The disrupter lay on the counter, the weapon’s matte finish dull beneath the lights. It was new. None of the intricate grip pattern had been worn away by the friction of hands holding it. The barrel was smooth, no nicks or scratches to the finish.
It was as inert as a weapon could be. Innocuous. Straight from manufacture, it held no history. Nothing but test firing for quality control.
But Atrea’s mouth still went dry, looking at it. She rubbed her palm against her leg, then immediately stopped the nervous movement. Never in her life had she been anxious about picking up a weapon. Growing up a smuggler’s daughter, they’d just been a part of everyday life. And having Wolfgang Hades for a father meant learning how to handle them from an early age. Everything from how to safely manage all manner of weapons, to hitting her marks, to taking them apart and rebuilding them. Wolfgang didn’t believe in taking chances.
Neither did Atrea.
Which was why a brand new disruptor sat waiting for her to pick the thing up. Come on, Hades, stop being a coward.
“Are you just going to stare at it all day?” The quartermaster wasn’t a patient sort. Grizzled and reeking of spice and whiskey, he looked bored. And irritated.
It wasn’t the gun, it was what might happen when she touched it. What had happened, the first time she’d touched her guns after waking up from the coma that had changed her life. Well, the first time she’d done so naked, at any rate. No gloves. No inhibitor. Just her naked palm on the familiar grip of her P4000 disruptor, lovingly modified more than ten years ago by her own design.
She’d purchased it herself from a weapons dealer her father knew. Her first hard coin on her own weapon. She’d been fourteen. And then she’d spent years getting familiar with it, making it so much a part of her that she knew every centimeter by touch, in the dark. She’d loved that gun.
Too bad someone else had used it before it came into her possession. Touching it with her Talent active had proven to be a terrible mistake.
Atrea could still see their faces every time she closed her eyes. A parade of faces. Young, old, male, female. Some as young as five or six. Barely more than babies, and some asshole had put her disrupter to their heads and pulled the trigger. Disrupters were stun only unless you modded one to be lethal. Or unless you fired them at someone’s head from point blank range.
Their faces haunted her dreams, though they’d all been strangers to her. And she had no idea why some psycho had chosen to murder children with her disruptor. Just bad luck, she supposed, that she’d picked that one out of all the dealer’s stock that day.
She’d loved that gun. And now she couldn’t stomach the thought of touching it.
“Look, I got other clients. Either you want the thing, or you don’t.” The quartermaster was losing patience with her, his heavy brows drawn into a scowl. He spit a wad of something unappetizing into a cup behind the counter.
Fuck it. She palmed the gun before she could talk herself out of it again. The grip was cool to the touch, smooth, and familiar. Solid in her hand. Her finger hovered next to the trigger automatically, the weapon pointed down at her side, a safe position.
She held her breath, waiting, but the only images that came rushing to her mind were the hands that put it together, the inspections, test firing at targets, and cleaning. This time, little emotion accompanied them. Just the images, like a documentary on disrupter manufacture, minus the machining of the parts. The last thing she saw was darkness as someone closed it inside a packing crate, ready for shipment, and a brief flash of the quartermaster’s beefy hands unpacking it.
She let out a breath. Safe. Thank the Mother.
Talent sure was a pain in the ass.
It fit perfectly in her favorite holster, too, resting easily against the front of her hip just inside the waist of her pants. The P4000 was small enough to easily carry concealed. She had plenty of bigger, more aggressive weapons, but she liked having a little something on her that others wouldn’t be expecting. She pulled her shirt back down over the grip, and it disappeared completely. Someone would practically have to be kissing her to find it, and she didn’t plan to let any of these pirates get that close.
She was halfway back to her berth when she spotted him. Again. He was good, but so was she. Spotting a tail was something, like weapons, that she’d spent her life training in. And Jaxon’s presence had become so frequent that she’d started looking for him. This morning, she’d actually felt a weird twinge when he wasn’t there. If he was aboard Nemesis, she could guarantee he’d be waiting when she left the galley in the morning. Until today.
That twinge worried her. For a second, she’d even considered contacting Mercy to find out if Reaper and his dogs had left the ship. Thankfully, she’d recovered her senses before tagging her best friend. What did it matter if Jaxon and the others had gone? It just meant her next few days would be peaceful and stalker free.
