“Just shut up already. You are capable of that, right?” Commander Williams spat, his teeth bared. The perfect white enamel sat stark against the jet blue and black of his sleeveless uniform top. It hugged his strong form, but not as much as dusk did as the massive suns of Halifax Two set in the distance.
“What, don’t want any more surprises?” Celena asked, tone far from playful as she pressed her lips together, the flesh becoming as pale as Nubia milk. “Must’ve been a surprise for you, Williams, seeing me take on an entire Separator Unit like that.”
“I told you to stow it,” he growled, voice dipping down low, the strong, strident tone echoing out across the valley.
And what a valley it was. It dropped several kilometers down to a winding waterway that cut right through this breathtaking mountain range.
Across the river and up the other side of the range was their destination – a stationed emergency ship.
Williams was convinced they could reach it by morning. She wouldn’t hold her breath.
Any ship on this planet would’ve been plucked bare by roving pirates and mercenaries years ago.
“You know, these cuffs won’t hold me for much longer. What are you going to do when I break them?” She locked her brilliant, fiery gaze on him, the corners of her lips curling with grim satisfaction.
Maybe that was going slightly too far, because Williams yanked his head around, the strap of his scrounged pirate gun jostling over the torn shoulder of his Shan Imperial Star Forces uniform. A few pink and red scratches were visible beneath marking his shoulder cuff. And just to the side, slightly deeper wounds that still oozed whenever the idiot was dumb enough to make any sudden movements like he did now.
He took a jerked step toward her, the move snapped like a spring. “I’m not going to let you go. No matter what you do. You’re coming straight back to Imperial space with me. And there—”
She didn’t jerk her gaze away, despite the fact his was as fiery as the center of a star. She locked her teeth together, pulling her saliva-covered lips hard over them until the skin was crinkled like melted plastic. “You don’t actually know what happens then, do you? Care for me to explain?”
“I don’t want your complaints—”
“They’ll take me and lock me in one of the Terminator Stations. You wouldn’t have heard of those, because that’s way above your pay grade. You might have been a big shot back on Jeopardy Station, but you need to recognize one thing before you drag me back to hell.” Despite the fact she was still wearing cuffs on her wrists, she took a step toward him.
Williams stiffened, expecting an attack. But he didn’t shoot her. Just yet. His brown eyes – deep, large brown eyes that, before she’d known him, she would’ve described as soulful – ticked from left to right, assessing her every movement. “And what’s that?”
“They’ll use me to kill. That’s all the Emperor is interested in. It’s all he’s ever been interested in. Right now I have a conscience.” For the first time, her voice wavered with emotion. It split her tone, twisting her pitch until she sounded as if someone was strangling her. “But when they get me, they’ll strip it back.”
He didn’t react. Williams was always the consummate soldier. And any good soldier quickly learns in this complicated universe that the key to success is control. Your expression, your body language, your muscles, your fatigue, and yeah, your conscience.
He took a moment. A moment where she was sure he was dredging the depths of whatever counted for his conscience. His lips ticked back as his gaze flicked away. “Not my problem.”
If he hadn’t been too cowardly to stare at her as he said that, he would’ve picked up two tears glistening at the edges of her tear ducts. “Fine. I’ll make something else your problem.”
He began to turn away, but he twisted quickly, his regulation tactical boots crunching through the grass as he spun with poise and balance. Though the pirate gun he’d managed to scrounge was practically Stone-Age compared to the weapons he was used to as a Forces soldier, it still had basic functionality. It was coded into his neural link, and with nothing more than a twitch of his trigger finger, it would swing up from its strap using small thruster cells lodged in the shoulder mount, and it would lock into his grip.
All it would take was a second.
And a second was indeed all it took as he twitched that finger and the gun locked into his hands.
He leveled it right at her throat, right at the two glowing lines that ran down the front of her neck, deviated diagonally from her collarbone, then met up in the center of her chest. Lines that few in the galaxy would recognize.
As the cuffs degraded, they showed her for what she truly was.
An Ares’ Daughter.
The most coveted soldiers in the Emperor’s arsenal, they could, and often did, decide wars.
Celena had no fear for her life. Just as Williams’ grip on his gun was steady, so too was her gaze. “How long are you going to stand there staring at me down the barrel of a gun, Commander? We both know you’re not going to shoot.”
“Want to try me?” His body crunched low over the gun, his fingers settling over the trigger.
