Acclaimed author Jessie Mihalik returns with an exciting new novel about a rainbow-haired female bounty hunter tasked with preventing an interstellar war.
Kee Ildez has been many things: hacker, soldier, bounty hunter. She never expected to be a hero, but when a shadowy group of traitors starts trying to goad the galaxy’s two superpowers into instigating an interstellar war, Kee throws herself into the search to find out who is responsible—and stop them.
Digging up hidden information is her job, so hunting traitors should be a piece of cake, but the primary suspect spent years in the military, and someone powerful is still covering his tracks. Disrupting their plans will require the help of her entire team, including Varro Runkow, a Valovian weapons expert who makes her pulse race.
Quiet, grumpy, and incredibly handsome, Varro watches her with hot eyes but ignores all of her flirting, so Kee silently vows to keep her feelings strictly platonic. But that vow will be put to the test when she and Varro are forced to leave the safety of their ship and venture into enemy territory alone.
Cut off from the rest of their team, they must figure out how to work together—and fast—because a single misstep will cost thousands of lives.
I settled into my usual spot at the galley table with a gently steaming cup of hot chocolate. The rare treat wasn’t enough to break me out of the slump I was in, so I set a timer on my comm and gave myself five solid minutes to brood.
It was often difficult to find time alone in the common areas on a smaller ship like Starlight’s Shadow, especially with eight people aboard now, but it was mid-morning, and the galley was blessedly empty. The large space had seating for twenty around two big tables, and a long bar separated the dining area from the food prep area.
I had just worked up a really terrific moody stare when Tavi swept into the room. The captain’s golden-tan skin was flushed with color, and she’d pulled her long, curly hair up into a messy bun on top of her head. I didn’t know how Octavia Zarola managed to be effortlessly beautiful even when she looked like she’d just rolled out of her bunk far later than usual, but her satisfied smile and glowing joy certainly helped.
At least one of us had had a fun night.READ MORE
In truth, I was delighted that Tavi had found happiness with Torran Fletcher, the former Valovian general who’d lured us into Valovian space with the promise of a lucrative job. Tavi’s hard shell hid a soft heart, and if Torran had broken it, I would’ve broken him. Everyone underestimated me because I was petite and delicate-looking, with my rainbow hair and sunny smile, but I hadn’t survived the war without learning a few tricks.
Not that they would’ve done me much good against a Valovian telekinetic, but I would’ve tried it anyway.
Luna chirruped a greeting from her place on Tavi’s shoulder. The small, fluffy white burbu was part pet, part mascot, and all imperiousness. She rode around on our shoulders often enough that Tavi had fashioned padded shoulder guards for everyone in the crew to keep the burbu’s sharp claws out of our skin.
Luna jumped down and headed straight for her food bowl. A wave of longing pierced me when she found the bowl empty. The small animal, native to Valovian space, was mildly telepathic, much like the Valoffs themselves.
Tavi ignored Luna’s theatrics and stopped to peer at me. “Kee, why are you scowling at the table?”
“I’m brooding,” I explained. Unfortunately, brooding was a lot more difficult with an audience, especially one as cute as Luna. I didn’t know how the Valoffs constantly managed it. Must be genetic—Resting Brooding Face.
Tavi’s lips twitched. She managed to keep her expression serious as she asked, “Is it helping?”
“I don’t know.” I checked my comm. “I have two minutes left.”
This time, Tavi couldn’t quite suppress her grin. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
I gave up on the useless brooding with a sigh. Tavi was one of my closest friends, the sister of my heart if not my blood. “Not really,” I said. “I just had a long night, and I still haven’t found anything useful.”
I did not tell her that during the short amount of sleep I’d gotten, my dreams had been filled with a certain Valovian weapons expert. Varro Runkow had ignored all of my subtle attempts at flirting—and the not-so-subtle attempts, too. After weeks of trying, I’d taken the hint and settled into a teasing friendship with him, but my subconscious still hadn’t gotten the memo.
Neither had my neglected libido. I’d wanted Varro from the moment I’d laid eyes on him, and that instant, fierce attraction had only grown into deeper affection the more I’d gotten to know him. Getting over it was proving harder than I’d like.
Tavi rarely missed anything. Her assessing gaze flickered over me and the hot chocolate that I usually hoarded like a dragon. She waited, expression open, but when I didn’t take her silent offer to talk, she nodded once and changed the subject. “Still no sign of Morten?”
I shook my head. A little over a month ago, Commodore Frank Morten had kidnapped the young heir to the Valovian Empire. We’d rescued the kid—just—but we still didn’t know what Morten’s endgame was. A representative for the Federated Human Planets, commonly called the FHP or Fed, had denied that Morten was still part of the military, but the Valovian Empire wasn’t buying it.
And neither was I.
If Morten wasn’t stopped, he’d push the FHP and the Valovian Empire back into war, but none of us knew why.
What did he gain from a war that would kill thousands, if not millions?
The question had plagued me for weeks. I’d chased down lead after lead, only to run into nothing but dead ends and more questions. The team counted on me for information, and right now there was precious little. Eventually, Morten would slip up, and I would catch him, but I wished the whole process were faster.
Luna had no time for the problems of people. She chirruped demandingly and sent us a telepathic picture of a little Valovian creature that looked something like a rabbit—her idea of food. Tavi tsked at Luna’s impatience, but she still went to feed her.
I grinned at the two of them. Tavi liked to pretend that her heart wasn’t made of marshmallow fluff, but anyone who watched her around Luna would figure out the truth in no time flat.
After the burbu was fed, Tavi poured herself a cup of coffee. She took a sip, then leaned against the bar and returned to the conversation with a sigh. “Do you think Morten’s still on Valovia? Should we head back to Valovian space?”
“No,” a hard male voice answered from the doorway. My eyes were drawn to the sound despite the fact that I knew exactly who I’d find. Varro stepped into the room in dark pants and a deep blue shirt that emphasized his tan skin and short, curly, dark blond hair. It also emphasized the hard expanse of his chest and his muscular arms.
Not that I noticed.
Varro had been in the gym when I’d checked on him earlier. I wasn’t avoiding him, but after my tumultuous dreams, I’d decided to keep my distance for a bit until I could be a good friend again—and nothing else.
But Varro had a habit of silently appearing wherever I was, even when I expected him to be elsewhere.
I dipped my head in greeting and his gaze swept over my face. His mouth turned down in apparent distaste as he caught sight of the deep shadows marring the pale skin under my eyes. Unlike Tavi, my skin tended toward pasty when I spent too much time in space. I looked washed out on the best of days, and today wasn’t exactly that.
I knew he wasn’t for me, but that look still stung. It wasn’t my fault that I hadn’t slept well. He should go grump at someone else.
Except I liked it when he was around, even if he spent the time scowling at me.
I was hopeless.
I redirected my thoughts to the question at hand and asked, “Why shouldn’t we head into Valovian space?” I wasn’t eager to return to Valovia, but it was looking more and more likely that we’d have to.
We’d spent the last month patrolling between Bastion, the last space station in Fed territory, and the wormhole that would spit us out in the Valovian Empire. Staying close to Bastion meant that our information connection stayed fast, but the station itself was too expensive to dock on for longer than the time needed to restock food and supplies.
“The empress has a long memory,” Varro said. He looked at Tavi. “You rescued her grandson, but you also embarrassed her. She will not appreciate your return, and it’s possible she rescinded your bounty because she hopes you will try it.”
“Torran said the same thing,” Tavi agreed with a sigh. “We should save returning to Valovia as a last resort.” She glanced between the two of us, then lifted her coffee cup in farewell. “Keep me posted,” she said as she slid from the room.
I sipped my hot chocolate and waited for the questioning to begin. But Varro wasn’t so easily understood. He moved toward the food prep area. “I’m going to make a snack. May I make you something, too?”
The simple question shouldn’t have made me feel like crying, but my emotions were all over the place today. I summoned a smile and tried my best to make it real. “That depends… is it going to be full of protein powder?”
