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Zenith by Sasha Alsberg and Lindsay Cummings (1)


ANDROMA

HER NIGHTMARES WERE like bloodstains.

They were impossible to get rid of, no matter how hard Androma Racella tried to scrub them from her mind. On the darkest nights they clung to her like a second skin. In them, she could hear the whispers of the dead threatening to drag her down to hell, where she belonged.

But Andi had decided, long ago, that the nightmares were her punishment.

She was the Bloody Baroness, after all. And if surviving meant giving up sleep, then she would bear the exhaustion.

Tonight the nightmares had come as they always did, and now Andi sat on the bridge of her ship, the Marauder, scratching a fresh set of tallies into her twin swords.

The glowing compression cuffs on her wrists, which protected skin burned in an accident years before, were the only light in the otherwise dark space. The press of a button was all it took to power them up.

Her fingertips were white beneath red-painted nails as she gouged a piece of steel against the flat of one blade, creating a thin tally the length of her smallest finger. Without its spirals of electricity, the sword looked like any other weapon; the tallies, any other soldier’s lucky mark. But Andi knew better. Each line she etched into the metal was another life cut off, another heart stopped with a slice of her blades.

A hundred lives to cover up the pain of the very first. A hundred more, to shovel away the hurt into a place that was dark and deep.

Andi glanced up as an object in the sky caught her eye.

A piece of space trash, hurtling away among thousands of stars.

Andi yawned. She had always loved the stars. Even as a child, she’d dreamed of dancing among them. But tonight she felt as if they were watching her, waiting for her to fail. Mocking little bastards. Well, they’d be sorely disappointed.

The Marauder, a glimmering starship made from the rare impenetrable glass varillium, was known for its devilish speed and agility. And Andi’s crew, a group of girls hailing from every hellish corner of the galaxy, were as sharp as Andi’s blades. They were the heart of the ship, and the three reasons why Andi had survived this long so far from home.

Five days ago, the girls had taken on a job to steal a starload of sealed BioDrugs from Solera, the capital planet of the Tavina System, and deliver them to a satellite station just outside the planet Tenebris in the neighboring system.

It wasn’t an abnormal request. BioDrugs were one of Andi’s most requested transports since these particular drugs could burn someone’s brain to bits or—if used correctly—carry one into a blissful oblivion.

Which, Andi thought, as she resumed her death-mark scratching, I wouldn’t mind experiencing right now.

She could still feel the hot blood on her hands from the man she’d slayed on the Tenebris station. The way his eyes had locked on to hers before she’d run him through with her blades, silent as a whisper. The sorry fool never should have tried to double-cross Andi and her crew.

When his partner had seen Andi’s handiwork, he eagerly handed over the Krevs her team was owed for the job. Still, she’d stolen another life, something she never relished doing. Even killers like her still had souls, and she knew that everyone deserved to be mourned by someone, no matter their crimes.

Andi worked quietly with only the hum of the ship’s engines far beneath her for company, the occasional hiss of the cooling system kicking on overhead. Outer space was quiet, soothing, and Andi had to keep herself from falling asleep, where the nightmares would be lurking.

The sound of footsteps brought Andi’s gaze up once more.

The rhythmic tapping made its way down the small hallway that led to the bridge. Andi continued her scratching, glancing up again when a figure stopped in the doorway, her blue, scaled arms poised on narrow hips.

“As your Second-in-Command,” the girl said, with a voice as smooth as the spiced Rigna they’d shared earlier, “I demand that you return to your quarters and get some sleep.”

“Good morning to you, too, Lira,” Andi said with a sigh. Her Second always seemed to know where she was—and what she was doing—at all times. Her sharp eyes caught every detail, no matter how small. This quality made Lira the best damned pilot in the Mirabel Galaxy, and it was the reason they’d managed to succeed with so many jobs thus far.

It was one of many peculiar qualities Lira had, along with the patches of scales scattered across her skin. When she experienced strong emotions, the scales began to glow, giving off enough heat to burn through the flesh of her enemies. All of Lira’s clothing was sleeveless for this reason. But this defensive mechanism also took a lot of energy from her, occasionally rendering Lira unconscious when activated.

Her scales were a trait many from her home planet desired, but few had. Lira’s bloodline traced back to the first Adhirans who colonized the terraformed world. Soon after the colonization, the planet experienced a radioactive event that transformed its earliest settlers in a number of strange ways, including the scales Lira had inherited.

Andi’s Second stepped into the starlit bridge and lifted a hairless brow. “Sooner or later, you’re going to run out of space on those swords.”

