostheses.”
“That will take time and energy, both of which we do not have.”
“Do we have time to be thrown into jail?”
“A valid point. Head to the side street to your left.”
Phobius One was like a lot of other planets in this sector of space. It was so built-up, every single level felt like its own world. As she shoved in the direction Veri had indicated, she slid her gaze down the street, assessing the shops and pedestrians before ticking her head up and looking at the residential buildings above. This level sure was a lot cleaner than the ones below, but it had its quirks, too. It was filled with different aliens, and they’d brought their culture with them. There were more Borgazis, and with their love of food trucks and food in general, every second store was either a micro hovering ship selling snacks or a restaurant. There were bars, too, merchants, and everything else you’d expect on a thriving planet like Phobius.
Whereas the walls of the level below had been drab and brown, up here, there was color. They’d been painted in shades of holographic paint that shifted and glimmered depending on how the sun shone down on them and which angle you saw them from.
Spice filled the air, but it couldn’t quite take away from the god-awful smell of rotting flesh.
She didn’t bother to bring up her hand and clamp her nose – her fingers were completely covered in cooking grease.
“Continue 100 meters ahead.”
She complied, brushing her hands on her jacket, shoving her hands into her pockets, and tilting her head down so she didn’t make eye contact with anyone. She still watched them, though, keeping a direct lock on everyone she passed through her peripheral vision.
A few people gave her second glances, either at the fact her species didn’t seem to belong on this level, or how dirty she was.
“Stop here. Wait,” Veri commanded.
She did as she was told, shifting around, leaning against the wall behind her, kicking one leg out, and hooking it over her other ankle. She stared at the ground, apparently bored.
Just at the edge of her hearing, she started to pick up sirens. “Are they here for me? Tell me they’re not here for me. How much time do we have left?”
“The answer is 21 minutes and 32 seconds. As for whether they are here for you, I cannot tap into the Security Forces’ channels this far out. I can assume, however, considering those sirens appear to be traveling to your left, that they are not here for you.”
“Maybe they thought I went to the left. Maybe….” She stopped herself.
“If you’re about to suggest maybe we should stop this mission, understand that we only have one attempt at it. Whoever posted it to the pirate boards wants it done in a single session.”
“This is a stupid mission, anyway. Why make us sign-in and only give us an hour to get the mission done?”
“There are several options. Perhaps they are assessing your skills to see if they would like to hire you for further missions. Or, upon signing in, they have initiated some process critical for the successful completion of the mission. Perhaps they have activated a virus, and there is only an hour before it is detected. There are many possibilities.”
“I just want the 50 grand,” she grumbled to herself.
“Then turn immediately to your left and head down the alley. Two doors down, stop in an alcove. There, you will have the privacy required for me to change your prostheses. Stand with your face to the wall, though,” he reminded her.
“This isn’t my first rodeo,” she commented. That particular saying slipped off her tongue. She’d never been to a rodeo, of course, no one had. It was the modern universe. It wasn’t a saying her people used. But it was a saying Saz had used, and one she’d picked up with alacrity.
She complied with Veri’s plans, shifted to the side, walked casually down the alleyway, stopped in the alcove, turned her face to the wall, and finally let out a small breath of relief.
It didn’t last. In the distance, she could still hear those sirens. She flicked her gaze toward them, a frown marking her cheeks.
“If this is not your first rodeo, then you should know not to move your facial muscles while your prostheses are being altered. Stay still,” Veri growled.
She allowed her facial muscles to slacken, and she stared wide-eyed at the wall in front of her. It was marked with grease and a few scatters of scratched-off holographic paint.
To change her facial prostheses, Veri would need about five minutes. That was a big ask considering not only their timeframe, but the fact those sirens were getting closer.
Veri didn’t speak to her as he worked. Which of course meant one thing – her only company was the thoughts in her head.
It didn’t take them long to spiral toward her dream from that morning.
For three years, every night, multiple times, she would dream of that moment. And every time she was forced to endure that nightmare, whenever she woke, she would question how stupid she’d been.
How had she never seen Winters’ treachery? How had she been pulled in by his charms?
It hadn’t just been the Royal court who’d decided to betroth her to him. For a time, she’d had genuine affection for him.
And that affection had almost cost the galaxy everything.
How could she have been so stupid?
Though she’d led a sheltered existence, even she had appreciated that as a Princess, she’d had no true friends. People had only reacted kindly to her because of her position. And yet that knowledge hadn’t extended toward Winters for some reason. She hadn’t appreciated that just as no one could truly be friends with a Princess, no one could love them wholeheartedly, either.
From the day Winters had swept into her life, everything he’d done and said and promised had all been an act.
“It’s done,” Veri said, and for some reason he was modulating his voice. Sure, he wasn’t speaking out loud, but even as he allowed it to filter through her mind, she could tell he was being kind.
“You can wipe the tears off your cheek, Andalusia. And you can start running again. To your left.”
… She brought up a shuddering hand, and it was only when she shifted her thumb over her cheek that she appreciated Veri was right. All it had taken was a single thought of Winters, and she’d started crying.
She pushed those tears away now as she pivoted hard and threw herself forward.
“Can we even make this mission now? How far away are we from the location?” she thought back.
“I am currently calculating. There is a 35 percent chance that we can successfully complete this mission.”
“But we don’t even know what we’re after, do we?”
“We are after a small lockbox in a storeroom.”
“But what’s in the lockbox?”
“That information is beyond the mission parameters. All we must do is retrieve it. I thought you never asked questions? I thought you didn’t care about what you delivered, just what you were paid?” Veri said, obviously distracting her.
She allowed herself to be distracted as she shifted fast through the alleyway, spying a level above, shoving toward the wall, jumping up, and gripping the lip of metal easily. She rolled onto her feet, momentarily stayed on her knees as she assessed the level above her, then started to plan her route up. “Yeah, well, we both know I’ve got a conscience buried under my sins somewhere.”
There was a pause. “You have not sinned, Crown Princess. You have survived. You have done everything in your power to keep this galaxy safe. Even if no one else understands you, I do. Now keep running.”
Andalusia didn’t have time to appreciate that was the nicest thing Veri had ever said to her. She pushed forward, and she ran.
Because Veri was right.
This wasn’t sinning. This was saving everyone.
It was an odd feeling to suit-up. He hadn’t done it in such a long time. As head of protection for Lady Veta, most of his job was ordering other men about. It rarely involved him doing any of the grunt work.
It was a pity. He liked the grunt work. Moving his body tended to remind him that no matter how stuck he felt in his life, there was still a way forward.
He proved that to himself now as he finished pulling on the gauntlet sections of his armor and he jammed his fists together. The sound rang out through the practically empty armory.
He’d already sent Red Squad after Dalia’s attackers, and though it would’ve been wise for Saz to join up with them, something was telling him to go it alone.
He didn’t want another team slowing him down. He wanted to be able to make quick, split-second decisions that wouldn’t be questioned.
And yeah, he wanted some time on his own.
Striding out of the armory, he didn’t have to wait for the doors to open. He shifted his hand to the side, activating the limited transporter in his suit and porting right through them. Was it a useless waste of energy? Technically. It was fun, though, and at least he could justify it by pretending he was checking that the site-to-site transporters were in working order.
The transporters wouldn’t be able to shift him across a considerable distance. They weren’t made for transporting you from ship-to-ship. Instead, they allowed you an edge in battle – the ability to move a couple of meters to the left, right, or up and down. Something to give you a split-second advantage, but not something to be used for mass transportation.
Locking his gauntleted fists together again, he shifted his gaze to the side.
Though most views didn’t hold much weight for Saz, this one always did.
As he walked away from the secondary armory on Veta’s ship, to his left, visible through a glass wall, was the primary armory. And in that armory were the jewels in Xantos’ crown.
Though mech suits weren’t used that much by other Milky Way powers these days, the Xantos military were famed for them. Though useful in mass mining operations and transportation, mech units could be cumbersome in battle, especially land battle.
Not these ones.
They were large, graceful, modular, and packed a hell of a punch. They were like fighting inside a spaceship that could transform and change to its environment.
Though capable of spaceflight, the cramped cockpit was the only room available on them, and while you could technically survive for days, you’d probably go cabin crazy.
Not the point. Those mech units were what the Xantos Empire was built on.
They were strictly controlled. Their pilots had to be vetted for years. You had to prove your worth to even touch one as an engineer, let alone get inside one.
Saz was a verified pilot, and his own mech was down in that armory right now. Not that he’d had the joy of suiting up lately.
As he ticked his gaze to the side, he wanted to shift into the armory and grab one now.
Not, of course, that he could or should successfully pilot a mech unit in a cramped city like Phobius.
Single-man small army units were made for close-quarter combat like the kind he’d see down on the planet. Mech units were made for pitched land or space battle.
Still, unlike most other views Saz ignored, he did not shift his head away from the viewing window until he’d walked the length of the corridor. Even then, he paused right at the end, glancing down at the final mech unit as it was locked in its holding position against the wall.
That one was his. He could still remember the day Andalusia had given it to him. It was meant to be one of the most powerful units there was.
But if the rumors were true, the secret armory that could only be unlocked by Crown Princess Andalusia had mech units far more sophisticated than these. It boggled Saz’s mind to even think of it.
Before he could get trapped there, staring at those incredible pieces of technology, something vibrated in his mind.
“This is Red Team,” a soldier announced. “We have made contact with a potential assassin.”
Saz’s jaw instantly twitched to the side, and his brow flattened over his eyes. “Who are they?”
“We don’t know yet.”
“You mean you’re actively tracking them down?”
“Are they aware of your presence?”
Saz’s lips widened at that. He’d lived his life as a Xantos Guard, and he would give anything and everything for his teammates. But there was one thing he appreciated. They were often arrogant. Why wouldn’t they be? Their Empire was the strongest in the galaxy. Their technology was the pinnacle of all modern achievement.
There were few who would question them.
And yet, that arrogance was a poor fit for a soldier.
“We will continue to track them. Red Team out.”
Saz didn’t bother to pull the soldier up on the fact that he was so adamant the assassins didn’t know they were being tracked. Instead, Saz made his mind up for himself.
Back when he’d been a pirate runner, he hadn’t done assassination missions. He hadn’t been skilled enough, nor old enough. Assassination missions, especially ones that commanded a cool half a million credits, were hotly fought after operations. They attracted the best of the best. And the best of the best knew exactly how to watch their backs.
Would they know they were being tracked? Saz quickly did a calculation, and appreciated there was a 70% likelihood that the assassins did know.
Saz twitched a hand into a fist. He almost reevaluated his decision to do this alone, then he shook his head.
If he joined the Red Team now, he would only make them more visible.
He could use them to his advantage instead by splitting off and attempting to follow these assassins from another angle.
It was then that Saz twigged to the fact the Red Team had used the plural. Not one assassin, but assassins.
Saz pushed off, finally wrenching his gaze from those incredible mech units, his frown deepening.
Assassins very rarely worked together, even on big cases. They weren’t the most trustworthy lot, after all. They were also pretty used to killing. And what better way to maximize your profits than by killing your partner and taking his share?
But if the Red Team was right, and they were tracking assassins, then again Saz had to reevaluate this.
He shifted forward, moving faster. Though he didn’t use his site-to-site transporter to frivolously jump and flip down the corridor, saving himself several minutes, he did push into a proper run.
Nobody questioned him. He faced some maintenance staff, and they only glanced his way before continuing whatever they were doing.
If Saz were running to some immediate trouble within the ship, he would’ve already alerted everybody else using his neural link.
He reached a set of elevators at the end of the corridor, wirelessly accessed them, forced the doors open, and barreled in.
As the doors closed, he started to get to work. He’d already accessed the danger report for Phobius One, but now he accessed it again, going through every single evaluation report that had gone into the risk setting.
Whereas the rest of his team would likely have only looked at the primary risks and criminals in the field, Saz went through everything. Every single pirate on Phobius One, every single dodgy character – all of them.
He set his internal visor to scroll through them, and they flashed past him half a second at a time. He’d trained himself to be able to pick up information that quickly, and the images lodged in his head.
The elevator pinged and opened at his destination. Veta’s ship was docked at the top docking ring of the central spiral in the city. All other ships had been cleared out. It wasn’t every day the second-to-the-throne in the most powerful galactic Empire chose to visit a shit-hole world like this.
As Saz reached the docking platform that connected the massive Royal cruiser to the rest of the docking ring, he didn’t slow down. He sped up. By the time he reached the docking ring itself, two guards saw him and snapped salutes.
This time he didn’t acknowledge them. This time he ran.
… Something in his gut was telling him this mission would count. Today, for the first time in three years, he’d make a difference.
So he just ran faster.
“Four minutes. We have exactly four minutes,” Veri said.
There was no compassion in his tone anymore. And Andalusia could appreciate that he wouldn’t crack out any comforting statements until this mission was done. Instead he kept reminding her of the ticking clock, second by second.
“You need to push yourself, and you need to push yourself now. Ignore your fatigue. Do this, or you will fail.”
Andalusia was currently scaling the side of the storage facility.
This was a little different from jumping around the back streets of broken, scummy bars in the lowest levels. Up here, there was security.
Veri was seeing to all remote sensors, ensuring they didn’t pick her up, no matter their technological sophistication.
He was also warning her of the guards that routinely swept around this facility in single manned vehicles.
The rest? That was up to Andalusia.
