Star Citizen
Writer’s Note: Phantom Bounty: Part One was published originally in Jump Point 3.1.

Two hundred and sixty-five days. That’s how long they’d been hunting the Phantom. It seemed like they’d entered a thousand of these tiny, dark, hole-in-the-wall taverns, seeking leads from shifty informants, always just too far behind. Mila leaned against the metal prefab wall and tried to breathe through her mouth, but the scent of stale alcohol and vomit flooded her nostrils anyway.

Rhys stood at the bar, towering above the other patrons, his broad back all she could see as he haggled with the owner for information, likely bribing away the last of their meager credits. Her stomach churned just watching him. They had to be close this time. Because if they didn’t land that massive bounty soon, they wouldn’t be able to afford so much as a mug of this dive’s swill.

Mila ran a hand through her straight brown hair, and a toothless patron leered at her from his stool at the bar. She crossed her arms and shot him a challenging glare, which unnerved him enough that he looked away and took another swig of his drink.

A younger man with a ripped synth liavold-skin jacket and questionable hygiene inched his way up to the bar and stood off to the side, pulling on the silver hoop in his ear. Typical.

There was usually at least one lowlife in a place like this — wearing synth-skin of nearly extinct creatures. They thought it made them look badass, like they didn’t fear the law, like they were above it. Mila’s nails bit into her palms, and she forced herself to unclench her fists. He probably didn’t even know it was a fake. Real liavold skin never came in that shade of grey.

The lowlife stepped closer to Rhys, clearly trying to eavesdrop, and Mila pushed away from the wall to go run him off. But Rhys finished haggling before she made it to the bar, and he gestured at her toward the exit. Relieved, she followed him outside.

The yellow-white sun had finished its descent while she and Rhys had been inside the tavern, and one by one the century-old light globes running the length of Tevistal’s streets flickered on. A loud murmur echoed down the alleyway, voices in the night, evidence of the crowd that had been gathering a few streets over in the square to celebrate the new year.

Damn Traveler’s Day. Sure, the huge crowd afforded her and Rhys an easy way to blend in, but that went both ways. If they could stay low profile, then the Phantom could do the same, slipping away like always.

Rhys grabbed Mila’s arm as the tavern doors swung closed behind them, and she gazed up at him: at the sharp angles of his face, his tousled brown hair, at the rough beard he’d allowed to grow in as they’d chased the Phantom from system to system, barely sleeping.

Rhys’s green eyes were bright, glinting in the light of the globes as he leaned down close. Mila warmed at the look in them. If she was being honest, their recent sleepless nights had less to do with the Phantom and more to do with . . . other things. They had been sharing a bunk for almost a month now.

“Good news,” Rhys said. “Maybe.” A familiar smirk appeared on his face.

She cleared her throat. “Oh yeah? What did he say?”

“That we might actually catch our Phantom this time.”

Mila’s pulse quickened, and her hand involuntarily dropped to the laser pistol holstered beneath her jacket. “She’s here? Still in Tevistal?”

Rhys’s smirk faded, and he took Mila by the arm and led her down the alleyway toward the main street. “I want to believe it,” he said, keeping his voice low. “I paid the fixer his fee and . . .”

“And what?”

“He gave me an address to a hostel. RoomTab’s still clicking. Said he saw the Phantom yesterday.”

Yesterday. “Why do I hear a ‘but’ coming?”

Rhys halted as they exited the alley. “But I’m not sure we can trust him. It was all . . . too easy.”

Pressure grew in Mila’s chest, and she blew out a breath, surveying the crowd at the end of the globe-lit street. Rhys had solid instincts — one of the many reasons Mila had charmed the successful bounty hunter into forming a partnership with her. With his hunches and her tech skills, they made a great team.

“Well, what do you want to do?” she asked, a note of the desperation she felt seeping into her tone. “I think we should check it out. We need this.”

“I know.”

She met his eyes. “We don’t have a choice.”

“There’s always a choice.”

“We’re too close. I say we check this out.”

Rhys worked his jaw and finally nodded. He pushed up the sleeve of his jacket, revealing the mobiGlas strapped to his forearm, and swiped his finger along the flexible clear screen to bring up a street map of Tevistal. After a moment, he concluded, “The address isn’t far from here. Travel advisory says it’s a high crime area.”

Mila snorted and swept her arm around. “And this isn’t?”

Fetid pools of water had gathered in potholes from the last rains, and the low prefab buildings here were dirty and dented, nothing like the tall, sparkling skyscrapers that had grown up further from the docks as the city matured. If Tevistal had an armpit, this was it.

Rhys laid a heavy hand on her shoulder. “Doesn’t matter. Because you’re heading back to the ship. I’ll scout this out to see if it’s legit.”

“Like hell I am. No way.” Mila flared her nostrils and shrugged off his hand. “It’s dangerous. You need back-up.”

The Phantom had single-handedly attacked seven Phan Pharmaceutical research facilities in the past year and had managed to evade every agent of the law since. The UEE wanted the saboteur — dead or alive — on charges of terrorism, murder and armed robbery. Dangerous was an understatement.

“Let me scout it out,” Rhys repeated, his voice rough.

“We go together,” Mila responded through gritted teeth.

Rhys let out a low growl, but when it was clear Mila wouldn’t back down, he shook his head and started walking.

Mila released a breath and caught up to him. Rhys never would have suggested going alone before. He’d grown more cautious, more protective since they’d taken things to the next level. Controlling, even. It needed to stop, but right now wasn’t the time to address it.

The mobi directed them away from the crowds and deeper into the dockside slums. One cramped alleyway led to another, and the scent of burning garbage wafted over them as they passed homeless transients tending fires in front of scrap-metal lean-tos.

Hovers flew overhead, their lights illuminating the dark night as they ferried those who could afford it between the docks and the gleaming towers in the more affluent sections of the city. The soothing hum of their engines reminded Mila of another life, where she’d have been the one headed for better lodgings. But that old existence on Terra was long gone. And this — the chase, the hunt, taking down criminals with Rhys by her side — this was her life now. No regrets.

When Rhys’s mobi beeped to tell them they’d reached their destination, he deactivated it and drew his Arclight. “Down that alley. Building Two. Apartment Nine.”

Mila readied her own pistol and followed him into the dark alley. The prefab self-service “hostels” that filled this area were owned by investors who probably never set foot here. If you wanted to do something shady, this was the place for it.

Adrenaline flooded Mila’s body, making her pulse thrum faster. A cracked globe flickered above the low buildings, barely illuminating the letters engraved in the walls. She activated her pistol’s nightlight, but it didn’t help much.

A slow drip echoed from somewhere, and the only other sound was the pad of their boots on the pavement. Mila pointed her light at the nearest building and found the number etched in the side.

“One,” she said quietly.