He shot me a dark look. “Protein is good for you.”
“Maybe, but it’s not good for my tastebuds.”
He muttered something in Valovan too low for me to catch. The ache in my chest deepened as he moved around the food prep area with ease. He always took care of the people around him, both human and Valoff. At first, I’d foolishly thought he was singling me out for special treatment, but I’d seen it time and again, the quiet, steady way he helped everyone on board.
He might scowl and grumble, but he wasn’t fooling me.
And it wasn’t his fault that I wished for more. No, that was entirely on me. Perhaps I needed some time away. The thought hurt, for a myriad of reasons, but after our last job, I had enough money saved up for a stay on Bastion, and I needed a better source of information anyway.
The FHP base on the space station would be an excellent place to start. I could track down Morten, take some time to get my head on right, and then rejoin the team for the final hunt.
The longer I thought about it, the more it made sense.
Tavi wouldn’t like it, but she would understand. She wanted Morten found just as badly as I did. The asshole had paraded her around as the Hero of Rodeni for months, despite the fact that he’d left our squad to die on the battlefield. She’d done it, because it was the only way the FHP would let us go.
I knew she still had nightmares about it.
We were due to restock at Bastion in a few days. I could stay on the station until Starlight came back for the next resupply stop in three weeks. While I was there, I would have direct access to the encrypted FHP communication links. If I happened to stumble across the keys, well, no one would blame me for poking around a bit.
The tentative decision lifted some of the restless turmoil I’d been feeling. When Varro set a vibrant blue smoothie in front of me, my smile was easy and real. “Thank you.”
He nodded, then watched me from the corner of his eye until I took a sip.
The fruit—mostly frozen blueberries—masked the taste of the protein powder he’d added. I didn’t eat meat, and despite the fact that there were plenty of vegetarian options for protein, Varro grumbled that I didn’t get enough. I didn’t take it personally because Tavi had worried, too, until she’d gotten used to cooking vegetarian.
“It’s delicious,” I said. “Thank you.”
Varro dipped his head in acknowledgment. He poured the rest of the mixture into a glass for himself, then joined me at the table. My traitorous heart quivered. Varro Runkow looked like he was built for battle. He was the most muscular of the Valoffs who had joined us, and while he wasn’t objectively handsome—his face was too broad, his features too rough—he was everything I’d ever wanted.
Next to him, I felt dainty and delicate and protected. Storms would break upon his back without ever touching whoever was lucky enough to be sheltered in his arms.
But Varro’s eyes were my favorite feature. Deep, tawny brown with streaks of brown-black, they seemed to change with his emotions. The darker streaks widened, and Varro frowned at me.
I dropped my gaze to the table. Usually by now, I’d be chattering at him about my latest obsession, whether it was the newest vid drama I’d pulled from the network or the data I had uncovered while digging for Morten, but with my dreams still haunting me, I was having trouble finding normal.
Eli sauntered in, saving me from having to explain my unusual behavior. His deep brown skin still glistened from his workout, and when he caught sight of Varro sitting across from me, his grin turned teasing. “Ah, there you are. I wondered where you’d vanished to.”
Elias Bruck was the older brother I’d never had. He, Lexi, and I had survived the war thanks to Tavi. Afterward, we’d started hunting bounties as a group. Lexi had since moved on to do her own thing, but Eli, Tavi, and I had stuck together. Eli was our muscle, though most people were so entranced by his gorgeous face that they failed to notice said muscle until it was too late.
Behind Varro’s back, Eli tilted his head in question. “Are you okay?” he asked me over our subvocal comm connection.
I rubbed my cheek self-consciously. How bad did I look? “Rough night,” I responded in the same manner.
Varro had to know that Eli and I were communicating, but he didn’t interrupt. Valoffs tended to be tolerant of simultaneous private conversations because they could all communicate telepathically—one of the skills that had given them a lethal edge during the war.
Luna chirped a greeting at Eli, and his attention transferred to her. “I’m not feeding you more, you little monster,” he said, his voice soft with affection. “You still have food in your bowl.”
We all spoiled the adorable burbu, and Eli was just as susceptible to her big violet eyes as the rest of us. With the extra Valoffs on board, Tavi had finally had to set up a treat schedule just so we didn’t overfeed her.
I finished my smoothie, then rose and snagged Varro’s empty glass before he could stop me. Everyone had duties on the ship, and generally, if you cooked, you didn’t have to clean. Varro often tried to do both.
I washed the glasses while Eli puttered around behind me, making himself an early lunch. The familiar routine settled my nerves. Tavi and Eli had been my anchors for nearly a decade, and I would miss them terribly.
But staying on Bastion for a few weeks would give me more time to devote to finding Morten as well as giving me space to sort out my feelings for Varro. It was exactly what I needed.
Decision made, I just had to figure out how to break the news to Tavi in a way that would prevent her from worrying about me. I shook my head with a grin. It was an impossible task.
I took the coward’s way out and decided that I should get my work done for the day before I talked to Tavi, so after breakfast, I returned to the engineering control room, a fancy name for the utility closet I’d converted into my personal workspace. Before Anja, our new mechanic, had joined our team, I’d been responsible for keeping the ship running.
I was no mechanic, but I did know my way around the ship’s electronics. Finding my way into the networked components, figuring out how they worked, and optimizing them for greatest efficiency was something that brought me an immense amount of satisfaction. Starlight’s Shadow was Tavi’s ship, but she’d given me complete control over the systems that kept us alive and moving.
I checked the quartet of monitoring screens as I slid into my chair. The ship would send an immediate alert if anything went wrong, but seeing it on the screen was a comfort that I refused to give up. With a single glance, I could confirm that every element was within spec.
And that the searches I’d left running for news of Morten had not returned any new results overnight.
Tavi and the rest of the crew depended on my ability to unearth information about our targets, and I was letting everyone down. My main job was to find the data Tavi needed in order to plan, and right now, I couldn’t even do that right.
I’d been breaking my way into restricted networks since I was old enough to know what a network was. Both of my parents were engineers, and they’d encouraged my interest in technology and skepticism of authority. They’d also helped me cover my tracks more than once when my ambition had gotten ahead of my skill.
I’d joined the military straight out of school because my family couldn’t afford the fee to avoid mandatory service, and I’d fudged my aptitude scores so none of the conglomerates would be interested enough to offer an indentureship.
Unfortunately, my dismal aptitude scores meant I was put in a front-line unit rather than a tech unit. I wasn’t wired to be a good soldier—or even a mediocre soldier—but the FHP had tried their best to grind me into submission. They might have succeeded had Tavi not accepted my transfer into her squad. I owed her everything, and the least I could do in return was find the Lady-damned information she needed.
In my years of tracking people down, I’d never had someone elude me for so long. I was starting to suspect that Morten had people high up in the FHP covering his tracks. Or maybe someone in the Valovian Empire.
The fact that I didn’t know which was its own annoyance.
But it wasn’t all bad news. The rumors of a big event on Bastion that I’d been seeing for the past couple of weeks had finally solidified. There must’ve been a news embargo date, because now there was a flood of information from a variety of reputable sources.
The reports indicated that the space station would be hosting a high-end fashion exhibition at the end of the week—a first-of-its-kind collaboration between human and Valovian designers that merged fashion and technology. Several very important people, both human and Valoff, had either arrived early or indicated they were on their way.
Bastion wasn’t exactly the epicenter of haute couture, so the exhibition was likely a cover for a more interesting meeting. Perhaps the FHP and the Valovian Empire were renegotiating the peace treaty. Or maybe they were trading threats. Whatever the reason, I wanted to be there to see what sort of data I could dig up, especially with so many Valoffs on the station.
The timing firmed up my intent to stay on Bastion after we docked for supplies. I’d still have to explain my reasons to Tavi—all of them—or she’d send Varro with me as backup. But information recon was something I needed no help for. If I planned it right, I could sift through the data from the safety of my bunk.
