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Bought: Chapter Five

Jenke

An entire moon, with just two people living on it.

Well, and the largest museum of stuff I’d ever seen.

As we crossed the lawn, a flicker of movement out of the corner of my eye caught my attention and I whirled to face it.

She placed her hand lightly on my arm.

“It’s just the gardeners.”

Right. Of course.

She pulled her hand away, but I could still feel her touch, even through the rough fabric of my jumpsuit.

“What does the –” I caught myself. “What does Andrea do, anyway? I don’t remember ever working with her corp before.”

“Avatars, what else?” She shrugged. “Actually, not so much the physical avatars. That’s a small part of the business now, but useful for when people need to be somewhere but don’t want to travel. Just send your avatar. Most people find it a little more friendly than just a holo.”

I didn’t see the difference.

A holo smelled of nothing, and an avatar with a projection layered over it just smelled like a bot.

“Does she travel much, or just use her own avatars?”

“Not anymore,” the thickness in Serra’s voice startled me. “She used to love to travel, and has stories from all over the sector of her discoveries, how she trounced all the other collectors bargaining for treasures.”

She smiled, just a little too brightly. “I can only imagine that they all underestimated her. She doesn’t leave much anymore.”

Hmm.

Something was wrong there, but if Serra didn’t want to talk about it, I wasn’t going to press.

We continued beneath the light of the second largest moon, gleaming overhead.

“And you’re never lonely, just the two of you on this rock?”

“Have you seen this place?” She spread her arms wide around her. “I have my work, I have Annie to help me, and a neverending stream of treasures to explore.”

“As long as they don’t fall on you and cut you in half,” I grumbled.

She frowned. “That’s not normal, I promise.”

And I should leave it alone.

I was probably the last person in the sector to be counselling someone about their social lives.

As we started up the slope, I remembered what she’d said. “So, if the avatars are only part of her business, what else does she do?”

Hopefully nothing sketchy. I’d really, really like for it not to be anything sketchy.

Though the disdain in her voice when Andrea had mentioned Ran Denau gave me a little bit of hope.

Not a lot, mind you.

The corps were filled with sketchy people doing sketchy things.

As long as they made a profit, they didn’t care.

“She builds people, spokespeople and influencers, mostly.”

I stopped for a moment, a tight band suddenly seizing my chest.

“Builds them? What, in giant vats or something?”

“Of course not,” Serra shook her head. “Digitally. Andrea’s digital avatars are some of the sector’s hottest entertainers and celebrities.”

Right. Of course they wouldn’t be grown in vats.

What sort of madwoman would think of that?

“All of this is paid for by people wanting to have a line of code selling them something?”

“People are weird,” she said. “And believe me, it’s more than just a line of code.”

I shook my head.

She could have stopped at people were weird, and I would have been satisfied.

We crested the hill that led down into the shallow valley where I had been directed to land.

“So, who are the people you’re looking for?” Serra asked as we reached the hull. “It’s a lot of bother to go to just to dig up some old friends.”

My hand hovered over the access panel.

“More than friends. At least, they were once.”

I gritted my teeth, forcing the memories away.

“We fell out of touch a few years back. Nobody’s fault, just one of those things.”

Well, that wasn’t entirely accurate.

There’d been a megalomaniac back in the Empire trying to destroy all of us, my brothers, Doc, the floating laboratory we called home.

It had kind of put a crimp in our communications, to say the least.

They’d been lost, abandoned in this sector for years now. Whether or not they’d be happy to see me was anyone’s guess.

The hatch slid open and I hopped up, rolling my shoulders.

There was enough to deal with here and now.

Wondering what if, what happened, where they were, wouldn’t do me a damn bit of good. Or them.

“You want to come in, look around?”

Serra stepped back, and shook her head sharply.

“Thank you. I’m fine out here.”

That was odd, I thought, then realized what my words must’ve sounded like.

An invitation, and obviously one she didn’t welcome.

I went back to the cabin where I’d tossed my bag, disgusted with myself.

That hadn’t been what I’d meant, but Yasmin had been right.

I was going feral.

I exited the ship and resealed the hatch.

Serra stared at a segment of the sky, her brows slightly drawn together.

“That’s strange,” she murmured. “I don’t remember there being a meteor cloud in the system this time of year.”

Faint streaks of light dashed through the upper atmosphere.

“They’re pretty, even if unexpected.”

Together, we headed back towards the house, her watching the sky, me trying to figure out how to recover from my blunder.

It wasn’t that I was completely unused to talking to women.

Doc was a woman, technically. Half of my brothers now seemed to have mates.

And I liked Yasmin.

This, this somehow felt different, more complicated.

Which was ridiculous. I needed Serra’s help.

No, I needed Andrea Transaman’s help, and obviously staying in Serra’s good graces was the best way to achieve that.