Was she tired? You betcha she was tired. Her limbs felt like they would fall off. This heavy, dense pressure was building in her chest, and she appreciated that even if she wanted to go after that 200,000-credit mission later today, she wouldn’t be able to. The only thing she would be doing once this thing was over was falling face-first on her bed.
“You do not have time to think of your fatigue,” Veri warned.
Though he couldn’t read her thoughts unless she directly offered them up to him, he was smart enough to appreciate what she was thinking now. He’d be able to detect the buildup in lactic acid in her muscles, and anyone would be able to hear her frequent grunts and sighs.
“There is a platform three meters to your side. Run.”
Three meters? Even on a good day, three meters was still a long distance to jump when you had to be careful of your every sound.
Andalusia didn’t pause. She swept forward, made the jump, rolled over the metal grating, punched to her feet, and crouched down just as a single-man security vessel swept around the side of the building.
When she needed it, Andalusia could use her prostheses and clothes to initiate a holographic cloak.
It was expensive, though. Not only for the limited power supply of her cybernetic implants, but on Veri’s processing power. The armor worked by picking up the objects around her and relaying those images over her face and body, allowing her to blend into the background. All good and well if you were staying still. If you were moving, like say running up the side of a building because you only had three and a half minutes left to save your life and your wallet, it was a demanding task.
“Initiate the moving cloak. We have to get this done,” Andalusia demanded as, rather than staying still, she ran up the wall, despite the fact one of those guard ships was close by.
“I give the orders around here,” Veri snapped. “But the cloak is initiated. A warning would’ve been nice. You gave me approximately half a second to initiate it before that guard ship was in visual range.”
“There was a reason you were given to a Crown Princess, Veri. You’re up to any task”
She wasn’t above emotional manipulation, not that it technically worked on an artificial intelligence, but whatever.
She shifted up another level, finally reaching a small, old access panel Veri had warned her would be there. Though this storage facility was guarded, the building was old. Even before they’d approached it, Veri had been able to use his unparalleled hacking skills to access the building information of this level of the city. He’d assessed the previous use of this facility and appreciated that once upon a time it had been a multilevel lab. He’d surmised that the old access points would not have been ripped out, but rather boarded over with metal reinforced plating. He was right. And luckily, one of the old access panels was still there. It was completely inoperable, but that didn’t matter.
“Pull off the casing. Do it quickly. You have three seconds.”
She pulled off the casing, crushing it in her hand rather than chucking it over her shoulder and allowing it to fall 30 meters to the ground below.
“Unnecessary. Now, punch your hand in and pull out one of the remaining data crystals.”
She hesitated, about to use her left hand, but then reminded herself she had to use her right.
Though this wasn’t Andalusia’s first rodeo, sometimes there was resistance in her mind when it came to using her right hand. Even when she was safe and sound in her ship preparing herself a meal, she always favored her left.
Because her right arm… it felt wrong to sully it with work like this.
Though Andalusia would like to think that she had completely gotten rid of her privileged roots, there was one myth about the Crown Princess of Xantos that she could not shift.
She’d never been allowed to use her right arm. For her right arm had been sacred. It had been the means to open the sacred armory, to save Xantos in times of great need. As such, it had always been kept safe and unused.
Even now, three years later, she had to battle to remind herself that her arm was just an arm.
Her indecision cost her several seconds as she switched hands, and she could tell Veri wasn’t pleased, even though he didn’t spare the time to berate her.
She punched her hand in, reaching her fingers as far as she could, before finally grasping what her limited senses told her was a data crystal.
She pulled it out.
It practically crumpled in her grip, it was that old.
“Can you seriously use this to access the facility’s old security system?”
“Yes. And I have already done so. Some of us do not waste time,” he had time to quip.
She didn’t even bother to roll her eyes. “Are we in?”
“I have used the old security codes within that crystal to access pre-existing security technology that was not rewired when this facility was repurposed.”
“I don’t need an explanation. I need an answer.”
“Yes, we are in. I piggybacked my signal and hacked easily through the facility’s defenses. You now have access to the unit on the roof.”
“That’s all I needed to know.” She threw herself up, no longer looking for handy places to grab on, and rather shoving her fingers into the wall and creating dents with her armor. She pushed the fingers of her armor in, pressing her feet against the wall and making a weak magnetic lock before leaping up and creating another handhold.
Veri became deathly silent, presumably using all of his processing power to ensure her limited holographic cloak was in full operation.
This was now down to her. She wouldn’t get a countdown. She wouldn’t get any help or last-minute advice on how to save herself.
So in silence, Crown Princess Andalusia climbed.
Two single-man guard ships swept in close behind her, and though her inclination was to stop, frozen on the spot, she shoved up, trusting in Veri instead. That trust proved worthwhile, because rather than lock her in a transport beam and whisk her away, the guard ships shifted off to patrol a different point around the perimeter.
Finally she reached the roof. She crouched down on it, and she tilted her head to the side and up for a split second. She was much higher up now, and she had a clearer view of the tall central spires of the capital city. They were stunning. Now it was night, they were lit up like beams of light. Their illumination was so powerful, above it, the sky took on a different hue, the light pollution chasing away every last glimpse of every last star and ship in orbit.
Veri didn’t tell her there was no time. He couldn’t spare the processing power.
She wrenched her gaze off and pushed forward, but not before she appreciated one thing. There was a massive cruiser parked at the central most spire right at the top, and there were no other ships docked around it.
She couldn’t see properly from here, but she could appreciate its sheer size, even in the dark.
Perhaps it had something to do with the fact Senator Dalia was coming here and the fact $500,000 had been put on the poor woman’s head.
Or maybe it wasn’t. One thing was for sure – it was irrelevant.
The last two minutes of her mission were not.
As she threw herself across the roof, she saw an open hatch right in the middle of it.
She didn’t bother to reach it, stare down, and glimpse where it led to. Nope, she pushed into a dive role.
No time, remember?
Her dive role was perfect, and she angled down into the hatch with ease.
She had just a split second to appreciate that the hatch didn’t lead to a handy ladder or a platform. It was just a 40-meter drop to the base of the storage facility below.
Andalusia didn’t have a great deal of time. She snagged a hand onto the lip of the hatch and caught herself with her stone armor before she could sail down and go splat against the floor.
As soon as she was inside, Veri stopped her holographic armor, and she felt him roaring into life like an angry lion. “Though we are running against time, please do not sacrifice your life. Now close the hatch.”
She managed to shift around, shimmy to the side, grab the base of the hatch, and somehow walk her fingers up until she caught a sturdy enough piece of metal. Then she pulled with all of her energy until she closed the hatch door. It hissed shut, and she felt a flicker of electricity running through it as presumably some security mechanism was reinstated.
“How the hell do we get down from here?” Andalusia thought in a snap.
“You created this problem,” Veri began, but then he obviously appreciated there was no more time for banter. “Use me.”
“I will be discreet.”
The next thing she knew, her communication band around her wrist vibrated, and Veri appeared in his true form.
Though usually he was a large ball, maybe half the size of her own head, this time, he kept his dimensions small – small enough that he could easily fit into her palm.
“Grab me now,” he demanded.
Without a word and without a prayer, she let go of the hatch. Before she could sail down the 40 meters, she opened her hand and Veri darted into it.
As soon as she cupped him in her palm, her momentum was cut to nothing. She didn’t jerk around and her shoulder didn’t shudder – Veri locked her in a small impediment field, ensuring the inertia of her sudden stop didn’t affect her.
As quickly as he could, he floated down to the base of the storage floor below.
As soon as her feet touched it, without letting him go, she pushed Veri against her communication band, and he re-docked.
Her heart was beating fast now. It wasn’t just because she’d only just survived dive rolling into this storage facility. It was that showing Veri in his true form was dangerous.
Though plenty of people had communication devices just like hers, only senior members of the Xantos Royal family had sophisticated computational assistance units that could transform into solid-state holographic entities.
Though there was nobody in this facility, it was always their rule that Veri would not undock unless they were alone on her ship.
Now, he had no choice.
As soon as she re-docked him, she heard him growl angrily. “That was unacceptable. But now you are here. Our mission is almost accomplished. The object is 20 meters away in that storage box.”
Andalusia threw herself forward. She had no idea how much time she had left, but she could appreciate it would be less than a minute.
The storage box was thick, made of strong metal, and obviously designed to survive any attempts to break it.
Andalusia rounded her right hand into a fist, getting ready to punch through it.
“We do not have the time for you to uselessly flail, Princess. Dock your hand on the top, and I will override the case’s security protocols.”
She felt a little sheepish as she’d forgotten Veri could do that. In the few seconds she had left, she docked her hand.
There was a click.
The box unlocked.
Andalusia’s breath caught in her chest as she secured herself down on one knee, her heart beating fast in her chest.
This was it.
“Back,” Veri spat, sending tingling pulses blasting through every single one of her muscles, her nervous system practically overloading with fear.
It was just in time. She had time to twist behind the bulk of the security box just as the top exploded.
She secured her hands on her head, hunkering down as hot chunks of metal spewed out. They sliced against the shoulders of her jacket, dashed over her knees and legs, and caught the side of her exposed hands.
“Move,” Veri warned her, screaming in her mind.
She didn’t need to be told twice.
She pushed up, all thoughts of the mission gone and replaced only with survival.
She didn’t need Veri to point out that this had been a trap. The reality of it pulsed in her as her senses locked on the storage facility.
She should have realized something was up when this massive facility had been empty. Sure, there were other boxes, and she threw herself up them now, rolling over the top of them to get to the opposite side as she tried to chart a path out of here. But there weren’t as many as you would expect from a facility with this many guards.
“Veri, give me a way home. Now.”
“Calculating,” he spat back.
Fear slammed into her. At the edges of her mind, she could think of one man. It always happened when she stuffed up on a mission. If she miscalculated a jump and fell down a ravine, it wouldn’t be her life that flashed in front of her eyes. It would be Winters. As he’d risen through the ranks, as he’d promised he’d loved her, she should have seen through his lies.
But maybe she wouldn’t die today.
“Head toward the main doors.”
“Are you mad?” she spat. “Presumably that explosion alerted the guards outside—”
“I’m counting on it. You’re going to have to steal one of the transports.”
Her eyes widened at that prospect. Keeping her head down and running relatively safe pirate missions was one thing. Stealing technology from the Security Forces?
This would be one of the riskiest things she’d ever done.
“Hacking into the doors now. They will open in three seconds. You have to jump out as high as you can moving as fast as you can.”
She didn’t question.
As she approached the doors, she saw the light above them turn from red to green. There was an electronic drone that beeped through the facility.
She blasted forward. The doors opened just as she leaped through them.
“Left. Jump as high as you can,” Veri spat, allowing a tingle to pulse through the left side of her body.
The world around her came down to flashes, to broken moments, as if someone had taken a hammer to her brain.
She could see two security lights from the guard transports slicing toward her. She could see the city far above, shadowed by whatever massive ship was docked at the primary tower. She could see three guards had abandoned their transports to approach on foot, their guns at the ready.
All that happened in a few split seconds.
She had no idea what Veri’s plan was, but as she leaped to the left as fast and as high as she could, she suddenly struck a small portable security drone. Her foot slammed down against the top of it before it could react.
“Leap up the side of the building. As soon as you reach the grating three meters above you, turn and jump on top of one of those transports.”
Andalusia didn’t have the breath to point out this was a suicide mission. Those transports would have anti-interference fields. It was one thing leaping up an ordinary metal wall. It was another thing jumping on top of a security guard’s ship. Those things were technically spaceworthy, and as such, had the kind of sophisticated shields that ensured they couldn’t be interfered with, let alone used as jumping boards.
But there was no time to question, remember?
So she complied, leaping up the side of the building, the move so quickly, it flattened her hair against her cheeks. She reached with all her might, managing to grab hold of an external light fitting just as she heard two of the guards beneath her scream.
Half a second later, they finally started to fire. By the time one of their bullets sliced into the wall where she’d been, she’d already leaped up and forward.
Again she saw flashes of the world around her. She could pick up the insignia of the Security Forces emblazoned across the side of those hovering ships. She could see the makes of their powerful guns.
She could even make out the scent of her own singed flesh from the shrapnel she’d picked up off the exploding storage box.
Time slowed down until the next thing she knew, she landed on top of one of those transports. It didn’t surprise her that Veri had been able to precisely predict where it would go several seconds before the ship had bothered to fly there. He was the best of the best. Even amongst Xantos technology, aside from that which was locked within the secret armory, he was easily the most sophisticated of the computational assistance units. He’d been assigned to her, after all. And he’d been the one thing she hadn’t been willing to leave behind. A wise choice, because as she landed on top of that transport, she wasn’t instantly pushed away as an impediment field flung her off the ship’s hull. Instead, she felt the slightest vibration that no doubt indicated Veri accessing the ship’s security and overriding its primary protocols.
The single man-guard transports had a transparent cockpit, and she stared in at the guard within. Though he was wearing armor, his visor was off, so she could see his startled expression as a woman jumped on top of the ship and hacked into its security processors.
Suffice to say she didn’t hang around to enjoy his startled surprise.
“Veri,” she began.
“Access the hatch, throw the guard out, and I will do the rest.”
There was a click, and the cockpit door just to her side swung open. It was tiny, only meant for a crouching person to shift in and out of, but she wasn’t exactly a large woman. The ship conveniently pitched to the side, the hatch tilting upward and allowing her to roll easily through it.
