Rance hopped down off the ramp into the purple dirt. As her feet hit the ground, gritty purple sand accosted her from every angle, blowing into her nose, eyes, and mouth. Her single, tight braid whipped around and smacked her in the eye. She winced, grabbing for the mask on her belt. Before pulling it on, she turned to tell Tally to close the ramp. But the ramp was already rising, humming smoothly until it sealed shut.
The crew had scattered. Rance quickly made her way alone across the expanse of the docks, out of the wind. When she reached the broad thoroughfare spanning the marketplace, she broke into a jog. The street looked the same as it always did, with metal stalls facing the thoroughfare and enough foods and goods to make the planet seem more like a Core world than a mining colony.
Her implant synced with the city’s network, and a map of the marketplace popped up on her ZOD, displaying grid lines over the streets and even giving her the names of vendors. She turned on her heel, drinking in the still-familiar sights of Xanthes. The smell of warm, rich food and wet sand. The sound of vendors bickering and bartering.
But Rance didn’t have time for misplaced nostalgia. She hunched over and hurried past the crowds, looking back occasionally to make sure she wasn’t being followed. The less time she spent here, the better. She didn’t want to run into—
“Rance Cooper! How are ya?”
Rance cringed and slowed to a walk. There he was, coming out of a tavern like he’d been waiting for her. He walked in a slightly crooked line. How did Harrison McConnell always know when she returned home? He must have a friend at the port office. Rance felt like she’d spent half her life in space and the other half avoiding Harrison.
“Sorry I can’t stay, Harrison. Tight schedule.”
“You haven’t seen me in over a year, and that’s the ‘hello’ I get?” He lifted his mask expectantly.
Rance sighed before sliding her mask over for him. Harrison stood on his tiptoes and kissed her cheek. He smelled sweaty, like he hadn’t bathed in days.
And he was already pouting—a sure sign he was drunk. His bright blue eyes peered up at her sorrowfully. “When are we going to get married, Rance?”
Rance rolled her eyes. “When Triton stops sending Unity to interfere with the Outer Colonies.”
Now Harrison rolled his eyes. “We are betrothed, you know. I could tell your father you’re on Xanthes, get proceedings going.”
Rance glared at him. “Don’t you dare, Harrison McConnell!”
“If you didn’t want to get married, why’d you consent to the arrangement?”
“I didn’t . . .”
Rance glanced around, then grabbed Harrison’s shoulder and steered him back toward the tavern. She pushed him through the door and ducked her head to enter. A wall of noise hit her before her eyes adjusted. Glasses clinking. Voices raised in drunken tirades. She removed her mask to see better, and then wished she hadn’t.
The smell almost sent her to her knees. By the Founders, every time. She always forgot how horrible these places were. The room smelled like cats had died under every table. That stink would have been enough to send Rance back to the Streaker, but it mixed with sweat and hair and alcohol to form some sort of fetid odor all its own. She fought the urge to gag as they made their way around tables to the bar.
“What are you having?” she asked Harrison.
Her nose was already wrinkled in disgust, so it couldn’t turn up any more. She settled for a sneer. Still gripping his shoulder much harder than necessary, Rance ordered the drink and steered Harrison to an empty table in the corner. He didn’t argue as she pushed him down into a hard metal chair.
“You can’t say things like that out in the open, Harrison,” she began.
He held up his hand, signaling her to wait while a young woman in a dirty white tunic brought his drink. It glowed blue and smelled like rotten eggs. Harrison didn’t seem to mind, and downed the horrible thing in one swallow. When he finished, he waved his hand at the bartender for another. Then he fixed Rance with a less-than-focused stare.
“Not having anything?”
“You know very well I don’t drink.”
“Right. Gotta keep up appearances and all that.”
“Speaking of keeping up appearances, don’t you ever mention our engagement in public again. If Unity hears I’ve been skipping planet on a Founders’ Marriage, they’ll throw me in the plasma prison and you with me. And they won’t let us out until we’re married.”
“Then stop running. Just go see the Founder official with me. It’ll be fun.”
Harrison listed to starboard as he talked, reminding Rance of just how fun a marriage to this buffoon would be.
“Remember our deal?” she asked through gritted teeth.