I didn’t need or want anything more.

Then why did I notice so quickly when she stopped, still staring at the sky above her?

She turned around, her head tilted to examine the sky around us again.

“Have you ever seen a meteor shower act like that?”

Her words jolted me out of my thoughts.

I paid attention now, as I should have been for the long minutes it had taken us to walk from the ship.

I glanced ahead.

We still had far too much ground to cover to make it back to the house quickly enough.

I looked back over my shoulder.

And we were almost as far from my ship.

Void take it.

The streaks of gold scoring the sky came faster now, thicker.

Lower.

And now that I wasn’t being a fool, I could hear the hiss as they screamed through the atmosphere.

“Something’s wrong,” I growled, tossing my bag to the ground. “Something’s very wrong.”

It was only the work of a moment to rummage through my bag, pulling out the case which held my blaster.

I moved to hand it to her. “Do you know how to use this?” She pulled her hands away, shaking her head.

“Not for years,” she breathed.

“Then stay close to me,” I ordered.

Because arcing in a broad circle around us, no doubt circling behind the palace complex, it was clear to see these were not meteors, not lumpen rocks falling randomly from space.

White-gold spheres rained down, quickly cooling, shattering like the dessert we’d enjoyed only a short hour ago.

And inside was nothing quite so tasty.

“We’re under attack!” Serra shouted from behind me and I whirled to see her clutching the pendant at her neck.

“Stay close, I’ll take care of you,” I reassured her.

“You should stay close to me, I think,” she said, then resumed her conversation to whoever was on the other side of that comm. “Secure the complex, lock down Andrea’s chambers immediately!”

The attack droids continued to unfold as they walked towards us, a whine filling the air as their blasters powered up.

“Now will you stay still?” I snarled, then decided not to wait for an answer and grabbed her, sweeping her behind me.

“It’ll be fine,” her nervous swallow didn’t do much to convince me. “It usually is.”

I glanced over my shoulder at her. “Usually is? Does this sort of thing happen often?”

She shrugged. “Occasionally.”

Then it was far too late for more information.

I scolded myself.

I should have brought more than just the one blaster.

But after all her talk of house parties, the multiple course dinners, and serving droids bringing drinks, somehow I hadn’t really thought I would need heavy artillery for the rest of the evening.

I wouldn’t be making that mistake again.

The attack droids weren’t a model I was familiar with, but it was a fair bet losing a head would slow them down.

One, two, three.

They fell. Didn’t get up again.

But their companions simply spread out a little further, and continued their advance towards us.

“This isn’t going to be good.”

Serra’s shoulder pressed against my back. “Why is it taking them so long?” she muttered. “They should be here already.”

Before I had a chance to ask who ‘they’ were, the skies above answered.

“The gardeners?” I gasped.

The long retractable arms had lengthened and thickened to form wings, the awkward gait was nonexistent as they soared and swooped through the air, laying down heavy fire in waves at our attackers.

“The gardeners,” I repeated flatly.

“It doesn’t make sense to have guard bots that don’t do anything else the rest of the time,” Serra whispered. “And they really are very good with the flowers.”

One arm tightly around her shoulders, I monitored our perimeter carefully, waiting for any trace of the attacking force to break through the line of fire.

But within minutes, it was over, with steaming heaps of metal scattered around the once pristine grounds.

“Mrs. B? Is the complex clear?”

“Everything is fine in here, dear,” the motherly voice answered. “I’m not sure if Chairman Transaman even noticed.”

What?

The firefight hadn’t taken long, but even a human with nonenhanced hearing should have heard more than a peep or two of that battle.

“Annie? How is the gallery?”

“Shutters are still down,” the bot answered through Serra’s necklace. “I will await until your arrival before I restore normal functions.”

“Good idea,” Serra said, then took a deep breath, exhaling with a slight shudder. “I really hate when that happens.”

I stood stunned, as much by her attitude as the sudden attack and the unexpected defenses.

Somehow, this was a little more than I’d expected a museum curator to have to handle. “You’re acting like this is pretty normal.”

She shrugged and began her way back to the complex.

“Not normal, but not unexpected. Surely it’s no surprise that Andrea isn’t the only collector interested in our artifacts.”

She glanced around at the gardeners, now rolling the slagged attack bots away into the night.

“This wouldn’t be the first time someone has thought the clever thing to do would be to let her gather all the treasures into one place and then swoop in and take the lot for themselves.”

Blaster still in hand, I slung my bag over my shoulder and followed her back to the house.

Permasteel barriers were slowly sinking into the ground, re-exposing all the beauty to the moonlight once more.

“So, we’re back to it being a castle, aren’t we?”

She grinned. “Maybe a little bit. Only when we need to be.”

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