A low rustle emanated from where she’d cast her light, and she and Rhys tensed. Metal hit metal, and Mila swung her weapon toward it. A skap tore out of the darkness and skittered across their path. Another dark shape, a blur of claws and fur, raced after the rat-like creature. As the predator and prey disappeared into the gloom, the skap let out a brief, interrupted shriek.

Mila released her breath with a shaky laugh. Maybe it was an omen. Maybe this would be the night she and Rhys finally caught their prey.

“Building Two,” Rhys said, shining his light on the building where the animals had headed.

Mila barely breathed as Rhys pushed open the outer metal door. It swung in on rusty hinges, creaking in the silence.

Dim globes lit up the space automatically, revealing a narrow corridor that was strewn with litter and stank of piss.

Mila darted a glance at Rhys. His eyes were narrowed, and that hint was enough for Mila to know he was worried.

“It’s too quiet,” Rhys murmured.

“Maybe it’s pickpocket-the-pilgrims night,” Mila responded, but her sarcasm didn’t ease the tension. Rhys was right. These prefab buildings had paper-thin walls, yet the place was dead silent. Not a good sign.

They walked a few more paces, and Rhys pointed his weapon at a door on the right. “Nine. Watch my back. I go in first.”

As he turned the knob, every muscle in Mila’s body went tight. The door swung open, unlocked, and the bright lights inside flooded the dimly lit hallway.

Rhys stepped through the door, and Mila’s jumpsuit suddenly felt too tight. Sweat dripped down her back as she scanned the other doors and kept an eye on the one they’d come in.

Rhys returned, finished with his sweep of the small space. His face was a blank mask. “Empty. RoomTab’s been hacked.”

Heat coursed through Mila. She let out a grunt and shoved past him and into the room. So close. Her throat thickened, and she fought the urge to punch a hole through one of the thin walls.

The room contained a low mattress and a metal folding table and chair. A partition separated the sink and toilet from the rest of the room, but other than that, the room had been stripped bare.

Mila whirled around to face the hacked payment scanner. Wires had been ripped out and reconnected in a knot, forcing the RoomTab system to keep the water running and the lights on without payment.

“Search the room,” Mila said, her voice hard. “You find so much as a hair, you save it.”

Rhys gave her a pained look. “You know we won’t.”

“I’ll check the scanner.” Mila clenched her jaw as she rolled up her sleeve to activate her mobiGlas and access the payment scanner.

She brought up the program she’d written to hack basic systems. Technically it was illegal to use a program like this, but she’d written it so she could bring criminals to justice, hadn’t she? She’d never use one of her programs to break the law.

“This was rigged less than twenty-four hours ago. We just missed her.” Mila disconnected her mobi and slammed a hand into the room’s thin metal wall. The whole thing shuddered in response. “We need to —”

“Mila.” Rhys’s sharp voice was a warning, and she turned to face him. The heat drained from her as she saw what he held in his hands. He’d turned the folding table over and part of it rested on his thighs. A small bundle was taped to the underside of it. It let out a low beep. Then another.

Explosives.

Mila’s pulse skyrocketed, roaring in her ears. She kept her eyes glued to Rhys, to the thinly masked fear on his face, and reluctantly backed out the door. It had happened too fast. They should have listened to Rhys’s gut on this.

She paused for a moment outside the unit’s door, indecisive, then turned and took off running down the corridor.

Reaching the outer door, she threw it open and glanced back to find Rhys hurtling toward her. They stumbled into the alleyway together as a deafening blast rocked the flimsy structure, and the shock wave knocked them both to their knees. Heat rushed over them and stole Mila’s breath away.

Mila stared down at the pavement, ears ringing as the shock faded.

Rhys recovered first, panting, and pulled a shaking Mila to her feet. He held her close and searched her face. “Are you all right?”

It took Mila a second to find her voice. “Yeah. You?”

“Fine.” Rhys glanced back toward the building. “Do you think anyone else was in there?”

“You know it was empty. We gotta get out of here. If we get stopped here, we’ll be wrapped up for a day or more in questioning.”

Rhys nodded, looking as dazed as she felt, and they jogged down the alleyway and back out to the street. The explosion had summoned a small group of the transients, and they openly gaped at Mila and Rhys as they ran by.

Red crowded the edges of Mila’s vision, and her anger mingled with an old, dark pain. They needed to bring the Phantom to justice. Had to. It was a need that overwhelmed logic, a need she couldn’t deny, and Mila probably would have chased the Phantom even if the bounty had been far lower.

It was all because of Casey, even if Mila tried to pretend it wasn’t. Casey Phan, kidnapped and murdered when they were sixteen. The inept police force had just let the killer get away. Watching that crime go unpunished was the reason Mila decided to work for justice. The reason she abandoned her family to become a bounty hunter.

Casey’s father owned Phan Pharmaceuticals, and seeing the Phantom blow up the facilities, kill Phan Pharm workers, steal research . . . it had rekindled all of Mila’s old memories. She’d take out the Phantom the way she’d never been able to take out the screwed up person who had stolen Casey away.

When Mila and Rhys were almost to the crowded square, she halted and wiped the sweat from her face, still breathing hard. She was dangerously close to losing it, and she wasn’t about to have a breakdown in front of all the revelers between them and their ship.

Rhys stopped when she did. “What is it?”

“That was a set-up,” Mila said, her voice breaking. “That fixer knew he was sending us to die. Everyone must have known it. Someone warned the rest of the tenants to get out.”

She swung her body around, seeking something, anything, to take her anger out on. She slammed the toe of her boot into a piece of scrap metal and sent it flying. A sharp pain coursed through her foot, but she gritted her teeth against it and tried to ignore the burning sensation in her eyes.

She let out a little guttural scream and turned back to Rhys, her hands clenched into tight fists. “We need to beat the kak out of that fixer until he gives us the truth.”

Rhys grabbed Mila by the shoulders and leaned down so his eyes were level with hers. “Calm. Down.”

“No!” Mila pushed him away with both hands, but he held her tight and didn’t let go. She blinked against the continued burning sensation in her eyes. “We need this bounty.”

Rhys shook his head. “If that fixer knowingly sent us to a trap, I’m not about to advertise we survived it. This is his turf. We’re at a disadvantage here. You should know that.”

“We were just so close,” Mila replied, her voice shaking.

Rhys loosened his tight hold on her. “I’m calling it, Mi. This isn’t worth getting blown up over. There are plenty of other bounties to go after.”

But none like this one. Hot anger lit a fire in Mila’s chest, and she shoved Rhys away. “Coward.”

Surprise flashed across his face, and he stiffened. “Don’t be an idiot. This isn’t about bravery, it’s about survival. You wanted to hunt this one, so I agreed. For you. It was always a long shot. We’ll survive off less until something else comes along. We’re done.”

“No,” Mila shoved Rhys again, and he stumbled back a step. “We’re finding the Phantom. And if you won’t help, I’ll keep searching by myself.”

