The sky was alive with stars.
Before coming to Sector One, Kora had never seen so many stars. The light rising from the city had always drowned them out. But here, behind the Riders’ barracks, with nothing but a bonfire lighting the night, they were resplendent.
She leaned back, bracing her hands on the wide rock bench, and tipped her face toward the sky. Each glimmer seemed to wink down at her, and the longer she stared, the more rhythmic the twinkle became, until it looked like the whole carpet of stars was throbbing in time with the music.
Kora shut her eyes. She could still feel those stars, pulsing on the other side of her closed lids like a heartbeat, and if she just reached out—
She looked over as Gideon Rios sat down beside her. He was dressed as simply as the rest of his men, in leather pants and boots and a plain white T-shirt. But a closer look showed that the leather was the highest quality, not the stiff, badly tanned cheap stuff, and the shirt had obviously been tailored to fit him.
She slid over to give him more room. “Enjoying the party?”
“Enjoying the chance to celebrate.” He sprawled his long legs out and crossed them at the ankle, the perfect picture of a man at ease. But his gaze roved the clearing, marking each of the Riders in turn. “It’s been a good week.”
If Kora didn’t already know better, she never would have guessed that he owned and commanded everything around them. He carried himself like a leader, but not a prince—which he was, of course. The Rios name guaranteed that.
And if his name had comprised the full extent of his power? Well, it might have been easy to dislike him. But his Riders didn’t follow him because of his name. They followed him because of his beliefs, his goals. His actions.
Kora liked him very much. “So why aren’t you celebrating?”
Gideon slanted a look at her, one dark eyebrow quirked. “Who says I’m not?”
He was teasing her, but he wasn’t the only one who could answer a question with a question. “How long have I been here, Gideon?”
“Oh, eight or nine months now?” He went back to surveying the crowd. “Long enough for us to get used to having you as part of the family. I hope you’re not thinking about leaving. It would break Maricela’s heart.”
“Don’t change the subject.” She gestured toward the space around the fire, where Gideon’s baby sister was dancing with one of the Riders, her head thrown back in laughter. “Maricela is having fun. You, on the other hand, are brooding.”
His lips quirked. “Maybe brooding is fun for me.”
“I see.” He said it like it was a joke, but Kora had seen people react to what they perceived as Gideon’s displeasure. His family didn’t rule through force or even popular decision. Sector One’s citizens considered the Rios family a manifestation of their God on earth, and no one liked a pissed-off god.
Gideon’s smile grew. “Do you know who has the luxury to brood, Kora? Men who aren’t fighting wars. After everything we went through last fall, it’s nice to have the time to consider all my options before committing to a course of action.”
“Even if all you have to decide between is beer or whiskey?”
“Well, I wouldn’t go that far.” He tipped his head toward Deacon, his second-in-command, who was watching them closely. “Has he talked to you about the security precautions for your clinic?”
“At length,” Kora answered flatly. “Would it kill you to remind him that I’m actually pretty familiar with the city? You know, seeing as how I used to live there?”
Gideon didn’t lose his easy smile. “You lived in Eden before the war. I think you’ll find the city you remember no longer exists.”
If she thought that was true, she’d have already been back. She wouldn’t have let memories and the very real threat of confronting her own ghosts keep her away from people in need. “The walls came down, Gideon, but there are some things that even war can’t change.” She matched his expression. “Your favorite lieutenant, for example. Deacon still underestimates me. He treats me like I don’t think about all the things that could go wrong. It’s…annoying.”
“It’s his job.” Gideon shifted to face her on the bench. The firelight gilded one side of his face and left the rest in shadows, and somehow it made him look stern. Distant. “I put Deacon in charge of the Eden outreach operation. Do you know what that means?”
“That he’s the boss?”
“That he speaks in my name. That I trust him to represent my sector and my ideals, to protect my people the way I would.” Gideon reached for her wrist and turned it over, revealing the two bar codes tattooed on the inside. Her identification code over her pulse, and the higher one that had granted her special clearance. “Maricela has already declared you family, and that would be all the reason Deacon needs to wrap you in cotton. But you’re an invaluable resource, Kora. You’re going to have to become accustomed to being protected.”
