Venus smells like the men’s room in a bar. And it’s not just the space port. It’s not Aphrodite City. No, Venus’s atmosphere smells like stale urine half cloaked by the cloying aroma of floral air deodorizers.

Makes my head hurt.

The chemical cocktail the engineers used to terraform the planet may have made the air breathable, but I think they’re still trying to poison people. I wouldn’t put it past them.

The scent of it hits me full in the face as I walk down the loading ramp into the muted sunlight filtering through the amber-hued clouds. I’m tempted to tell Talon I’ll be working this head hunt in an enviro-suit.

Speak of the devil. Talon stops next to me, one red eyebrow arched.

Jack ass.

He knows I hate the smell of this place. That’s probably why he picked it. Anything to get under my skin.

Well, that settles it. No enviro-suit for me. I’ll show the smug bastard I can take whatever he throws at me, even if it means breathing air that could drop a rhino.

“Ugh, what died out here?” My partner and best friend, Devon Chase, drags himself down the ramp. “This place stinks.” He makes a choking sound. “Talon, this sucks.”

Talon smirks.

Fine. So maybe he picked it to get under Devon’s skin. In that case, I’m all right with it. Picking on Devon is always a good idea.

Vix Valentine stomps down the ramp behind us and shoves Devon in between his shoulder blades. “Don’t be a pussy, Chase.” She steps off the ramp and continues across the tarmac, hips swaying like a metronome.

“You’d know all about that, wouldn’t you, Vix?” Devon shouts after her.

Vix flips him off without looking back.

Talon turns to look at Jaz Carver, his first mate, coming down the ramp. Devon watches her too, cheesy grin splitting his face nearly in half.

He is so whipped.

Jaz and Vix are the only women on the Prodigal.

Vix is trouble in more ways than one. I still can’t figure out where she hides all her guns. I think she’s made it a personal challenge to wear as little as possible and still try to hide as many blasters as she can.

But Jaz? Jaz is just dangerous.

Not to me, of course. But to the average bounty head thinking she’s just a pretty face? Yeah, those fights are fun. I’ve seen Jaz wipe the floor with bounty heads twice her size. And she doesn’t even break a sweat.

She glares at me as she passes us. “Don’t screw up, Kale. We need this one.”

I take it all back. Anything nice I’ve said about her. The next chance I get, I’ll wipe the floor with her face.

Devon starts for the tarmac, and I follow him, Talon on our heels, scowling with every step.

“Kale, you do understand, don’t you?” Talon faces me. “I can’t have you killing this one.”

Did he overhear Jaz? Is he just wanting to make a point?

I roll my eyes, while Devon snickers.

As we pass under one of the wings, one of the engines lets out a hiss of steam and squeals. I’m not a mechanic, and even I know it’s not supposed to do that.

Talon points at it and glares at me.

Like it’s my fault.

“Talon, I know!” I check the charge on my disruptor. “We’ll bring him in.”

Talon doesn’t look convinced.

Devon grins at him. “Don’t worry, Talon! We got this.” He leans closer. “Hey, can we grab a bite to eat while we’re there? I mean, Conamara is famous. Top notch.”

Famous. Right. Famous for high prices and disgusting food the rich call delicious. If we weren’t sure that our target, Gil Parker, would be dining there today, I’d beg off to track him down some other way.

Talon’s eyes twinkle. “Take it out of your cut, Devon. But I hear the Europan lobster there is a delicacy.”

“Sweet.”

I can’t stop a smirk. Talon knows just as well as I do that Europan lobster has the texture of raw fat and tastes like dirt.

Pranksters shouldn’t be captains. But it does keep life interesting.

Devon and I head off across the tarmac to where the entry gates of the Aphrodite Space Port City cast golden light onto the shivering clouds.

Jaz and Vix are already out of sight. We’ll meet up again at Conamara, but Devon stares after them like he’ll never see them again.

“Stop with the puppy eyes, Chase.”

Devon punches me in the arm.