“What is it about this case that you’re not telling me? You’ve never been this stubborn about any of the others. It’s like you’re not thinking clearly.”

Mila swallowed the lump in her throat and pushed past him so he couldn’t see the look on her face. She’d have to tell Rhys about her past someday . . . when she was ready. And today wasn’t that day.

“Mila.” Rhys was by her side again. “Tell me what’s going on.”

She took a deep breath as she turned toward him, struggling to get her roiling emotions under control. He really thought he was making the right choice. But he was wrong.

“The trail was cold before,” she said, trying to keep her voice even. “Whispers of the Phantom passing through, week-old transactions. Twenty-four hours, Rhys. Twenty-four! The Phantom was in that room a day ago. We can’t stop now. We need food. Devana needs maintenance and upgrades. And maybe . . . maybe after we finish this, we can take a break, right? Go to some pleasure planet, maybe Cassel . . . together.”

Her cheeks flushed at how her own words sounded, but Rhys’s eyes grew dark, and he cupped her chin in his callused hand and tilted her head up until their eyes met.

“One more time. We’ll try to find one more lead,” Rhys conceded, his voice rough. “But if we don’t . . . we can’t afford to keep ignoring other work for this bounty. So if the next lead doesn’t work out, promise me you’ll give it up.”

Mila pushed his hand away. “I’m sorry. But no. I can’t promise you that.”

The low hum of an approaching hover caught their attention, and they both looked up. Flashing lights. Local police.

“Let’s get lost in the crowd,” Rhys said. “But this conversation isn’t over.”

Mila pushed down her irritation and followed him. She’d convince him. Because they were not quitters.

They kept up a brisk pace until they were well into the main square, where the mass of people had gathered outside the Journeymen Hall. It was an interesting spectacle — a mix of normal-looking civilians and people dressed for the occasion. Some of these Travelers liked to mimic old Earth customs, more-so than those on Terra.

A cluster near Mila and Rhys wore silken cloaks and fantastic masks adorned with feathers. Another dozen had forgone the costumes, but their walking sticks were intricately carved and inlaid with gems and smooth stones. Another pair wore gold robes with masks carved to resemble predatory animals.

Rhys pushed through the crowd, carving a path to the far edge of the square where vendors had set up booths filled with all the goods and trinkets a crowd of pilgrims could want on Traveler’s Day.

The scent of roasting meat made her mouth water and her stomach growl, reminding her she hadn’t eaten since this morning’s breakfast on Devana. Rhys seemed to be of the same mind, because he led her to where the nearest food vendor had set up a grill.

“What kind of meat?” Rhys scoffed.

The middle-aged woman winked and waved the skewer at Rhys. “Special. Is a secret.”

“Ah, right. Might that be some special skap meat from dockside?”

The woman’s face soured. “Insults! I no sell skap.”

Mila wandered over to the next table, zoning out Rhys’s haggling. He was so tight-fisted with their creds. How could he not see how important catching the Phantom was to their bottom line?

The table Mila found herself at was strewn with trinkets. Incense burners, Christian crosses, Wiccan pentagrams, Buddhist statues, and a wide range of other eclectic-looking jewelry.

A bronze-toned pendant on a long chain caught Mila’s eye. She picked it up without thinking and turned it over in her palm. It resembled the shape of an infinity symbol, and small pearlescent stones in all different shapes and sizes dangled from the end of it.

“That piece is almost as beautiful as you.”

Mila started and felt her cheeks redden as she met the vendor’s gaze. The colorfully dressed woman looked to be in her early thirties and had pale skin and ice blue eyes like Mila’s, but that’s where their similarities ended. The woman’s space-black hair was styled in dozens of tiny braids, and she wore a nose ring that glinted beneath the sparkling lights hanging from the metal awning above.

“Um . . . thanks,” Mila said. “It is a nice piece.”

“Better than nice, girl. It’s the ideal gift to celebrate the new sun. That is, if you want to have good luck. That pendant’s been blessed by Cassa.”

Mila glanced back down at the pendant, at the way the twinkling lights overhead made the colors on each stone warp and change, like tiny rainbows. She wasn’t superstitious or religious, but the pendant reminded her of a ring she’d owned as a child. She wanted to try it on, hold the stones closer to the light and see them change, but she resisted.

“What kind of stones are these?” Mila asked.

“Those stones were collected from the null point between two binary stars. Only travelers with great luck and persistence can thread the needle to reach that point.”

A low laugh sounded from behind Mila, and she whirled to find Rhys standing there, two skewers of meat in hand. “Stones collected from between paired stars, eh?”

The woman’s serious expression didn’t change. “That’s exactly what they are.”

Rhys shook his head. “Maybe you should get off this rock some time. Because nothing hangs between binary stars; one or the other pulls everything in.”

The woman leaned across the table, and a slow smile spread on her blood-red lips. “The journey can teach us much, my friend. But build a life on false beliefs, and you’ll soon find your ship has drifted into a minefield.”

“You done here, Mi?” Rhys’s question came out like a command, and he looked like he was trying hard not to respond to the woman. He didn’t have a lot of patience for religious types, Journeywomen or otherwise.

The merchant ignored Rhys and looked at Mila expectantly. “The colors in that piece really do suit you.”

“It’s gorgeous. But maybe some other time.”

Mila sighed and reluctantly dropped the necklace into the woman’s waiting palm. Mila grabbed a meat skewer from Rhys without meeting his eyes and strode toward the center of the square. Why did he always have to be such a buzzkill?

She stopped at the edge of the crowd, watching an unfamiliar ritual unfold at the center of the square, and gnawed at the stringy meat. Skap meat or not, it was a thousand times better than the bland nutrition bars on their ship.

She finished it, tossed the stick, and started searching the crowd for Rhys. Time to convince him to continue their search for the Phantom.

She found him only a few yards away, watching her intently, and despite her earlier annoyance, a smile budded on her lips. He knew when to give her space, and he knew when she really needed him not to. His solid presence in her life had been the best part of these past months.

A flash of grey in her peripheral vision drew her gaze, and it landed on a man wearing a silver hoop earring and a fake liavold skin jacket. It was the lowlife from the tavern.

Mila’s pulse quickened, and she pushed past the people surrounding her to get closer. The lowlife was staring at Rhys, but when he noticed Mila heading for him, his eyes widened and he scrambled away, disappearing into the crowd.

Mila shouted and sprinted after him, shoving people out of her way, ignoring the obscenities they yelled in her wake. She was vaguely aware of Rhys falling into step behind her. That dock scum knew something, she was sure of it. He might even be a spy for the fixer. She couldn’t let him escape.

The cries of anger erupting in front of her let her know she was on the right path, and as she exited the main press of the crowd, she caught sight of a grey jacket disappearing around the corner.

She ran faster, a stitch growing in her side as she caught up. When the man faltered ahead of her, trying to decide which way to turn at the end of an alleyway, she launched herself forward, knocking him into the wall. They both hit hard and slid toward the grimy pavement.