“Do you know the only thing the Emperor would consider worse than letting an Ares’ Daughter go?”
“You keep trying me, and I will pull this trigger.”
“The only thing worse than letting me go would be to kill me. The Emperor has been trying to get his hands on me for years.”
“You are not in control of the situation.” The dying light of dusk lit up the side of his face, running along his chiseled, hardened cheekbone and glinting off the top of his gun.
“You’re right.” Her shoulders slumped, bitter realization flooding in. She dropped her head, but only for half a second. Slowly, the muscles of her neck tightening like vices, she dragged her gaze up and locked it on him. “But you’re not in control, either. And that, Williams, is the point.”
Celena leaned against the wall, the soft flesh of her palm pressed against the cool metal as she considered her creation.
It was a map.
One she would use to get out of here. When the time came.
She lived on the top level of Accommodation Block Alpha Two, and unlike most of her neighbors, she had a balcony. They were mostly enlisted soldiers and officers in the Forces Army. Celena most definitely was not.
The glass door was open to the balcony, letting in a marching, sharp breeze that whipped around the room.
Though she had a weather-control system lodged in the wall next to the front door, she rarely used it.
She liked it when the wind howled and screamed in through the open door. It reminded her just how brutal the real universe was beyond the comforts and luxuries of Jeopardy Station.
Half closing her eyes as she concentrated on a singular point in space, Celena let her gaze slide toward the view.
She could see the ocean below – a slice of glittering blue glory along the horizon line. Rising through it at even intervals were the towers and floating spires of the station.
The station – despite its name – was technically a planet. Albeit an artificially created one.
It had been crafted in the Central Arena – an area of space that spanned an entire spire of the Milky Way. There, the Shan Empire sat – the ultimate rulers of most of the known universe.
Few got to visit the Central Arena.
She hadn’t been a visitor.
“Concentrate,” she spat, using the exact urgent tone her teacher had used on her years ago.
It focused her.
She brought up the small, variable drill clutched in her left hand and let it hover over the wall.
She drew a circle, her measurements perfect, despite the fact she hadn’t calibrated the tool to help her.
When it came to circles, for Celena, they were instinctual.
Another blast of wind made it in through the open door, ricocheting around the room like shots from a sound-wave gun.
They caught her shoulder-length purple hair and whipped it around her sharp eyes.
She didn’t blink, even as a few strands sliced over her nose.
She paused, then drew another circle.
“There. That ought to do it for today.” She took a step back from the wall, letting the drill piece drop to her side, her thumb sliding over the control button and turning the device off.
Few would allow a variable drill to hang precariously close to their leg.
Few were like Celena.
She’d always led a life of calculated risk.
Settling a breath deep in her chest, she took one more step back and tilted her head to the side.
Her room was nonstandard, much larger than most.
She didn’t care about the reading nook she had beside her balcony, the one where, if you sat right, you could see the Central Command Tower splitting up to the sky in the middle of the city, a testament to power and the Shan Empire’s technological prowess.
She didn’t care that she had a comfortable bed off to one side – one with a real gel-vara mattress that controlled body heat and assisted in healing throughout one’s nightly rest routine. While most of the grunts who lived in the rooms around her had to put up with pods in the wall and no balconies, she had money.
And money set you apart, even at Jeopardy Station.
The money wasn’t even hers – she’d stolen everything she owned, for everything she’d ever owned had once been stolen from her.
Not the point.
She’d bought this apartment for one sole purpose.
It had a lot of wall.
Still considering her map, she nodded once then turned.
She dumped her drill on the table by the door.
She had to get to work.
She walked out, the door closing behind her as her hair fanned around her, the wind managing one last howl before it cut out.
The sound of the wind might have cut out, but Celena’s life had taught her one unavoidable lesson – even if an enemy goes quiet, that doesn’t mean they’re gone.
“You’ve got to be excited, sir. With a birthday tomorrow and a hot date with a Shan representative, things are looking up.”
Williams looked to the side, eyebrow sliding up as he considered his second-in-command and arguably best friend, Jeff Towers. At six-foot-one, he sat just an inch under Williams, but made up for it with a bulkier form fitted to his combat class of Carrier. Carriers were exactly what they sounded like – units who accompanied the more agile, elite commandos into battle, be it space or planetary, with equipment and ammo bolts.