Devon and Jaz have been shagging for two months. She doesn’t know that I know, but Devon can’t hide anything from me. He never could.

“Get your head in the game, Dev, or you’re going to end up with Parker’s shiv up your ass.”

“What is it with you anyway?” Devon flashes a half smile at me. “You just have a thing against happy couples?”

“No, I have a thing against happy couples in bounty hunting.”

Devon laughs.

“If your head’s up in the clouds, you’re going to get me killed.” I glare. “And I can’t die before Talon finds out about you and Jaz. I want to see the show.”

“What show?”

“He’ll cut your balls off.”

“Shut up.”

“With a butter knife.”

Devon whimpers. “So as long as I die before you do, you’ll be happy?”

“That’s the general idea.”

Devon reaches up to set his hand on my shoulder. “Kale?”

“What?”

“One day.”

Oh, here we go.

“You’re going to meet someone. It’s probably going to be a girl.”

I’ll break his nose.

“And she’s going to drive you crazy.”

I steer us toward the main street of the space port while Devon waxes eloquent.

“She’s gonna get under your skin, and you aren’t going to want anything to do with her.” He laughs. “And you’re a dumb ass, so I’ll have to tell you that you’re in love.”

“Is that so?”

“That’s so. And I’m going to laugh my ass off.”

“I’ll shoot your face off.”

Devon pouts. “Then Jaz won’t want me. She only likes me for my ass and my face.”

“Those are your only good features.”

Devon sighs. “I’m so glad we’re friends. You’re always shining source of encouragement.”

I shrug him off with a smile. “Knock it off, okay? We’re almost there.”

Devon slides his hands into his slacks and whistles as he walks beside me. The crowds start picking up the further we go into the station.

None of them seem to notice the smell of the air. Maybe they’ve just gotten used to it. I don’t understand why anyone would want to get used to it.

Give me Mars any day. No yellow clouds to filter the distant sunlight. No sulfur to react to the air purifiers. Just pure, clean air.

We reach the gilded sign for Conamara and stop outside.

I tap the radio receiver in my ear twice.

“Com check, confirmed,” Jaz’s voice hums in my ear.

“Com check, confirmed,” Vix echoes. “Alive, Ravenwood! I want my cut!”

I ignore her and lead the way into Conamara.

The scent of delicate perfume, too-strong cologne, and overpriced food hits me like a sledge when we step inside. Damn, it’s even worse than the air outside.

The furnishings in the lobby would be enough to keep the engine room in plasma coils for a month, and the staff’s clothing probably cost the same as new fuel rods for my fighter.

Everyone’s polite. Everybody welcomes us. But they’re staring at Devon like he doesn’t belong.

He doesn’t, if I’m being honest. In places like this, you’ve got to carry yourself like you’re better than everybody else, and Devon doesn’t live like that. He can’t even fake that he lives like that.

Devon’s actually not good at faking anything. That’s why we’re friends. Because faking is all I’m good at.

I order the maître d’ to get us a table with the snap of my fingers, and the little hostesses bustle around like we’re important.

Faking VIP status is all in the chin. It was a lesson I had to learn quick when I was with the syndicate. When you work for killers, you have to fit in. Either you fit in or they throw you out. If you get thrown out, that makes you a deserter. And deserters never make it out alive.

Unless you’re me.

I made it out alive, but I was dead inside. Devon gave me something to live for again, and I’ll never be able to repay him for that. So I’m glad he’s got Jaz.

I’ve killed too many people. When your life story is a blood trail, you don’t deserve love—to give it or receive it.

Devon and I take our seats. The maître d’ bustles off, and Devon starts looking through his menu. I hide my smirk as I fish out my scanning lenses.

With any luck, Devon will order his Europan lobster, I’ll get to laugh at him when he hates it, and we’ll nab Parker without any trouble.

No syndicates involved. Just freedom—freedom to live, freedom to starve, freedom to walk away if that’s what I want.

“Yum, Europan lobster,” Devon reads from the menu. “Sounds tasty.”

I don’t hide my smirk this time.

Today’s going to be a good day.


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