Copyright 2015 Saffron Bryant
Published by Saffron Bryant at Smashwords
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Nova and Aart crouched at the back of the old building. Holes in the walls let in rays of sunlight that lit up the packed dirt floor and the broken crates scattered around them. Sharp splinters stabbed out of the broken wood, ready to pierce unwary skin. The scent of stale alcohol permeated the air, much like the rest of Glod.
They spoke in quiet whispers, their eyes scanning the walls and exits. Tanguin stood at the door, attempting to look casual while keeping a firm hand on her gun.
"Aart, would you just listen to me for two seconds?" Nova said. "This thing is bigger than we ever thought. There's something going on in Quadrant Two. They're eating people!"
"I already know all that, Nova. It's even more reason for me to stand up and fight."
"This is the Confederacy we're talking about. If they found out that you were even thinking of moving against them, they'd kill you and everyone you care about."
"It's worth fighting for."
Nova rolled her eyes. "This is ridiculous."
"This is our only chance," said Aart. "There are people who want change, lots of people. We wouldn't be standing alone. Please don't make me do this without you. With everything we've learned, we have to tell people; we can't just let it keep happening."
Nova stared into Aart's eyes. She frowned and a strong pressure pushed down on her skull. Why did Aart suddenly want to lead a revolution? Her stomach twisted. She couldn't let him do it alone, not after what she'd heard about Quadrant Two; the segment of the Confederacy that oversaw the Resources District and some other minor systems.
"I'll stand with you," she whispered.
"You will?" Aart's smile widened.
"Yes, I will. But we do it my way. There is absolutely no chance of us taking them in open warfare. We have to be smart, take them by surprise and eliminate the top command. If more people knew what was really going on, there'd be a revolution. The other Confederacy quadrants would have no choice but to shut Quadrant Two down."
"Okay," Aart said, nodding.
"Good. Now look, after today we can't be seen talking to each other like this. The Confederacy has eyes everywhere, even in The Jagged Maw." She reached into her pocket and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper.
"What's this?" Aart said, unfurling the tattered scrap.
"Use this code when you call me," Nova said, tapping the paper once.
"Alright," Nova said, getting to her feet. Aart followed suit so they stood facing one another. They grasped hands and shook with stern faces.
Nova turned and stalked out of the dilapidated building, Tanguin fell into step beside her. Aart would wait half an hour before leaving from the other side.
"How'd it go?" Tanguin asked.
"It looks like I'm going up against the big dog," Nova whispered.
"Well, I'll be damned," said Tanguin. "Never picked you as the activist type."
"I'm not. But I'm not going to let Aart go and get himself killed. He needs someone to watch his back."
"It looks like I'll be changing the world too then."
"What?" Nova said. She stopped and stared at Tanguin.
"I'm not going to let the two of you go alone. Plus, I can do a fair bit without being a crack shot."
"Tanguin, I don't think—" Nova's brows drew together and the corners of her mouth turned down.
"Oh please," said Tanguin. "We both know I'll be in far less danger than you. And besides, after what you've told me about Quadrant Two, I can't just stand back and do nothing."
"I don't know…"
"Oh c'mon, if I can survive the great Un-Connecting, then I think I can handle Aart's little rebellion.
The corners of Nova's mouth twitched. "Okay," she said, still not entirely convinced. "We'll start spreading messages tomorrow, the more people we can tell, the sooner the Confederacy will have to act. For tonight, I need a stiff drink."
"I'll drink to that," said Tanguin with a chuckle.
Minister Lenovo frowned at the footage, a blood vessel pulsing at the base of his neck. He kept his arms folded in his lap but his fingernails dug into his palms as he watched the rebels. The only light in the small room flooded from the video screen along with the voices of treason.
"I want them gone," he said, his voice stiff.
A thin man in a blue suit stepped forward. "Of course, Minister."
"You said this was taken on Glod?"
"Yes. We've been tracking the male for some time."
"Are we still running experiments there?"
"Yes. Although the results aren't what we were aiming for."
"I know that! I've read the reports."
"Of course, Minister."
"See that they become our new test subjects."
"Right away, sir."
The thin man hurried away, his footsteps clicking on the metal floor of Quadrant Two headquarters.
Nova stumbled on a rough cobblestone and fell forward. Her hands and knees slammed into the rocky road and her hand stung as the pebbles bit into her palms.
She stayed on her hands and knees, staring at the road. Massive cobblestones, unevenly put together like a puzzle, spread around her. The road appeared wet, but she couldn't be sure. Clouds billowed at the edge of her vision as if a wall of mist was closing in on her.
Her head spun. She pressed her hands against her temples, trying to keep her brain inside her skull. The whole world tilted to one side but no matter how far Nova leaned in the other direction, the world just wouldn't go straight.
A rasping noise sent a jolt through her spine until she realised that it was her own breath. Why were there butterflies in her stomach?
She shot to her feet and sprinted down the road. A burst of energy overcame her and she was sure that if she slowed down she would explode with the force of it. She ran in circles in the middle of the street with her arms above her head, waving. She yelled nonsense into the night air; to her ears it created a beautiful song.
She burst into a fit of laughter and had to stop running. The great chuckles shook her stomach and the hysteria pierced the night air.
Someone spoke into her ears. The voice sounded familiar, robotic, but there were so many noises crowding in on her that she couldn't make out the words, or picture who the voice belonged to.
Her spine prickled. There were people behind, but why should she care? More people to sing and dance with!
She looked up at the dark sky. Rain streaked down, but she couldn't feel the drops on her face. She smiled and laughed up at the darkness.
The shadows around her closed in.
Large hands fell onto Nova's shoulders. Their weight made her knees wobble and ripped her attention from the starry sky.
She shook her shoulder in an effort to be rid of the annoying hands but they remained firmly in place.
She felt as if she was still running. There was the sensation of wind rushing through her hair and the muscles in her legs tensed and relaxed in time with her footsteps. Surely, if she kept running, the hands would fall away.
She ran, taking giant steps across the road and leaving the big, heavy hands far behind.
In reality, she knelt on the ground; scraping her knees across the rough cobblestone road.
The hands clamped around Nova's shirt and dragged her across the road towards an unmarked van.
She tried to object, but her slack mouth let out nothing more than a slur.
She felt herself being dragged backwards, even though she was sure her legs were taking her forwards. At the edge of her clouded vision she saw the van. Through her jumbled thoughts she knew one thing: she did not want to go into that van.
Nova strained to get free, but her arms and legs refused to obey her thoughts. The man heaved her halfway through the sliding side door so that her torso rested on a musty carpet that tickled her nostrils. The fabric scratched her face and skin as she twisted to get away from it.
Her bottom half remained dangling out onto the road when gunfire filled the night.
The hands fell away from Nova and she slid out of the van onto the hard road. Her legs scraped across the cobblestones, sending stinging pain like electric shots over her skin. Bright flashes of light flitted across Nova's vision. The sharp glare stung her eyes and they watered. The world was sideways again.
The cobblestone street filled her gaze. In the very corner of her sight she could make out a figure but it was quickly swallowed by flashing lights and loud bangs.
She struggled to sit upright, but her mind was so disorientated that all she did was push herself down onto the road.
She cursed and looked back at the figure. The gunfire had stopped now and the familiar shape approached. A single name floated through Nova's clouded memory; it was the same figure that had been trying to speak to her earlier. She laughed and the hysterical cackling lit up the night just as the gunfire had moments earlier.
Nova rolled around on the cobblestone road giggling.
"Nova! What happened?" Cal's voice rang through the night but she didn't respond.
Cal's circuits scanned for any other life-forms lurking in the dark allies. For now they were alone; the thugs lay dead in their van.
Cal lowered his round orb-like shape to Nova's level so that he was only inches from the ground. His metal casing shone in the starlight and droplets of rain slid down his sides. His panel lifted and a tiny metal arm extended out from the casing.
The robotic arm clasped hold of Nova's shoulder and Cal's motor whirred as he strained to lift her onto her feet.
His arm was much stronger than it looked and he managed to lift her into a sitting position. Internal alerts zipped through his circuits as he analysed his friend. Her clothes hung in tattered shreds, covered in the dirt and filth of the road she'd been rolling in. Her wet hair hung in grimy tangles that matted about her face. Worst of all, she was still laughing.
"Okay, up you get," Cal said, trying to keep calm.
"Up you get," Nova mimicked, which set her off into another bout of giggling.
Cal took a firmer hold of her jacket and lifted himself higher into the air. At first she resisted, sitting in the middle of the road with her hands folded across her chest. She looked up at Cal and poked her tongue out at him.
Cal refused to respond except by lifting with even more force. Nova had no choice but to get to her feet.
"Let's go," Cal said, floating towards Crusader.
Their spaceship was parked close by, which ended up being a good thing because Nova tried to run away three times. It was only Cal's firm hold on her jacket that pulled her back into line each time.
It took a lot of poking, pulling, and prodding before the two of them reached Crusader's door and by then Cal was more than worried. If he'd had a stomach it would have been clenched into knots. As it was, he settled for silencing the wailing alarms that threatened to burst from his speakers.
"In we go," he said, pushing Nova towards the opening.
"No," she replied, stopping and folding her arms across her chest.
"Nova, please. If you go in you can have chocolate."
Nova's eyes widened and she jumped into Crusader's landing bay.
"Humans," Cal muttered, flying in behind her.
Nova fell to the floor of Crusader's storage bay in a fit of giggles. She pointed at Cal and let out another burst of laughter. She stared up at the ceiling before moving her arms and legs in wide arcs as if she was making a snow angel.
"What's happened?" Crusader said. "Nova, respond."
"I can't get any sense out of her," Cal said.
