I fish out the plastic sword—it’s hot pink—from the martini glass and suck the cherries off of it, one by one. The guy’s eyes fix on my lips, sending a brief surge of satisfaction through me. Molly doesn’t get much opportunity to mix drinks here—and I don’t get much opportunity to flirt.
I let my lips curve in a smile and lean in a fraction. “I like it blue.”
His mouth opens to respond, but instead he’s forced to clear his throat at length.
“Got a touch of the swamp bug?” I feign concern. “Molly’ll take care of that for you. His drinks’ll cure anything, from wounded feelings to appendicitis.”
“That so?” He’s found his voice again, and his smile. There’s a gleam behind the aw-shucks new-boy persona he’s wearing: pleasure. He’s enjoying himself.
Well, so are you, points out a snide little voice in my head. I shove it aside. “If you give it a second, we’ll find out if it’ll turn my tongue blue, to boot.”
“That an invitation to make a personal inspection?”
I can see some of my platoon at a table in the background, watching me and the new guy, no doubt waiting to see if I rip off something important. “Play your cards right.”
He laughs, leaning sideways against the bar. It’s a bit of a capitulation, a pause in the game. He’s not so much hitting on me as feeling me out.
I set my drink down on the bar next to a set of initials scratched into the composite surface. They were here before I ever showed up, and their owner is long gone. “This is the part where you’d ordinarily introduce yourself, Romeo.”
“And ruin my mystique?” The guy’s thick brows go up. “Pretty sure Romeo kept his mask on when he met Jubilee.”
“Juliet,” I correct him, trying not to flinch at his use of my whole name. He must be new, not to know how much I hate that. Still, he’s given me a valuable hint. If this guy knows Shakespeare, he’s got to have been educated somewhere off-world. The swamp-dwellers can barely read an instruction manual, much less ancient classics.
“Oh, a scholar?” he replies, eyes gleaming. “This is a strange place to find a girl like you. So, who’d you offend to get stuck on Avon?”
I lean back against the bar, propping myself on my elbows. One hand fidgets with the plastic sword, weaving it back and forth through my fingers. “I’m a troublemaker.”
“My favorite kind of girl.” Romeo meets my eyes with a smile, then looks away. But not before I’ve seen it: he’s tense. It’s subtle, but I’ve been trained to notice the invisible currents, the ebb and flow of a person’s energy. A muscle tic here, a line of tension there. Sometimes it’s all the warning you get before someone tries to blow themselves up, and take you with them.
Adrenaline sharpens my senses as I lean forward. The air in here smells of spilled beer, cigar smoke, and air freshener—none of which is strong enough to drown out the invasive smell of the swamp outside. I try to shut out the sound of my platoon laughing in the background and look more closely at Romeo. I can’t tell, in the low light, whether his pupils are dilated. If he’s new to the planet, he shouldn’t have had time to succumb to the Fury—unless he’s been transferred here from somewhere else on Avon.
He shifts his weight under my scrutiny, then straightens. “Listen,” he says, his voice getting brisker, “let me settle for your drink, and I’ll leave you to your evening.”
Somehow he’s gotten a read on me. He knows I’m suspicious.
“Hang on.” I reach out to lay my hand on his arm. It’s a gentle touch, but firm. He’ll have to jerk away if he wants to leave before I’m ready to let him go. “You’re not a soldier,” I say finally. “And not a local. Quite the little puzzle. You’re not going to leave me so unsatisfied, are you?”
“Unsatisfied?” The guy’s smile doesn’t flicker a millimeter. He’s good. He’s got to be a spy from one of TerraDyn’s competitors. Nova Tech or SpaceCorp, or any one of the neighboring corporations with space staked out on Avon. “That’s unkind, Captain Chase.”
I abandon pretense. “I never told you who I was.”
“Like Stone-faced Chase needs an introduction.”
Though you’d never catch my platoon calling me that, at least to my face, the nickname caught on like wildfire after my first few days here. I don’t reply, scanning his features and trying to figure out why he looks so familiar. If he’s a criminal, maybe I’ve seen his picture in the database.
He makes a small attempt to free his arm to test how badly I want to hold on to him. “Look, I’m just a guy trying to buy a girl a drink. So why don’t you let me do that, and then we can go our separate ways and dream about what might’ve been?”
I clench my jaw. “Listen, Romeo.” My fingers tighten—I can feel the tense muscle beneath my hand. He’s no weakling, but I’m better trained. “How about instead, we go to HQ and chat there?”
The muscle in his forearm under my palm twitches, and I glance at his hand. It’s empty—but then he shifts his weight, and suddenly there’s something digging into my ribs, held in his other hand. He had a gun tucked inside his shirt. Goddammit. It’s ancient, a tarnished ballistics weapon, not one of the sleek Gleidels I’m used to. No wonder he’s wearing a jacket despite the heat inside the bar. The long sleeves are concealing his genetag tattoo, the spiral design on the forearm that all the locals get at birth.
“Sorry.” He leans close to me to conceal the gun between us. “I really did just want to pay for your drink and get out of here.”
Beyond him I can see my guys, heads together, laughing and occasionally peeking our way. Though half of them are well into their twenties, they still act like a bunch of gossips. Mori, one of my oldest soldiers, meets my eyes for a moment—but she looks away before I can convey anything through my gaze. Alexi’s there too, his pink hair gelled up, looking way too interested in the wall. From their perspective, I’m letting this guy drape himself all over me. Stone-faced Chase, getting a little action for once. Troops cycle in and out of Avon so often that all of those here have only known the past few months’ ceasefire—their senses aren’t battle-sharpened. They’re not suspicious enough.