If the soldier inside was surprised at the fact she’d managed to hack through his systems, it was nothing compared to when she rolled right into his ship, grabbed a hand on his shoulder, twisted underneath him, then kicked him in the back just as Veri managed to force the ship to roll once more.
The man fell out, the several-meter distance to the ground below buffeted by his thick armor.
There was an echoing thump as he struck it. She couldn’t hear his scream, however, as the ship’s hatch closed.
“Get me out of here, Veri. Get me out of here now.” Her voice pitched up and down with desperation. Though she usually tried to hide her true emotions from Veri, now there was no point. She couldn’t afford to be caught. Dammit, she couldn’t afford to be caught.
Just before images of Winters could rush in and claim her sanity, Veri did as promised. She felt him seamlessly integrate with the ship’s computer until the next thing she knew, it shot up several hundred meters, using a full blast of its thrusters to get them out of there before the security ground forces could get creative and try to shoot out the ship’s thrusters.
Andalusia closed her eyes, trying to suck in a calming breath, trying to tell herself this was over. She wasn’t provided the luxury for long.
“Don’t get comfortable,” Veri growled. “You’re not staying in the ship. Prepare to jump out. It will be a risky jump,” he added.
“What do you mean I’m not staying in this ship?” She didn’t have a chance to finish that sentence. The ship suddenly pitched to the side, flying down low and plunging into a line of hover traffic.
The next thing she knew, the transport rolled and the hatch opened. She fell right out, tumbling like a doll someone had thrown from a moving vehicle. Because she was a doll someone had thrown from a moving vehicle.
Air rushed around her, and she was suddenly struck by the scent of all that hover traffic.
It didn’t have long to leave a lasting impression on her senses. She started to tumble down in freefall.
Did she scream? A part of her wanted to, but the rest of her controlled the urge. At the back of her head, she told herself Veri had a plan. He’d better have a plan, because she would not die today.
Before she could fall 10 meters, she struck the top of a large transport ship. She tumbled backward over it, the force of the fall enough to knock the wind from her chest and send pain blasting through her shoulders, but not enough to knock her out. Yet. She tumbled along the side of the quickly moving transport, the combination of the momentum and confusion almost knocking her out.
“Stay with me,” Veri snapped. “Pull yourself up and get ready to jump.”
With a groan, she somehow managed to pull herself to her feet.
The last time she jumped through hover traffic had been at a lower altitude. This far up, for some unknown reason, the weather fields were acting up. It meant there was far more wind buffeting against her this time. It was almost enough to pull her off, let alone cause her clothes and hair to whip around her like untethered chains. Her skin smarted, her eyes struggled to stay open, and her lung wheezed from where she’d fallen on her side.
She still somehow managed to push to her feet.
“Now, jump now.”
She jumped vertically up, so bleary-eyed and broken from the fight, she had no clue what she was leaping toward.
Veri did, and as she put her all into the jump, commanding as much force from her implants as she could, her fingers brushed against something. Veri momentarily took control of her stone armor, causing it to twitch and grab hold of it.
The next thing Andalusia knew, she had a hold of the bottom of a security transport as it quickly dashed through the hover traffic presumably heading back to its base.
Her eyes had a chance to blast open wide, her fingers almost releasing their grip, but she heard Veri growl, “No, Andalusia, this is the only way. Trust me as you always have. I will get you through this.”
There was no note of derision in Veri’s tone. There was no banter. There was just a single promise she could hold onto. And she held onto it, dammit, just as she gripped the maintenance handle at the base of the security ship with all her might. She half closed her eyes, she drove a breath deep down into her chest, and she prayed she’d get through this.
As a member of the Xantos Guards, Saz very rarely was in a position where he needed help from other security forces. But he hadn’t reached out to the Phobius One Forces; they’d reached out to him. Now he was standing, his arms crossed as he watched the footage play out across the security panel in front of him. The deepest frown he’d shown in a while marked his lips. And that was saying something considering Saz was known for never cracking a grin.
The head of Phobius One Security was standing beside Saz, and while Saz was controlling his expression, save for his frown, the Head of Security looked completely thrown. The woman’s expression was one of total awed surprise. She didn’t blink once, her attention fixed on the footage. And what did the footage show? Saz’s target, he could guarantee it. As an ex-pirate runner himself, Saz could easily distinguish the relative skill of a mercenary. And the woman he was watching was exceptional in every regard.
“How long ago was this taken?” Saz grumbled, never relaxing his grip on his middle, his arms crossed so tightly, they practically formed a magnetic lock against his armor.
It took the surprised security chief several seconds to open her mouth. “Less than five minutes.”
“And you lost track of her soon afterward?” It was a statement not a question. Maybe someone with less experience than him would ask if the limited security of Phobius One had been able to keep up with a skilled pirate runner like that, but Saz knew what he was talking about.
That woman would be long gone. Until he found her and dragged her back, that was. He tightened his hand into a fist as he made that promise to himself.
“Yes, sir,” the woman finally found her voice and replied. “We’re attempting to track her now. We do have a visual of someone jumping into hover traffic nearby.”
“That would be her,” Saz said smoothly. “I’m assuming if she can move like that, however, that she is now long gone. I want you to relay all live telemetry you get,” he said as he swiftly moved toward the door on the opposite side of the room.
The woman blinked at him in surprise. “You’re going after her alone? She’s not even—”
Before she could finish her sentence, Saz turned hard on his foot, his armor barely making any sound as he moved it with ease. “She is my purview as a Xantos Guard. Lady Veta has asked the Guards of Xantos directly to protect Senator Dalia, and I can guarantee you that she,” Saz pointed toward the view screen that was replaying the footage from the security facility over and over again, “is involved in the assassination plot.”
“What I was going to say,” the security chief finally wiped the surprised expression off her face and a note of competency returned to her voice, “is that it is unwise to go alone. You may be a Xantos Guard,” her gaze flicked up and down his expensive armor, “but as the chief of security on this planet, I can tell you that is no ordinary pirate. It would be unwise to go alone.”
Saz turned smoothly back to the door and didn’t bother to answer until it was open and he’d taken a step out. He only then arched his head over his shoulder. “Don’t worry; I know how pirates work.” With that, he walked forward and out into the bustling security main station. It was at the base of the central tower, and what with one thing and another, between Lady Veta’s visit, Senator Dalia’s assassination plot, and now this, it was a hub of activity. Sure, ordinary criminals were still being picked up, but by and large, officers and teams were rushing about, getting decked out in armor as they headed out onto the streets beyond.
Saz didn’t bother to head out of the massive main doors that would lead onto one of the primary streets of the capital. He shifted toward one of the large pedestal lifts in the center of the room. Even without bothering to turn his head over his shoulder, and without using the sensors of his armor, he could tell that the security chief had followed him out of the room and was now staring at him. Maybe her expression was impressed. Maybe it was pissed off. Maybe it didn’t matter. At the end of the day, though he understood the importance of keeping diplomatic ties with the other sovereign nations of the galaxy, he was here to do one thing. He was here to uphold the rights of the Xantos Royal family.
Maybe on paper you could assume that tracking down the woman in that footage wouldn’t help, but something in Saz’s gut was screaming at him that it would be key. He’d seen the way she’d elegantly, seamlessly fought those security officers. It either suggested she had almost impossible skills when it came to predicting the actions of her enemies, or, more likely, she had extremely sophisticated computational tech onboard. Maybe implants, maybe something else. It would be the kind of stuff that would allow her to hack through a single-man security pod in a matter of seconds by simply jumping on the hood.
That whet his appetite and saw Saz move faster as he hurried into the lifts before two other security officers could get there first. “Sorry, priority mission,” he snapped as he pointed at the insignia of the Xantos Guards on his right shoulder.
Both men looked impressed and didn’t bother pushing past him.
The lift doors closed, and Saz started to feel a knot forming in his gut. It was the kind of knot that dug in deep, niggling as if he’d swallowed a devi-worm that was attempting to digest him from the inside out.
He honestly couldn’t shake that feeling – the feeling that told him the next 24 hours would be key. For whatever reason, that woman was unimaginably important to this mission.
Even though it took only several seconds for the lifts to arrive at their destination 20 floors up, the wait almost killed him. By the time they pinged, he practically catapulted out of them as if he’d been shot from a gun. He shifted around two female security officers who frowned at his presence and headed straight toward the platform deck he knew was on the opposite side of this hall.
The platform deck was a handy place to run flying security missions from. There were countless single-man drone ships, pack-units for armor that needed assistance to fly, and other small maneuverable craft that were perfect for navigating the heavy hover traffic in the built-up city around him.
Not measuring his pace, but not exactly breaking into a full-on sprint, Saz quickly navigated the corridor, easily passed through the security access point, and headed out to the platform.
Needless to say, it was a hive of activity. Single man ships were heading off in every direction, and he watched as more came in.
He didn’t know what he was looking for until he saw it and his gut clenched.
Though most of these drone ships looked exactly the same, they had to have differentiating markings so you could distinguish between them. That marking consisted of a painted red holographic number emblazoned across the port and starboard sides. As a ship slowly came in to dock, he recognized the number – 42. It was the same ship that woman had used. Obviously she’d abandoned it quickly after stealing it. That meant what, exactly?
“That she is a professional,” he muttered under his breath as he answered his own question. Saz had been around enough amateurs as a pirate runner to appreciate only fools would keep a Security Forces’ ship. Sure, it was some seriously sophisticated tech, and if you had the right equipment, you could break it apart and sell it as lucrative scrap.
The key to that equation, however, was having the right equipment. Every single scrap of metal, right down to the holographic hull paint, had traceable isotopes programmed into it. It meant that unless you had the kind of quantum scrambling tech that could completely remove any trace of those isotopes, all the parts would be traceable. And selling Security Forces’ tech would hand you a one-way ticket to a prison planet for at least 20 years.
But the woman had abandoned the ship. So she was a professional.
Saz shoved forward just as two senior security officers pushed in beside him, heading determinedly toward the same ship.
Though he couldn’t pick up what they were saying, from their grim expressions, it was obvious they’d been informed of the incident. There was a senior technician beside them, and instantly the woman started to duck her head down and up as she apparently surveyed the ship for any signs of damage.
“This isn’t meant to happen. Not with the new security drives. This is insane,” she commented under her breath.
Saz shifted in close to them, and just as one of the men turned, a tense expression on his face as he no doubt got ready to tell Saz that this was a private operation, Saz watched the guy’s eyes widened.
Saz just brought up a finger and tapped his Xantos insignia once, the sound of his armored finger striking the plating of his shoulder loud and to the point.
The guy paled slightly. “How can I help you, sir? This isn’t a good time, though,” he instantly tried to explain.
Saz angled toward the ship, arching his head toward it and nodding once. “I want access to its security logs.”
The engineer paled. “Why?”
“Because we have credible evidence to suggest that the woman who hacked into that ship is a pirate assassin who is intending to make an attempt on Senator Dalia’s life. Lady Veta of the house of Xantos has offered her protection.”
The engineer didn’t look happy, and she swung her gaze toward the senior officer. When he didn’t tell Saz to take a hike, the engineer’s shoulders flopped. “Fine. Come with me.”
The single-man transport finally touched down, and a hatch opened to reveal that no one was inside. Hardly a surprise. When the woman had ditched the ship, presumably after a while its programming had kicked in, returning it to base for maintenance.
The tech brought up a small handheld device, typing something quickly into the electronic screen, small symbols shifting up several centimeters above it.
It was relatively rudimentary holographic technology compared to that which Saz’s own armor possessed, let alone what existed in the restricted Xantos armory, but at least it meant he could see what she was doing.
A deep frown marked the woman’s cheeks, and she brought up a hand, distractedly pushing her fringe from her face.
“What is it?” Saz demanded.
The tech didn’t even bother to look his way. “We’ve got nothing.”
“What do you mean you’ve got nothing?”
She finally let her gaze slide toward him, and though it was unquestionably irritated at the fact she was having to report to him, he could see the surprise slackening the muscles around her lips.
“We’ve got nothing, sir,” she added after a pause. “The data banks have been completely wiped.”
Saz got ready to push past her, get inside the ship, and check for himself, but a little voice rose up in the back of his head telling him not to be so rude. He controlled his natural inclination to be pushy, and ground his fingers against his thigh armor plating. “That should be impossible. Based on footage of that woman throwing herself into lines of hover traffic, she wouldn’t have been in that ship for more than several minutes. That wouldn’t leave enough time—”
The woman pressed her lips together, her anger obvious. “I am an engineer,” she said, obviously attempting to control her tone. “I am fully aware how impossible this seems. But,” she brandished her simple scanning device, pushing it toward him, “it’s still what happened. The data banks have been completely wiped. I can manually scan through them, but I doubt there’s anything in there.”
A deep frown ticked across Saz’s lips, the move so hard, it would’ve looked like someone had just slapped him. He grabbed the scanning device off the tech without so much as a thank you, and rather than manually sift through it with physical input, he immediately connected to it with his implants. It revealed precisely what the woman had said. The data banks of this transport had been all but completely wiped. The only reason it had returned back to base was it had passed other security transports, and they’d appreciated there was something wrong with it, giving it directives to return for maintenance. Otherwise, it would’ve flown uselessly, heading directly up into the atmosphere only to burn up.
