THERE’S A GUY STARING AT me from the other end of the bar. I can only see him because I’m in the habit of leaning forward, elbows on the plastene surface, so I can see past the row of heads. From here I can keep an eye on the whole place by watching the bartender’s mirror overhead. And the guy I’m watching is using the same trick.
He’s new. For one thing I don’t recognize him, but for another he’s got that look. Definitely a recruit, with something to prove, like they all do at first. But he’s still glancing around, careful not to bump into the other guys, not too familiar with anyone else. He’s wearing a uniform T-shirt, jacket, and fatigues, but the clothes are ill-fitting, the tiniest bit too tight. Could be because he’s so new, they haven’t ordered them in his size yet. Could also be because the uniform isn’t his.
Still, the new ones know by the end of their first week not to hit on Captain Chase, even when she’s at Molly Malone’s. I’m not interested. Eighteen is pretty young to take yourself off the market, but it’s safer to send them all the same message from day one.
But this guy…this guy makes me pause. Makes me forget all of that. Dark tumbly hair, thick brows, dangerously sweet eyes. Sensuous mouth, tiny smirk barely hidden at its corner. He’s got a poet’s mouth. Artistic, expressive.
He looks oddly familiar. Beads of condensation form around my fingers as I hold my drink. Scratch that—I’d remember this guy if I’d seen him before.
“All good?” The bartender comes between us, leaning on the bar and tilting his head toward me. It’s a crappy bar on a crappy makeshift street, wistfully named Molly Malone’s. Some ghost story from the Irish roots claimed by this particular cluster of terraforming fodder folk. “Molly” is a three-hundred-pound bald Chinese man with a tattoo of a chrysanthemum on his neck. I’ve been a favorite of his ever since I landed here, not least because I’m one of the only people who can speak more than a word or two of Mandarin, thanks to my mother.
I raise an eyebrow at him. “Trying to get me drunk?”
“I live an’ dream an’ hope, babe.”
“Someday, Molly.” I pause, my attention returning to the mirror. This time, the guy sees me looking and meets my gaze unapologetically. I fight the urge to jerk my eyes away, and lean closer to the bartender. “Hey, Mol—who’s the new guy down at the end?”
Molly knows better than to look over his shoulder and starts rinsing out a new glass instead. “The pretty one?”
“Said he was just posted here, trying to get a feel for the place. He’s asking lots of questions.”
Odd. The fresh meat usually comes in herd form, entire platoons of wide-eyed, nervous boys and girls all shuffling wherever they’re told. A little voice in my head points out that’s not really fair, that I was meat once too, and only two years ago. But they’re so woefully unprepared for life on Avon that I can’t help it.
This one’s different, though—and he’s all alone. Wariness tingles at the base of my neck, my gaze sharpening. Here on Avon, different usually means dangerous.
“Thanks, Molly.” I flick the condensation on my fingertips at him, and he flinches away and grins before turning back to his more demanding customers.
The guy’s still staring at me. The smirk is not quite so hidden now. I know I’m staring back, but I don’t really care. If he really is a soldier, I can say I was sizing him up in an official capacity, looking for warning signs. Just because I’m off duty doesn’t mean I can leave my responsibilities behind. We don’t get much warning when we’re about to lose one to the Fury.
He doesn’t look much older than I am, so even if he enlisted the day he turned sixteen he won’t have more than two years of service under his belt. Enough to get cocky—not enough to know he should wipe that grin off his face. A few weeks on Avon will do that for him. He’s chiseled, with a chin so perfect, it makes me want to hit it. The shadow of stubble along his jaw only emphasizes the lines of his face. These guys invariably end up being assholes, but from this distance he’s just beautiful. Like he was put together by an artist.
Guys like this make me want to believe in God.
The missionaries should really start recruiting guys like him before the military can get to them. After all, you don’t have to be pretty to shoot people. But I think it probably helps if you’re trying to spread your faith.
With my eyes on his in the mirror overhead, I give a deliberate jerk of my chin to summon him over. He gets the message, but takes his time about responding. In an ordinary bar on an ordinary planet, it’d mean he wasn’t interested or was playing hard to get. But since I’m not after what people in ordinary bars are after, his hesitation makes me pause. Either he doesn’t know who I am or he doesn’t care. It can’t be the former—everyone on this rock knows Captain Lee Chase, no matter how freshly arrived. But if it’s the latter, he’s no ordinary recruit.
Some stooge from Central Command, trying to lie low by dressing like us? A field agent for Terra Dynamics, come to see if the military’s doing its job in preventing an all-out uprising? It’s not unheard of for a corporation to send in spies to make sure the government is holding up its end of the terraforming agreement. Which only makes our job harder. The corporations are constantly lobbying to be able to hire private mercs, but since the Galactic Council doesn’t exactly relish the thought of privately funded armies running around, they’re stuck petitioning for government forces. Maybe he’s from the Galactic Council, here to spy on Avon before their planetary review in a couple months.
No matter who he is, it can’t be good news for me. Why can’t these people leave me alone and let me do my job?
The dark-haired guy picks up his beer and makes his way over to my end of the bar. He puts on a good show of eager shyness, like he’s surprised to be singled out, but I know better. “Hey,” he says by way of greeting. “I don’t want you to panic, but your drink appears to be blue.”
It’s one of Molly’s concoctions, which he sometimes gives me for free as an excuse to actually mix drinks instead of filling pitchers of beer.
I make a snap decision. If he wants to play it coy, I can do coy right back. He’s not exactly hard on the eyes, and this curiosity is tugging at me—I want to see what happens if I go along with it. I know he can’t be interested in me. At least not the way he’s pretending to be.