Rhys was there an instant later, hauling Mila out of the way and pinning the man’s arms behind his back so he couldn’t pull a weapon. The man’s bloodshot eyes were wild, darting between Mila and the alley’s exit.

Rhys raised a brow. “Care to explain?”

Mila sniffed and wiped the dust off her pants. “What? Didn’t you notice him back at the tavern? This snake was eavesdropping on you. I bet he works with the fixer. And he was definitely watching you back there.”

“Is that so?” Rhys pulled his pistol and shoved the man against the building to frisk him. He pulled out a slide blade concealed at the man’s waist, then retrieved a small black case from his jacket. He tossed Mila the case, and she opened it, her heart still beating a staccato rhythm against her ribcage.

Inside lay a syringe and a vial filled with black, viscous liquid.

“Show us your arm,” Mila demanded.

The man was shaking as he pushed his sleeve up, revealing a web of veins stained black from his habit.

Rhys whistled. “Got ourselves a WiDoWer, eh?” He adjusted his Arclight so it lined up with the man’s face. “Now why were you following us?”

The man’s Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed, and he held his hands palm out as a drop of sweat slid down his forehead and into his eye. “I followed you ’cause I got info. I’ll trade for it.”

“What kind?” Rhys asked, his eyes hard. “The last info we got wasn’t worth much.”

“Harris — he set you up. But I know the truth.”

“No trades.” Mila closed on the addict, still holding his drugs in her grasp, and wrapped her other hand around his throat, squeezing. “If you knew about the trap, you should have told us before. We could have died.”

“Mila.” Rhys’s low warning did nothing to calm the rage buzzing in Mila’s head.

“No trades,” Mila repeated, squeezing tighter. The lowlife gasped for air.

“Mila.” This time Rhys’s voice broke through, and Mila dropped her hand from the man’s throat, then forced herself to step back.

Rhys narrowed his eyes at her, then turned back to the addict. “What do you want for the info?”

“Creds,” the man said, wheezing. “Ninety creds.”

“For drugs.” Mila opened the case and held the vial high so the addict could see it. “How ’bout this? You tell us everything you know, or I feed your precious sludge to the pavement.”

“No. No no no.” The man was sweating more freely now, and the desperation in his voice made Mila nauseous with sudden self-loathing. But she wouldn’t back down. She was done with haggling. With the trades. Done with all the lies and dead leads.

She placed the vial on the ground and positioned her boot over it. “You get one second to decide.”

“I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you! Don’t. It’s my last one. The Phantom was here. She was callin’ herself Elaine. Harris hooked her up with new tags. I got a shot of ’em on my mobi.”

“Show us,” Rhys demanded.

The man revealed the mobi beneath his sleeve and brought up the data. Mila swiped her arm across his screen and her mobi captured the tag numbers. Then she placed her boot back over the vial of WiDoW. The lowlife seemed to turn green in the dim light of the globes overhead.

“Where was Elaine headed next?” Rhys asked.

“Septa — she had a meeting on the platform. She’s got a way into Xi’an space. Someone powerful is helpin’ that girl. Musta paid off Harris big, ’cause I ain’t never seen him help set up a bounty hunter like he did to you two.”

Mila’s mind raced, considering the implications of what this snitch was saying. If the Phantom truly had a way into Xi’an space, they’d never find her again. She’d reach Rihlah, and the Xi’an wouldn’t do kak to help them catch a terrorist. They’d just pretend to, acting diplomatic while the Phantom got to live out her life, with the Advocacy and the rest of the UEE stuck waiting for her to voluntarily cross into Human-controlled space again.

“He could be lying,” Mila said. “Describe this Elaine.”

“Uh — red hair. I think it was a wig. I followed her back to that hostel and saw her leave with black hair. Dark skin. Late twenties. Kept her face all covered up. Never got a good vid.” The addict tapped his mobi again and brought up an image of a woman, covered up as he’d described.

All Mila and Rhys had ever seen were blurry images of this woman, no better than what this man was showing them. But what else did they have to go on?

She exchanged glances with Rhys, and Rhys gave her a slow nod.

Mila picked up the vial and shoved it back in the case. She wanted to destroy the drugs, force this scum into withdrawal, but the withdrawal could kill him. And Mila was no murderer and never would be.

She dropped the case back into the man’s hands and flicked his jacket with her finger. He flinched at the touch.

“If you need creds, you should start by demanding a refund from whoever sold you this knock-off.”

His brows went up in surprise, and he glanced down at his jacket, then back to Rhys, who still held his weapon. “Can I get my blade back?”

“Get out of here,” Rhys barked.

The man flinched again, then pocketed his drugs and took off running.

“What the hell was that?” Rhys’s face was red, his voice so low Mila knew he was pissed. “That’s not our agreement. I do the haggling. I handle the contacts. Not you. That’s our deal.”

Mila put her hands on her hips. “Well, it worked, didn’t it? We need to get back to our ship and get to Septa before our phantom disappears for good.” She turned heel and walked off without waiting for a reply.

Rhys didn’t speak a word as they made their way back to the docks, and his anger hung in the heavy silence between them, ruining what should have been a celebration and leaving her to her own thoughts. When they finally reached the well-lit entryway that led up to their Freelancer, Mila turned to Rhys.

His expression was blank again, showing nothing of what he might be feeling. Sometimes he was so damn hard to read. She pressed a hand to his chest, and his eyes softened slightly at her touch.

“I’m sorry. For how I acted back there. You’re right. I broke our agreement. I promise I’ll try to keep it together from now on —”

“Don’t. You got what we needed. But if this lead doesn’t pan out?”

“Fine. If it doesn’t pan . . . then we’re done searching.”

It didn’t matter. Because if the Phantom really was headed for Xi’an space, and they missed her one more time, it was as good as over anyway.

A look of relief passed over Rhys’s face. “Good. Then we agree. We’ll follow this lead, but if we lose her, we move onto something else.”

He hesitated, then reached into his pocket and drew out a small velvet bag. Mila’s lips parted as he pulled out a length of chain, the Cassa pendant hanging from it, its gorgeous pearlescent stones shimmering in the light of the dockside globes.

Rhys fastened the good luck pendant around Mila’s neck.

“But our credits . . .” Mila warmed at his light touch. “We didn’t have enough to waste on this.”

He shrugged. “Could be that Journeywoman was right about this thing after all. All we needed was a little luck. And it seems we got it.”

His voice came out husky, and Mila stood on tiptoes to kiss him. He responded with intensity, pulling her close, pressing her body to his. She wrapped her arms around his neck and lost herself in him.

When he pulled away, his eyes were dark. “Flight plan first. But while we’re waiting for clearance . . . ”

Mila gave him a small smile. “Meet me in the bunk?”

He smirked and pulled her close for another kiss. “And after that . . . we catch our phantom.”