Become accustomed to it? Her whole life had been a never-ending chain of protective custody. Even as a child, her father had rarely let her out of his sight, and she’d spent hours studying at her small desk in the corner of his office. Her medical training had been overseen by the city, and Eden always protected its investments. Then, when she’d gone to work as a doctor on the Base…
Guards. The one constant in her life, whether they were clad in fatigues, military police black, or expensive leather and tattoos.
“Don’t worry.” She tugged her wrist free of his grasp. “I won’t make any trouble for Deacon.”
Gideon released her without complaint, but his sudden grin shattered the illusion of the serious, stern leader. “Don’t go making any extravagant promises, Kora. Traditionally, my sisters excel at making trouble for Deacon.”
“If it happens that often, maybe it’s his problem, not theirs.” She hesitated, then corrected herself. “Not ours.”
“That’s right.” He patted her leg and turned back to the fire. “That’s one thing my grandfather got right, even if he didn’t always practice what he preached. In a world like ours, everyone needs family.”
“Even if it’s one we have to make ourselves,” she agreed.
Deacon approached them, a drink in each hand, though he offered them neither. “Are you talking about the clinic for the city refugees?”
“It came up.” Gideon reached out and snagged the beer from Deacon’s left hand. “Are you satisfied with the security detail?”
Deacon grunted. “Am I ever? But we’ve done all we can. Your assigned guard will just have to handle whatever comes up.”
“If anything comes up,” Kora stressed.
He just stared at her.
Idly, she wondered if Deacon didn’t like the situation, or if he didn’t like her. The likeliest answer was a combination of the two. He undoubtedly had better things for his men to do than babysit her. But he’d do it anyway, because Gideon had asked.
She’d known men like Deacon—soldiers whose dedication ran deeper than their current orders. Whether they pledged themselves to a cause or simply to the mission at hand, they let nothing stand in their way. Not even headstrong doctors.
Kora smiled despite the bolt of pain that shot through her. Yes, she’d known men like Deacon before—and at least one of them had died because of her.
The tense silence shattered when Zeke appeared and threw an arm around Deacon’s shoulders. The younger Rider was just as tall as Deacon, but his hair was spiky and blond rather than dark, and he wore a teasing smile instead of a glower. “You guys better not be discussing work.”
“What else?” Kora rose and held out her hand. “I hope you’ve come to save me. I make an excellent damsel in distress.”
“Damsels in distress happen to be my specialty.” Zeke slapped Deacon on the back and claimed Kora’s hand, but he still paused to look at Gideon. “Boss.”
“Zeke.” Gideon inclined his head. “Go enjoy the celebrations.”
Kora followed Zeke closer to the bonfire. “You missed all the fun. I was just irritating Deacon.”
“Everything irritates Deacon.” Zeke spun her in a dizzy circle before pulling her close enough to dance. “Only mildly, though. Mildly irritated is his default state.”
“No, it’s not him.” Something about Zeke’s easy manner invited confessions. “He reminds me of someone I used to know.”
“What, like one of the MPs?”
“Sort of. A soldier.”
Most of the Riders had been born in Sector One, but Zeke was like her—someone who’d grown up inside Eden’s shining walls. The bar code marking him as a city citizen was long gone, but she’d seen his lengthy criminal record—one he’d earned hacking Eden’s system to redistribute credits to the citizens who couldn’t afford to eat.
So she wasn’t too surprised when the next thing out of his mouth was a name most people wouldn’t have known existed. “Ashwin Malhotra?”
He didn’t need her confirmation, so she focused on the ribbed collar of his gray T-shirt instead of answering. There were some things that would always be impossible to confess, because you couldn’t even explain them. The feelings refused to solidify into anything as pedestrian as words, so you just had to try and make some sort of silent sense of them.
She’d always known that her patients at the Base didn’t process things like human bonds and friendship the way most people did. They’d been engineered to divert their energies to more mission-oriented skills. Most of the time, she’d had no trouble remembering that. But with Ashwin…
She’d let down her guard. She’d forgotten to maintain a professional distance, all because there had been a few moments when Ashwin had looked at her with something approaching interest. And now he was gone.
