Excerpt from

Claimed by Noatak

“Becoming a hired gun is ludicrous, Marlis.” Dad sneered through the comm screen. “I don’t know why your sister would’ve suggested it.”


“Because she knows it’s the only thing I’m good at. The only thing I want to do.” The blinking amber light at the corner of the public comm screen was requesting more credits to continue.


Dad shook his head, frowning. “Come home and we’ll discuss your options. I love you, Marlis. I only want you safe.”


The burning in Marlis’s gut was making her feel like she was about to spew acid all over the screen. She loved her dad, loved her family. But the one-way ticket to the station had cost her nearly her entire savings—which wasn’t much, since she’d spent almost every dime she collected on weapon upgrades. If she went back now, she might never make it off the Syndicorp carrier again. The comm light shifted to red for the final ten-second warning.


“I’m staying here. Talk to you later, Dad.” She ended the call and swung out of the booth, shouldering past the others waiting in line. She paused in the middle of the teeming corridor, drawing a blank on which direction to turn.


Ever-helpful, her AI, Twerp chirped from her wrist, “Do you wish to return to the hostel, Marlis?”


“Sure.” Where else was she going to go? Her feet felt heavy as she considered how she was going to keep paying for a bunk without a job, let alone the rental for the weapons locker. The station frowned upon average citizens tromping around with MCS6’s and pulse cartridges, although she’d kept her E-11 holstered beneath her waistband.


“Turn left,” Twerp advised.


Marlis began trekking through the crowd, then changed her mind and shifted course toward a nearby cantina. Maybe a drink would settle her nerves.


Entering the bar, she passed a massive Yanipa-nimayu bouncer kicked back on four of his six massive legs. One of his four eyes shifted to her holster, but he didn’t stop her from passing. Inside, a sign flickered over the central bar—The Junk Heap. The soles of her shoes clung to the tacky floor, and the herbal stink of cirripi weed drifted from the back. Two human servers flitted among the scattered booths and high tables.


As Marlis looked for a seat, Twerp piped up over the music wailing from speakers in the ceiling, “I have taken the liberty of accessing the station’s want ads and can locate no advertisements for guards or weapons specialists. Would you like me to look for alternate employment opportunities?”


On the barstool next to her, a thin man with grease-stained fingers looked at her from the corner of his eye, gaze flitting to her wrist before returning his attention to the bubbling drink in front of him. He was seedy, but not a threat, and Marlis settled onto her stool before lifting her wrist close to her mouth. “Not so loud, Twerp. Geez.”


She’d forgotten her earbud on the carrier and didn’t have the time or money to get a new one at the moment. Not that she ever remembered to wear it, anyway. She signaled the Posungi bartender, who waggled his bright orange facial tentacles her direction to indicate he’d be right there. While she waited, she spoke toward her wrist in a low voice. “Twerp, do any of the independent vessels post ads with the station? If I can’t get a job with the shipping companies, maybe I can freelance.”


“Checking.”


The guy next to her looked at her again. “You’d be better off searching the boards.” He lifted his chin toward the far wall. “Though a good-looking gal like you might make more money on her back than on a ship.”


Marlis reconsidered her assessment of him, but when he shrugged and turned back to his drink, she decided her first guess had been right. Looking over her shoulder toward where he’d gestured, she spotted a bulletin board covered in haggard scraps of paper near the restrooms.


“How archaic,” she muttered as she headed toward them. All manner of languages covered the pages, some typed, some scrawled. The few she could read in Corporate Common were selling items or services and one ad for a room rental. There were even two posters she could only assume were cartel, offering bounties for information about a dark-haired woman and her brother. As she was attempting to decipher a splotchy note requesting someone willing to perform a sexual position she’d never heard of, an argument broke out near the restroom door.


“I said you mistook my words.” A petite woman around Marlis’s age was jerking ineffectually against the grip of a human male who looked like he’d taken one too many puffs of cirripi. “Just let me go.”


“C’mon, baby, I just want to talk.” He grinned, exposing a dead front tooth.


Marlis didn’t like the way his fingers clamped around the woman’s upper arm. She took a single step toward them, her right hand tensed to whip out her pistol if need be. “Everything okay?”