“And then I’ll turn my tallies on to you,” Andi said with a wicked grin.

“You should take up dancing again. Perhaps it would ease some of that deadly tension you’re carrying around.”

“Careful, Lir,” Andi warned.

Lira grinned, swiping two fingers across her right temple to activate her internal communication channel. “Rise and shine, ladies. If the captain can’t sleep, we shouldn’t, either.”

Andi couldn’t hear the response Lira chuckled at, but soon enough, two more pairs of footsteps sounded from the deck above, and she knew the rest of her crew was on their way.

Gilly arrived first, her fire-red braids bouncing on her shoulders as she approached. She was small for her age, a girl no older than thirteen, but Andi wasn’t fooled by her wide, innocent blue eyes. Gilly was a bloodthirsty little beast, a gunner with plenty of death on her hands. She had one hell of a trigger finger.

“Why do you insist on ruining my beauty sleep?” she exclaimed in her fluid little voice.

A tall, broad-shouldered girl appeared behind her, bending so as not to hit her head on the doorway when she entered. Breck, Andi’s head gunner, rolled her eyes as she placed a large hand on Gilly’s small shoulder.

“Kid, when are you going to learn not to question Lira? You know she won’t give you a reasonable answer.”

Andi laughed at Lira’s sharp glare. “If you would only look up from your gun sights long enough to listen to me, you’d know that my answers are, in fact, quite reasonable.” Lira winked at the girls before settling into the pilot’s seat next to Andi’s captain’s chair.

“Adhirans,” Breck said with a sigh, crossing her thick arms over her chest. At seven feet tall with choppy black hair that just brushed her muscled shoulders, Breck was the most intimidating member of the crew. They all assumed she was a giantess from the planet New Veda, where Mirabel’s greatest warriors were born.

The only problem with that assumption?

Breck had no memories of her past. She had no idea who she was, or even where she’d come from. She’d been on the run when Andi picked her up, a bruised and beaten ten-year-old Gilly at her side.

Gilly, plucked from the market streets of her home planet Umbin, was struggling to escape from a couple of Xen Pterran slavers when Breck found her. The older girl had saved Gilly from a fate worse than death, and now the two girls were as close as kin. To them, it no longer mattered what life Breck couldn’t remember or what past Gilly tried to forget. All that mattered was that they had each other.

Breck tugged on one of Gilly’s red braids, then lifted her chin and sniffed the air. “I don’t smell breakfast. We need a cook, Andi.”

“And we’ll get one as soon as we have the funds to buy a culinary droid,” Andi said with a curt nod. The girls usually traded off on kitchen duty, but Breck was the only decent cook among them. “We’re down to less than three hundred Krevs. Someone spent a little too much on hair products on TZ-5.”

Breck’s cheeks reddened as she touched the new crimson streaks in her black hair.

“Speaking of Krevs,” Gilly added, her tiny hand grazing the golden double-triggered gun at her hip, “when’s our next job, Cap?”

Andi leaned back, arms crossed behind her head, and surveyed the girls.

They were a good crew, all three of them. Small, but mighty in the best of ways, and better than what Andi deserved. She stared at her blades once more before putting them back in their harness. If only she could put her memories away just as easily.

“I’ve got a tip for a possible job on Vacilis,” Andi said finally. It was a desert world where the wind blew as hot as the devil’s backside and the air was choked with the stench of sulfur, just a few planets over from ice-locked Solera. “But I’m not sure how many Krevs it’ll haul. And it’ll be messy, dealing with the desert nomads.”

Breck shrugged her broad shoulders. “Any money is good money if it brings us more food stores.”

“And ammo,” Gilly said, cracking her knuckles like the little warrior she was.

Andi inclined her head at Lira. “Thoughts?”

“We will see where the stars lead us,” Lira answered.

Andi nodded. “I’ll get in touch with my informant. Take us away, Lir.”

“As you wish.” Lira punched the destination into the control panel’s holoscreen. A diagram of Mirabel illuminated the room with blue light, stars floating around their heads and the little planets that made up each major system orbiting their suns. A bright line traced from their current location near an unnamed moon, too barren for habitation, to Vacilis, almost half a galaxy away.

Lira scrutinized the route, then minimized the map and readied the ship for hyperspace travel.

Andi turned in her seat. “Breck, Gilly, go to the vault and do a weapons check. Then make sure the Big Bang is fully loaded. I want you two ready in case we run into any trouble once we arrive in the Tavina System.”