Tears pricked her eyes, and she closed them against Zeke’s pity. “You know too many things you’re not supposed to know.”
“Yes.” He rubbed a soothing circle between her shoulder blades. “I can’t regret it, though. Poking my nose where it didn’t belong is how I ended up here with Gideon. And this is a good place to be.”
He seemed so determined to convince her that she couldn’t help smiling. “Since I’ve practically been adopted by the Rios family, I have to agree.”
“Don’t forget the Riders.” He grinned and spun her around again. “You keep putting us back together. I haven’t lost many brothers since you showed up, so I’ll give Deacon hell all night long if it’ll keep you smiling.”
“Deal.” Kora would keep smiling—because she had precious few reasons not to, compared to others who had lived through the war between the city and the sectors. Because she’d found a good life here, with friends and a chance to heal those in greatest need.
Because the only thing she’d lost had never really been hers to begin with.
The Riders were heading into an ambush.
Perched on the roof of a two-story warehouse, Ashwin Malhotra watched through his binoculars as three motorcycles rumbled down the dusty road toward Sector One’s central temple. The smooth purr of the engines reached him, joining the idyllic sound of the temple’s dozens of wind chimes dancing on the late-afternoon breeze.
All three men were dressed in leather and denim. Helmets obscured their identities. Of course, who they were wasn’t as important as what they were.
Holy warriors. Sainted heroes. Outside of Sector One, the Riders were more myth and legend than anything, a band of highly trained, dangerously lethal soldiers whose loyalty was unswerving and absolute. Here, they acted as the voice and hands of the god-king himself, Gideon Rios. Each one was empowered to act as judge, jury, and executioner, a position of ultimate trust and considerable power.
To Ashwin, they were a curiosity. He’d synthesized every scrap of data available—every bit of history, every dossier, every mission report or rumor to come out of Sector One. He even fleshed out his analysis with a limited number of personal encounters, but the Riders still made no sense.
The whole of One was like that. Its citizens stubbornly subsisted almost completely off the power and network grids that crisscrossed the other seven sectors and the city. Even now, in the wake of a revolution Gideon Rios had helped plan, they remained insular and close-mouthed.
They offered aid to the needy, shelter to refugees. They provided food and clothing and medical care to the hundreds displaced by war. They smiled and preached love and swore by pacifism, leaving any necessary violence in the hands of the Riders. They gave much and asked for little.
In a world that had been broken decades ago, they were an equation that didn’t add up, no matter how many times Ashwin shifted the variables around.
Power. Greed. Influence. Faith. They were all difficult concepts that allowed plenty of room for the full range of human folly. Ashwin preferred the reliability of things that could be quantified. Things that could be counted.
He swung his binoculars toward the temple. The warehouse he’d chosen as his perch was simple adobe, but the temple’s marble face caught the last rays of sunlight and sparkled.
Over the last four decades, the Rios family had preached love and peace. But they’d also trained the people of Sector One to purge their sins from their souls through labor. To give until they had nothing left—and to love doing it. Inside the temple, a month’s worth of donations from the faithful sat securely in a basement vault. Credits, cash, valuable possessions—based on Ashwin’s best estimates, a small fortune awaited the Riders.
That wasn’t the only thing waiting for them.
The motorcycles roared into the courtyard, drowning out the wind chimes. One by one, they pulled to a stop and cut their engines. As they removed their helmets, Ashwin matched their faces to surveillance photos in the dossiers he’d studied.
Fernando Reyes was tall, with brown eyes, golden skin, and black hair that brushed his collar. As the eldest son of Sector One’s second most powerful family, he’d been the subject of extensive interest on the Base. Though the analysts had highlighted his family’s ambition as a potential entry point to undermining Gideon Rios, Ashwin had seen enough loyalty to recognize a hopeless cause. Reyes would repudiate his family before he betrayed his leader.
The man on the right was also from a powerful family. Hunter West had darker brown skin and hair buzzed close to his skull. His sister had married into the Rios family, and his parents were fanatically devoted to Gideon. The Base’s file on them had been brief and to the point—if replacing Gideon became a priority, the entire West family would have to be removed as well.