Except now they wouldn’t be, because he was back. She waited to feel disappointed or irritated, and wasn’t happy when neither emotion materialized. What the hell was wrong with her?
She switched directions abruptly, heading not to her cabin, but to the ship’s training facilities. It held a gym, a track, a holo field that could create various scenarios for workout or practice, and a target range. She headed for the latter.
He followed, of course. He kept far enough back that she might not have noticed, but by now she was so attuned to his presence she could feel him back there. Was that another Talent, or just her own instincts? She hated that the question even occurred to her.
Jaxon wasn’t exactly a small guy. Tall, with wide shoulders and a soldier’s physique, he tended to loom when he was standing next to someone. But for such a large man he could disappear when he wanted to, easily becoming invisible in a crowd. It was irritating. But for better or worse, she knew he was there, whether she could see him or not.
She couldn’t understand his fixation. At first, she thought he was stalking her because she shot him.
It wasn’t like she’d had a choice. He’d been under the control of someone else’s Talent at the time, and about to murder a teenager. Shooting him had saved a boy’s life. Besides, it had been a clean shot, through and through. He’d healed in a few days, thanks to Doc and a well-stocked infirmary. He shouldn’t hold a grudge over that.
She thought about confronting him, but decided to wait it out and see what he did. After a few days, she’d realized his constant presence didn’t have a malevolent feel. Instead, it felt more like…curiosity. She ignored him, concluding that he’d go away on his own, once he’d looked his fill.
Except that wasn’t happening. Days stretched into weeks, stretched into months, and he was still there. Whenever the two of them were onboard the same ship, she could count on his presence nearby. And that twinge this morning decided her. Enough was enough.
The target range was empty. It was early in day shift yet, technically “morning” as such things were measured in ship time. Perfect.
She headed to the far end of the range, and the control panel that stood there. Right now the room looked like a typical range with booths and targets. Someone had left it configured. She fiddled with the holo controls. The controls allowed you to place holos wherever you might need to create different training scenarios. The entire layout of the room could be changed to create whatever you wanted, such as buildings and multiple rooms instead of a simple range. That freedom allowed her to get creative. She was dealing with a Hunter, so she’d have to be clever, and quick because if he followed his usual pattern, he’d be here in minutes.
A building popped up all around her, a maze of hallways and rooms. She programmed the holo projector to scan her and populated the place with dozens of figures, some generic targets, but at least half of them duplicates of herself, down to the clothes she was wearing.
It wasn’t perfect, but she was pretty pleased with how it turned out, given how hastily she’d had to throw the whole thing together.
Now the tricky part. She wasn’t very precise yet with her stupid Talent. But she understood the basics of shielding well enough, and she’d worked with Mercy specifically on hiding herself, a knack her best friend had used many times in their youth to keep them out of trouble.
She positioned herself, and then focused on tightening her shields and making herself as invisible as possible.
Atrea felt it when he entered the room. He stopped just inside, taking in the scenario already underway, the cacophony of weapons fire and grunts of pain as the fake Atreas gunned down the bad guys, and sometimes each other. She forced herself to wait. Someone as smart as Jaxon would figure out her ploy in moments and start searching for which Atrea was real.
Which was exactly what she wanted him to do. He’d have to enter the scenario if he wanted to track her. When he selected a weapon, she smiled.
She sighted her weapon down the course just like every other Atrea and pulled a few test shots. The P4000 shot like a dream. Smooth, no recoil, minimal charge time. There was a reason it was still the most in-demand disruptor in the Commonwealth after three decades of use.
When Jaxon started stalking into the holo projected hallways, she made her move.
She had to be careful. Jaxon was a Hunter. His sense of awareness was greater than most, and he seemed especially attuned to her. Then again, she’d grown up playing cat and mouse with a lot of dangerous people. Her Dad’s friends had been an odd mix of smugglers and ex-military.
Keeping her mind blank was second nature. Even people with no Talent could sense it when your attention was focused on them. Atrea had plenty of practice emptying her thoughts and keeping her focus away from a target.