Saz found himself shaking his head. Somewhere in the back of his mind, something pointed out that as not just a Xantos Guard, but as the head of Veta’s security detachment, he should not show weakness. But his gut instincts were acting up again, driving him wild. They suggested he was missing something big. Maybe the biggest thing he’d ever missed in his life.
The woman grew impatient waiting for Saz to hand back her scanner, so she cleared her throat and shoved a hand in front of his face. “If there’s anything left, I’ll have to go through each separate memory log by hand. It’s gonna take—”
“You have two hours,” he said, speaking over the top of her. Demanding this scanner was one thing. Giving her an overt order went beyond his remit.
The man in charge behind her finally found his voice. “You—”
Before the guy could gather the courage to tell Saz what to do, he looked directly up at him. “It is critical we figure out what the capabilities of that assassin are before she tries anything. I’m sure you agree?”
It was a pointed question, one the guy could only answer in one way. He pressed his lips together, then forced a nod.
Though the tech didn’t look pleased, she couldn’t disagree, either. She crossed her arms, shot Saz a frown, then shrugged. “I can’t promise anything. But I can try.”
Saz opened his mouth to tell her there would be no trying and she would simply do whatever it took to get this done, then he thought of Andalusia once more. He pressed his lips together and nodded once. “Let me know when you’ve got anything. Now, I’ll be going.”
Saz walked directly toward the edge of the platform. There was still a lot of traffic coming and going, and rather than make his way around them, he strode right through the middle.
… Once upon a time, when Saz had just joined the Xantos Guards, he’d never been direct like this. He never had the authority to try. But then he’d met his mentor, and everything had changed.
Hercules Winters was a legend amongst the Xantos Guards. A soldier like no other, though he technically had the same implants and training as everyone else, he was practically undefeatable. His legendary exploits had meant for a man of relatively low birth, he’d climbed all the way to the top of the Xantos Guards, then switched to the Army. And from there? He’d risen right to the Royal Palace. He’d been betrothed to Andalusia, and he was probably the only man who deserved her.
Before Saz could jump off the platform and initiate the thrusters in his armor, he stopped himself, because he had to stop that thought. Winters hadn’t been betrothed to Andalusia. He still was. Because she was still alive.
Before Saz could be dragged down into his thoughts about her once more, he plunged off the edge of the platform, easily bypassing a security lock that ensured people couldn’t accidentally fall off the platform and hurtle down to their death hundreds of meters below.
He didn’t bother to initiate the thrusters in his armor until he dropped a good 20 meters. He liked the view when he was vertically dropping down between buildings. It reminded him of the insane jump missions he’d once done as a pirate runner. Back then, he hadn’t had armor like this. Back then, he’d only had simple thruster packs. So simple, they’d often failed during missions. He couldn’t count the number of times he’d had to hastily repair one, fall onto hover traffic, or find another way to save his life in the blink of an eye.
Now he waited until the last moment until he set the thruster lines lodged on the feet, hands, and back of his armor into action.
With a subtle vibration, they kicked into gear, and the next thing Saz knew, he was flying easily through the hover traffic, just another ship headed to its destination.
What that destination would be, Saz still had no idea. Neither the chief of security nor the tech had got back to him yet. So he’d just have to play it by feel. For an ex-pirate runner, that would be perfect.
Veri no longer snapped in her ear for her to run. He barely made any communication.
They hadn’t been in a situation this pressured for years. Ever since the initial few weeks after escaping Xantos, they’d avoided places where they could be caught.
So this shook her to her bones.
She felt her left hand vibrate, and she didn’t question. She threw herself to the side, running down a narrow alley between a set of residential towers.
She’d left the hover traffic behind long ago, though you could never leave it that far behind, considering how overbuilt this city was. Sure enough, as she felt her right leg vibrate, and she plowed to her right, ducking low so she could avoid a large armed alien who suddenly swung out of the bar to her left, she tipped her head to the side and saw yet more hovering lines of traffic seemingly heading on and up to eternity.
“Tell me we’re closer to getting out of here,” she thought to Veri, even though there was no point. It wasn’t like she had to encourage him to help her to get through this. He was programmed to never let her fall.
He’d have to crack out every single last feature of that program to help her out of this one.
“Remain calm, Princess. I have this under control,” Veri tried.
She winced at his tone. It wasn’t the professional note that got to her. It was the fact he was calling her Princess. He only ever did that when something was wrong. And everything was wrong right now.
She hadn’t even bothered to ask if they were heading back to their ship. She couldn’t face the possibility that they weren’t.
That ship was her only home now. If she was forced to abandon it, she wouldn’t just lose something dear to her; she would be losing her Royal jewelry.
Dammit all to hell. She’d wanted to get rid of it the second they’d escaped, and it had only been through Veri’s insistence that she’d kept it. She’d always appreciated it was her number one risk. If they were forced to abandon the ship and it was found, she could lose everything.
“I would advise you not to think of it, but I appreciate you cannot stop yourself. Just keep running,” Veri counseled.
Tears streamed down her cheeks as she shifted left toward a bank of hoverbikes.
They were for tourists who wanted to have a casual tour of the city. They were designed for use on the physical roads of the towers – not for use in the hover traffic that flocked around them like migrating birds.
As soon as she locked her eyes on the bikes, she appreciated Veri’s plan, and she paled so much, she almost fainted. “No, you’re mad—”
“Incorrect, I’m desperate. Head toward them.”
“We’re actually going to steal one?” she bothered to ask, as if breaking one of her cardinal rules really mattered right now.
Though Veri always loved to pause to point out how stupid her foibles were, he didn’t exactly have the time now, so he snapped a quick reply, “Of course we’re going to steal one. You have no credits on you, so you cannot pay. And now is not the time to leave a paper trail of where you’ve have been. Now, wait until the alien in charge of them has moved into his shop. He will do that in approximately 20 seconds to go check an incoming message.”
As Andalusia stood there, she winced, curling a hand into a fist. Her mind kept going back to the fact she’d stuffed up so badly. She should have asked more questions about this mission rather than accepting it wholeheartedly at the prospect it would net her 50,000 credits. Dammit, she should have suspected this was some kind of trap.
Like she’d said before, Veri could not read her mind, but he could assume what she was thinking based on her physiological conditions.
“Head toward the shop owner now. Once he has received a communication, he will likely return to his shop which is three meters to his side. Once inside, I will remotely lock it, giving us the time we need to steal a bike. And, Andalusia?” he asked suddenly.
She shifted forward, trying to act casually, even though her body was still injured from all of the scattered burns she’d received after that cargo box had exploded. “Yeah?”
“This is not your fault. It is mine. I will learn,” he said.
Though Veri was technically a distributed intelligence and could not really experience emotions in the way a biological entity could, she heard them now. They twisted his tone, and they made her frown compassionately. Before she could waste her time telling him it wasn’t his fault, he snapped at her to walk faster.
The next thing she knew, she watched the lock of the shop in front of her engage, and she heard the man inside splutter in surprise.
“Take the closest bike. Mount it quickly. I will attempt to bypass its security protocols.”
Andalusia shifted hard on her hip, threw herself toward the hoverbike, and mounted it in one swift vault that would impress any gymnast.
Without the shop owner there to shout at her and make a ruckus, nobody else gave her a second glance, assuming that if the guy wasn’t coming out of his shop, she’d obviously booked the bike in advance.
“Head directly toward the closest hover traffic.”
She didn’t even bother to groan. She hunkered low over the hover bike’s controls, grasping the handles with all her strength and clenching her teeth together.
As Andalusia plunged into the hover traffic, ships around her pared off, any pilot visible through transparent cockpits screaming at her in surprise.
She just hunkered further over the controls, bracing her back and gritting her teeth.
“Where to next, Veri?” she demanded in a hoarse tone as air whipped around her. You see, it was one thing riding one of these hover bikes out on the protected roads of the city streets. It was a different thing taking it out into the air. Wind buffeted her, and she had to hunker so low over the controls, she could barely see in front of her.
“This hoverbike is a piece of crap,” she managed to think.
Veri didn’t answer.
She thought nothing of it, appreciating he was probably using his full processing power to get her out of here, that was, until he ignored another one of her snide comments.
“… Veri? Veri? What’s going on?”
“We need to get off this planet now.”
There was a completely different note to his tone. One that could not be ignored.
“Oh my God, don’t tell they’ve found my ship—”
“No one has found your ship, Princess.”
Dammit, he was using her title. That meant shit was about to hit the fan.
“There is a Xantos Royal family cruiser docked at the topmost spire of the city. There are currently Xantos Guards on the ground.”
She felt like her life suddenly hit a brick wall. And it was only Veri taking momentary control of her hands, jerking them to the side and twisting her grip on the hoverbike that stopped her from hitting the literal wall of a nearby building.
Images of Winters’ false charming smile flashed through her mind. None of the images were as strong as the feeling of his hand clamped around her throat.
She had to choke back her tears. “Don’t tell me they’re here for me—”
“They are not. They are here to sign a trade deal. Or at least, that is the information now available on the pirate boards.”
“You mean that was the mission you were talking about earlier? The 25,000 credit one? Why didn’t you—”
“The presence of the Xantos Royal family cruiser was not available until now. I made a mistake,” he admitted. “We should never have come to this planet. I should have tried harder to assess the incoming traffic. I—”
Veri was not a person. Theoretically, he couldn’t and shouldn’t break down due to stress. But over the years of running with him as her only friend, Andalusia had appreciated he was closer to a person than a machine. Right now, she could tell he was gutted because of his mistake.
“Veri, don’t concentrate on it. We just have to get out of here. Whose ship is it?”
Andalusia didn’t make a face as he admitted that, even though part of her wanted to. She’d always had a complicated relationship with Veta. Veta was the Princess Andalusia had never been. Polite, perfect, and most importantly, ready to please. Though Andalusia had also had that aspect to her personality, it had been buried years ago. Even when she’d played the role of the Crown Princess of Xantos, she’d liked to think she’d always understood her position in a way Veta hadn’t.
Andalusia had always appreciated that with great power came responsibility.
Veta, if she did appreciate that, didn’t appear to have the capacity to understand what it meant.
“Why the hell would Veta be here? This can’t be a simple trade deal. They wouldn’t let her off the planet and out of the court’s clutches.”
“I have no idea. That information is not available. I am sorry,” he began again.
“There’s no need to be sorry. We had limited resources and limited time, and I pushed you to land here so we could make money. It’s both of our faults. Now how the hell do we get off this world? Can I afford to make it to my ship? How much footage has been taken of me? I assume you’ve wiped most of it, but I imagine some of the more sophisticated security channels and recorders would’ve been able to pick me up.”
“You are right. As to whether it is safe to leave in our vessel, we have no other choice. I will make it safe,” he added.
She believed him, because she didn’t have any choice.
Keeping her head down, Andalusia focused on one thing – getting out of here. With her gaze set on the dark horizon line, she didn’t let herself think of anything else, not even the faint, haunting touch of Winters’ grip on her throat.
He pitched to the left, rapidly changing elevation as he streamed through the lines of hover traffic flocking around the central district of the city. As he flew, his mind processed everything on fast forward. It wasn’t just with the assistance of his armor that he was managing this feat. Heck, it wasn’t even because of his mechanical and biological upgrades.
He’d trained himself to process this quickly back when he’d been a pirate grunt. It was the ability to see the world flashing past and yet make split-second decisions that set you apart, and critically, kept you alive.
“Come on, where are you?” he muttered to himself as his gaze methodically swept over the lines of traffic below him.
It was just when he feared he’d come too far, and that pirate woman had already got away that he saw something that caught his attention.
There was a hoverbike several lanes above him. It would be an incongruous sight in traffic on a normal day. Those bikes were meant for tourists who wanted a leisurely trip through the built-up upper levels. They were not meant for joining the air-traffic that constantly thronged around the central spires and out through the lower buildings around the capital city.
And yet there was one right above him. The pilot had to be worth their mettle, because they didn’t even have a weather field to protect them as they drove the bike directly up to another lane of traffic.
Saz didn’t wait any longer. He pitched up, shifting direction so quickly, the simple food transport behind him had to slam its brakes on.
Saz paid no attention as a large Borgazi leaned out of the window and cursed him in an unending volley of spitting insults.
There was a beep, and a shimmer of light chased across Saz’s visor. His armor had just locked onto that hoverbike. It was a testament to the technological prowess of the Xantos Empire that his armor could lock onto a moving target like that, especially since whoever was onboard was clearly employing sensor-jamming tech. A fact his armor warned him of as a hazy green circle appeared over his visor, locking the fast-moving hoverbike in it as lines of information streamed to the side of the image. It provided him live info on everything his armor could pick up about that sensor-jammer.
“What the hell do we have here?” Saz muttered to himself. “This is sophisticated—” he began.
He stopped abruptly when the green reticule locked disappeared and his visor suddenly flashed with red, warning him the signal lock had been lost.
“What the hell?” Saz spat with all his might now as he narrowly avoided a security transport that came tearing around the side of a building. It was moving so fast, he had to put on a burst of speed, kicking his left thrusters into gear as he gracefully spun down the side of the transport. It offered him a quick view of the surprised occupants within, several security officers staring at him in shock.
He didn’t bother to wave. Once he was past the transport’s slipstream, he jerked his head back and locked his gaze on the hoverbike again.