“We’re always ready,” Breck said.

Gilly giggled, and the two gunners nodded at Andi in salute before exiting the bridge. Gilly skipped along behind Breck, her golden gun bobbing against her tiny frame.

“Engines are hot,” Lira said. “Time to fly.”

The Marauder rumbled beneath Andi as she slumped down in her chair, exhaustion worming its way in.

The expanse of space stretched out before them, and Andi’s eyelids began to droop against her will. With Lira by her side, she sank into the warm folds of sleep.

* * *

Smoke pooled into the ruined ship, unrelenting as Andi gasped for air. She glanced sideways, where Kalee’s bloody hand twitched once, then hung motionless over the armrest.

“Wake up,” Andi rasped. “You have to wake up!”

Andi awoke to a rough shake of her shoulder from Lira. Her heart hammered in her chest as her eyes adjusted to the dim light of the bridge. Starlight ahead, the glowing holoscreen on the dash.

She was here. She was safe.

But something was off. A light on the holo blinked red, a silent prox alarm beside the markers that showed not only the Marauder’s location, but three ships behind them, catching up fast. An unwelcome sight to any space pirate.

“We have a tail.” Lira curled her lip in annoyance. She tapped a blue fingertip on the holoscreen, changing it to the rear-cam, showing Andi a faraway look at the ships soaring behind them. “Two Explorers and one Tracker.”

“The stars be damned,” Andi said. “When did they show up?”

“Seconds before I woke you. We came out of light speed just outside the Tavina System, as planned, and the alarm activated not long after.”

Andi’s mind raced, calculating all the possible scenarios. Lira never let anyone get the drop on the Marauder. They had to have been cloaked with technology the likes of which Andi’s crew could only dream of getting their hands on. She told herself this was just like any other night, any other chase, but she couldn’t shake the ominous feeling that this time might be different.

“Do we know who they are? Black market, Mirabel Patrol?” Andi asked, staring at the radar as it blinked, the three hellish red dots slowly gaining on them.

Lira glowered. “With this tech, it has to be Patrol. They didn’t show up on our radar until they were practically on top of us.”

Andi chewed on her bottom lip. “Which branch?”

You know which branch, her mind whispered. She shoved the voice away.

“We won’t know until they’re in our close-range sights, and by then, it’ll be too late for us to escape,” Lira said.

“Then don’t let them get that close.”

The Patrolmen, those bastards. The government lackeys had been after Andi’s ship for years, but they’d never once come close enough to appear on the Marauder’s radar.

Their last job shouldn’t have been enough to capture the attention of the Patrolmen. It was a black-market operation, a simple grab and go. All they’d done was haul a few crates’ worth of meds for a drug lord, nothing significant enough to bring the Patrolmen down on them.

The girls had taken on more high-profile jobs than that—like the time they kidnapped a rich Soleran’s mistress and left her on a meteor, the job requested by the man’s furious wife. She paid a pretty penny for their services. It wasn’t until days later that they found out the woman was not only a mistress, but a prominent politician’s daughter from Tenebris. The politician tore the galaxy apart looking for his daughter. When he eventually found her withered corpse on that barren rock, word got back about who put her there.

Andi screened their jobs much more carefully now. Her crew was still on the run from that politician to this day.

It could be he’d finally caught their scent. She closed her eyes. Black holes ablaze, she was screwed. The ship rumbled beneath her, almost as if in agreement.

“Cloaking is useless at this point,” Lira said as she readied the gears, slamming buttons, tapping in codes. “Engines are still too hot to go back into hyperspace. Damn their tech.”

In the distance, Andi could just barely make out the ghostly forms of their pursuers. They were still far out, but heading closer with each passing breath. “Get us out of this, and I’ll see to it that we get devices of the same caliber.”

“And bigger guns?” Lira asked, her blue eyes wide. “We’ll barely scrape by if we have to turn and fire on them. We only have one Big Bang left.”

Andi nodded. “Much bigger guns.”

“Well, then,” Lira said, a dangerous grin spreading across her face. “I think the stars may align for us, Captain. Any last words?”

Someone else had said that to her once, long ago. Before she escaped Arcardius, never to see her home planet again.

Andi chewed on her lip, and the memory fizzled away. She could have given her Second a thousand words, but instead she simply strapped herself in, turned in her seat and said, “Fly true, Lir.”

Lira nodded and took the ship’s wheel, her grip steady and practiced. “Fly true.”

A humming vibration filled the bay before the ship shot forward, like the tip of a crystal spear hurtling through the black expanse.