She used the changes she’d made to the layout of the room for cover, moving in and around the maze of rooms, shooting targets, always aware of where he was as he hunted down each version of herself and verified for himself which were simply holos. He even shot a few round himself, clearing the field in the precise way she’d known he would
Jaxon wasn’t military, but he might as well be. The pirates, for all their supposed lawlessness, functioned a lot like a military organization, with intense training, their own versions of rank, and the kind of discipline that made the very best combat units.
She stopped once she’d circled the room and stood only a few feet behind him, watching him shoot for a few minutes. It gave her time to decide how to approach this. And, she had to admit, it wasn’t a bad view.
Jaxon stood with his back to her, the white cotton of his shirt tight across his back as he fired his weapon. It didn’t leave much to the imagination, highlighting his narrow waist, muscular back, and broad shoulders. He stood comfortably, his legs in a balanced stance that would allow him to move in any direction easily. The top of her head barely came up to the bottom of his shoulder blades. She probably weighed less than half what he did.
Not that she’d ever let a little thing like fighting weight stop her.
She slipped up behind him, the snub nose of her disruptor snug against his back.
“Hey, handsome. Drop the weapon.”
She felt more than heard the sound that rumbled from him. At first, she thought it was a growl, but then she realized he was laughing.
The jerk. She shoved the disruptor a little harder. “You think I’m joking?”
He carefully lifted his weapon so it pointed skyward. Her eyes flicked to it, automatically assessing. Standard plasma rifle. Medium range, large magazine. Manufactured by a hundred different companies Commonwealth-wide, and supposedly military-use only. But most smugglers, mercenaries, and pirates used them. This particular model was from Wetworks Manufacturing. They didn’t cut corners and used only their own precision machined parts. Not bad. She could improve it, of course, and for a second her fingers itched to inspect it. Then she remembered her Talent and the urge died a quick death.
“End scenario.” All of the activity in the room stopped, and the maze of rooms, the targets, and various versions of Atrea vanished.
“If you wanted to talk, all you had to do was ask,” Jaxon said.
“I’m tired of you following me all of the damn time. I don’t know what your problem is, but it ends now.”
“I don’t have a problem.”
“Hmm. The past several months of you shadowing me every chance you get would argue otherwise.”
He shrugged, a movement casual enough that it told her he wasn’t really worried she would shoot him. Which seemed pretty arrogant coming from a guy she’d already shot once.
Atrea’s teeth ground together. “Why have you been following me?”
“I’m not going to have a conversation while you’re holding me at gun point.”
“Then I guess we’ll be here for awhile.”
He shifted, a movement that should have caused her to pull the trigger, if she’d really intended to shoot him. Instead, she stood there and felt like an idiot as he turned completely around, forcing her to ease back or end up pressed against his chest.
She stepped back. It was tempting to shoot him just for the hell of it. Take a little distance, so she could be sure the shot would only stun, and drop him. She sighed, and holstered her new weapon. However satisfying it might be in the short term, she really didn’t want to be known as the woman who’d shot Jaxon twice.
“I’m tired of whatever game you’re playing,” she told him. “I apologized for shooting you. You accepted. That should be it.”
“It?” His head tilted, that shaggy hair of his falling into his eyes.
Seriously, did he not know what nanites were for? Most people opted for the little computerized enhancements that shaped hair into whatever cut or color you could ask for. Upgrade them with new nanites every six months or so, and that was all the maintenance needed. Not Jaxon. His brown hair usually hung in uneven strands around his face, making Atrea itch to cut it.
“Meaning what?” he asked. “We should never speak again?”
“There is a lot of ground between never speaking again, and you following me everywhere. So what is it? Are you just waiting for your moment? The perfect opportunity for revenge?”
“No.” He looked genuinely puzzled. “Why would I want revenge?”
He could not be this dense. Her teeth ground together. “Because. I. Shot. You.”
He waved a dismissive hand. “You shot me so I didn’t end up killing a kid. Believe me, I’m better off for it.” For a second, worry flickered over his face, and she thought of Zion, the guy she’d shot at and missed. Unfortunately, he had ended up killing someone. He’d been forced to do it by a young queen controlling his mind, but guilt could be a funny thing.
“How is Zion doing?” she asked before she thought better of it. She wasn’t here to make polite conversation, but somehow things had turned that direction.