Unsurprisingly, the third man turned out to be Gabriel Montero, another son of a wealthy family and the third member of what the Sector One faithful referred to as the Royal Trio. Ashwin didn’t have to close his eyes to summon the intelligence briefing from memory—a sneering, verbose tirade by an officer disgusted by Sector One’s backslide into feudalism. They’ve already anointed themselves a king. Soon there will be dukes and knights, all the excesses of aristocracy. And all the vulnerabilities. The maneuvering for power has already begun. With minimal intervention, the families can be reduced to infighting.
According to the dossier, Gabriel Montero’s eldest brother had married into the Rios family, as well. The accompanying prestige had lifted the Monteros—and caused the anticipated friction with the Reyes family.
Whatever their family politics, Reyes, Hunter, and Gabe remained friends—and loyal to Gideon Rios first, though the Base officers doubted that loyalty.
Ashwin did not. He’d been there during the war.
Down below, the three Riders swung their legs over their bikes. Ashwin couldn’t hear their words as they started up the temple steps, but the rise and fall of their banter drifted up to him, a comfortable give-and-take punctuated by laughter. They’d made this run a hundred times, secure in the knowledge that they were the dominant predators in their sector.
Unfortunately, war had a way of displacing predators.
The deserters appeared as soon as the temple door closed, flowing from their hiding places with the silent grace that made Base soldiers legendary. With their superior military training and access to whatever equipment they’d stolen, the soldiers fanning out into the courtyard could prey upon the sectors and vanish before anyone could stop them.
Especially when they were smart enough not to underestimate their opponents. Ashwin counted nine men moving into position. The Riders were good, but few people were good enough to survive a surprise ambush by trained killers at three-to-one odds.
Moving silently, he slipped back from the edge of the roof and folded his binoculars. They fit easily into his thigh pocket, and he took a moment to check his weapons. Two pistols, six throwing knives, a pair of smoke grenades, a garrote, and a hunting knife strapped to his calf.
He’d taken down nine men with less. But this time he wouldn’t have to do it alone.
The drop to the ground was far enough to break bones. Ashwin performed the calculations automatically, redistributing his weight and momentum into a roll that dispersed the force and brought him back to his feet unharmed. He did the same for the angles of visibility, recalling the layout of the buildings and the positions of the soldiers in order to slip through the alley unseen.
By the time he reached the edge of the courtyard, Reyes was stalking toward two of the deserters near the temple doors. “You want to start some shit?” he demanded with a wide grin. “Let’s start some shit.”
They both pulled guns. Reyes’s grin didn’t falter. Reckless, even for a man with his reputation, and Ashwin eased a throwing knife free of its sheath and judged the distance to the steps.
His mission would go to hell if he let one of the Riders get killed.
Reyes’s confident stalk melted into a run. He slammed into one of the men, knocking him into the other, and the three of them went down in a tangled flurry of limbs. Reyes finally drew his pistol, but only to smash the butt of it across one deserter’s face.
The other two Riders were smart enough to maintain distance—and cover. Hunter fired from behind a pillar, taking down two men before a third blasted the pillar, sending shards of marble raking across Hunter’s face.
Gabe had chosen knives as his weapons, and he was good with them. As the attacker took aim at Hunter again, Gabe’s wrist snapped forward. The bright silver blade embedded itself cleanly in the man’s throat. Gabe killed another deserter with a second knife before turning to check on Hunter.
The leader of the group dropped from the roof of the temple, crashing into Gabe and carrying him to the ground. Ashwin surged out of the alley, already calculating the angles and velocity and the chance that any shot he fired might go through the deserter and kill the man he was trying to save.
Low. Acceptable, perhaps, under other circumstances.
Ashwin ran faster.
There were seven steps leading up to the temple. Ashwin vaulted up three of them and landed behind the leader, who had his pistol pointed at the back of Gabe’s head, his finger squeezing the trigger.
He was a seasoned soldier, but Ashwin was faster. He grabbed the man’s wrist and jerked back. Bone snapped as the gun fired, blowing through the leader’s chin to tear off the top of his head.
The body went limp beneath him. Ashwin stripped the pistol from his hand and spun. Six men down, three remaining. One using the bikes for cover, one grappling with Reyes, and one standing out in the open, gaping at Ashwin with naked fear in his eyes.
