The young ones died first.
Blood pooled between the stones and crawled across the floor with delicate phantom hands. Shane felt it sink into his bones the longer he lay in the cell. How long had it been since he tasted pure, unrecycled oxygen? Since he felt the steady weight of a weapon in his hand? His finger twitched as he imagined the shock of a rifle against his shoulder, the silent shot in the open vacuum of space. You’re not going to die here.
Shane rolled over, wincing as his shoulder twisted painfully. He’d popped it back into place after the fight yesterday, but the skin was still swollen and tender. His hands ached, too. He tried not to think about why, but the memories always overcame him in the end.
A pulse slowing under his fingers. The other man clawing at the floor, broken nails scratching down the dusty walls. Shane had always thought killing would be harder, that it would take a certain kind of person to wrap their hands around another’s throat and squeeze until there was nothing left, but it had been over by the time the warden arrived, before the droids swarmed and the prisoners rioted. Killing was the easiest thing in the world. And Shane wasn’t sorry.
He exhaled, grimacing at the sharp pain in his chest. They kept it cold in solitary. Add that to the list of things these people would pay for. He’d come for them all eventually—every officer, every warden, every droid. Everyone who funded a place like this. You’re not going to die here.
Shane’s last thoughts before the dark claimed him again were of his hands, pale and trembling without something to hold, and that man’s vacant, lifeless stare.
Three months of planning and Ava had still managed to underestimate the cold.
She shivered as she followed a masked officer through the twisting corridors of the Opian prison moon. They had made it through the first security checkpoint without so much as a whisper from the alarms, but another officer stopped her before she reached the second. He yanked her into a corner between a damp, icy wall and a security droid, and Ava had to remind herself that this was normal
as his hands closed around her waist.
This was Chess.
This level of security was expected. Still, she had to force herself not to flinch, to focus on the camera embedded in the droid’s flat, metal face and instead think about all the ways she could take this officer apart while his hands skimmed up her legs. He got as far as her left thigh before finding the protein bar tucked in her stocking. His face twisted into a mocking grin.
Ava tried to snatch it back, but the officer shoved it into his own pocket before giving her a pat on the back that lingered a bit too long between her shoulder blades and pushing her through the second checkpoint.
The officer in front of her now wore a thick padded jacket and boots in addition to a mask across the bottom half of his face. Ava had to clench her jaw to keep her teeth from chattering as they walked. What do the prisoners wear? How many freeze to death alone in these cells?
She tried not to think about what three months in a place like this might have done to Shane. The frigid climate on their home planet, Nakara, meant she wasn’t usually cold, but Ava didn’t think this chill was entirely due to temperature.
The officers tried to block her view of the cells as they walked, one after the other in a shifting wall of black fabric and polished weapons, but it wasn’t necessary. Ava had stopped looking after she saw a girl slumped against the rough stones, eyes half-open as her fingers twitched in time to their footsteps.
“Are you a friend of his?”
The officer’s question was too loud. Ava tensed as he looked over his shoulder, lowering her gaze to the floor. “Yes.”
What she could see of the man’s face relaxed, and satisfaction heated her bones. This was why Shane had hired her, after all. This was why she wore pretty dresses and wove moonflowers into her long, dark hair and blushed at every question. Because she was a good actress, good enough to make it if she’d been born on any part of Nakara other than barren, wasted West Rama. Because she was harmless
When the officer spoke again, his voice was almost kind. “Can I give you a piece of advice?”
Ava nodded as they stopped in front of a thick, steel-plated door. He could give her all the advice he wanted if he looked the other way in that room. “Of course.”
The officer removed his glove and pressed one finger to the scanner laid into the wall. “That boy is nothing but trouble. Everyone on this moon is trouble.”
Ava did smile then, and she was glad his back was turned. She ran a hand down the front of her dress, tracing the sharp edge of the pistol still tucked beneath the fabric, cold against her skin.
He didn’t know the first thing about trouble.
When the door clicked open, she used the time it took for the officer to put his glove back on to find the cameras—one in every corner. That was fine. Jared said he’d deal with those. He should be in the system by now; she just had to buy him time. Then the officer stepped aside and Ava’s next breath caught as she locked eyes with Shane. Three months.