Goddamn, it had already risen through three more lanes of hover traffic. If he couldn’t see it with his own eyes, he wouldn’t believe it. In the few seconds his sensors had locked on that bike before it had jammed him, he’d been able to confirm it was just an ordinary bike. It had no fancy mods to suggest it was capable of deftly navigating through thick traffic, let alone flying vertically up while its occupant hung on for dear life.
Something tingled at the base of Saz’s back. It was a quick, darting sensation that reminded him of water dancing over hot coals. It sent a nervous jolt blasting up into his jaw until he opened it with a snap. “Armor, what the hell are we dealing with here?” Though Saz didn’t usually rely on the tactical assessment of his armor, preferring to interpret his enemies through his own hard-learned lessons instead, now he had no choice. “Did you get anything on the occupant? Anything at all to suggest what she’s using to block our sensors.”
There was a pause.
Saz had time to frown, then his left thruster cut out.
It happened so fast, he couldn’t adjust, and his sudden unintended deceleration brought him right into the path of a speeding transport.
He slammed against the flexi-glass cockpit screen at the front, his body splaying, his legs and arms pulling up and out as his armor tried to adjust for the massive inertia.
He watched two shocked pilots inside the cockpit jerk back from their seats.
Rather than hold out a hand and tell them to stop or just hijack their communications feeds and shout at them to slow down, Saz put on a burst of speed, relying on the powerful thrusters lodged in the base of his boot units, and he spun to the side.
“What the hell happened to my thruster?” he demanded.
His armor didn’t answer.
Saz knew it would happen a second before it did. He had a moment for his eyes to blast wide open and his mouth to crack to the side. Then his armor completely cut out.
No sensors. No onboard assistant. And critically – no damn thrusters.
Saz pitched down, falling several meters in a split second.
There was nothing he could do but flail his arms uselessly. While he couldn’t use any of his armor’s high-level skills, he could still move his arms and legs using nothing but his own physical strength. It was hard as hell, as he suddenly had to fight against 20kg-armor. It was also useless. There was nothing that could stop his fall as he continued to drop like a lead balloon.
Saz had lost before he’d even known what he was fighting for.
“Veri? Veri, why have you gone silent?” Andalusia demanded for the tenth time as she continued to drive her unshielded hoverbike through lanes of traffic.
Veri had dropped comms approximately two minutes ago, and Andalusia was counting every second as more fear climbed her back and sank its hooks into her stomach. She had to fight the urge to plaster her eyes open in shock and desperation. Do that, and the wind shear could blind her.
“Veri, please, what’s wrong—”
“We were being followed by a Xantos Guard. I have dealt with them.”
“Do not concern yourself with it, Princess. I have dealt with them.”
“They’re onto me? They’re—” she couldn’t contain herself anymore, and rather than use mental comms, she screamed into the wind, every movement of her lips fighting against the gale as it sliced around her.
“There is no indication that they know who you are. It is easier to assume they are after you because of the incident at the storage facility. Perhaps it was a trap set up by the Security Forces to capture pirates.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” she finally switched to mental comms, even though it was hard to lock her lips shut. “That’s not how the Guards work. They wouldn’t operate on this planet unless there was something they were after. Oh god. Oh god. They’re here for me – they’re going—”
The next thing Andalusia knew, Veri hacked into the limited computational unit of the hoverbike and took control of it before it could slam into the underside of a medical ship.
“Calm yourself, Princess. I have this under control. I am now monitoring all available frequencies. I assure you, there is no chatter regarding you. They are only interested in the assassination plot against Dalia. Continue to fly the ship, Crown Princess. I will get you through this.”
A part of Andalusia that wasn’t crumbling appreciated that Veri only called her Princess when he wanted to distract her – but he only added her full title when things were at their most dire.
She squeezed her eyes closed as she fought against the fear rising through her. It brought with it nightmare after nightmare of Winters. There he was in front of her, his eyes opening wide in fixed anger. There he was beside her, grabbing her arm. And there he was, right there, wrapping his fingers around her throat as he tipped her head back to stare at his vision.
Though the visions were like poison spreading through her muscles, begging her to give up, at the last moment, she hunkered further over the controls, tipped her head down, and finally opened her eyes.
She would not fall to that bastard twice.
“Veri, tell me how far off we are from reaching the docking ring.”
“We cannot head there directly. Though I have disabled that Guard armor, there are other Security Forces ships out here, and presumably they are looking for you.”
“So what’s the plan?”
“We breach the Central Tower, create a sufficient distraction, then head to the docking ring using the maintenance tunnels.”
Andalusia was given half a second to appreciate how dangerous this plan was, then the hoverbike shuddered. A pulse bounced through the small bike, riding up hard into her hands and almost shaking her grip free from them.
“We have overtaxed the system’s thrusters. We must land.”
“But there’s nowhere to land—”
“I mean crash land. Direct the bike to your left toward the Central Tower.”
“Do it now. Crash it into that bank of windows.”
“But they’ll shred me to pieces—”
Veri didn’t allow her any more time to question the plan; he took over the bike just as he had done before.
In a moment she would never forget, the bike slammed on its brakes, changed direction mid-air, then blasted toward the Central Tower.
She had a second to open her eyes in pure terror, then the bike slammed into a massive bank of viewing windows.
Andalusia opened her mouth to scream as glass shards streamed around her like a deadly halo.
“Jump,” Veri roared, sending blasts of nervous energy slamming into her hips and legs. It was more than she could ignore, and even if she hadn’t chosen to throw herself forward, her body would have done it for her.
She saw just a flash of the platform around her – the clean white floor, the viewing railing, the seating, and yeah, the terrified civilians.
She landed on the ground, traveling so fast, her legs tumbled out from underneath her as if she was a wheel.
She instinctively rolled, bringing up her stone armor as she pressed it protectively in front of her face and huddled behind it.
She kept rolling, falling like a marionette that had been attached to a spring.
Until she finally stopped.
Her body slammed into a wall, the impact pounding through her like a blow from a hammer.
It was almost enough to knock her out, but Veri wouldn’t let her fall.
“Up,” he roared.
She had no option but to comply. Around her, all of the people who’d been seated near the platform, enjoying the unrivaled view of the city beyond, were screaming, running for the doors on the opposite side of the room.
It was a large room, cut on multiple levels, one ramp leading down to the main corridors and halls of the tower beyond.
In the distance, down one of those ramps, she could see the central internal spire of the tower. It was empty, cut around several mezzanine levels. She imagined standing on the ground level and staring up past the pedestal lifts would be like staring at a pathway to heaven.
There was no time to think about heaven, though, considering she was firmly rooted in hell.
Her head buzzed, a dense pressure shifted through her muscles, and her feet shook as she pushed herself up. Veri kept sending pulses of nervous energy slamming through her, kept trying to get her to move, but Andalusia was fighting against her body’s desire to give up.
She staggered to the side, planted a hand on her head, and tried to control herself, but it barely helped.
“You can’t stay here, Andalusia. There are Xantos Guards on the upper levels.”
That did it. It didn’t matter how injured she was. Suddenly she had all of the energy in the world. She pivoted on her foot and threw herself forward, her cheap boot crushing the blast-resistant glass that was scattered over the ground. In the distance, several meters away, she could see the remains of her hoverbike. It was a mangled mess. It made her wonder how exactly she’d survived that fall while the bike was just a softly smoking pile of junk metal.
Veri. She’d be dead a thousand times over without him.
“How long until we can get to the docking ring?” she thought back in desperation as she dodged down, rolled, and shifted away from an apparently plain-clothed civilian. The guy was big, and despite the fact he wasn’t wearing any armor and there was no insignia on his clothes, it was reasonable to assume he was an off-duty security officer.
His size and training couldn’t account for her skill. Shifting to her left, she rolled away from another punch, kicked out her leg, caught his ankle, and pushed him over. The guy fell onto his side, the glass beneath him cracking further as he let out a groan.
“Run—” Veri began, but he stopped abruptly. “Grab the fist gun from that man’s pocket. His left. Now.”
Andalusia had already spun around, but she turned again, skidded down to one knee, ignoring the glass beneath her as she reached the man.
He tried to snake out with a punch, but she shifted to the side in time, locked her hand on the back of his wrist, and pulled it hard in the opposite direction. He let out a groan. Moving at the top speed her implants could provide, she shoved a hand into his left pocket. She pulled out a small ring-shaped disc of metal that looked like nothing more than an old human coin with a small perforation in the middle.
“Dodge back, kick out with your right,” Veri snapped.
She complied, elegantly rolling onto her back as she brought up her right leg and kicked, pushing all of her weight into the base of her heel. It caught the guy just on the side of his jaw before he could leap forward and attempt to pin her on the ground using his greater weight and size.
He let out another groan, his jaw clicking painfully from the move.
Andalusia planted her hands on the floor, flipped, stood, pivoted, and ran.
She kept the fist gun locked in her sweaty palm. “Should I activate it?”
There was a long pause.
“Veri?” she tried.
When he didn’t answer again, an unholy wave of nerves struck her, threatening to pull her under. The last time Veri had paused like this, it was because a Xantos Guard had been nearby locking onto her.
There was every possibility the same thing was happening now.
Just before she could lose her balance as she pitched down that incline leading to the central mezzanine area of the spire, she heard Veri kick into gear. “Do not activate the gun yet. Head two levels down. I will direct you.”
“Shouldn’t we be heading up?”
“I told you, before we access the docking ring, we need to create a distraction.”
“So what’s two levels down?”
“The shielded central server room.”
“How the hell are we going to get into there? This may be a crappy backwater world, but I’m assuming that server room is going to be protected.”
“You forget who I am.”
“No, I haven’t, and that’s the point. We’ve already done far too much. People will be questioning exactly what I am.”
This time there was no pause. “Crown Prince Andalusia, I am programmed to keep you safe. This is the only way.”
“But if you hack into that server room, people will wonder—”
“Andalusia,” he said, his tone direct and comforting, “this is the only way. Let me guide you, Your Highness.”
Just as she made it down the side of the ramp, and the massive central tower opened out above and below her, she squeezed her eyes closed, a few tears trickling down her cheeks.
It didn’t take her long to open them.
This was hard, granted, but with Veri, she would get through it.
For the alternative was unacceptable.
Saz didn’t have to fall the several-kilometer distance to the ground level of the city below. He made it through three lanes of traffic until his back slammed hard against the hull of a passing ship. It was such a hard impact, he immediately felt the hull dent with the perfect shape of his body.
Immediately, he heard an alarm vibrating through the ship, warning its occupants of the impact.
Despite the fact most of the sophisticated skills of his armor had been switched off, at least it had protected him from the fall. His head wasn’t spinning.
Instead, it was as sharp as a knife.
He knew exactly what he had to do.
Back when he’d first seen that footage of that woman – her deadly elegance, her swift efficiency – his gut had told him she would be key. And his gut had been right.
She possessed the kind of technology that could hack through a Xantos Guard’s armor. The stuff Saz was wearing wasn’t the stuff they gave to the ordinary guards, either. His was top-of-the-line. And yet, somehow she had hacked through his security protocols.
She was an assassin. She had to be. But he doubted she was going after Dalia. She’d be here for Veta.
Saz could not access his communication unit. He could barely move his body as he pushed himself up, grinding his hands into the hull of the transport as it came to a security stop.
There were lighting strips along the roof, and they started to blink a specific red that would tell other passing ships the transport was in trouble.
Saz didn’t let out a groan as he finally made it to his feet. Despite the fact it was taxing and he had to fight against the weight of the armor, he tilted his head up, immediately turning it in the direction of the central tower to his left.
He could no longer see that hoverbike. It would be out there, though, and his instincts told him it would be heading to the central tower.
Andalusia was in danger.
It took his addled brain a moment to correct himself. Wrong Princess. Veta was in danger.
He had time to shake his head before a hatch a few meters behind him opened. He twisted on his foot as he watched two surprised maintenance staff clamber out. They were in basic magnetic armor. Enough that they could lock onto the metal hull, but not the kind of stuff you could take into space.
They took one look at his Xantos armor, and he watched their eyes boggle.
“I need to use your communications system, now. I also need you to take me to the central tower, now,” he growled even louder.
They stared at him, and it took him a moment to realize that his voice hadn’t been relayed.
“Dammit,” he snarled as he laboriously brought up a hand, jamming his thumb and pinky finger into two specific spots underneath his helmet. It was the manual release, and it was only a position known to those who’d ever worn this stuff. Usually, if the armor was in operational order, an enemy could accidentally slide their fingers along those two points, and it would do nothing. It would take the wearer’s permission for the helmet to open.
Now it was the last system that worked.
His helmet receded, a small cloud of atmosphere quickly shifting out before it was taken by the wind and dispersed in a split second.
His short blond hair was flattened over his face as he tilted his head to the side and out of the direction of the wind.
“Are you okay?” one of the maintenance staff stuttered.
“I’m fine,” he lied. “But I need immediate access to your communication systems. I also need you to take this ship to the central tower, now.”
“We’re not licensed to dock at the central tower—”
“This is a critical incident. You will deliver me there. And you will give me access to your communications.”
Saz didn’t modulate his voice, and he certainly didn’t say please.
It was one thing giving orders to the security staff of this planet when he only had his gut instinct to go on. Now he had all the evidence he required that that pirate runner was an immediate threat to the Xantos Royal family.
He could take his kid gloves off now. Which would be great, if only he could take his real gloves off, too. It would be too dangerous to start disassembling his armor until he was out of this wind.
He took a laborious step forward, his weight denting the hull more.