I started looking for a room that had the best network access but also wouldn’t break the bank. I lost myself in the data until my comm buzzed to remind me that I was scheduled to help Anja down in maintenance this afternoon. It took two more alarms to pull my attention away, which was why I always set multiple. It was a pain, but it kept me on track.
I stood up before shutting off the third alarm. If I didn’t, I would get sucked back into the search. I headed down to the maintenance level before that happened.
The deeper I delved into the narrow access corridors, the higher the temperature rose. When I found Anja, her short, black curls were matted to her head and sweat beaded on her light brown skin. She’d removed her shirt and worked only in her sports bra and pants, both of which were soaked through.
She’d warned me the temperature would be high today, but I’d forgotten. At least my short-sleeve shirt and long pants were lightweight and breathable.
Anja Harbon had joined our team a little over a month ago, but she’d slid into place so seamlessly that it felt like she’d been with us much longer. She was tall and fit, with defined muscles in her stomach that I would dearly love, but not enough to actually work for them.
She was gorgeous, and if I hadn’t laid eyes on Varro and immediately thought Mine!, I would’ve flirted with her as boldly as Eli did.
Anja swiped an arm across her brow and gave me a tired grin. “Sorry about the temperature. I had to close this section off to work on the scrubber and it’s miserable.”
I waved her off. “I made you spend hours wedged under a terminal that was apparently built for teeny tiny children in order to upgrade the processing unit. We’ll call it even.”
She grimaced. “It’s going to be that bad again, unfortunately. The part that needs replacing is a flow control valve at the very edge of the access hatch and it needs two sets of hands. But this is the last one, so hopefully we won’t have to do this for another decade or so.”
I peered in the open panel and spotted the flow valve marked with orange chalk. Thanks to my slighter frame, there was just enough space for me to crawl in and brace it while Anja worked. “You’re lucky I’m not any taller,” I grumbled good-naturedly. “And that I like you.”
“I’ll make you a dozen of your favorite cookies,” she promised.
I grinned at her. “You should’ve led with that. Pull me out if I get stuck.”
Anja had the kind of calm steadiness that soothed my constant need to go and do and perform. She reminded me a lot of Tavi in that way. Even when the flow valve slipped and smashed her finger, she just cursed once, emphatically, and kept working.
By the time we got the new valve installed and tested, I’d been crammed in the crawl space for nearly three hours. I was made of sweat and sore muscles, but we’d upgraded an integral piece of the ship’s life support system, so the pain was worth it. And now I could spend the evening sitting on the couch, binging my newest vid series without any guilt.
Assuming I could get out of this damned hole.
My legs were asleep from where Anja had leaned against them, and my spine felt welded to the deck at an awkward angle. When I didn’t move after Anja had worked herself out of the uncomfortably close space, she poked her head back in. “You okay?”
I waved a tired arm. “I live here now. I’ve become one with the crawl space. You can just deliver my cookies here.”
She grinned. “I’m pretty sure the crew wouldn’t appreciate me letting you slowly roast to death, so out you come. Give me your hand and I’ll help you.”
With Anja’s assistance, I managed to wiggle my way out. We tidied up the work area, then both headed up to the main deck to clean up before dinner.
After a shower and a change of clothes, I felt more like a human, albeit a tired one. By the time I made it to the galley, Tavi was just finishing cooking and the rest of the crew had gathered.
We’d found early on that the ship ran better if Tavi cooked dinner while Eli and I took turns cleaning up. Eli and I could cook, but neither of us had the same passion for it that Tavi did. That tradition had carried over after the Valoffs had joined us, though these days Torran often either helped or cooked the evening meal himself.
Communal dinners built camaraderie, something we’d needed a lot of as the two crews had gotten used to each other, but now it was just a nice excuse to get everyone together once a day to hang out and chat.
My thoughts drifted, as they often did, to Varro. I sat across from him at dinner, and I adored being the center of his focus, right up until I remembered that he was just being friendly, and he treated everyone the same. Then I felt guilty for wanting more.
It was a vicious spiral, and it only firmed my resolve that I needed some time away. Pining for someone who wasn’t interested was not a productive use of my time, but I couldn’t seem to stop. Tavi would understand, just as soon as I gathered the courage to tell her—not that I held much hope that she hadn’t already figured it out.
But pride was a funny thing, and I had more than my fair share.
As if summoned by my thoughts, Varro appeared at my side and handed me a tall glass of icy water with an irritated grunt.
“Thank you,” I said, then greedily gulped down the cold liquid. I was parched after spending the afternoon in maintenance, but I had no idea how he always knew what I needed. It was impressive and infuriating in turns.
Varro had impeccable manners, so I wasn’t surprised when he grumbled, “You’re welcome.”
We lapsed into a silence that I was too tired to fill. A glance around proved that Anja had gotten ready faster than me, and she was deep in conversation with Eli, Havil, and Chira.
Chira Pelek, the Valovian first officer, had pale skin and natural silvery-white hair that made her the most distinctive looking of the Valoffs who had joined our crew. She was beautiful, with a sharp mind and a backbone of steel. Next to her, Havil Wutra, the Valovian medic, had deep brown skin and a kind face framed by straight black hair.
The four of them—Eli, Anja, Chira, and Havil—flirted shamelessly with each other. Well, Eli flirted shamelessly, and the other three were a little more discreet. I was pretty sure that it had recently moved past flirting, at least for Eli, but I was doing my best not to pry, especially in the delicate early stages of a relationship.
Looking around, I kept expecting to see Lexi’s pale blond hair. She was the fourth member of our military squad—the fourth surviving member, at least. Before she’d joined us for the job on Valovia, it’d been nearly a year since we’d seen her.
And as soon as the job was finished, she’d had to return to her own contracts.
I still felt the hole she’d left behind. I hoped it wouldn’t be another year before we saw her again, but her jobs took her all over the galaxy and our paths rarely crossed.
When we’d let Lexi off at Bastion, Nilo—Torran’s second officer—had disembarked as well, heading back to Valovia to be Torran’s eyes and ears on the ground. Without the two of them, the room felt a little emptier, even when filled with people.
I pushed away the sadness. They both knew what they were doing, and just because I preferred to stick close to the people I loved didn’t mean everyone was the same.
But it would certainly make my life easier.
Torran helped Tavi move food to the table. The former Valovian general was tall, lean, and muscular, with short black hair and lightly tanned skin. As a telekinetic, he was the most dangerous person on the ship by an order of magnitude—or ten.
But tonight his face was soft with affection as he gently teased Tavi about her cooking. She glared at him, but a smile kept trying to break through her stern expression.
“They are so happy together,” I murmured.
“They are,” Varro confirmed, startling me. I’d almost forgotten that he was beside me.
“I would like to be that happy.” The wistful words slipped out before I thought about who I was talking to. I winced internally, but there was nothing to do but brazen it out.
I could feel Varro’s gaze, but I resolutely kept my eyes on Tavi. “Are you unhappy?” he asked, his voice surprisingly soft.
Yes. The certainty of that answer surprised me. I could usually find the upside in any situation, but the cycle of guilt and longing had worn me down. I wanted to be a good friend, but my feelings refused to cooperate.
I turned to him. He was close, and I had to tip my head back to meet his eyes. His dark gaze swept over my face, his eyes oddly intense.
“I’m happy,” I lied with a smile. I vowed I’d make it true, just as soon as I had some time to get my head on straight.
Varro’s expression didn’t change, and I worried that he’d seen through me. But before he could call me on it, Tavi announced that dinner was ready.
I thanked the Blessed Lady for the lucky break and headed for my seat. My resolve firmed. After dinner, I would tell the captain that I planned to stay on Bastion, and why. She would be loath to send me off on my own, as would Eli, but as much as they wanted to protect me, they knew I could take care of myself, at least for a little while.
