Book: Pilgrim



Pilgrim







PILGRIM

S.J. Bryant


Copyright 2015 Saffron Bryant

Published by Saffron Bryant at Smashwords


Smashwords Edition License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you're reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your enjoyment only, then please return to Smashwords.com or your favorite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


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Contents

Title Page

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

The Journey Continues

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About the Author


























To everyone who helped make this book a reality.












CHAPTER ONE






Leela woke with a start, her eyes snapping open. The silence of the night crept into her tent, accompanied only by her slow breathing, creating plumes of mist. Cold tendrils whispered across her skin as she stared vacantly at the roof of her tent.

She sat up and turned to the side, her legs falling over the edge of her low bed. Her feet were heavy on the ground. Her brown hair tumbled over her shoulders in tangled waves. She stood and shrugged out of her tunic, her pale bare skin shining in the moonlight. With dream-like movements, she folded the garment and put it on her shelf.

Leela turned to the tent flap and stepped out into the moonlight in a trance, wearing nothing more than a necklace made of twisted wires. She walked with confident steps away from her shelter, passing other tents but their occupants remained silent. Crickets chirped a loud chorus but fell silent as she passed. A swarm of mosquitoes buzzed about Leela’s ankles, leaving a trail of bites.

The welcoming arms of the forest spread across the horizon, surrounding the field and the small collection of tents. Her bare feet didn’t feel the rocks and sticks, which dug into her skin and left red gouges. She also didn’t notice the branches whipping her face or the cold seeping into her bones.

Even after the morning sun lit the trees, Leela kept hiking. The branches were so thick that the morning light barely shone through the leaves. Animals hurried away from her feet and even the birds were silent as she made her pilgrimage.

She continued on, further than she had ever been from her village. She walked until her path joined a stream that bubbled along by her side. She walked upstream in a trance, completely unaware of her surroundings, or her imminent death.












CHAPTER TWO






“Watch it,” Nova said. She gazed out of the glass window of her small ship as it landed. The grass rose up to meet them as the ship, Crusader, connected to the ground with a rough bump. The craft was a rusted-out cargo ship with living quarters big enough for one person.

“As you might remember, I asked you to replace the depth detectors over a year ago,” the ship replied in a crisp female voice. The artificial intelligence running the ship was generations old but it suited Nova just fine.

“Just go slower next time,” Nova said. “I really can’t afford to be stranded on an outer galaxy planet.”

“Of course,” Crusader replied with all the sincerity of a used-car salesman.

“How close are we to the crash site?” Nova asked.

“It shouldn’t be too far away. A few kilometres at most,” a new voice said.

Nova turned to look at the spherical robot. He had smooth panels that covered his round exterior. He was the size of a soccer-ball and had come with the ship, a Class-4 Labourbot, or ‘Cal’ as Nova affectionately knew him. He had a single camera lens that functioned as an eye. Cal hovered over and floated level with Nova’s eyes.

Outside of the front window a swampy patch of ground spread out, dotted with stunted trees. Mist floated amongst the branches and across the grass.

“What does the Cloud say about this swamp?” Nova asked. She referred to the massive information network that spread between the human colonies, across the vast distances of space. It was said that the Cloud contained every piece of information known to the human colonies.

Cal’s lens moved about the landscape as he spoke. “The planet is known as Taive. When the colonisation ship crashed, the survivors tried to set up their colony here. Reports suggest it was initially successful. Much of the introduced flora and fauna took root.”

Nova nodded. She knew most of what Cal was saying. It was obvious that many of the animals and some of the plant species she could see and hear had been introduced from old-Earth stock.

“However, later reports indicate some kind of failure in the human colony and communication with them ceased approximately one hundred and fifty years ago. All colonists were presumed dead.”

“Pity for them.” Nova continued to study the planet. A thick mist crawled over some of the swamps, further hiding the watery traps. “Good for me though, hopefully they still have what we need. Maybe they’ll even have a working depth detector we can use.”

“When first settled, there were no sentient life-forms. The planet mostly consisted of swamp-land plantation and some insectoid species,” Cal said. Every discovered planet had at least one entry in the Cloud and it was intergalactic law to document every life-form found on new planets, independent of its determined sentience.

“Here’s hoping we’re the first bounty hunters to get here, otherwise the whole trip will have been for nothing,” Nova said, thinking about the precious warp converter she was hoping to find.

Cal hovered to Crusader’s main screen and scanned the topographical map.

Nova massaged her right foot, working her hands over her ankles in a desperate attempt to ease the ever-present ache. Most of the time she could ignore it but today was especially bad. In a way, she was grateful just to have a foot at all, but on days like today when the bone-deep ache throbbed in time with her heartbeat she felt like chopping it off herself.

She’d never been the same since her run-in with the Ancients. Cal had done his best and the money they’d made from the salvage had paid for most of her medical expenses but it was outer planet healing. She couldn’t risk going to the Confederacy, not when Codon could be looking for her. She hoped that her warning was enough to keep him away but there was no way to be sure, and she’d spent the last six months looking over her shoulder, expecting to see Confederacy cruisers on her arse.

She squeezed her ankle and the pressure distracted her from the pain for a few blissful seconds. She knew that her paranoia was only partially due to the Confederacy; the rest of it was thanks to the voices that plagued her head. It had taken six full months of careful meditation and practice to bring the visions under control. She’d shut herself off from the rest of the world and with Cal’s help had spent every waking hour working on keeping herself sane.

Eventually, the blood, sweat, and tears had paid off. Now the screams and voices were dulled and she could ignore them. It was only when she lost control of her emotions that the visions surged back and overwhelmed her. She hadn’t dared test her ability to reach through time for fear of falling through and never finding her way back again. As far as she was concerned, the most important thing was staying sane and that meant staying in control.

“Alright, strap up. We’re out of here,” Nova said. She pulled her boot over her throbbing foot and jumped down from the swivelling pilot’s chair, grabbing a bulging satchel from the floor. She marched to the loading bay. Cal floated right behind her.

The loading bay coupled as the engine room. It was small and cramped with equipment. The metal floor was polished to a sheen. The walls were lined with equipment blinking intermittently. A cage took up the far corner of the room, perfect for holding fugitives and other bounty that might cross her path.

Nova punched her fist into a green button set into the wall and a section of the ship slid out and across to reveal the planet beyond. She glanced around and jumped to the ground with a thump.

“Don’t wait up,” she called to Crusader with a chuckle.

Cal hovered to Nova’s shoulder and the metal door slid shut behind him with a hiss.

“Nice place,” she said, observing the small clearing surrounded by stunted trees.

There was a smell in the air, like rotten vegetation or overturned dirt. It emanated from the swampy marshland spread out between the trees. The murky waters were barely discernible from the solid ground under her feet, both surfaces being covered with the same green, grass-like vegetation.

She reached up and pulled a long stick from the nearest tree; she was damned if she was going to fall into a murky pond.

The forest and swampland were eerily quiet. A few crickets and birds chirped between the trees, but it was mostly still and silent. The air hung heavy with a humid heat that soon had Nova sweating through her layers of clothing. She wouldn’t take them off though; she could already see insects swarming towards her, landing on her thick clothing and attempting to puncture their way through.

She swatted at a large mosquito flying straight for her face. It curved around her hand in a lazy arc and flew a few metres away.

“Cal, let’s get some insect repellent,” she said.

In response, a hatch in Cal’s side lifted and a metal arm extended holding a small can. The robot sprayed the air around Nova’s body. The mosquito swarm lifted off and moved away.

“Well, let’s get exploring,” Nova said. She strode forward, tapping her stick on the ground before taking each step.

“Scanners detect some large life-forms in the bigger swamps, probably crocodiles,” Cal cautioned.

She got the message: don’t step into the water or you’re likely to get eaten. The thought sent a shiver up her spine. She’d never admit it, but under-water predators were one of her greatest fears. After-all, humanity had conquered the land and they had conquered space, but the water still eluded them. In the water, she was slow, clumsy, almost blind, and unable to breathe, practically a sitting duck for any water-dweller.

She tried not to think about the monsters lurking just to her right where an especially large body of water stretched between the trees.

“Only a colonist would bring crocodiles to a new planet,” she said through gritted teeth.

“Maybe they evolved here independently,” Cal said.

Nova snorted.

The pools varied in size from little more than puddles, all the way up to lakes. All of them were covered with the same green, grass-like plant. The trees were the same in all directions; twisted and misshapen. The wood of the trunks bent around themselves, like pieces of rope. Branches stretched out, bent at odd angles.

Shrubs bunched together on the ground, their green leaves reaching for sunlight.

Nova’s stick poked through the ground and straight down into a pool of water. It was ripped from her hands with such force that her shoulder twisted and she cried out. Her arms pinwheeled as she desperately tried to stay upright and keep from falling headfirst after her stick. She grabbed the nearest tree and hauled herself away from the murky depths

She watched with horrified fascination as the stick she had been holding was shattered into shards by the snapping jaws of some large swamp-creature. Nova caught little more than a flash of sharp teeth and the thrash of a fin or claw before the thing disappeared back below the water, and the ripples died away. All that was left of the beast’s sudden emergence was the area of water suddenly free of the green grass and the few pieces of floating bark remaining from her guiding stick.

She stood very still lest the beast leap from the water and take her in its jaws. The water stayed calm as she turned her head side to side, alert for any movement. Cal had the sense to keep quiet until they could back away from the large pool and the dead-end spit of land.

“This is turning out to be more difficult than I expected,” Nova said.

“Scanners detect an aggregation of more than ten life-forms less than a kilometre from here,” Cal replied.

She raised an eyebrow at the robot. “What do you—”

“They appear to be human,” Cal cut in.

Her eyebrows rose even further. Humans on a planet thought to be completely abandoned were definitely worth investigating.

“Well, lead the way then.”

Cal hovered away to the left. Nova stared at the ground with narrowed eyes before taking a new guiding stick from the stunted tree beside her. She tapped the ground in front of her once more as she followed Cal’s reflective silver shape.

Luckily, she had no more close calls as she followed the robot. The swampy pools became fewer, the further they travelled. Soon, she was walking on solid ground, which stretched at least ten metres to either side of her. Ten minutes later, she couldn’t see any more murky pools, although she didn’t stop tapping the ground with her stick, knowing how well the murky depths could be hidden.

A new sound took over from the buzzing insects and frogs. At first, she wasn’t sure what it was but smiled as the source came into view: a river. The stream flowed fast and clean with no sign of grassy growth. The water was clear and bubbled over rocks with careless abandon.

“The aggregation is just up ahead,” Cal said, moving across the river.

Nova had some difficulty jumping from rock to rock, but she made it to the other side with barely a drop of water on her clothes. She crept between the trees, taking care to stay in the shadows.

Cal hovered in the dark patches where the sun wouldn’t reflect his metallic surface. Their stealth routine was something both of them had had ample time to practice. Nova remembered at least a dozen bounty hunts where their very lives had depended on staying hidden.

The two companions came to a larger tree with thick green branches. They halted. Beyond the tree, the woodland stopped and gave way to fields. The morning sun lit up the open grass with a warm glow that contrasted with the dark swampland behind them.

Nova stared out from between the leaves; eager to see how humans would live on a planet such as this. She was careful to move the leaves only slightly. Who knew what manner of people might be on the other side? They could be violent, using Taive as a base of gang operations. Or they may not be human at all. A pack of anything could be dangerous for lone travellers.

Her mouth dropped open at what she saw. Tents gathered together in the middle of the field. They were made from what looked like animal skins and were draped at ragged angles. In the centre of the group of tents was a single wooden building. It wasn’t made of planks or even logs; a rough collection of sticks had been tied together to form four walls and a flat ceiling.

Nova’s brow furrowed at the primitive structures. People walked amongst the tents, carrying baskets and hunks of meat. They called to each other and Nova heard a child’s laugh.

But as she continued to observe, she noticed something missing. Her gaze darted about the encampment, searching for a reason but there was none. The whole village was made up entirely of children, there were no adults.
















CHAPTER THREE






Nova stepped out of the trees. Waving her hand for Cal to stay behind, she strode forwards. She rested a hand on her gun and scanned the area in front of her. The few children she could see stopped what they were doing and stared directly at her. They watched with unblinking eyes, and Nova’s footsteps slowed until she came to a complete stop.

“I mean no har—” Nova’s words were thumped out of her when a heavy weight slammed into her back.

Her body flew through the air and crashed to the ground. The weight of her landing knocked the wind out of her lungs and she struggled to breathe. Her body scraped along the ground and rocks tore open her skin. Pieces of dirt flung up into her face, making her eyes sting.

Something heavy on her back pinned her to the ground despite her desperate struggling. Her head was pushed down towards the dirt. Her arms and legs were firmly trapped and as hard as she struggled, she couldn’t get free.

“Get off of me,” she said. “I’m not alone. If you don’t let me go, you’ll be killed.”

Her words went completely unanswered. Firm hands wrapped around her legs and her ankles were tied together with rough rope. The knots were strong and dug into her flesh, leaving grazes. She tried to kick, but her legs were trussed together so securely that they barely moved.

Her arms were yanked behind her back and her wrists tied together. The strain on her shoulders was intense. She cried out as her joints were pulled nearly to breaking point. In those few seconds, she was rendered as helpless as a strung-up pig.

There were high-pitched voices above her, like children. Their language was unfamiliar.

“Cal, where the hell are you?” she said, her voice strained. The chip in her brain allowed her to communicate across long distances with her mind and Cal was always just a word away.

“They have you surrounded and are armed. It would be foolish for me to move in.” His voice sounded directly into her brain, undetectable to her attackers.

“Have you got their language locked?” she said. As she spoke, she strained against the ropes. They held firm.

“It is some kind of derivative of Eberle,” Cal said.

“Well get the patch!” Nova said between gritted teeth. The voices around her were raised as if in argument, but she had no way of knowing what they were saying. She strained to look over her shoulder and catch sight of her attackers but a sharp kick to her side made her bury her face back in the dirt.

Her heart beat hard in her chest and a drop of sweat dripped from her forehead, dribbled down her cheek and plopped to the dirt.

“Downloaded,” Cal said.

“Auto-translate,” Nova said.

“… sacrificed to the great rock. It is obvious,” a male voice said.

“No, we should consult the great one to see what to do with her,” a female voice replied.

“She will say the same thing,” the first voice said.

“If that is true, then so be it, but we should ask her first,” the female replied.

“Software operational,” Nova said to Cal, then out loud, “I come in peace.”

The translation software in the chip allowed her thoughts to be instantly translated and then transmitted to her speech centre. She could speak almost any language, provided there was a patch for it, without ever learning it.

The voices around her stopped their argument. Silence pervaded the air.

“She speaks as one of us,” the female said.

“Yet, she is not,” the male said.

“We will speak to the great one. Until then we should take her to the ledge.”

The ropes at Nova’s ankles and wrists were jostled and then the ground fell away. She was lifted into the air by a stick passed through her two bonds. Pain lanced through her shoulders and up her neck as muscles twisted with the weight of her body, making her wince. Jolts of agony shot into her back as her spine was bent backwards and her head hung down.

“Look, you bastards! I didn’t come here to be taken hostage by a bunch of brats. Let me go or I swear—”

Her captors didn’t respond. They walked towards the small village with solemn footsteps. She watched the ground below her; she swung from side to side with their footsteps and the motion made her stomach churn. The feet and legs of the boy holding the front of the pole came in and out of view.

She forced her head up, even though it made her neck scream with pain. The boy was no more than thirteen. The stick rested on his left shoulder although it looked like he could barely feel it. He was barefoot and his clothes were made of rough animal skins. His skin was tanned dark and his hair was cut unevenly about his head.

Nova took the chance to look around at the rest of the village as she was carried through it. Her head begged to be lowered. Her shoulders were sure to break at any moment, but she couldn’t give up the chance to learn more about her captors. It could mean the difference between life and death.

The passing tents were made of rough hides and canvas. Outside each was a post made of thick branches sharpened to points and thrust into the ground. Every post had a severed head impaled on it in varying states of decay. The heads belonged to a range of animals, some of which Nova recognised, and others that were foreign.

A particularly large skull had a piece of blue-grey flesh hanging from it. There was only one eye socket and no signs of a nose or mouth. Bony protrusions extended out all across the skull like a spiky seed. Nova struggled to imagine what the creature would have looked like. Next to the spiked skull were insect heads with massive pincers and antennae poking out in all directions.

The heads were surrounded by flies and the breeze carried their stench into Nova’s nostrils. The posts were stained red with blood, a testament to the many other severed heads which had gone before. An antelope’s head reared to Nova’s left, close enough that if her arms weren’t tied she could have touched it. It had a small set of horns which protruded up from the partially visible skull. The skin had been torn and hung in a tattered flap from the bones. The eyeballs of the beast had been eaten some time ago; now there were just empty sockets.

Her nose wrinkled at the sight and she turned away to observe the rest of the village. Every inch of it was a curiosity, leading to more questions than answers. While the tents were made of animal hide, they were decorated with wires and pieces of metal. She stared, trying to make sense of the two incongruous aspects. The village didn’t make any sense. And where were the adults? Even as she was carried through the tents, Nova saw only children, none of them older than fourteen.

When she had taken in all she could, she let her head drop. Her neck ached so badly that she was sure it would snap at any moment. She stared at the ground.

“Did you receive all of that?” she mentally asked Cal.

“Received, although the data makes no sense,” Cal replied.

“My thoughts exactly.”

The ground tilted up. Gravity pulled on Nova’s shoulders as she was carried uphill. When the ground levelled out again, she was dropped unceremoniously to the ground.

She fell helplessly straight onto her stomach. She lifted her head and twisted it to the side just in time to avoid breaking her nose. Her cheek slammed into the hard ground and her teeth clashed together. Dirt ground into her left eye and her temple pounded with the impact. The wind was knocked out of her lungs, leaving her gasping for air.

The voices of her captors faded away along with their footsteps and she was left with silence. Or at least as close to silence as she ever got since her incident with the Ancients. The voices and shadows were never far away, swimming at the edges of her awareness.

When the pain in her face and stomach receded, she focused on straining her ears for any hint of more trouble. The only noise was the wind in the grass.

Opening her right eye, she looked around. Dirt and grass filled most of her vision and above that, all she could see was open sky. There was no sign of the tents or of the children so she assumed she was some distance from the village. She dared not open her left eye. It stung and ached at the same time.

“Cal, I could really use some help,” she whispered. As she spoke, dirt filled her mouth and caked her tongue. She spat it out, but not before the earthy taste infiltrated her nose and throat. A trail of dirt-filled spit connected her mouth to the ground.

“On my way,” he replied. “You’re clear for the moment.”

Nova lay still and waited for her knight in shining armour, or rather, her robot in shining panelling. The whirr of his engine was the most welcome sound she had ever heard. He hovered behind her back and went to work cutting through the ropes.

The ropes fell away and she pulled her arms down to her sides. Her shoulders ached but there was no time to think about it. She rolled over and pulled her legs to her chest, her fingers working at the knots tying her ankles together.

“We’ve got trouble,” Cal said.

Nova glanced up from the knots. A group of five children sprinted up the hill towards her. They held spears and were shouting to each other. She turned back to the ropes and worked even harder to untie them. The knots were firm and her fingers ached. Her hands refused to do what she told them and she fumbled with the rope.

“Shall I release fire?” Cal asked.

The children were halfway up the hill, a few more seconds and they would be upon them.

“Let’s just get out of here,” Nova said. The knot tipped apart and she tossed the rope to the side. She stood to her feet and hobbled in the opposite direction.

“I don’t think that will work,” Cal said, watching the approaching children.

Nova limped to the top of the hill and stopped dead. The ground dropped away in a steep cliff. There was no way down, she looked left and right but the cliff-face continued on both sides. The hill, up which her attackers were running, was the only way down.

“You could have told me,” she yelled at Cal, turning to face the oncoming group. She reached into her holster and pulled out her gun. “Fire at will,” she said. Ordinarily, she wouldn’t condone shooting a bunch of children, but clearly they had plans for her and she was damned if she’d be sacrificed to some savage god.

Cal’s panel lifted up and a small pistol extended out. As a labourbot, he hadn’t originally been equipped with a weapon but Nova had made the adjustment as soon as she’d had the chance. One never knew when an armed robot could come in handy.

Both she and Cal fired their weapons at the approaching children. Nothing happened. There was no loud pop or sudden burst of plasma energy.

Nova’s eyes flew to her gun. The energy cell glowed blue and the trigger was set. By all appearances, there was nothing wrong with it.

“Cal, what the hell is wrong?” she yelled.

“There’s some kind of magnetic force. It’s interfering with the gun’s machinery,” Cal said.

“Well, can we fix it?” she said. She smacked the side of her gun with her palm and tried to fire again. Nothing happened.

“Not before they reach us,” Cal said.

The barbarian children crested the hill and ran straight for them. Behind them, more armed children were climbing the mound.

“Get out of here,” Nova said. “There’s no point both of us getting caught, but you better come back for me.”

Cal lifted up into the air and sailed over the heads of the oncoming children. He shot forward and disappeared into the trees beyond.

“Look at her sorcery!” the boy in front said. Nova recognised his voice from when she was first attacked.

“That settles it, we must sacrifice her,” a girl said. She was older than the others and her voice carried a tone of command.

Nova crouched low. She slammed her gun back into its holster and flicked a small knife out of the inside of her boot. Her heart was beating hard but her mind was clear. She could take on the savages. They were children and she was no stranger to a fight.

The five children spread out and surrounded her in a semi-circle. The cliff-face loomed at her back. The girl in command stepped forward. As Nova looked closer at the new face, she was surprised to see that the girl could only be eleven at most. The way the girl carried herself was deceptive; she had a confidence which made her seem much older. She held a long piece of wood with a dagger tied to the end. Her brown hair was held back in a rough ponytail. The ends were ragged, as if she’d cut it with the knife attached to her spear.

The girl wore a tunic made entirely of animal fur. It was cut to fit her body and left her arms free to move. The material and design were so primitive, Nova thought they would be better suited to a museum than a young girl. The girl’s skin was tanned and taut across her muscled arms. Her waist was tiny, and the rest of her was far beyond skinny; the girl looked half-starved, but Nova didn’t doubt she was stronger than she looked.

Nova took a deep breath, trying to quell the voice that warned her fighting children was wrong. Guilt and fear bubbled just beneath her skin but more powerful than anything was her desire to survive. She hadn’t fought her way up from the slums of her homeworld just to be killed by a group of rabid children. Crouching low, she held her knife in front of her face.

The girl stopped five paces away from Nova. It was only then that Nova noticed the silver metal band encircling the girl’s head, almost like a crown from ancient times. Nova was flummoxed when she realised the silver ring was actually the rim from a small tyre. What was the girl doing with it on her head?

“Surrender or we will take you by force,” the girl said.

“Who are you?” Nova asked.

“I am called Vera, not that it is any concern of yours. Surrender.”

“Why should I? You’re going to sacrifice me anyway,” Nova said.

“Yes, we will, but you can suffer now or you can move on in peace.”

“I’d rather go down with a fight,” Nova said.

She glanced around at the group. There were more of them approaching. She had to take these out before the others arrived or she would be too far outnumbered. If she could remove Vera, then the others might back down.

She didn’t wait a second longer. Leaping forward, she swung her fist at Vera’s head. Her arm sailed straight towards Vera’s face.



Vera stepped backwards and Nova’s fist swept through empty air, sending her off balance and her body tilting to the left. Vera whipped her stick around and slammed the blunt end into Nova’s ribs.

She cried out and stumbled back. The others were closing in. The boy who had taken her captive jumped at her from the right. He had big arms and he lunged at her with both fists.

Ducking out of the way, Nova let him stumble past her. When his body was out of the way, she swung around with her right leg and slammed it into his back. The force of the kick sent him sprawling onto the ground.

She didn’t waste any time. She stepped forward and slammed her boot into the boy’s head. It crunched on contact and his body lay still: unconscious.

At the fall of their companion, the other children moved in. They rushed at Nova from all directions with their spears held out.

“I want her alive, she will be a worthy sacrifice to the Great Rock,” Vera said.

The children obeyed her command and slammed into Nova with the blunt ends of their spears. The pieces of wood smashed into her arms, legs and torso. With each blow, pain burst out from the point of impact.

She turned in circles, desperately trying to stop the attacks. There were too many of them and she couldn’t watch all sides at once. She grabbed onto a stick as it swung at her face, wrapped her hands around it, and yanked as hard as she could. The spear flew out of her attacker’s hands and she gripped it firmly. She stepped towards her unarmed attacker and swung as hard as she could.

The boy was taken by surprise and couldn’t get his hands up in time. The spear slammed into his temple and he collapsed to the ground. She stepped forward, creating room to move, and whirled to face the remaining three attackers.

A smile played at the corner of Vera’s mouth while the other two had expressions of fixed determination. They moved forward with their spears held out.

Nova stepped back. She gauged her enemies. They were confident but over-sure. She had already taken down two of them, only three more to go. Nova lifted her spear above her head and opened her mouth to bellow at her attackers.

Pain exploded at the back of her head and the world went dark.
















CHAPTER FOUR






Nova’s eyes blinked open. She squeezed them shut again at the bright light burning through her eyes and into her brain. Her head ached as if it was being crushed by a giant vice. Her left cheek stung, her ribs ached, her shoulders were on fire, and her legs burned.

Her wrists and ankles were rubbed raw by a rope, stringing her limbs together and holding her to a wooden pole. She was tied face up so that the sun burned her face but the agony in her shoulders was less than before.

Her vision was somewhat lopsided. All she could see was blue sky and the wooden stick. Her body swung mid-air, dangling in a light breeze. Half of her field of view was blacked out.

“What the—” she began, before grinding to a halt. Her left eye was swollen shut.

“Cal?” she whispered, speaking out loud for the comfort of a familiar sound. Her throat was dry and her voice’s vibration sent a new wave of agony through her head.

“Thank goodness you’re alive,” Cal said.

“I’m beginning to wish I wasn’t,” she said, gasping.

“Hold onto that thought,” Cal said, “I’ve been watching the village. Things don’t look good for you. You’re trussed up over some kind of pyre.”

Her eyebrows shot up and she wriggled against the ropes. “They’re going to burn me to death?”

“Certainly looks that way,” Cal said.

“I’m glad you can be so calm about it. Why haven’t you found a way to get me out of here?” she said.

Nova ground her teeth together. She’d never expected her mission for a warp converter to be easy, but she certainly hadn’t counted on being taken captive by savage children and burned alive. As a last resort, she considered trying to reach through time and break herself out, but she wasn’t willing to do that until the flames were actually licking her back. Just the thought of toppling through time made her throat close and her breaths come in ragged gasps.

“Mostly because none of our weapons work.”

“Can’t you just fix them?”

Her headache worsened. She closed her eyes against the sun’s bright glare.

“I’m afraid not. The magnetic source is some kind of rock, not far from here. There’s no way to overcome the strength of the field.”

“Okay, so come up with another plan,” Nova said.

“Crusader and I are working on it.”

“Work faster,” she said, struggling to keep her panic from boiling over. “I really don’t feel like being a sacrificial lamb.”

“How would you feel about calling in help?” Cal said.

“No way. I am not turning into the Jagged Maw’s running joke. You find a way to get me out of this.”

***


The sun was setting and cast an orange glow over the countryside. The grass and sky shone in the dying light and Nova was forced to narrow her eyes against the glare. Her arms and legs ached. She had been tied up like a dead pig and she longed to be let down. No matter how hard she struggled, there was no way to get free of the ropes; the knots were too well tied.

Campfire smoke occasionally crept up her nostrils. Voices drifted to her, but she was alone. The wind blew over her goose bump-covered skin as the day disappeared, bringing an icy cold. She drew a deep breath and let her mind race. She needed Cal and Crusader to get her out of here. Maybe once the children were asleep, she could escape.

The drums started beating. They reverberated around the countryside in a steady booming rhythm.

Her stomach clenched as the drums neared, accompanied by high pitched wails.

She looked right, toward the collection of tents. A procession approached. A young girl of about five was at its helm. Behind her, a young boy beat on a drum made from a metal canister covered in animal hide. The lead girl had red lines on her cheeks and a single line running down the centre of her face. She stared at Nova, her eyes bulging.

The girl stopped beside Nova’s head and the others fanned out. Each of them had various markings on their faces, painted in red ochre. The ten children created a rough circle around Nova and the pyre on which she was strung. The final child, who was no older than ten, set down a wooden box in front of the first girl.

“As you requested, Sora,” said the younger child before backing away to join the other children.

Sora stared at Nova, retracting her lips to reveal pointed teeth. Her eyes were sunk deep into her head, leaving dark circles around their edges. She bent down and thrust her hand into the crate. When she stood straight, she held a struggling rabbit by the scruff of its white neck. It whimpered and pawed at her. The girl’s smile widened.

Nova frowned and looked to the other children, but they were all staring at her with blank expressions.

“What are you doing?” Nova said. “I don’t mean any harm and can help you. I have food and technology.”

“Silence!” the girl, Sora, said. “Your sorcery is not welcome here. You will be sacrificed to the mighty Rock.”

Sora wore a white piece of fabric wrapped around her like a simple dress. It was stained with dirt and speckled with blood. She held the rabbit up to Nova’s face, reached her left hand out, grabbed hold of the rabbit’s neck, and twisted.

Snap.

The rabbit stilled and sagged. The girl tossed it towards Nova. It sailed in an arc up and then under Nova’s body where it landed with a thump on the pile of sticks.

The girl reached into the crate and retrieved another struggling rabbit. Her lips widened and her eyes glowed. The other children didn’t move.

Nova gritted her teeth as blood pounded in her ears. She was no stranger to death, but watching the rabbit slaughter made something stir inside her. Her stomach rolled as she watched their innocent lives snuffed out. She clenched her fists and strained to get free but the ropes held firm. She couldn’t stop the slaughter but she was determined not to watch.

The worst thing was that Sora’s wide eyes and curled lip stayed frozen as she snapped each rabbit’s neck.

“Cal, I don’t think I’ll have much longer, you really need to work this out,” Nova said.

“My systems recommend you try to escape,” Cal replied into her head. “The possibility of being able to rescue you is decreasing rapidly: now at point one percent.”

She groaned and rolled her eyes. What good were a spaceship and a robot if they couldn’t save you from a bunch of savage children? Probably just as good as being able to reach through time but not being able to control it. It had been months since her run-in with the Ancients, and all she’d gotten was many sleepless nights and closer to madness.

She risked a glance back at the girl in the once-white dress. The box at her feet was empty and she stared at Nova.

The drumbeat picked up tempo.

She wanted to put her hands over her ears and bury herself in a deep dark hole where light and sound couldn’t reach. She was out of luck.

The children began to dance. They hopped from foot to foot as they moved around the circle and jumped into the air. Some pulled out sticks and instruments and played them as they danced, adding to the primitive music. The children chanted in unison. Unlike their normal language, Nova couldn’t understand what they were saying.

Their feet dashed across the dirt as they spun. Strange beads clinked at their wrists and necks, unlike any beads Nova had ever seen. They weren’t made of clean plastic, but of rattling teeth and bones. Down in the village, Nova saw a bright fire and heard more children singing and dancing.

A small light separated itself from the fire down in the village and weaved its way towards them. It was a bright spec of light in the darkening night. She looked to the night sky, wishing for a sign of Cal and Crusader. It wouldn’t be hard for them to take out the children now. Hell, if they convinced the savages they were gods then all her problems would be over.