One of the maintenance staff winced but didn’t tell him to stop. Both men held the hatch open until Saz finally made it over. He didn’t climb down the small ladder to the corridor below, and rather jumped, again denting the metal.
The Xantos Empire could pay for repairs once this incident was resolved.
“Patch me into the comms,” he barked.
Thankfully neither of the men questioned, and a few seconds later, one of them handed him a small communication device.
It didn’t take Saz long to figure out how to use it. Unlike most of the other soldiers under his command, he always kept an eye on modern technology, even if it was more basic than the stuff the Xantos Empire had. You had to know what was out there in case – just as had happened now – you were separated from your own technology.
So it didn’t take Saz long to program in the communication frequency of one man.
All thoughts of having a fight with Vandel had fled Saz’s mind, and as soon as he heard the comms stream open, Saz’s shoulders deflated.
“There’s an ongoing incident. There’s an assassin headed your way.” Saz didn’t even take a breath as he pushed out his words.
Vandel could always play things one of two ways. He was hardly a relaxed man. He was too efficient for that. But he had two distinct states. Things were either a threat, or they weren’t. When they weren’t, he would shut down. When they were?
He’d turn into a soldier more fearsome than Saz.
There was a pause. “We’ve got our own incident going on here. Something crashed into the tower 100 floors down. We’re—”
“What? What crashed into the tower? Was it a hoverbike? A woman riding a hoverbike?” Saz snapped.
“Yes. Is that the assassin?”
“Yes.” Saz’s voice was shaking with emotion now.
“I’m onto it.”
Saz picked up the sound of Vandel’s breath changing as the man no doubt pushed into a run.
“Where’s the Princess?” Saz demanded.
“Lady Veta is currently in the function room with Senator Dalia going over the details of the deal. Five contingents of guards are with her.”
Saz didn’t even pick up the fact he’d accidentally called Veta a Princess when she was technically still just a Lady. She would only become a Princess when Andalusia died and her powers as the head of the Xantos Empire transferred to Veta.
On any other day it would be a massive faux pas to confuse the names. Today, Saz ignored it as he brought up a gauntleted hand and thumbed the sweat off his brow. “Get to her now.”
“Which her? The Princess or the assassin?” Vandel clarified.
Vandel would know the answer. He knew perfectly well how Saz thought. Even if most of the other soldiers on Veta’s protection detail didn’t understand Saz’s reasoning, Vandel always had, and that was likely the only reason the two unmatched men had become friends.
“The assassin – any news on where she’s headed?” Saz demanded.
“Current security footage suggests she’s going down, but the footage seems to be unreliable.”
“I don’t know what she’s got on board, but she can hack through anything.”
“What? Where are you, anyway?”
“I’m currently in locked-down armor on a transport vessel. She hacked into my armor,” Saz said as he took a steadying breath, pushing that statement out with a slight waver to his voice.
It brought him back to the fact that this woman was unlike anything he’d ever seen. Technically it was possible to hack through Xantos armor, but you would either have to have inside knowledge of the security codes, or prototype technology and some insane skills.
There was a long pause. “What are we dealing with?”
“I’ve got no idea. But if she’s got that kind of technology, you’re going to have to upgrade your armor set.”
“Got it. Are you en route?”
“I’ll get there in five minutes. Stop her.”
There was no hesitation as Vandel spat out, “Yes, sir.”
The feed cut out, and Saz stood there, staring at the wall in front of him.
He flicked his gaze toward the two maintenance staff who were still standing close by. Technically Saz had just shared several secrets of the Xantos family with them, and he would have to get them to sign a secrets act.
That could wait.
Getting to the tower couldn’t.
Locking a hand on the wall beside him, he used it to start taking off his armor, one piece at a time. He had to disengage each manual lock, waiting for the sophisticated joint system to unravel before he could pull the piece off and chuck it to the ground beside him.
When he was done, he felt naked. No, that wasn’t right. For years he’d fought without armor. He didn’t feel naked, just exposed.
He was still wearing his trim blue-black tunic underneath. It was not the kind of outfit he would pick for going into battle with. He had no choice.
Because this would end in a battle.
It wasn’t just his gut telling him that. As he turned his head to the side and caught sight of the view from a portal window, he saw the side of the central tower. 20 levels up, there was a smoking hole where that woman had presumably crash landed her bike.
Saz rounded a hand into a fist and turned. Then, he ran.
He wouldn’t stop until she was either in custody or dead.
“To your left, move three meters and then stop abruptly, punch a hand into the wall, and let me do the rest,” Veri spat.
Andalusia did precisely as she was told. There were no questions in her mind, no comments, no anything, just action.
She’d been in pressured situations over the years, but nothing like this. She had never come so close to being caught.
She couldn’t allow herself to think that there were Xantos Guards in this building, because if she did, she would be swallowed under by that nightmare of Winters.
… What if he was here? On this planet, in this building, in this corridor?
“Punch a hand into the wall, now. Now,” Veri spat.
His voice was insistent enough that it overrode her fear, and she brought up her right hand and didn’t hesitate as she pounded her fist into the wall.
Instantly the impact sent a ripple through the metal as her stone armor warped it, crunching into it for several centimeters.
The pressure receptors under the knuckles of her armor alerted her to the fact that there was a hard object just beneath the warped metal.
“Punch once more,” Veri ordered her.
She brought her fist back just as she heard footfall racing down the corridor.
She slammed her stone armor forward, using all of her mind, realizing she could not waste any more time.
There was a crunch as the metal cracked.
Beneath it, she could see some glowing control crystals. She didn’t wait for Veri to tell her what to do as she snagged hold of the warped metal with her armor and yanked it off.
Rather than discard it to the side, she held onto it, realizing she could use it as an impromptu weapon.
She didn’t need to push a hand in and grab those control crystals. She could feel Veri kick into gear as he hacked them from here.
Though she was ostensibly facing just a plain section of wall, even she could tell there had to be something behind it. Though this section of the corridor didn’t have any signs or other doors to suggest the server room was just beyond, of the small amount of the building she’d seen, she could appreciate there was a massive cordoned off space beyond.
She didn’t bother to ask Veri how long this would take. She let him work as she tilted her head to the side, bringing that metal plating up and holding it tightly as she got ready.
Three seconds, two, one.
She pitched the metal forward, using a blast of energy from her armor to ensure it sailed through the air like a deadly blast from a railgun.
It was timed just perfectly as two armored security officers rounded the corner, their guns at the ready. They started firing, but rather than hit her, they struck the metal plating.
Her luck held out as one blast struck the spinning plating head-on, and the plating deflected the blow.
It caught one of the soldiers on his arm, knocking him into his buddy.
That gave Andalusia all the time she needed to shift to the side just as she heard something de-cloak in front of her.
“We’re in,” Veri spat. “Roll.”
She pushed into a dive role, heading through the open door as fast as she possibly could.
Her brow was covered in sweat, and she no doubt left a few droplets here and there. That was fine. Sweat she could get away with. Blood, on the other hand, she could not. Blood could be used to figure out who she was.
Though she’d received injuries when that security box had exploded, most of them had cauterized.
Just as she rolled and before Veri could close the door, she saw a fresh droplet of blood oozing out of one of the cuts along her hand. It transferred onto the floor.
“Up—” Veri began.
She ignored him, getting down to her knee and locking her stone armor over the blood.
“Andalusia, we don’t have time—”
He stopped abruptly as he appreciated what she was doing.
Her stone armor was programmed so that, with a single blast of electricity, it could completely obliterate any blood she left behind, scrambling it so nobody could detect the Princess within.
For Andalusia, while losing skin and hair was one thing, it wasn’t her genetic material that was problematic. Veri had already reprogrammed her surface cells so that as she lost them, their genetic code would be jumbled.
The symbols and light that ran along her right forearm were powered by a substance in her blood. It could not be removed or reprogrammed, and instead, had to be cleaned up on-site.
Veri didn’t push her, and it wasn’t until her armor buzzed and confirmed the blood had been destroyed that she pushed up.
She tilted her head to the side, her messy hair bunching across her sweat-laden cheeks and shoulders as her neck muscles knotted like taut rope. She stared at the server room.
There were pits littered through it, computer towers reaching high from them, their sleek surfaces glittering here and there with momentary pulses of blue light that no doubt indicated some internal process running.
“Where—” she began.
Veri didn’t answer.
She could tell based on the buzzing sensation rippling through her left wrist from Veri’s dock that he was using his full power.
She didn’t know where he wanted her to stand, so she walked several meters in, stopping near one of the closest towers.
There were no windows in this room, obviously, considering it was completely concealed and had a cloaked door.
The only light came from those occasional pulses that chased along the computer towers.
It was eerie, to say the least, as she stood there, softly rounding her hands into fists as she attempted to fight off her every fear.
Ignoring how perilous the situation was was one thing when she was moving. When she was standing still, it was almost impossible.
Could Winters be here?
Veri would have found out by now, wouldn’t he? He would’ve told her. But what if he didn’t want to tell her so she didn’t break down?
This was where, if Veri had the processing power, he would interrupt her thoughts and distract her. But he was so focused on his task that he couldn’t.
So Andalusia had to do it herself. She squeezed her eyes shut until any tears that were threatening to leak out were locked in tight, just like the tech in the secret Royal Armory.
That tech was at the center of Winters’ plan. Once married, he would have gained access to all of it through her. For once married, the unusual power that pulsed in her blood would spread to him. The lines and symbols that indicated her rule of the Xantos Empire would appear on his left arm. And together, they would be a pair.
Andalusia ticked her head to the side as a dense pressure leaped up her back. She hadn’t heard anything behind her, but something suddenly warned her the situation outside had changed.
“Veri?” she thought. “What—”
Suddenly the wall behind gave way as something shot through.
Andalusia had time to pitch forward, push into a roll, and leap up just as hot metal hailed around her.
She saw something shift through so quickly, it was hard to track. But she didn’t need her eyes to warn her of what it was. Her right arm began to clench as energy picked up along her sacred symbols.
It warned her that Royal armor was nearby.
She had time to gasp, then she saw something slice out toward her. It was a bullet, and she had just a fraction of a second to shift to the side.
She hit the ground and was forced to roll over burning hot chunks of metal before she managed to push to her feet and leap behind the tower.
The man in Royal armor didn’t stop. He wasn’t running and instead had turned on his thrusters. That meant it took little effort whatsoever to fly right over the top of the computer tower.
Before he could reach her, Andalusia darted to the side again, shifting around the tower as fear tumbled through her.
“You have two options,” an electronic voice droned out. “Come quietly, or come dead.”
She didn’t even have time to start shaking. She heard the armor unit shift again.
“Veri, you have to—”
“Let it touch you. It has to touch you. I’m trying to hack through it, but it’s a more sophisticated set of armor. I can’t do it remotely. You have to help.”
She could almost leap for joy at the fact that Veri had kicked back into life. But at his words, she wanted to crumble in fear.
Let it touch her? In the few split seconds she had as the armor unit raced up behind, her body trembled with fear, telling her she was about to die.
Then her right arm shifted. More energy built through it, energy that recognized the armor behind her, energy that wanted to reach in and make it hers once more.
“I give up,” Andalusia stuttered.
She fell down to her knees, brought her hands out wide, and held her position.
Her heart hammered in her chest as, with every beat, it promised her the Xantos Guard had been lying. She didn’t have two options – she only had one, and in a few seconds, he’d shoot her right through the back of her head.
She heard as two armored feet landed behind her.
Veri didn’t say a word, and from the buzzing, dense sensation that was rippling up from the docking station around her left wrist, she could appreciate he was using all of his energy.
Several seconds went by. She knew from experience that that Royal armor was so sophisticated that if the wearer didn’t want to be heard, he wouldn’t be. Right now he could be lifting a gun and programming it to a kill-setting, and she would have no idea.
But she would live today. She heard the armor take several steps until it stopped in front of her.
She ticked her gaze up, and there was nothing she could do to control her expression as abject fear powered through it.
Was it him? Could it be Winters? There was no way to tell from the voice, as the armor had modulated its tone.
The guy reached forward. And the next thing she knew, he locked a hand around the wrist of her stone armor unit.
Before he could tighten his grip and rip it off, he paused.
No, he froze. Even without Veri confirming it, she could tell he’d hacked in. She could tell, because her right arm suddenly pulsed with power, lending a hand to Veri and overcoming this most sophisticated set of Xantos armor in under a split second.
The soldier didn’t say anything. He didn’t shift forward, rock back, or fall to his face. He couldn’t. He was locked on the spot as if someone had hit pause.
She let out a shuddering gasp. She almost made the mistake of talking to Veri out loud, then squeezed her lips shut. “Is that it? Have you got full access?”
“Yes. I have overcome the unit’s security.”
“Thank God. What do we do now?”
“I must finish hacking the servers. It will take another minute.”
Before Andalusia could look relieved, she felt her legs tingling.
“Make no more facial expressions in front of this man. Remove your armor from his grip and walk away until he can no longer see you.”
She did precisely as she was told. With little effort whatsoever, and with a pulse of her Royal energy, she overcame the armor, pulled out her hand, rose, and walked away.
She didn’t stop until she was behind the man, far out of his visual range.
Veri didn’t bother to inform her what he was doing, and rather got back to hacking, once more becoming completely, eerily silent.
There was still a great smoking hole in the wall to the room, and Andalusia kept her full attention on it, grasping the fist gun from her pocket. She hadn’t used it yet – she hadn’t bothered. It had terrible range and power, but at least it would be something while Veri was too distracted to give her orders.