“When were things looking down?” Williams smiled. Maybe it was arrogant – okay, it was arrogant – but for the first time in his life things were on solid ground, and Williams wanted to celebrate it. While he could.
He’d received some worrying news this morning about skirmishes in the Central Divide. He had friends stationed there, including his mentor, Captain Bentley, so he kept an eye on that region of space.
Plus, it was the canary in the coal mine, if you didn’t mind an old Human phrase.
When things kicked up along the Central Divide, it was always an indication that all was not well with the Empire.
Williams’ lips ticked down into a half-frown as he thought about it. Then the last thing he wanted to see caught his eye.
“What’s with the sour expression?” Jeff leaned in, his brow crumpled.
Jeff got his answer as he twisted around and saw the exact same sight that was curdling Williams’ stomach.
No last name, just Celena. She was technically human, and as per human tradition, she should have at least two names, but Celena was an oddity in every respect. Someone who seemed to go out of their way to do two things – skive off society and irritate the hell out of him.
She was walking out of one of the main pillar lifts in the middle of the circular promenade. The bank of lifts had about 20 different units, each operating nearly continuously as traffic came and went from the upper levels.
And yet, out of the sea of civilians and army personnel coming and going, Williams’ eyes locked on her with all the magnetic power of targeted ionic blasts.
She was wearing the exact same thing she always wore – a simple white tunic with blue and gold accents around the hems, and sturdy boots. The tunic was nice – expensive, much more than he’d ever be able to afford. But the boots?
“Why does she always wear tactical boots?” Jeff snorted derisively, barely keeping his tone controlled, presumably thinking the noisy promenade would stop his voice from carrying.
Celena walked in the other direction, not before making brief, direct eye contact.
She’d heard the slight, then?
“They’re not tactical boots,” Williams eventually answered, letting his gaze flick expertly over the black, heavy-soled shoes.
“So they’re just for show? Figures. Doubt she’s worked a day in her life.”
Williams didn’t reply. He recognized that brand of boots. You didn’t buy them at the eye-wateringly-expensive boutiques on the upper levels of Jeopardy Station. You bought them out on colony worlds, on mining planets, at places where you had to scrounge to get by. Sure, they didn’t have the add-ons you would expect from an Imperial pair of tactical boots, but what they lacked in sophistication, they made up for in one simple thing – sturdiness. The rest of your armor could fall apart, your life could crumble, you could run out of your last Central Credit, but those boots would stay on your feet until the day you died.
… Question was, what was Celena doing in them?
“Ah, let’s just ignore her. We’ve got a party to plan. Should be the best of the year. It will rival the soirées they put on in the penthouse apartments.” Jeff grinned as he made that barefaced lie.
Williams didn’t bother to snort. Sure, his party tomorrow would be big, and some important people would be there, befitting the fact that Williams had managed to climb the ladder of promotion only several months ago. But no, it wouldn’t rival the parties of the upper levels. Williams would never be that important.
“… Sir?” Jeff tried.
Despite his second-in-command’s protestations, Jeff did not tear his gaze off Celena.
There was something about the woman. There’d been something about the woman the day he’d met her and she’d ordered him around like a bellboy, despite the fact he’d been a newly promoted lieutenant commander and his insignia had been glowing like a damn star on his breast.
She was arrogant. She was rich.
More than anything? She was a mystery.
Before he knew what he was doing, he pushed off, his tactical boots ringing as they contacted with the smooth, polished white metal surface of the promenade floor.
He shifted through the crowd seamlessly. Williams had always had fine control of his body – it had been what had set him apart. He didn’t have noble birth, and unlike a lot of the other commissioned officers he’d worked with over the years, he’d earned his command.
Every battle. Every success.
“Sir?” Jeff asked, a note of defeated frustration ringing in his tone. It was the voice you would use on someone who wouldn’t let something go no matter how many times you’d tried to convince them it was useless.
Williams didn’t bother to answer as he shifted lithely past a seven-foot-tall Maraxi Warrior. He kept his eyes on Celena. She reached the large central stairs that swept up to the mezzanine level above the promenade.
Though Williams had a one-track mind when it came to Celena, at least he could admit that just like himself, she knew how to use her body.
As a Station Security unit walked down the steps, she shifted in between them like a minnow darting between a school of fish.
Williams wasn’t so lucky.
He knew most of these men.
“Looking forward to the party tomorrow, sir,” one said with a grin.
Another slapped him on his back as he strode up the steps purposefully. “It will be the highlight of the year.”