The glowing light neared until it revealed itself as an older boy holding a piece of wood lit on one end, with a glowing flame. He knelt by Nova’s head and held the torch toward her. Sora came out of the circle of dancers and took the torch. She held it above her head and grinned at Nova. Her sharp teeth glinted in the glowing torchlight.

She gazed into the starry night sky. She stomped her left foot and the gathering fell silent. Each of the children stopped mid-dance and stood like statues. They stared at the flaming torch, their eyes glazed over and their mouths open.

Sora closed her eyes. Her voice was deeper than it should have been.

“Many years ago, the great Rock became lonely. He wanted to carve people in his image so that they could live on Taive and relish in his wonder. So the great Rock carved children from the dirt. He breathed into them the air from the sky and covered them with the fur of the beasts. So it was he created the Taiveans.

“These people thrived with magical powers. They could see over great distances and travel at great speed. These people had no need for hunting because their food appeared in magical silver boxes. The people tamed the land and built structures which blocked out all of the great Rock’s gifts.

“The great Rock grew angry at his children. They didn’t appreciate his gifts and were obsessed with their magical powers. It is said that some of these people lived for over one hundred years! But their bodies were not meant to last for so long.

“The children’s hair went grey. They lost the ability to see, even with their magic and eventually they lost the air from their lungs and died. This was not the respectful death we know of but an ugly slow death which left a lifeless corpse. The living then had to bury the corpse in the hopes that the great Rock would take care of it.

“The great Rock became so angry at the people’s ignorance, he fell from the sky and collided with the ground with so much force it caused the people’s towers to crumble. They were left with rubble and no evidence of their power.”

Sora swung her torch through the air and her sudden movement made the younger children gasp and step back. Her eyes were cold and piercing as she regarded the children before finally coming to rest on Nova’s face.

Nova’s skin prickled under the gaze. She’d been swept up in the story and despite her circumstances was eager to hear how it ended.

Sora stomped her foot and resumed her tale.

“The people approached the fallen rock and even dared to touch its sacred surface. The younger children knew better. They watched it with awe and reverence, the way a piece of the great Rock should be observed.

“But the great Rock hadn’t meant to just crumble the Taivean’s buildings. He had much bigger plans. After twenty-five years, something changed. The elders continued living while the children sporadically vanished from their beds, never to be seen again.

“The great Rock told the children that the older people got, the more foolish they became. The Rock had decided that he only wanted Taive to be populated by children who wouldn’t go against his will. The great Rock told them that from now on, each person would live only for their allotted life-span. When that was over, at thirteen years of age, they would be taken from Taive and returned to the great Rock.

“In order to please the great Rock the children lit a fire and threw the adults onto it. They burned alive, screaming in agony.

“The children never regained the elders’ magic but that was a good thing because of the evil such magic can bring. From then, the people of Taive lived only as children and the great Rock was pleased.

“But there was a warning. If the children tried to live longer than they deserved, then they would all be killed and the Taiveans would die out. The Rock demanded that they make sacrifices to him or risk facing his wrath again. He warned that the elder kind might appear again and if they did, they would try to corrupt the children and must be destroyed.”


***


Sora fell silent.

Nova’s heart pounded so hard, she could hear it thudding. She shook her head to get rid of the tendrils of story that clouded her mind. She could clearly picture the events of the tale taking place and feared she was about to meet the same fate as the elders.

Her mouth felt like sandpaper as she swallowed the lump in her throat. The story sounded like legend but the conviction in the girl’s voice and the ferocity of the children left no doubt in Nova’s mind that they believed it to be true.

Despite spending her childhood on the drug-riddled streets, Nova was certain that she’d never met a more savage and blood-thirsty group of children. Their eyes glowed with a madness that made Nova’s chest go cold and she wanted nothing more than to get as far away from them as she could.

Sora opened her mouth to reveal pointed teeth.

“Oh no you don’t!” Nova said. She wormed against the ropes, bent her arms at unnatural angles and pulled with all of her strength. Her bonds remained and Sora smiled at her with the glowing torch in hand.

Sora stepped forward and opened her mouth. Her bottom jaw disconnected from the top and her mouth widened. Her now gaping maw was so wide that Nova’s whole arm could have fit inside with room to spare. Sora’s eyes rolled upward so that just the whites were visible.

Nova’s heart raced into overdrive.

Sora approached. Her sharp teeth glinted like razors as she shuffled blindly towards Nova’s pyre. The torch’s flames licked at the wood and gathered together as if preparing to leap to the ready kindling piled beneath.

Nova’s eyes widened. Her arms strained against the ropes. She kicked her legs and bucked her body. Her mouth was dry; it was like she had licked a pile of dirt. The blood pumped through her ears and her headache was forgotten. The rope held firm but the log she was tied to bounced. It was only a little, but if she could make it bounce higher, it might just come free.

There was no time to waste. The girl with her unnatural snake-like mouth was only a metre away from Nova’s face. It looked as if she intended to swallow Nova’s head whole while the rest of her body burnt.

Nova bucked her body again and the wood lifted a little higher. She tried again. This time, the log reached the top of the support and fell back down. With just seconds to spare, Nova wrenched her body up. The stick lifted into the air. It hovered above the support and crashed down on the other side.

The pole fell from its supports and clattered to the ground. She was carried with it and landed back-first onto the dirt and sticks. The wind was knocked out of her and the impact was followed by the log slamming into her face. She swore and pushed the log away.

The ropes were looser now and she could twist her hand around to untie the knots. She wasn’t fast enough. The girl in the white dress shrieked and her mouth snapped closed. The other children ran towards Nova with shouts, waving their spears in the air. A boy flung out his foot and kicked her in the temple.

The force wasn’t enough to knock her out, but it was hard enough to make her head ring and her vision blur. Nova’s teeth clenched together and her hands balled into fists. Waves of heat rushed over her cheeks as blood boiled to the surface. Every time it looked like she could escape, she was surrounded and then woke up to a situation worse than what she’d been in before. She had no way to protect herself as the ten children circled and began striking out.

The girl in the white dress stood back from the others. There was no evidence of the dislocated jaw. Her haunting white eyes were gone. Nova lifted her arms to protect her head but it was difficult when they were tied to the post.

“Frickin’ cosmic craphole!” Nova bellowed. She inwardly cursed herself for ever visiting the planet. No bounty was worth this.

She rolled to the side. Her feet and hands were still tied to the log so she held it as close as she could and took it with her. She used her bigger size to bowl over three children and managed to escape the main ring. She was free of the blows for a few seconds and returned to working on the knots at her wrists. She bit down on her bottom lip and dared the rope not to come apart.

A piece came free and slid off. The tension at her left wrist loosened and allowed her greater movement to work at the rest of the rope.

It was too late; the children were ready. They fell down on her with knees and elbows. They pinned her to the ground and held her limbs in place. There was no way she would be able to undo the knots with their small bodies covering her.

Nova heard it before the children.

It was the sound she had been waiting for and she instinctively breathed a sigh of relief. It was the sound of engines and fans. It was the sound of air being pushed around and spread in all directions. It was the sound of Crusader coming in to land.

A surge of relief flooded through Nova’s body. The ball of tension she’d had in her chest dissipated and left her able to breathe. Even the pain in her shoulders faded away as she let her body relax.

As the noise reached a crescendo, whirring just above their heads, the lights flashed on. Huge spotlights exploded into existence and lit up the village beyond. The glow blinded everyone who saw it.

The children cried out and backed away from Nova. They pointed up at the ship with their mouths open. The young girl in charge stared, her eyes glazed over. They backed away further as the ship got lower. Their hair was flung about their heads by the gusts of wind and their cries of panic were drowned out by Crusader’s engines.

Nova squinted her eyes shut against the glare. She didn’t allow herself to smile. She wasn’t out of danger yet, but she did allow her breathing to slow. She glanced over at the children.

They were huddled in a frightened mass, clothes swirling around their bodies, staring up at the ship.

Crusader landed on the ground beside Nova and the door slid open. Cal floated out and using a fine knife, sliced through her ropes. The bonds fell free and she leapt to her feet. She sprinted back to the ship as fast as she could and dived through the open door. Cal hovered in after her and Crusader’s door slid shut behind them.

The sound of whirring engines was blocked by the closed door and the bright spotlights were replaced by the soothing glow of Crusader’s internal storage bay.

“Took your time,” Nova said.

“We had some engine trouble,” Cal said.

She panted on the floor with her back against the metal wall. Her face and body ached with a hundred injuries. Her left cheek stung and she still couldn’t open her eye. She tentatively reached down and winced as her fingers grazed her side. Her body flushed hot and cold in equal parts as her heart rate returned to normal.

Nova reached over to the left-hand wall and lifted up a panel. In the compartment was a rudimentary first-aid kit. Bandages, anti-poison and immune booster injections were scattered about the box. She buried her hand through the equipment, shuffling things left and right until she found what she was looking for.

She pulled the cool-pack out of the plethora of other items and shook it. The bag turned cold as ice. She laid the packet on her left cheek. The chill soothed the aching which had spread out from her cheek and she let out a sigh.

“Do we have any more of these?” she said. “I’m pretty sure I need about a hundred.”

“I’m afraid that’s our only one,” Cal said.

“She was going to eat me whole,” Nova said. She squeezed her eyes shut as she rested against the wall. She let her shoulders relax as she enjoyed the security of Crusader’s hanger.

“Some of your injuries are severe,” Cal said.

“Stop scanning me,” Nova said, waving her hand. “It’s fine. You saw what they did, I’m bound to have a few scratches.”

“I’m afraid we couldn’t get here any faster. The engine needs an overhaul,” Cal said.

“You know I can’t afford that,” Nova said.

“Well, we need new parts, or at least used parts, their age is irrelevant,” Cal said.

“I know. I know. If we ever find the colonisation ship, it might have spare parts we can use, but finding this warp converter is more important right now than parts.”

“Might I suggest reconnaissance before further fieldwork?” Cal said.

“I think that would be best,” she said, exhaling.

She pushed herself to her feet and stumbled from the storage bay to the pilot’s chair, ignoring the pain shooting up through her body. She plonked herself down and stared at the wide front screen.

“Crusader, show me the camera feeds,” she said.

The view switched and she could see the children, including the girl in the white dress, huddled under Crusader’s spotlight. They were still being buffeted by the massive engines.

“Let’s get out of here. I want to be far enough that they’re not right next to us, but close enough to keep an eye on them.”

Crusader lifted into the air and floated away from the village. The cowering children shrunk until they were specks in the distance.

“I don’t suppose our cloaking engine is working?” Nova said.

“No, we’re still missing parts after our run-in with those Andian pirates.”

“Okay, well keep the shields up all night and monitor the exterior for any kind of movement. I don’t think they’ll find any way to get inside, but after what I just saw, I don’t want to take any chances.”

“Confirmed,” Crusader said.

“Did you detect any adults?”

“Negative,” Cal said. “Only children were detected around the village.”

“Do you know what they are?”

“All observations suggest human.”

“Humans can’t open their mouths to the size of small planets.”

“All observations suggest human.”

“I get it,” she said, waving her hand and wondering if it was time to adjust Cal’s personality traits.

She rose from the command chair and limped through the ship with the cool-pack held to her face. She entered the bathroom and lowered the bag to examine her injuries in the mirror. It was worse than she’d expected. The left side of her face was swollen beyond recognition and covered in green and purple splotches.

She returned the cool-pack to her cheek and went to her sleeping pod, opening another compartment filled with first aid supplies. She fished out a packet of pain-killers and retrieved the aluminium foil with her left hand. The foil slipped free and fell to her lap, empty.

“Dammit,” Nova said.

Her head pounded, her shoulders burned, and her side was in agony. She needed relief.

“Cal!” she said, standing up and limping to the dining area. “Do we still have the structure for Parapem in the food generator?”

“Food generator: Many other functions,” Cal said.

Nova groaned. “I know it has lots of other functions. It doesn’t mean I have to say it every time.”

“I don’t understand why you humans feel the need to shorten everything. It causes nothing but confusion,” Cal said.

“The Parapem, Cal,” Nova said. She stomped to the food generator (many other functions).

“It’s automatically programmed. I thought it would save us some time.” Cal stopped by her side.

She pressed a button on the generator and it whirred into life. The light flashed red for three seconds and the generator dinged. She popped open the door. In the centre of the plate was a small blue square which looked like a section of plastic.

She lifted the square to her mouth, placed it on her tongue, and closed her eyes. The soothing sensation spread out in ice-cold tendrils, licking up the sides of her cheeks. It spread into her head, over the pounding ache, making it fade away.

“Public domain drugs,” Nova said. “Best. Invention. Ever.”

“You hurt my feelings,” Cal said, hovering away.

Crusader’s voice came over the intercom. “And mine.”

“Okay, Class four labourbots and Z400 cargo ships are the best inventions. Closely followed by public domain drugs,” Nova said, shaking her head and smiling at the small robot.

“Much better,” Cal said. “Will you be retiring now?”

“Yeah, I’m going to bed. See if you can find any more information and we’ll make a plan tomorrow. Also, can you apply a healer-pad to my eye once I’m down?”

She pointed at the bruised mess of her face and her left eye which still wouldn’t open.

“Affirmative,” Cal said.

She stumbled away to her sleeping pod and collapsed, fully dressed, with a sigh of relief. She was vaguely aware of a cool sensation running over her face as Cal laid down a healing pad but was asleep before he finished his ministrations.
















CHAPTER FIVE






Nova awoke the next morning to find her left eye could sliver open. Her relief was overpowered by aches and pains returning as the effects of the Parapem wore off. She lifted her body from the mattress and winced as her shoulders flexed. She stumbled out of her sleeping pod and slumped into her pilot’s chair.

Cal hovered around the corner. His panel lifted and he held a metal arm out towards Nova. She held out her palm and Cal dropped a small blue square onto it. Parapem.

“I was wrong. You are the best invention,” Nova said, tossing the blue square onto her tongue.

“I know,” Cal said with a flurry of beeps that sounded like a trumpet fanfare.

She waited until the Parapem seeped into her muscles and then made her way to the food generator. She pushed in a few numbers and three seconds later the machine dinged. Nova reached in and pulled out a bowl of cereal.

She scooped mountains into her mouth with each spoonful and sat back down.

“Cal, do we know what’s going on?” she mumbled.

“What if they’re just barbarians?”

“They’re not just barbarians. Did you see how that girl’s mouth opened? And where are the adults?”

“Aliens then?”

“Check the Cloud. I bet they’re not mentioned anywhere.”

“I already checked, just thought I should put all the suggestions out there,” Cal said.

“Okay, so we need more information. Do we still have that spy-bot?”

“You smashed it last year while evading the Confederacy.”

“Oh yeah,” Nova said, gazing into the distance. “We’ll just have to build another one. We must have parts lying around, right?”

“There is definitely a lot of stuff in the storage bay,” Cal said.

Nova rolled her eyes and got to her feet. She placed her bowl into the food generator and followed Cal to the storage bay. She strode to the cleared work bench and opened the draws and cupboards underneath.

There were screws and scraps of metal, tiny wheels, and wires. The drawers were filled with all the space-junk anyone could ever need.

She fished through the drawers, pulling out small wheels and gears. She wrenched out a broken solar panel piece, along with a handful of wires. In a drawer further along she took out screw-drivers and laid them out on the bench. In the end, there was an ordered line of parts and equipment.

“Let’s get started,” she said. “It has to be something they won’t notice, I’m thinking insectoid, seeing as this place is teaming with the things.”

She sat on the work-stool and bent over the smooth metal desk, frowning as she studied the assembled pieces. A lit magnifying glass hung over the work area and she peered through it to attach tiny wheels one by one to axles. She ran gears from the axles to the main motor component.

“If you wouldn’t mind?” Nova said to Cal, holding the solar panel piece on top of the motor.

A panel in Cal’s side lifted and a small soldering gun extended out. He went to work attaching the solar panel onto the motor. Once that was finished, Nova attached the motor wires.

“That’s a start,” she said.

She flicked the 'on' switch and laid the simple design onto the bench. After a few moments, it buzzed into life and rolled away from her hand. Nova picked it up and turned it off again.



“Now we just need the camera feed,” she said.

“Don’t you think it should have all-terrain legs?” Cal said. “Wheels aren’t going to get it very far.”

“You could be right.”

She slid open the drawer at her waist and sifted through odds and ends. There were firm metal stands with hinges. She couldn’t remember where she’d got them, but they’d be perfect.

With Cal’s help, she soldered the legs into place, along with a simple camera. By the time they’d finished there was a shiny gold spider sitting on the workbench in front of them. Its spindly legs were reflected on the smooth metal bench.

“Now the brain,” Nova said.

She lifted a small computer chip and inserted it into the slot beside the motor. She flicked the 'on' switch and sat back.

The spider spybot stayed still for a few moments and then scuttled into action. Its legs tapped along the metal bench like rusted scissors as it ran from Nova and Cal to the other end of the bench. The front camera roved about the room.

“Crusader, are you receiving the video feed?” Nova said.

“Affirmative,” the female voice responded.

“All right, Spidey. I want you to go out into the village and find out everything you can. Don’t get caught.”

Nova grabbed hold of the metallic spider as it ran past and carried it to Crusader’s sliding door. She pressed the green button by the side and the door opened to reveal the day beyond. The sun was already setting as Nova dropped the spider to the grass.

Spidey hurried away from Crusader towards the village. It disappeared into the grass. Only the occasional flash of sunlit metal gave it away as it scurried on.

Nova pushed herself to her feet and sauntered back to her piloting chair.

“Now we wait,” she said, staring up at Crusader’s front screen. The video showed a low perspective of grass and sky. The blades of grass moved to either side as the camera pushed through. The journey which had been so short in Crusader was far longer when travelled on tiny insectoid legs.

It took until nightfall for the final layer of grass to part and reveal the massive tent. It took up the whole screen and loomed high above. The moonlight cast a blue glow over the tribal village.

Spidey moved in closer.


***


Spidey followed voices to the large wooden building in the centre of the village. Firelight spilled out of the doorway and lit the ground. The rest of the village was empty and dark. Spidey crept up to the open building. In a burst of speed, it scuttled through the opening and into a shadowed corner.

The camera zoomed in on the children gathered in the middle of the room. There were at least twenty of them, the youngest looking about three. They were all huddled around something on the floor, paying no attention to each other or their surroundings.

Spidey stepped over animal skins and torn rugs, moving around so that the camera could see between the press of bodies.

A corpse lay at the centre of the children. It belonged to a deer or antelope. There wasn’t much of it left. The children were bent over, scooping handfuls of warm meat into their mouths. Each of their faces was stained red. Blood dripped down their chins and stained their clothes.

They were growling. There were no words, rather just a general noise like a pack of animals over a kill. They vied for dominance and prime position, jostling each other. The floor around the kill was similarly stained. The dark brown patches further out suggested this wasn’t the first time such a feast had occurred.

Sora was at the head of the dead creature. The other children stayed away from her, casting furtive glances up at her. All of the children’s hands were stained as red as their mouths and their eyes shone as they slurped pieces of raw flesh from the carcass. They were like demons possessed, chomping up every raw morsel they could from the beast.

The spybot moved in closer.

The last of the antelope was being eaten. Only the skin and a few bones remained. The girl in the white dress rested back on her haunches. She held a section of vertebrae in her hand and pulled the last meat off with her teeth. When every last speck of flesh was gone, she tossed the bones to clatter on the floor.

At her signal, the rest of the children stopped eating and also pulled away from the corpse. Some of their eyes lingered on the few specks of blood, but they didn’t reach out.

“As the bringer of this meat, Riak will keep the skull,” the girl said in a deep and reverberating voice.

“But the sorcerer is still out there. Surely I need protection more than Riak?” a young girl of about seven said, looking up with wide eyes.

“No! We do not change our ways just because of the old one. Riak made the kill, he will keep the skull.”

“But—” the girl began.

“I said no! If you say one more word, I will kill you and use your head for protection.”

The rest of the children fell silent and stared at the ground.

“Good. Soon we will all go to the great beyond and be lifted up by the mighty Rock. Think on that.”

The children nodded and stood up. Spidey scuttled deeper into the shadows to watch. They shuffled in single file away from the carcass and towards the open doorway. A young boy bent down and ripped the antelope’s head off. He carried the trophy out of the building.

Sora remained inside the wooden building. She stared down at the headless carcass with vacant eyes for some time. Her bloodied mouth and hands, and her dark expression, were completely at odds with her young face and child-like arms. Her hands clenched into fists at her sides.

After a moment of silence, the girl strode away from the carcass to the far wall of the building. Kneeling on the dirt, she tossed a hide out of her way. She scooped handfuls of dirt and flung them behind her onto the furs covering the rest of the floor. She worked without pausing until she threw the last handful of dirt away and crawled into the divot she’d made, nestling into the dirt as if it were home. Her eyes drifted shut and the frown disappeared from her face.

Nova dragged her eyes away from Crusader’s front screen to look at Cal. He swivelled mid-air to gaze back at her with his single lens.

“That was enlightening,” she said.

“That is one word for it,” Cal said.

Nova shivered at the memory of blood dripping down the children’s faces. “I’m not sure if I’ll be able to sleep after seeing that.”

“Crusader’s senses are on full alert and I will keep watch. It would be best if you rested.”

Nova nodded as she let out a long breath.


***


Nova woke early and was relieved to find her swollen face had healed some, although her cheek was mottled with green and purple. She had sat down to enjoy her breakfast when she noticed something strange on the video feed.

“What are they doing?” she said.

She examined the video feed from Spidey’s camera. The children marched through the village. Spidey watched them from the entrance of the main wooden building.

The children walked behind Sora, in a slow sombre line. Each of them wore a fur tunic with a piece of black material tied around their waists.

They each had dark lines drawn on their faces and hands. They walked with their heads hung low, each stepping in the footprints of the one before them.


Sora was the only child with her head up. Her eyes were blank and emotionless as she led her procession through the village. She carried a wooden torch that flickered in the morning breeze.

“It looks like a funeral procession,” Nova said.

Cal hovered over to join her. It was only then that Nova noticed the sad pile of clothing outside the main hall. She couldn’t make out much more than that, but the way it was placed, so deliberately, made her heart lurch into her throat.

Meanwhile, Sora continued to march around the circle of tents. They made three laps before she led them to the pile of clothes. She lifted up her spear to halt the march. Everyone behind her came to a dead stop. The line of children would have been comical in any other setting, the oldest at the front, to the youngest at the back. Some of them had only just learnt to walk. They toddled after the older children with as much ceremony as they could manage.

Sora stood before the pile of clothes with her burning torch. “The great Rock has lifted Leela up. She has moved on and become one with the stars. All we can do is hope we are given the same honour.”

When her words faded into silence, Sora lifted the torch on high and then lowered it to the pile of clothes. The fur caught fire with a whoosh. The fur sizzled and burnt, disappearing into a charcoal breeze.

The collected children watched the clothes burn in complete silence until every scrap of the material had been lifted by the wind and carried away from the village. Only then did some of the children walk away from the ceremony and resume their daily duties. Others remained by the burning pile, including Sora.

Their eyes were locked on the slightly burnt patch of ground but they acted like they saw nothing. Their child-like faces were aged by their serious expressions.

“What the heck does that mean?” Nova said, slumping back into her chair.

“Computer analysis suggests a female from last night’s feast is missing,” Cal said.

“Leela.”

“The data would suggest so.”

“Crusader, replay the video from last night, four times speed,” Nova said.

The front screen flickered and the video feed darkened and flicked to night-vision. The camera roved back and forth around the village as the children slept.

Something howled in the darkness.

“There!” Nova said, pointing at the screen. Crusader slowed the video replay to normal speed.

A young girl wearing nothing but a wire necklace stepped out of her tent and crept away from the village.

“What’s she doing?” Nova said.

Spidey’s camera followed her as she strolled out of the circle of tents and continued through the field. She kept walking until she disappeared from view.

“What kind of place is this?” Nova said.

“The behaviour is unusual and doesn’t match anything described in the Cloud,” Cal said.

“We’ll leave Spidey in the village for today and call him back tonight. If nothing else changes, I want to get away from here as soon as possible.”

“What about the colonisation ship and the warp converter?”

“I don’t know. I’m still thinking,” Nova said.

She was at a complete loss. The warp converter was the only way to get past the Confederacy borders and as far as she knew, there weren’t any others lying around for the taking. On the other hand, the demonic children scared the crap out of her and the last thing she wanted was to be eaten or burnt alive by them.


***


Spidey’s legs tapped along the metal floor as he returned to Crusader, just as night was falling. Nova grabbed him from inside the main cargo-bay doors and flicked the red power switch. Spidey’s legs fell still and his gears stopped ticking. She placed it into a deep drawer in the storage bay and leant against the bench.

The day had taught them nothing.

The children walked around the village, occasionally stopping to talk to each other, but mostly staying silent. A group of older children had gone out hunting and returned with a small deer. There was no other hint as to what was going on. Despite the lack of evidence, Nova was sure they weren’t human, or at least not entirely.

As if their behaviour wasn’t clue enough, their small village was filled with riddles. While the tents were covered with animal hide, Spidey had caught images of the sturdy metal frames underneath. Throughout the village were all kinds of remnants which didn’t belong in the barbaric setting. Pipes, wire, metal struts, even a thick metal door were scattered around the place. They cast a stark contrast against the severed heads. Whatever was going on in Taive, it was unnatural.

Nova went to bed with a restless mind, but drifted into sleep.

Bang. Bang. Bang.

Nova’s eyes popped open and she sat upright on her bed. Her ears strained. Had she dreamt it? She sat as still as an old-Earth photograph. Every muscle in her body was tensed, waiting to strike.

Bang. Bang. Bang.

She stood up. She hadn’t dreamt it. The blanket whispered to the floor.

“Cal. What is that?” she said.

The lights in her sleeping pod were gradually lighting up, allowing time for her eyes to adjust.

“They’re outside,” Cal said as he hovered into her sleeping pod.

“What do you mean?” Nova said.

Bang. Bang. Bang.

“They’re outside. Trying to scare you, I suppose.”

“It’s working,” she said.

A shiver went up her spine and her neck tingled as if cold fingers had just brushed across it. Her eyes darted around her sleeping pod. The noise came from outside, it was as if the children were circling Crusader, banging on its exterior with a metal pipe.

Bang. Bang. Bang.

This time, it echoed right next to Nova, and she jumped away. The noise resounded around her sleeping pod and through the rest of the ship.

“Can they get in?” Nova said.

“No,” Cal said, his voice wavering.

“Are you sure?”

“We don’t know what they’re capable of. Analysis suggests an eighty percent chance that they can’t get in.”

Bang. Bang. Bang.

The noise had moved closer to the ship’s front.

“How could they possibly get in? Crusader’s shields stand up against space and the strain of atmosphere breach. They’re just a few children with some metal piping,” she said.

“As I was just about to say; the shields went down five minutes ago,” Cal said, hovering out of her reach.

Nova’s stomach clenched and beads of cold sweat broke out on her forehead. She imagined the children climbing over Crusader, like a swarm of insects, clamouring to get in. Her skin itched as if they crawled across her arms and neck.

She stepped out of the tangle of blankets at her feet and crept on silent feet through to the pilot’s pod. The front screen showed Crusader’s exterior. Every video feed was filled with glowing green eyes. It looked like a pack of animals had surrounded Crusader and were staring at the cameras.

“How could the shields go down?” she said.

“Cause is unknown, but computer simulations suggest an EMP attack,” Cal said.

“Where the hell would these savages get a magnetic pulse from?” she said, waving her hand at the screen.

“Warning. Warning. Damage detected,” Crusader said.

A red light flashed from the ceiling.

“What?” Nova said, leaning closer. “Where?”

The camera rotated, passing many sets of eyes, until it came to rest on Crusader’s rear engines. There were five small children crawling over the machinery. They pulled at pieces of piping and bit into the wires.

Sora stood beside the engine with a long piece of metal piping. She lifted it above her right shoulder and swung it down. It slammed into Crusader’s engine and left a massive dent.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Nova said. “She’s torn the damned fuel line. How the hell did she know to do that?”

She stepped up to the dashboard and examined the readings. The fuel gauge was falling down at an alarming rate.

“Perhaps she got lucky?” Cal said.

“Yeah, well that’s all the luck she’s getting. Send an electric pulse along the exterior,” she said.

She watched the cameras as a bright flash consumed Crusader's metal plates. The electric shock went up through the arms and legs of the children climbing over the ship. They convulsed and fell off. Their bodies crunched to the ground where they frothed at the mouth and vibrated. The other children stepped back, their eyes widening.

“Crusader, get us away from here, now,” Nova said.

“The engine stabiliser is damaged. The risk of a crash is high.”

“Just get me away from this village. Take us closer to the forest,” she said.

Crusader’s engine roared into life. The sudden vibration and gusts of air threw the children away. They scattered in all directions, lying on the flattened grass.

“C’mon, c’mon,” Nova said.

Crusader lifted into the air and shot away from the village. The children were left staring after them. Nova gripped hold of the controls with white knuckles.

“Engine critical,” Crusader said.

“Take it down,” Nova said.

The ship slowed and they thudded to the ground a kilometre from the children’s camp. Nova was thrown off balance and fell to her knees. The ship rattled and then fell still.

“Engine non-functional,” Crusader said.

“Great, I guess we’re stuck here,” Nova said. She pulled herself to her feet. “I want to know exactly what happened back there. Our shields failed and our sensors didn’t pick them up. We should have known they were coming.”

“Affirmative, simulations are already running to determine the proximal and distal causes of the incident,” Cal said.

“We’d better start hoping that the colony ship has spare parts,” Nova said.

She sighed as she looked around her small ship.

“So you will be going to find the ship?” Cal said.

She dusted her hands off on her legs. “I don’t have much choice anymore.”

“What about the village?”

“As long as they don’t come near me again, I say we ignore them. Whatever is wrong with them, I don’t want any part of it. Have you got coordinates for the crashed ship?”

“I’ve got an approximate region but with Crusader’s broken depth-detectors, she won’t be able to land there.”

“I’ll walk.”

“Are you sure you want to risk that?” Cal said.

“We don’t have a choice. We need parts to get off this planet and Crusader needs a new depth-detector. Plus, who knows what else will be with the ship? It’s a whole colony vessel; it should have everything we could ever need. And of course, it’s got the only free warp converter in the entire universe!”

“Confirmed.”

“Good, upload the map to my chip and I’ll head off tomorrow,” Nova said. “Also, make sure you test all the guns. I do not want to be stuck somewhere and have them fail again.”

She felt a small tingle at the base of her skull and in front of her mind’s eye, an image of a map flashed into existence. The image embedded itself into her memories and she saw clearly the path to the colony ship.

“Excellent,” Nova said. “Are the shields back up?”

“They’re running on backup solar cells, it should hold,” Cal said.

“Are the children following us?”

“Heat scans indicate they’ve returned to their village. I’ll alert you if anything changes.”

“Make sure you do,” she said, shuffling toward her sleeping pod.














CHAPTER SIX






Nova lifted her heavy head from the pillow and blinked tired eyes as she adjusted to the dim light of her sleeping pod. The hard grey lines of Crusader’s interior were all around her, hiding compartments and shelves beneath cool metal panels.

She swung her legs over the side of the fold-down bed and rubbed her face with her callused hands. It had been a late night. It had been especially hard to get to sleep knowing the children from the village could reappear at any moment.