"What could have happened?" Crusader's voice was panicked.
"I don't know. She was supposed to be meeting Tanguin. I only went to look for her because her medical monitor was going crazy."
Emergency alerts zapped through Crusader's processors. "What can we do?"
"She's been gone hours. Anything could have happened. There were people all around when I found her; they were trying to load her into a van!"
"Running a full medical diagnosis."
Cal hovered just above Nova's head. "Nova, I need you to respond, what happened? Where have you been?"
Nova giggled. "Cal, Cal, Cal. Pal! Ral, mal, tal."
"She's lost it," Cal said.
Nova spoke in gibberish between her chuckles.
"Nova, I need you to tell me where you've been. Where's Tanguin?"
"Tanguin!" she echoed but that was all the sense she would give.
"The images I'm getting from her chip are all wrong. She can see me but there are other things too. It's like she's watching the world through a kaleidoscope lens, and there are people everywhere," Cal said.
"Could it be the time vortex?" said Crusader.
Cal hovered to Nova's other side. "Probability is low. The images are different to the shadows she sometimes perceives. Although if she drops through time we'll have no hope of finding her."
"Medical scan reveals high levels of quasaphentamine. Her blood pressure and heart rate are excessive and her brain activity is also spiking. Her body should have given in already," said Crusader.
"Something like that could only be—"
"Drugs, definitely. Although no recognised agent is showing in her blood," said Crusader.
"Tanguin could be in danger," Cal said.
"I will alert the authorities."
"You can try. In a place like this I doubt you'll get a response. We have to find out where she was. Nova? Nova! I want you to think back for me. What were you doing before I found you? Do you remember seeing Tanguin?"
"Backwards thinking!" Nova yelled. "No, no, that's like remembering forwards!"
More laughter followed.
"See if you can access any peripheral images from her chip," Cal said.
Crusader went to work analysing the chip inside Nova's head. It detected images through a connection with her optic nerve but accessing it remotely without her permission could be dangerous.
"Nova, tell me about Tanguin. What did you two have to drink?" Cal tried a less direct approach. If he could get Nova to think about her night it would make it easier for Crusader to reach the memories.
"I'm getting something."
Nova's memories lay fragmented and shattered as if someone had come along and shuffled them, breaking some apart and hiding others.
She strode into a smoky, dimly lit room. A flickering neon sign above the entrance read 'bar'. A cacophony of noise surrounded her, like the hum of a bee-hive, as she pushed through the press of bodies. Torn denim jeans and black singlets pushed in on her from all sides. A band with scruffy hair and ragged voices added to the noise, their voices swirling with the smoke.
There was someone else in the bar that she knew, a familiar face. The other woman smiled and waved at her. Nova smiled back but in her memory the woman's name escaped her. The straight black hair and milky blue eyes are so familiar and yet she can't find a name.
"Tanguin," Cal's voice cut through the dim memories and the familiar name sent a flood of relief through Nova's tensed muscles.
She took a deep breath and plunged back into the memories. She and Tanguin sat on torn bar-stools and chuckled. They spoke about unimportant things, like the latest engines, both avoiding the big problem; the Confederacy.
Nova's muscles loosened as she spoke with Tanguin and some of the ache in her head faded away. Tanguin had been right, a night out just having fun, was exactly what she needed. She waved to the barman for another Blue Saturn. He returned with a wide triangular glass, overflowing with blue ice and a layer of mist. A cherry floated on top.
"So of course I'm going to update Delta's processors," Tanguin said. "Although she keeps threatening to kill me if I try."
Nova chuckled. "Is that a good idea? Your computer is already so powerful it could probably kill you right now."
Tanguin nodded and took a long sip of her drink. "Maybe, but she'll thank me when it's over. Just think of the benefits for you." Tanguin looked over her glass and winked.
Nova smiled; she couldn't argue with that, she relied on Tanguin's hacking ability as much as anyone else at The Jagged Maw. She opened her mouth to reply when someone slammed into her elbow, showering their drink over her clothes.
"What the hell—" She turned, but whoever it had been was gone. "Did you see them?"
Tanguin frowned and looked behind Nova's shoulder. "No, I was having a drink."
"Bastards," Nova said, swiping the cold drink from her lap. Some of her cheer faded away, replaced with dull annoyance.
Tanguin laid a hand on her shoulder. "Don't let them ruin our night! Tell me more about Drigoon."
Nova grinned and dove into a detailed story of the man-eating plants and dysfunctional family she'd encountered on the recently terraformed planet.
As the night progressed the memories became more fragmented. Nova's head spun and she had to grip the bar to stay upright. Tanguin frowned at her and said something but her words didn't make any sense.
Nova shook her head and held up her hand. She glared at the floor, determined to regain control. She tried to count how many drinks she'd had but her brain wasn't working properly.
Tanguin said something else and got up, walking away from the bar.
A misty darkness crept around the edges of Nova's vision. Her heart beat faster as she tried to make sense of the blurred images and distorted noise. She dropped off the barstool, feeling stifled and hot, unable to breathe. She pushed past the crowds of people, stumbling for the door. An inescapable need to be outside, to feel the cool night air on her face and to be away from the noisy room, consumed her.
She hurried out of the bar with an uneven gait, making a wobbly line up the road. Her back prickled, like unseen eyes were watching. Her foot caught in an uneven cobblestone and she collapsed to the ground, her head spinning as darkness closed in.
"She seemed fine when she walked in to see Tanguin," Cal commented after reviewing the images.
"The most likely suspect is the man who spilled his drink on her."
"Yes, but I can't make out his face, it's all greyed out in her memory."
"She's getting worse."
Cal looked down at Nova; the smile was gone from her face. Sweat poured out of her forehead as she breathed in short gasps.
"She's coming down from whatever it was."
"Heart rate and blood pressure are still rising. If her brain activity gets any more erratic she could suffer permanent brain damage."
"We've got to get her to a med-centre," Cal said. He didn't know what sort of medical facilities they had on a planet like Glod but they didn't have much choice.
"On our way," Crusader said, entering auto-pilot.
The ship lifted from the street parking and the internal systems linked with the nearest hospital.
Crusader's sliding door opened to reveal the bright lights of the hospital. People in white coats waited just outside. As soon as the door opened they climbed up into the storage bay and loaded Nova onto a trolley.
Cal hovered over her. "She's got spiking brain activity, inconsistent blood pressure, and hallucinations. She's been drugged."
A man holding a small tablet computer nodded. "Any friends or family want to accompany her?"
"I do," Cal responded, hovering forward.
The doctor looked him over and shrugged. "Turn off any weapons systems or you'll be barred from entry."
Cal floated out of Crusader's door just behind the frantic group of doctors. As they wheeled Nova towards the large side door of the hospital she began to convulse. Her eyes rolled up inside her head and her body jerked as if possessed.
Cal kept pace with the trolley as the doctors and nurses pushed it faster.
They wheeled it through the hospital entrance and zipped between people and machines, deeper into the enormous building.
While most of Cal's attention was on Nova, his backup processors tried to contact Tanguin, or her computer Delta. So far he had had no luck, the systems kept clicking but there was no one on the other end to receive his transmission.
The doctors wheeled Nova into a large ward where six other patients already lay. A few opened their eyes to watch, the others stayed asleep.
They lifted her into a bed with crisp white linen and a doctor stepped forward, obviously in charge.
"Read medical implant," he said.
The screen in front of him flashed and text appeared. He looked over the notes and his expression darkened.
"Does she do drugs often?" he asked.
"Never!" Cal said.
"We've been getting a lot of these," the doctor said, his expression turning sad. "It's some kind of new drug, we're calling it Ralium. It gives them multiple highs and lows but without another dose they die after twenty-four hours."
The doctor nodded, hanging his head.
"You must be able to do something!"
"Without a sample of the drug I have no way of knowing what's in it, or how to fight it. And trust me, there's no way anyone would hand over a sample, not once they're hooked."
"There must be a street informant or something…"
"No one can get it."
"She'll become conscious again?" Cal asked.
"Yes, and if I were you, I'd use the time to say goodbye."
Cal looked down at Nova's face. Her shivering had stopped, but beads of sweat swelled on her forehead, before trickling down her face. The needle in her arm connected to an IV bag that dangled by her bed was the only thing the medical staff could do. According to the doctors, dialysis would mean a painful and certain death.
Cal's processors swirled with despair, anxiety, and fear as they raced to find a solution for Nova, to find a way to save her. He scanned every known medical database, every miracle cure ever mentioned on the Cloud. He was so caught up in the research that it took three clicks before he noticed the incoming transmission.
"Cal!" Tanguin's voice crackled through his speakers.
Cal's projector cast Tanguin's image on the wall above Nova's bed. It had a soft glow and he was careful not to wake the other patients. A sense of relief flushed through him at the sight of Tanguin's face, at least she seemed okay.
"Cal, where's Nova? I lost track of her, I think she might be in danger."
"I've been trying to contact you for hours!" Cal said. His circuits burnt with anger and relief.
"I'm sorry! I've been out trying to find her," Tanguin said. She did look dishevelled; her hair piled in a tangled mess around her head and her eyes clouded with concern.
"She's here with me," Cal said, letting go of his anger. "She's not doing well. There's some kind of drug in her system."
"Where are you?" Tanguin asked.
"I'll be there as soon as I can."
When Tanguin's transmission turned off Nova's eyes flickered. Cal detected the motion and was beside her in an instant.
"Nova?" Cal said.
"Cal? Where am I?" Nova's voice was rough and husky and her eyes flickered.
"What? Why? What am I doing here?"
"Nova, something happened. You've been given some kind of drug. The doctors don't know how to fix it."
"How did I..?"