Jamming her thumb against the ring, it took half a second for energy to activate and pulse over her hand. She brought her arm up, directing it at the hole.
She was careful not to activate the ring against her right arm. Was it because she was favoring it once more? Was it because she still thought that grunt work was below it?
Maybe. But with her right arm still tingling from the proximity of that Royal armor, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea, anyway.
She had no idea how much time passed as she locked her full attention on that door, her hearing peeled, ready to pick up even the faintest sound.
She kept methodically switching her gaze toward that Royal armor every few seconds, even though she knew it couldn’t move.
That wasn’t the point. She wanted to know who was inside. Very few Xantos Guards had access to sets like that, and even though she wanted to push away the possibility it could be Winters, there was a distinct likelihood it could be.
If it was, why not kill him now? A voice far off in the back of her head asked. It was the same part of her that had to put up with those dreams, night in, night out. The same part of her that had been on the run for three years because of that bastard’s treachery.
She slid her gaze toward that Royal armor once more, and she knew her cheeks hardened.
She started to calculate how many blows it would take from this unsophisticated gun before she could access the man beneath. Too many, but she knew the manual release codes to the armor. All she would have to do was walk forward, jam her thumb and finger into a specific point in his helmet, and she’d be able to remove it—
“I do not know what you’re thinking of, Crown Princess, but I can appreciate your expression has hardened.”
“Veri? Are you there? Have you finished the hack? Can we get out of here?”
“Yes. You will—”
“No, wait,” she said, pulling her gun down, taking a step back, and directing it at the back of that Royal armor unit’s head. “Who’s inside?” She knew she couldn’t control her expression now. If Veri had picked up the fact her face had hardened before, he’d be able to read her mind now considering how much anger was pulsing through her.
There was a long drawn-out pause. Or at least as long and drawn out as the pressured situation could allow. “That is not Winters. It is not his body type.”
Veri didn’t need to say anything else. He didn’t need to point out that one of Andalusia’s own rules was that she didn’t kill.
Andalusia let out a long, labored, gasping breath, then turned back to the hole in the wall. Outside, she could finally hear more security lining up. Though they sounded as if they were back along the length of the corridor for now, she could appreciate they wouldn’t stay there. They would only be biding their time, trying to figure out what had happened to that Royal armor unit.
She slid her gaze toward it once more, but now, her face wasn’t hardened with anger, just concentration. “What if we steal the armor? Wouldn’t that give us—”
“Hacking through the armor is one thing. If you reveal you know where the manual release points are, it will show you have secrets of the upper echelons of the Xantos family. It is too much of a risk.”
This was why she needed Veri. Andalusia liked to pretend she was competent enough to run this operation on her own, but she always had blind spots. When it came to her dreams, when it came to her fears, sometimes she just couldn’t see straight.
She let her right hand drop as she kept her left up. She swiveled it to the side and pointed it back at the door. “How do we get out of here?”
“Not through that door. We will have to blast another one.”
“This gun is too underpowered—”
“I will not be using the gun. I have already set one of the computer towers to explode. It will take out a large chunk of the floor beneath it. We will drop down, and we will continue to run.”
“Got it.” As soon as the words were out, Andalusia sure as hell hoped they were true. Because if she didn’t have this, because if the knot of fear forming in her stomach was right, then she would lose everything.
As Veri directed her, she gave the back of that armor unit one last lingering look.
It wasn’t Winters inside, so who would it be? Did she know them? Or would they be from a cohort of Xantos Guards that had come through since her reign?
Perhaps she’d left that thought unguarded, because just as she hunkered down behind a computer tower, Veri clicked. “Your reign is not over, your Royal Highness. It still continues. And do not worry – it will continue beyond this day. Trust me, and I will see you through this.”
He was the only person she could trust now.
“Vandel? Vandel? What’s the matter, why aren’t you answering me?” Saz threw himself forward, his dress boots ringing out against the metal plating beneath him.
The transport had stopped a minute ago, and Saz had thrown himself out, moving like a bullet from a gun.
He’d already reached one of the long ramps that led to the mezzanine level in the central section of the tower. It would be the best place to get a visual.
But right now, a visual was the least of his concerns. “Vandel? Vandel what the hell happened? Have you captured the assassin or not?” Saz barked down the simple communication device. He’d already pinned it against his neck, just below his right ear. Though he didn’t need to physically access it to turn it on now his Xantos implants had paired with it, he still jammed his thumb into it, pushing it in so hard, he could accidentally crack the thin metal.
Up until a few seconds ago, Saz had finally started to allow himself to believe this incident was over.
Because up until a few seconds ago, he’d still been in communication with Vandel. Vandel had confirmed he’d accessed the central secure server room of the tower, found the pirate runner, and captured her.
She’d given herself up, then everything had gone dark.
Saz had lost his comms feed with Vandel, and now no matter how hard he screamed, he couldn’t get it back.
He brought his hand down, rounded it into a fist, and punched it hard against his leg. “Damn it all to hell. What’s going on here?”
Though he didn’t want to face a certain possibility, it was raring up to meet him. Vandel would not have lost comms by accident. He wouldn’t have gone communication dark for so long, either, not on the cusp of completing the mission.
There was only one possibility, even though it didn’t make any damn sense.
That pirate runner had hacked through Vandel’s armor.
It was one thing – a truly frightening thing – that she’d been able to hack through Saz’s armor while out in the midst of hover traffic. But hacking through Vandel’s was different. Vandel had already confirmed that he’d secured a set of the most sophisticated Level X Royal armor. That stuff was meant to be impossible to hack through.
And yet that pirate runner had done it.
Who the hell was Saz dealing with here?
As he ran, pushing himself so hard, he had to skid to a stop as he reached the railing that led around the mezzanine level, a thought started to pull itself from the depths of his subconscious.
As his gaze flashed up and down the tower, darting across the different levels, spying the pedestal lifts and the greenery that wrapped around them, his hand unconsciously clenched into an even tighter fist.
No one had any idea how Crown Princess Andalusia had been kidnapped. She’d been plucked from her room, in the most protected section of the Royal Palace. No one had known she’d been taken until she’d been off-world for hours.
The team that had kidnapped her must’ve had access to prototype technology. What if this woman – the pirate runner – had access to the same technology? Worse, what if she was part of the same team that had taken Andalusia?
It made a kind of sense, didn’t it? She was going after Veta, and you would have to be either mad or extremely accomplished to even imagine mounting a mission against the second-in-line to the Xantos throne. But it wouldn’t be mad if you’d already mounted a successful mission against the first-in-line.
The next thing Saz knew, he pitched to the side. He had to stop himself from locking his hands on the railing and throwing himself down the cavernous middle of the tower. He wasn’t wearing armor, he had to remind himself, and even though his cybernetic implants would presumably protect him from the fall, it would still damage his body. He was a good 50 floors up from the ground floor below.
No. He needed armor. Real armor.
He’d taken this assassin for granted two times now.
He would not do it again.
Even though his body itched to throw himself toward the secure server room so that he could check if Vandel was okay, his Xantos Guard training kicked into gear. More than that? Hope. Hope that he was right – that this pirate runner had something to do with Princess Andalusia’s kidnapping.
That was like a rocket underneath Saz. He now moved so fast, he sprinted past several Security Forces men in armor.
Jamming his thumb into the rudimentary communication device lodged on his neck, Saz immediately tapped into it with his neural implant, forcing it to call the armory on Veta’s ship.
An alarm rang out through the tower. It was so loud, it cut through all conversation, shaking the floor beneath him.
The pedestal lifts that had been working until moments ago ground to a stop, a red strip of lighting turning on, alerting people they had malfunctioned.
“What the hell?” Saz had time to splutter before, one by one, the mezzanine levels lost their power. It started from the base, then ran up, the blackout like a storm rolling in from beneath.
Saz had a second to push himself back from the light railing he was holding before the damn thing switched off. If he’d been leaning against it, he would’ve lost his footing and fallen down to the ground floor below.
He staggered back, tilting his head up as he watched the blackout reach the top of the tower above.
He’d never in all his years as a Xantos Guard been in a situation like this.
He pivoted on his foot, paused, and threw himself forward.
He now had no option.
He had to use a Royal mech. It was that, or watch Lady Veta be taken.
He threw himself forward just as a group of confused security guards rounded the corner. Some of them had their visors off, so Saz could see how lost and frightened their expressions were. Nothing like this would’ve ever happened to them.
Saz reconnected to the armory on Veta’s ship. “Prep my mech.”
“An assassin is about to make a try on Veta’s life. Prep my mech.”
The head of the armory asked no more questions.
Saz turned his head around, staring once more at the darkened halls and tower, then he jerked his head back, he bared his teeth, and he got ready to do whatever he would have to do.
If there was a hope this assassin knew where Andalusia was, he would wring the knowledge from her throat. And that was a promise.
Veri barely spoke to her now. He was so consumed by the process of keeping her safe, she was virtually on her own.
“It’s going to be okay. Dammit, it’s going to be okay,” she thought to herself.
“Shift to the left. There is an elevator,” Veri suddenly informed her.
She just stopped herself from pointing out that the power had been switched off. She appreciated that Veri had such a cast iron-grip on this tower that if he wanted to direct the power to a single elevator, he’d be able to do it.
She shifted to the left just as she heard the pound of footfall far off.
Veri was creating distractions through the tower, leading people away from her, but she still kept that fist-gun locked in her grip, glowing lines of light hovering several centimeters above her clenched fist.
As for her right hand, it was acting up. It had been acting up ever since she’d frozen that Xantos Guard armor in the server room.
This dense tingling sensation was running from her fingers down her hand, across her wrist, and into her elbow.
It had been a long, long time since she’d been forced to use her Royal energy.
She just wasn’t used to it anymore. She twiddled her fingers, pulsing her hand into a fist as she reached the elevators and they opened.
She threw herself inside. Tilting her head up, she saw a small circle aperture that would indicate a security camera. She didn’t even bother to modulate her expression or hunch down, trying to get out of its direct field of view. It wouldn’t be functioning.
That was one thing. She could not hope that there was no footage of her, however. This incident had been so large that of course there would be.
She brought up a hand, clamped it on her brow, and ground her palm into her eyebrows. “What the hell happens next?” she muttered, mostly for her own benefit.
“Think no further ahead than escaping. I will plan our next moves. Do not worry, Princess; there will be a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Her lips twitched into a grin. She knew the world had to be crashing down around her ears, because Veri was using florid language.
As the elevator doors closed with a ping and she felt the lift shudder slightly as it set off, she clamped her hand further over her eyes.
Veri might have promised that they would get through this and that she shouldn’t turn her mind to what would happen next, but she couldn’t stop herself.
Just as she was sure there would be footage, she was also certain that once the dust settled and the Xantos guards investigated precisely what had happened to their armor, questions would be raised.
And maybe, just maybe those questions would lead back to her.
She’d been so careful not to produce any evidence of her existence for the last three years. Now, she could have ruined everything.
It was one thing running from a galaxy who thought she’d been kidnapped and swept under the rug. It was another if they knew where she’d been. She understood her Xantos Guards. Once they caught a whiff of her scent, they would not stop until they found her.
She found herself staggering back, her balance robbed from her as her sanity started to degrade. With her eyes closed, she saw perfect flashes of Winters in front of her. His expression, his greed, and his unbounded desire to do whatever it would take to get his hands on the Royal Arsenal.
She didn’t want to cry, but she could hardly stop herself.
Over the last three years, Andalusia had mistakenly convinced herself that she was powerful. Every day, she’d tried to prove that she’d changed from the pathetic, deluded Princess she’d once been. Now she realized that transformation had been incomplete.
Tears freely tracked down her cheeks as she ground her palm against her face.
Veri did not attempt to distract her. He was either too consumed by his task or appreciated there was nothing he could do or say to change this experience.
There was another ping, and the elevator arrived at its destination. The doors opened.
She pushed out, keeping low, re-gripping her left hand, ensuring the fist gun was still locked in her palm.
“You do not need to keep a defensive position. There are no soldiers—” Veri began, obviously about to inform her that there were no security officers left on this level.
He cut out so suddenly, it left a ringing silence in her ears.
“Veri?” she had time to think.
She was standing with her back to a massive section of glass windows that ran around this circular section of walkway.
She had a split second to appreciate a shadow was looming behind her.
Then all hell broke loose.
Veri started screaming, but his screams were overshadowed by her right arm.
It began to burn with energy. It felt as if she plunged it into molten lava.
It was such an overpowering sensation, she almost didn’t shift to the side in time, and Veri had to take hold of her knees, forcing them to buckle.
Behind her, she felt as something crashed in through the windows. Glass scattered around her in a halo of destruction, moving so quickly, a few shards cut her arms and cheeks.
She had time to turn her head and stare up. Time to realize one thing.
There was a Royal mech unit behind her.
The mech units were the jewels in Xantos’ crown. She had been taught that every single day as a Crown Princess. It had been drilled into her mind. But so had another fact.
Within the sacred armory, there were mech units that would overshadow these by a factor of a thousand.
They were the true source of Xantos’ power and the real weapons Winters was reaching for.
None of that mattered. All that mattered was that towering great 40-foot mech unit that had just crashed in through the side of the building. It had to keep itself crouched low, its massive form too tall even for the high ceilings around her.