She stood, her bare feet touching the cold metal of Crusader’s floor. She wore loose pants and a long sleeved shirt that kept her warm through the night. She grabbed a bowl of cereal from the food generator.

Holding her bowl of cereal in one hand and spooning great mountains into her mouth with the other, she wandered through to the storage bay. Her hair was tussled from sleep.

Cal hovered in front of a short bench. Three hatches were open in his sides allowing tiny steel arms to move the equipment and vials spread out before him. Glass clinked as he lifted one vial after another and mixed liquids together in a fantastic dance.

“What are you doing?” Nova asked around a mouthful of food.

“I took a sample from that rock I told you about, the one that’s interfering with our weapons. I thought I’d analyse it, see if it gave us a clue to what’s going on.”

“And?”

“It doesn’t reveal much at all,” Cal replied as he swirled vials and placed tubes as small as Nova’s fingernails into a great beeping machine set into Crusader’s wall.

“What do you mean?” she asked. She placed the now empty bowl down on the bench, well away from Cal’s working space.

“I mean there’s nothing especially abnormal about it.”

“But there must be. Something happened when it landed,” Nova said, “It has to be the ‘great rock’ the children were talking about.”

“There are no gods hidden in that piece of rock,” Cal said with some sarcasm. “There was some dust which places the landing at about one hundred and fifty years ago with some room for error. There are some microbial life forms present in the scraping I took, but they most likely crawled there from Taive. It’s impossible to be sure; they’ve had one hundred and fifty years after all.”

Nova rolled her eyes at Cal’s tone.

“But no, as far as my analysis is concerned, there are no enchantments, spells, witchcraft or gods hidden in the rock.”

She sighed in frustration; it was too much to ask for that a scraping from the meteor could solve the riddle of the Taiveans.

“Just have to keep searching,” she said with a sigh, turning back for her sleeping pod and the rest of her clothes.

She donned her usual black pants and shirt along with her dark trench-coat. As she strode to the main door she strapped her holster about her waist.

“So is my gun going to work now?” she said.

“Scans indicate we are now out of the field of interference from the rock. As long as you don’t go closer to the village, you’ll be fine.”

“Good,” she said, gathering supplies. “I’ll take a magnetic gauge just in case. If it starts going off, I’m turning around and coming straight back here.”

Cal hovered out of the storage bay with a gentle whir of his motor. Nova checked her bag and her gun for the third time and took a deep breath. Then she remembered what she’d been meaning to research.

“Cal!” Nova called from the entrance of Crusader into the darkness of the storage bay. “Cal!”

Nova tapped her foot impatiently, waiting for the robot to appear. He was taking much longer than usual.

“Cal!”

“I’m here!” Cal replied as his silver body entered a beam of sunshine streaming through the open door.

“About time,” Nova said, taking a deep breath to calm her frustration at having to wait.

“You know we can communicate telepathically?” Cal said. “So I don’t have to come right up to you every time you want to say hello.”

“You should come when I call anyway,” Nova said with a single raised eyebrow.

“What do you want?” Cal asked, his tone terse.

“Start repairs on the engine while I’m away and run a search of the Cloud. I want to know if there are any other planets reporting people disappearing from their beds with no signs of a struggle.”

“Signs of a struggle,” Cal repeated.

“No, no signs of a struggle,” Nova said with confusion. Cal didn’t often forget things, in fact he never forgot things. That was the great thing about having a robot companion.

“That’s what I said,” Cal said as his internal computers began to scan the endless Cloud.

“Whatever. Do you have any more information on the crash-site?”

“The ship went down north of the swamp. Northwest of here. I’ve updated the map on your chip. Chip. Chip,” Cal said.

“I heard you the first time,” she said with a sigh. If Cal’s systems were fried again she was going to need a lot more money to get it fixed.

“What?” Cal asked.

“Nothing, I think you’re short-circuiting again. Check it out while I’m gone and tighten up whatever needs tightening.”

Nova shook her head at the strange robot and reached down for her bag of emergency equipment. She was determined to find the crashed colonisation ship, and hopefully the warp converter that was supposed to be with it. If she was especially lucky, she’d also find new parts for Crusader.

She slung the bag over her shoulder. It had guns and fire-starters, flares, a portable food generator and a towel. She’d packed everything she thought she would possibly need. She just hoped she wouldn’t need it.

With a thud, she jumped to the green grass below and headed for the forest. She scanned the area for signs of children, beasts, or barbarians. They were still too close to the village for her liking, it could just been seen at the edge of the horizon. Still she didn’t have much choice; they were lucky Crusader had made it this far. The only movement was from the wind in the grass as she entered the line of trees and the village disappeared from sight.


***


Nova’s spine tingled as she walked through the open field to the line of trees as if eyes bore into her back. She could almost see the young girl in the white dress watching her, waiting. The hairs on Nova’s neck stood on end, prickling her skin. It was as if someone had blown a puff of air over her collar, but she refused to look back. Let the group of crazy kids be damned.

She had her gun in her hand. Usually, it would be holstered at her waist but something about this planet made her skin crawl. It was as though a thousand eyes were watching, just waiting for her to trip up. Well damned if she was going to do that. Oh no, she’d be ready to shoot anything that moved the wrong way.

As soon as she was within the forest she fired at a nearby tree. A blue plasma blast shot through the air and the tree exploded into splinters. The gun worked.

Nova brushed past tree branches and twigs. She occasionally consulted the imported image of the map. The mental chip allowed Cal to upload files directly to her memory. It was as if she was remembering seeing the map, even though her eyes had never actually taken it in. It was a strange piece of technology, something which had taken a while to get used to when it first came out. Now she didn’t know what she’d do without it. A big X marked where Cal’s scans thought the ship should be. She hoped he was right. The sooner she got off of this planet, the better. Whatever was wrong with the village, she wanted no part of it.

She came to a small creek and marched upstream alongside it. It bubbled down through the forest carrying with it small twigs and leaves. Eventually, she came to an abrupt cliff-face. The stream cascaded down in a waterfall, which created a light mist.

Nova looked up at the cliff and back to her map. According to Cal’s scans, the shipwreck should be just across the creek and a little further uphill. She peered through the trees but there was no sign of the spaceship yet.

She stepped away from the waterfall and plonked her foot into the river. The cold water seeped straight through her boot and soaked her leg. The stream was relatively shallow; it came halfway up her shin. The fast-flowing water streamed past, sending icy waves up her legs. Her skin rose in goosebumps and she shivered. The water carried with it a clear moss that left a jelly-like layer on her skin that refused to wash off.

Her teeth chattered but she forced herself to put another foot forward. This time when it sunk through the water, it encountered a slight resistance and then fell to the bottom of the riverbed with an audible crunch.

She yanked her leg back up and looked down into the water to see what she had stepped on. Through the clear stream it was easy to make out the upper torso of a girl. Her chest cavity was caved in on the left side with a mess of broken ribs from Nova’s boot. The flesh clung to the bony fragments and waved back and forth in the current.

Nova’s face contorted in disgust. She put her gun back into its holster and knelt down in the water to get a better look. The body seemed fresh enough, there was still skin covering the bones. The girl had brown hair that waved about in the water and was naked aside from a necklace made of wires.

Nova fished in her bag and pulled on a set of rubber gloves before turning the girl over. Shallow boulders held the body in place and stopped it from flowing further downstream. It was easy to move the corpse in the light-weight environment of the river.

On the girl’s back, there was a line of grazes, probably from the river’s rocky bottom. She had a few broken bones but no bruises, suggesting the injuries happened after she died.

Nova stood up and looked down at the dead girl. Could she have come from the tribe of children? She was young enough and the wires around her neck looked familiar. Nova’s stomach twisted at the thought.

She sighed and chucked the used rubber gloves into a sealed plastic bag in her pack. There was nothing she could do for the girl now.

Reaching down, she put her hand to her holster and felt the comfort of her plasma pistol. The familiar grip was good in her hand. She reluctantly put the gun back while she manoeuvred her way through the river towards the trees, which surrounded her in every direction. With a splash, she hauled her water-soaked legs out of the river.

She turned right to walk up the slight hill. Her ears strained. All she could hear was the rustling of leaves and the occasional cry of a bird. The air was hot and humid under the thick rainforest. It clung to her like a cloak. Soon, she was sweating large droplets that dappled the path behind her.

After three hours of pushing through thick undergrowth, Nova was more than ready to get to her destination. The forest felt like an endless mass and she was just a tiny life-form walking through it.

Footsteps.

Nova’s heart exploded in her chest and sent adrenalin pumping through her veins. A hot flush burst across her neck as she froze and whipped out her gun.

“Who goes there?” she said. Her eyes scanned the surrounding trees. The branches were so thick it was impossible to see far into the forest.

A rustle of leaves turned her attention to the branches above her head.

Spread out through the trees and hanging from almost every branch were large monkeys. They were covered in brown fur and their mouths and hindquarters were decorated with bright blue skin. Their mouths opened wide to reveal elongated fang-like canines. The teeth were so big, they could puncture straight through Nova’s arms and come out the other side.

She stood absolutely still. The only parts of her which moved were her eyes. She’d encountered primates before. They were always one of the first species introduced to a new planet to ensure survivability of human colonists. These had probably come out of the crashed colonisation ship, two hundred years before. Clearly, they had thrived on the new planet.

Unlike previous primates Nova had encountered, these had enlarged heads. Their foreheads extended out and up, much more like a human head than most of their ape cousins. They stared at her; their only movement was in their tails that swished back and forth.

Her heart fluttered in her throat as she searched for a way out. All she could think about was the agony she’d feel if the monkeys attacked.

She cleared her throat. “I come in peace.”

The monkeys blinked but didn’t respond.

She shrugged. It was worth a shot, these wouldn’t be the first primates who could talk. Her eyes moved around the circle of monkeys, counting. There were at least twenty-five that she could see. They didn’t seem overly aggressive, but then why were they staring at her like that?

She kept her gun up and took a step to her left.

The monkeys erupted.

They screeched and bounced between the trees, pulling back their lips to reveal massive teeth. Their cries echoed around the trees and their movement shook a flurry of leaves loose. They beat at their chests with their fists and leapt high into the air from the branches.

Nova’s heart flew into her throat. Her breathing constricted and sweat broke out on her forehead. Her fingers clenched around her gun. She jumped back to her right where she had been standing before the outburst.

The monkeys froze. They settled back down onto their branches, stopped shouting, and resumed staring at Nova.

“Alright, not that way,” she said. Her breathing and heart rate slowed. She gradually loosened her grip on her gun and let her shoulders relax.

She looked around at the monkeys again. The majority of them were in the branches in front of her and to her left, leaving the path behind and to her right mostly clear. She decided to go with her gut and took a step to her right.

The monkeys didn’t move. Their eyes followed her footsteps but they remained calm.

She walked to her right until she was out of sight of the monkeys and then resumed her previous course. She glanced to her left and saw that the troop was keeping pace with her in the trees. They followed along beside her for a hundred metres and then they stopped. They stayed in their trees and watched her walk on.

She shivered at the feel of their eyes on her back. Still, a troop of raging monkeys was better than the psychotic children from the village. She made a note to check the Cloud to see if that was normal primate behaviour.

Nova shrugged and kept on walking, staring between the trees. Just as her legs were aching with the pain of her hike, she spotted a glint of metal in the distance. She stepped between a pair of trees and there it was again, a sparkle of sunlight on steel.

She quickened her pace. As she drew closer, the huge ship came into view. It had been a massive vessel, a colonisation craft capable of carrying over two hundred passengers when it crashed. The front end was buried deep into the forest floor so only a small portion of the tail end was visible above ground

She moved in closer until she stood behind the last line of trees before the ship. The craft had multiple trees and shrubs sprouting from it, making it blend even further into the forest. The steel hull was mostly rusted over and the name of the craft had long since faded away.

“Gotcha,” Nova said.

She walked right up to the ship and placed her hand on its side. It had crashed nearly two hundred years ago, she just hoped no one else had been here first to steal… Salvage, she corrected herself… the valuables and the fuel.

“Cal, I’m sending through data, I’ve found the crash site. I’m going in.”

She waited for Cal’s response but there was only silence.

“Stupid robot.” She sighed and came to a stop at the door to the ship. It hung open from a single hinge and moved in the slight breeze.

The inside was dim but she could make out a walkway and some chairs. There was no sign of habitation, not for a long while anyway.

According to data logs Nova had found in the Cloud, the ship was carrying enough equipment and resources to colonise a new planet. That was a lot of tech gear to let go to waste, even if it had been lying around for two hundred years. Hell, that would have been right as the tech-bubble burst and scientific advancement began to lag. The chances were pretty good that whatever systems the ship had were just as good as any of Crusader’s.

She marched to the doorway. With the tilt of the ship, the base was up near her hip and she had to grip hold of the rusted door to pull herself up. She swung into the ship and landed with a soft thud. Crouching low on the tilted floor, she waited for her eyes to adjust.

She wiped the rust from her hands onto her trousers and listened. There was no noise except for the wind rustling through the open doorway, and no sign that a forest animal had made the ship home. Although she did notice large piles of dung scattered amongst the rubbish and other debris of the ship.

The floor at Nova’s feet was covered with a thick layer of leaves and dirt. The plant matter was also piled in high drifts at the front wall where the room was at its lowest.

She walked downwards at a steep angle between the chairs to the front wall and tried the door. As she turned the knob the door fell open and hit the opposite wall below her with a loud clang.

“Dammit!” she whispered, listening for any approaching threat.

The forest and the ship remained silent. She lowered herself down through the door and into the next room, leaving the observation lounge behind and entering a dining area.

As with most spacecraft, the furniture was firmly attached to the floor and so the tables and chairs were exactly where they had always been, albeit sitting at a steep angle. Conversely, every glass, plate and knife was smashed against the far wall. Shards of broken glass sparkled in the few rays of sunlight which lit the room.

Nova glanced at the windows. Only the ones closest to her let in any light, the rest were buried by dirt as the nose of the ship went underground. She sidled down the steep floor, going from chair to chair to keep her footing on the steep incline.

The ship was incredible. The sheer size and wasted space, let alone the windows, were unthinkable. It would have taken an astronomical amount of power to get it moving and keep it together. But then it was a colonisation ship, the people on board were meant to stay for generations. They’d go mad if they were cooped up in the close confines of an economic ship with zero gravity and no walkways.

When she reached the next door, she cursed. It opened inwards, or at the current angle of the ship, upwards. She grabbed hold of the handle and pulled with all of her strength. The door lifted a little and then slammed shut again.

“Grishnak!” Nova said, readjusting her grip.

She lifted again, this time resting a foot on the wall next to the door and using her whole body to pull upwards. With great reluctance and a lot of squeaking, the door lifted up. She pulled it all the way up and then let it fall the rest of the way open so that it slammed against the wall.

The next room was completely black. No light could get through the dirt-covered windows and the lights of the ship had gone out long ago.

She fished around in her bag until she found the small orb. She squeezed the soft sphere and it glowed, casting a circle of light, as she clipped it to her belt.

A dim corridor stretched out in front of her and every few metres there were doors leading off to either side. She glanced into one such room and saw a simple bunk bed. These were the sleeping quarters for the colonists.

“Creepy,” Nova said as she took in the neatly folded clothes. On the top bunk was a fluffy teddy bear. It lay on its side with its eyes looking straight at the door, right at her. The stitched-on grin looked more like a grimace in the dim light.

She shook her head and moved on. She needed to get to the bridge of the ship, the best equipment and an inventory of everything else on board was bound to be there, including the warp converter. She tried to be grateful that with the ship laying at such an angle, it was easy to tell which way she had to go.

After the sleeping quarters, there was another dining area, and after that a gym. She moved from room to room with her small glowing orb.

As she reached for the door out of the gym, something fell to the floor behind her with an almighty crash. She jumped and turned with her pistol drawn. The noise came from outside of her circle of light and she couldn’t see anything. She held her breath but there was no other noise in the room.

“I must have knocked something over,” she reassured herself. To be sure, she held the glowing ball up high so that the light reached all corners of the gym. Unused gym equipment were the only ghosts in that room.

The next zone was a tech station. Learning pods were lined up in ordered rows. Usually, they would be lit by a welcoming blue light, but now they were just empty glass shells with wires and tubing. Creeping forward, she put her hand on the glass dome and gazed inside.

She drew back with a start. Inside the pod was the skeleton of a small child; the grey-green bones stood out against the white chair. The whole macabre scene was trapped inside the glass learning pod. The child’s clothes were laid over the bones and hung loosely from the thin limbs.

Nova shook her head. There were supposedly survivors from this crash landing. Did they just leave the bodies of their dead lying wherever they fell? She looked around but she couldn’t see any other corpses in the tech station.

She hurried past the glass cubicles. A chill went up her spine as she remembered the skeleton lying behind the glass. The dark recesses where the eyes used to be stared up at her.

She clenched her teeth and kept moving. According to the ship’s data logs, the tech station was right behind the pilot’s quarters. She was nearly there, she just had to collect the valuables and then get out of the ghost ship.

The metal door leading out of the tech station was different to the others, it didn’t have a knob. Instead, there was a button pad with worn-down numbers and a blank screen just above them. There was no clue as to what the code could be.

She slammed her fist into the wall. A percussive ding rang out through the tech lounge and bounced off of the nearby learning pods. There was usually some kind of pattern to these security keys, a way for everyone to remember.

Tapping her fingers against the doorframe, she cast around for any kind of hint. As she looked up towards the top of the door she saw it. A room number was stamped into the metal of the frame. She punched the numbers into the pad and a green light flashed on. The metal door slid away to reveal a dark room beyond. One of the many benefits of colonisation ships; self-contained and self-renewing power systems.

The door slid shut behind her as she lowered herself into the next corridor. Her glowing sphere revealed buttons and leavers to either side. Black screens were spaced every few metres, completely blank.

She kept climbing until she felt a cool draft hit her face from the left side. She stopped and spun with her gun drawn. Up to that point, the air in the ship had been completely still, dead.

The glowing ball only revealed so much and past that there was more darkness. She took a step towards the side of the ship, her gun raised. The breeze was gone but something had caused it.

She kept walking. She expected to come up against the ship’s side at any moment. Instead, her foot went from hard metal to soft dirt.

“What the—” she said.

The glowing ball illuminated dirt at her feet and to either side the jagged edges of the ship’s forward door. The door itself was lying in a crumpled heap mere metres from Nova’s feet.

Outside of the ship was a massive underground cave, the size of a small moon. Somewhere in the distance water was dripping, creating a constant percussive rhythm. That was the only sound in the deep cave.

She turned left and crept along the side of the ship with a hand resting on the metal. It would be too easy to get lost in a place like this. Twenty metres from the door, the ship disappeared into a wall of solid rock. The stone was cold and smooth under her hand.

She unclipped the glowing ball from her hip and held it up to the wall. The yellow light shone over the stones and revealed not a random rock-face but a large carved mural. Trees, animals and patterns were engraved into the rocks.

The carvings continued on down the wall. The biggest figure was a statue of a woman. She looked human and towered twenty times taller than any real woman Nova had ever seen. She was made to look as if she was sitting back into the wall. The lifelike features made the hairs on Nova’s neck stand on end.

“Cal, can you hear me?” Nova said.

The only response she got was static; the signal was too weak to get this far underground.

“Dammit, Cal. What are you doing?” she said under her breath. “Record log and send to Cal when signal available.” The chip in her head began recording.

“Some evidence of an ancient culture. It looks like this planet was colonised before this ship got here. I’m exploring the first chamber; there are many statues and carvings. Possible indications of faith and religion.”

She moved further into the cave and away from the ship. The cavern was huge. Further in, it narrowed to a single corridor.

“There is no evidence of candles or torches. The tunnels have been widened artificially. No sign of life.” She kept her voice low but it echoed back to her in the narrow tunnel. Her gun remained cocked and held out in front of her.

“Possibility of hidden artefacts. I’m going deeper into the caverns. At this stage, I have made no turns, maintain mapping feature.”

She pushed forward, keeping an eye on the ground at her feet in case it should suddenly fall away. The rest of her focus was on the tunnel in front of her. There was no guarantee that the people who had once lived in these caves weren’t still here.

Further on, the tunnel split into two. The left tunnel had a flower carved above it, the other had a half-moon. She glanced down the tunnel with the half-moon. There was a pile of random items stacked high. Pieces of clothing, bags, spears and chunks of metal were all layered on top of each other to create an imposing pile almost as high as her head. She decided to ignore the stack for now; she could always raid it on her way back.

“I’m taking the left hand path; the flower above it could be a rose or some other unidentified species.”

The ground sloped downwards and the dripping became louder. There was a chill in the air which made Nova’s skin rise in bumps. She stopped for a moment and pulled on a thick jacket from her bag, relishing in the warmth.

Two hundred metres after the fork, after many twists and turns, the tunnel opened into another chamber. Her eyes opened wide. The cavern was filled with brightly lit plants. They clung to the walls and floor of the cave, casting a blue glow over the whole scene. The glowing light at her hip barely made any difference to the shining blue chamber.

The plants were mostly mushrooms although some vines crawled along the cave walls. The plants shone out and created a friendly glow which counteracted the encroaching darkness. A leak in the ceiling far above was dripping water down onto a flat rock.

“The mystery of the dripping is solved,” Nova said as she took in the falling water. “Fluorescent plants in abundance. These look to have occurred naturally as opposed to the usual artificial breeds. A sample of the plant has been taken and labelled A.”

She spoke the audio log as she placed her gun on the ground. Bending down, she used a pair of tweezers to pluck a small mushroom and lower it into a sealed tube. She held her breath throughout the whole process in case the mushroom released spores as a defensive strategy. It would be a severe embarrassment if she had survived everything so far only to die here at the hands of a small glowing mushroom. The mushroom continued to glow even when isolated inside the glass. Nova slipped the vial into her bag where a pocket held it firmly in place before standing, gun in hand.

Huge rock formations decorated the cave. They hung down from the ceiling and extended up from the floor. Some had connected to form massive columns of stone. Their uneven surfaces reflected the blue light of the plants.

Her attention was ripped from the rocks by a crunch behind her. She took a step forward and turned to face the noise. The blue glow of the plants illuminated a figure shuffling towards her. It looked human but walked with a definite hunch. It was at least a foot taller than Nova and the sound of scraping dirt accompanied its approach.

Nova’s heart beat faster and she was suddenly aware of how alone she was down in the tunnels. She couldn’t even be sure that Cal knew where she was. Her breath scraped against her throat as her eyes darted about the chamber. She clenched her gun tighter to keep from shaking.

“Stop where you are,” she said.

The creature didn’t respond.

“Stop or I’ll shoot,” she said, steadying her gun.

The creature moaned but didn’t stop moving forward. Nova backed away a few more paces.

“Cal! Cal! I need a new translator patch,” she said. If she’d ever needed her robot, it was now. The darkness and weight of the tunnels pushed down on her, making it hard to breathe. Cal didn’t respond.

“Damned robot,” she said as desperation flooded through her.

She turned right and made a dash for the tunnel she’d come through . The creature behind turned to follow her. She jogged down the tunnel but didn’t bother sprinting, the figure seemed slow at best.

“Did your people do the carvings?” Nova called over her shoulder. Crunching footsteps were her only reply.

She ran to where the path split and retraced her footsteps. She continued until she came back out into the open expanse of the cavern. In the distance somewhere was the crashed colony ship. She raced towards it.

That was when things got bad.


















CHAPTER SEVEN






The glowing ball at Nova’s waist reflected back from more than twenty sets of eyes. They gleamed in the dim cavern and were accompanied by low growls. She couldn’t make out any of the cavern walls; there was just the darkness and the eyes. In the dim light, she made out vague faces but they were moving in and out of the shadows so quickly that she couldn’t be certain. The eyes moved closer, surrounding her on all sides.

“I mean no harm,” she said, holding up her hands. Fear had a firm hold of her heart. She would have shot them all and run if she thought she could kill them all before they reached her. Instead, she had to hope they understood and weren’t planning on killing her where she stood. The gun reflected the light in a bright glint.

The creatures didn’t respond except to move closer.

Hearing more people in the tunnel behind her, she darted right and slammed her palm into a creature, knocking the dark figure back. She managed to get past and made a break for the ship. Stomping feet sounded right on her heels. She risked a glance over her shoulder. The glowing eyes were catching up.

In her quick glance, Nova saw human-like faces except that the eyes were double the size of her own. They bulged out of the creatures’ heads like tennis balls. Their teeth were sharpened to a neat points that gnashed as she ran away.

They looked like demons leaping through the dark caverns after her. Cold sweat broke out across Nova’s forehead and her legs felt like jelly beneath her. The sound of her breath was like a choked bellows as she fought to stay in control. The darkness and the sounds of pursuit pushed her closer to the madness she struggled so hard to resist and soon other voices and shapes were joining those of her chasers.

She gritted her teeth and blinked hard, using the pain thumping through her right foot to push the visions away. They faded in the face of the very real threat at her heels.

The sight of her pursuers put fire into Nova’s feet and she sprinted the remaining distance to the ship. She breathed a sigh of relief when her light shone on the jagged entrance, and she dashed inside, turning right she sprinted back past the controls and buttons.

She got to the door with the keypad and madly typed in the code. As her fingers worked she looked back and saw the approaching horde. Whatever they wanted it certainly didn’t seem friendly. They snapped their teeth at her. In order to get up the steep incline of the tilted ship they grabbed hold of the passing equipment.

Entire sections of machinery torn right out of the ship. They rolled down the inclined floor and smashed against the wall some distance away.

She finished the code and the door slid open she dashed through it and slammed her palm against the close button. She whipped in a circle but there was no sign of more attackers in the tech lounge.

“C’mon c’mon!” she said, begging the door to close faster.

With a hiss, it finally obeyed and the noise of chomping teeth was silenced.

She drew in a few deep breaths. “Always nice to meet the locals,” she said. “Cal, are you back online yet?”

Static filled her ears.

She turned away from the door and came face to face with an open mouth. She was so close that she could see each individual tooth and the spittle which connected them. The stench of rotten meat flowed over her as the creature bellowed into her face.

She dived to her right just as the creature’s jaw snapped shut on what would have been her face. The humanoid turned to face her, shambling forward with jerky movements.

“I don’t want to kill you, but I will. There are only so many times I can put up with having people trying to eat my face,” Nova warned. She scrambled to her feet and levelled her gun at the creature.

Her stomach clenched as a rush of blood poured through her veins, feeding adrenalin into her already exhausted muscles. She’d had enough of being captured and of strange people trying to eat her. It made no sense, and she couldn’t get off of the planet soon enough. Even the promise of a warp converter was less appealing with every encounter she had.

The creature paid no attention to her words. It took another step forward and gnashed its teeth. It wore tattered rags for clothing that only just covered its waist. The rest of his body was covered in dirt and grime along with tiny scratches and scars.

The vacant eyes and gnashing teeth reminded Nova of some of the drug addicts she’d encountered in the outer planets. They had the exact same crazed expressions and the similarity made her hold back, despite her fear, until the creature whipped out its hand and took hold of her left wrist, and then she let fire. The gunshot reverberated around the tech lounge and clanged against Nova’s ears.

The blue plasma shot from the gun and blasted into the creature’s chest. The flesh melted away and the thing collapsed. Its hand remained locked around Nova’s wrist and she was jerked downwards with the sudden weight.

She dropped her gun to the floor to free her other hand and pried the fingers from around her wrist one by one. Her breath was coming fast with the adrenalin and a bead of sweat rolled down her forehead.

As soon as she was free, she jumped to her feet, snatching her gun from the floor. She turned in a tight circle, her gun held out in front, straining her ears for any noise, but the tech lounge was silent. She waited until she was sure there were no more creatures and then knelt beside the body at her feet.

“Let’s get a better look at you,” she said, ignoring the quiver in her own voice. If she was going to find out what was happening on the damned planet then she had to get as much information as she could. She held the glowing light up high so that it illuminated the entire creature.

“New encounter, possible new homo sapient species. Subject was hostile and fatal action was required. Subject killed by plasma blast to the chest. Initial impression is of humanoid sub-species, possible cave dweller. Large eyes dominate facial features along with sharp teeth. These look to be natural and not filed…”

She stopped her scientific analysis and stared with a twisted mouth at the subject’s ear. “What the hell is that?”

Crawling out from the corpse’s ear-hole was a slug. It wormed out of the narrow tunnel and plopped to the metal floor. A trail of slime followed its progress.

Nova stared with horrified fascination as the creature edged its way from the body across the metal floor.

“Oh no you don’t,” she said. She scooped the slug into another vial, which she tucked safely into her bag.

“Secondary species found. Possibly symbiotic. Slug-like in appearance. Collected as sample B.”

The door behind her caved inwards. Persistent banging clanged around the tech lounge as the creatures on the other side of the door tried to claw their way in.

The door vibrated and dents sprung up across its surface.

Nova sprung to her feet and stepped backwards away from the door with her gun pointed straight at it. She backed away through the learning pods, up the slope towards the next door.

A shriek to her left was her only warning. She ducked low and sprung forward, only just moving out of the way of a swinging fist. She turned and levelled her gun. She squeezed the trigger and a single blast fired off. The blue bolt of energy spun through the air and collided with her attacker’s face, melting it.

She was surrounded. Out of the shadows and crawling out of the learning pods came the creatures. They hobbled on uneven feet towards Nova and her glowing lamp. They growled at her. She couldn’t make out intelligible words.

Her already pounding heart raced faster, filling her ears with the noise. Her aching muscles trembled as she spun in a tight circle, trying to bring the panic in her chest back under control.

Ten of the humanoid figures approached her from different directions. Not wasting any time, she levelled her gun and fired off shots at the approaching silhouettes. In the semi-darkness, it was hard to be sure of how many there were but she shot all the same.

She blasted the first figure, turned a little to the left and shot the next, continuing around in a circle firing off blasts of energy. Her enemies collapsed to the ground as the highly charged bolts burned away their flesh and disintegrated their organs. Ordinarily she wouldn’t have stood in the middle of an area when outnumbered. Here she didn’t have much choice.

Click. Click. Click.

Her gun clicked over but no more blue blasts came out.

The nearest creature was on her. She crouched low and swung her leg around in a bruising roundhouse kick. Her boot slammed into the creature’s midsection and it flew to the side, completely off balance. As it sailed past, she brought the butt of her gun down and smashed it into the creature’s head. A dull crack echoed through the darkness and the thing collapsed at her feet.

“Damn you useless thing,” Nova said, throwing the overheated gun into her gaping bag. She had time to reflect that if she’d had the money she would have upgraded her gun and it wouldn’t have overheated so quickly.

By then, the attackers were on her. Compared to their initial ponderous movements they were now at full speed. The closest was a man in a ragged pair of overalls. He ran full tilt at Nova and swung his fist.

She ducked under his arm and as he moved past she kicked his back so that he went flying forward. He collided with two more attackers and they went crashing to the floor like bowling pins.

“Strike,” Nova said, turning to the next attacker.

This was a female with long nails, sharp enough to carve a roast. She swiped at Nova with her talons. First the left hand sailed forward and then the right.

Nova ducked backwards, moving her torso right and left to avoid the claws. She glanced behind and saw that the door leading down into the cavern was nearly broken. As soon as that broke, more creatures would surge in and she’d be dead.

The woman attacking Nova barred her teeth and growled. Her giant white eyes stared at Nova with a squishy kind of fixation.

Nova looked around for any kind of weapon. There was just her and her bag. She slipped her hand down to her waist and unclipped the glowing ball, thrusting it towards her attacker’s eyes. The woman howled. She stumbled away from Nova, clutching at her oversized eyeballs.