But I wasn’t so sure about the silent Valoff sitting across from me. He tended to hover, as if overprotectiveness was built into his DNA. If I told him that I was going to stay on Bastion, he would insist on accompanying me, which was exactly the opposite of what I needed.
So I wouldn’t tell him.
He was going to be so mad.
After dinner, I found the captain on the bridge, sitting in her usual place with her feet up on her terminal. Luna was curled in her lap, basking in Tavi’s gentle attention.
I settled into the navigation terminal, but gave the screen only a cursory glance before swiveling my chair toward Tavi. “When we stop at Bastion, I’m going to stay on the station until the next supply run,” I blurted.
Tavi’s posture didn’t change, but her eyebrows rose. “Why?”
I’d had all day to mentally craft my message, so I didn’t falter. “Because my research on the ship is limited, and I can’t find Morten. I need better access and Bastion provides that.” I paused and swallowed. “And because I need some time away from Varro.”
Tavi’s relaxed form tensed into alert readiness. “Did something happen?”
“No, not at all. I just have feelings that aren’t reciprocated, and I need some space to clear my head.”
Tavi’s expression turned speculative, but she nodded once. “I’ll send Chira with you.”
“No,” I bit out, surprising us both with my vehemence. I took a deep breath. “She’s needed on the ship, and I don’t require a babysitter,” I said, my voice steady despite my internal nerves. “I will be fine on the station, you know I will.”
Tavi sighed and slumped back in her seat, her gaze on the ceiling. “I know you will, but I still worry.” She paused, then murmured, “I wish Lexi were here.”
Longing tugged at my heart. “Me, too,” I agreed, then shook my head with a grin. “I’m going to sit in my room on Bastion and poke at the FHP network, but think of how much trouble I could get in if I had Lexi to open doors for me.”
Tavi chuckled, then shot me a knowing look. “Why don’t you tell me why else you’re going to Bastion? It wouldn’t have anything to do with a certain fashion and technology show, would it?”
I didn’t even try to deflect, because Tavi would see straight through it. “I think the exhibition might be a front for a more important meeting. Even if it’s not, a lot of important people will be there, and I might be able to glean some information from them.”
“Two conditions,” Tavi said. She raised a finger. “You will send me daily reports on everything you find.” A second finger joined the first. “And if the fashion exhibition looks like it’s a front, you will notify me immediately and promise not to get involved.”
I opened my mouth to respond, but she cut me off. “Oh, and if you feel unsafe or want to come back early, you have to tell me that, too.”
I rolled my eyes in exasperation. “Anything else? Should I sign over my firstborn?”
“Kee, we’re poking our noses into matters that could lead to war between the galaxy’s two superpowers. It’s dangerous, we both know that, but I won’t let anyone on my team get hurt if I can prevent it.”
“I’ll be careful.”
Tavi nodded. “You planning to tell the rest of the crew?”
Tavi’s eyes sparkled. “Good luck with that.”
Tavi had agreed to keep my plan to herself after our chat last night, but trying to keep a secret on a ship as tightly knit as Starlight’s Shadow was a nearly impossible task, which was proven true as soon as Eli saw me at lunch.
“Just tell me,” he wheedled after we finished eating. “You know I’m going to find out.”
I appreciated his finely honed intuition a lot more when it wasn’t directed at me. I summoned my sternest glare, which, based on his grin, wasn’t very stern at all. “No.”
He held up his hands in surrender, but I knew it wouldn’t last too long, especially if he couldn’t get the information from Tavi. His gaze lingered on my face and his expression softened. “I’m glad you got some sleep last night.”
“Me, too.” Thanks to the hours spent helping Anja, I’d been so tired that I’d all but collapsed into my bunk after my talk with Tavi. A solid eight hours of sleep had done wonders for both my appearance and my mental health. That plus having a plan meant that I was feeling particularly happy today.
Maybe that’s why Eli had immediately known something was up, and wasn’t that a depressing thought.
I gathered my dishes and put them in the sanitizer. “What’s your plan for the afternoon?”
Eli followed my lead and dropped his dishes beside mine. “It’s my week for bathroom duty,” he grumbled.
I grimaced in sympathy. Everyone on the ship, including Tavi, had cleaning duties assigned. The tasks rotated and bathrooms were no one’s favorite. They weren’t ever that dirty—we were all adults who generally tried to keep the ship in good shape—but deep cleaning still took a while.
“What about you?” he asked.
“I’ve got the garden this week.”
“Oooh, lucky.” His smile was quick and sly. “Want to swap?”
I laughed at him. “Not even a little bit.” I didn’t mind most of the shipboard duties, but gardening was easily my favorite.
He shook his head in mock sadness. “Your loss.”
“I’ll survive, somehow.” I raised my hand in farewell. “You know where to find me if the fumes get to be too much for you.”
He waved me off. “Happy gardening.”
I left the galley and headed toward the garden. Tavi was once again on the bridge, staring at the main screen that displayed the vastness of space, her feet propped up on her terminal. I poked my head in the door. “Everything okay?”
She nodded without turning around. “Just thinking.”
“I’ll be in the garden if you want to chat.”
She gave me a silent thumbs-up, so I left her to it. Tavi enjoyed sitting on the bridge, monitoring the ship and our surroundings. She was always looking out for us, even if we didn’t see her doing it.
The door to the garden slid open at my approach. The room was filled with tall racks of plants growing in shallow trays, and if you squinted just right, the grow lights resembled sunlight.
In the back corner, Tavi had installed a small arbor with a few chairs and a hanging drape of honeysuckle that sectioned the space into a tiny green oasis. Luna could often be found napping on her perch in the vines, and I’d fallen asleep in one of the chairs more than once.
I loved being in space, but there was something magical about green growing things, no matter where one was. The arbor was one of my favorite places on the ship.
As I approached, low voices caught my attention. “Hello,” I called before I could overhear something I shouldn’t.
“Hello, Kee,” Havil called back. The soft-spoken medic spent a lot of time in the garden. Whoever was with him remained silent, and the curtain of honeysuckle remained closed.
I hesitated. “I’m on garden duty this week,” I said slowly, “but I can come back later if you’d like to have some more time alone.”
Havil ducked through the honeysuckle, a small smile on his face. “We won’t disturb your schedule,” he said.
“Oh, I don’t mind—”
Varro stepped out of the arbor looking flushed and guilty, and I froze. Had I interrupted them in an intimate moment?
If he and Havil were together, then I was happy for them, truly, but if my heart cracked, just a little, no one would know but me. I hoped Eli and Anja knew or I wouldn’t be the only one with a bruised heart.
I snapped my jaw closed, but Havil must’ve caught my stunned expression because I felt the lightest brush of a mind against mine. The medic tilted his head in question.
I nodded my permission, and his voice whispered into my head. “It’s not what you’re thinking,” he said. “Varro has been dodging his regular checkups for weeks, even though he’s in pain. This is one of the few places I can corner him successfully.”
Before the embarrassment at making the wrong assumption could rear its head, I processed what he’d said. “Varro’s in pain?” I thought as loudly as I could. Telepathic communication was slightly different than our subvocal comms, but I muddled through with the Valoffs’ help. My mental shields were so bad that they could usually pick up my thoughts without any trouble.
Havil nodded. “Talk to him about it. Maybe he’ll listen to you.” With that, he slipped past me, leaving me alone with Varro.
If I didn’t know better, I’d think the whole ship had it out for me.
Varro moved to stalk past me without a word, but I stopped him with a light hand on his forearm. “Are you okay?” I asked softly.
Varro grunted, then his eyes narrowed on my face. “He told you.”
“He just told me you’re in pain and skipping your checkups. What’s up with that?”
“It’s not something you need to worry about.”
My own eyes narrowed. “If you think I don’t worry about my friends, then you don’t know me very well at all.”
His expression flickered, then he ran a tired hand down his face. “I apologize. I know you care about your friends.”
Was there the slightest emphasis on the word friends or was I imagining things?