TO BE CONTINUED

Writer’s Note: Phantom Bounty: Part One was published originally in Jump Point 3.1.

Two hundred and sixty-five days. That’s how long they’d been hunting the Phantom. It seemed like they’d entered a thousand of these tiny, dark, hole-in-the-wall taverns, seeking leads from shifty informants, always just too far behind. Mila leaned against the metal prefab wall and tried to breathe through her mouth, but the scent of stale alcohol and vomit flooded her nostrils anyway.

Rhys stood at the bar, towering above the other patrons, his broad back all she could see as he haggled with the owner for information, likely bribing away the last of their meager credits. Her stomach churned just watching him. They had to be close this time. Because if they didn’t land that massive bounty soon, they wouldn’t be able to afford so much as a mug of this dive’s swill.

Mila ran a hand through her straight brown hair, and a toothless patron leered at her from his stool at the bar. She crossed her arms and shot him a challenging glare, which unnerved him enough that he looked away and took another swig of his drink.

A younger man with a ripped synth liavold-skin jacket and questionable hygiene inched his way up to the bar and stood off to the side, pulling on the silver hoop in his ear. Typical.

There was usually at least one lowlife in a place like this — wearing synth-skin of nearly extinct creatures. They thought it made them look badass, like they didn’t fear the law, like they were above it. Mila’s nails bit into her palms, and she forced herself to unclench her fists. He probably didn’t even know it was a fake. Real liavold skin never came in that shade of grey.

The lowlife stepped closer to Rhys, clearly trying to eavesdrop, and Mila pushed away from the wall to go run him off. But Rhys finished haggling before she made it to the bar, and he gestured at her toward the exit. Relieved, she followed him outside.

The yellow-white sun had finished its descent while she and Rhys had been inside the tavern, and one by one the century-old light globes running the length of Tevistal’s streets flickered on. A loud murmur echoed down the alleyway, voices in the night, evidence of the crowd that had been gathering a few streets over in the square to celebrate the new year.

Damn Traveler’s Day. Sure, the huge crowd afforded her and Rhys an easy way to blend in, but that went both ways. If they could stay low profile, then the Phantom could do the same, slipping away like always.

Rhys grabbed Mila’s arm as the tavern doors swung closed behind them, and she gazed up at him: at the sharp angles of his face, his tousled brown hair, at the rough beard he’d allowed to grow in as they’d chased the Phantom from system to system, barely sleeping.

Rhys’s green eyes were bright, glinting in the light of the globes as he leaned down close. Mila warmed at the look in them. If she was being honest, their recent sleepless nights had less to do with the Phantom and more to do with . . . other things. They had been sharing a bunk for almost a month now.

“Good news,” Rhys said. “Maybe.” A familiar smirk appeared on his face.

She cleared her throat. “Oh yeah? What did he say?”

“That we might actually catch our Phantom this time.”

Mila’s pulse quickened, and her hand involuntarily dropped to the laser pistol holstered beneath her jacket. “She’s here? Still in Tevistal?”

Rhys’s smirk faded, and he took Mila by the arm and led her down the alleyway toward the main street. “I want to believe it,” he said, keeping his voice low. “I paid the fixer his fee and . . .”

“And what?”

“He gave me an address to a hostel. RoomTab’s still clicking. Said he saw the Phantom yesterday.”

Yesterday. “Why do I hear a ‘but’ coming?”

Rhys halted as they exited the alley. “But I’m not sure we can trust him. It was all . . . too easy.”

Pressure grew in Mila’s chest, and she blew out a breath, surveying the crowd at the end of the globe-lit street. Rhys had solid instincts — one of the many reasons Mila had charmed the successful bounty hunter into forming a partnership with her. With his hunches and her tech skills, they made a great team.

“Well, what do you want to do?” she asked, a note of the desperation she felt seeping into her tone. “I think we should check it out. We need this.”

“I know.”

She met his eyes. “We don’t have a choice.”

“There’s always a choice.”

“We’re too close. I say we check this out.”

Rhys worked his jaw and finally nodded. He pushed up the sleeve of his jacket, revealing the mobiGlas strapped to his forearm, and swiped his finger along the flexible clear screen to bring up a street map of Tevistal. After a moment, he concluded, “The address isn’t far from here. Travel advisory says it’s a high crime area.”

Mila snorted and swept her arm around. “And this isn’t?”

Fetid pools of water had gathered in potholes from the last rains, and the low prefab buildings here were dirty and dented, nothing like the tall, sparkling skyscrapers that had grown up further from the docks as the city matured. If Tevistal had an armpit, this was it.

Rhys laid a heavy hand on her shoulder. “Doesn’t matter. Because you’re heading back to the ship. I’ll scout this out to see if it’s legit.”

“Like hell I am. No way.” Mila flared her nostrils and shrugged off his hand. “It’s dangerous. You need back-up.”

The Phantom had single-handedly attacked seven Phan Pharmaceutical research facilities in the past year and had managed to evade every agent of the law since. The UEE wanted the saboteur — dead or alive — on charges of terrorism, murder and armed robbery. Dangerous was an understatement.

“Let me scout it out,” Rhys repeated, his voice rough.

“We go together,” Mila responded through gritted teeth.

Rhys let out a low growl, but when it was clear Mila wouldn’t back down, he shook his head and started walking.

Mila released a breath and caught up to him. Rhys never would have suggested going alone before. He’d grown more cautious, more protective since they’d taken things to the next level. Controlling, even. It needed to stop, but right now wasn’t the time to address it.

The mobi directed them away from the crowds and deeper into the dockside slums. One cramped alleyway led to another, and the scent of burning garbage wafted over them as they passed homeless transients tending fires in front of scrap-metal lean-tos.

Hovers flew overhead, their lights illuminating the dark night as they ferried those who could afford it between the docks and the gleaming towers in the more affluent sections of the city. The soothing hum of their engines reminded Mila of another life, where she’d have been the one headed for better lodgings. But that old existence on Terra was long gone. And this — the chase, the hunt, taking down criminals with Rhys by her side — this was her life now. No regrets.

When Rhys’s mobi beeped to tell them they’d reached their destination, he deactivated it and drew his Arclight. “Down that alley. Building Two. Apartment Nine.”

Mila readied her own pistol and followed him into the dark alley. The prefab self-service “hostels” that filled this area were owned by investors who probably never set foot here. If you wanted to do something shady, this was the place for it.

Adrenaline flooded Mila’s body, making her pulse thrum faster. A cracked globe flickered above the low buildings, barely illuminating the letters engraved in the walls. She activated her pistol’s nightlight, but it didn’t help much.

A slow drip echoed from somewhere, and the only other sound was the pad of their boots on the pavement. Mila pointed her light at the nearest building and found the number etched in the side.

“One,” she said quietly.