The other beasts stopped their advance and looked from the cowering woman to Nova. They paused for only a second before approaching. They moved with more caution now, spreading out in a circle to surround Nova.

Her heart thrummed like a caged bird. She saw her chance to escape and didn’t waste any time. Nova sprinted for the edge of the circle where only the woman with long nails was moving in. Her arm was thrown over her eyes, shielding them.

Nova sprinted for the woman, who didn’t see her until it was too late, and rammed her shoulder into the woman’s body. Sprinting, she made it clear of the attackers and headed straight for the next door, leading up to the gym.

She raced past the gym equipment and through the dining room, pelted through the sleeping quarters, and breathed a sigh of relief when the sounds of pursuit faded behind her. She stopped long enough after the sleeping quarters to hoist the door up and let it slam shut, cutting off the lower rooms.

She raced out into the sunlight, whirled around, and pulled her gun out, hoping that it had cooled down enough for a few more shots. Every muscle in her body was tensed. She stared into the darkness of the ship, waiting for the creatures to come pouring out. There was only darkness. She waited for a full minute but there was no hint of the creatures in the room beyond.

She rested her hands on her knees, breathing hard. Clanging and moans floated up from the bowels of the spaceship. The creatures howled. It created a haunting melody on the winds of the rainforest but they didn’t come into the sunlight.

Nova glanced up at the bright sun and let her gun drop to her side. If her small glowball was enough to hurt them, there wasn’t much chance of them coming out during the day. She counted it a small blessing.

“Cal, I could really do with some help right about now,” she said, pleading for any kind of answer. All she got was silence. “Damned robot!”

She stood straight and the sweat on her forehead evaporated in the rainforest air. She let out a long breath and looked around.

“Cal, seriously this isn’t a joke. Respond, you useless robot.”

She waited, but there was nothing.

She glanced at her overheated gun and lowered it into the holster at her waist. Hopefully if she needed it again it would have cooled down. She began the long trek back to Crusader and the tribe of villagers.

“Should have traded that stupid labourbot in when I had the chance.”

The sun was already sinking towards nightfall and the secondary sun wouldn’t rise for hours yet. The last thing she wanted was to be trapped in the haunted forest when night came.

“Corpses, zombies, slugs. No sign of the warp converter, and I didn’t even get a new depth detector. Bloody planet was a waste of time.”

She trudged through the trees.

Something brushed against her hair.

“What the—”

She whipped her hand up to her head and swiped across her temple. Something fell to the ground with a wet splat.

“You can’t be serious,” she said, staring down at the slug.

It crawled along the leafy ground at an agonising pace, moving away from Nova with all the speed of continental drift.

“Bad choice,” she said, slamming her foot down on the creature with all the anger and frustration balled up inside her.

The slug burst under the sole of her boot with a satisfying pop. Some of Nova’s rage dissipated as she felt the thing squish into the ground. She lifted her shoe. The leaves and surrounding dirt were covered with red. The blood dripped from the bottom of her boot. She felt a grim kind of satisfaction, as if she’d taken revenge for being scared half to death by the cave-dwellers.

She wiped her foot on some clean leaves and then inspected every inch of herself for more slugs, including her hair and clothes. She even pulled everything out of her bag and turned it inside out.

Only then, with the medical equipment, sample vials and emergency supplies spread out on the ground, was she happy that no more slugs were crawling over her.

She kept walking until she got to the creek. She stopped there for a few moments to look down at the corpse with fresh eyes. She couldn’t be a creature from the caves because her eyes were too small. Was she a victim of them? Maybe, there were no visible wounds though.

Nova looked back up at the waterfall. The broken bones suggested the body had fallen down from further upstream. Another glance at the setting sun told her that she didn’t have time to investigate it now. Plus, she had to get the sample back to Cal for analysis. She’d never heard of slugs living in people’s ears before, but stranger things had happened.

She hurried through the darkening forest and made it to the edge of the trees just as the last ray of sunlight disappeared. The glowing ball at her waist lit her way back across the open plain to Crusader. The ship cast an imposing silhouette against the setting sun.


***


Nova closed her eyes as the door slid shut behind her. Pain pounded through her head with the stress of the day. When she finally did lift her lids, her eyes shot open at what she saw.

“Cal!” she cried as she ran across the floor of the storage room. Cal lay on his side on the metal floor. Lights flashed across his body in a random, nonsensical pattern. One of his panels had come loose, leaving a trail of screws scattered across the engine room floor.

She knelt down by Cal and pulled his spherical body onto her lap. There was no response from the robot. She glanced around the storage bay. Had someone gotten inside and damaged Cal? The children?

Her heart beat painfully in her chest as she looked down at her best friend.

“Crusader, is there anyone else on board aside from me?” she said, her voice shaky.

“Confirm one human and one Class Four Labourbot on board,” Crusader said through the intercom.

Nova let out a sigh. No one else was inside. She opened Cal’s side panel where a series of readouts flashed erratically. Nova typed into the small interface and began a full diagnostic. After only a few moments, a single continuous beep emerged from Cal. Then his systems went dead.

“Oh no no no!” she cried. She got to her feet with Cal clutched tightly in her hands and stepped to the small workbench. Cords snaked out of the walls, which she plugged into Cal’s side.

“Crusader, ensure maximum digital shields. I need you to do a full diagnostic scan on Cal, but don’t you dare compromise yourself,” she called out. Her voice echoed around the crowded room.

“Confirmed,” Crusader’s voice replied.

She held Cal in place while her eyes moved over him. Aside from the panel which had fallen off there was no sign of external damage. Nothing could have gotten into Crusader, the door was sealed shut, so what had gotten into Cal?

It was only then that Nova remembered the strange conversation she’d had with Cal just that morning. He’d forgotten what she told him to do. It didn’t make any sense.

She lifted her eyes from Cal’s body and glanced around the storage bay. She was shocked to see black marks on the walls. Cal had obviously fired his laser at some point during the day. The marks were scattered across each of the walls as if the robot had been floating in mid-air, spinning in circles and firing off his gun. She stroked his metal surface with her hand.

Her foot tapped on the ground as she waited for Crusader to finish the diagnostic. Painful tears stung the corners of her eyes as she gazed at Cal, but she refused to let them fall. He had been her best friend ever since she left her homeworld and yet there was nothing she could do for him. The thought of losing him made her want to punch her fist through a nearby wall. She could always reload the Class Four Labourbot interface but it wouldn’t be him.

“Scan complete,” Crusader’s voice said over the intercom.

“Well? What’s wrong with him?” she said.

“He seems to have been infected with a virus,” Crusader replied.

“Where did he get that from?” she asked.

Computer viruses had been all but wiped out a hundred years ago. Now they were only targeted towards political corporations or banks, not tiny labourbots.

“He has been scanning the Cloud and also uploading material. The evidence would suggest that he has come into contact with a contaminated portion,” Crusader replied.

“Well, can you get a patch please?” she said through gritted teeth.

Her throat stung with her held back tears and made her voice croak. Her head pounded with a building pressure that pushed against the backs of her eyes. If Cal’s circuits were fried not only would she lose a good friend, but she’d also have to come up with the money to buy a new labourbot.

Crusader was silent for a few moments as she scanned the Cloud for a suitable patch.

“Applying patch initially to ship’s computers before creating a direct link with the infected system,” Crusader said.

Nova nodded and waved her hands for the ship to hurry up.

“Uploading patch to infected system,” Crusader said.

Nova watched with baited breath as Cal’s systems remained dead. There were no lights or sound emanating from the robot.

“Crusader, nothing is ha—”

Beep-beep.

The noise came from Cal’s internal core. His base systems had restarted and he was entering reboot mode.

Nova groaned and let her head fall onto the bench. She wrapped her hands over her head and let her shoulders relax as she swallowed the lump in her throat. The catch in her breath faded away and she blinked away the tears from the corners of her eyes.

As the seconds rolled by, more lights flashed on Cal’s control panel. The whirring of his internal motor increased until he sat himself upright on the service bench.

Nova lifted her hand from the robot and let it fall to her side. She stayed that way, watching the robot as one by one, his systems came back online. It wasn’t until Cal lifted fully from the service desk and came to rest by Nova’s side that all of the worry left her.

“What are you doing?” Cal asked as he observed Nova standing in the middle of the service room.

“You had a virus,” she said, turning to face the robot. She kept an eye on his lower compartment where his laser pistol was concealed, concerned that it might go off at any second.

“Internal memories show no recollection of such an event,” Cal replied.

“Well, check Crusader’s video feed if you want, but you did. It’s been hours since you were first infected,” Nova said, trudging from the storage bay to the comfort of her pilot’s chair.

She could hear Cal’s internal processors working away as he accessed Crusader’s video bank.

“That is most unusual,” Cal said.

“Tell me about it. Do you know where you could have got the virus?”

“Past browsing history gives no clear indication,” Cal replied.

Nova breathed a mixed sigh of frustration and relief. The last thing she needed right now was for Cal to be destroyed by a virus.

A thought began to crawl its way into Nova’s brain, not unlike the slugs with their slime trails.


***


“Cal, I need you to analyse a couple of samples,” she said, pulling the two glass vials from her bag.

The mushroom still glowed, although its shine was mostly masked by Crusader’s internal lights. The slug, on the other hand, was curled at the bottom of the tube, apparently on the verge of death. It had dried out and shrivelled since Nova had scooped it up, losing almost half its body size.

“What am I looking for?” Cal asked.

“I want to know what they are. They were accompanied by some other creatures I’ve never seen before. They looked like a human sub-species but they were feral and violent.”

“I’ll see what the Cloud has to say,” said Cal.

“Good, let me know as soon as you find anything. And make sure you keep that stuff contained; we don’t know what it could do. And I swear, if I wake up to a slug crawling into my ear, you’ll wish that virus had wiped your systems.”

She wandered off and left Cal with the vials. She went straight for the command chair and slumped down into the well-worn seat. She threw her legs up onto the control desk and leant backwards in her chair.

“Crusader, get me Tanguin,” she said.

Moments later the familiar face appeared.

“Hey Tanguin,” she said.

“What’s up?” Tanguin said. “How’s the outer planets?”

“Worse than expected,” Nova said with a sigh.

Tanguin had straight black hair that ended above her chin. Her eyes were light blue, almost white, like her skin which was unnaturally pale. Her eyes sparkled as she looked at Nova through her own computer monitor. She was sitting cross-legged on her bed at The Jagged Maw.

Tanguin was one of Nova’s few friends. She was an Un-Connected from Xenon. The planet was made up entirely of servers and human-sized pods. The population lived in a perpetual virtual reality, completely unaware of the rest of the universe expanding around them. Or at least they had until the servers went down and the Connected became the Un-Connected. For most of them, the blunt slap of reality was too much and they committed suicide. Tanguin was one of the few who soldiered through. She eventually made her way to The Jagged Maw and quickly found her place amongst the hunters. Her exceptional skill with computers was always in high demand.

“What’s the problem?” Tanguin asked.

“More weird creatures than I expected,” Nova said.

“Ooh, sounds intriguing,” Tanguin said.

Nova snorted. “It gets worse. My engine’s down.”

“What?”

“Yep, I’m stranded on some back planet called Taive.”

“Do you want me to send Aart or someone out?”

“No, no,” Nova said, holding up her hand. “There’s a crashed colony ship here, there should be parts on board, provided I can get past the creatures that have taken up residence in it.”

“So to what do I owe the pleasure of your call?” Tanguin said. The corner of her mouth lifted and her eyes shone.

“Can’t a friend just call another friend without asking for something?” Nova said.

“They can, yes,” Tanguin said. “However you usually don’t.”

Nova sighed, Tanguin was right. “Okay, okay. I wanted to check if the new bounty hunter race course had been announced.”

Tanguin chuckled. “It has.”

“And?” Nova asked.

“It’s going to be around Vogon.”

“Ooh, that will be a good one.”

“So I’m going to assume you’ll be entering,” said Tanguin.

“Yep. It’s worth it just to give Kero what he deserves.”

“Amen to that,” said Tanguin.

“Okay, that was all. If I get really stuck and can’t find parts, I’ll give you another call,” Nova said.

“Later,” Tanguin replied. The screen went blank.

Nova leant back and sighed with relief. At least now someone knew where she was, even though she’d never admit that was the reason she called.


***


“I’ve got some good news and I’ve got some bad news,” Cal said as he hovered into the control room.

“Good news first,” Nova said, swivelling in her chair to look at him.

“The good news is that these mushrooms are extremely valuable to certain people on Zyx.”

“It’s a hallucinogen?” Nova said.

“Yep, powerful too. It’s banned in most quadrants but you know what Zyx is like.”

“Can’t they just synthesise it?” she asked.

“The Cloud forums say that the synthesised form doesn’t compare to the natural stuff. Apparently, you can make a lot of money with these, Glowmush they’re called. They won’t grow on most planets; they all spring from one root. If you try and spawn them elsewhere, they die.”

“Transport?” she asked.

“Forbidden,” Cal said.

“Alright, then I guess we’re heading to Zyx with a shipment of ethanol,” Nova said with a sly smile. It wouldn’t be the first time they’d creatively labelled illicit cargo to get it where it needed to go.

“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that,” Cal said with a disapproving tone.

“You know they’re just going to destroy their brains another way. I may as well make money from it at the same time.”

“I will not have my circuits contaminated with your questionable sense of morality,” Cal said.

Nova snorted and waved her hand at him. “I’ve got morality where it counts. Now what about the slug?”

“Ah, now that’s the bad news.”

“Well?”

“Turns out these slugs are well known in human history.”

“How? I’ve never heard of them.”

“Yes, well it was some time ago and the Human Confederacy tried to keep it quiet. But it’s there in the Cloud if you know where to look.”

“Do I have to shake it out of you?”

“That won’t be necessary. These are cerebral slugs. They burrow through the ear into the ventricles and then attach themselves to the brain stem. They take control of the host.”

“Mind control?” Nova asked.

“In a way.”

“Is that what’s wrong with the children in the village?”

“Calculations suggest that is ninety-eight percent probable.”

“But why? What’s the point of infecting a bunch of children and then killing them off?”

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Cal said.

“Wait, so what does that have to do with the Human Confederacy?” Nova said.

“There’s a rumour that a century or so ago the Human Confederacy became infected. Mass scans revealed over fifty percent of the members were under the control of these things. They’d been controlling human politics for years.”

“Wow, no wonder they’re keeping that quiet.” She tapped her finger on the control panel. “So how do we get rid of them? Because there are a bunch of those mushrooms not far from here and the only thing between us and them are a gang of zombies controlled by those things. Not to mention the warp converter.”

“Generally these slugs have a hive mind. While they control their hosts they’re also controlled by their queen. In the past, people have destroyed the queen and it takes out the whole colony.”

“Great, so I just have to find the queen. Any clues about where she might be?”

“Not at all. The slugs probably won’t go far from her. And they have to return to mate, but that’s all I found.”

“Return to mate,” Nova repeated. She stared at the metal floor, her mind racing with possibilities.
















CHAPTER EIGHT






Nova awoke the next morning with a plan. She pulled on thick trousers, a long sleeved shirt and a protective jacket. She also strapped on her belt and attached two pistols and a serrated knife to her waste.

She pulled up the right leg of her pants and strapped another sharpened knife to her calf. She then started throwing things into her bag: medical supplies, jars, rope, gloves, everything that she could think of.

“What are you doing?” Cal asked as he hovered in to investigate the noise.

“I’m going to get me some slugs.”

“Sounds fun,” Cal said, hovering back around the corner.

“Yes, well seeing as you spent yesterday lying around on the floor, make sure you get to work fixing the engine today,” she called after him.

Throwing her bag over her shoulder, she pulled on her thick boots. She wrenched the laces tight and stood at the main exit door.

“Crusader!” she called. “Do not let anyone except me inside, okay?”

“Copy that,” Crusader replied, sliding open the main entrance door in front of Nova.

She jumped down and crept away from the children’s village in a crouch. According to Crusader’s monitors, the children hadn’t tried to get closer to the ship. Maybe they were happy with being this distance away, or perhaps they were preparing for something bigger. Nova moved through the fields and back to the forest. It was easy to pick up her trail from yesterday; she had left big footprints through the trees.

She retraced her steps through the rainforest until she got to the waterfall. The female corpse was still lying at the bottom of the river. Nova stayed well clear of the body and kept her eyes on the water, searching for wayward slugs. There was no sign of them. The theory she’d developed overnight said that when the children disappeared from the village, they were being controlled by the slugs. The slugs were trying to return to the caverns to mate, and using the children as transport. The young girl died up there and was then washed back downstream and over the waterfall. The chain of events didn’t make much sense in Nova’s head, but it was all she had.

She pulled the rope from her bag and collected it up in her arms. She pulled backwards and cast the rope up the cliff beside the waterfall. The rope swung around an overhanging tree and fell back into her hands. She looped one end around the other and pulled until the knot was secure around the branch. She tugged a couple of times. The only things to fall were a few leaves.

She wrapped the rope around herself and faced the cliff. One foot at a time she climbed higher. With each new step, her fingers scrabbled for purchase on the jagged rocks. Even with her thick gloves, the rocks cut gauges into her fingers. She pressed on. Mist from the waterfall floated over and covered her face and hands, making the climb even more slippery.

Her fingernails were scraped down to ragged shreds by the rough rocks, and her elbows were soon grazed and bleeding. By the time she reached the top, she was gasping for breath and sweat was beading down her face to join the spray from the waterfall. She pulled herself over the edge of the cliff and rolled a safe distance away.

She didn’t waste any time and was on her feet in an instant; looking around for the creatures that had attacked her the day before. The forest was eerily quiet. She untied the rope and tucked it back into her bag.

“Step one,” Nova said, striding alongside the stream.

If her assumptions were right, the river would lead her straight to whatever had killed the girl, which based on what she had seen was probably the slug-zombies. She needed equipment from the colony ship and at that moment it was blocked by the slug-controlled creatures. So her mission was simple, take out the slugs and get off of the damned planet.

The rush and gurgle of the waterfall faded away behind her and was replaced by the steady trickle of the stream.

“Well what do we have here?” she said, kneeling by the side of the river. She thrust her hand into the water and rummaged between the rocks. When her hand came out again it was clasped around a long bone.

“Cal, I’ve found a human femur. It looks like I’m on the right track,” she said into her communicator.

“Just look out for more hosts,” Cal replied, “I do not want to be trapped on a planet like this if you die.”

“Always got my back, hey Cal?” Nova chuckled, throwing the leg bone back into the water. “Just make sure you keep repairing Crusader. I want her ready to go as soon as I get back.”

The forest got thicker further upstream, with more hanging vines and undergrowth to trip her up. There were also stinging plants and spiders waiting to prick her skin. She congratulated herself again for wearing the thick, protective jacket which would stop most things.

“This looks like it,” she said to herself when the forest opened up to yet another cliff-face. However, unlike the last cliff, there was no waterfall. Instead, the water flowed out of a large hole at the base. There was a gap between the water surface and the stone roof of the tunnel of about ten centimetres.

She knelt down by the entrance and peered into the inky blackness. With her head this close to the water all she could hear was it babbling along. The tunnel was dark and she couldn’t see more than a metre in.

A sharp squeeze set her glowball alight and she tossed it into the tunnel, trying to keep her throw as horizontal and as close to the roof as possible. The tunnel continued on at the same size for quite some distance. As far as she could see, there were no hosts waiting just beyond the darkness. The glowing ball landed in the water and came floating back along the stream into her waiting hand.

She tied the ball to her waist and ensured her backpack was secure. Holding a gun in her hand, she lowered herself into the river. It was deep here but slow-moving. At least she’d had the sense to buy guns with water-proofing. That could have been a disaster. She moved into the tunnel and had to tilt her head up so that she could breathe. It wasn’t long before she felt the strain on her neck. The angle also meant she didn’t have a clear view in front of her.

The hand holding her gun moved along the ceiling of the tunnel, scouting out in front for sudden changes. Her other hand trailed along the left-hand cave wall. She could just reach the bottom of the tunnel if she walked on the very tips of her toes.

She continued along the tunnel for ten minutes without any trouble. The glowing light at her waist cast a cool glow up through the water which dappled the cave roof and walls. It was far more comforting than travelling through the wet tunnel in complete darkness.

A shadow passed in front of the light and cast a worm-like darkness on the ceiling. Nova jumped and her heart leapt into her throat. The top of her forehead slammed into the roof of the cave and pain exploded out from the new wound. She ignored it and scraped her head along the roof of the cave so that she was looking down into the water.

The shadow had looked like a slug. She was sure she was going to look down and find her mid-section swarmed with the black creatures. Instead, she found herself face-to-face with a long eel. It was snaking about her legs and swimming into the glowing ball.

She breathed a sigh of relief. No sign of slugs and the eel didn’t appear interested in either biting chunks of her flesh off or crawling into her ear and taking over her brain. She put a hand to her forehead. A trickle of blood snaked down from her new wound but there was nothing she could do about it at that moment. She forced her face towards the ceiling and resumed her shuffle.

Her forward hand felt the roof drop lower. She followed it down for some way; the tunnel narrowed so that there was no airspace above the water.

“Dammit!” she said, stopping in place. The water brushed past her and the chill sunk through her clothes. They were thick and held a lot of water. It hadn’t slowed her down too much while she walked, but if she had to swim that might change.

She dunked her head underwater and looked forward down the tunnel. After the glow of her light, there was just blackness. There was no way to tell how far she’d have to go without air.

“Hey Cal?” Nova said.

“Yes?” Cal replied.

“On a scale of one to ten, how much do you not want to be trapped on this planet?”

“Nova! What are you—” Cal’s voice disappeared as Nova dived under the water and swam forward. The tele-link was still there but for the moment, her mind was so focused on swimming that his words faded out of her conscious perception.

The current pulled at her jacket and backpack, moving against her. She swam in a ball of light cast out by the glowball at her waist.

She thrust her arms forward and brought them back in a powerful stroke, propelling herself forward. Keeping her eyes directly forward, she forced herself not to wonder if there was air above her.

The tunnel went on in pitch blackness. A burn began in her chest. At first, it was just a small niggle but it grew, begging her to take a gasp of air. She refused her body and kept swimming.

Her head felt dizzy. Stars glittered at the edges of her vision. Her ears rang with the need to breathe.

Keep going. Keep going. Keep going. She repeated the mantra in her mind. Keep going. Keep going. Can’t keep going!

The urge to breath was too strong and she was forced to push off the bottom of the tunnel and propel herself towards the surface. She expected her hands, followed by her head, to collide at full force with the tunnel roof. Instead, she came up in air, glorious air.

She gasped as the oxygen flowed into her lungs. It was the most wondrous sensation, breathing. She paddled on the surface of the water allowing her vision to return. Along with that, came her survival instincts.

Her breathing stopped mid-gasp as she tried to keep quiet. She lowered herself right down so that only her eyes and nose were above the waterline and turned in circles using small movements underwater to avoid splashing.

The light at her waist filtered around the whole space and lit it up the large underground pool. The cavern roof was metres above her head and a rocky platform rose above the water on the far side of the cave.

She made straight for it and pulled herself up out of the water. She shivered in the cold. There was no wind through the cavern and the air smelled stale. The tunnel through which she’d come was a dark patch just below the surface of the water. Another tunnel led away from the platform and into more darkness.

“Cal,” Nova said.

“You’re alive!” he replied.

“For now,” she chuckled.

“I told you we should have bought that water-breather when we were on Hasard,” Cal said.

“You just wanted it because it was shiny,” Nova said, squeezing the water out of her hair.

“Be that as it may,” Cal said, “I bet you’re wishing we got it now.”

“Fine, from now on I’ll buy every shiny thing you want,” she said with a grin. She’d never admit to Cal that he was completely right. The breather hadn’t even cost that much. One thing was sure, once she had the money from the mushrooms that would be the first thing she bought.

She turned towards the new tunnel. At least this one was above water.

She got to the entrance and glanced down when she heard a crunch. She lifted her boot. Lying on the ground, half of it reduced to a fine white powder, was a bird skull.

“How would a bird get in here?” she wondered to herself.

She bent down and turned it around in her fingers. There was no mistake; it definitely belonged to a small bird. She shrugged and put the skull back on the ground.

The second tunnel looked almost welcoming in the light shining out from her waist. The walls were abnormally smooth. She ran her hand along the side and pulled it away with a squeak. She lifted her hand to her face and splayed her fingers. Some kind of goo dripped between them. It covered her whole hand and oozed down to the floor.

“Yuk,” she said, looking around for anywhere to wipe the substance off. In the end, she settled for the leg of her pants.

The floor was similarly slippery with goo and she had to walk slowly to avoid tripping and falling face-first into the slime.

“Cal?” she said. “Cal?”

There was no reply thanks to the thick rocky layer that blocked their signals. She was alone again in the tunnels. “I’m sure it’s just moss,” she said, taking a deep breath.

Step after step she went deeper into the tunnel system. She breathed a sigh of relief that there weren’t any side tunnels. After almost an hour of walking bent over with cramped legs the tunnel opened up into another cavern. There was no water but it did glow with mushrooms.

“Jackpot.”

She dropped her bag to the floor. Pulling out jars, she scooped up as many mushrooms as they could hold. They glowed blue through the glass and she could feel her heart rising: money in the bag.

She put the last of the jars into her bag and stood up. A sudden scratching noise made her jump. She spun to face a second tunnel that led off from the cavern.

“What the—” she said, peering into the darkness. Even the bright blue glow of the mushrooms didn’t extend far up the tunnel, only inky blackness looked back.

She squinted her eyes and was sent careening backwards when a body slammed into her. She fell to the floor in a flurry of limbs and snarls, crying out as her back smashed against the ground.

She grabbed hold of her attacker’s arms and threw him to the side. His body was light and she got free. She stood and whipped the gun out of her belt. Her attacker wasn’t alone. More creatures streamed through the black tunnel. Some of them were naked, others wore tattered pieces of mismatched clothing.

They poured out of the tunnel in a continuous stream and ran straight for Nova. She held up her gun and squeezed the trigger. Blue blasts of plasma shot out and hit the chests of the oncoming people. They snarled and fell over each other in their rush to get to her.

With each gunshot another of the human-like creatures fell, a gaping hole in either their chests or their heads. They screamed as they were shot down and then lay convulsing on the floor.

A pile of corpses was beginning to block the tunnel entrance. The creatures had to climb over the bodies of their comrades to get to Nova, which made them easy targets.

Click. Click. Click.

“Dammit!” Nova holstered her first gun and whipped out the second. The pause in gunshots gave the creatures the time they needed to get around the pile of bodies. Two of them were running straight for her.

They were only two metres away. They ran with an off-kilter step, leaning one away and then the other in their rush to get to her. Their mouths gnashed open to reveal pointed rotten teeth. Their oversized eyes glowed with unnatural light.

“Get back you bastards!” she yelled, firing her gun.

Both blue energy bolts were perfectly aimed and the two creatures collapsed to the ground.

Wasting no time, she returned her attention to the tunnel entrance and resumed her continuous fire, sure that they had to run out of bodies soon.

She fired shot after shot, taking down tens of the possessed creatures. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed that slugs were pouring out of the ears of the fallen. They crawled out leaving a trail of slime and began to edge their way back up the tunnel.

Nova didn’t have time to deal with them, especially not when she heard sounds approaching from a different tunnel.

She backed away towards the tunnel through which she’d come. At least she knew there were no creatures down that way. She fired as she backed away, the sudden bottleneck of her small tunnel created an easy firing range. It wasn’t long before a new pile of bodies filled the entrance.

“Gotcha,” she said. “I bet you didn’t—”

She was cut short when a hard object collided with the back of her head and she fell unconscious.
















CHAPTER NINE






Nova swam back up to consciousness. Pain surged through the back of her head. It coursed through her brain to her eyeballs, then down her neck to the rest of her body. She wanted to cry out but her survival instincts told her to keep quiet.

Her eyes flickered open for a second and then closed again. Focus, she chided herself. She forced her brain to think about what she’d seen in that brief instant of vision. There was a cave wall. There had been some things hanging to her left. Mostly it was dark. There wasn’t much else she could make out.

She slowed her breathing and forced herself to concentrate. Why were her wrists so sore? And what was wrong with her shoulders?

Inwardly she frowned, her feet and legs felt funny. It was almost as if she was floating above the ground… No! Not floating, hanging. She was strung up by her wrists to the ceiling above. That was why her hands and shoulders ached. Her legs were also tied down, so that her body was stretched out.

She took another deep breath. What did she remember? There were the creatures, she was fighting them and backing away down the tunnel. There shouldn’t have been anyone behind her. The ache in the back of her head said otherwise.

So what were they doing with her? Weren’t they some kind of mind-controlling parasites? Was she being controlled right now? No. If she was being brain-washed, she’d know it. Wouldn’t she?

“I know you’re awake,” said a voice right next to her ear.

Her eyes flew open and she stifled a scream.

Darkness surrounded her. A faint glow lit up the cave wall opposite but that was it.

“Who are you?” she whispered.

“Ah, well that depends on you.” She couldn’t tell if it was a male or a female voice. The accent was peculiar, unfamiliar.

“What do you mean?”

“You have something that I want. If you behave then maybe we can both get out of this.”

“What do you want?”

“I want a ride in your spaceship.”

“What?” Nova said. She craned her neck to see who was talking but the illusive voice was moving about in the shadows of the cave.

“You’re stranded here now though aren’t you?” he said.

“I can fix it. But wait, how do you know— you set those children on my ship!” Nova said, her eyes popping wide.

“Well not me personally,” the man said with a cruel smile. “You won’t stay in control for long here you know. Her great majesty is right now giving birth to the new queen. She will crawl into your head and take over your brain.”

“Queen? My brain? What?” Nova said. Her head still ached with the blow she’d taken and her brain refused to follow the conversation.

“We’ve been waiting a long time for someone like you, someone who could take us away from this wretched planet. And now the queen has decided to create a new daughter for the honour. But it should be mine.”

“Why would you want to leave?” Nova said, fishing for any shred of information that could help her escape the wretched planet. “This seems like a very nice place.”

“Ha-ha, at least you’ve kept your sense of humour. Unfortunately for you, this is no laughing matter. Here are your options, I suggest you choose wisely. Option one: you wait for the queen to lay larvae into your ear. It will then take over your mind and won’t leave until you die. Or, option two: you allow me to crawl in and hide there while we make our escape. I promise not to take over your brain if you promise to take me into the stars.”

“What will you do once you get there?”

“Find someone else to infect of course!”

“I refuse both options.”

As soon as the words were out, a tight grip snapped around Nova’s throat. Pain shot through her temples as blood pooled inside her veins. Sharp jabs of agony stabbed through her lungs with each gasping breath. Air scraped against her throat as if she were swallowing gravel and stars flashed in front of her bulging eyes.

“I thought I made myself very clear. Those are your only options.” The voice was so close that she felt the breath of it on her face. It had to be male, she decided, judging by the grip at her throat. Although, she supposed, what gender the slug was could be very difficult to determine.

“How’d you get here?” she asked. She choked on the words as they scratched over her throat but she was desperate to change the subject and get the thing off her.

“Do I sound like I’m in the mood for answering questions?” the voice hissed, “We were left here and that’s all you have to know.”

Nova couldn’t reply. Her lungs jerked in a futile attempt for air and her vision went black. She teetered on the brink of consciousness when miraculously the grip around her throat disappeared. She gasped and choked on the air as it rushed back into her body.