"I don't know but, Nova, listen. The doctor said that if you don't get another dose within twenty-four hours you'll die."
Her eyebrows shot up at Cal's words and then her body collapsed inwards, sinking down into the bed and seeming to shrink.
"I don't remember anything," she whispered. "I'm going to kill whoever did this."
"I don't know—" Cal's words were cut short by a hysterical scream. He and Nova looked at the entrance where nurses tried to clamp a young man to a trolley. He had incredible strength and pushed against their combined effort.
"Another case of Ralium," said one doctor to another.
"Dammit! That's the seventh one tonight!"
"And they're reporting the same at the other hospitals."
The patient kicked, screamed, and laughed as they struggled to lift him from the trolley onto the bed, and keep him there. He strained to get up.
"Strap him in, or he'll hurt himself or someone else," the doctor ordered.
Tanguin stepped into the ward and fought her way past the milling doctors and nurses who were trying to calm the newest patient. She ducked between people with the agility of a snake. Her small body made it easier for her to get past unscathed.
As soon as she was free of the press of bodies, Tanguin ran to Nova's bed, her face pulled tight with concern and even paler than usual.
"Nova!" she said.
"Hey, Tanguin," Nova replied with a shaky smile.
"I'm going to find out who did this to you."
"Not if I find out first. That bastard is going to pay."
"Are you better now? Can you leave?"
"No she can't," Cal said, cutting into the conversation. "She is having a lucid time now but it will only last a short while. If she doesn't get another dose within twenty-four hours, she'll die."
"What?" Tanguin's wide eyes turned to the robot.
"Cal, you don't have to tell everyone," Nova said, glaring at the robot.
"It is for your own health," Cal replied.
"That can't be right," Tanguin said. "They must have some kind of cure or something."
"Nothing. It is a new form of drug," Cal said.
"Okay, that's okay." Tanguin's eyes moved across Nova's face. "I just have to find whoever did this; find a way to bring you down easy and we're done."
"I have to get back out there," Nova said, pushing herself up into a sitting position.
"No way," Tanguin replied, shoving her back to the bed.
"That is impossible," Cal said.
"Let me up." Nova's voice was soft but deadly. "You're not a field Hunter, Tanguin. The guilt would kill me if you died because of me. And Cal, if you get damaged I won't be able to repair you, not while I'm like this."
"What if you go into relapse?" Tanguin said. "For you, I'll learn to be a field Hunter."
"If I have a relapse then I'll need you with Crusader to get my back. Cal will signal if I'm in trouble. It's best if I get out of this bed. What's the alternative? Wait here to die?"
"The doctors would never—" Cal began.
"The doctors wouldn't notice. I think they've got their hands full," Nova said, waving towards the other side of the room.
"I won't let you go alone," Cal said.
"Fine. This is what we'll do; Tanguin, you go back to Crusader and begin searching the Cloud for anything that could help us. Cal and I will go back to the bar and see if we can find any clues."
Tanguin frowned. "Isn't that a little reckless?"
Nova clenched her fist. "No. This time I'm going in with my finger on the trigger."
"Don't leave the ship," Nova warned Tanguin. "They could be looking for you or just looking for another victim."
"I'll stay here," Tanguin said. "But make sure you stay in contact the whole time. We need to know where each of us is."
Nova nodded and jumped out of Crusader's side door. Cal floated down beside her and they made their way through a darkened alley. A rusted metal sign proclaimed 'Robotic Rest-stop', partially covered by a grimy closed sign. Nova pushed through the door.
"Sorry, we're not open," said the bartender as he wiped a table with a filthy rag.
Nova leaned on the doorframe, trying to look casual but in reality just trying to stay standing. A flashing neon light just within the entry tickled her memory.
Her mind flicked back to the night before. Her mind flashed back and forth between images of the night before and what she saw now, making it impossible for her to tell which was real and which was remembered.
"Did you hear me?" the bartender said.
Nova ignored the man and strode into the bar, heading for the stool she had sat on the night before. At least that much she remembered. She dropped onto the rough wood and glared at the bartender.
"Oh, it's you," he said.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Nova asked, shoulders tensing.
"Can't say I'm surprised you forgot. Did you leave your communicator here or something? Or maybe your dignity? Either way, get out of my bar, we're closed."
"What did you say?" Nova's face flushed and anger boiled in her stomach.
"I said get out. After the fuss you caused last night I should throw you out myself!"
"Didn't your friend tell you? Running around, screaming, abusing my patrons, jumping on tables? Even my security guy had trouble getting hold of you."
Nova's stomach dropped. She couldn't remember any of that.
"I was drugged," she said, gritting her teeth.
"What?" The bartender leaned across the bench.
"I was drugged, you insolent son of a bitch! Right here in your bar! And another—"
Cal was there in an instant. He floated between Nova and the bartender breaking their eye contact.
The boiling rage in Nova's stomach dissipated, leaving a queasy feeling that burned the back of her throat.
She took a deep breath. "Sorry, they're still messing with me."
The bartender looked from Nova to Cal with caution and confusion.
"What my friend is trying to say," said Cal. "Is that last night someone slipped her some drugs. It's a new type on the market and if she doesn't find who gave them to her today, she'll die."
The bartender's mouth dropped as he watched the robot. "My bar you say?"
"Right here," Nova replied in a whisper, tapping the counter.
"That's not right. Bad for business." The soiled cloth dropped from his hand and landed in a crumpled heap by his elbow. "Let's see. You were here with your friend. I assume you trust her?"
"Tanguin would never!"
"Okay, okay; it's always best to check. Some people have the worst friends! Last night was pretty quiet. Lots of regulars. I know them better than I know my own family. None of them would have done it. There was a bit of commotion with that spilt drink."
"Do you know who spilled it?" Nova jumped on the possibility.
"No. Out-of-towner, I'd say. I know most of the locals. I suppose it could have been him. Everything else was pretty quiet until you snapped."
"What about these guys?" Nova said, nodding to Cal.
The robot swivelled and projected a rectangular video feed onto the nearest wall. It showed men in dark clothes dragging Nova towards a black van.
The bartender frowned as he watched the footage, squinting and leaning close. "They don't look familiar. Looks like your robot took care of them though…"
"Lucky he did," Nova said, clenching her teeth. "Are you sure you don't know them?"
"It's hard to tell in the dark, but they're definitely not any of my regulars."
Nova sighed, trying to ignore the shadowy figures bustling around her. She clung to reality by a tenuous thread, the drug making her visions harder to ignore. People from the past and future crowded in on all sides. She took a deep breath. "Do you have any of your own security footage?"
"Of course, had to install it. Riff-raff kept running off with furniture, didn't they?"
"Can I see it?"
"It's not really—"
"Please," Nova said, resenting the hitch in her voice. "If I don't find them, I'll die. My blood will be on your hands. Can you live with that?"
The barman wrung his fingers, the knuckles white. "I suppose it won't hurt to show you. Come to my office."
Stacks of paper and data chips filled up most of the man's office, which smelled of spilled alcohol. A photograph of a young girl decorated an otherwise sparse desk, facing a wall of monitors. Multiple cameras surveyed the bar, one of which looked down on the bench where Nova and Tanguin had been sitting the night before.
Nova's hand shook as she rested against the desk and watched the video feeds. She and Cal fast-forwarded through the footage, her stomach doing summersaults as each new face entered the screen. Any one of them could have drugged her, and she had no way of knowing which one it was. Lots of people moved through the field of view before Nova and Tanguin arrived on the scene. They took their seats and began to talk.
The fast-forward function made a comical display of their gestures but Nova didn't smile.
"Slow down!" she said when she saw a man trip and spill his drink all over her.
The video playback slowed. Nova and Cal watched in slow motion as the man pitched forward, his glass tilted. The contents fell straight onto Nova's clothes.
"Replay," Nova said.
The video playback rewound to the man first tripping and they watched the whole incident again.
"His face is away from the camera," Nova said.
"Playback other footage of that man," Cal said to the computer.
The computer screen broke up into several smaller windows and the playback showed the same man entering the bar and then walking through to order a drink. It was easy to recognise him by the red band tied around his arm.
"We can't see his face in any of them," Nova said, glancing from one screen to the next.
"It could have been deliberate," Cal said. "Maybe he knew where the cameras were?"
"So all we have to go on is the ridiculous red thing tied around his arm?"
"At least it's something," Cal replied.
"It's not enough! This bastard has sentenced me to death and there is nothing we can do about it!"
Nova's heart rate rose and a heat spread over her face.
"We're doing the best we can," Cal said in his calmest voice.
"I just can't—" Nova took a deep breath. "I need to go and calm down."
"Down the hall to your left," the barman piped up from the back corner of the room.
Nova turned away and ran to the bathroom. She burst through the door and leaned against the sink, breathing deeply. Her gasps created a cloud of fog across the cracked mirror as she glared at her haggard reflection. Dark circles encased her bloodshot eyes and a trickle of red ran out of her left nostril, collecting on her lip. She clenched her teeth and raked the back of her arm across her face, leaving a trail of blood. She plunged her head into the sink and splashed chilled water over her face.
With a ragged breath she turned back to the mirror.
A figure stood behind her.
She drew in a sharp breath and stumbled towards the door. Standing just behind her, with a cruel smile on his face, was the man from the video footage, a red band tied around his arm.
"Thought you'd be back," he said with a wicked grin.
"You bastard!" Nova said. Her hand moved for her gun. It felt as though a herd of horses were galloping through her chest, pounding against her lungs and making it hard to breathe.
As she fumbled with her weapon the man flickered, his image disappearing for a second. Her eyes dropped to the floor where a black box projected him into the air.
"Not much point in a weapon," the man said, gesturing to the transmitter at his feet. "I think I've got something you might want."