Every time Williams was forced to stop and engage in platitudes, Celena got further away.
She walked with direction. From the movement of her lithe but strong legs, you could tell she wasn’t aimlessly strolling like a lot of the other tourists and rich folk.
Either Jeff had given up, or he wasn’t having the same luck pushing through the crowd.
Williams finally negotiated the security unit and breached the top of the stairs.
For a second, he lost her in the crowd, then picked up her signature messy, shoulder-length purple hair.
The hair was another reason it had been hate-at-first-sight when it came to Celena. He was a traditionalist. Yeah, a plethora of gene-altering technology existed, and if you were cashed-up enough, you could change everything from your eye color, to your hair, to your body physique. He didn’t see the point. Appearances had only ever been skin-deep to him.
If Williams were being rational and weren’t currently caught up with his twisted feelings for Celena, he might point out that tomorrow, he had a date planned with arguably the most beautiful woman on the station. And yes, he could bet she’d had alterations.
Not the point.
Like he’d said before – with Celena, it was different.
Because with Celena, he couldn’t shake the impression there was something to hate.
Locking onto that trace of purple hair through the crowd, he followed it, using his superior height to track her until she reached one of the hallways that led off the mezzanine level and cut through to another tower that joined this one.
The walkway was more than wide enough and filled with stalls and stores that he didn’t stick out in the crowd.
You wouldn’t think you’d get common merchants at Jeopardy Station, and you didn’t on the upper levels, but the further you got away from the central tower, the more tourists and travelers hawked their goods.
Robed merchants walked deftly among the thick crowd, selling strings of the most luminescent gemstones you could imagine or bottles of perfume crafted from some of the rarest flowers in the galaxy.
They sold tickets, too, transport crew walking around with glowing holographic signs above their heads detailing their ships, the vessel’s class, and the types of rooms still open for booking.
Celena avoided every single merchant, even the truly insistent ones.
She was deft on her feet, walking to the side, ducking, shifting behind groups of people so the hawkers would stop them instead.
Williams wasn’t so lucky. A cargo captain almost barreled right into him, the guy’s old face touched here and there with Unitech engine grease. “Couples transports. Best on Jeopardy Station. One ship, one day, and one experience she’ll never forget.”
“75 percent off.”
“Still no.” He craned his neck to the left, pushing onto the tips of his toes.
Dammit, he’d lost her.
“You’re killing me, but 76 percent off.”
“That’s a hard no. No time for romance.”
“You’re Commander Williams. That’s not what I’ve heard.”
Really? Had news of his date spread to random transport captains in the lower decks?
“Look, I really can’t talk – I’m on duty at the moment.”
That was a lie. Or was it?
Something about tracking Celena down felt like the most important work he’d done in weeks.
He shoved past the captain, practically barreling through two merchants who were selling potentially dodgy Carmine crystals. He could report them later.
He made it to the end of the corridor, tilted his head up, and attempted to find Celena on the huge set of stairs that led up to the level above.
He scanned the terrain quickly. Not, of course, that it was terrain, but like he’d said – this felt like work.
Before he could take a step up the stairs and hope to find her on the much more expensive boutique level above, the back of his neck itched, and he ticked his head to the left.
There, he caught just a hint of purple disappearing into the gardens.
He’d never picked Celena as someone who liked nature, and even if she did, the level II gardens were not where you’d go to get it. It was a couple’s area. With the curated, manicured plant life from all around the galaxy, it was somewhere you went to be with someone else, and Celena?
He imagined with a personality like hers she’d been alone her entire life.
That brought a twisted sense of satisfaction to Williams, and his lips curled.
He pushed into the gardens, gaze scanning over the perpetually running creek that babbled down the center of the area, dividing the garden in half.
He saw a lot of couples, but—
“There you are,” his voice ticked up with satisfaction as he watched Celena walk right past some of the most breathtaking flowers in the galaxy, head up a small set of stairs, and walk directly into a maintenance section. His body tingled with satisfaction as he wondered if he was about to finally catch her up to no good.
He made a beeline for her, ignoring some of the other officers and crew he ran into, even when they asked if he was doing research for tomorrow night.
He wouldn’t take his date here. Malenquai preferred peace and quiet. And stunning views. He already had the perfect place – the viewing platform off the left side of the central tower. On one side, it looked out onto the crystal-clear ocean, and on the other, down into the city, through lines of hover traffic and up into the glory of the high towers.