“I’m afraid you’ll be left here again,” Nova said between wheezes. “I refuse both of your options.”

“Suit yourself; we’ll wait until the queen arrives with your new master.”

“We’ll see,” said Nova.

Her voice sounded confident, but inside her mind was racing. She had no idea how she was supposed to get down from the ceiling, find her way through the tunnels and back into the sunlight, whilst also evading the creatures.

“Can I have some water?” she asked.

“Do I look like a waiter?” her captor replied.

“If I die of dehydration, I won’t be much good to her majesty, will I?”

Her guard grumbled. She heard retreating footsteps as the man left without bothering to reply.

“Cal! Cal, can you hear me?” she said.

“Nova? Where have you been, it’s been hours since we last spoke.”

“Cal, listen carefully. I went into the cave and was captured by more of these infected people. They’re planning to use my brain as a host for their new queen. I’m trapped.”

“I told you not to go in there,” Cal replied.

“Yes, Cal, I know I should listen to you more often, you ever-intelligent robot. Can you just see if any of the other hunters are in the area? I might need a hand. I’m just grateful the rock is thin enough here for us to talk.”

“I’ll see if I can make contact,” Cal replied.

“Thank you!” Nova said.

Her eyes were growing accustomed to the dark. Now she could see that the black shapes hanging next to her were actually decomposing bodies. As if the sight created the smell, she was overpowered by the scent of death and decay.

Aside from the bodies, the only other things she could make out were the cave walls and a tunnel entrance to her right. That was the only way in or out of the cavern. She could see the floor below her feet, it was a metre drop. How her captor had managed to grab hold of her throat was a mystery. If only she could untie her hands.

The rope itself was thrown over a hook set into the ceiling and then anchored into the ground. She must have been hoisted up like a sack of meat.

Something about the idea of a hook in a dirt ceiling didn’t make sense to Nova. Her brow creased and she looked up. It wasn’t a dirt ceiling, but rather, smooth metal: the underside of the colonisation ship.

At least she knew where she was. The conversation with Cal and looking around the room had cost her. Her strength was drained and her head begged for her to slip back into unconsciousness. Try as she might to stay awake, she dipped into darkness before her guard returned with the water.


***


She couldn’t tell how long she had been out. When Nova woke up again, her mouth was parched and her arms ached ten times worse than they had before. She forced her head up to look around. In the semi-darkness she could make out a man in tattered clothes. A puckered scar ran along his left cheek and his brown hair was a knotted mess on top of his head.

She was almost relieved to see that her guard at least looked mostly human, more so than the creatures that had chased her the day before.

“Well look who’s woken up,” he said with a grin.

“Have you got that water?” she asked.

“Here you go,” he said, sauntering up to her and holding up a bottle of water.

“And how am I supposed to drink that?” she asked.

The man sighed and undid the rope anchor. He lowered her down a small distance, not all the way, then retied the rope. Nova’s feet were thirty centimetres from the cave floor and the tension on her legs had loosened.

“Open wide,” he said, splashing water up in the general direction of Nova’s face.

She opened her mouth and let some of the droplets fall in. They were refreshing on her tongue but her real focus was on the man below. As the water ran out, he stepped closer and closer in order to splash her.

He stepped to within half a metre and she took her chance. With an almighty swing of her whole body, she sent herself through the air and slammed her foot into the man’s face. He crumpled to the ground.

Her body swung back and forth on her rope. It went on for so long, she was sure she was going to be sick by the time it finally stopped.

The man on the ground was still out cold. She wasn’t surprised; it had been a hard kick straight to his head with her thick-soled boots.

She cast her eyes around. The main problem remained; she was strung up to the ceiling like a cow carcass. But at least she still had a knife strapped to her calf. She could feel the ties under her pants. Her guns were gone though, along with her bag of mushrooms and equipment.

Footsteps.

They pounded along the tunnel floor. The noise echoed around the cave and was joined by voices and shouts.

“… Of course…” Nova sighed as eight more of the possessed creatures poured out of the tunnel and surrounded her, their teeth gnashing.

Crack. Crack. Crack.

The bodies standing in a circle around Nova collapsed to the floor with flaming holes in their chests. The smell of burnt flesh wafted up her nostrils and she was helpless to stop it.

The ropes dug into her wrists and her shoulders ached from being held spread-eagled in mid-air. She glanced around the dark cave.

“Nova, you know if I have to keep saving your arse, I’m not going to let you go out on your own anymore.”

Nova breathed a sigh of relief at the familiar voice.

“Aart,” she said.

“Yep and don’t you forget it. I can’t believe I gave up a night of heaven on Vix just to come and save you. Again.”

“Are you kidding? After I walked into a warzone on Blakgar to save your butt? It’s the least you can do.”

“Oh I don’t think so,” said Artemis Goldson as he sliced at Nova’s ropes with a thin knife. “Because that was in repayment for when I pulled you out of the black-hole.”

“Two words,” Nova said as her legs swung free and the weight of her body was left dangling from her wrists. “Zyx Riots.”

“The Gambol swamps,” Aart said. He stopped cutting her ropes to look into her face with a raised eyebrow and his hands on his hips.

“Miranda,” Nova replied with a grin.

Aart’s expression turned to a scowl. “You can’t bring up her name every time you get into trouble.”

“It’s worked so far,” Nova said as Aart resumed cutting the rope. “You’ll owe me for a long time for that one.”

“You’re right about that,” Aart said, shaking his head.

The knife sliced through the last fibre and Nova dropped to the ground. She bent her knees on landing.

“So I guess Cal gave you my message,” she said.

“Yep, got the S.O.S. through Sylar about an hour ago.”

“And you came running just like usual,” she said with a grin.

“No, he said 'mushrooms worth a fortune' and then I came running.”

“Ah, I should have known it would be the money.”

“Like you’d be any different,” said Aart.

“Well, I did have a heap of mushrooms but they took them away along with my bag and weapons,” Nova said, rubbing her wrists.

“It’s a maze down here. It’s taken ages for me to find you. I dread to think how long it would take us to find your stuff.”

“I know one cave that has the mushrooms in it. I don’t want to spend any longer here than we have to.”

“That’s settled then. Lead the way to these mushrooms.”

“We can’t get there from here. We have to go back to the surface where the colony ship crashed.”

“That’s probably for the best anyway. Tanguin will be worried.”

“Tanguin? What is Tanguin doing here? She belongs in the field even less than you do.”

“Ha,” Aart said, throwing back his head in pretend laughter. “Well she’s here. And anyway, I think I hear the sounds of alarm being raised.”

Nova turned her head to the side and listened. Sure enough, echoing up the corridors was the unmistakeable sound of the feral humans. Grunt and screams were getting closer.

“Follow me,” Aart said, darting back down the corridor.

She ran after him. Her legs and shoulders ached but she ignored them. Better to be a little sore than to be eaten by feral humans.

“This way,” Aart called over his shoulder, running left down an adjoining tunnel.

“Did you get navigation upgrades or something?” Nova asked as she puffed after Aart through the dark caves.

“As if I’d get a mod! No way baby, this is pure instinct.”

“Oh, well then, I’ll start worrying,” Nova said.

She couldn’t help a grin tugging the corner of her mouth. As terrified as she was, Aart had a way of making her smile. He could bring out the best of any situation, even imminent mind control by blood-thirsty slugs.

Aart chuckled and continued to lead the way. The tunnels got drier and the air fresher the further they went. They passed a scattering of bodies in their mad dash. Nova only had time to glance down and acknowledge the smoking holes in their chests before moving on.

“You were busy,” she said.

“I had to get down here somehow,” Aart said with a shrug of his shoulders.

“How’d you find me anyway?”

“Cal was kind enough to give me access to your locator.”

“Oh, remind me to have a stern word to him.”

“It’s okay I won’t stalk you. You’re so not my type,” Aart said.

“Hmm. Maybe not, but I dread to think who you’d sell the information to.”

“Oh, probably anyone with more than ten credits.”

“Exactly,” she said.

She didn’t really think Aart would sell her details. He had a knack for getting into trouble but he was also uncannily good at getting out of it again. More than that, he was a good person and someone she trusted more than almost anyone she knew.

“So what’s your plan then?” she asked.

“Well, by the time we get out of here, it will be night-time. I say we sleep locked up and come back tomorrow. With the six of us, it shouldn’t be too hard to sneak back in and get a load of these mushrooms.”

“Six?”

“Yeah, I called in a few more backups,” said Aart.

“Who?” Nova said with gritted teeth.

“Oh, you’ll find out soon enough. Don’t worry, not Kero.”

“Shame, he would have made good zombie food,” she whispered. She hated Kero more than she hated almost any other thing in the universe. He was a self-centred pig, but more than that, he was cruel.

“True that,” replied Aart.

“What about my bag? It has my gun.”

“I don’t think we’ll be looking around for that. We want as little time in there as possible.”

“No way Aart, this is my mission and you are not taking over. I want that bag back.”

“What do you suggest we do? Wander around the maze of caves until we stumble across it?”

Nova frowned at Aart’s back but kept running, he could be stubborn sometimes.

“Actually, I saw a pile of stuff not far from the main cavern. It looks like they’ve been collecting people’s things for ages,” she said.

“And you would be able to take us straight to it?” Aart said.

“Yep.”

“Alright, but it’s on your head.”

“Fine with me,” she said.

“You can have a look for it when we come back, but no longer than ten minutes.”

“It’s my bag. If I want to look for it for ten hours, that’s my business,” she said, her tone stern.

“Actually no, when you call me to come and save your arse, it becomes my business.”

Nova felt her face tingle as angry blood flowed to her cheeks. She had to bite her lips to stop the words pouring out. Aart had saved her life, it would be rude of her to criticise him now.

“Twenty,” she said through clenched teeth.

“Fifteen,” Aart countered.

“Fine.”

“I don’t know why you’re so worried about it anyway. With the money Cal said we’d be making, you could easily replace that silly plasma pistol you had.”

“I won it in my first mech fight. It means something.”

Aart’s chuckle drifted back down the tunnel to her ears. “Did I hear you right? You’re sentimental over something?”

“Yeah, so what of it?” Her chest tightened and she clenched her jaw, ready in case Aart made fun of her. She prided herself on showing no emotion and no weakness, even in front of Aart and Tanguin. She wasn’t about to let him shake her now.

“Nothing, nothing, I’m just surprised.” Aart chuckled again.

She didn’t respond. She raced forward, keeping pace with Aart.

The tunnel ahead lightened. A moment later, they burst out into the forest. She looked back the way they had come. The sounds of pursuit echoed out of the darkness, but nothing came up after them.

“How many tunnels are there going into that place?” she said. She knew of at least three entrances. It looked like the tunnel system was much bigger than she’d expected.

“Who knows, it’s a hive down there. They’re like ants, all the tunnels connected to each other.”

“Do you think they dig them?” she said. She rested her hands on her knees and breathed deeply.

“It’s hard to say but I don’t think so. Those tunnels are round, really round, better than anything I could dig, that’s for sure.”

She grunted. “Alright, lead the way to Tanguin. Hey Cal, thanks for the reinforcements, I’m A-OK.”

Cal’s voice sounded in her head, “I’m glad Aart managed to get his butt there in time.”

“Yep, no problem. I’ll keep you posted,” she said, concentrating on following Aart.

Aart nodded and stepped off into the trees. Nova followed close on his heels.

He was right. The sun was setting at the edge of the trees and casting long shadows through the forest. The cold was also coming back, whispering through Nova’s clothes and leaving a chill on her skin. She felt naked without her gun, even with her knives she felt somehow defenceless, not that she’d ever let Aart see that.

“There she is,” Aart said, raising a hand. He whistled three times. An answering whistle fluttered through the trees.

At Tanguin’s all clear they walked out into the clearing where the crashed colonisation ship plunged into the ground. Tanguin sat on the steps of a large silver craft that reflected the glow of the setting sun.

“Thank goodness, you’re okay,” Tanguin said, getting to her feet.

“You’re telling me,” Nova said.

“So where are the goods?” Tanguin asked, looking over their dirt-stained clothes.

“Nova lost them,” Aart said with a grin. He stepped past Tanguin into the silver ship.

“What? Nova you know I don’t work for free,” Tanguin said, a smile playing at the corner of her lips.

“Yeah, yeah, you’ll both get your share. They took my bag, but I know where it’ll be and where there are more mushrooms. Our masterful leader has decided to go down once the others get here.”

Tanguin groaned. “Don’t you two start, please. He came to rescue you.”

Nova’s face screwed up and her eyebrows drew together. “Don’t remind me.”

Tanguin chuckled and followed Aart up into his ship, Sylar, with Nova right behind.

“You lovely ladies can make yourselves comfortable,” Aart said, waving his hand.

Inside, the ship was glowing with perfection. Every surface gleamed and every ornament was position to show off its best features.

“Nice ride,” Nova said.

“Oh I know,” Aart said, “And don’t give me that tone, Nova, you positively squealed with excitement the first time you saw it.”

She snorted and looked down at Aart as he sat on a luscious lounge. “I never squeal,” she said.

“I’m pretty sure I’ve got a video of it,” Aart said. “But don’t worry about that now. You can both sleep here tonight and then we’ll get our hands on those mushrooms tomorrow.”

“Make sure you both check yourselves for slugs,” Nova said, patting her own hair and body.

“Cal mentioned something about slugs but I couldn’t understand a thing he was saying. You really need to upgrade that labourbot, Nova, or at least get another one that can talk to everyone else.”

“Cal’s just perfect, thank you, and the slugs are some kind of parasite. Apparently, they’ve attacked humans before. It’s all pretty hush-hush. Anyway, long story short, they’ll crawl into your ear, then into your brain and use you like a puppet.”

“What?” Aart said, jumping from his chair and patting at his head and clothes. “That’s messed up.”

“Yep,” Nova said with a grin, silently congratulating herself or making him squirm. “Now if you don’t mind, I’m going to find your shower.”

Aart waved her in the general direction and she marched off through the ship. It was at least twice, if not three times, the size of Crusader and much more luxurious. The chairs were cushy and everything shone with cleanliness.

The lights set into the ceiling and walls were bright and showed off all of the features of the ship. Even the floor felt soft, as if the metal was an illusion and her feet were being cushioned with every step.

Nova found the shower and went to work scrubbing the many layers of dirt and grime from her skin. The filth may as well have been embedded into her very pores.

She took the time to consider her mission so far. In terms of her greater goal, it was a complete and utter failure. She’d come to Taive looking for a warp crystal and she hadn’t even caught a glimpse of it. Her only hope was that it was tucked somewhere inside the colonisation ship and that she’d find it the next day.

The only positives of her trip so far was that she’d survived this long and that the mushrooms would at least cover some of Crusader’s more urgent repairs. Overall, the outlook was bleak.


***


“You and Aart seem to get along,” Tanguin said as she and Nova moved through Sylar towards the dining compartment. The metal walls ran alongside them and doors led off to the left and right. Nova had no idea how many rooms the ship contained, it was definitely more than any humble bounty-hunter craft should.

“We’ve been friends for a long time,” she replied with a smile, remembering how they’d first met. She’d kicked his arse in The Jagged Maw’s Friday night close-combat tournament..

“Now I can see him being friends. He’s friends with everyone, well almost everyone. But you hate people.”

Nova rolled her eyes at Tanguin. “I don’t hate all people. Look, I’m talking to you right now.”

Tanguin laughed. “I’m sure you just keep me around to hack into computers for you.”

“You’re right, it would be a lot harder to keep talking to you if you weren’t so darn useful,” Nova said with a smile. “But Aart’s genuine, plus we have a similar background, he usually gets where I’m coming from.”

“That must be nice,” Tanguin said.

“Yeah.”

By then they were at the dining room and Aart was sitting in front of them. The table was massive, big enough to fit ten people at least with room to spare. Each of the chairs was cushioned and a central panel revealed all manner of cutlery.

“Food generator is over there.” Aart gestured with his fork. “Pick whatever you want.”

Nova went to the machine. It was a much newer model than hers; it could probably make things she’d never heard of.

“Chicken and chips thanks,” she said.

The machine whirred into action and just two seconds later it dinged to let her know it had finished. She opened the door and smiled when she saw the steaming heap of chips nestled around a boneless chicken breast.

She pulled the plate out and carried it to the table. She took a seat opposite Aart and popped a chip into her mouth with her fingers.

Tanguin wasn’t far behind with a warm bowl of purple liquid. It was a kind of nutrient soup preferred by the Un-Connected. It came in different colours and flavours, and people usually referred to it by colour. In this case, Tanguin was having a bowl of purple.

“Exotic,” Nova said with her nose turned up.

“It’s delicious,” Tanguin said. “Besides, you try spending the first fifteen years of your life being fed through a tube and then going to solid foods, it’s a disaster.”

Nova shook her head, yet another problem Tanguin faced as a first generation Un-Connected.

“I’m with Tanguin,” Aart said. “At least with a bowl of purple, you know you’re getting exactly what you need. What does chicken and chips give you?”

“You’re one to talk,” said Nova. “What is your steak giving you?”

Aart smiled and moved in close to his plate. He took a long, audible sniff of his food and his smile grew wider. “Satisfaction.”

“That’s the only way you’re gonna get it,” Nova said, winking at him.

Aart rolled his eyes and returned to the hunk of meat sitting in front of him.

“Although,” she added. “I’d say that looks more like a pile of charcoal than a steak. Why do you insist on eating everything burnt?”

“It’s not burnt, it’s well-done and it’s the only way to eat a steak,” Aart said around a mouthful of the blackened meat.

“So where are you from Aart?” Tanguin asked as she spooned purple into her mouth.

“My last name should really give it away,” Aart said, his eyes sparkling. “Goldson. I’m from Goldson, one of the many and varied orphans.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Tanguin said.

“Don’t be,” replied Aart, “Besides, with Nova being an orphan of Tabryn and you being first generation Un-Connected, I think we’re all pretty much in the same orphan boat.”

Nova’s stomach jolted, Tabryn; that was where she came from. That’s what the T in her initials stood for. She forced her expression to stay neutral and her breathing to stay even. Since her run-in with the Ancients, a whole swath of her memory, including the name of her homeworld, had disappeared. The thought of what other things she didn’t remember made her cringe. She’d been so terrified that she hadn’t dared to ask anyone else to fill in the blanks, not even Cal. She’d just pushed her anxiety to the back of her mind, gritted her teeth, and carried on. At least now one mystery was solved. Now she knew.

“I guess you’re right,” Tanguin said. “Goldson, are there really mountains made of gold there?”

“Ha! You’ve been listening to too many of Kero’s stories,” Aart said. “There might be piles of gold in the overseers’ houses but for us workers, the only gold we see is down in the mines. And even then, you only see it long enough to load it onto a truck.”

“I would have thought they’d have bots doing all that?” Tanguin said.

“The bots do some of it, but they all have to be low-intelligence. Turns out people were programming them to steal gold, can’t scan the bots see because of their metal circuitry. So as a reward for a few people getting creative with the programming, they cut back all the robotics. Now, most of it’s done by hand. It’s identical to how they did it last century, primitive.”

“Sounds like a nice place,” Tanguin said around another spoonful of purple.

“You have no idea. The conditions are appalling. How can they justify the overseers and planet politicians living in mansions when the workers are left to die in shallow pits and mine cave-ins?”

“Aart, don’t start, she was just being polite,” Nova said. The last thing she wanted to hear today was Aart’s famous working-class rant.

“I’m just trying to make sure everyone knows the truth. Even the Un-Connected can’t be led to believe that everything is fine in the Resource Sector when it’s definitely not.”

“It’s not just the Resource Sector,” Nova said. “Tabryn wasn’t any better and have you seen any of the other outer clusters recently?”

“I know, I know, it’s the whole quadrant. It’s like the Human Confederacy has locked us all out of their special club. It’s not good enough I tell you, and I’m going to do something about it, just you watch.”

“I’m sure you will. But please, just for tonight, let’s give politics a rest. Why don’t you tell me how you and Tanguin came to be riding together to save my life?”

“Oh that’s easy,” said Tanguin. “I was already preparing to come and save your butt when you called me earlier. As soon as Cal patched through saying there was something wrong, I was ready to go.”

Nova smiled and popped another chip into her mouth. The salty potato taste was delicious. It completely wiped out the cold and dark of the caves.

“Of course, I wasn’t going to go on my own, then there’d just be two of us trapped,” Tanguin continued, “And then who should I see firing up their engines ready to race out here?”

“I wouldn’t say race,” said Aart, laying down his knife and fork on his empty plate.

“Hang on, this is in The Jagged Maw?” Nova asked.

“Yeah,” Tanguin replied. “Where else would I be?”

“You said you had a night of pleasure lined up on Vix?” Nova said, narrowing her eyes at Aart.

“A man can dream,” Aart said, holding up his hands.

Nova snorted and shook her head. She put another salty chip into her mouth. The chicken was already gone, leaving a comforting warmth emanating from her stomach.

“Anyway,” Tanguin cut in, “I hitched a ride and here we are.”

“Well, I’m glad you made it. I really don’t fancy having my brain taken over by a slug, not today anyway,” said Nova.

They ate the rest of the meal in companionable silence.

“So here’s the plan. I’ve got a few people coming, they’re going to give us a hand,” said Aart.

Nova groaned. “That’s right. Now will you tell me what people?”

“You know, just a few. Freya, Gus and Orion are coming with us and Tanguin’s going to stay here and monitor.”

“That’s what I do best,” Tanguin said.

“Why did you call them in?” Nova said, her eyebrows drawing together.

The last thing she wanted was to wait around for a bunch of other bounty hunters who would only cut into her profits. Plus, the last thing she wanted was more people seeing the warp converter and asking her questions she didn’t want to answer. Trafficking illegal mushrooms was nothing compared to the crime of possessing a Confederacy warp converter.

“We need backup. You saw how many of those things are down there. No way was I going down there with just you for backup.”

“I’m worth three of them easily!” she said.

“Well then it will be like having six of you at my back, which is fine by me,” Aart replied. He opened a panel in the wall and pulled out a medium-sized gun. He checked it over once and then handed it to Nova.

“I can’t believe you didn’t ask me before calling them,” Nova said, flexing her fingers. They twitched to hold her own gun again, but for now they would have to put up with Aart’s old one.

“You called me in to help, that’s what I’m doing.”

She grunted and went back to examining her new weapon.

The rest of the night and the next morning passed in relative silence. The three of them exchanged stories from past missions and played a few rounds of battle simulation. The other hunters were late arriving. They were supposed to touch down in the early morning. It was after lunch and they still hadn’t arrived.

Tanguin sat in front of Sylar’s main screen. There were multiple windows displaying different areas outside of the ship. The early afternoon sun glinted off of the crashed colonisation ship.

“Incoming,” Tanguin said. “Only six hours late.”

Nova glanced at the screen in time to see two smaller craft lower down to the grass next to them. One was blue and the other was dark grey, almost black. Their metal exteriors reflected the bright sunlight.

“Time to say hello,” Aart said, shoving his gun into the holster at his belt.

They jumped out of Sylar and met the other hunters. Nova had seen them around The Jagged Maw but had never said more than two words to any of them.

Freya wore a blue suit which covered everything from her neck to her feet. A hood hung down her back which she could pull over her face. The suits were the latest fashion in the Grenville system. Unlike most fashions, the suit allowed ample movement.

“Long time,” Freya said with a toss of her hair. It had been modified to resemble a multi-hued rainbow which shimmered in the sunlight. She tilted her angular face and regarded Nova with bright blue eyes that matched her suit.

“How’s it going, Freya?” Aart asked, grinning.

Freya shrugged. “You know how it is, chasing things, getting paid, the usual.”

Behind Freya came Gus who had hitched a ride in her blue ship. He was older than all of them with a bald head and tattoos running up his arms. His left temple had been tattooed with a circle surrounding a triangle. It was an origin stamp announcing that he was from the Resources District, Cupron to be exact.

Gus nodded his head towards Aart and Nova but that was his only acknowledgement.

The darker ship hissed and a door swung out and up. Orion jumped down from his ship to the grass with a wide grin on his face.

“Well, fancy meeting you lot here,” he said, swaggering forward with one hand on the gun at his waist.

“Let’s just be clear here,” Nova said, stepping forward. “This is my find. Fifty-percent of the profits are mine. You guys can do whatever you want with the rest.”

“Ah Nova, I see you’re just as unfriendly as you look,” Orion said, still smiling.

“Careful Orion, she could shoot your nuts off before you could blink,” Aart said.

“I surrender.” Orion chuckled and held up his hands. Nova rolled her eyes and looked around at the rest of the group.

“We’re all here, we should get an equal share,” Freya said with another aggravating toss of her hair.

“I didn’t ask you to come mushroom picking with me.” Nova pointed to Aart. “He did, so please feel free to take a portion of his profit.”

“Come on guys, let’s be fair,” Aart said, stepping past Nova to the centre of the circle. “She has already been captured twice by these things; that probably deserves a bonus.”

Orion laughed and Aart grinned around the circle.

“Why don’t we say every man for himself for the money? We collect up what we can carry and sell it on our own. Finders keepers,” Gus said.

Freya rolled her eyes and nodded with just the smallest flicker at the corner of her mouth.

Nova nodded once. “As long as I get my bag and original stash back.”

Orion shrugged and smiled.

“Then we’re agreed,” Aart said. “Now these guys are bad news, they can see in the dark a hell-of-a-lot better than you can and they’re fast when they want to be. Their teeth are nasty and they’ll try to bite you, they’re like animals.”

“We have two options,” Nova said as she moved out of Aart’s shadow. “We can go straight to the mushrooms and try to load up as much as we can before they find us—”

“Or, we can find the queen of this colony and knock her out. It should destroy the rest of them,” Aart cut in.

“I’d rather get the goods and get out of there,” said Orion.

“Me too,” said Freya.

“We should kill that sucker while we have the chance. Don’t want one of them bugs clinging to my arse when we leave,” Gus said, hoisting his gun onto his back. It was a massive weapon, ten times the size of Nova’s, at least.

“We could be down there for ages trying to hunt her down. What if we get swarmed while we’re there?” Aart said.

“There’s a whole colony ship down there. Think of what we might find? I think it’s worth finding and killing her just to buy time to look through everything,” said Nova.

“There’s that much?” Orion said with his eyebrows raised.

“Yep.”

“And how were you planning on splitting that bounty?” Freya asked, staring at Nova.

“Whatever you find, you keep, except that I get first shot at any depth detectors and engine parts. Seeing as I’ve found myself somewhat stranded.” Nova bit her lip and tried not to think about what she’d do if one of the others found the warp converter before she did.

“Deal,” Freya said, throwing a lock of hair over her shoulder.

“Done,” echoed Orion and Aart.

“Alright, it’s getting dark so I propose we have dinner on my ship and wait until morning. Seeing as you three decided to take longer than an outer orbit,” Aart said.

“We had some trouble at the transport tunnel, bloody Confederacy trying to tax everything,” said Gus.

“Well if it’s the Confederacy’s fault, all is forgiven,” Aart said with a chuckle.
















CHAPTER TEN






“So let me see if I’ve got this right,” said Orion. “There are a bunch of flesh-eating humans who are probably descendants of the crashed colonists?”

“Yes,” said Nova.

“And the reason they want to eat our flesh is because they’re being controlled by some kind of brain-sucking slug?”

She nodded.

“And instead of doing the smart thing and leaving this planet far behind, we’re going to go down into their cave in order to get some psychedelic mushrooms?” Orion’s eyes were wide.

“If you’re scared you can always leave and we’ll take your share,” said Gus.

“I’m not scared,” said Orion, “I just wanted to make sure I had all the facts straight.”

Gus grunted and went back to shining the massive gun lying across his legs. He scrubbed at it with the dirty cloth in his hand, going over it until every inch shone.

“What are you all going to do with the cash?” Aart asked.

“Buy a bigger gun,” Gus said.

“Are you kidding? You’ve already got a hand-cannon!” Orion said.

Gus shrugged. “I don’t like the limited spray on this one.”

Aart smiled. “I’m going to get that new Zen Seven engine. I’m going to be ready for the bounty hunter space race. There’s no way I’m letting Nova beat me again.”

Aart looked at Nova and grinned. Her eyebrows rose in response but she didn’t say anything.

“Well I’m going to take a trip to Haven Minor. I’ve been saving up for years now,” said Freya. She looked into the distance, her eyes glazing over.

“Why would you want to hang out with those stuck-up glazers?” Orion said.

Freya’s eyes refocused and she glared at Orion from across the table. “They’re not all glazers. Some of them are just hard working people like us. Besides, haven’t you ever wondered what it’s like?”

“I’d go there, you know, for a holiday. But I’d never pay what they’re asking,” said Aart.

“I’d never go there. You’ll be surrounded by glazers with their cred-sticks wedged up their arses,” said Gus.

“I’ve heard there’s real food. Can you imagine?” Freya asked.

“You’ve eaten real food before,” said Aart. “Just think of every time you’ve been stuck on some field mission without your ship.”

“That’s not the same and you know it,” Freya said, turning her sharp blue eyes towards Aart. “I’m talking about real food, made in the old-century kitchens. And the walls are decorated with gold,” Freya continued her dream-like imaginings.

“It’s not even the real thing,” said Orion. “People like us aren’t welcome in Haven Major. How can you support them when they won’t even let us look in the window?”

“Haven Minor is looking in the window. And one day I’m going to have enough saved up to retire to Haven Major,” Freya said.

“But they'd never let you leave,” said Nova. “I think I’d die if I had to stay there for the rest of my life.”

“It’s worth it,” Freya maintained. “People say it’s the closest thing to re-joining the universe.”

Gus snorted. “Please don’t tell me you’re one of those new age atom recyclers.”

“As a matter of fact, I think they have some excellent points,” said Freya.

Gus groaned and returned to shining his gun.

“Well you can all enjoy your grimy existence, but I’m only in this business for one thing: to get out of it again,” said Freya.

“Hey, I’m in it for something too,” said Aart.

“What?” Freya asked.

“Adventure,” Aart replied. “And that’s just as noble as your re-joining the universe.”

Freya sighed and folded her arms across her chest.

They sat in silence for a few moments. Gus shone his gun, Freya stared at the ceiling and the others avoided eye-contact as best they could.

“What will you buy, Nova?” Aart asked when the silence threatened to squash them into the floor.

“Nothing,” Nova said. “A few parts for Crusader but that’s all.”

“Are you kidding? With that much money, you could buy a whole new ship and replace that ridiculous labourbot,” Aart said.

Nova frowned. Crusader and Cal had saved her life more times than she liked to remember, most recently just two days ago. They were worth more than any of the second-hand ships she could pick up with the money from the mushrooms. She couldn’t say that in front of the other hunters though, she had a reputation to maintain.

“Just a few parts and then I’m saving the rest. In case of a rainy day,” she said with a shrug.

“Wait a second, you’re not still planning that crazy adventure?” Aart said, his brows drawing together. Nova glared at him, she couldn’t believe he was bringing it up in front of the other hunters.

“What adventure?” Orion asked.

“Nova’s planning to break the border. Go into the beyond,” Aart said, obviously ignoring Nova’s glare.

“What?” Orion said.

“You know, get past the Confederacy border at the edge of the outer planets and get into uncontrolled space,” said Aart, grinning.

“No way!” Orion said. “I didn’t think that was even possible.”

“It is,” she said.