“Makhai! There’s a fucking Mak—”
The bullet silenced him. He toppled backwards, dead eyes staring up at the clouds.
Reyes reared back and took one last swing, a mighty blow that left the man beneath him still and unmoving. The final deserter, the one hiding behind the bikes, took off, kicking up a trail of dust behind him as he ran.
Letting him get back to rest of the deserters was an unacceptable risk. Ashwin fired, then turned back toward the temple as the man’s body pitched to the ground.
Gabe was on his feet, swiping blood from a broken nose. His other hand hovered near his knives, but the wariness in his gaze melted into recognition. “You’re the soldier who was helping the O’Kanes during the war.”
“I am.” Extending his hand in greeting was probably the correct thing to do, but Ashwin had learned early in life not to try and mimic human social gestures. No matter how precisely he thought he’d executed them, people could sense the deliberation behind them. The emptiness.
He’d been genetically engineered to be good at many things. Small talk wasn’t one of them.
A shot rang out, followed by another. Reyes was on his feet, his gun still in his hand, standing over the now-dead deserters he’d fought with.
Hunter pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. “If you were going to fucking shoot them, man, why didn’t you just shoot them?”
Reyes dragged his arm across his bloodied mouth and shrugged. “Didn’t seem fair not to give ‘em a fighting chance.”
Gabe snorted, then winced, poking gingerly at his nose. “Well, now my face is as busted as yours. It could have been my head.”
It likely would have been. “Those weren’t ordinary raiders,” Ashwin told them. “They’re deserters from the Base. In the future, it would be best not to give them any unnecessary opportunities to kill you.”
“Deserters, huh?” Blood dripped from Hunter’s lacerated cheek. “What are they doing all the way out here?”
Ashwin used his foot to turn the leader’s body over. His face was almost unrecognizable, but Ashwin knew who he was. Rick Porter had been one of the elite soldiers. Not as elite as Ashwin—not Makhai—but still trained from birth to excel at strategy and killing. “Looking for the credits and wealth they think they’re owed.”
Hunter muttered something under his breath and knelt to check another of the bodies as the temple doors swung open. Several acolytes rushed out, their robes flowing as they ran toward Reyes and began fussing over his nonexistent injuries.
Gabe turned to Ashwin. “The priestess will have called for help. Are there more of them out there?”
“A few dozen. Maybe more, if they’ve been recruiting.” Ashwin nudged the leader again. “But I doubt they’ll have backup coming. This wasn’t a well-planned operation. They were sloppy, overconfident.”
“He still might have killed me if you hadn’t been here.” Gabe extended a hand, and Ashwin had to clasp it. Not doing so would have been awkward. But he disliked the physical contact, and he struggled to judge the appropriate amount of pressure. Too hard would be considered aggressive, too lax would signal weakness.
The intricacies of nonverbal communication had always been tedious, but Ashwin found he had even less patience for them since the war. He gripped Gabe’s hand and knew it was too hard when the other man’s eyes widened slightly. Irritated with himself, he let his hand drop. “I was doing my job.”
“Your job?” Reyes studied Ashwin while one of the acolytes prodded his bruised knuckles. “There’s no way the Base sent you to clean out upwards of forty deserters all by yourself.”
Hunter scoffed. “Maybe if you hadn’t been busy getting your face bashed in, you could have listened.”
“The man’s Makhai.” He straightened and pinned Ashwin with a flat stare. “Forty against one—those odds aren’t so bad when you’re dealing with a walking science experiment.”
If he’d had any feelings to speak of, the mistrust might have stung them. But fear and aversion were the only constants in Ashwin’s life. “I was doing recon when they decided to ambush you. A defeat like this may subdue them for a short time, but when the others strike, they’ll be better prepared.”
“All the more reason to see if these corpses have anything useful to tell us.” Hunter moved on to searching the next body.
Reluctantly, Reyes joined him. Gabe crouched and started with the leader.
Ashwin could have told them everything they wanted to know. He could have slipped his scanner from his pocket and used the bar codes on the deserters’ wrists to access their service histories. But it was interesting to watch this methodical examination. Instead of tech and gadgets, they used wits and observation.