I shook my head. A couple of weeks ago, I’d sliced my arm on a sharp piece of metal while digging around under my terminal, and Havil had fixed it with just a touch and a few minutes. I knew healing was Havil’s innate ability, but it still seemed like magic to me. I didn’t know why anyone would turn down his help.
Before I could ask, Varro said, “Nothing is physically wrong, so there’s nothing Havil can do except lecture me. That’s why I’ve been avoiding him.”
His tone and entire posture screamed his discomfort, so I let it go, even though curiosity gnawed at me. “Well, if you want to keep avoiding him, you can hang out in here with me. If he comes back, I’ll protect you.”
Some of Varro’s tension drained away. “Thank you. I would not mind a few more minutes of rest.”
I waved at the arbor. “Knock yourself out. I have to check on the plants anyway. You want me to wake you when I leave or let you sleep?”
“Please let me know before you leave.” I nodded and he retreated to the arbor, but he left the curtain of honeysuckle open so that he could see into the main part of the garden.
At first, I could feel his eyes on me and it made me self-conscious. But as I got more involved in my work, the feeling faded. I hoped that he was getting the rest he needed.
I checked on the hydroponics system and slightly adjusted the nutrient levels in the water. The system was mostly self-sufficient, but Tavi liked for us to keep an eye on it. We bought most of our food, but the garden helped us stretch our time between supply stops, so it was important to keep it in tip-top shape.
The last trays of salad greens had been planted a couple of days ago, so I planted three more trays and carefully labeled them with the date and time. With the additional people on board, we were planting more trays, more often, especially the quick-growing greens.
I checked on the other plants, making sure they were healthy and strong. I talked to them as I worked, telling them how nice it was that they were growing food for us, and how pretty they looked with their green leaves and strong roots. It was mostly happy nonsense, but I’d read an ancient study that said plants did better when they were spoken to, and I tended to anthropomorphize them anyway, so talking to them came naturally.
I noted the tomatoes and other veggies that were ready for harvest and put them into the log so Tavi would know what was available for dinner. If she didn’t harvest them tonight, I would pick them tomorrow and put them in the galley for everyone to enjoy.
By the time I was done, several hours had passed. I hadn’t heard a peep from Varro, so I hoped he had fallen asleep. With nothing else to do, I approached the arbor on soft feet.
Varro’s head was tipped back, his breathing deep and even. I hesitated for a moment, then slipped into the arbor and sank into the chair beside his. I stared at the leafy vines overhead and enjoyed a moment of peace as the sweet smell of honeysuckle drifted around me.
“You talked to the plants,” Varro said, his voice low and rough. I bet he sounded just like that in the morning, sleepy and rumpled after a night in bed.
Heat crept into my cheeks at the imagined visual, and I redirected my thoughts to a safer subject. I peeked at him, but his eyes remained closed, so I went back to staring at the ceiling. “I thought you were asleep.”
“It’s harder to sneak up on me than you might imagine. Your approach was quiet but not that quiet.” After a pause, he added, “But the talking was nice.”
“It’s supposed to help the plants grow better, and it gives me something to do.”
“I enjoyed listening to you. It was soothing.”
I laughed quietly. “Most people would disagree.” I rolled my head toward him with a grin. “Have you considered that you may be part plant?”
“Mmm,” he murmured without opening his eyes, “perhaps that is why I’m drawn to sunshine.”
I glanced at his sun-kissed skin before reminding myself that he wasn’t for me. I purposefully kept my tone light. “Well, it’s hard to get sunshine in a spaceship, but you’re welcome to hang out in here with me for the rest of the week and pretend. If you want, I’ll even babble at you like you’re a plant.”
He slanted a glance at me, his eyes dark and fathomless. “I would enjoy that. Thank you.”
After dinner, we all headed down to the rec room on the ship’s middle level to watch the latest episode of the vid drama I’d gotten everyone addicted to—and with time travel, alternate universes, and romance, what wasn’t to love?
Tavi and Torran sank into their usual loveseat at the back of the room. The rest of us didn’t really stick to the same seats every night, but I preferred the couch that was front and center. Tonight it was empty, so I flopped onto one side and put my feet up on the middle cushion. There was plenty of seating, so I didn’t feel too bad about taking up more than my fair share.
Eli sat at the other end of the couch and gave me the classic I’m watching you gesture, swiveling two fingers in the air between his eyes and mine. I guess he hadn’t forgotten about our conversation at lunch.
Havil, Chira, and Anja sat together on the last sofa, which left Varro on his own. I started to move my legs so he could join us—and help block Eli’s inquisition—but Varro merely waved at me and settled into a nearby chair.
I swallowed my disappointment and started the vid.
Luckily, I lost myself in the unfolding plot and two hours passed in a happy blur. Havil climbed to his feet before I could start a third episode, and without the distraction of a show, tiredness slammed into me.
I yawned and stretched. My bunk was so far away, and this couch was so comfy.
Eli stood and asked, “You want me to carry you up?”
I widened my eyes and pressed my hands together over my heart. “Would you?”
Eli’s grin was light and teasing. “Nope. Not unless you’d like to answer a question or two on the way.”
“You’re the worst,” I grumbled as I sat up.
He sent me a disbelieving look. “I let you skip out on the gym this morning.”
“Okay, you’re marginally acceptable.”
“In that case, I’ll see you bright and early tomorrow. I expect you to be warmed up and ready to spar by oh six hundred.”
I dramatically flopped back on the couch and clutched at my chest. “I take it all back—you really are the worst! What kind of monster feels like exercising that early?”
Eli’s mouth tipped into a wry grin as one eyebrow rose. “Pretty much the whole rest of the ship?”
“Monsters, every one of you.” I lifted my arm and he pulled me to my feet. “Some of us need our beauty sleep.”
Eli’s eyes lingered on my face and his expression turned serious. “Are you okay, really?” he asked softly.
I hugged his side with one arm. “I am. I’m just working through a couple of things. But for all I complain, I appreciate you looking out for me.” Even if it sometimes bordered on smothering.
Despite being one of the most gorgeous people I’d ever laid eyes on, I’d never been attracted to Eli. When I’d first been assigned to Tavi’s squad, Eli and I had fallen into friendship like we’d known each other for ages, but there had never been any kind of spark between us. I loved him like I loved my family, but that’s all it was.
At thirty, I was four years younger than him and Tavi, so they both tended to hover. I appreciated their concern because it made me feel loved in return.
But I still wasn’t going to tell him that I was leaving until I absolutely had to.
The next morning found me on a treadmill, plodding along at a slow jog well before any smart person would’ve left their cozy bed. Tavi and Eli both enjoyed the gym. I did not. I avoided it whenever possible and only tolerated it when forced to participate.
I knew being able to defend myself and outrun bounties was useful, but my strengths lay elsewhere, and I’d made peace with that. I could find all of the information about someone from birth until now, but if I had to chase someone down, they were as good as gone. Tavi and Eli couldn’t hack their way into an open server, but they could run for kilometers without breaking a sweat. We each played to the others’ strengths.
Next to me, Chira ran at a brisk pace, her silvery hair pulled up in a high ponytail. Her long legs made her look like she was floating over the treadmill and I kind of hated her.
Okay, not really, but I wouldn’t mind half of her ease. She caught my look and grinned in encouragement at me. “I heard you’re sparring with Eli this morning.”
I couldn’t help the grimace. “You mean I’m getting flattened by Eli. Again.”
“If you want help, I’d be happy to train with you.”
“Thank you, but I’m a hopeless case. Tavi and Eli have been working with me for years. I know what I should do, but half the time I just… don’t do it.”
“You should get Varro to help you. He helped Havil.”
I shook my head. The very last thing I needed was to get up close and personal with Varro. “That’s okay. Eli will ensure I haven’t forgotten everything I’ve learned, then I can go back to hiding in my control room.”
I kept up my slow jog while Eli finished his full workout. His muscles weren’t just for show, and he worked hard to keep himself in top form. By the time he was done, I was dripping sweat.