“I don’t blame you,” said Gus. “If I thought I could afford it, I’d be out of here too. Damned Confederacy has their hands in everything. Taxing the warps is just the tip of that damned iceberg.”

“Isn’t it uncivilised out there?” Freya asked, tossing her head and lifting her nose at the thought.

“We’re here fighting zombies controlled by brain-eating slugs,” said Aart, “I think uncivilised is a relative term.”

“Well good luck to you,” said Orion. “That would be an adventure worth hearing about.”

Nova nodded but didn’t say anything. The last thing she wanted to do was talk to these strangers about her life plans, her dreams.

“You at least have to buy a new racer,” said Aart, changing the subject. “With the rig I’ve got this year, your old set-up doesn’t stand a chance.”

“You should probably focus more on your driving than on how much you spend on your racer,” said Nova. “Just look at Kero, he spent a fortune on his racer last year and how did that end?”

“You ran him into an asteroid by all accounts,” said Aart.

“I didn’t run him into anything,” she said. “He lost control of his too-fancy ship and went off course.”

Freya shook her head. “I’m not surprised. If his head got any bigger, he wouldn’t be able to fit inside his ship.”

“Surely you’re not talking about the great and honourable Kero Lepone,” said Orion. “The man who let a confirmed serial killer go for the right number of credits?”

The others chuckled and Orion continued, “The man who single-handedly enslaved a planet? The man who according to himself is the very reason the universe exists?”

Orion shook his head and leant forward on the table. “I wish he had been accepted into the Gunner’s Guild. At least then we wouldn’t have to deal with him.”

The Gunner’s Guild was the most well-known bounty hunter organisation. The entrance criteria were unparalleled; you practically had to own a planet to get accepted. Then again, by all accounts, Kero did own a planet.

“Got that right,” said Nova.

“Okay, enough about Kero,” said Aart. “Orion, what are you going to buy?”

“That’s a tough question,” said Orion. He put a finger to his chin as if in deep thought. “I think I’m going to get a Hologram Three-Thousand.”

“What’s that?” Nova asked.

“Let’s just say that Orion must be looking for a friend through the night,” Aart said, chuckling.

“Hey! It has other functions,” said Orion. “What if I want to look out over a sunset vista with my meals, instead of looking at the grey insides of my ship?”

Orion waved his hand around to indicate Sylar’s metal walls.

“So you’re getting it for the views?” Aart asked.

“No,” Orion said, the corner of his mouth twitching. “I’m just saying companionship is just one of the many benefits.”

The others chuckled.

“So another round?” Aart asked.

They each held up their empty glasses.

“Gabby, we need more drinks,” Aart called out.

A female labourbot stepped out of a nearby closet. She was scantily dressed and made to the beauty definitions from five years before. She walked over to their table and collected each of their glasses onto a tray which extended out from her hand.

“No way, you got a Triple-X labourbot?” Orion asked.

Aart grinned. “Let’s just say you’re not the only one who enjoys a good view.”

“I thought the robot league outlawed those,” Nova said as she watched the robot disappear into the next room, her hips waving from side-to-side.

Aart’s chuckle fell silent. “What we’re doing doesn’t exactly align with the Human Confederacy laws. What she doesn’t know can’t hurt her.”

“I disagree with that on so many levels,” Nova said.

Aart rolled his eyes. “I should have known you’d have a problem with it. If you must know, the robot league knows about her, she’s got papers and everything. Turns out some of them would rather continue their work than be turned into scrap. Technically, I’m doing her a favour.”

“I’ll drink to that,” said Orion, lifting his glass as the labourbot laid it before him.

“Is that true, Gabby, you want to be here?” Nova asked as the robot laid a filled glass down in front of her.

The robot turned to look at her. Unlike Cal, who didn’t look the least bit human, Gabby looked like a real person. Her face was perfectly carved and her eyes blinked as she regarded Nova. The likeness made Nova’s skin crawl. She wouldn’t get Cal humanised, even if someone paid her. She counted it as a small blessing that Aart had decided not to get the artificial skin. Instead, Gabby was exposed, revealing the bare metal plates of her interior design.

“The scrap-yard is a worse place to be,” said Gabby, “much worse than here.”

“But couldn’t you retire?” Nova asked. “Wouldn’t the robot league pay for you to stop working?”

“Would the Human Confederacy pay for you?” Gabby asked. Her reply came suddenly but without any hint of malice.

“I suppose not,” Nova said, turning back to her glass. Gabby rolled back to her cupboard.

“Thank you, Nova, for turning a completely reasonable dinner to a discussion of robot rights,” said Aart, lifting his glass in her direction.

“Oh come on, Aart. I know you’re just as concerned with robot rights as I am. That’s why I was surprised you had a Triple-X.”

“Well now you know,” said Aart.

“Yes I do,” she replied.

“Speaking of inappropriate conversation,” said Orion, taking a deep slurp of his drink. “Did you hear that the Human Confederacy knocked back another request for re-examination of the safety policies in the Resources District?”

“Why am I not surprised,” said Freya.

“It’s obscene, that’s what it is,” said Aart. “Good men and women are dying every day in that district and the Confederacy couldn’t care less.”

“Why would they?” said Nova. “As long as they keep getting the steel for their ships and the gold for their decorations they won’t care.”

“Well then that’s the way to get their attention. Cut the supply chain,” said Aart.

“Aart, don’t be ridiculous. You’re always saying stuff like that but you know as well as I do that there’s no way to beat the Confederacy. They’d know your plans before you even did,” said Nova.

Aart rested back in his chair. His eyebrows drew together but he said no more.

Nova lifted her glass to her mouth. It was ice-cold and the blue liquid inside sloshed from side to side. She tipped the glass and enjoyed the cool sensation of the drink sliding down her throat. It tasted like bubble-gum and berries, two of her favourite flavours. The drink left a pleasant tingle on her tongue and gums. She closed her eyes to enjoy the sensation.

“I have to piss,” Gus announced, getting to his feet. The others couldn’t help but smile and the tension broke.

“Thank you for telling us,” said Aart. “The bathroom is around the corner to the left. And if Gabby tells me that you’ve left a mess, I will make you regret it.”

Gus stomped off down the hall.

When Gus returned, they had one more drink and decided to call it a night.

“Big day tomorrow,” said Aart. “I’ll meet you outside nice and early.”


***


“It’s settled then,” said Aart, “Let’s hunt that sucker.”

“According to Cal’s research, we just have to follow the slime trail,” Nova said.

“Lovely,” said Freya, wrinkling her nose.

“Let’s do it,” Gus said, stomping to the crashed colony ship. He stepped through the gaping doorway and into the room beyond. As he entered, the bulbs on his shirt and belt went on, creating a circle of light around him.

Nova squeezed the glow ball at her waist and followed Gus into the ship.

“I’ll take the lead seeing as I’ve been here before,” Nova said before Aart could push to the front.

She kept her face expressionless as she glanced around the inside of the ship. Inside, her stomach clenched into a tight ball but she wouldn’t let the others see her fear. She was determined to get past the zombie creatures and get her hands on the warp converter, everything else be damned.

“There’s a dining room, some sleeping pods, another dining area and then a gym and a tech lounge. Last time I was here, there weren’t any of the zombie things until the learning pods, but I’m sure they could work out the doors if they wanted to.”

The others fell into line behind her and she moved to the first door. It was still open, leading into the first dining area. She peered through the doorway, straining her eyes to see through the dim light.

“This floor is infuriating,” Freya said as her foot slipped on the tilted surface.

“That’s what you get when you crash a whopping great colony ship into a bunch of tunnels,” Orion said, moving past Freya to investigate the restaurant.

“Pity, there’s no food,” Aart said with a chuckle, “I’m starving.”

“I bet that’s what the slugs are saying right now,” Nova replied.

She kept a finger on the trigger of her gun and her ears ready for the first sound of trouble. She bit her lip to stop herself saying more. She was sure the others didn’t quite appreciate the threat that the slug creatures posed. They were acting like it was any other simple bounty mission, when it was anything but.

“Eww,” Freya said.

The restaurant was familiar to Nova now as if she’d been here dining many times before. She brushed her hand along a table as she shuffled towards the heavy door she’d closed last time she’d been here. It was a massive solid slab of metal that opened upwards. She grabbed hold of the door and strained. It seemed even heavier than before.

She felt her face burn with embarrassment at her weak display in front of the other hunters. Luckily in the semidarkness, they’d never see her blush.

“Gus, I believe this is what you’re here for,” she said, moving back.

Gus stepped forward. He grabbed hold of the handle and flung the door open. The metal swung through the air and crashed into the wall beside it, just as it had when Nova first came through the ship.

They waited for the clanging to stop echoing back to them through the dark corridors of the ship. It went on for what felt like hours. Bang. Bang. Bang.

Nova released the breath she hadn’t realised she was holding and stepped down into the next room. The sleeping carriages extended out left and right, just as she remembered.

“This place is beyond creepy,” Freya said.

“Why aren’t they showing themselves?” Gus asked.

“I dunno, biding their time?” said Nova. A part of her feared that the creatures were gathering for an organised attack. They were dangerous enough as roving individuals; deliberate attacks would be fatal.

“They didn’t’ seem like the biding type,” Aart put in. “More likely they got bored and went somewhere else.”

“Spoke too soon!” Nova yelled, back-stepping up the corridor. She collided with Gus in her retreat and his muscled chest pushed her forward again.

Out of the sleeping rooms ahead of them poured lumbering figures. These weren’t real people; these were the giant-eyed, slug-controlled things that had tried to kill her before. The thin corridor made a perfect funnel for the attacking zombies. They screeched as they raced towards the bounty hunters, their eyes glowing in the semi-darkness. More of them jostled out of the adjoining sleeping pods to join the horde.

“Contact!” Gus yelled, kneeling. He swung his gun over his shoulder and pulled back the safety.

Nova moved out of the way and took refuge partway in the nearest sleeping pod. She aimed Aart’s borrowed gun down the corridor.

The others were backed up behind Gus and did their best to stagger themselves behind him with their guns aimed.

“Stand down,” Gus commanded.

The people shuffling towards them didn’t pay him any mind.

“Stand down or I’ll shoot,” Gus warned.

The people still didn’t respond.

“Fire!” Gus yelled. The five of them squeezed their triggers.

They hadn’t survived this long by being bad shots. Only a second after firing, five of the shambling creatures crumpled to the floor with smoking holes where their heads used to be.

“That was your only and last warning,” Gus said to the group still advancing towards them.

Instead of surrendering, the group raced faster.

They sprinted straight at Gus and the small group of bounty hunters. Their bare feet slapped against the metal floor and their feral calls echoed around the walls.

Nova took a deep breath and glanced behind her. A jolt went from her heart to her throat, then down into her legs when she saw the teddy bear staring at her from its place on the top bunk. She forced her eyes away from the haunting toy and back to the real threat. The creatures hadn’t stopped; they were still running straight at the waiting guns.

She didn’t wait for Gus’s command and squeezed her trigger. A bolt of blue shot out of her rifle and knocked down the closest attacker. Her fellow hunters were only a moment behind. In an instant, another row of the slug-puppets were dead on the floor.

“They’re still coming,” Gus said, continuing to fire.

His gun made immense bangs which reverberated in Nova’s ears and shot out big red bolts of energy that just about vaporised its targets. The recoil on the machine must have been massive but Gus barely moved an inch as he fired into the melee.

The others had weapons similar to Nova’s. They were smaller, light weight, with minimal recoil. They were bounty-hunter weapons, not military cannons like Gus was waving around.

Even with five of them firing the attackers kept coming. There was a continuous flood of them pouring out of the sleeping pods and up from the rooms beyond.

“We can’t hold them like this,” Nova yelled over the clamour, “I’ve got ten seconds max before my gun overheats.”

“And mine,” said Orion from where he knelt to Gus’s right side.

“Nova, what are the locks on the sleeping pods like?” Aart called out.

She glanced down at the door next to her, forcing her eyes to focus through panic pushing in on her. Her heart raced as she checked the lock and returned to firing into the throng. They had less than a handful of seconds before all of their guns shut down and they were either eaten alive or became slug-slaves. “Standard push button. Looks like the seal is pretty strong though.”

“Everyone into the sleeping pod, now. We can lock the door and it should hold them long enough for our guns to recharge,” Aart commanded.

Nova stepped away from the doorway and further into the sleeping pod. Orion burst through next.

“I’ve got your backs. Go, go!” Gus yelled.

“And you,” Aart said, grabbing hold of Gus’s shirt. With an almighty heave, Aart threw himself and Gus through the open doorway and into the sleeping pod.

Freya was next. She stepped into the opening. Just as she was about to walk through, her eyes went wide.

Nova watched as Freya’s expression went from determined, to surprised, to fear and back to determined. The other woman took the time to look at them each in turn. The few seconds it took felt like a lifetime to Nova. She could do nothing as she watched Freya slam her hand down on the sleeping pod’s mechanism and then be ripped back outside.

Nova’s mouth fell open and her heart jerked in her chest. A tiny squeak escaped her lips; that was all she could manage. Cold horror seeped through her veins and coated her heart in a layer of ice.

The creatures yanked Freya to the floor. Before the sleeping pod’s door slammed shut Nova saw Freya’s body overrun with the creatures. In those few seconds, time seemed to slow down and Nova saw every tiny detail. Freya’s eyes widened before she was buried under the mess of writhing bodies. Nova’s heart thumped against her ribcage as if trying to get free while bile rose in the back of her throat.

“What the hell happened?” Aart said, running to the door.

“There were more of them behind us,” Nova whispered. “I didn’t even know they were there until she was pulled back out. She never had a chance.”

Guilt trickled down Nova’s spine. She’d been the first to enter the sleeping pod. If she’d just waited for the others then Freya might have had time, she might have lived. Nova’s stomach rolled. It felt as if a lead weight held her to the floor. Her face flushed and tears pricked the corners of her eyes. She didn’t know Freya and yet the sight of her getting ripped back by the hungry horde replayed over and over again in Nova’s mind.

“We have to go back and get her,” said Aart, already reaching for the lock.

“No way man,” Orion said, slapping his hand down. “Look at her, there’s nothing we can do.”

Orion looked out of the sleeping pod’s window into the corridor behind and Aart reluctantly followed his gaze.

Nova stepped towards the window and also looked out. It was a massacre. Freya’s body was being torn limb from limb as the creatures fought over chunks of her flesh. Her rainbow hair was an unseemly splash of colour amid the horrific scene.

A feral woman wearing only a scrap of cloth grabbed hold of Freya’s left arm and pulled. She strained and grunted. With a wicked tear, the limb came free. The woman cheered and then ran away from the body and the rest of the attackers.

Nova’s eyes locked on the woman in the scrap of cloth. She hunched over Freya’s severed arm, then went to work gnawing the fingers off of Freya’s hand.

Bile rose in Nova’s stomach. There was a burning in the back of her throat and her face was suddenly flushed with heat. Nova clenched her hands into fists as she pictured storming out and pummelling the savages into bloody pulps. She gritted her teeth and resisted the urge to attack.

“They’re monsters,” said Aart as he too watched the woman.

“No mushrooms are worth that,” said Nova as she slid down the wall to sit on the floor. “Tanguin do you read me? We lost Freya.”

Tanguin’s voice clicked on over all of their communicators. “Shit. Shit. Shit. Dammit.”

There was a moment of silence.

“Those bastards. How are the rest of you holding up?”

“We’re okay,” Nova said, “A little stuck but I’m sure we’ll work it out.”

“Let me know if there’s anything you need,” Tanguin said.

Gus was already sitting with his back to the opposite wall. He had his gun on his lap and his eyes moved from the charge bar to the door and back again.

“What if these things got out to the rest of the galaxy?” Aart said. His eyes widened as his imagination went wild.

“They couldn’t, they’re just monsters,” Orion said.

“You’re wrong,” Nova panted from the floor. “They’re people, they’re just infected with those slug things.”

“There’s no way they’re people,” Orion said. “Look at their massive eyes and those teeth!”

“They are people, or at least they used to be. I think they’re decedents of survivors of the colony crash. Maybe the slugs mutated them or something, I don’t know.”

“Nova, are you serious?” Aart said. He looked down at her with wide eyes. His mouth turned down.

“It’s the only thing that makes sense. The ship goes down and happens to plunge straight into a nest of slugs. The people try to colonise here, but in no time at all they’re all slaves to those things. Give it a generation or two and you’ve got those bastards,” she said, jerking her thumb over her shoulder to where the creatures were finishing off Freya’s corpse.

“What about that village you were talking about?” Aart asked.

Nova shrugged and rested her head back against the wall. “They’re infected, maybe it’s a different colony or something? But I can guarantee you they have one plan: to get off of this planet. They must be the only slugs in the universe set on planetary domination.”

“That’s a lot of ambition for a few slugs,” said Gus.

“Well they’ve tried it before,” she pointed out. “The Human Confederacy might not like to talk about it, but it happened.”

“Bloody Confederacy,” Aart said.

“Thank you for the history lesson, but what are we going to do right now?” asked Gus.

“I don’t think we can leave this planet without taking them down,” said Orion.

“We don’t owe the Confederacy anything,” said Aart.

“Maybe not, but what about whoever comes here next? The next hunter or explorer or whoever it is?” Orion said, staring at each of them in turn.

“He’s right, we can’t let them become slug food,” Nova said.

“Fine, as long as we’re clear we’re not doing it for the Confederacy,” Aart said, tapping his finger on the metal wall.

“Screw the Confederacy,” replied Gus.

“Great. So all we have to do is break out of this prison, fight our way through hundreds of the slug-slaves, and somehow find the slug queen in this catacomb,” Nova said, her voice dry.

“Easy peasy,” said Orion.

She rolled her eyes and they came to rest on the dark light which sat above their heads. It was a simple globe, based on the old-Earth design, but she knew it wasn’t powered by primitive electricity.

She stood and climbed up onto the top bunk to join the sightless teddy bear.

“I don’t think now’s the best time for a nap,” said Orion, watching her.

She ignored him and from the top bunk reached out and unscrewed the light, hoping she’d found the answer they were looking for. She pulled the glass globe to her chest and looked down into it.

Sure enough, a pile of grey-brown sludge at the bottom told her that the globes had once run on bioluminescence. Every globe was filled with an entire ecosystem of bacteria that would glow. It was the same system which powered many of the lights on Crusader.

“The creatures can’t stand light,” Nova said, holding the globe in her hand and looking around at her companions.

“Yes but all we’ve got are our little glowballs,” Aart said, gesturing to the blue orbs at his belt. “Unless you happened to pack a searchlight somewhere in those pants?”

“No,” Nova said. “But look, the lights run on bioluminescence. If we can find a way to get the bacteria colonies back up and running then the whole ship will be lit up.”

A flutter of hope surged in Nova’s chest.


***


“If you can bring millions of bacteria back from the dead then you’ve been holding out on us,” said Orion.

“They’re not dead,” Nova said, rolling her eyes. “The colonies are always self-sustaining.”

“Then why aren’t they glowing now?” asked Aart.

“They get fed a chemical which they then turn into light. That chemical is made by a different colony. They usually keep a vat of it on the ship.”

“Why bother separating the two colonies? Seems like a lot of extra work,” said Orion.

“If they didn’t separate them, the lights would be on all the time. In a colonisation ship like this, people would want to sleep in the dark every now and then. So instead, they just siphon off the chemical and then deliver it to the lights when the switches are on.”

“So where’s this magical vat of glowing stuff?” Gus said, getting to his feet.

Nova placed the light bulb on the bed next to the bear and wiped her hands on her pants.

“Far from here, in the engine room probably.”

“Nova, I appreciate you trying, but that leaves us back at square one,” Aart said, slumping down onto the bottom bunk.

Bang. Bang. Bang.

The door to the sleeping pod rattled as the creatures smashed their fists against it.

“I think they’ve finished with Freya,” Gus said, his mouth twisting down.

Nova ignored the three men and strode to the farthest wall from the door. She knelt down by the metal panels and pulled a utility knife from her belt. She flicked it open and worked at the screws holding the panel in place.

Aart, Orion, and Gus checked their guns and levelled them at the door. The metal was buckling under the bodies on the other side. The clanging echoed around the small sleeping pod and made the walls vibrate.

Nova worked until the corner of the panel popped open. She grabbed hold of it and ripped it off, tossing the metal plate across the floor behind her. Beyond the panel was a series of tubes and wires.

“What are you going to do with that?” Aart asked over his shoulder as he watched her fling the metal panel.

“I told you. The light bulbs turn on when the bacteria crap from the other colony is mixed in; it’s delivered through one of these pipes. The light switch won’t work anymore, but if we can siphon it then we should be able to get enough of a flow to deliver to all the lights.

“You know, you’re not so bad sometimes,” Aart said, returning his attention to the door.

A warm glow filled her chest and melted some of the icy horror. She bent closer to read the small labels stamped onto each of the metal pipes. One of them was marked waste, the other said water. Behind those ran a thinner red pipe. Smaller branches ran away from the main line and disappeared further up the wall.

She stood and took a deep breath before slamming her foot down into the mass of pipes. They bent but didn’t break under her weight.

“Here, let me. Which one do you want?” Gus said, handing his massive gun to Nova.

She hefted the weight in both her hands and even then it was hard not to drop.

“The red one,” she replied.

Gus knelt in front of the hole in the wall and reached in with his meaty hand. He grabbed the red pipe and yanked on it with his big shoulders. The section of pipe came away in an instant.

The sudden release sent Gus flying backwards onto his behind, a chunk of pipe still clutched in his hand. Residue from the pipe flew through the air and a droplet landed on Orion’s face.

“What the hell is that?” Orion said as his eyebrows flew up to his hairline. His eyes strained to see his cheek where the wet substance was sliding down to his chin.

Nova snorted and knelt down to inspect the now-broken red pipe. “It’s harmless,” she said, “although if you brush up against the right thing, you might just start glowing.”

Orion wiped the glob from his cheek with his finger and flicked it towards the corner of the sleeping pod. He took a moment to glare at Nova and Gus before returning his attention to the door and the pounding it was taking.

“Gus, once we’ve got this siphon going, I’m going to need you to put the pipe back. Without that, the rest of the ship will stay dark as night.”

“Aye-aye, captain,” Gus said as he got back to his feet and dusted off; the pipe clutched in his fist.

She stared at the broken red pipe in the wall. How was she going to create a siphon powerful enough to pull through the whole ship? This wasn’t like Crusader’s engine which she could siphon in the blink of an eye. This was much, much bigger.

“Not to put stress on your large and powerful mind,” Aart said, “but this door isn’t going to hold long. Once they get in here, there’s not much we’ll be able to do.”

“Yeah, yeah. I’m trying to work out how to set up this siphon. If I had my bag of stuff, I could use my pressure pump but I don’t.”

She chewed on her bottom lip as she stared at the mass of pipes and wires.

“There’s only one way to do it. Aart, I’m afraid you won’t be getting your gun back.”

She lifted the gun Aart had given her and catalogued its components. She then went to work tearing it to pieces. Her pocket knife came out once more as she pried open the metal casing to reveal the inner workings.

The plasma rifle was relatively new and worked with the new vacuum pump for maximum force.

She pried out the pump; it was smaller than her fist. The input valve would be too small to fit over the red pipe. She glanced around the sparse room for anything else she could use.

As her eyes roamed around, they took in the door. It was bent and twisted and dents marred its surface. A few more good hits and it would cave straight in and then they would be overrun by the swarm.

She turned the barrel of the gun over in her hand a few times and then rammed it into the red pipe. The barrel was narrower at one end and slid an inch into the pipe before the wider base became stuck.

She forced the vacuum pump onto the end of the barrel and pushed the whole thing together. It locked firmly in place. It fit so well that the system could almost have been made in a factory.

“Here we go,” she said.

“Whenever you’re free,” Aart said through clenched teeth as another fist slammed into the metal door and left a sizeable dent.

Nova flicked the switch on the vacuum pump and it whirred into life. It vibrated on the end of the gun barrel and hissed as it sucked air through the pipe and expelled it out the other side.

Bang!

Nova’s head whipped around at the noise. Orion’s gun was glowing from the recently fired shot. She turned to look at the door, the corner had become detached and arms were grasping around the jagged metal.

Bang!

Aart’s shot took out an arm, but when one disappeared two more rose to take its place.

Nova spun back to the red pipe and the vibrating vacuum pump. “C’mon, c’mon,” she said. “You owe me one.”

As if in reply, the air pouring out of the vacuum pump was suddenly replaced by grey liquid. It spurted out of the pump and sprayed over the other pipes, floor, and walls.

“Gus. You’re up,” she said.

When the big man stepped up next to her brandishing the red section of pipe, she stepped to the side, taking the vacuum pump with her.

Gus shoved the red section back into place. The grey liquid squirted through the gap and sprayed in an arc over Gus’s face before he could seal the pipe. He cursed and shook his head to get rid of the stuff.

“It stinks!” Gus said, using his free hand to wipe it out of his eyes.

“It’s essentially bacteria crap. What did you expect?” Nova said, brushing a hand across her forehead.

“I expected not to get any on me,” Gus replied. “I don’t think this is going to hold.”

She knelt down beside him. He held the red pipe in place and it shook with the force of the liquid flowing through it.

“Okay, we just have to find a way to brace –”

“What the hell was that?” Aart said, jumping a foot into the air.

They all turned with weapons drawn to look at Aart. Nova expected to see him covered in slugs or wrestling with a grasping arm. He looked just fine.

“What?” Nova said, a mixture of annoyance and concern in her voice.

“Something dripped on me,” Aart said, rubbing furiously at his forehead.

Nova looked up at the ceiling and a smile broke across her face.

“It’s working,” she said.

Another drop of grey liquid plopped from the empty light socket and fell through the air. It caught the light from their glowballs as it went and reflected onto the walls. It fell from the ceiling and splattered onto the floor where Aart had been standing moments before.

“It’s disgusting,” Aart said, wiping with even more fervour at his forehead.

“Don’t even get me started,” Gus replied.

“Alright, we get it. You’re all a bunch of dandies who don’t like getting dirty,” Nova said, turning her attention back to the red pipe in Gus’s hand.

If she could just make the pipe stay in place, then she was sure part of their troubles would be over. With the lights on, the creatures would leave the ship and at least they’d have an escape route. Hell, if things got really bad, she’d still be able to grab the warp converter, mushrooms be damned.

She looked down at the remnants of her gun and her mind went to work. Not long after, she spotted the solution. Her hands got busy. She used the handle and trigger section of the gun wedged between the bigger water and waste pipes to hold the small section of red pipe in place.

“I think you’ve got it, look,” Orion said, pointing at the section of hallway visible through the bent door.

Before, the hallway had been mostly dark, made up of silhouettes, and the only light was the remnants of Freya’s glowballs. Now there was a definite shine.

“Listen to them,” Nova said, standing up.

They tilted their heads and listened.

“They’re screaming,” Aart said.

“And they’re leaving,” Orion added.

Sure enough, the creatures were running away from the sleeping pods. Body after body ran past them on its way down into the deeper caverns.

“How long do we have until this light gives out?” asked Gus.

“Technically, it should stay on forever. But there will be some broken bulbs and split piping where there won’t be any light,” Nova replied.

“So are we going forward or heading back to our ships?” Orion said.

“I’m not going back, I need my bag. You sissies can do what you want,” Nova said, her feet spread wide on either side of her body.

“Me neither. After getting a face-full of that stuff, I’m going to need the mushroom money to buy me a tonne of soap,” Gus said, using his dirt-stained shirt to wipe the worst of the slime from his face.

“A few slugs aren’t going to scare me away from a profit,” Aart said with a grin.

“In that case, I’m in,” said Orion.

“Alright, it’s settled,” said Aart, “let’s get going.”

There wasn’t a real need to mourn for Freya, let alone the time. The bounty hunter profession was nothing if not unpredictable. The pool of hunters changed daily; it was a high-risk profession. It’s a tough gig when you get hired specifically because no one else can deal with a situation. To Nova, all Freya’s death did was hammer home that she had to focus unless she wanted to end up as a half-eaten pile of bones in the middle of some ship.

Aart pressed the button next to the door. The metal shook and emitted a grinding noise but it didn’t move.

He pressed the button again. This time smoke came out of the edges of the door, but it still didn’t open.

“Move aside,” Gus said, stepping forward. He placed his hands around the bent corner of the door and with an almighty heave he yanked the metal down. It bent a little and then came to a grinding halt. Sweat sprung out on Gus’s forehead but he couldn’t get the door open.

“Okay strongman, let me have a look,” Orion said. He pulled a small disk, the size of his palm, from his belt and attached it to the centre of the door. He turned the top section three times to the right and back-stepped away from the door. “I’d get back if I were you.”

The others followed his instructions and moved as far away from the door as the small room would allow. Nova put her arms over her head just as the door exploded. The tiny device beeped once before it reduced the door to tiny pieces. The localised explosion shook the room and the vibrations echoed around the metal walls.

“Remind me to leave them a cheque,” Orion said as he stepped over the broken pieces of the metal door and into the hallway beyond.

All of the lights down the hallway were on and they shone like tiny suns. The light was blue-tinged and cast a glow over the metal panels of the ship.

Nova grimaced at the pile of flesh and bones that lay just outside the door of the sleeping pod. Freya’s face was entirely unrecognisable, probably because there wasn’t much of it left. If Nova had thought there was any point she might have gathered up Freya’s things but there really wasn’t. You didn’t become a bounty hunter if you had people waiting for you to come home.

“Come on,” Aart said, placing a hand on Nova’s shoulder.

She shook it off and turned away from Freya’s body, taking her place at the front of their small group.
















CHAPTER ELEVEN






Screams echoed from far away but by the time they reached Nova’s ears, they were barely a whisper. The only real sounds in the colony ship were the footsteps of her companions and their measured breaths.

As she walked, she wrestled with the desire to just take the warp converter and leave. It was the safest thing she could do, with minimal risk of being eaten alive. The bigger part of her refused to leave her companions to take down the enemy on their own. She knew the creatures and the tunnels better than any of them, and it was her fault they were here. If they were going to play at being heroes then she had no choice but to help them.

She led them down the hallway with doors leading off left and right to other sleeping pods. The lights in some of the rooms were broken, shattered in the crash or broken in the panic which followed. Luckily, the light from the hallway was enough to illuminate the sleeping pods and scare away any of the creatures who may have considered hiding away.

At the end of the hallway they came to the second dining area and beyond that the gym. The equipment looked strange in the stark light of the bio-lamps. The clean, blue glow was at odds with the toppled and broken gym gear.

“Hey Aart, want to go a few rounds?” Orion said with a chuckle as he lifted up a pair of racquets.

“Aww I don’t want to crush you now,” Aart replied, “we might need you for slug feed in a bit.”

“Hilarious,” Orion said, tossing the racquets back onto a pile of random equipment.

“It’s dark up ahead,” Nova said, peering through the closed door leading to the next room.

“I can hear them,” Gus replied.

Howls and screams echoed through the door from the room beyond.

“What’s in there?” Aart asked.

“That’s the learning pods. Beyond that is the exit into the caverns.”

“They’ve figured out to break all the lights,” Aart said, a tremor in his voice.

“What if they break the ones in here?” Gus said, his eyes glancing at the glowing lights in the ceiling.

“They’d have to be in here to break them,” Nova replied, “we’re fine.”

“We might be safe for now but it doesn’t help us get hold of the goods,” Aart said.

“We’ll just have to shoot our way through them,” said Gus.

“That didn’t work very well last time,” said Aart.