"I don't want anything from you."
"No? Not even another hit?" the man asked. He held up his other hand. Pinched between his thumb and forefinger shone a bright green pill that almost glowed in the dim bathroom.
Nova's mind raced. She reached out for Cal through her brain-implant but all she got was silence.
"You won't get any signal in here," said the man, pointing back to the transmitter. "An extra precaution."
"I don't need your drugs," Nova said, defiant.
"Oh I assure you, you do," he replied. "You will be dead in twelve hours without it."
"Why me?" Nova asked. "Why choose me?"
"Why anybody?" the man said with a shrug.
"Why are you doing this?"
The man responded with another shrug. "That's not for you to know. Stop wasting my time, do you want it or not?"
Nova trembled. She didn't want to accept the drugs but she could feel the fingers of death curling about her throat, waiting. Not only that, her blood itched with cravings. It was as if a tiny bug kept nibbling at her brain. Surely, that green pill would silence the gnawing.
"How much?" she asked.
"Two hundred, cash. Leave it behind the bin."
Nova thrust her hand into her pocket and pulled out a wad of cash. Her hands shook so much she couldn't count it. She settled with hurling the handful of money at the bin and turning on the holographic image.
"Give it to me!"
The man smiled. The top of the transmitter clicked and popped open, revealing a solid pill. Nova snatched it, sending the box skittering across the floor.
She clasped it in her hand and gazed at it, her mouth hanging open. She had to get out, to tell Cal and give it to him, but when she looked down she hadn't moved a single step. Time seemed to slow, encasing her with the pill, and with her need for it.
"No." She took a shaky step towards the door.
New cravings flared up from her stomach. Her skin crawled, as if covered in ants, and her lips kept drying out. She ran her swollen tongue over her cracked skin, imagining how the pill would taste.
It would get rid of the itching, and the pain, and her cloudy thoughts. If she just took it she'd be able to think clearly and find a way out of this mess.
"No." The other, annoying, part of herself said.
"I'll just take this one, then we'll fix it."
"I'll die without it."
"I can't handle it."
The scratchy burn racing over her skin drowned out any reply she may have had. She ran to the sink and shoved the pill into her mouth, lapping at the flow of water like a dog until the pill swirled down her throat.
When she looked back into the mirror, the man with the red armband was gone. She clutched at the sides of the sink like a life-line, her knuckles turning white. The eyes staring back at her from the mirror were those of a stranger, manic and wild.
Her tussled hair hung about her head in knotted bunches and scratches ran down her face and arms. She looked like a junkie who had been hooked for years, not just one day.
"What the hell am I doing?" she asked herself. The emaciated figure before her didn't reply.
She splashed water onto her face and looked around for something to wipe her hands on. The paper towel had run out but next to the dispenser was a note. Nova wiped her hands on her jeans and staggered over to the scrap of paper.
Each hit lasts a shorter time than the last. If you want to live past tomorrow, find me.
She turned the paper over. On the other side was a rough map, scribbled with a few simple lines.
She pushed her way out of the bathroom, stumbling into the bar.
"Nova, what's wrong?" Cal asked.
"He was here."
"The man with the armband, he was here. There was a transmitter in the bathroom." Nova bent double, gasping for breath. "He was right here!" Nova yelled, slamming her fist into the wooden door frame.
"Are you okay?" Cal asked.
Nova glared up at the ceiling of the barroom, ignoring the bartender. Her vision spun, sending the overhead lights into a swirling vortex.
"It's so beautiful," she whispered.
"Nova, did the man give you another dose?" Cal asked, hovering close.
Her tone was sterner than she'd intended. She didn't know why she lied but her thoughts were so tangled. It was like trying to beat her way through a jungle just to make the right words come out.
"Nova, you have to tell me the truth."
She looked at the robot and giggled at the way his round body hovered in the air.
"I've got to get you back to the ship," Cal said.
Just like the night before, he grabbed hold of Nova's shirt with one of his thin arms and steered her for the door.
"Thank you for your help," Cal called to the barman, who was looking after them with a mixture of concern and confusion.
"What happened?" Tanguin said as Nova fell through Crusader's sliding door.
"She's taken another dose," Cal replied.
"What? How?" Tanguin knelt by Nova's side as she laughed and rolled across the floor.
"She went to the bathroom. There was a transmitter waiting for her, it had another pill inside."
"What can we do?" Something clamped around Tanguin's heart, constricting her chest. Hot tears stung the corners of her eyes as she looked down at her friend.
"I think the best we can do is tie her down so she doesn't hurt herself or anyone else." Cal sighed.
"Okay. Nova, can you come with me?" Tanguin said, helping Nova to her feet. She led her through the ship to her bed and laid her down.
Before Nova knew what was happening, her arms and legs were tied to her bedframe.
"What? What are you doing?" she yelled.
"It's for your own good," Cal said.
"I'll show you your own good," Nova spat at them. "You stupid flying melon!"
"That's a new one," Cal said, but didn't move.
From there, Nova's condition spiralled. She mumbled and screamed about stars and flowers, wailing that her brain was on fire. She smiled and laughed, oblivious to her surroundings. If she'd been able to move she would have been walking around the city entirely unaware.
"Did you find anything?" Cal asked.
Tanguin shook her head. "Nothing helpful. There's been a steady increase in the drug's appearance. It's especially been a problem with random dosing in bars."
It was hours before Nova stopped giggling and started talking in understandable sentences again.
"We have to follow the map!" Nova said, grasping Tanguin's wrist. "We must follow the map and find the treasure. But shhh!" She looked around her sleeping pod with narrowed eyes before collapsing back to bed with delirious mutterings.
Over time the madness in Nova's eyes faded, to be replaced with exhaustion and withdrawal.
"We can track whoever is doing this," Nova said in a more reasonable tone later that evening. Her words scraped over her dry throat like knives as she scrounged for the energy to talk.
"Nova, we don't know what will be waiting for you if you go there."
"At least untie me. Look, I'm sane again," Nova said, resting against her pillow with a sigh.
Tanguin leaned over and loosened the straps around Nova's limbs.
"We should call the authorities," Cal said to Tanguin. "The map might give them the information they need to stop this."
"No!" Nova said, shooting upright in her bed. She stared with wide-eyes at Tanguin and Cal. A deep ache welled in her stomach, along with a sullen hatred for them both.
"Nova, I think Cal's right. We have to tell someone about this. More people could be in danger."
"No. I will go and find them myself," Nova said.
She tried to force a smile but it felt false on her face. She hoped that Tanguin and Cal would fall for her lie. She didn't want to stop this. She would do almost anything for another high, to see those beautiful stars again.
"Nova, you're not thinking straight. You are relieved of command," Cal said. "Crusader, summon the authorities."
"You bastard!" Nova spat.
The rage in her stomach boiled over and became strength. She leaped to her feet and bolted away from her bed. The drug poured adrenalin through her body, giving her super-human speed, and she shot past Tanguin and Cal, sprinting for the exit.
Even Crusader didn't have time to lock the door. Nova sprang out into the night and laughed as she ran. She was free!
"Cal, I've found the van!" Tanguin called from Crusader's command pod.
Cal flew into the room, his engine whirring.
"I've traced it through the city's video feeds. It's stopped at a shopping centre not far from here."
"Didn't I kill them?"
"I guess they had backup because it's moved."
Tanguin's heart beat in her throat. She had no way to track Nova except to find out who had drugged her, and the only lead she had on that was the black van that had tried to steal Nova away when she stumbled out of the bar. She'd been trawling through video footage all morning. Back at The Jagged Maw, her computer, Delta, was doing the same.
Her eyes stung from watching the fast-forwarded videos for so long, but finally she had something to show for it.
"We have to go on foot," Cal said. "Nova might come back here looking for us."
"Can't you trace her through her chip?" Tanguin said, scribbling the address onto the back of her hand.
"She's blocking our connection… or the drug is. I can't find her at all."
Tanguin grimaced and erupted out of the chair, hurrying for the main door. Her feet clacked against the metal flooring.
Together Tanguin and Cal dashed through the backstreets towards the mall and the black van. The beggars in the street barely paused to look up at them as they rushed past.
Tanguin squinted against the bright sunlight that stung her sensitive eyes, blinking away tears. The smell of desperation hung over the city much like the smog that coated it in a yellow blanket. She pushed herself to run faster, sure that they'd arrive just in time to watch the van pulling away.
They stumbled into the parking lot of the over-sized store and hurried down the lines of parking bays, trying to look casual. Tanguin spotted it first, the black paint gleaming in the sunlight. The tinted windows reflected the other cars, revealing nothing of the inside.
She and Cal slowed to a walk, meandering between the cars until they stood just one bay over. Tanguin pretended to look at Cal while studying the van. There was nothing about it to make it stand out. It was just another dark car in a parking lot.
"If we're going to place the tracker we have to do it now," said Cal.
Tanguin bit her lip and nodded. She took a deep breath and then grinned, stumbling forward and swiping at Cal with her right hand. "Come on! Don't be such a downer. I'm sure they'll sell us some Blue Saturns."
She spun in a tight circle, coming to a stop next to the van. She slapped her hand against the rear bumper and grinned over her shoulder at Cal. "Can you imagine if we had one of these! It'd be the best!"
Cal hovered up next to her. "Time to take you home."
Tanguin pouted. "But I don't want to go home!"
Cal's thin arm shot out and snapped around Tanguin's wrist. "Parents' orders."
He hovered backwards, away from the van, taking Tanguin with him. She wailed and complained but followed him away from the car park and out of sight of the van. They ducked into a side alley and Tanguin leaned against the wall, gasping for breath.
"Wow. That was no fun at all. I don't know how Nova does it."