A low rustle emanated from where she’d cast her light, and she and Rhys tensed. Metal hit metal, and Mila swung her weapon toward it. A skap tore out of the darkness and skittered across their path. Another dark shape, a blur of claws and fur, raced after the rat-like creature. As the predator and prey disappeared into the gloom, the skap let out a brief, interrupted shriek.

Mila released her breath with a shaky laugh. Maybe it was an omen. Maybe this would be the night she and Rhys finally caught their prey.

“Building Two,” Rhys said, shining his light on the building where the animals had headed.

Mila barely breathed as Rhys pushed open the outer metal door. It swung in on rusty hinges, creaking in the silence.

Dim globes lit up the space automatically, revealing a narrow corridor that was strewn with litter and stank of piss.

Mila darted a glance at Rhys. His eyes were narrowed, and that hint was enough for Mila to know he was worried.

“It’s too quiet,” Rhys murmured.

“Maybe it’s pickpocket-the-pilgrims night,” Mila responded, but her sarcasm didn’t ease the tension. Rhys was right. These prefab buildings had paper-thin walls, yet the place was dead silent. Not a good sign.

They walked a few more paces, and Rhys pointed his weapon at a door on the right. “Nine. Watch my back. I go in first.”

As he turned the knob, every muscle in Mila’s body went tight. The door swung open, unlocked, and the bright lights inside flooded the dimly lit hallway.

Rhys stepped through the door, and Mila’s jumpsuit suddenly felt too tight. Sweat dripped down her back as she scanned the other doors and kept an eye on the one they’d come in.

Rhys returned, finished with his sweep of the small space. His face was a blank mask. “Empty. RoomTab’s been hacked.”

Heat coursed through Mila. She let out a grunt and shoved past him and into the room. So close. Her throat thickened, and she fought the urge to punch a hole through one of the thin walls.

The room contained a low mattress and a metal folding table and chair. A partition separated the sink and toilet from the rest of the room, but other than that, the room had been stripped bare.

Mila whirled around to face the hacked payment scanner. Wires had been ripped out and reconnected in a knot, forcing the RoomTab system to keep the water running and the lights on without payment.

“Search the room,” Mila said, her voice hard. “You find so much as a hair, you save it.”

Rhys gave her a pained look. “You know we won’t.”

“I’ll check the scanner.” Mila clenched her jaw as she rolled up her sleeve to activate her mobiGlas and access the payment scanner.

She brought up the program she’d written to hack basic systems. Technically it was illegal to use a program like this, but she’d written it so she could bring criminals to justice, hadn’t she? She’d never use one of her programs to break the law.

“This was rigged less than twenty-four hours ago. We just missed her.” Mila disconnected her mobi and slammed a hand into the room’s thin metal wall. The whole thing shuddered in response. “We need to —”

“Mila.” Rhys’s sharp voice was a warning, and she turned to face him. The heat drained from her as she saw what he held in his hands. He’d turned the folding table over and part of it rested on his thighs. A small bundle was taped to the underside of it. It let out a low beep. Then another.

Explosives.

Mila’s pulse skyrocketed, roaring in her ears. She kept her eyes glued to Rhys, to the thinly masked fear on his face, and reluctantly backed out the door. It had happened too fast. They should have listened to Rhys’s gut on this.

She paused for a moment outside the unit’s door, indecisive, then turned and took off running down the corridor.

Reaching the outer door, she threw it open and glanced back to find Rhys hurtling toward her. They stumbled into the alleyway together as a deafening blast rocked the flimsy structure, and the shock wave knocked them both to their knees. Heat rushed over them and stole Mila’s breath away.

Mila stared down at the pavement, ears ringing as the shock faded.

Rhys recovered first, panting, and pulled a shaking Mila to her feet. He held her close and searched her face. “Are you all right?”

It took Mila a second to find her voice. “Yeah. You?”

“Fine.” Rhys glanced back toward the building. “Do you think anyone else was in there?”

“You know it was empty. We gotta get out of here. If we get stopped here, we’ll be wrapped up for a day or more in questioning.”

Rhys nodded, looking as dazed as she felt, and they jogged down the alleyway and back out to the street. The explosion had summoned a small group of the transients, and they openly gaped at Mila and Rhys as they ran by.

Red crowded the edges of Mila’s vision, and her anger mingled with an old, dark pain. They needed to bring the Phantom to justice. Had to. It was a need that overwhelmed logic, a need she couldn’t deny, and Mila probably would have chased the Phantom even if the bounty had been far lower.

It was all because of Casey, even if Mila tried to pretend it wasn’t. Casey Phan, kidnapped and murdered when they were sixteen. The inept police force had just let the killer get away. Watching that crime go unpunished was the reason Mila decided to work for justice. The reason she abandoned her family to become a bounty hunter.

Casey’s father owned Phan Pharmaceuticals, and seeing the Phantom blow up the facilities, kill Phan Pharm workers, steal research . . . it had rekindled all of Mila’s old memories. She’d take out the Phantom the way she’d never been able to take out the screwed up person who had stolen Casey away.

When Mila and Rhys were almost to the crowded square, she halted and wiped the sweat from her face, still breathing hard. She was dangerously close to losing it, and she wasn’t about to have a breakdown in front of all the revelers between them and their ship.

Rhys stopped when she did. “What is it?”

“That was a set-up,” Mila said, her voice breaking. “That fixer knew he was sending us to die. Everyone must have known it. Someone warned the rest of the tenants to get out.”

She swung her body around, seeking something, anything, to take her anger out on. She slammed the toe of her boot into a piece of scrap metal and sent it flying. A sharp pain coursed through her foot, but she gritted her teeth against it and tried to ignore the burning sensation in her eyes.

She let out a little guttural scream and turned back to Rhys, her hands clenched into tight fists. “We need to beat the kak out of that fixer until he gives us the truth.”

Rhys grabbed Mila by the shoulders and leaned down so his eyes were level with hers. “Calm. Down.”

“No!” Mila pushed him away with both hands, but he held her tight and didn’t let go. She blinked against the continued burning sensation in her eyes. “We need this bounty.”

Rhys shook his head. “If that fixer knowingly sent us to a trap, I’m not about to advertise we survived it. This is his turf. We’re at a disadvantage here. You should know that.”

“We were just so close,” Mila replied, her voice shaking.

Rhys loosened his tight hold on her. “I’m calling it, Mi. This isn’t worth getting blown up over. There are plenty of other bounties to go after.”

But none like this one. Hot anger lit a fire in Mila’s chest, and she shoved Rhys away. “Coward.”

Surprise flashed across his face, and he stiffened. “Don’t be an idiot. This isn’t about bravery, it’s about survival. You wanted to hunt this one, so I agreed. For you. It was always a long shot. We’ll survive off less until something else comes along. We’re done.”

“No,” Mila shoved Rhys again, and he stumbled back a step. “We’re finding the Phantom. And if you won’t help, I’ll keep searching by myself.”