Had it really only been three months? Ava could see his ribs against the thin fabric of his prison shirt, see the way he stood with one arm pressed against his side. Too thin.
They had shaved his hair too, so only a thin buzz remained across his pale scalp, but Shane still straightened when he saw her, eyes widening in surprise before his face split into a painful-looking grin.
“Hey, baby, how’s it floating?”
Same voice, same confidence, same wry smile. Ava grimaced. “You look like junkmatter.”
She reached out a hand, but the officer caught her wrist before she could touch him. “That’s close enough.”
It took every ounce of Ava’s self-control not to snap his fingers. She pretended to shrink away, hands shaking as they fell back to her sides. He didn’t need to know it was from fury, not fear. Harmless.
Then she heard it—a faint click
. The cameras.
Jared said anyone watching from the prison’s control towers would see the room exactly as it had been seconds before, their images frozen in time. She had two minutes, but the only person Ava had to fool was the officer himself.
And Shane, who hadn’t been expecting her, who had no idea what she was planning, who could barely stand.
Ava pushed the thought away. It didn’t matter; they would make this work. She took a tentative step forward and silently begged Shane to play along. “I’ve missed you. How are you doing?” It was a stupid question. Purple bruises masked most of Shane’s face and now that she was closer, Ava could tell he was keeping the weight off his left ankle, too. She swallowed her unease and added, “I tried to bring food, but they found it.”
She said that part loud enough for the officer to hear, to let him think the game was over.
Shane’s confusion only lasted a second longer. His face smoothed into an easy grin, eyes flicking toward each camera as Ava took another step. “That’s fine. You were all I wanted anyway, baby.”
Ava resisted the urge to roll her eyes. That was a bit much, even for him, but it worked for what she had to do next. Slowly, she lifted her hands to the front of her dress and unfastened one button. “Really?” she whispered. “That’s all
Shane blinked, color deepening on his bruised cheeks as she opened another button, then a third. Ava glanced over her shoulder to find the officer suddenly very interested in a spot on the floor. She undid another button, finally revealing the barrel of the gun stashed down the front of her dress, and Shane’s expression shifted into cool understanding. This time, when he reached for her, the officer didn’t intervene.
Because she was a simple, harmless girl caught up with a boy from the wrong side of town.
Ava slid her hands across Shane’s chest as he lowered his face into the curve of her neck. She could feel him shivering under her fingers, and her next words caught in her throat as one of his hands groped at her chest, grabbing the barrel of the gun.
“There’s a droid at the first security checkpoint,” she breathed, and Shane’s answering nod was almost invisible. He slid the weapon into the front of his pants and Ava stepped back, hurriedly buttoning her dress. Every few seconds she threw nervous, purposeful glances over her shoulder at the officer, who still had his gaze fixed on a crack in the floor, but it was Shane who spoke first.
“All that and I don’t even get a kiss?”
Ava’s hands stilled on her collar, and when she glanced up, Shane looked like he was fighting the urge to laugh. He thinks this is funny
, Ava realized.
Here he was, barely able to stand, and he still wanted to embarrass her. Unbelievable.
So instead of blushing and turning away like she knew he expected, Ava smiled, grabbed Shane’s face with both hands, and kissed him right on the mouth. He let out a pained grunt at the sudden movement, but she ignored him, and when she pulled back, the officer seemed to decide that was the last straw. “Time’s up.”
Ava patted Shane’s cheek and stepped away. “Bye, baby
The last thing Ava saw before the door closed was Shane’s grin, wicked and cutting as he lifted a hand to his lips.
The man behind the visitor’s desk handed Ava her bag and fake ID as she signed out, but her heart was still hammering as she stepped outside and picked her way through the docks. Their Cruiser was easy to spot, clunky and out of place among the shiny patrol vehicles. The ship wasn’t particularly fast, but the boxy model and nondescript paint job blended with the commuter traffic on almost every planet. Shane never would have stolen a Cruiser—they weren’t flashy enough for him. But Shane hadn’t been there when they needed a new ship. And given the circumstances, Ava thought she’d done a decent job.