Cal's eye swivelled to look at Tanguin. "I think she's crazy."
Tanguin chuckled and swiped her hand across her forehead. "Maybe you're right." The mirth died in her throat as she thought of Nova. "I hope she's okay."
A cool wind whispered down the alley and made the discarded rubbish rustle across the pavement.
"They're moving," Cal said.
Tanguin pushed off the wall. "Which direction?"
"Heading away from us. They've turned left. Now right."
"We have to follow them. They might have Nova."
"The transmitter has an audio feed. I can hear some of what they're saying."
Tanguin waved her hand. "Put it through!"
"… We collected another twenty last night. So far it's looking good."
"Won't mean anything if we don't find those targets."
"If Bobby's crew hadn't got themselves killed we'd have them. But don't worry; we'll find them. They always come back, you know that."
The man let out a deep sigh. "This one felt different."
"No one's different. She'll show up."
Music blared through the transmitter and drowned out the voices. The colour drained away from Tanguin's face. "They're talking about Nova."
"We'll follow them. They've stopped again. It looks like a house. If they have Nova, we'll soon find out."
Tanguin nodded and trotted to the end of the alley, Cal following close behind.
It took them much longer to reach the van on foot and by the time they turned the corner and saw it parked by the side of the road, Tanguin's legs burned. Her heart leaped into her throat and she ducked behind a sparse bush, sweat trickling down her forehead.
Cal hovered to her right, his lens eye swivelling.
"Anything?" Tanguin asked.
"They have indeed stopped at a house. It's big. No sign of them."
Tanguin risked a glance over the bush. The house looked more like a mansion. A vibrant green garden spread out around it, making the black van stand out even more.
"What the hell…" Tanguin whispered, her voice trailing off.
Nova looked down at the scribbled map in her hands. Somehow the paper had become scrunched and wet in one corner. She narrowed her eyes and tried to make out the thin lines. They refused to stay still on the page, instead insisting on dancing and wobbling around.
The motion of the lines mirrored that of Nova's body which swayed back and forth like a tree in the wind.
She spun the paper around and looked up at her surroundings. Dull grey buildings towered over her. Broken windows outnumbered the unbroken ones and rubbish gathered in every corner.
In front of her a dark tunnel led down into an old subway station. A single piece of wood dotted with rusty nails blocked the entrance with the words DO NOT ENTER scribbled across it.
Nova stared down at her map one more time and then stumbled to the tunnel. She ducked under the piece of wood and was engulfed by darkness. She had to place one hand against the cold wall to keep her balance as she searched for the next step, her foot waving through the air.
Her feet made splashing noises and cold droplets sprayed up her legs. There were times when Nova forgot what she was doing and stopped her descent. She stood on the stairs for full minutes before remembering the map in her hand and the instructions.
By the time she entered the dim light of the abandoned station she'd lost track of where she was. A chill washed over her skin, raising small bumps along her arms, but she was too focused on her next hit to notice.
Torches flickered with firelight, casting an uneven glow. To the left and right of the platform the train tunnel extended into deep black holes. People scurried along the tracks like rats, stopping to rummage through piles of rocks. Even more people congregated on the platform. They shuffled through the puddles or sat against the walls of the station, their eyes crimson.
A semi-organised line extended out from the ticket booth. Some of the people stood in line like brainless corpses whilst others pushed their way forward with an air of desperation.
Nova's eyes narrowed at the ticket booth. She felt an urge to giggle but held it down. Her vision was getting hazy again and the shapes in the distance kept going in and out of focus.
Inside the ticket booth sat a man with a red band around his arm. He wasn't the one she'd seen earlier that day; this one wore a thick beard and a frown.
He snatched a wad of cash from the man at the front of the line and held out a fluorescent green pill. The man in line grabbed the pill and cradled it in his palm, gazing at it like he would a child. Nova saw the soft glow of a pill and a jolt went through her brain. An inescapable urge came over her to get hold of the pill.
She ran for the ticket booth. The people around her disappeared until there was just her and the pill.
"Whoa, take it easy," a big man with a red armband grabbed hold of her and lifted her feet from the ground.
Her legs kept moving before she realised she had stopped going forward.
"There's the line," the man said, pointing his thick finger to the end of the ragged queue.
Nova's mouth wouldn't form words so instead she nodded and shuffled to the end of the line. The hackles on her neck rose as she glared at the surrounding people, daring any of them to try to take her place.
A man in a leather jacket yelped, lifting his hands into the air. He sprinted away down the tracks and disappeared into the darkness of the tunnel. A woman sat against the far wall giggled at his sudden display, whilst others huddled into the darker corners of the station, not moving.
Nova shivered when she saw a particularly stiff body.
As well as the crazies and the dead, there were others who came down into the train station. These were people that Nova wouldn't look twice at on a busy street, but here they were, joining the queue behind Nova and waiting for their own hit.
She debated leaving the station. It wouldn't be hard to turn and walk back up the stairs, except that every fibre of her being yearned for another hit. It was an urge she couldn't fight and so she stayed in line.
"Ah, fresh blood I see," said the man at the ticket booth when Nova stepped forward.
She pressed her lips together and stared at the man without talking.
"Well?" The man said.
"H-how much?" she asked.
"Wow, you are new," the man chuckled, pointing to a cardboard sign in the window of the ticket booth. One hundred credits.
"Oh," Nova said.
She sunk her hands into her pockets, hoping that she had left some cash in her jacket.
"Ah!" she said, pulling out a handful of notes.
She didn't bother to count them, at that moment she could barely tell which way was up.
"Here's your change, and here's your pill," the man said, pushing the money and the drug under the glass screen of the ticket booth.
"Can I have two?" she whispered, her lips cracking.
"One pill at a time. That's the rule," he said, waving at the man behind Nova.
Nova snatched the pill and money, shoving them deep into her jacket pockets.
The man behind her elbowed her out of the way and she stumbled across the platform. She hobbled to the nearest corner and stared at the mouldy bricks. She wanted to swallow the pill right there. It burned a hole in her pocket and her hand kept slipping down to caress the tablet. In her mind's eye she could see a big green pill twirling in black space.
"No," she chided herself. She had to save it. She had to keep it until she absolutely needed it. She'd taken the last one too soon, what if she hadn't been able to find another hit? Any thought of giving the pill to Cal or Tanguin had died. It was hers. She'd earned it, and when the cravings became too much, she'd take it. But not now… not yet.
She bit hard on her lip until the tangy taste of blood filled her mouth.
Nova made it up the subway stairs and into brightness. The sun shone into her bloodshot eyes and made her squint in pain.
She stumbled away from the subway entrance and into the shade of the closest building. Her head throbbed but knowing that she had a pill spare made her heart flutter. Anew high crept through her and a pleasant tipsiness gripped her body.
She swayed from side to side and looked down at her open hand to examine the scribbled map. She frowned at her hand but the map wasn't there. She turned her hand over to look at the other side but the piece of paper wasn't there either.
"Grishnak," she said, looking up and down the street. She didn't recognise any of the buildings. She couldn't even have said whether she'd been here before, except that it was the only entrance down to the train station.
She looked left, looked right, and then stumbled down the road to her left. She tried to look normal, to blend in with the rest of the people. In her own mind she did a fantastic job. In reality, her footsteps took her back and forth across the footpath in a zig-zag pattern that made the rest of the pedestrians cross to the other side of the street.
Nova battled on even as sunset descended. The streets got darker as the sun's light faded and the dim lamps flickered on and off. Despite her best efforts she found herself going deeper into the slums of the city as night approached.
She spun in circles. She tried to stop, to pick a direction, but her body kept tilting to the left and she was forced to follow it. It was like her head was getting heavier with every passing second and it weighed her down, pulling her towards the rough pavement.
Through her blurred, spinning vision, Nova saw a group of men approaching. In her stomach she felt a deadly sense of Déjà vu. The men smiled at her and formed a rough circle around her spinning body.
"Got any Ralium?"
"What? No," Nova stuttered. But her slurred voice gave her away, even if her jerky uncontrolled movements hadn't.
Rough hands grabbed at her arms and patted down her sides. Fingers slid into her pockets, searching for the shiny, green pill.
The thought of them taking the pill sent Nova into a panic. Her body came back under her command and she lashed out, shaking her attackers loose. She snatched for the gun at her waist and fired at the men surrounding her.
She was usually a crack shot; today the bullets went in all directions. She didn't pay any attention to the wayward balls of energy, keeping her finger on the trigger and spinning in circles.
The continuous spray of blue plasma bolts sent the group of men running, but they weren't fast enough. The wayward spray of shots slammed into their backs and they crumpled to the ground with solid thumps.
Nova smiled as they fell. She was so engrossed in the bright lights firing out of her gun that she didn't even notice when all of the men were dead.
It wasn't until her gun overheated and a burst of pain shot through her hand that Nova was knocked out of her trance. She dropped the gun with a cry and looked at her red, blistered hands.
Bodies spread out around her, at least seven of them. Gaping wounds smouldered black and the scent of burning flesh filled the air. Black marks dotted the buildings where her shots had gone wide and the street looked like a battleground.
She took a deep breath. Night had descended and the gunfire was bound to bring others. She had to protect the pill.
She snatched the gun from the ground and ran down the street away from the dead bodies. The fear and adrenalin pumped the drug faster through her veins and her head sunk deeper. She saw ghosts and ghouls on either side of her, and the buildings seemed to morph until they had faces which leaned down and tried to eat her.
The sights made Nova run even faster. She had no idea where she was, and in the depths of her mind she knew she couldn't run forever, but that didn't stop her trying.
Amongst the darkness and the hallucinations she spotted a bright light. It was as if a shining orb was guiding her way through the darkness. She sprinted straight for it.