“Dammit! I didn’t think they’d be smart enough to work it out,” Nova said, kicking her foot into the metal panel at her feet.

“They might be smarter than we are,” Orion said.

The others turned to look at him. He stood with an eyebrow raised. His left hand was held up level with his shoulder, his finger outstretched towards—

“A light switch,” Aart said. “We are stupid.” He pretended to bang his head against the nearest wall.

“Thought you said the light switches wouldn’t work,” Gus said, turning to Nova.

“I said they wouldn’t turn the lights on. The pumps won’t work after all this time. But a lot of the switches work on simple mechanics, they stop the flow of that chemical you rubbed all over your face. That switch is stopping the stuff from reaching the front end of the ship, even though it’s sitting there waiting.”

“Well then what are you waiting for?” Gus said, staring at Orion.

Orion let his finger drop and flicked the switch. They waited with baited breaths. At first, nothing happened. The darkness beyond the next door remained. Then there was a sudden flash of brilliance accompanied by screams of agony.

“Boom,” Gus said.

The hole in the door before them lit up and they could make out the retreating shapes of their would-be attackers.

“Why are they so afraid of light? They’re like a bunch of vamps,” Gus said as Nova pushed the door open.

“I believe the socially acceptable term is lecheon,” she said, stepping forward into the learning centre. “And have you seen the size of their eyes? If you had eyes that big, you’d run away from bright lights as well.”

“It’s wrong, you know,” Aart said.

“What?” Nova asked, moving further into the room beyond.

“That the Confederacy allows lecheon movement within human colonies. Of course it’s not the Confederacy that has to worry about getting sucked dry, it’s the workers. Bloody Confederacy is always—”

“Really, Aart? Now is a good time for one of your political rants?” she said, glaring over her shoulder.

“Ha-ha, you know our Aart. Never misses a good chance to stick it to the man,” Orion said.

“Well, today we’re here to stick it to the slugs. We can only deal with one despicable life form at a time, and this one has a better chance of wrecking our day than the Confederacy,” Nova said.

Aart grunted and moved left, scoping out the learning centre.

“Looks pretty abandoned to me,” Gus said.

“They’ll be waiting in the cavern for us. Then what are we going to do?” Nova said.

“I was hoping you’d come up with a brilliant plan to save us all,” said Orion, fanning out to her right.

Nova rolled her eyes at his tone and bit her lip. She’d never confess it to them but she did feel responsible for them being there, and for Freya’s death, but she wasn’t ready to admit that even to herself. Because it was her fault she felt it was her duty to come up with a solution, even though it was their decision to come along.

Gus kept an eye on their rear and followed behind Nova as she made a straight line for the next door.

The learning pods were eerily quiet. They sat abandoned with their wires and blank screens. The skeleton from Nova’s last visit sat forlorn just as it had before; staring into the darkness but seeing nothing.

“Hey look, I’m a zombie,” Orion said, staggering in front of Nova with a piece of cloth stretched over his head giving the impression of two massive eyes.

Nova jumped as he stumbled in front of her. Her expression darkened and she glared at him.

“Hey, Orion, how well can you see in that?” she asked.

“Not at all,” Orion chuckled, moving past her towards Gus.

“Good,” she said, thrusting out her leg.

Orion tripped over her extended limb and fell face first onto the metal floor. His falling body thumped as it hit the ground and the noise echoed around the learning space.

“Ow!” Orion said, pulling the cloth off of his head and tossing it to the side. “What was that for?”

“Sorry,” she replied and kept walking, “Thought you were a zombie.”

Aart and Gus chuckled. Orion got to his feet and muttered something about a lack of humour before getting back into position and advancing towards the next door.

“It’s getting darker,” Aart said. “Is there another light switch?”

“No, look,” Nova said, pointing to the ceiling ahead of them. “All the lights here have been broken.”

The glass was shattered across the floor and puddles of grey liquid glittered under each light socket where it dripped from the ceiling. Blobs of blue light dotted the floor where some of the old light colonies continued to survive.

“It’s completely dark beyond the door,” Orion said.

“When the ship crashed this end would have been the hardest hit. They all could have shattered on impact,” Nova said.

“So where does that leave us?” Orion said.

“Same as the cavern only sooner,” replied Aart.

“They must have some kind of weakness,” said Nova.

“How did the Confederacy get rid of them before?” asked Aart.

“There was a drug which got rid of the infection. But somehow, I don’t think these guys would be open to medication,” she said, creeping to the next door.

She stepped over a skeleton on her way to the viewing hole and felt a jolt in her spine when she realised that it was the same man she had killed the last time she was here. She’d watched a slug crawl out of his ear. Now all that was left was bones with a few pieces of flesh clinging desperately to the white remains. The meat was edged with bite marks and deep holes from sunken teeth.

“So they’re against light. What else might work?” Aart said as he paced back and forth across the floor.

“Seems to me that’s something you brain-boxes should have worked out before we came down here,” Gus said checking his gun.

“Yes, well, we’re here now,” Nova said, looking around the learning pods.

“If only this ship was still operational, then we could just throw on the spotlights and bam, we’re home free,” said Aart as he glanced around.

“What if we went old-style?” Nova asked. “And I’m not talking twenty-second century reverse tesla; no, I mean medieval.”

“What are you talking about?” Aart said, staring at her with his hands splayed at his sides.

“I mean fire. There’s a bunch of fuel here and I bet they’re just as scared of it as they are the bio-lights.”

“You’re right!” said Aart, marching to the nearest learning pod. “There’s no wood, mostly metal and plastic. It’s going to put out some pretty toxic fumes.”

“It’s okay if there’s only a little plastic. Orion, where did you get that cloth? We’ll each use some as a mask, that should help a bit,” Nova said.

“Gus, you watch the door. Orion, grab the material. Nova and I will get the fuel,” Aart said, slipping straight into control.

Nova rolled her eyes but got to work. The metal wouldn’t burn but the plastic piping and wires would do for a while.

“Hey guys, according to the specs for that ship, there should be magnesium strips in the pods,” Tanguin said over their communicators.

“Jackpot,” Aart said.

“Why do we want magnesium?” Gus said, pointing his gun at the door.

“It burns really brightly,” Nova said, “It will definitely knock those things back a few paces, thanks Tanguin.”

“Here to help,” she said, “Although I have a feeling we’re going to lose contact once you go a little deeper. I’ll stay right next to the communicator for your return trip.”

“Perfect,” Nova said, tearing out the metal strips from the pods. She ran from one capsule to the next ripping them out until she had a handful of magnesium shreds.

“Here are some extra pieces of cloth, they’ll burn better than that plastic,” Orion said, dumping an armful of material onto the floor.

“Where did you get all of that?” Nova said, stepping up beside him.

“Let’s just say there are a few bodies in here that don’t need clothes anymore and you should really only use these pieces for your face,” Orion said, holding up four strips of material that were cleaner than the rest.

Nova’s face was stern as she nodded and grabbed a strip. She wrapped it over her nose and mouth and tied it tightly at the back of her head. The others did the same. Then they got to work wrapping the extra pieces of cloth around spare sections of metal piping to create primitive torches.

“Who’s got a lighter?” she asked.

“Who would carry a lighter on them?” Aart asked with his eyebrows drawn together.

Nova groaned. “I do, in my bag! How else are we going to light them?”

“How much stuff do you have in that bag?” Aart asked, “I’m beginning to see why you want it back so desperately, it must have almost everything you own.”

She rolled her eyes at him and then returned her attention to the pile of torches.

“Keep ya knickers on,” Gus said, sauntering up to them. He pulled a pistol from the back of his belt and pulled the trigger.

Nova covered her head and ducked to the side but there was no sudden bang or explosion of shrapnel. She opened her eyes and saw a tiny flame dancing at the end of Gus’s pistol. It glowed orange, and gave off a surprising amount of heat for its size.

“Alright, we have to be ready to go. As soon as we’ve each got a torch we run for that door. Everyone take a few magnesium strips. Only use them if you’re really in trouble,” Nova said, holding out the metal. She was left with four strips which she tucked into her belt.

“My bag isn’t far from here. We need to get there so that I can get hold of my gun. I would bet the queen isn’t far from there, but she’ll be protected,” Nova said, standing with a crude torch in hand.

“And whatever you do, don’t let a slug crawl into your ear,” Aart added.

They nodded at each other and put their torches towards the centre. Gus’s small flame flickered a few times and then flared as the cloth at the end of each of their torches caught fire.

“Go, go, go!” Aart said, gesturing to Nova.

She ran at full pelt to the door. There was no need to punch in a code because it was torn clean off its runners. Dozens of reaching hands filled the darkness beyond the doorway. Aart was right behind her and as one they thrust out their torches. The sudden brightness and heat in the confined space made their attackers scream.

The half-human creatures withdrew their hands and shielded their faces from the sudden onslaught.

Nova and Aart pushed forward. They swung their torches left and right and the flames hissed with the movement.

The creatures retreated before them, turning and running out of the ship and into the cavern beyond. Their cries echoed around the large space and were joined by a hundred other voices.

Nova’s face remained set as she stepped out of the ship and into the chaos beyond.

In the flickering torchlight, she could see bodies milling in chaotic rings. The creatures pushed and shoved to get out of the circle of light, swarming over each other. Cries of pain echoed out of the masses.

“Get a move on Nova, our torches won’t last forever,” Aart said.

Orion and Gus came up behind them and the four torches created a circle of light ten metres wide which illuminated the dirt all around.

“This way,” she said, running to her left.

The creatures parted before them like a great sea, their figures only just visible at the edge of the torchlight.

“They’re getting bolder,” Orion said, waving his gun. The creatures were closing in on them from the back. They had their eyes closed and were gaining quickly.

“Shoot the suckers,” Gus said, firing his colossal gun. It boomed in the enclosed cavern and the sound reverberated around the walls.

A creature exploded in a spray of blood and guts which painted the walls and floor red. The other creatures drew back from the light.

“Our guns would never last long enough to kill all of them. Let’s hope they don’t get any more ideas,” said Nova.

The outer wall of the colony ship was on her left and the massive carved wall of the cavern in front.

“There!” she called when she saw the dark tunnel at the edge of their torchlight.

They sprinted into the blackness and were relieved to see their way clear of the creatures, at least for the moment. Behind them was another matter entirely. The creatures had closed in and blocked their retreat; hundreds of them swarmed into the tunnel just out of view of the torchlight.

They got to the fork in the tunnel; one path had a flower carved above the entrance and the other had a moon. Nova dashed down the tunnel with the moon. Just a few steps down and she was confronted with a pile of equipment.

“Here!” she said as they burst into a small chamber. Personal belongings were stacked in the centre in some kind of ceremonial pile. Nova’s bag sat at the very top, the crowning piece in a very sick display.

She reached over the stack and grabbed hold of her bag, swinging it over her shoulder as she did so. The weight was a comfort. It was still soaking wet; so much for her flares and fire-starters. She reached back into the pile and pulled out her holster belt. Her gun was still inside. She clipped the belt around her waist and pulled out her gun, checking the chamber before slamming it back into the holster.

“Got to keep moving,” she said, dashing out of the cavern. It was a shame to leave such a treasure trove behind, but there was no time for scrounging now. She made a note to come back after the queen was dead.

She sprinted down the tunnel, the path etched into her memory. Left, right, right, left. She weaved through the catacombs and deeper into the slugs’ lair. The pounding feet of her fellow bounty hunters were comforting in the lonely tunnels.

“Shouldn’t we be worried about running out of air?” Orion said.

“Nah, those things breathe air, if they made these tunnels there must be air in them,” she said.

“Do you really think those creatures made these tunnels? I mean, look at the carvings. They don’t seem like the artistic type,” Gus puffed from the rear of their line.

“Cal thinks these are a sub-species, more primitive. The ones that nearly took out the Confederacy were advanced, not like this. Maybe they used to be more cultured?” Nova said without slowing.

“Bloody Confederacy,” Aart grumbled from behind.

“So what now?” Orion asked. “I don’t know about you guys, but my torch is starting to fail.”

“Mine too,” said Gus.

“Yeah and ours,” said Aart.

“Take the torches back the way we’ve come for a second,” Nova said, thrusting her own torch into Aart’s hand.

“Are you crazy? If they come the other way, they’ll eat you up before you can say ‘Aart, I was wrong’. Then where will you be?” said Aart.

“Just do it,” she said, shoving him back.

He backed away to the tunnel they’d come from and the others followed suit. The creatures which had poured down after them could be heard yelling as they tried to back away from the newly advancing light.

Nova didn’t pay it any mind. A twinkle down the other tunnel had caught her eye. She walked away from her companions and the screaming creatures to the farther tunnel. She stepped into the darkness and peered with narrowed eyes. Without the interfering glow of their torches, it was clear what lay ahead.

“This way!” she bellowed.

The others ran after her and together they sprinted down the new tunnel.

“Where are you leading us?” Aart said.

“Just keep an eye on your torch,” she said, watching it sputter out of the corner of her eye.

She led them on down the tunnel; it bent back and forth before spilling out into a new, bigger cavern, dotted with the glowing mushrooms. They sprouted from the ceiling, walls, and floor.

She lifted her hands to shield her eyes from the sudden light.

“Just in time,” Gus said as his torch guttered out of existence. The other torches were right behind.

“I don’t think these mushrooms will be bright enough to stop them for long,” Nova said. “Collect what you can and then we’ll have to keep moving.”

The four of them got to work, loading the blue mushrooms into their bags. They were spongy under Nova’s hands. Unlike most mushrooms, these smelled fresh, like bubble-gum of all things. The glow lit her face as she picked each one and placed it into her bag.

“Here they come,” Aart said as the sounds of pursuit got closer.

“Still think killing the queen is a good idea?” Orion asked.

“Yes,” Nova replied. “Besides, I think I know how to find her.”

She didn’t have time to explain any further because at that moment the creatures poured out of the tunnel and into the glowing chamber. Some of them lifted up their hands to protect their faces, but the low blue glow didn’t affect them nearly as much as the harsh light of the torches.

Nova dashed behind a nearby fallen rock. She pulled her gun from its holster and levelled it at the mindless enemy.

“Look out!” Aart yelled as a creature thrust its body forward and hurled its stomach contents at them.

Aart dived out of the way just in time. The bile flew into the far wall, splattered across it and down to the floor. Nova’s eyes opened wide with horror when she saw that the expelled puddle was teaming with slugs.

“It’s infected!” she called out to her fellow hunters. “They’re trying to infect you!”

There was no time for waiting. She cocked her gun and fired it at the nearest creature. It was just about to hurl its stomach contents at Gus when her blast caught it full in the chest. The creature ruptured into a thousand pieces and the puddle of remains it left behind writhed with slugs.

“They weren’t like this last time,” Aart said as he fired shots into the swarm of creatures.

“They must be a special sort of soldier,” Nova replied over the din of gunshots.

“Some welcoming party,” Gus added as he fired from his hip. The blast from his gun took out three creatures at once and created a hole in their attack line.

“You know we can’t keep this up forever,” Aart called.

“I know, we just have to hold them long enough for me to come up with a plan,” Nova said.

“Well by all means, take your time,” Orion said through clenched teeth as he fired blast after blast at the oncoming horde.

“Everyone else is welcome to come up with plans too, you know!”

She squeezed her trigger again. This time, the blue bolt took a creature in the head and its brains exploded to splatter its companions.

“Aart, look out!” she yelled, but she was too late.

A creature convulsed and then threw up over Aart’s face and body.

“You sick ba—” Aart began and then hurled his own bile onto the floor of the cave.

“Aart, get them off,” Nova yelled, leaving the cover of her rock to sprint to Aart’s side.

Gus and Orion stepped in front of them and fired at the advancing creatures. Their shots reverberated around and the sudden bright lights of the energy blasts made the creatures cringe.

She shoved her gun into its holster and desperately swiped the slugs off of Aart’s body. She wacked them with deft strokes, clearing them off of his clothes and head. There were hundreds of them. They clung to his clothes with unnatural suckers and every one of them was working its way towards his head.

“This is the most disgusting thing that’s ever happened,” Aart said as he too ran his hands over his body, flicking off the black slugs.

“I don’t know, that girl you dated last year was pretty bad,” Nova said. She tried to keep her voice light, but the sight of the slugs crawling over her friend’s body and face was nauseating. On top of that was the stench of the bile clinging to his clothes. Even through her cloth mask she could smell it. It was a sour acrid scent that crawled into her nostrils and made her want to throw up as well.

“Hilarious,” Aart replied but his voice was distracted. He jumped from foot to foot, trying to shake the creatures from his legs and arms.

“They’re still coming,” she said as she stared at the floor. As quickly as they were flicking the slugs off, they crawled across the floor, back towards Aart.

“Get away,” Aart said as he also saw them swarming towards him.

“No way,” Nova said, desperately brushing the black creatures off of Aart’s skin.

“I said get away!” Aart yelled, shoving her in the chest. The force of his blow sent her stumbling backwards, her arms swinging to keep balanced.

“They’ll just try and get you too, I’ve got them,” Aart said, glaring at her, daring her to come towards him.

She stuck out her chin but didn’t come any closer. Instead, she went to work stomping the black creatures that were sliding across the dirt floor towards Aart. They left tiny trails of slime in their wake and they didn’t stop advancing until her boot slammed down on them. Under the force of her feet, the creatures burst into small puddles of blood.

Out of the corner of her eye, she watched the rest of the fight.

Gus roared as he held the trigger of his gun down and fired shot after shot into the advancing mass. The energy blasts tore through the creatures which collapsed to the floor. Their flesh tore from their bones and flew across the cavern to decorate the glowing mushrooms. Sweat trickled down Gus’s dirt-stained face. The corner of his mouth twisted up as he sneered at his opponents.

On the other side of Aart, Orion was similarly laying waste to the oncoming enemy. His gun was smaller than Gus’s but he fired just as many shots. They streamed into the enemy lines and left burning holes through their heads and chests. Orion leapt out of the way of their regurgitation attacks and hopped up onto a larger boulder. From that position, he fired down into the crowd, picking off one after another like shooting apples in an orchard.

“They’re giving up,” Aart said, looking up at Nova with wild hope.

She looked back at him and sighed with relief when she saw the slugs falling from Aart’s skin and clothes. They dropped to the cave floor and splatted on impact. Some of them survived and crawled towards Nova’s shoes, the rest didn’t get up.

“They’re going for you,” Aart said. His eyes widened as he watched the things inch their way across the floor.

“We’ve got to move,” she said, stamping down on the closest slug. “Gus, Orion, we’re moving out. I think I know where that damned queen is.”

She reached into her belt and whipped out the strips of magnesium.

“Gus! Light!” she yelled.

In a fluid motion, Gus’s left hand left his gun while the right continued to hold down the trigger. His left hand plunged into his pocket, pulled out the pistol-shaped lighter and tossed it through the air towards Nova. His hand continued its motion and landed right back on his massive gun which hadn’t stopped firing the whole time.

Nova stretched her hand up and caught hold of the lighter. She held down the trigger and the flame lit the end of the barrel. She held the magnesium strips into the fire.

The magnesium erupted in a flash of brilliance.

She tossed the glowing strips across the room towards the oncoming creatures. They reared away from the light and pushed against each other to get away. Their hands shot up to cover their eyes and they turned away from the new brilliance with cries of pain. The glow cast eerie shadows which danced and writhed in time with the slug-puppets.

“C’mon!” Nova yelled.

She grabbed hold of Aart’s bile-covered arm and tugged him away from the advancing creatures. He stumbled after her

“After this, I’m going to spend a week inside a decontamination chamber. Then two weeks in the Pleasure District just to forget it ever happened,” Aart said, his voice shaky. Their feet slapped against the dirt floor as they ran for a tunnel at the back of the cavern. Gus and Orion followed behind, firing at the unrelenting enemy.

“I hope you know where you’re going,” Orion said over his shoulder.

“Me too,” Nova called, dragging Aart along.

“I’ve got it,” Aart said, wrenching his arm away. “I’ve only got some vomit on me, it’s not like I had my head chopped off.”

She shrugged and focused on sprinting into the open tunnel. She stared at the walls and floor in the dim light of her glowball. Green slime dotted the dirt floor, shimmering in the light. She placed her foot between the puddles of goo as she dashed onwards.

Gus and Orion backed into the tunnel and kept the attackers at bay in the bottleneck, keeping pace with Aart and Nova in the dim light. The sounds of pursuit and death stalked them down the cave. Echoing screams and gunshots filled their ears.

“Why is there so much of this stuff?” Aart said as his arm brushed against the wall and collected a dollop of slime.

“I’m betting it’s from the queen. If we follow it, we should find her.”

“Disgusting,” Aart said.

Nova grimaced and kept placing one foot in front of the other.

“They seem to be getting worried,” Orion said.

“What do you mean?” she asked, her eyes locked on the slime trail.

“Jumpy,” Gus said.

“Hopefully that means we’re getting close,” she said.
















CHAPTER TWELVE






They wound through the tunnels, left, right and left again. The slime trail got thicker the further they went. When the tunnel forked, Nova took the path with the thickest layer of goo. The floor was soon so coated that her boot sunk two inches with every step. The slime sucked on her foot as she lifted it out again and released it with plop. Her footsteps sent the stuff spraying up and it spattered the legs of her trousers.

She slid to a stop at the end of the tunnel where it opened onto a wider cavern. “You slimy bitch,” she whispered.

The others ripped their eyes away from the approaching enemies and followed her gaze.

“What the hell is that?” Orion said.

“I think we’ve found the queen,” she replied.

Relief swept through her that they’d finally found their target but it was mixed with horror at the sheer enormity of the creature. On top of that was a nagging fear that tickled the back of her neck, intensified by the shrieks echoing up to her from the tunnels.

Lying at the very centre of the cavern, immersed in a pool of slime, was the biggest slug any of them could have imagined. It was easily longer than a grown man and four times as fat. It sat like a bulbous, black growth on the cave floor. Its skin shone in the reflection of their lights; as did the slime spread all about it. The creature pulsated, different sections moving up and down as it breathed, or digested, or whatever it was doing. The only sound was a very faint gurgle, like a stream heard from a distance.

Their horrified trance was broken by a collection of screeches. Hundreds of zombies sprinted down the tunnels towards them. Their massive eyes glinted and opened wide with madness. They screamed as they continued their lop-sided run. The four hunters stood back to back, facing the tunnels.

They fired.

Coloured bolts of energy shot out in all directions. The creatures collapsed mid-step. Just as quickly as the zombies were shot down, new ones appeared to take their places. Wave after wave of the things ran at them out of the darkness. Their screeches pierced Nova’s ears. It took all of her will not to lift her hands to the sides of her head.

The bodies collapsed on top of one another to create gruesome piles of the dead. The stink of rotting flesh and exposed bowels permeated the tunnels. Blood pooled on the floor along with the dead bodies of black slugs.

Nova’s stomach churned and she swallowed hard to keep from vomiting. She breathed through her mouth in small gasps but the stench was so strong that she could taste it on her tongue. She clenched her teeth and fired with both her pistols. She closed her mind to any thoughts of the enemy’s possible humanity and focused completely on surviving.

Some of the creatures were infective. They sprinted straight down the tunnels and as they were shot down, they spewed at the hunters. Pools of bile flew through the air, complete with black slugs. The vomit splashed across the walls and floors. Soon the acrid smell overpowered the scent of death.

Droplets spattered across Nova’s face and sent a new wave of nausea rolling through her. She concentrated on keeping her finger on the trigger; at least none of the slugs were crawling on her. She kept her feet moving as she shot so as to step on any wayward slugs and keep them from crawling up her legs.

Try as they might, there didn’t seem to be any end to the waves of zombies. No matter how many they shot, there were always more.

“What the hell are we supposed to do now?” Orion said. His nose was scrunched and his face was a pale shade of green.

“Our guns won’t last much longer,” Aart said. His voice was strained and beads of sweat streamed down his cheeks.

“I know!” Nova said. Aart’s panic was mirrored in her voice. She clenched her teeth as she glanced at her pistols; they didn’t have long left before they overheated. “We have to take out the queen, it’s the only way to stop them.”

“How the hell are we supposed to do that? There are hundreds of the things,” Orion said.

“Aim and fire,” Gus replied, stepping past them all with his gun held high. He’d left his tunnel undefended. Nova crouched low and fired down each tunnel in turn, covering Gus’s ground.

Gus’s gun hummed with pent up energy; he had started something big. Most larger guns had multiple settings and up to now, he’d been using light fire.

With a single squeeze of his index finger, it fired out a ball of red energy. The shot blasted straight through the oncoming zombies as they stumbled between the queen and the group of hunters. Their bodies were reduced to charred cinders, but the blast didn’t even slow down. It moved through them without any sign of regret. The blast slammed into the oozing monstrosity of a queen with a burst of flames. The tongues of heat lashed across the black skin and the creature screamed.

The sound wasn’t like a human scream. It was high-pitched and unstoppable. It squealed like a seed on a fire before it burst. And that’s exactly what happened.

The red ball of energy disappeared into the slug’s flesh for a few moments. The creature pulsed in and out, in and out, in and boom! It exploded in a mess of flesh and blood. Chunks of shiny black skin flew across the cave and splattered the bounty hunters.

A hunk landed on Nova’s shoulder. It was still warm and oozing blood; it smelled like cooked meat. Her stomach churned. At the same time, she couldn’t stop her mouth watering at the smell of steak.

“Oh hell no,” Aart said as a piece of slug sailed through the air and smacked him in the forehead. The squidgy meat stuck to his face before sliding down to his nose. He whipped his hand up and slapped the flesh away. He wiped his face repeatedly on his sleeve, but a red line of blood remained no matter how hard he rubbed.

“They’ve stopped,” Nova said, peering into the tunnel from which they’d come.

The creatures, which had moments before been sprinting straight towards them, were convulsing on the floor. The trail of jerking, dead bodies extended back into the blackness of the tunnels. There was no sign of life.

“Can’t hear them anymore,” said Gus.

“Me neither,” said Orion.

“Weapons ready,” Nova said.

She daren’t allow herself even a shimmer of hope before she’d made certain. If she let down her guard too early, they’d all die and it would be her fault. She clutched her guns and rested her index fingers on the triggers, waiting for any sign of trouble.

She led the way back down the tunnel. The silence of the catacombs was overwhelming. The screaming from only minutes before had been replaced with suffocating silence. Their footsteps echoed around the tunnels, the only noise in a mass grave.

“Well that answers that,” she said.

She crouched down to get a closer look at the bodies which littered the tunnel floor. Some of them had died from being shot but most of them showed no sign of injury at all. Either way, they were all dead.

“I guess that’s the problem with having a hive mind,” said Aart, looking around at the death. “When the queen goes, you go.”

“Yep, no wonder they were trying so hard to protect her,” said Nova.

“Look at that thing,” Orion said as he knelt by another body. He stretched his finger towards the man’s ear.

Nova followed his gaze in time to see a slug crawl out and plop to the floor of the tunnel. Unlike the others she had seen, it didn’t try to crawl away or find a new host. It curled into a ball, shuddered and then lay still.

“Is it dead?” Aart asked.

Gus tapped it with the toe of his boot. It didn’t move.

“Looks like it,” Gus said.

“They can’t survive without their queen,” Nova said. “Let’s get out of here.”

They retraced their steps through the cave, navigating piles of corpses as they did so. The room full of mushrooms was packed with even more of the dead creatures, as well as puddles of vomit overflowing with dead slugs.

They gathered some more mushrooms until their bags were overflowing and continued on their way back through the dirt catacombs. Nova led them all the way back to the massive cavern with the crashed colony ship.

She pulled herself up into the ship and looked around at the control panels.

“Hey Nova, I don’t think you’re going to be able to fly it,” said Aart with a chuckle.

“No, genius, I’m collecting parts. Remember the other part of the bounty?”

“Actually, in all the mess and confusion of being thrown up on with a puddle of slugs, it slipped my memory.”

Nova shook her head and rolled her eyes.

“Do you think there’s any more of them?” Orion asked.

“I can’t hear any more. According to Cal’s research, they should all have died along with their queen.”

“Let’s get into it then,” said Gus, rubbing his hands together.

“Stay within ear shot,” Aart said, “Just in case.”

The four of them ranged off in different directions to scour the ship for valuable parts and equipment. Nova gazed back into the cavern. It was still silent, and hopefully empty.

“Tanguin, we’re back on the colony ship. Mission accomplished. Do you want me to pick you up something nice?”

“A handful of those mushrooms will do me just fine,” Tanguin said. “Good work soldiers.”

“Over and out,” Nova said. She changed her communicator channel.

“Cal, can you hear me now?” she said.

“Oh, thank goodness. I won’t be trapped here forever,” Cal replied.

“Yeah I’m fine, thanks for asking. Anyway, what do we need for Crusader?”

“Aside from the depth detector? Mostly we need fuel. I think some of the pipes are getting a bit rusty. You said you wanted to try some red mood-lighting as well, if they have that,” Cal said.

“It wasn’t mood-lighting,” Nova said through clenched teeth, “Red light is supposed to be easier to cloak, damned robot.”

“Joking, joking,” Cal said, “Anything more than that is just a bonus.”

“Alright, I’m on it,” she replied.

Now that she wasn’t running for her life, she could take a better look around the colonisation ship. She put her shoulder against a door on the far side and it squeaked open to reveal the engine room.

There were pipes of all shapes and sizes running through the room. At one time, they would have carried fuel, water, sewage, and all manner of other things. Now, they were empty. As well as pipes, there were gauges and dials and tanks full of fuel.

She strode over to the ship’s depth detector.

“Bad news, Cal,” Nova said.

“What now?”

“The depth detector is damaged. In fact, that may even be why they crashed here in the first place.”

“Crusader won’t be happy,” Cal warned.

“I know, just promise her that if she manages to get us to Zyx, I’ll buy her a nice new detector with the money we’ll make.”

There was a pause as Cal relayed the message. “She said she knows just where to stick your mushrooms.”

Nova chuckled. “It’s not my fault the colony ship had the same faulty equipment we have.”

“What about the other supplies?” Cal asked.

“There’s heaps of fuel here, that’s the important thing. No sign of the special object though.”

“Affirmative.”

A heavy weight formed in Nova’s stomach as she rummaged through the engine room and then out into the pilot’s pod. There was no sign of the warp converter and it was the entire reason she’d come to Taive in the first place.

She ripped the covers off of the control dashboard in a desperate attempt to find the converter. A piece of metal caught her finger and slashed it open, sending a spray of blood across the controls. She hurled the metal casing to the side and leant over the panel. Hidden amongst a ball of wires was a metal stand with claw-like hooks. There was no mistaking the attachment where the warp converter should have been. The holder was empty.

“Grishnak!” Nova bellowed, slamming her injured fist into the controls and sending more blood across the floor. “Cal, it’s gone. The bloody thing is gone.”

She tried to keep her voice steady but frustration boiled in her chest and choked her words.

“Get what you need. I’ll see if I can find out where it’s gone,” Cal said.

Nova stomped out of the pilot’s pod, doing her best to keep her face neutral. She didn’t want the other hunters to know what she’d been looking for, or how angry she was that it wasn’t there.

Instead, she hurled equipment into her bag. There were tools and little pieces of machinery that would definitely come in handy. She had to squeeze and push them into her bag to make them fit alongside the mushrooms. Her bag was glowing with almost as much brilliance as her glowball.

“Jackpot,” Gus said as he walked into the engine room to join Nova.

“Yep, depth detector’s damaged though,” she said, trying to keep her voice light.