Jared was already sitting in the front, feet propped against the dashboard. He scrambled up when Ava hauled herself into the ship. “Did you see him?” he asked without waiting for her to sit down. “What did he look like? What’s going on?”
His fingers danced nervously over his skin screen and the sound of fingernails on glass raked down Ava’s spine. She shuddered. “Bad.”
“How so? What—?”
“It was bad
He flinched and Ava immediately regretted snapping. “Sorry,” she murmured, running a hand across her face. “I’m sorry. It was bad.”
There was a moment of frosty silence before Jared leaned forward, tucking his chin against her shoulder as they waited together. Ava had debated pushing him out the air lock half a dozen times over the last three months, but she was glad he was here now. She wouldn’t have made it this far without him. Jared was only fifteen—two years younger than she was—but he was the best hacker she’d ever met, and he still had the skin screen to prove it, despite ditching the Nakaran military years ago.
Ava wound the chain of her necklace around one finger until the small, rectangular charm landed in her palm, gleaming silver in the harsh light of the docks. They shouldn’t linger here, especially in a stolen ship. The flow of traffic on and off Chess was almost as strictly regulated as the prison itself, and any minute someone would notice she was still here.
And that a prisoner was making his way toward the exit, shooting down everything in his path.
She checked and rechecked the Cruiser’s landing gear, trying to ignore the weight of each passing second. Then, when nothing happened, she checked it a third time before pulling the mirrors forward to reapply her lipstick. It was still smudged from kissing Shane. That was going to be a lecture for sure—he didn’t like surprises. She glanced back toward the entrance, certain she would see him dashing across the docks, but the doors were still firmly closed. He’s taking too long.
How long did she wait before calling it and leaving Shane inside? What if he never made it past the guard in the visitor’s room or the droid at the checkpoint? Ava reached down and started the Cruiser, wincing at the sharp rattle of the engine. Just a few more seconds . . .
“What’s the holdup?”
Jared jumped, scattering wires and spare parts over the floor, as another voice echoed across the docks. He turned panicked eyes toward the approaching officer as Ava jammed a finger into his chest.
speak,” she hissed. Then she turned and plastered on a smile. “Hi, Officer, is there a problem?”
He didn’t smile back. “What’s the holdup?”
Ava could only make out his eyes, narrowed over the top of his mask. Shane always said the people who worked on Opia’s prison moons hid their faces because they didn’t want anyone to know what they were capable of. She remembered his bruises, the girl from the cell, and it was an effort to keep her smile from slipping. “Nothing, Officer, we were just leaving. You know these old Cruisers take forever to start.”
The officer ignored her and peered into the back, where Jared was running his hands through his nest of white-blond curls. “What’s your business here?”
Ava risked a glance toward the controls. Three switches. That was all it would take to get them in the air. As long as she was through the prison checkpoint before the alarms sounded, she had nothing to worry about.
“Hello!” The officer snapped his gloved fingers in front of her face, and Ava wondered how long it would take to break his hand. Could she do it before he called for backup? Before he reached for the assault rifle strapped across his chest?
“I’m sorry,” Ava gasped. Her eyes blurred with fake tears. “We were visiting a friend.”
“Who?” The officer’s gaze didn’t soften. He didn’t even flinch. When she didn’t answer, he reached a hand toward his ear, and Ava barely had time to open her mouth before he pressed a finger to his portable comm and said, “Air control, this is—”
He never finished the sentence.
One second, he was standing in front of the window and the next he had tipped forward, blood blooming across his chest as he choked on a strangled cry. Jared yelped and Ava shoved the body to the ground, already feeling for her own weapon. Her hand had barely closed around its barrel when she saw Shane limping hurriedly across the docks.
He came to a stop outside the ship, and Ava watched him glance at Jared, who still cowered in the back, before his gaze slid over to her. She opened her mouth, three months of practiced conversations blurring together the longer they looked at each other, but Shane held up a finger before she could say anything at all.
“I cannot believe
you stole a Cruiser.”
Copyright © 2023 by Jenna Voris. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.