“Andalusia, run. I cannot shut one of those mech units down.”
“I can,” she thought back, still frozen to the spot.
She’d always had a connection to these mech units. Every single one under her command was dear to her in some indescribable way.
It wasn’t just that they were the cornerstone of the Empire.
Whenever they were around, her right arm would bleed light and her mind would become transfixed.
Now was no different.
“Andalusia,” Veri roared. “Move before it catches you.”
It wouldn’t kill her. She knew that. Even if a pilot mistakenly tried to force one of those mech units to crush her, they wouldn’t.
They would touch her skin and recognize who she was.
“Andalusia, please,” Veri tried.
She couldn’t see through the cockpit unit of the mech, even though she knew where it was.
She stared up at it, her hair buffeting around her face as wind catapulted in through the massive hole in the wall.
She had no idea what her expression was.
Or a kind of recognition one could only show upon returning home?
“Move,” Veri spat one last time. He sent so much energy rippling through her interconnected cybernetic system that there was nothing she could do as she was thrown to the side.
The Mech unit twitched forward, reaching a hand toward her.
The force that had transfixed her to the spot broke like a dam shattering, and Andalusia realized how dangerous the situation was.
She pushed forward, rolled, and scrambled back into the lifts just as they opened.
She twisted, threw herself against the back wall, and spread her arms wide as she stared out of the closing doors in fear.
“Access the maintenance hatch above. The mech is about to force the doors open,” Veri blared.
Again all she wanted to do was stand there and stare as she saw a massive mechanical hand dart forward, the fingers squeezing between the lift doors and holding them open.
“Do it now, Andalusia,” Veri begged.
She brought up her left hand, squeezing off a shot as she directed it up at the maintenance hatch,
The hatch exploded, more hot shrapnel dashing against her skin. She didn’t even wince. She pushed toward the wall, kicked off it, angled up, caught the burning hot edge of metal with her stone armor, and pulled herself up.
It was just in time as the elevator doors were wrenched open.
Above her was a long, dark shaft.
“Jump, now,” Veri roared.
She complied, pushing off against the sheer wall beside her, angling up, leaping, and grabbing hold of a small maintenance handle.
Below her, she could hear the Mech tearing through the elevator.
She couldn’t pause, even as her right arm exploded with energy.
All it would take was for her to stop, drop down, and reach a hand out to that mech, and it would freeze.
All it would take was for her to tear off her stone armor and the metal sheath beneath to let the light of her Royal blood shine forth.
The mech would recognize her. It would be forced to protect her.
She could take it – she could use it to get off the planet.
She didn’t need Veri to read her thoughts and tell her they were madness. She stopped herself without his help.
As soon as she activated that mech, it would recognize her, and so would everyone else in the galaxy.
So she just jumped, leaping up to another handhold as she felt Veri assess the situation, coming up with a new plan as his processors practically vibrated.
“The mech cannot follow us into the shaft. Or rather, it should not.”
Just as Veri concluded that, she heard an unholy tearing sound from beneath her and realized the mech had just torn a hole right through the shaft wall.
Though the power to this section had been turned off again, sparks still cascaded out from damage to the power units that ran through the wall.
Andalusia didn’t have time to stare in shocked horror as that silver gray mech unit reached toward her. She felt Veri take control of her limbs, telling her to drop.
There would’ve been a time when Andalusia would’ve barked at him that that was insane, that letting go and dropping through the shaft would lead to certain death.
That time was long gone.
The elevator shaft was large, servicing more than one lift. As she let go just before that mech could reach out and grab her, from below her, she saw a flash of another lift as it reached up from the lower depths, traveling at top speed.
She slammed against it, though the lift slowed down to a crawl before it could break her back. It was still a significant blow, and her mouth jerked open, her breath blasting from her chest in a wheeze.
Above her, she could see the mech shoving its head through the elevator shaft as it looked down.
Veri wasted no time. The elevator changed direction, and she felt it plowing down.
It had limited impediment fields, and she could feel them encase her, locking her to the spot and ensuring that she wasn’t flattened by gravity.
She didn’t have the breath to ask Veri how the plan had changed. But she could appreciate it would have.
They were using mechs against her, for God’s sake. How long until they started using Veta’s Royal cruiser?
There was a limit to what Veri could do.
“Access the maintenance hatch of this lift. Drop down. Get ready to run again.”
No questions. Just action. Andalusia rolled around, brought up her gun, shot the maintenance hatch, kicked off the metal plating, and dropped down. Just as she did, her knees bending to accommodate the move, the lift stopped and the doors opened.
Without question, she threw herself out.
Veri didn’t have time to warn her that there were security officers on this level.
Two were in front of her, their backs to her.
She threw herself toward them, climbed up the back of one, locked her legs around their arm units, and threw them to the side as she pivoted with her hips. As she fell, she brought up her fist gun and fired at the floor plating beneath the other officer’s legs. She was lucky enough that she caught a section of wiring beneath the floor, and there was a small explosion that threw the officer to the side.
She rolled, pushed to her feet, and ran.
“What level are we on?” she thought desperately.
“The only level the guards won’t use a mech on,” Veri replied.
“What?” she had time to think before she rounded a corner and reached a straight hallway that appeared to lead to a massive room on the opposite side.
That hallway was lined with guards. Xantos Guards.
She almost skidded to a stop and threw herself backward, but Veri sent pulses through her knees, begging her to go forward.
She half squeezed her eyes as she ran, knowing that every second would be her last. And yet, they weren’t. Veri was working on overdrive.
While she’d had to touch the sophisticated Level X Royal armor unit in the server room, these were the unsophisticated varieties, and Veri could easily hack through them at a distance.
He did that now, and as she threw herself forward, they dropped like petals from a dying rose.
There were a few ordinary security officers around them, and she brought up her gun, easily dispatching them.
She was being funneled forward. There was nowhere else to go but the massive room in front of her.
“Veri, what the hell is behind that door?”
“An army,” he replied smoothly.
“Continue forward. You have more of a chance against them than you do against that mech.”
“I thought you said the pilot wouldn’t dare bring it down to this level.”
“I was wrong. I clearly underestimated the pilot. He is not operating as per procedure.”
Something twitched in her gut as he said that. It tried to ignite a memory about a certain Xantos Guard she knew, but she didn’t have time to finish it.
The doors in front of her opened.
“Roll,” Veri commanded.
She rolled through the opening doors.
“Jump to your left.”
She leaped to her left even before she had a chance to view the massive room in front of her.
Two guards sliced toward her, electro blades in their hands. Even with her sophisticated cybernetic implants, if she got hit with those, she’d feel it. As in, feel it by losing an arm.
“Jump off the console to your left and start scaling the wall,” Veri demanded.
The power had been turned off in the room, and it had been dark, until now.
As she leaped, she could feel the circuits underneath the wall starting to switch on, and light escaped out in strips beneath her.
As the illumination reached the rest of the room, Andalusia had time to turn her head. And there, on a podium near the far wall was the last person she’d expected to see – Lady Veta.
While her guards were in simple gray, black, or white armor, she was in a massive dress made of silken white folds of fabric that practically swallowed her. Adorning her neck, visible even from here, were some of the most expensive jewels in the galaxy.
A whole contingent of Xantos Guards were lined up protectively in front of her.
Beside them, as if she could somehow make a difference, was a human woman.
As Andalusia twisted her head to the side, lining up another jump, she suddenly recognized who that was.
It was Senator Dalia.
“Do not become distracted. Continue to scale the wall. I have accessed this room’s security countermeasures. It is clearly a secret conference room, and fortunately for us, it has many security features. I have activated several impediment fields. No bullets will be able to reach you. That being said, the mech is on its way.”
As Andalusia tilted her head back toward the door, she could damn well hear it. The walls and floor were shaking.
Veri didn’t tell her she needed to move faster; she figured it out herself. Locking her gaze on the wall, she scaled it as fast as her aching muscles would allow.
The wall continued to shake.
Though the guards protecting Veta continued to fire their weapons, nothing got through. That didn’t stop them. She could see some of them had grenades, and they were prepping them. There was nothing they wouldn’t do to keep Veta safe. Just as once upon a time, there’d been nothing they wouldn’t do to keep Andalusia safe.
As Andalusia reached up, grabbing onto another hand-hold, she wondered what the guards would do if she revealed herself.
How long would it take them to recognize who she was?
All she would have to do was remove her stone armor, peel back the metal sheath, and hold up her arm. All she would have to do was command that mech to stop.
She’d be as good as dead.
The thought flitted away as quickly as it had occurred to her.
The only thing that would save her now was concentrating on her task.
“Continue—” Veri began. He stopped abruptly.
Terror had a second to pulse through her.
“Drop,” Veri blasted in her head. He didn’t give her the time to comply – he sent nerve pulses pushing through her arm and hand, taking control of it and releasing her grip.
The next thing she knew, she tumbled down 20 meters, striking the floor below with an unholy clang.
It was just in time. Suddenly a red-hot bolt of energy slammed into the wall precisely where she’d been.
As Andalusia picked herself up, she stared at it in horror. “What the hell was that?”
“Shielded sniper rifle.”
“But my forces don’t use those—”
“Calculating possibilities,” Veri snapped as he simultaneously sent nerve pulses into her legs, begging her to run.
She pushed off, keeping low, rolling to the side, trying to hide behind the seating in the auditorium until she could figure out what was hunting her.
“It would be an assassin,” Veri finally concluded.
“What? Somebody knows who I—”
“They’re not here for you. It would be the assassin sent after Dalia,” he concluded.
Her eyes widened, and she couldn’t stop herself from turning her head toward the podium.
After that unshielded blast, she could tell Veta’s guards were confused. Andalusia couldn’t see too many of their faces, as most of them were in armor, but it was all down to their crouched positions, their hunched shoulders, and they’re unsure grips on their guns.
“The assassin must be in this room. They must think you are going after Dalia.”
She didn’t need any further explanation. She understood how assassin pirate runners worked. Though completing the mission was integral, completing it before someone else was the most important part. If you saw competition on your tail, you got rid of them before they hit your mark.
“Roll, now,” Veri cried.
She complied, even if it meant her back bashed up hard against more metal seats. She could count her bruises and injuries once this was done.
Another red-hot blast of energy slammed into the seating beside her. It was so close, it caught the side of her unprotected left arm, and it singed it. That sent feedback into her gun, and several of the lines of energy that were circling around her palm started to buckle.
“What the hell do we do? Can you stop that unshielded gun?”
“No. Whoever has it has obviously programmed it specifically to be able to punch through the impediment field of this room. We are dealing with a professional,” he reminded her curtly.
Goddammit. First her Xantos Guards were after her, now an assassin had Andalusia in their sights.
Could anything else go wrong?
The answer was a resounding yes.
That mech finally caught up with her. The door into the room exploded open, and Andalusia watched that 40-foot mech push in.
Fortunately the room was large enough to accommodate it.
But that was where her fortunes ended.
“Veri, what the hell do we do?”
“We have to take down the assassin.”
“I have located them. They are in the maintenance tunnel directly above the central podium.”
“How the hell are we going to get there?”
“We aren’t. We’re going to steal a grenade.”
“That means getting on the podium. That mech is not going to be happy about that. Plus, some of those armor units protecting Veta are too sophisticated. I’m going to have to get close enough to touch them to shut them down.”
“Andalusia, you need to—”
He didn’t have time to finish.
That mech jumped. It damn well jumped, crossing 20 meters easily, landing so hard against the metal chairs, it obliterated them just as easily as a hammer pounding against an eggshell.
She was thrown back, and there was nothing she could do as she slammed against the wall, her head impacting it hard.
Her head started to ring, this dense pressure pushing through her.
She had to—
She started to slip into unconsciousness, but Veri had no intention of letting her fall.
“Roll to the side, to the left, toward the mech.”
The assassin blasted out another shot, but just before it could strike her, it was caught by the mech’s large leg.
Though each one of those unshielded red blasts had gouged massive holes through whatever they’d struck, this one barely even touched the mech. It was instantly absorbed by its energy barrier.
At least the shot got the mech’s attention.
And that? It provided Andalusia with an opportunity.
She knew there was no chance of her managing to get a grenade to kill that assassin.
There was one thing she could do.
She pushed to her feet, and she pointed toward the maintenance tunnel. “Dalia’s assassin is in there. His gun’s coded to the impediment field,” she spat the words out as fast as she could.
Maybe it was the wrong thing to do. Maybe it revealed she had too much information.
Then again, maybe it saved her life. The assassin squeezed off one more shot as it aimed between the mech’s legs. Just at the last moment, the mech shifted.
Maybe it recognized who she was, and the mech overrode its pilot’s commands, or maybe the pilot recognized there was a greater threat.
As the massive robot turned, it saved Andalusia, deflecting the blow.
The mech wasted no time in stepping forward, reaching out one of its large hands, and blasting a fist into the maintenance hole.
Metal hailed down, and amongst it, a glowing red sniper rifle.
The mech punched a hand into the ceiling again, following the maintenance duct deeper in, but the assassin had clearly turned tail and run or had transported right out of there.
Andalusia had time to take a breath.
Then reality caught up with her. She was standing in front of a Royal mech, and she would be its next target.
Sure enough, it swung toward her.
Her life blasted in front of her eyes.
And the mech?
It reached forward and grabbed her.
The end of A Princess Last. The next book in this seris is A Princess Found. You can pick it up today from most ebook retailers.