I wiped down the treadmill and joined Eli on the sparring mats after toeing off my shoes. “Are you sure you’re not too tired?” I tried. “We could reschedule.”
He tossed me the cloth wraps for my hands with an exasperated sigh. “If you put as much effort into training as you did into avoiding training, you’d be undefeatable.”
I didn’t even try to hide my eye roll. “We both know that’s not true.”
He grinned. “I did lay it on a little thick, didn’t I?”
“Don’t you always?” I asked as I wrapped my hands and then bounced on my toes. My leg muscles protested, proving that I probably should spend more time in the gym, not that I would ever admit it.
His grin took on an evil edge. “Just for that, let’s work on your defense.”
That was all the warning I got before he lunged at me. I was supposed to step in, to use his momentum against him and get under his guard. I knew that. But instead, my thoughts scattered, I tried to do six things at once, and I ended up stumbling back and falling on my butt without Eli ever touching me.
Frustration rose and with it the useless tears that I’d fought all my life. I blinked them back. Any strong emotion and I became a watering pot. It was infuriating, which only made the tears worse. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
Eli offered me a hand up, his expression soft but not pitying. When I was on my feet, he said, “Let’s try again, slower.”
Prepared and focused, I slid past his slow strike and drove my fist toward his chin. He let me connect, knowing I would pull the punch. I barely tapped him.
He stepped back. “Better. What was different that time?”
“I was prepared.”
“That’s why we train,” he said patiently. “If someone comes at you, I want you to be prepared.”
“Tell that to my brain,” I grumbled.
His smile was part sympathy, part steel. “I plan to.”
Eli drilled me on offense and defense until I could barely lift my arms before he called it quits.
“You’ve killed me,” I groaned, bending until I could touch the floor, stretching out my arms, back, and thighs.
His chuckle drifted down from somewhere over my head. “You know, if you’re energetic enough to complain, we can keep going.”
I huffed at him. “That wasn’t a complaint; that was a fact.”
As much as I hated training, I did appreciate that he was trying to help me. I would never be a great hand-to-hand fighter, but with focus, I could hold my own long enough for help to arrive.
Give me a weapon, however, and the odds changed. My hand-eye coordination was second to none. As long as I had distance and a ranged weapon, I was untouchable.
“Well, if you’re done stating facts, then let’s clear out so Torran and Varro can use the mats.”
I straightened and found both Valoffs wrapping their knuckles. Varro had more muscle, but Torran was telekinetic. I didn’t know if he used his ability while he trained, but I was going to find out.
I wasn’t the only one planning to watch. Tavi had given up all pretense of rowing, and Chira lingered at the edge of the mats barely pretending to stretch.
Eli and I joined her, then Tavi joined the three of us.
Torran raised his eyebrows and tipped his head at Tavi. “Care to join us?”
“Nope,” she said, her eyes sparkling. “I’m just here for the show.”
She wasn’t wrong. Any time two of the Valoffs sparred, it was worth watching. They were fast and fluid and obviously very well trained. It was like watching ballet, just with a lot more punches thrown in.
“They are well matched,” Chira said softly as the two men circled each other. “Torran is faster, but Varro is stronger.”
“Couldn’t Torran just telelock him and be done?” I asked.
Chira shook her head. “Varro isn’t just physically strong. Torran can lock him, but not for long. He’s the only one of us who can really make Torran work for victory.”
As if to prove her point, Varro froze in place as Torran’s fist flashed toward his side. At the last moment, Varro twisted away from the strike, and I let out the breath I’d been holding.
He’d broken Torran’s lock in less than a second.
I kept my eyes glued to Varro. When I paid close attention, I could see all the little stops and stutters that happened when Torran locked him, but Varro never stayed still for long.
Varro was so quiet that it was easy to forget that he was a trained soldier, and he was far more powerful than I’d given him credit for. Not too many people could take on a telekinetic and remain on equal footing.
After twenty minutes, both men were sweating and breathing hard. At some unknown signal, they stopped and tapped their knuckles together, ending the fight.
Varro’s eyes found mine, and something hot and feral lurked in his expression. My heart tripped over itself, but I blinked and the look was gone, smoothed away into his usual neutrality. I had not imagined that look, but I had no idea what it meant. I refused to get my hopes up. I’d done that before and nothing came of it but an aching heart.
“Good fight,” Torran said, drawing Varro’s attention away. “You’re getting faster.”
Varro dipped his head. “You, too. Your locks are getting stronger. You almost had me there at the end.”
Torran grimaced and his gaze slid to Tavi before flashing away. “It wasn’t good enough.”
Torran still blamed himself for Tavi’s injuries during our last fight. We’d fought another telekinetic, and Torran was the only reason Tavi had survived at all, but he didn’t see it that way. Ever since, he’d been relentlessly training.
Torran’s contacts were quietly searching for the telekinetic’s name and location, but he thought she was one of Empress Nepru’s Fiazefferia—Sun Guardians—which meant her identity was protected by the empress herself. We had about as much information on the Sun Guardian as we did Morten—far too little.
A problem I planned to fix just as soon as I was on Bastion and my searches couldn’t be traced back to Starlight’s Shadow.
The next couple of days passed in a blur, and before I knew it, Starlight’s Shadow had docked on Bastion for a resupply. Tavi put everyone to work on restocking so that I could slip out unnoticed.
She met me in the cargo bay and gave me a tight hug and a firm look. “Contact me at the first sign of trouble. If the fashion exhibition is a front, do not attempt to go to the real meeting without backup, no matter what the reason. And stay vigilant.”
“I’ll let you know as soon as I find something, and I’ll be on my best behavior,” I told her with a grin. “You won’t even notice I’m gone.”
Her smile was gentle and kind. “We’ll notice,” she said quietly. “Take the time you need, but be careful. You’re the one who warned me that Bastion had gotten rougher lately. A certain Valoff is going to murder me when he finds out what you’ve done.”
Varro wouldn’t resort to violence, no matter how angry he was. But selfishly, I hoped that he was furious. I secretly feared that he was going to be happy that I was gone and fury beat that any day. I shook off the negative thoughts and responded to Tavi. “Thank you. And I will be careful. I’m going to sit in my room and let the improved access speed up my search for the commodore we both hate.”
And maybe do a little bit of in-person digging around the exhibition that Tavi definitely wouldn’t approve of—so I wouldn’t tell her. She had enough to worry about without me adding to it.
Tavi nodded. “We can afford to dock for a bit longer now, so if you find something that looks promising, I want to know before you start digging into it. If Morten is still tied to the FHP, then they’ll be willing to go to some length to keep his involvement in the kidnapping secret.”
Half of Bastion was still held by the FHP military, so I wouldn’t poke the beast without good reason. I didn’t need to disappear into a deep, dark holding cell without notice. “I’ll be careful,” I confirmed again.
Tavi touched my shoulder one last time—touch was her talisman against bad luck—and reluctantly dropped her hand. “See you in three weeks.”
I waved farewell and slipped from the ship. I’d worn my oldest clothes and tucked my distinctive, colorful hair carefully under a knit cap. My pack looked like it might fall apart at any moment. The ruse was designed to deflect attention. Based on my appearance, no one would suspect that I carried thousands of credits worth of tech equipment carefully wrapped in a pack that was far sturdier than it looked.
Tavi had landed in a slightly nicer part of the station, despite my protests. I might have led her to believe that I was staying in this section so she wouldn’t worry about me. But in truth, the room I’d rented was in a much cheaper—and more dangerous—sector, so I had a plas blade strapped to my leg and a plas pistol tucked under my jacket. I knew how to use both, but fighting would never be my first choice.
It was hard to tell from the landing bay that this was a nicer part of the space station. Perhaps the paint was a little less worn and the ships a little newer, but the air reeked of hot metal, grease, and ozone. Bastion had become a massive trading hub, and even the nicer landing bays were packed with as many ships as they could squeeze in.