“Gabriel, mira.” Reyes grabbed the toe of Porter’s boot and pried a small piece of quartz from the treads. “The gravel pit?”
Gabe took the rock from him and tilted his palm so it caught the light. “They could be camped out there.”
The rumble of a truck interrupted them. Ashwin gripped his gun and turned, but at the sight of the open-topped truck that was racing toward the temple, the other men immediately relaxed.
It slid to a stop, and a blonde woman stood up in the passenger seat, her hands locked around the roll bars that formed the top frame of the truck.
Pain sizzled through Ashwin, a teasing shock. The echoes of agony. For the first few seconds, looking at her hurt. It hurt enough that a normal man might have turned away from the sight of her.
Ashwin had never been normal.
He catalogued her features like probing a bruise. Her silver-blue eyes, heart-shaped face, and high cheekbones. The narrow bridge of her nose and the elegant arch of her brows. Her lips, full and soft but parted in shock.
There had been a time when the symmetrical arrangement of her features had made his pulse race. When he’d seen her face every time he closed his eyes, a sweet afterimage of the only thing in his life he’d ever wanted.
Now, he couldn’t remember what wanting felt like. Six months of torture had cured him of that particular aberration.
Kora stumbled from the truck. Her lips formed the silent shape of his name, and then she was running, hard and fast. She was still moving when she reached him, and he caught her out of instinct as she slammed into him.
He didn’t care for physical contact, but holding her wasn’t unpleasant. She was made of curves and smooth skin, and tall enough that he could smell her hair. When she’d worked as a doctor on the Base, her scent had been subdued. Mild traces of something floral, nothing he could ever identify. Now she smelled like coconut, and beneath that, spice or incense.
She smelled like she belonged here.
And she was crying. The salty scent of her tears mixed with the sound of her ragged, exhaled sob as she slid her arms around his neck. “I thought you were dead.”
It hadn’t occurred to him that she’d think any such thing. It hadn’t occurred to him she’d care. Most people Ashwin had known in his life would feel nothing if he vanished, except perhaps vague relief.
But he should have known. Kora Bellamy wasn’t most people.
He didn’t know how to soothe her. He wasn’t trained for it. Her grip on him tightened, and he moved his hand between her shoulder blades in an awkward circle. “I’m sorry.”
“What happened? Where have you been?”
“Kora.” Deacon Price, the driver of the truck and Gideon’s second-in-command, stood nearby, a black bag in one hand. “You need to look at Hunter’s face.”
“Oh, God. I’m sorry.” She pulled back, but it took another few heartbeats before she untangled her fingers from the back of Ashwin’s shirt. “Sorry, I’m just… Don’t go anywhere.”
“I’ll be here,” he promised, letting his fingers linger on her back until she turned away. Then he lowered his hand, and it didn’t hurt to let her go. His bones didn’t ache with the need to follow her. When he closed his eyes briefly, he saw only darkness.
The Base had spent close to twenty-one weeks tearing her out of him, one painful memory at a time. They’d practically rebuilt him on a cellular level. Whatever compulsion had gripped him, whatever obsession had driven him—he was no longer fixated on Kora. He had to believe it. He had a mission to execute, and he couldn’t allow her presence to compromise it.
The first stage had gone well. The deserters had taken his bait, including the false schematics he’d planted, hinting that the vault in the basement was beyond their ability to crack. They’d done exactly what Ashwin had anticipated—waited for the Riders to remove the loot for them.
He’d been meticulous. Even if some of the deserters had survived this raid, there was no way for the Riders to trace their intel back to him. And that was the only variable he’d misjudged—the sheer competence of Gideon’s men. The three of them had almost taken down the entire squadron before he had a chance to intervene and help.
He wouldn’t repeat the mistake of underestimating them.
With a little luck, he’d be in Gideon Rios’s house by sunset, one step closer to infiltrating the Riders. Gideon might mouth pieties about compassion and peace, but he was a ruthless enough leader not to squander the chance to have a genetically engineered soldier at his disposal.
Ashwin had planned for everything…except Kora. But he was Makhai. He’d find a way to make it work.
He always did.