“Not great.” Jaxon brushed the hair from his eyes. “Like I said, I’m better off.”
An awkward silence fell between them. She became aware that they were standing too close, that he smelled like gun oil and soap, and somehow this whole confrontation had derailed. She cleared her throat. “If you weren’t stalking me because of some twisted revenge thing, why the hell were you doing it?”
“Stalking you?” He raised one eyebrow. “Stalking you.”
“That’s what it’s called when you constantly follow someone around.”
He frowned. “You’re new here, and you’ve been through a lot. I’m just checking in.”
“Is that some kind of overprotective male bullshit?” She crossed her arms. “Does it seem like I’m someone who can’t take care of herself?”
He studied her. “You’re new to your Talent. You have no idea what it can do.”
“That is such a bullshit answer. I’m training.” Every damn day. In a classroom filled with children.
It was actually a little humiliating. But also necessary. She knew less than they did about how to use Talent, or shielding, or any of it. The teacher was nice enough. Besides, the kids were all so eager to help her, it was adorable.
Not that she would ever admit that out loud.
“Maybe so, but it’ll be awhile before you have full control of it. I’m just…making sure nothing happens in the meantime. To you or anyone around you.”
“I didn’t ask for your help. And I haven’t needed it.”
“Maybe. But I think you will.”
“For what? You think my Talent is suddenly going to go wild and I’ll lose control?”
He reached out a brushed a thumb over her cheek, just under her eye. It caught her so by surprise that she stood frozen and speechless. It was just a brief touch, barely feather light.
“I think you’re not sleeping. And I think I know why. I can help you.”
She forced her lips to move, making her tone sardonic. “Is that some kind of come on? Because, no thanks. I don’t need help sleeping.”
His eyes searched hers. They were a brown so light they were almost amber. “You think the nightmares will stop on their own?”
How the fuck did he know she had nightmares?
“Because you think about them a lot, and when you aren’t paying attention you still project your thoughts like a null.”
If he’d looked smug, she couldn’t have resisted the idea of stunning him. But instead his face was serious, nothing mocking or superior about it.
“Listen,” he said. “What you’re going through isn’t unique. Every single one of us has stories about how we had to adjust to our gifts. Most of us just went through it in childhood. Coming into your power as an adult is harder.”
“It’s nothing I can’t handle.”
He grinned, a quick, amused expression. “I’m sure there isn’t a lot you can’t handle. But what I’m offering is something you can’t do on your own.”
“And what is that, exactly?”
“Tracking down the asshole you see in your dreams and making him pay for what he did.”
Whatever she’d been expecting him to say, that wasn’t it. She stared at him. Her dreams were haunted by the deaths she’d seen. But the murders that had happened using her weapon. But they’d happened years ago, been committed by someone she couldn’t even see clearly. She saw what they did. She felt their emotions while they did it, heard their thoughts, what they said. But it wasn’t enough to identify them, much less find them.
“That’s not possible,” she said.
“Oh, it is. We’ve done it before.”
He shrugged. “Me. Zion. The other dogs. Reaper. I’m a Hunter. Tracking and finding people is what my Talent does.”
“I know,” she said. “But that’s different. I don’t know this person. How can you track someone you’ve never met? Someone I’ve never even met.”
“That’s where you come in. I should be able to get an imprint from your mind, from what you saw.”
She stared at him. Her heart was suddenly beating so loudly the sound filled her ears. “You can do that?”
“Titus and I do it all of the time. One of his Talents is a lot like yours.” He leaned forward. “These assholes murdered a bunch of kids, right? If there’s one thing unforgivable in this universe, it’s hurting children. Putting your nightmares to rest is just a bonus. Honestly, finding this guy is something we’d want to do anyway.”
She looked down at her hands. Thought about what she’d seen when she touched her disrupter. Heard the cries, the fear. The silence.
She looked back up. “I’ll think about it.” He opened his mouth as though to speak and she jabbed a finger at his chest. “No. I’ll give you my answer when I’m ready.”
His hair was in his eyes again. She had the insane urge to brush it back. Instead, she turned on her heel and strode from the room.
“And don’t follow me,” she called over her shoulder.