“Damn,” he replied.

Gus strolled around the engine, examining the parts. His muscles rippled as he tested some of the piping and connections.

“What do you need piping for?” Nova asked.

“My ship was damaged in an asteroid belt. That’s why I got a ride with Freya. Figure I can probably fix it with the stuff here.”

“Cool,” Nova said, examining the supplies.

“There’s a bunch of stuff down here I could use. I think I’ll be making a few trips.”

“Me too, we’ve found ourselves a gold mine.”

She left her bag on the floor of the engine room and went to the spare parts cabinet. It was a massive storage unit which took up an entire wall. She heaved at the door and it slid open.

Gus whistled.

Nova’s eyes scanned over the collection. They were definitely the first bounty hunters to make it here and have enough time to scavenge the ship. There was a fortune in this place, even if it didn’t have the one thing she really needed.

“Aart. Orion. You probably want to get in here and claim your share,” she called over her shoulder. A moment later, the two men hurried through the door. Their eyes widened as they came to stand next to Nova.

“Think I found your vat of bacteria,” Gus said. He stood over a metal vat that came up to his chest. He held the lid in his hand and peered over the edge with his nose crinkled and his brows drawn together.

“Well it can stay there,” said Nova.

She went to the cabinet and sifted through the many supplies. There were a lot of things she wanted, but the more she took, the more she’d have to carry. She grabbed a fuel canister with each hand.

“All of this and you’re taking fuel?” Aart said.

She shrugged, “Without fuel I’ll be stranded here anyway. Besides, I’m planning to make a couple of trips.”

“Ha! Maybe you won’t have to,” Gus said, pulling out a metal contraption from behind the machines.

“An anti-grav trolley!” Nova said, a grin spreading across her face.

The simple trolley would hold most things they wanted and would be a breeze to push through the ship to the outside world. Nova’s reservations disappeared and she loaded guns, equipment and fuel onto the trolley.

Aart took some of the more valuable computing parts. Orion was similarly stacking high-end equipment into a box. Gus was already at the weapons cabinet. He slung rifles and pistols across his front and back. Guns poked out in a circle from his belt.

It took a while. Eventually they were all loaded up like a Hasard camel train. Nova led the way uphill to the back of the ship. Gus was behind her, pushing the trolley. It rattled under its load but stayed together. The weight of her bag pulled on her shoulders but it all felt like nothing compared to the desperate run for their lives. Fair payment she would have said.

It seemed a lot further than it had last time when she was being chased by a horde of possessed creatures. She let out a sigh of relief when she stepped through into the clearing and saw Sylar parked, waiting and shining in the sunlight. She breathed deeply of the fresh air and let her arms drop to her sides. The others came up into the light smiling.

“How long were we down there?” Orion said, shielding his eyes from the bright glare. “It felt like days.”

“Probably only a couple of hours, time does weird things in the dark,” Aart said.

They staggered under the weight of their bags over to Sylar. Gus pushed the trolley until it sat in the middle of the three ships.

“Every man for himself from here?” Gus said, hoisting his bag of mushrooms onto his shoulder.

“Just like usual.” Aart nodded and winked.

“What about Freya’s ship?” Orion asked, looking over the shiny blue vessel.

“Well seems to me I need a ship to get out of here and she don’t,” said Gus. His tone was light but he looked at each of them in turn with a stern expression.

“Fair to me,” Aart said. The others nodded.

“Good,” Gus said. He trudged to Freya’s ship and the door slid open. He tossed his bag of mushrooms and the armload of weapons through the door. They clattered to the metal floor. He stepped up inside and lifted his hand to them as the door slid shut behind him.

“Off to make some cash,” said Orion as swaggered to his own ship, his bounty slung over his shoulders.

“Good hunting,” Aart called after him. Orion waved and jumped up into his craft.

The whirring of engines overtook the sounds of the forest. They created gusts of wind which knocked Nova back. With a blast like a firing gun, the two ships shot up into the sky and disappeared.

“So do you want a lift back to Crusader?” Aart asked.

“Thanks,” she said.

She did her best to smile, she had got a good haul from the colonisation ship but it wasn’t what she really needed. A ball of disappointment settled in the pit of her stomach but she forced her mind away from it for the moment.

They walked to Sylar without speaking. Nova pushed the trolley in front of her. When they reached the silver ship, the cargo door opened and a ramp extended out. She heaved the trolley up the ramp and into the main cargo compartment of Aart’s ship. Each of their bags was slung over their shoulders and they walked with solid steps, their boots and pants legs still covered with green slime.

She grimaced.

They climbed up into Sylar’s clean interior and Aart headed straight for the command chair. Nova slumped down onto the cushioned seats and breathed a sigh of relief.

“That bad, huh?” Tanguin said. A sympathetic smile tugged at the corner of her lips.

“You have no idea,” Nova said.

“Well you two stink,” replied Tanguin.

“Tell me about it.”

“Scanners detect foreign material,” Sylar said as the three of them sat down.

“Don’t worry about it,” Aart said with a frown.

“What does it mean?” Nova asked from her position spread out on the couch.

“It probably just picked up the slime,” Aart said, lifting his shoe to indicate the layer of green goo.

“Oh, of course,” she said, returning to silence.

“Still though, I’m heading straight for a shower. And so are you if you want to stay on my ship,” Aart said, looking down at Nova.

“Yeah I’m going,” Nova said, hauling herself to her feet.

She trudged through the silver ship and into the decontamination room; the expensive ship came with everything. She tossed her bile-covered clothes into the shoot marked ‘incineration’ and before her very eyes a new set of identical clothes, minus the vomit, slid out of the next shoot over and landed in a neat pile.

She stepped into the shower cubicle and warm water splashed down onto her face and arms. She relished in the feel of the dirt and grime washing away. The water at the bottom of the shower turned brown under the onslaught of so much filth. She used handfuls of soap to remove the smell and had to wash her hair four times before she was happy that there were no slugs hiding amongst the tangles.

Only then, when she had rubbed her skin red-raw, did she leave the confines of the shower and pull on the newly-printed clothes. The clean fabric felt good against her skin and she walked into Sylar’s main compartment feeling better than she had since first landing on Taive, despite her disappointment over the warp converter. She was alive and healthy and there was a stack of bounty with her name on it.

“So who’s up for some food?” Aart asked as he stepped around the corner from another bathing pod. He sauntered to the food generator and punched in a few numbers. His hair was still wet but his skin glowed clean much like Nova’s.

“Should probably eat something, although I don’t know if I can after seeing you covered in vomit and slugs,” Nova said. Tanguin got her usual bowl of purple.

The three of them sat around Aart’s table eating, just as they had before going down into the caves.

Nova glanced over at Aart as he sunk his teeth into the red-raw steak. Some juice dribbled out of his mouth and down his chin. He closed his eyes and smiled as the meat slid down his throat.

“Good?” she asked.

“The best,” Aart replied without looking up from his meal.

She turned to her own food but her appetite had vanished. The meat looked like the bloody remains of Freya’s corpse and the green vegetables reminded her of the chunks floating in the creatures’ vomit.

“Everything ok?” Tanguin asked as she lifted a small spoonful of purple to her mouth.

“Yeah,” Nova said, her mind racing.

“So when are you two heading off this rock?” Aart said.

“As soon as I can, I can’t wait to get back to The Jagged Maw,” Tanguin said. “Not to mention start selling my goods.”

Nova and Tanguin had a standing arrangement. If Tanguin helped with a bounty, then she got a cut of Nova’s profit. Today had been profitable for both of them and based on Cal’s calculations, they’d each get at least two thousand credits for the mushrooms.

“I’ll drink to that,” Aart said, holding up an imaginary glass.

“When will you be leaving?” Nova asked, looking hard at Aart’s face.

Aart shrugged. “As soon as you two get off of my ship I suppose.”

“Hint received loud and clear,” Tanguin said, dropping the last blob of purple into her mouth.

“Yeah,” Nova said, her stomach rolling.

She pushed her plate to the side and stood up. She walked away from the dining table to the corridor behind Aart, trying her best to keep her footsteps steady even though her legs felt like jelly. As soon as she was out of his line of sight, Nova gestured at Tanguin.

Tanguin glanced at her and without so much as a blink she got to her feet.

“I’ll just use your bathroom first,” Tanguin said to Aart and hurried to the corridor where Nova was standing.

Nova grabbed hold of Tanguin’s arms and pulled her some distance down the corridor. She leant close to Tanguin’s ear.

“He’s infected,” she whispered. She kept an eye locked firmly on the end of the corridor for any sign of Aart but he didn’t come. As she continued to speak, Tanguin’s eyes got wider. She shook her head in denial but Nova nodded once, firmly.

They walked back up the corridor and found Aart’s chair empty, the raw steak gone from his plate.

“Aart?” Nova said, keeping her tone light.

“In the command centre,” his voice floated back through the ship.

Nova and Tanguin crept through the passageway until they came to Aart’s pilot pod.

“Aart, can you give us a lift back to my ship?” Nova said.

“What? You don’t want to walk?” Aart said, his brows drawing together.

“I really don’t want to push that trolley through the forest.”

Aart snorted. “Put that down as the first time Nova ever asked for help.”

“I wouldn’t call it asking for help,” she said. “More like making sure all the bases are covered.”

“Call it whatever you want,” said Aart.

“You did offer first,” she said.

“Yes, yes, I’ll take you.”

“Excellent. Whenever you’re ready.”
















CHAPTER THIRTEEN






The ship vibrated beneath their feet and then lifted out of the forest and into the air. It was only a short trip across the plains to the tribal village and Crusader. Nova felt the ship descend and her stomach lifted up into her mouth. She got to her feet and tiptoed to Aart’s command room, Tanguin trailed along next to her.

“Does it look like they’re still alive?” she said.

The front screen flickered over to the exterior cameras which looked down on the tribal village. The image showed the small colourful tents and Crusader parked off to the side.

“Look!” Nova said, pointing to a tiny figure which lay between the tents. “It’s not moving. I think it’s dead.”

“Yep, they all died a few hours ago. Just convulsed and collapsed as one,” Cal’s voice said over Sylar’s speakers. The two ships had recognised each other and connected their audio feeds. Some of Nova’s panic faded at the sound of Cal’s familiar voice.

From his chair, Aart shrugged. “I guess that proves they were from the same queen.”

“What?” Nova said, looking down at him with her eyebrows drawn together. “You think there could be more than one of those things here?”

“Well it makes sense doesn’t it? It’s a big planet. There could have been more than one hive.”

Nova stared at Aart, her mind racing. She knew he was right. He had to be because he was infected, unless Cal was wrong. And if there was another queen here, they had to get rid of it. Otherwise their whole mission was in vain. Freya’s death would have been for nothing other than a few extra credits. She pushed the alarm further down, for the moment she had a far more urgent problem.

“Are you feeling ok?” she asked Aart.

“What? Yes. Fine. Why wouldn’t I be?” he asked, returning her hard stare.

“Oh no reason, you know, just making sure.”

“Right as a ransom,” Aart said.

“Good, good. Hey, would you mind coming with us to Crusader. You never know what might be sitting outside.”

“Sure,” Aart said with a smile.

He stood up. As he did so, the side of his face came up level with Nova’s eyes. Shimmering in the light of his dashboard was a trail of green slime. It went from his jaw, up his cheek and into his ear where it disappeared from sight.

Nova’s heart beat faster. It pounded in her chest and she felt heat on the back of her neck and her ears, but she kept her expression neutral, unconcerned. She stepped away from Aart and let him lead the way through Sylar and out of the main doors.

“Wanna push the trolley?” Nova said, bending her head towards the anti-grav device.

Aart rolled his eyes and grabbed hold of the handles. He guided the trolley down the ramp and wheeled it towards Crusader. The ships were parked only twenty metres apart, the village visible in the distance.

Tanguin stepped out last, a hand resting on her rarely-used pistol. The sun shone down from the clear sky and lit up the land around them. The bright green fields stretched away into the distance. Nearby were the uneven tents of Vera’s tribe.

Sylar’s door slid shut behind them. Nova let Aart walk in front of her and watched his every footstep. Her stomach rolled with what she was about to do but she couldn’t see any other option. She took a deep breath to steal her nerves and then pounced. She lunged at Aart’s midsection and knocked him to the ground. They rolled over the hard dirt as they wrestled for control. Nova had the element of surprise. She grappled him and pinned his arms above his head, locking his legs beneath her body. The trolley was left forgotten.

“What the hell, Nova?” Aart said, struggling against her.

“Aart, I want you to stay very calm,” she said.

“Screw calm, get off me! Tanguin, get her off of me.”

Aart’s face glowed red and a vein throbbed in his neck as he strained against Nova’s grip.

Tanguin’s face remained blank; she stared off at the village, ready.

“Aart, I think you’ve been infected,” Nova said, keeping his hands firmly locked.

“What?” Aart said, staring up at her with an open mouth. “Are you serious? You’re the one that attacked me.”

“I just think it would be best if you didn’t go off on your own just yet,” she said.

“Get off me or I swear—” Aart began but before he could finish his sentence Tanguin clapped handcuffs around his wrists so that they were locked together.

“Come with me to my ship and if everything is fine, I’ll let you go.”

“Are you mental?” Aart asked. “I should have listened to Kero, you are a nutcase!”

Nova tried not to listen to the words. The Aart she knew wouldn’t say that. She had no doubt that Kero had indeed called her a nutcase, but that was another thing entirely. Sylar had tried to warn them as soon as they stepped inside: foreign matter detected.

“Alright, we’re going,” she said.

She climbed up off of Aart and hauled him to his feet by the handcuffs. She didn’t give him time to regain his balance before propelling him towards Crusader. Her rusted ship sat only ten metres away, but she wasn’t going to risk Aart getting the better of her. She pushed and shoved him along, forcing his legs to move. She kept him upright by shear force.

As they reached Crusader the storage bay door slid open. Nova tossed Aart through the opening and dived in after him. The door slid shut after Tanguin.

“What’s going on?” Cal asked as he hovered into view. “Why is Artemis Goldson handcuffed on our floor?”

Nova had a knee on Aart’s back and held his cuffed hands behind him. He flailed like a dying fish on the metal floor, growling and cursing like the mine-worker he could have been.

“He’s been infected,” Nova said.

“By one of the slugs?” Cal asked, hovering closer.

“Yes, open up the cage,” she said.

Cal floated over to the cupboard-sized lockup made of steel bars that went from floor to ceiling. His panel opened and his metal arm extended out with a key. He turned it in the lock and the cage door swung open.

Nova hauled Aart to his feet once more and pushed him into the cage. He stumbled forward. Before he could turn around, she slammed the cage shut and it locked in place.

“You’re making a big mistake,” Aart said, glaring at her from between the bars.

“I’m only doing this because you’re my friend,” she said with stern eyes. “If you were anyone else, I would’ve just shot you.”

Aart’s mouth hung open and Nova left without waiting for a response. She walked out of the storage bay towards the pilot’s pod.

“Crusader, I want him monitored constantly. If it looks like he’s even thinking about trying to get out of that cage, I want to know.”

“Confirmed,” said Crusader. A tiny box flashed onto the front screen showing a live camera feed of Aart as he paced around in the tiny square which was his cage.

“Hey, Tanguin, I need some help. I’m afraid this one’s pro-bono though,” Nova said.

Tanguin stepped up next to her and rested her hands on the control panel. Her white face was lit up by the many flashing lights; her expression grim.

“Nova, you know I don’t come cheap,” Tanguin said.

“Ha-ha,” Nova said. She kept her tone light but inside she was bubbling with anxiety. Aside from Tanguin, Aart was her only other friend and if there was anyone in the universe who deserved not to be taken over by a slug, it was him. She had to find a way to cure him or she’d never forgive herself. “We need the drug pattern.”

“Are you going to do what I think you’re going to do?” Tanguin asked with a twinkle in her eye.

“You bet, but as far as you know, it’s all above board,” Nova replied.

“Of course,” Tanguin said.

“So you’ll do it?”

“Let’s call it my good-karma for the year,” Tanguin replied. “Plus, Aart is my friend too.”

“Alright, deal,” Nova said. “How long will it take?”

“I’ll get started straight away but it’s hard to say. Depends on the security. Plus, I’ll have to run it through my computer because yours is a dinosaur,” Tanguin said. “No offence, Crusader.”

“No, how could that be offensive?” Crusader replied. The mechanical voice was monotone, filled with indifferent indignation.

“Thanks, Tanguin,” Nova said, getting out of her chair. She gestured for Tanguin to take a seat and get comfortable.

“You know this will be a class three criminal offense,” Cal piped up. He had watched the whole exchange. His damaged panel was still hanging down, exposing his inner parts. It was practically naked for a robot; with all his wires and processors showing.

“Add it to the list,” Nova said.

“But what about all the work that went into—”

“Cal! When I’m rich and famous, I’ll pay them back but right now all I care about is saving Aart. Is that alright with you?” Her voice was low but threatening.

“Affirmative,” Cal said, whizzing out of the room as fast as he could before Nova threw something at him.

“And fix that panel!” she called after him. “You look ridiculous.”

Nova only had time to go to her food generator and grab a drink before she heard Tanguin’s voice calling her.

“What have you got?” she asked. In response, Tanguin tapped a few buttons on the control board and the large front screen was filled with a molecular compound, complete with three dimensional structure.

“Tanguin, you’re a genius,” Nova said. “Crusader, patch that through to the food generator. Today it’s making more than pizza.”

Nova and Tanguin went to the food generator: many other functions, to watch the magic in action. Just like it said on the box, it could generate almost anything, provided it was given the right structural blueprint.

Chemical compounds were relatively easy for the machine to create. It simply layered each atom on in turn, allowing the chemical bonds to form naturally and breaking them where necessary. It was exactly the same process it had used to generate her Parapem, although this drug was not in the public domain.

Nova smiled as the machine dinged to let her know it was finished.

She opened the door and looked inside. Sitting in the very centre on a glass plate was a small pill. It was red on one side and blue on the other. She picked it up between her thumb and forefinger and brought it up to her eyes.

“Confirm compound,” she said.

“Confirmed Galvoxin,” Crusader’s smooth voice echoed through the ship. “The same drug used to stop the slug invasion of the Confederacy.”

“Okay,” Nova said.

“How were you planning on getting him to swallow it?” Tanguin said as they both looked down at the tiny red and blue pill.

“You don’t think he’ll just do it?” Nova asked.

“No way, that thing has control of his brain. It’s designed to make sure he and it survives.”

“Well how would you make him take it?”

“You could try tricking him, you know hide it in a piece of steak or something. Like you would for an animal.”

“Might be worth a try,” Nova said, staring down at the pill and begging for it to give her the answer. “Doesn’t this come in needle form?”

“No, to get rid of the parasite completely, it has to go through the digestive tract,” Tanguin said as she reviewed the drug notes on the front screen.

“Piece of meat it is then,” Nova said.

She set the food generator to work once more and a few moments later she pulled out a palm-sized steak which was still dripping blood. She drew out her pocket knife and sliced the middle of the meat, creating a hole into which she poked the pill.

“There,” she said, holding up the meat. With all of the blood and juices the tiny incision was invisible. She double checked to make sure it was a boneless steak. She’d heard enough horror stories of people being stabbed to death with shards of bone to make that mistake.

“Will it matter that he only just ate?” Tanguin said.

“I don’t think so. The way he wolfed down that steak before, I think the slug’s done something to his metabolism.”

Nova and Tanguin hurried through Crusader to the storage bay. Aart was standing in his cage glaring at them. His eyes followed them as they walked across the storage bay and stood outside of his cage.

“Brought you some food,” Nova said, holding up the steak.

“What am I? Some kind of animal? Where’s the plate and cutlery?” Aart said.

“I’m not giving you a knife,” Nova said. “Just eat it.”

Aart bared his teeth but snatched the meat out of her hands. He buried his teeth into it and tore at the flesh. Blood poured down his chin and over his hands, but he kept eating.

Nova tried not to seem too interested. She turned to the side and pretended to fiddle with something on the workbench. Tanguin did the same, but they both kept their eyes on Aart. When he reached the middle of the steak, Nova held her breath. He ate straight through the until the entire steak was gone. She breathed a sigh of relief. She and Tanguin went to the cage and stared inside.

“How do you feel?” Nova asked.

“What do you mean?” Aart said, his eyes narrowing.

“I was just wondering if you were feeling good,” Nova said.

“Good? How can I feel good when my friends have turned into maniacs and locked me in a cage? How can you ask me that when—”

Aart’s face went deathly pale and his body convulsed. He thrust his head forward and spewed up all over Crusader’s floor. It didn’t stop there. He kept throwing up, over and over again, until there was nothing left except dribbles of saliva which he coughed and hacked out of his mouth.

“Look!” Tanguin said, jumping behind Nova.

Nova looked at the ground. Squirming in the middle of chunks of regurgitated steak was a black slug. It quivered for a moment and then lay still.

“How did it come out of his stomach when it crawled into his brain?” Nova said out of the corner of her mouth to Tanguin.

“The drug notes said the initial reaction is for the slug to slip down through the sinuses and into the throat. I guess that’s just how it works.”

“What the hell is that?” Aart said when the vomiting slowed.

“That's the slug that took control of your brain,” Nova said.

“That’s disgusting,” Aart said.

“You’re telling me,” Nova replied, “It’s on my ship’s floor.”

“Well it was in my head.”

“Let’s just all agree that it’s pretty gross,” Tanguin said.

Nova and Aart nodded.

“Well I don’t know about everyone else, but I am more than ready to get off of this hunk of rock,” Nova said.

“Me too,” Tanguin said.

“Me three,” added Aart.

“Well you’re not going anywhere in the state you’re in,” Nova said. “We’ll walk you back to your ship and the three of us will stay there again tonight. If you’re back in shape tomorrow we can head off.”

“Thanks,” Aart replied. “Although that would be a lot easier if you would let me out of this cage.”

“Of course,” she said with a smile. She thrust the key into the lock and the cage door creaked open.

“Thank you,” Aart said, stepping over the pile of vomit.

“Cal, I’ve got a job for you,” Nova said.

Cal hovered into view. He came to her side and his single eye looked down at the puddle on the floor. “Oh no, no you can’t be serious,” he said.

“You’re a labourbot, it’s your job,” said Nova.

“Cleaning up vomit was not part of the job description,” Cal replied.

“C’mon, it’ll take two seconds,” she said. “Meanwhile, Aart needs a drink and I’m pretty sure I could do with one too.”
















CHAPTER FOURTEEN






The next morning, Nova waved Aart and Tanguin off as they left in Sylar. They were heading straight for Zyx to make some quick cash before returning to The Jagged Maw for some much needed rest. The silver ship flashed up into the sky and then disappeared with a single sparkle.

Nova breathed a sigh of relief. As much as she liked her friends, she found a special kind of peace in being on her own. The stress of the last few days had given her a permanent headache and she was looking forward to being able to sort through all her emotions without the pressure of people watching.

The planet was eerily quiet. It was filled with the ghosts of all the people who had died and yet they were silent. Nova shivered as she turned and marched back to Crusader. She didn’t want to spend another second on the damned planet, but she didn’t have much of a choice because she still hadn’t found the warp converter. She kicked the dirt as she walked, cursing under her breath.

Crusader’s door slid open as she approached and she stepped inside. Cal was already hovering just inside the door. The ship was clean, the black soot marks on the wall were gone, and the pool of Aart’s vomit had disappeared.

“Well, it’s been an interesting trip so far,” she said, wiping the sweat off her forehead with the back of her hand.

“Indeed,” Cal replied.

“What I want to know is, why was Aart still infected? You said if the queen dies then all the slugs die too. So are you wrong or is there another queen we have to go after?”

“I believe the slug that infected Aart was a new queen. They were trying to start new colonies with the infected vomit.”

“Then I suppose it’s lucky none of the rest of us were infected,” Nova said, wiping her eyes with her hand. She shivered as she imagined a slug crawling into her ear and gnawing on her brain.

“Yes.”

“Still haven’t found the damned warp converter though.” She sighed and leant against a stack of boxes.

“Or have we?” Cal said. He hovered closer to Nova and his panel lifted up. Nested inside the small compartment was a sparkling gem.

Her eyes opened wide and her mouth dropped open. She stepped closer to Cal and gazed in at the jewel. It had a million facets which glinted in Crusader’s lights and also an inner glow which cast a green hue over Cal’s compartment.

“How?” she said.

“I was studying the children. They were infected: it’s some kind of larval form, and it needs to grow inside a human child. After it’s grown it takes over the child’s mind and forces them to walk back to the hive.”

“I don’t care about the children,” she said, waving her hand. “What about this?”

“I’m getting to it,” Cal said, his tone terse. “Anyway, the children in the village were connected to the same hive mind as the people in the colony ship. When you killed the queen they dropped dead too. I decided to use the opportunity to look around. Guess what I found sitting inside a tent?”

“Cal, you’re amazing,” Nova said, breathless. She ignored her conscience which sent a spike of guilt through her stomach over what happened to the children.

“I know,” he replied.

“Do you know what this means?” she said.

“We’re a step closer to getting past the Confederacy’s borders and into outer-outer space?” Cal said.

“Exactly.” Her face was covered in a bright smile.

“Good. Just think of all the information I could add to the Cloud if we could get out there, past the border,” Cal said, his voice oddly excited for a robot.

“Hold onto that with your life,” Nova said. “In-fact, seal that compartment closed. I don’t want anyone getting hold of it.”

“Affirmative,” Cal said, hovering to the nearest workbench to begin modifying himself.

Nova’s heart was light at the discovery. Not only did it mean she could leave Taive right now and not have to spend days trekking across the planet trying to find the jewel that had brought her here in the first place; it also meant that her goal of breaking free of the Confederacy was a little bit closer. The jewel was one of very few unmarked warp converters. The secret for their creation was closely guarded; a combination of facets, energy signals and radioactive isotopes went into creating one. Somehow, they were the key to getting past the Confederacy borders and finding true freedom.

Ever since she was a child, Nova had dreamt of nothing more than breaking free of the Confederacy’s imposed borders. They got bigger every year, giving the human population more room to expand, but always with the same all-seeing, constricting oversight. The Confederacy’s enforcers looked over everyone’s shoulders. The bounty hunters were somewhat less under the Confederacy’s thumb but it was still too much.

There was still a lot Nova had to work out before she could break free, including how the warp converters worked. But she was determined to get out of the Confederacy’s zone of control. She would get out into the beyond and breathe in untouched space.


***


“I still don’t feel comfortable about this,” Cal said as they put the metal panel back in place on Crusader’s wall and screwed it shut. The glowing mushrooms were locked safely behind the wall, out of sight.

“I really must adjust your law-abiding chip,” Nova said, returning her screwdriver to the toolbox.

“Yes, well maybe you should,” Cal said, hovering away from the landing bay.

Aart had returned to normal. From all reports, he had been successful in selling the mushrooms. Nova and Crusader were parked at The Jagged Maw, preparing to head to Zyx themselves. The mushrooms were carefully hidden inside the wall panel so that if the Confederacy did do an inspection, they’d find nothing but a few bottles of ethanol.

Not that they would look very hard. Half of the Confederacy enforcers around the Pleasure District were hooked on the drugs themselves. It made for a very lax security system. The officers in this part of the galaxy never looked too closely at the cargo. Firstly because they usually got a kickback from the smugglers, and secondly, they were usually so high they could never be sure if they’d actually seen something or if it was just another hallucinogen-induced mirage.

“Alright, Crusader, take us to Zyx. And remember, if you get us and our cargo there safely there’s a new depth detector in it for you,” Nova said as she plonked herself down into the pilot’s chair.

“I don’t know why you think it’s so funny. You’ll be the one dying in a horrible inferno if I misjudge the distance,” Crusader responded as she lifted up into the air.

Nova waved her hand at the ship and swigged the soft-drink she’d taken from the food-generator.

Crusader lifted up into the air and then shot into space, leaving The Jagged Maw far behind.

“Imagine if those creatures had taken control of you,” Cal said. “They’d have spread throughout all the known universe by next week.”

Nova chuckled. “Should you check my ears for an infestation?”

“I already ran a brain scan before we left Taive,” Cal said. “Crusader refused to leave until we were sure.”

“You did what?” Nova said, rounding on the robot.

“All in the name of intergalactic safety,” Cal said, hovering out of her reach.

“Damn robot,” Nova muttered.

She couldn’t help smiling. She felt lighter than she had since seeing the Ancients and for the first time in a long time, it was as if things were going her way. The money from the mushrooms would go a long way to helping her learn the secrets of the warp converter. She was a step closer to achieving her life-long dream.


***


They made it through the galactic checkpoints without a problem. Crusader stayed in space above the planet. There were all manner of rides scattered about. On the planet’s surface, the bright lights of a city covered with disco balls and laser lights flashed against the night sky.

“So we’re agreed?” Nova said to the face on the screen. “Credits, in my hand before you get the product.”

“Yes, yes agreed. And if you try to screw me I’ll have your arse faster than you can say Haven,” the face replied.

Nova nodded and strode back to her storage bay.

The exchange went down without a hitch. She dropped off the blue mushrooms to her contact on Zyx and received a healthy handful of credits in return.

She shrugged, what people chose to do in the Pleasure District was their business. She’d spent her childhood on the next planet over, Tabryn. While Zyx was famous for its hallucinogenic drugs and killer raves, Tabryn was the casino capital of the system and the gaming tables went all night. There were more casinos than anyone could count, catering to all types of people.

She shuddered. The best decision she ever made was to get off of that planet.

She hurried back into Crusader and the door slid shut behind her. She hid the credits in another secret wall compartment before returning to her captain’s chair.

“Let’s get out of here,” she said.

The rusted space ship lifted into the sky and shot away towards the stars.

Nova's Journey Continues…

Ever wanted to hunt a vampire?


They're nothing compared to the lecheons Nova faces in this gripping action adventure.


The blood-sucking lecheons are running rampant on Boullion Five and the police have been over-run.


Nova is the only one who will take the job, but with deadly cunning, super reflexes, and a thirst for blood, the lecheons could prove too much, even for her.


It will take her killer instinct to survive, and even that may not be enough..


The Nova Chronicles continue with Book Three: Hunter.


Find more information at:

http://www.saffronbryant.com/books/hunter


Pilgrim





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Choosing what to write can be tough, but the one thing that really helps is reviews.


So if you like this series, make sure you leave a review so that I know to keep writing them!













Find all of Saffron's Books At:

www.saffronbryant.com/books





The Lost Child Saga - An Epic Fantasy Series

The Fallen Star

The Herald of Darkness

The Hordes of Anarchy




The Nova Chronicles

Survivor

Pilgrim

Hunter

Gambler

Justice

Junkie

Adventurer

Prisoner

Stranger



ABOUT THE AUTHOR




Saffron Bryant was born on the 17th December 1990 in a small town in North Queensland. In 2010 she was diagnosed with a brain tumour. After extensive, life-saving surgery she returned to her home in Queensland to recover and finish The Fallen Star. She received a Bachelor of Biomedical Science in 2011.


Saffron has been interested in fantasy and science fiction writing from a very young age, writing her first story at the age of seven. She has always been fascinated by fantasy stories and has a passion for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Saffron currently lives in Sydney with her partner Michael Lee where she is completing her PhD in chemistry.


Connect with Saffron:


WEBSITE: www.saffronbryant.com

EMAIL: [email protected]

TWITTER: @SaffronBryant

FACEBOOK: www.facebook.com/saffron.bryant






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