I joined the stream of people heading deeper into the station. Once I was safely lost in the crowd, I blew out a slow breath. I might’ve turned thirty this year, but I’d rarely spent time on my own. I’d moved straight from living with my parents to living in FHP barracks to living on Starlight’s Shadow.
I’d taken a few solo vacations over the past three years, but I hadn’t enjoyed them as much as I’d hoped. I thrived best when I was surrounded by the people I loved. Case in point, I wasn’t even a hundred meters from the ship, and I already missed Tavi’s gentle smile and Eli’s good-natured teasing.
I refused to think of the quiet Valoff whose rare smiles lit up my world. The whole point of this time was to get my head right.
I didn’t know how Lexi did it. She’d been on her own for a couple of years, and as far as I could tell, she enjoyed it. Or, at least, she enjoyed the money she made from taking jobs Tavi would refuse on principle.
I crossed the airlock into the main part of the station. This section had been designed for civilian use from the beginning, so it was bigger and brighter than the sections that had been converted from a military base. The crowd thinned as people peeled off in different directions. Most of the people in the crowd were human, but I saw a few Valoffs as well.
It was hard to spot Valoffs at a distance because their multicolored eyes—their most distinctive feature—were best viewed up close. But they moved slightly differently, and they tended to have a wider variety of skin and hair colors, though with the hair dye options available, that wasn’t always a good indicator.
I’d tried to get Chira to let me dye her silver hair into a rainbow like mine, but she had smiled and told me that rainbow wasn’t really her style.
Too bad, because it would’ve looked amazing.
And it would’ve been less work than doing my own hair, since my natural blond had to be lightened to get the most vibrant color. I hadn’t touched my hair up in a while, so the bold colors had faded into soft pastels. Eli called it my fairy princess look. He had a surprisingly whimsical side for someone who was so often pragmatic and pessimistic.
I suppressed the wave of homesickness by closely observing the station. The farther I delved, the smaller and dingier the hallways became. By the time I made it to the room I’d rented for the next three weeks, the hallway was narrow enough that I could touch both walls—and at a meter sixty-five, I wasn’t particularly tall.
At least there weren’t a lot of places for people to hide. If someone was going to ambush me, I’d see them coming.
I’d already loaded the electronic key on my comm, so once I waved the device over the lock, the door slid open. I stepped into the tiny room. The lights came on automatically, and the door closed behind me.
“Welcome, Sarah Martin,” a computerized voice said. “You have twenty-one days left on your reservation. Damages will be billed to the reservation account. Have a pleasant stay.”
“Thanks,” I said, though I knew the automated system wouldn’t hear me without the trigger words. Though I’d purposefully booked the room with a false ID, just in case, it still felt weird to be called a different name.
I dropped my pack on the narrow bunk. Every square meter of a station was at a premium, and this space was even smaller than my room on Starlight—mostly because I had an officer’s cabin on the ship.
I stretched out my arms and couldn’t quite touch the walls, but it was close. The room was deeper than it was wide, barely two meters by three. A minuscule bathroom was tucked against the back wall. I’d paid more for a private bath, but having to leave during the night to trek to a communal bath was a risk I’d decided not to take.
By now, Starlight would be heading back out into space. Had anyone noticed that I wasn’t on board?
I refused to let melancholy take root, so instead of dwelling on it, I unpacked my bag. The room contained a slender wardrobe that doubled as a clothes refresher—another upgrade. The wardrobe just fit the trio of extra outfits I’d brought. Without the refresher, I would’ve had to bring more clothes, which would’ve taken up space in my pack that I needed for meal bars and tech equipment.
Food on Bastion was as expensive as everything else, and without the ability to cook in this tiny coffin of a room, I would have to live on meal bars or pay for meals in one of the large mess halls or at individual restaurants.
I’d made decent money on our last job, but I’d also sent a lot of it home to my family. I didn’t need to put too much stress on my remaining account balance, so meal bars were going to be the bulk of my food for the next three weeks. I was one of the rare people who didn’t mind the taste too much, so it wouldn’t be a hardship. And Tavi had been kind enough to let me raid the ship’s supply before I’d left.
Food and clothes sorted, I opened the main part of my pack by placing my palm on the biometric lock and then entering a twelve-digit passcode. My new slate was nestled in the padded interior. The powerful tablet computer had shown up outside my door while we were at Torran’s house on Valovia.
Valoffs had a custom of vosdodite—an apology gift—but no one had claimed responsibility for the gift, so I hadn’t been sure it was meant for me. When I’d tried to give it to Torran, since I’d found it in the hallway of his house, he’d grinned and told me to keep it. When I’d asked him point-blank if he’d left it for me—he’d given Tavi a new comm, after all—he’d denied it.
But he also wouldn’t tell me who had.
In fact, all of the Valoffs had been cagey about their answers, which didn’t help me narrow it down. I’d gone so far as to check the security footage, but whoever had left the slate had expected that, and the crucial five-minute drop-off window had been looped. On the video, it looked like the slate had appeared out of thin air.
Still, I strongly suspected a certain Valovian weapons specialist was behind the gift, despite his denial. I just didn’t know why. Varro and I had gotten off to a rocky start when he’d mistaken my perkiness for foolishness. But he’d made me my favorite cookies and sincerely apologized, so I’d forgiven him long before we ever made it to Valovia. An additional apology gift didn’t make sense, and it was far too nice to be a gift between friends.
But whoever had given it to me knew me well. It was the exact model I would’ve bought myself, if money hadn’t been a consideration. Once I had it, I was far too selfish to give it up if no one else was going to claim it, so I’d kept it. Now it would be my window out of this tiny room.
And a way into the secured FHP communication links.
The other reason I’d chosen this particular room was because one of the station’s backbone network connections ran directly behind the bathroom wall.
I pulled the slate out. Hidden underneath it was a small device a little larger than my palm. The innocuous-looking little black box was designed to splice into fiber optic cables. When used properly, there were just a few dropped packets and no other network interruption. But getting it right was tricky, and if I fucked it up, the Feds would trace the break directly to my door.
I didn’t want to have to move rooms quite yet, so I’d try less risky options first. I pulled out another little black box, this one filled with highly illegal specialty chips designed to crack encryption. I connected it to the slate.
The slate would direct the effort, but the security cracker would do all of the heavy computational lifting required to break into the wireless communication network. FHP security was usually pretty good, as long as the station commander made it a priority, so it would likely take a while to break in even with the illegal help.
I locked the pack, slate, and security cracker in the storage bin under the bed. There wasn’t anything I could really do here until I broke into the FHP’s network, so I checked my weapons, tucked my comm in an inside pocket, and then let myself out of the room.
Time to do a little reconnaissance.
I met only two people on my way out of the residential section and neither of them bothered me. As I emerged into the more crowded areas, I let the current of foot traffic carry me along. The station was huge, one of the largest in the system, and every level was packed with shopping, entertainment, and food, at least on the civilian side.
Getting into the military side would be a little more work, especially with the way I’d gotten out of the military. To say I wasn’t their favorite person might be a bit of an understatement.
But that was a problem for another day. Today I would scope out what I could of the accessible areas, then head back to my room and get down to work. If I kept myself busy enough, I might forget how much I missed everyone on Starlight.
It was a vain hope, but I tried it anyway. I wandered around taking in the sights for a few hours until my stomach growled. I found one of the smaller, cheaper mess halls and bought a plate of food. Most of the people around me were shift workers on break. I sat next to a group in dirty coveralls. After a few minutes, the woman beside me pulled me into the conversation, a kindness that I appreciated.
We chatted about nothing in particular, but I left the meal with contact information for a half-dozen people who promised to help me find work if I needed it thanks to a slightly fudged story about how I’d left my last ship without much of a plan.
As I exited the mess hall, the back of my neck prickled, and a shiver worked its way down my spine. I glanced around, sure that someone was watching me, but other than a few glances from passersby, not a soul paid any attention to me.