In reality, the streets were still dark and she was running towards a dark object barely discernible in the night. But somewhere in her mind she recognised the shape for what it was: Crusader.
She ran. With the last of her strength she collapsed through Crusader's side door and blacked out.
Cal and Tanguin looked up at the massive house from the thin cover of the bush.
"Why would someone who can afford to live in a place like that be dosing people with a street drug?" Tanguin asked.
"Maybe that's how they afford it," Cal said. "We should assess the property anyway."
Tanguin nodded and stood from the bushes. She sauntered past the mansion, counting the windows out of the corner of her eye. Cal hovered beside her, his processors whirring. They made two passes and stopped next to the van.
Tanguin forced a smile and kicked at a small rock, giving Cal time to assess the property. They tried to keep casual, but on the silent and very upper-class street they stood out like the Easter Bunny at Christmas.
"Lots of rooms," Tanguin said.
"It's well kept; I predict there are many people working here."
"So what now?" Tanguin asked.
They turned back to the mansion.
Meanwhile, inside the mansion, a man looked down on the woman and the robot. He smiled at them but there was a slight twist in his stomach, a twinge of fear.
"Get them in your sights," he said to the man at his side.
The man in question knelt by the window sill and looked down the sight of a long sniper rifle.
The curtains hiding the two men ruffled in the breeze. The man giving the orders glared down at the pair. They kept looking at his house, and he knew exactly why.
"Make sure you get the robot first, he'll pose the biggest threat," he said.
The two men steadied their breathing. The first opened his mouth to give the command but before he could speak the girl and the robot walked away.
"Never mind," he muttered, turning away from the window.
"Crusader is sending an emergency signal. Nova is back, and she's unconscious." Cal's voice quaked as his motor's whirred into overdrive and he zipped down the street.
Tanguin sprinted to keep up with him, her heart in her throat. A cold sweat sprung across her forehead and prickled down her neck. "I hope Nova is okay," she said, gasping for air.
Cal didn't respond.
They dashed to the ship and the door slid open to welcome them. Tanguin grabbed hold of the handrail to pull herself in and stopped dead. Lying in front of her, sprawled across Crusader's floor was Nova's body.
Tanguin collapsed to her knees by her friend's side. "Nova! What happened?"
Crusader's voice filled the loading bay. "She ran up like she was being chased. I opened the door and she fell straight through, unconscious. Her symptoms are the same as before, blood pressure and neural activity are reaching dangerous levels."
"Is there anything we can do?" Tanguin asked.
"No. Just hope that she wakes up again soon."
Nova's eyes fluttered open. The familiar feel of her own bed cushioned her back and Tanguin gazed down at her with a concerned frown.
It was the most emotion she had ever seen on Tanguin's face. Usually the dark-haired woman was an unreadable slate.
Nova's head spun. It was as if her brain was sloshing from side to side within her skull. She took a deep breath and nausea rushed through her stomach. Her skin felt as though it was on fire and she fought a deep urge to scratch until it peeled off in tattered shreds.
Already a voice whispered into her head, urging her to take the pill. She squeezed her eyes shut and focused on her memory of the train station and the stiff bodies shoved into the darkest corners. Her heart fluttered in her chest as she reached into her jacket pocket and closed her fist around the pill.
She bit her lip and looked up at Tanguin. It would be so easy to slip the pill into her mouth, and no one would know. She'd be blissfully free of her pounding headache and the fiery ants that squirmed below her skin, but another part of her knew that this was her one chance. If she didn't do the right thing now then she was as good as dead.
She ran her fingers through her hair but when they came free a bunch of hair came with it. Black strands circled her fingers, dull and lifeless.
"What the—" Nova choked.
Tanguin's frown deepened. "It started last night," she whispered.
Nova ran her hand over her head and found more bald patches, whole segments of hair fell free and coated her pillow, whispering through the air like falling leaves.
She ripped her clenched fist free of her pocket and thrust it towards Tanguin. She couldn't meet her friend's eyes, and instead glared at the ceiling. The muscles in her arm jerked, as if trying to pull her hand back.
"No," she said to herself, forcing her hand open.
Tanguin's eyes opened wide, her mouth dropping.
"Take it!" Nova commanded.
Tanguin snatched the green pill away and stalked from the room with stiff restraint.
As soon as Tanguin's hand clasped around the pill Nova filled with rage. How dare she take the pill! That black-haired thief! Nova's mind raced with ways she would do away with Tanguin and take the pill back.
"No," Nova repeated. Her voice was less sure this time.
It felt as if her mind was doing battle with itself. Like her brain had split in half and the two were fighting inside her head. She closed her eyes and wished for the thumping headache to go away, it seared behind her eyeballs, pressing against them and making her wince. Tears trickled from the corners of her eyes and created wet patches on her pillow amongst the fallen hair.
"She handed it over," Tanguin said, amazed. "There's still some of her left."
"But for how long?" Cal asked.
The green pill lay in the centre of his workbench in Crusader's loading bay, illuminated by bright lights. Cal scraped a small amount from the side of the pill and dropped it into a vial. He pushed the vial into a beeping machine set into Crusader's wall.
The machine whirred into action and in a matter of minutes the attached monitor sprung to life with colourful graphs.
"Well?" Tanguin said.
"It tells us what's in it but whether that will help at all… I don't know."
"What are you going to do with it?"
"Send it through to the doctor; hopefully he will have a look at it and know what to do."
"Surely that's the first thing the hospital would have done?" Tanguin said.
"If they could get hold of a pill. It took a lot of Nova's will to hand it to you and you're her friend. From what I've seen of this drug I don't think anyone would hand a sample over to a doctor."
"The victims destroy the evidence. It's practically self-cleaning," Tanguin said.
"Yes. It's disgusting in its genius."
Nova writhed in the sheets, her eyes squeezed shut. She ground her teeth together and clenched her fists.
"Cal! Cal! I can't do this! I can't wait any longer!"
Cal said they were waiting to hear back from the doctor, but that didn't stop the ants from crawling under Nova's skin or the constant burn running through her head.
Her mind raced out of control, thoughts jumping without any kind of order or sense. Random images flashed up into her consciousness and her head ached from the battle raging inside of her. Sometimes she saw things that weren't really there and yet she had no way of knowing if they were hallucinations from the drug or if she was catching glimpses of other points in time; her power unleashed and uncontrollable with the drug in her system.
Her body burned with rage. At first she couldn't say what she was angry with. It seemed as if the whole world was conspiring to send her into a meltdown and she started noticing little things that scratched at her patience.
Tanguin kept talking to Crusader as they searched through the Cloud. Their continuous chatter about drugs hammered Nova's head until she screamed at them to shut up. They ignored her which only served to make her madder.
She thrashed, straining to break free of the rope that tied her to her bed but the knots stayed firm. The fibres dug into Nova's wrists and chafed away the skin until blood dribbled into her mattress, but she barely felt the sting.
It was exquisite torture, because so much energy pulsed through her veins that she felt as if she could jump right through Crusader's walls. Instead, she was forced to lie on the bed, unmoving.
She arched her back, every muscle taut and when that didn't work she smashed her head back against the mattress. She did it again and again until her thoughts were so muddled that the room spun over her head.
"What's she doing?" Tanguin said, running to the door of Nova's sleeping pod.
Cal raced behind.
Nova thrashed from side to side, her arms and legs convulsing. She yelled and swore and slammed her head against the hard mattress.
"I'll kill you! If you don't let me go I'll kill you all!"
"She's going to hurt herself," Tanguin said, terrified.
"There's nothing we can do. If we release her she could do even more damage."
"You useless robot! I own you. Let me go this instant or I'll report you to robot enforcement!"
"Nova, please calm down." Tanguin stepped forward.
Nova ripped her head to the side and gnashed her teeth, grazing Tanguin's leg and leaving a trail of bloody spit.
Tanguin jumped back to the door, tears stinging the corners of her eyes.
"And you! I should never have been friendly to you, you freak! All the Connected should have died! If you don't release me I'll make sure you do."
Tanguin took a deep breath and tried not to let Nova's words affect her.
"Nova, I'm sorry, but you have to stay there."
Nova lifted her head and bashed her skull back against the bed, her eyes rolling.
"She'll do major damage if she keeps doing that," Cal said.
Tanguin ran in and snatched Nova's head, holding it firm against the mattress. It took all of her strength to fight against Nova's super-human might and hold her down. She had to look away from Nova's face, unable to confront the wild eyes and frothing mouth.
Cal flew up beside her and with a thick strap he tied Nova's head flat to the bed so that only her eyes could move. Once secured, he and Tanguin pulled away from the sleeping pod. Tanguin pressed the large orange button by the door and it slid shut. The door blocked most of Nova's yelling and the rest of Crusader became eerily quiet.
"Communication incoming from the hospital," Crusader said.
"Hello?" the doctor's face appeared on screen. He squinted at them with bloodshot eyes, surrounded by wrinkles.
"Doctor, have you found anything?" Cal asked.
"Yes, thanks to your analysis we now know the active ingredients. I'm afraid there's only one way to get people off the drug without killing them."
"All we can do is keep giving them smaller and smaller doses," the doctor replied. "After a month their bodies won't be reliant on it, although there's no telling how long the after-effects will last."
Tanguin smacked her palm against the metal bench. "That drug is destroying her body! There must be another way."
"I'm afraid not. I would have started with my patients but I don't have any of the drug here. Where did you get it? Can you get more?"
"We don't have any more. Nova knows where they're dealing from, but she's not exactly in any condition to get more," Cal said.
"Then I'm afraid my patients will likely die. But maybe you can save your friend."
