The truth-crawler burrowed into her neck. Chae cursed, gritting her teeth against the bite and slice of its pincers. Clicks and whirrs filled the silent room as the crawler's synthetic leg joints worked its bulbous body under her skin. Chae stared up at the strip of light above her, focusing, denying the raw surge of pain. The things she did for money.
Her fingers curled into fists and she felt the two suits watching her endure the pain. She didn't turn her head to them, but let the light burn against her eyes. The deal they offered was too good to resist.
A friend had shoved her into this. Promised high stakes and the rumor of one wealthy and gullible mark slumming it in the northern cities. What he hadn't warned her about was being grabbed from the room, bundled into a transport and sight-wiped with fuck-knows-what.
The taste of sump oil still burned foul against her tongue. She'd come around with two suits introducing themselves as she lay force-strapped to a freezing metal table. So much for an aging and hideously rich lecher and his flesh-pet. Chae twisted and the straps dug hard into her flesh. Hell, she'd been strapped down before…but that had been a lot more fun.
The truth-crawler sealed itself under her skin. Chae crushed her eyes tight against the stab of its sting into tense muscle. The first rush of salt stung the tip of her tongue. She hated the nasty, synthetic truth-crawlers. The stream of venom from the innocuous little bug, one that looked so harmless when it sat on a client's palm, flowed too fast over her thoughts. She grimaced, loathing the lack of control that would grip her in a few short seconds.
She'd done this too often. Hell, she had enough of the creatures floating through her system to grow her own sting. She obviously didn't have a trustworthy face. She snorted. What runner did?
Chae turned her head and glared at the two men. Pain lanced and the crawler jabbed its sting deeper. A string of foulness escaped her. “You getting off on this?”
The first suit, Govan, stepped out of the shadows. He was the older of the two with a craggy, lived-in face. He'd lost the silks and garish body-ware. Yes, the stark black of a plain suit fitted his dour face. He frowned at her and the lines deepened. “This is necessary, Captain Beyon. More is at stake than your tolerance to pain. We have to make certain—”
“—that I can be trusted.” Chae ached to press her hand to her mouth, to let her nails dig into her jaw and stop the flow of truth. Already the insane urge to spill her life story to these two strangers held her…because it was what they wanted. And she really wanted to give them what they wanted. Especially the man who had acted as Govan's flesh-pet. Yes, he would prove a perfect distraction to her overactive urge to talk.
“Get me a shot of liquid sex and half an hour—no, an hour—with Daned there.” Chae jerked her head to the other man still standing in the heavy shadows obscuring most of the secure room. She winced against the bite of the crawler, but carried on because they needed to know that she wanted him. They really did. “Are you typical Ladaian? Because, truthfully—” she couldn't help the grunt that broke from her, “—I've been stupid to avoid you. How much would it cost me for you to strip? Buck naked—”
Govan's shocked shout only made her laugh. “Oh come on, old man. Don't tell me you didn't stare long and hard at him. Stripped, he was luscious—”
“You couldn't afford me.” Daned's soft, deep voice pricked at her skin, and her nipples peaked. He stepped from the shadows. Tall, lean and holding a carved beauty that made her ache to lick him from head to toe, he watched her with unreadable eyes. He straightened the line of his conservative suit jacket. Damn, he'd been so delicious standing behind Govan at the game table, wearing only a scrap of silver metal.
She let out a soft, hot sigh. It was such a pity the man wasn't really synthetic flesh.
Daned frowned. “Now can we get to the point, please, Captain Beyon?”
“Call me Chae. And can I lick you? One quick lick. I won't bite.” She snapped her teeth together and smirked at him. “Well, I might—”
“I can't believe she came recommended,” Govan muttered. He ran his hand over his thinning hair and stepped closer to her slab. The clack of his shoes echoed off the smooth metal walls. “Captain Beyon.” Her name came out tight, angered, and it had her smiling. “You're here because we want to hire you and your craft.”
“Money upfront,” she said, her gaze never leaving Daned.
“You're Ara Ladaian.” Censure lurked in Govan's voice. “This concerns your people. Honor demands—”
“Have you tried eating honor? Drinking it? Wearing it?” She twisted against the metal slab, and the force-straps across her hips dug hard against the bone. “I want payment in cash. I'm certain whoever recommended me explained that's how I work. Twice.” She laughed. “And as if I'd let myself be strapped down with no prospect of payment.” Her chuckles echoed. “Though if you just step out and leave me in Daned's capable hands…?”
“I've had enough of this.” Govan turned away but Daned caught his arm.
“Wait, sir, please.” Daned held the gaze of the older man and…something…passed between them. It itched on the edge of her thoughts, but the pain of the crawler made clear thinking hard. He stepped back from Govan before she could open her mouth and let more stupidity fall out. “Captain Beyon, this is of national importance to the Ladaians. To every Ladaian. We have a mission that must be completed if we're all to stay sane.”
“This to the woman strapped to a table and with a venomous metal insect digging through her neck?” She rolled her head, and the pinch of the truth-crawler didn't sear fresh pain. The uneasy slide of the last of its venom into her skin rippled a shiver over her body. Chae closed her eyes and breathed against the need to tell the two men that their drug was wearing off. “I want money.”
“What do you know of Ladaian history?” Daned asked.
“If I let you ramble on at me, can we talk money?”
Daned paused, glanced briefly at Govan before that man nodded.
“Good.” She turned her neck and dislodged the sting of the crawler. She winced, just to keep up the illusion. The brief surge of insanity was ebbing and she felt her control returning. Truth-crawlers didn't last long. Not as long as they were supposed to. Not on her. Of course, her prospective clients didn't need to know that just yet. “All right, what do I know?”