The brunette shook her head fiercely enough to bounce her curls, her wide eyes full of alarm. “No.”


“Back off, Blondie,” said the man with barely a look toward Marlis. “You ain’t my type.”


Marlis wasn’t particularly good at hand-to-hand combat, preferring the sure results her E-11 provided, but she’d had some training. Lightning quick, she reached out and twisted the man’s grip free of the woman’s arm. The man fell to his knees. “Ow! What the fuck, woman?”


Pathetic. Not even worth getting angry over. She leaned in close enough to smell his reeking, weed-tainted breath. “She asked you to let her go. Now get out of here before I call that bouncer over there. Unless you think he’ll be more polite?”


He pulled his arm against his chest the moment she let go, his hateful gaze still on her face. But she could tell he wasn’t the type to put up a fight. Most likely he’d slink off to lick his wounds until he found another easy target.


The smaller woman watched the man scramble upright and retreat out the door then extended a hand to Marlis. “Thank you. My name’s Emmy.”


“Marlis.” Marlis accepted the handshake.


“Let me buy you a drink.” Emmy adjusted her blouse hem around her plump hips. “It’s the least I can do.”


Marlis shrugged. “I won’t say no.”


At least she’d get a free drink. If she couldn’t find a job, maybe she’d spend her time saving damsels in distress at bars. Marlis followed her to two empty stools at a high top table in the back. Nearby, a group of women held their heads close together while they murmured and glanced around nervously. A female Posungi in the corner nursed a drink, her thin facial tendrils swaying in time to the music.


After the server took their order, Emmy smiled brightly at Marlis and leaned in to speak over the loud music. “Are you here for the interview, too?”


Marlis perked up. “I am looking for a job. Who’s interviewing?”


“Oh,” Emmy’s face blanched. “You didn’t get an invite? I just assumed…”


Her brief hope dashed, Marlis picked up the drink the server had just delivered and took a long, burning swallow. “That’s okay. From your appearance, the job isn’t likely for a Weapons Specialist, anyway.”


“Wow!” An appreciative grin split the woman’s face. “I’ve never met a Weapons Specialist!”


“What do you do?” Marlis asked, more out of politeness than anything else. She already couldn’t remember this woman’s name, and would probably forget all about this conversation by the time she left the cantina.


The woman’s excited smile collapsed. “I trained as a therapist. But I’m looking for something else this go-round.” She looked over her shoulder as if worried about being overheard. “I hear they’re interviewing for all kinds of skills. I could ask them to include you.”


Marlis leaned forward. Okay, so maybe she wouldn’t forget this conversation that easily. “Maybe. Who would I be working for?”


Pulling out a polycom, the woman—what was her name? Jenna?—plopped it down on the table in front of Marlis and tapped the screen. “Here.”


A video popped into motion of a charming, dark-haired woman speaking with the biggest, most copper-skinned man Marlis’d ever imagined. “Is that a cyborg?”


“No, they call themselves Denaidans. Have you heard of them?”


The underlying thrum of conversation in the cantina changed tone, and Marlis glanced toward the door. A tall beast of a man blocked the light from the outside corridor. He scoped the area, then took the arm of a tall woman next to him and moved between the tables, directly toward Marlis’s table. Marlis itched in that way that usually told her trouble was brewing, but this itch was centered low in her belly and had nothing to do with her trigger finger. “Holy hotness.”


Jenna or Emma or whatever her name was looked up from the video and gasped. “That’s them! I recognize the woman.”


Now that she mentioned it, Marlis did recognize the woman as the one from the video, but she couldn’t stop looking at the man. His black beard was plaited with small silver beads, and his long hair hung down his back in banded ropes. As he scanned the cantina, his eyes locked with hers, a steely, gunmetal blue that sent tingles straight to her core.


Against her wrist, Twerp vibrated gently to inform her of her increasing heart rate.


She picked up her drink and finished it in one gulp. That guy looked like he could hold his own in a gun fight, knife fight, or any other fight she could imagine. Against her will, Marlis could imagine other things she’d like him to hold, as well.


Without taking her eyes off him, she said, “I think I’d like to apply for a job.”

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