"Doctor, are you sure this is the only way?"
"Quite sure, otherwise I would be rescuing my patients."
The screen went blank.
"What do we do?" Tanguin asked.
"We input the drug design into the food generator. You've done it before. We make more pills and send them to the hospital."
Tanguin bit her lip and turned back to the main console, her fingers darting over the controls. "It'll be uploaded in an hour or so, but I can't risk adding it to the Cloud. There's no way to stop other nut-cases from producing it and drugging people."
"Confirmed," said Cal.
"I wish Lara was here. I swear that woman could cure the plague with just a tea-towel and a pinch of salt," Tanguin said, referencing The Jagged Maw's medical expert.
Cal's internal processor's beeped. "The plague was irradiated last century."
Tanguin sighed and waved her hand. "I know, it was just a figure of speech."
Cal sliced up what remained of the green pill into smaller segments. "Peculiar."
Tanguin rolled her eyes and grabbed the largest piece, striding to Nova's sleeping pod.
Cuts covered Nova's arms and legs where the straps had dug into her skin. She glared at Tanguin with open hatred and bared her teeth.
"Nova, I've got some more of the drug, I need you to take it."
"Yes, yes!" Nova hissed, twisting towards Tanguin.
"Just hold still and I'll put it in your mouth."
Nova's body fell still but her eyes jerked. She opened her mouth wide as Tanguin approached.
Tanguin's heart twisted at the sight of Nova's pallid skin and deranged eyes. Her best friend looked like a pale ghost of her usual self. "Here."
She dropped the chunk of green pill onto Nova's waiting tongue. Nova closed her eyes and swallowed the pill with a smile.
"Where's the rest of it?" Nova's face darkened and her mouth turned down. Her eyes narrowed at Tanguin.
"I can't give you all of it right now," Tanguin said.
"What? It's mine! Give it to me!"
"I can't do that, Nova. It's for your own good."
"Hell to your preaching! Give it to me now!"
"I'm sorry, Nova." Tanguin backed out of the sleeping pod, Nova's curses following her all the way.
From there the days melded into one painful stream. Each morning Tanguin gave Nova a small segment off the pill, each more tiny than the day before. Each time Nova spat and cursed. She demanded to be given the whole pill but Tanguin refused to back down.
"Please! It itches!" Nova wailed. She twisted so that her skin scraped along her sheets in a desperate attempt to relieve the itching that covered every inch of her body, even her eyes. If her hands weren't tied down she would have raked her nails across her body until every spec of skin tore free.
She screamed as Tanguin shuffled away, leaving her with just enough drug to keep her alive, but not enough to give her a high. Every morning Nova pleaded to be given just enough to reach the high, where the pain disappeared and she'd be floating, but every morning Tanguin disappointed.
Nova gritted her teeth as she thought about the bitch Tanguin. She'd pretended to be Nova's friend for so long and yet here she was, torturing her. Nova spent her free time plotting the many ways she could kill Tanguin, and get rid of Cal. She fantasised about the day she could get free and run back to the train-station. She'd buy a whole bag of pills, and then she'd hide away, living in the clouds.
With each smaller segment Nova felt herself slipping away. It got harder to open her eyes because the lights above burned like lasers through to the back of her head, and she couldn't eat because nausea rocked her body and bile pooled in the back of her throat. Even breathing became agony as every movement of her chest felt like a knife stabbing through her lungs.
Two weeks later Tanguin handed her a tiny segment of a pill.
Nova glared up at her. "Give me the rest."
Tanguin sighed. "Nova, we've been through this. I'm trying to help you."
Nova narrowed her eyes. "You're lying. You're trying to torture me, you bitch."
"Please Nova; I'm not trying to hurt you. This is how it has to be."
Nova clenched her tongue between her teeth and bit down until blood poured out of her mouth and dribbled down her chin. "Give me more or I'll bite it off."
Tears sparkled in Tanguin's eyes. "You won't do that."
Nova shrieked and writhed against the ropes. "You bitch! I'll kill you!"
Tanguin backed out of the room, her face pale, leaving Nova alone with blood bubbling out of the side of her mouth. She had fully intended to bite it off. It might have made Tanguin realise that she was serious, but in the end she couldn't do it. A part of her couldn't face drowning on her own fluids. She settled for spitting the blood across the walls of her sleeping pod until she was surrounded by a bright red mural.
"Nova!" Tanguin rushed into Nova's sleeping pod and knelt by her side, ignoring the sticky puddles of blood that surrounded the bed.
She put two fingers on Nova's neck and held her breath. The faintest flutter of a pulse beat against her fingertips. Shallow breaths, barely more than a whisper, escaped Nova's blue lips. Sweat trickled down her clammy grey skin and created a pool on the sheets.
"She's getting worse," Tanguin said as Cal hovered into the sleeping pod.
Panic writhed in Tanguin's stomach like worms, twisting her gut and climbing up her throat until she gagged. She stroked Nova's forehead, her hand coming away cold and covered in sweat.
"There's nothing more we can do," Cal said. "We've followed the doctor's instructions."
"I don't think she's going to make it." Tanguin choked on the words and squeezed her eyes shut, hot tears trickling down her cheeks.
"She has to."
"Look at her! She barely made it through the night."
"But she did make it, and she's been through worse. With the pod's regulated temperature and the nutrient drip, she'll be okay."
Tanguin bit her lip and clutched Nova's lifeless hand. She refused to get up, even to eat, and fell asleep on Nova's floor, her head resting beside a patch of dried blood.
"Hey," Nova said when Tanguin's eyes fluttered open.
Tanguin's mouth dropped and she scrambled off the floor, clutching Nova's hand. "You're awake!"
"Yeah," Nova said with a soft smile before her eyes drifted closed and her head lolled to the side.
Tanguin smiled through her tears as she stumbled out of the sleeping pod.
After a month without the pill Nova felt less like a waking corpse. Her muscles ached and she moved with the speed of a tortoise but at least her stomach had stopped churning.
"So when are we leaving this trash hole?" she asked.
Tanguin sat down on the bed beside Nova and stared hard at her friend. "I don't think I can leave until this is fixed."
"What do you mean?"
"There are more people getting dosed every day. I can't leave them to suffer like you and then die."
"But they have the cure now; you sent pills to the hospital." Nova's heart clenched and her skin crawled. Thoughts of the previous month, of the agony, rolled through her mind and she shivered.
"It's not enough. The pills will run out, and anyway, not everyone who goes through the treatment survives. You were lucky."
"But…" Nova's bit her lip and her mind raced. She didn't want anything more to do with the drug. The last few weeks were like a painful blur and she wanted to get as far away as possible. She couldn't stay on this planet! She certainly couldn't get more involved. What if the dealers found her again?
"It's okay, Nova. I understand if you want to leave. I can't though."
"Tanguin," Nova whispered.
Her friend was always so quiet. She was tough, but her place was in front of a computer screen, hacking through data. It wasn't confronting a drug gang; that was Nova's job.
"I can't let you face this alone."
The corners of Tanguin's mouth flickered. "You'll stay?"
Nova grinned, hiding the sharp pang that shot through her stomach. "Of course. Can't let these bastards get away with what they're doing!"
Nova wrapped her arm around Tanguin's shoulder and let her friend's warmth calm her racing heart. She swallowed the lump in her throat and pushed her thoughts away from the shadow looming at the edge of her senses.
The next day Nova used the walls to haul herself from her sleeping pod to the command chair. "So what's the plan?" she said, collapsing into the chair with a gasp. Her head spun and she had to lean against the controls to keep herself upright.
Tanguin leaned against the corridor wall and bit her lip. "While you were gone we tracked the van."
"The one you nearly got hauled away in."
Nova's heart fluttered as fragmented images flew across her memory.
"We followed it to a massive house in the city. If we want to know what's going on, I suggest we start there."
"Our initial survey suggests it's worth investigating," said Cal.
"They were talking about you," Tanguin whispered.
Nova clutched her aching head in her hands, bile curdling in the back of her throat. "We have to be careful."
"Cal and I already tried surveying the outside but we couldn't get a good look."
Nova's head throbbed as she strained for a solution. A sudden thought made her head snap up. "I've got an idea."
She snapped out of her chair and stumbled through Crusader to the storage room, leaning against the walls to keep her upright. Tanguin and Cal followed right behind. She yanked open a rusted draw and snatched out a ball of metallic limbs.
"What the…" Tanguin said.
"Spidey. He helped me back on Taive."
Nova placed the robotic spider on the bench and flicked the power switched. The motor gurgled and spluttered before bursting into life. Spidey's legs unfolded and he scuttled across the bench.
"Video feed clear," said Cal.
Nova nodded and grabbed Spidey. "We just have to get him near the house and we'll be able to see what's really going on."
"Whoa." Tanguin snatched hold of Nova's shoulders and gave her a gentle shake. "You are not ready for field work.
Nova clenched her teeth as rage flared in her stomach, her hatred for Tanguin surging with new fire. She took a deep breath, struggling to rain in her fury. "I don't remember asking your permission."
Tanguin sighed and looked into Nova's eyes. "Nova, we'll get them. I promise. But if we're going to have any chance of beating them, you at least need to be able to walk in a straight line."
"We don't have time for that!" Nova wrenched her shoulders free of Tanguin's grip.
"I'm sorry Nova, but you're still not in charge of this ship and Crusader isn't letting you out until you're ready."
Nova pursed her lips and glared at Tanguin, ready to hurl Spidey at the other woman's face. She flexed her shoulders, but as she did her vision flashed and the energy drained from her limbs. Her legs shook and she collapsed to the hard ground, pain shooting through her knees. Spidey fell out of her grip and clattered to the floor.