“What is it about this case that you’re not telling me? You’ve never been this stubborn about any of the others. It’s like you’re not thinking clearly.”

Mila swallowed the lump in her throat and pushed past him so he couldn’t see the look on her face. She’d have to tell Rhys about her past someday . . . when she was ready. And today wasn’t that day.

“Mila.” Rhys was by her side again. “Tell me what’s going on.”

She took a deep breath as she turned toward him, struggling to get her roiling emotions under control. He really thought he was making the right choice. But he was wrong.

“The trail was cold before,” she said, trying to keep her voice even. “Whispers of the Phantom passing through, week-old transactions. Twenty-four hours, Rhys. Twenty-four! The Phantom was in that room a day ago. We can’t stop now. We need food. Devana needs maintenance and upgrades. And maybe . . . maybe after we finish this, we can take a break, right? Go to some pleasure planet, maybe Cassel . . . together.”

Her cheeks flushed at how her own words sounded, but Rhys’s eyes grew dark, and he cupped her chin in his callused hand and tilted her head up until their eyes met.

“One more time. We’ll try to find one more lead,” Rhys conceded, his voice rough. “But if we don’t . . . we can’t afford to keep ignoring other work for this bounty. So if the next lead doesn’t work out, promise me you’ll give it up.”

Mila pushed his hand away. “I’m sorry. But no. I can’t promise you that.”

The low hum of an approaching hover caught their attention, and they both looked up. Flashing lights. Local police.

“Let’s get lost in the crowd,” Rhys said. “But this conversation isn’t over.”

Mila pushed down her irritation and followed him. She’d convince him. Because they were not quitters.

They kept up a brisk pace until they were well into the main square, where the mass of people had gathered outside the Journeymen Hall. It was an interesting spectacle — a mix of normal-looking civilians and people dressed for the occasion. Some of these Travelers liked to mimic old Earth customs, more-so than those on Terra.

A cluster near Mila and Rhys wore silken cloaks and fantastic masks adorned with feathers. Another dozen had forgone the costumes, but their walking sticks were intricately carved and inlaid with gems and smooth stones. Another pair wore gold robes with masks carved to resemble predatory animals.

Rhys pushed through the crowd, carving a path to the far edge of the square where vendors had set up booths filled with all the goods and trinkets a crowd of pilgrims could want on Traveler’s Day.

The scent of roasting meat made her mouth water and her stomach growl, reminding her she hadn’t eaten since this morning’s breakfast on Devana. Rhys seemed to be of the same mind, because he led her to where the nearest food vendor had set up a grill.

“What kind of meat?” Rhys scoffed.

The middle-aged woman winked and waved the skewer at Rhys. “Special. Is a secret.”

“Ah, right. Might that be some special skap meat from dockside?”

The woman’s face soured. “Insults! I no sell skap.”

Mila wandered over to the next table, zoning out Rhys’s haggling. He was so tight-fisted with their creds. How could he not see how important catching the Phantom was to their bottom line?

The table Mila found herself at was strewn with trinkets. Incense burners, Christian crosses, Wiccan pentagrams, Buddhist statues, and a wide range of other eclectic-looking jewelry.

A bronze-toned pendant on a long chain caught Mila’s eye. She picked it up without thinking and turned it over in her palm. It resembled the shape of an infinity symbol, and small pearlescent stones in all different shapes and sizes dangled from the end of it.

“That piece is almost as beautiful as you.”

Mila started and felt her cheeks redden as she met the vendor’s gaze. The colorfully dressed woman looked to be in her early thirties and had pale skin and ice blue eyes like Mila’s, but that’s where their similarities ended. The woman’s space-black hair was styled in dozens of tiny braids, and she wore a nose ring that glinted beneath the sparkling lights hanging from the metal awning above.

“Um . . . thanks,” Mila said. “It is a nice piece.”

“Better than nice, girl. It’s the ideal gift to celebrate the new sun. That is, if you want to have good luck. That pendant’s been blessed by Cassa.”

Mila glanced back down at the pendant, at the way the twinkling lights overhead made the colors on each stone warp and change, like tiny rainbows. She wasn’t superstitious or religious, but the pendant reminded her of a ring she’d owned as a child. She wanted to try it on, hold the stones closer to the light and see them change, but she resisted.

“What kind of stones are these?” Mila asked.

“Those stones were collected from the null point between two binary stars. Only travelers with great luck and persistence can thread the needle to reach that point.”

A low laugh sounded from behind Mila, and she whirled to find Rhys standing there, two skewers of meat in hand. “Stones collected from between paired stars, eh?”

The woman’s serious expression didn’t change. “That’s exactly what they are.”

Rhys shook his head. “Maybe you should get off this rock some time. Because nothing hangs between binary stars; one or the other pulls everything in.”

The woman leaned across the table, and a slow smile spread on her blood-red lips. “The journey can teach us much, my friend. But build a life on false beliefs, and you’ll soon find your ship has drifted into a minefield.”

“You done here, Mi?” Rhys’s question came out like a command, and he looked like he was trying hard not to respond to the woman. He didn’t have a lot of patience for religious types, Journeywomen or otherwise.

The merchant ignored Rhys and looked at Mila expectantly. “The colors in that piece really do suit you.”

“It’s gorgeous. But maybe some other time.”

Mila sighed and reluctantly dropped the necklace into the woman’s waiting palm. Mila grabbed a meat skewer from Rhys without meeting his eyes and strode toward the center of the square. Why did he always have to be such a buzzkill?

She stopped at the edge of the crowd, watching an unfamiliar ritual unfold at the center of the square, and gnawed at the stringy meat. Skap meat or not, it was a thousand times better than the bland nutrition bars on their ship.

She finished it, tossed the stick, and started searching the crowd for Rhys. Time to convince him to continue their search for the Phantom.

She found him only a few yards away, watching her intently, and despite her earlier annoyance, a smile budded on her lips. He knew when to give her space, and he knew when she really needed him not to. His solid presence in her life had been the best part of these past months.

A flash of grey in her peripheral vision drew her gaze, and it landed on a man wearing a silver hoop earring and a fake liavold skin jacket. It was the lowlife from the tavern.

Mila’s pulse quickened, and she pushed past the people surrounding her to get closer. The lowlife was staring at Rhys, but when he noticed Mila heading for him, his eyes widened and he scrambled away, disappearing into the crowd.

Mila shouted and sprinted after him, shoving people out of her way, ignoring the obscenities they yelled in her wake. She was vaguely aware of Rhys falling into step behind her. That dock scum knew something, she was sure of it. He might even be a spy for the fixer. She couldn’t let him escape.

The cries of anger erupting in front of her let her know she was on the right path, and as she exited the main press of the crowd, she caught sight of a grey jacket disappearing around the corner.

She ran faster, a stitch growing in her side as she caught up. When the man faltered ahead of her, trying to decide which way to turn at the end of an alleyway, she launched herself forward, knocking him into the wall. They both hit hard and slid toward the grimy pavement.