I picked a direction and wandered at random. The feeling faded somewhat but didn’t go away. After an hour, I shook my head at myself. I hadn’t caught a single person following me, despite darting down long, mostly empty corridors where it would’ve been impossible for someone to hide.
It was possible, though unlikely, that someone was monitoring my movements via camera, but I’d never felt the same shiver while under electronic surveillance.
Deciding that my ghostly friend could tag along as long as they kept their distance, I headed up to the fanciest level in this section. As I stepped off the lift, I tried my best to look like I belonged in the wide halls lined with high-end shops. A single night in one of the hotels on this level would cost more than the whole three-week stay I’d booked.
Most of the people who were arriving for the fashion exhibition would be staying here. Indeed, the exhibition itself would be held in the Eminence, one of the large, opulent hotels that catered to the most elite clientele. Hotel staff didn’t take kindly to riffraff like me hanging around. Getting close enough to peek at the guest’s data would take a little planning.
For now, I didn’t need to be on this level, but I enjoyed looking around at how the other half lived. If nothing came of the meeting rumors, then once the security cracker broke into the network, I’d be spending my days staring at the four walls of my tiny room, so it was nice to be able to stretch my legs for a bit now.
I walked until the hour grew late enough to pass the overnight shift change. A station never really slept, so the only indications of the time were the glowing numbers on my comm screen and the heavy feeling of my eyes.
I was nearly back to my room when two men—one dark-haired and one blond—straightened away from the corridor walls in front of me with identical leering grins. I stopped, cursing myself. I’d gotten used to the weird feeling of eyes on me, and I’d been so lost in my head that I’d forgotten to watch my surroundings. I should’ve been smarter than that, but it was too late for regret.
A quick glance behind me revealed that a man and woman had stepped out of a nearby room. The four of them had neatly hemmed me in.
The blond in front of me said, “If you want to travel through here, you need a pass.” He must be the leader of this little band of thugs. He continued, “And I haven’t seen you around before, love. A thousand credits and we’ll let you go on your way.”
There was no way he’d missed the plas blade strapped to my leg. Either he thought I wouldn’t use it, or he wasn’t worried about it, which meant he had a way to neutralize the threat. None of the goons were overly large, but they all had the lean, wiry strength that came from hard work. Running would be my best bet, but they’d taken that option away.
I also had a plas pistol, but killing someone on a station—even in self-defense—would bring far more scrutiny down on me than I needed.
I drew myself up to my full height and channeled my best impression of Tavi. “And if I refuse?”
The blond smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Don’t refuse.”
I had a thousand credits. I could pay them. The financial hit was survivable. But then they’d keep on targeting others. I sighed. I was about to do something very stupid, but what if the person they caught after me was even less prepared than I was? I couldn’t have that on my conscience.
I wrapped my fingers around the plas blade’s grip and pulled it from the clip on my thigh. I flicked the setting to nonlethal and activated it. A twenty-five-centimeter blue energy blade flashed into existence. If I changed the setting to lethal, the blade would turn red and cut through flesh like butter.
The blond sneered at my blade then swept his coat back, revealing the plas pistol on his hip. “Last chance to be smart, love.”
If I’d been smart, I wouldn’t be here in the first place. Smart had vacated this hallway long ago. Now I just had to survive.
A thick arm wrapped around my waist and a hand clamped over my mouth. I didn’t have time to do more than freeze in alarm before I heard a deep, familiar voice whisper directly in my mind, “Don’t move or speak.”
“What the fuck?” the blond yelled. “Where’d she go?”
The pair behind us muttered curses under their breath. I didn’t know what was happening, but I trusted Varro. I nodded and he let me go, then he plucked the energy blade from my nerveless fingers. He herded me to the edge of the hallway, then telepathically warned again, “Do not move.”
He stepped away from me and the dark-haired man down the hall gasped in surprise. “Is she some sort of fucking shapeshifter? I’m out.” He broke and ran.
The blond sneered and drew his pistol. “It’s not a shapeshifter, it’s a Valoff fucking with our heads. Kill it.”
Varro didn’t respond, but the three assailants staggered, horror on their faces. Either they hadn’t been shielding or they weren’t strong enough to withstand Varro’s telepathic assault.
The blond leader recovered fastest, but Varro was already in motion. He lashed out with the plas blade and caught the blond in the chest. The man went down with a scream. The shock wouldn’t kill him, but I knew from experience that it felt like it should.
Behind us, the man had sunk to the floor, his head in his hands. “Get out, get out, get out,” he moaned, rocking. The woman leaned against the wall, squinting and trying to bring up a plas pistol.
Varro hit them both, his movements spare and fast.
When he turned back to me, the fury in his gaze caused me to take an involuntary step back. The darker streaks in his tawny brown irises had spread, making his eyes look pitch black.
“How far is your room?” he bit out.
I pointed down the hall with a hand that shook. “In the next section.”
He snapped the deactivated plas blade into the clip on my thigh, then wrapped a hand around my arm, his grip surprisingly gentle. “Let’s move.”
Varro marched me down the hall like I was a wayward child. When he noticed that I was trotting to keep up with his long strides, he slowed, but his body remained a tense line from his jaw down.
Now that the danger had passed, the adrenaline had nowhere to go. I took a shaky breath, and when that didn’t help, I held my breath entirely. I was fine. I would not cry.
Traitorous tears gathered in my eyes.
I clenched my teeth. I was so busy trying not to cry that I nearly passed right by my room. “Wait,” I said, pulling against Varro’s hold. “I’m here.”
He reluctantly let me go while I opened the door, then he crowded in behind me as if he were afraid I would lock him out.
And now that I thought about it, that would’ve been a fantastic idea.
My eyes narrowed. The haze of the fight was wearing off, and my brain started working again. What was he doing here anyway? He should’ve been on the ship.
I pulled out my comm and fired off a message to Tavi. Anything you’d like to tell me?
Her response was nearly instant, which meant that they were still nearby and she was up late. A series of messages rolled in, one after the other. He threatened to go out the airlock if I wouldn’t dock. Torran said he would do it, too. So I ordered him a transport and gave him the fake address you gave me rather than your real location. Thanks for that, by the way.
I turned shocked eyes to Varro. “Did you seriously threaten to go out the airlock?”
“I promised to go out the airlock,” he corrected, his voice a low growl.
“That’s…” I spluttered as words failed me. Jettisoning into open space near a station was a very good way to end up impaled on a ship’s hull or knocked off course and lost forever. “Why?”
He took a step closer, his eyes burning and his muscles clenched tight. “It’s not safe for you to be here alone. The captain should not have allowed it.”
His anger stoked mine. I drew myself up, though the top of my head barely cleared his chin. “You are not the boss of me.”
“Someone needs to be,” he muttered darkly in Valovan. Either he didn’t know I spoke the language or he’d forgotten.
I shivered before remembering that he was not for me. Frustration mixed with the fear and anger and adrenaline of the last few minutes until only white-hot rage remained. “Get out.” His spine stiffened, but I just pointed at the door. “Now.”
He looked like he was getting ready to argue, but my damn tears came back and the world went watery. I swiped at them angrily, but more just ran down my face.
Varro made a low sound and held up his hands. “Don’t cry, hisi las,” he murmured. “I’m going.”
The door slid open and then he was gone. And I was alone. The realization brought more damn tears, so I flopped on my bed and let the pillow soak up all of the emotion that bled out of me. I’d learned that it was best to get it over with because the longer I fought, the more upset I got and the more I cried.
It wasn’t until much later, when I was wrung out and exhausted, that I realized what he’d said on his way out.
He’d called me “bright star” in Valovan.COLLAPSE
“A delightful science fiction romance filled with high stakes for hearts and lives. A space opera setting, an antagonistic friends-to-lovers romance, and fast-paced action bring some new plot points and nicely set up the last of Mihalik’s trilogy.”
“Mihalik again does a fantastic job balancing space opera action and slow-burning romance. This keeps the series going strong.”