His heart didn’t speed up as he thought of tomorrow night – he was too focused.
He reached the top of the stairs and walked into Maintenance Section 2BA.
His hand pumped in, his fingers curling into a fist as he waited to see—
Celena wasn’t messing with any of the hydraulic equipment and atmosphere controls that ran the gardens.
She was sitting with her legs pressed between the rails, her head rested to the side as she looked out over the gardens and into the merchant corridors beyond.
She almost looked peaceful.
Apart from one fact. Her shoulders were hunched, her back rounded a centimeter or two.
Which is precisely what happened to his back as he realized she was fully aware of him.
She cleared her throat. “What have you imagined I’ve done this time, Commander? Destroyed the galaxy? Started a universal war? Or just irritated you in some inconceivable way?” Slowly, with her face still pressed against the rail, she turned and locked one eye on him.
Her eyes were dull.
He wasn’t being particularly cruel; it was just a feature that always got to him. It sounded weird, but he got the strangest impression that someone had deliberately turned the light down in them.
His hackles rose as he finally forced himself to pay attention to what she’d actually said. “You shouldn’t be in a maintenance section.”
She paused then snorted softly. “The maintenance section is two meters that way.” She jammed her thumb over her shoulder.
Sure enough, there was a red, perpetually glowing line that ran across the metal floor, indicating the point which civilians could not cross.
Williams’ hands dropped to his sides, and he slowly curled them into fists. “You’re still too close to it.”
She chuckled. There was something dry about it. Something that suggested Celena had always found Williams amusing.
Just made his hackles rise all the higher. His fingers crunched in until his nails dragged against his palms. “It isn’t recommended to insult an officer of the Forces Army.”
She still kept only half her face directed at him, her cheek always pressed against the railing as if she was so bored by him, she had to prop herself up. “Gosh, what a threat. You done? I want to get back to what I was doing.”
“Staring uselessly into space?”
“Yeah, staring uselessly into space.” She turned, clutching both hands on the railing as she pressed her face between it, her messy hair obscuring her features.
Williams continued to stand there. He hadn’t come this far, tracking her through the crowd until he’d lost Jeff, just to back down now. “By sitting there, you are potentially interfering with the operations of the station. As an officer in the Forces Army, I’m requesting that you move.”
“Don’t you have anyone else to bother? Or, I don’t know, a job to do?” Her voice dripped with spite on the word job.
The exact tone it reached made Williams’ skin crawl.
That right there – the derision, the snide superiority ringing through her haughty tone – was exactly why she irritated him so much.
“I’ll have you know, I’m a decorated officer—”
“Then go officiate somewhere else. Don’t you have a party to plan? Talk of the station. Everyone’s going to be there. That’s a lot of people to impress. So go bake canapés and brush up on your table manners.”
“At least I have friends,” he said.
… Yeah, he’d actually said that. It was something a seven-year-old would point out in the playground. He was an adult.
He opened his mouth, ready to continue the fight, but somebody accessed him on his neural link.
He felt a vibration pulse through his jaw. It stilled him to the spot and focused his senses as he heard a disembodied voice echoing in his ear. “Commander Williams, you are requested to come to the Security Division Central Offices. There is a matter for you to attend to,” an automated voice rang in his mind.
“Received,” he said out loud, the communication instantly ending.
“See? There is real work for you to go do. So do it and leave me alone,” Celena wouldn’t turn to him as she spoke, her hands tightening around the rails.
He paused. That was a priority communication he’d just received. He needed to hightail it to the closest transport point. Now.
Celena didn’t turn to him again. She sat slumped, her hands the only strong things about her as she stared out over the gardens.
… His better judgment won out, and he walked away.
It wasn’t until he’d walked a good ten meters that he picked up the slight rustle of Celena’s tunic and heard her turn to stare at him.
He paused on the top of the stairs and turned to her.
They made eye contact.
He turned away; she turned back to the view.
Maybe he hadn’t caught her out on any charges today, but the day would come.
Mark his words – because Williams never got it wrong.
As the always irritating Williams walked away, she stretched her right hand open in her lap. With her eyes locked on a section of ceiling right above her, Celena pressed her finger into her palm and started to trace circles.
Small circles, big circles, quick and slow.
She was building a map.
One only she could navigate, for Celena was an Ares’ Daughter. And the time was rapidly coming for her to fight once more.