Rhys was there an instant later, hauling Mila out of the way and pinning the man’s arms behind his back so he couldn’t pull a weapon. The man’s bloodshot eyes were wild, darting between Mila and the alley’s exit.

Rhys raised a brow. “Care to explain?”

Mila sniffed and wiped the dust off her pants. “What? Didn’t you notice him back at the tavern? This snake was eavesdropping on you. I bet he works with the fixer. And he was definitely watching you back there.”

“Is that so?” Rhys pulled his pistol and shoved the man against the building to frisk him. He pulled out a slide blade concealed at the man’s waist, then retrieved a small black case from his jacket. He tossed Mila the case, and she opened it, her heart still beating a staccato rhythm against her ribcage.

Inside lay a syringe and a vial filled with black, viscous liquid.

“Show us your arm,” Mila demanded.

The man was shaking as he pushed his sleeve up, revealing a web of veins stained black from his habit.

Rhys whistled. “Got ourselves a WiDoWer, eh?” He adjusted his Arclight so it lined up with the man’s face. “Now why were you following us?”

The man’s Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed, and he held his hands palm out as a drop of sweat slid down his forehead and into his eye. “I followed you ’cause I got info. I’ll trade for it.”

“What kind?” Rhys asked, his eyes hard. “The last info we got wasn’t worth much.”

“Harris — he set you up. But I know the truth.”

“No trades.” Mila closed on the addict, still holding his drugs in her grasp, and wrapped her other hand around his throat, squeezing. “If you knew about the trap, you should have told us before. We could have died.”

“Mila.” Rhys’s low warning did nothing to calm the rage buzzing in Mila’s head.

“No trades,” Mila repeated, squeezing tighter. The lowlife gasped for air.

“Mila.” This time Rhys’s voice broke through, and Mila dropped her hand from the man’s throat, then forced herself to step back.

Rhys narrowed his eyes at her, then turned back to the addict. “What do you want for the info?”

“Creds,” the man said, wheezing. “Ninety creds.”

“For drugs.” Mila opened the case and held the vial high so the addict could see it. “How ’bout this? You tell us everything you know, or I feed your precious sludge to the pavement.”

“No. No no no.” The man was sweating more freely now, and the desperation in his voice made Mila nauseous with sudden self-loathing. But she wouldn’t back down. She was done with haggling. With the trades. Done with all the lies and dead leads.

She placed the vial on the ground and positioned her boot over it. “You get one second to decide.”

“I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you! Don’t. It’s my last one. The Phantom was here. She was callin’ herself Elaine. Harris hooked her up with new tags. I got a shot of ’em on my mobi.”

“Show us,” Rhys demanded.

The man revealed the mobi beneath his sleeve and brought up the data. Mila swiped her arm across his screen and her mobi captured the tag numbers. Then she placed her boot back over the vial of WiDoW. The lowlife seemed to turn green in the dim light of the globes overhead.

“Where was Elaine headed next?” Rhys asked.

“Septa — she had a meeting on the platform. She’s got a way into Xi’an space. Someone powerful is helpin’ that girl. Musta paid off Harris big, ’cause I ain’t never seen him help set up a bounty hunter like he did to you two.”

Mila’s mind raced, considering the implications of what this snitch was saying. If the Phantom truly had a way into Xi’an space, they’d never find her again. She’d reach Rihlah, and the Xi’an wouldn’t do kak to help them catch a terrorist. They’d just pretend to, acting diplomatic while the Phantom got to live out her life, with the Advocacy and the rest of the UEE stuck waiting for her to voluntarily cross into Human-controlled space again.

“He could be lying,” Mila said. “Describe this Elaine.”

“Uh — red hair. I think it was a wig. I followed her back to that hostel and saw her leave with black hair. Dark skin. Late twenties. Kept her face all covered up. Never got a good vid.” The addict tapped his mobi again and brought up an image of a woman, covered up as he’d described.

All Mila and Rhys had ever seen were blurry images of this woman, no better than what this man was showing them. But what else did they have to go on?

She exchanged glances with Rhys, and Rhys gave her a slow nod.

Mila picked up the vial and shoved it back in the case. She wanted to destroy the drugs, force this scum into withdrawal, but the withdrawal could kill him. And Mila was no murderer and never would be.

She dropped the case back into the man’s hands and flicked his jacket with her finger. He flinched at the touch.

“If you need creds, you should start by demanding a refund from whoever sold you this knock-off.”

His brows went up in surprise, and he glanced down at his jacket, then back to Rhys, who still held his weapon. “Can I get my blade back?”

“Get out of here,” Rhys barked.

The man flinched again, then pocketed his drugs and took off running.

“What the hell was that?” Rhys’s face was red, his voice so low Mila knew he was pissed. “That’s not our agreement. I do the haggling. I handle the contacts. Not you. That’s our deal.”

Mila put her hands on her hips. “Well, it worked, didn’t it? We need to get back to our ship and get to Septa before our phantom disappears for good.” She turned heel and walked off without waiting for a reply.

Rhys didn’t speak a word as they made their way back to the docks, and his anger hung in the heavy silence between them, ruining what should have been a celebration and leaving her to her own thoughts. When they finally reached the well-lit entryway that led up to their Freelancer, Mila turned to Rhys.

His expression was blank again, showing nothing of what he might be feeling. Sometimes he was so damn hard to read. She pressed a hand to his chest, and his eyes softened slightly at her touch.

“I’m sorry. For how I acted back there. You’re right. I broke our agreement. I promise I’ll try to keep it together from now on —”

“Don’t. You got what we needed. But if this lead doesn’t pan out?”

“Fine. If it doesn’t pan . . . then we’re done searching.”

It didn’t matter. Because if the Phantom really was headed for Xi’an space, and they missed her one more time, it was as good as over anyway.

A look of relief passed over Rhys’s face. “Good. Then we agree. We’ll follow this lead, but if we lose her, we move onto something else.”

He hesitated, then reached into his pocket and drew out a small velvet bag. Mila’s lips parted as he pulled out a length of chain, the Cassa pendant hanging from it, its gorgeous pearlescent stones shimmering in the light of the dockside globes.

Rhys fastened the good luck pendant around Mila’s neck.

“But our credits . . .” Mila warmed at his light touch. “We didn’t have enough to waste on this.”

He shrugged. “Could be that Journeywoman was right about this thing after all. All we needed was a little luck. And it seems we got it.”

His voice came out husky, and Mila stood on tiptoes to kiss him. He responded with intensity, pulling her close, pressing her body to his. She wrapped her arms around his neck and lost herself in him.

When he pulled away, his eyes were dark. “Flight plan first. But while we’re waiting for clearance . . . ”

Mila gave him a small smile. “Meet me in the bunk?”

He smirked and pulled her close for another kiss. “And after that . . . we catch our phantom.”

TO BE CONTINUED

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