She stared at the ground, resting on hands and knees, as dark clouds swirled at the edge of her vision. Her head spun and bile surged to the back of her throat. The idea of standing, of even sitting, seemed impossible. She took a ragged breath.
Tanguin fell to the ground at Nova's side and laid a warm hand on her friend's back.
Any remnant of Nova's rage fizzled away, replaced by a dull weight that filled her stomach. "Maybe you're right."
Tanguin patted Nova's back. "You'll be good as new in no time. Trust me."
Nova nodded and with Tanguin's help she staggered back to her sleeping pod and fell into bed.
Nova knelt with Tanguin and Cal behind the bushes, gazing over at the mansion. The black van stood in front and sent a cold shiver down her spine. Her head spun but she refused to show any weakness, they'd already waited two weeks longer than she'd wanted to, and now was the time to act. If these were the bastards that had tried to kill her, she'd make them pay.
She pulled Spidey out of her bag and laid him on the grass. She flicked the power with her thumb and he came to life.
"Go get 'em," she said, nodding towards the house.
Spidey dashed across the road towards the mansion while Nova bunkered down out of sight.
Cal projected a small image into the air in front of Nova and Tanguin; it showed grass parting before Spidey's metallic legs, and a mansion looming above. It didn't take long for the small robot to get to the house and climb to an open window.
Inside, the house looked more like a buzzing office building than a suburban home. People rushed from room to room, carrying screens and unmarked bags. Some wore neat suits whilst others wore torn jeans and ragged shirts.
Nova gasped. A man with a red armband had crossed in front of Spidey's vision, his face stern. "That's him," she whispered. His imaged burned against her memory, something she'd never forget.
"I guess this is the place then," Tanguin said.
Spidey hurried forward and slipped into a wide room. The lush carpet partially covered his camera lens but above that towered three figures. The biggest, a man in a blue suit sat behind a wide desk.
The thinnest wrung his hands as he stared at the floor. "The last shipment looks good. Faster acting with more activity."
"Good, we're going to need it," said the man in the blue suit, turning back to the papers on his desk. "Although if you ask me, which no one ever does, it's easier to control people with guns then with ridiculous pills."
"Not that the great Doctor Codon wants to hear anything about that. Oh no. It's his plan or nothing. I tell you… he's not been quite right since that massacre on Archalon."
"If you ask me, he should have been let go right then. Suspicious business. But instead I'm stuck here in the Outers feeding junkies because the Minister thinks it's a good form of brain control. I tell you, if I were in control—"
"Sir…" The man cut in, taking a deep breath. "There's one other thing."
"What?" Blue Suit's face flashed red as he glared at the other man.
"The targets. We… we've lost track of them. She hasn't been seen for three weeks."
"You haven't seen the target for over three weeks!" Blue Suit's face glowed red and spittle flew from his mouth.
"M-Maybe she died," a thinner man said.
"Or maybe she got away! I don't think I could have been any clearer about how important this is."
"We've been trailing those Hunters for months; we can't afford to let them loose. Not if we want to get beyond Quadrant Two."
"Surely two Hunters—"
The bigger man erupted to his feet and jabbed a thick finger into the other's chest. "Enough! I've told you a thousand times not to underestimate them, and now you've lost them. I should throw you to the junkies and be done with it!"
The smaller man's face lost all colour and he bowed his head. "Yes sir."
"And as if that's not bad enough, I've got word that they passed extra pills to the hospital. So guess what? They're curing people! It's a bloody mess!"
The smaller man swallowed, his throat bobbing.
"And, on top of all that shit, I just got word from Confed Headquarters; they're launching an assault on The Jagged Maw."
"Sir?" the man stuttered.
Nova and Tanguin's mouths dropped open and they gazed at each other with wide eyes.
"I dunno. Some turn-coats spilled their guts to an officer – not one of ours mind – about rebel activity. And seeing as our top two targets came from that same damn guild it's probably worth dealing with. Now get the hell out of my office and find her!"
The two soldiers scurried out of the room, past Spidey, their commander's voice trailing after them.
Nova collapsed back, resting her head against a rough branch. "They're going after the Maw." Her heart pummelled against her chest. She'd warned Aart that this would happen; now his quest was going to see everyone at The Jagged Maw killed.
"That can't be the Confederacy," Tanguin said, breathless.
Nova slammed her fist into the ground. "It has to be, you heard them."
"All analysis confirms," said Cal.
Nova hung her head. "We've got to kill these bastards and get back to the Maw. Cal, send a message back to Aart, Orion, Gus, anyone you can get hold of. We've got to warn them."
Nova groaned as she got to her feet, head spinning, and stumbled to face the house.
"How're we doing this?" Tanguin asked, her hand resting on Nova's arm.
Nova frowned up at the smooth cement walls and studied the windows, each tinted black to hide the rooms beyond. A flutter of movement caught her eye and she locked her gaze on the second-floor window.
Something reflected a glint of sunlight back at her.
"Sniper!" Nova yelled, snatching Tanguin's arm and pulling her behind the fence as a blast of energy carved a hole in the pavement. "Move in. You two go round back, I'll take the front!"
She stumbled from behind the fence to the front door, hoping to draw the sniper's attention away from Tanguin and Cal. She clutched her gun and fired alternating shots, first at the door and then at the second floor window. Her aim was off but she managed to blast the door handle and the sound of shattering glass said she'd hit the window upstairs.
She ran into the door with her shoulder forward, smashing it open so that it collided with the adjacent wall. She burst into the main foyer in a crouched position. Doors led off on either side and a wide set of stairs rose straight ahead. Gunshots rang through the air from the back of the house.
Three men with guns appeared at the top of the stairs. Two crouched and they all pointed their weapons at Nova.
She dove to the side as a volley of cracks burst through the air and pieces of plaster exploded from the walls. Nova ducked behind the stairs as white powder coated her shoulders and scratched her throat.
Heavy footsteps thumped down the stairs. "She's just over the side."
"Is it the one we've been looking for?"
"Sure as hell looked like her."
"Boss'll be pleased."
Nova took a deep breath and jumped to her feet, using their voices to aim. She held down the trigger and fired a series of blasts at the stairs. The first man grunted as a blue blast of energy punctured his chest and slammed him against the wall.
The other two careened to a halt and back-stepped away from their companion's tumbling body.
Nova pushed the advantage, swinging around the base of the stairs and firing. Balls of energy slammed into the walls and left burning holes, but the line of fire caught the two men. Flames licked across their chests as they clutched their chests and fell to their knees, sprawling across the stairs.
Nova kept her gun trained on the top of the stairs, ears straining for footsteps.
"Clear," Tanguin's voice crackled through Nova's communicator.
"Clear," Cal replied.
Nova took a deep breath and used her shoulder to wipe the sweat from her brow. She placed one foot on the first step. "Alright, that's the ground floor. I'm going upstairs. Form a defensive line at the base and monitor the front door, I don't want anyone coming up behind me."
There weren't that many steps but it felt like hundreds to Nova's exhausted legs. Her breath wheezed in her lungs and her head spun, sending the stairs twirling in front of her. She staggered and snatched the handrail, her stomach clenching.
Her muscles burned but she had come too far now. Whoever was upstairs had nearly killed her, they'd put her through weeks of torture, and worst of all, they were going after The Jagged Maw.
Nova made it to the landing and froze, listening. Three doors led off from the hallway and her death could be behind any one of them. The window with the sniper had been on the far left. She moved to the left door and held her gun ready.
She placed her hand on the doorknob and took a deep breath.
"Where you going, little snitch?"
Nova turned towards the voice and ducked. Too slow; the man at the other end of the hall had already fired. A red ball of energy shot towards her and slammed into her left shoulder. Searing pain shot up her arm. She screamed.
"Nova!" Tanguin called, footsteps pounding the stairs.
"Don't come up!" Nova yelled. She couldn't watch Tanguin die.
"It's okay, I'll kill your friend when I go downstairs," the big man stepped towards Nova.
"I don't think so," Nova said. She lifted her gun with her uninjured arm and fired.
A bolt of energy shot out. The man was too big to get out of the way in the confined corridor and the missile hit him square in the chest. He gasped and fell forward.
Nova let out a sigh of relief mixed with pain. Warm blood dribbled down her arm and sharp jabs of agony shot out from her shoulder. The smell of burning flesh filled her nostrils and her stomach rolled. She stumbled to the far right door where the man had come from, holding her arm against her side.
She tightened her grip on her gun and spun around the door to face the room. An elaborate set of glassware took up most of the space. Steam billowed out of long glass tubes and liquid boiled in others. In the far corner a plastic bag overflowed with green pills.
They spilled out over the floor and shimmered in the sunlight filtering through the window.
Nova's heart leapt into her throat and she fell against the doorframe, her head spinning. The cravings, which she'd thought she'd left far behind, surged back with new force. The urge to snatch the pills from the floor and run washed over Nova like a tidal wave and she took an involuntary step forward.
Her hand shook as she reached out to the pills, her blood pounding against her temples.
"Nova! Are you okay?" Tanguin's voice echoed from downstairs.
Nova squeezed her eyes shut. Tanguin's voice weaved into her consciousness and warred against the cravings. If she succumbed to the drug now, Tanguin and Cal and everyone at The Jagged Maw could die.
She bit her lip until blood dribbled over her tongue. The sharp metallic taste brought reality smashing down and she stumbled backwards out of the room.
She lurched down the hall to the closed left most door. Her hands trembled and blood dribbled from her injured shoulder.
Readying her gun, she placed her hand on the doorknob, took a deep breath, and pushed. She ducked back behind the door as a rain of shots fired past her and slammed into the opposite wall.
She peeked around the door. It was the same room Spidey had seen. A sniper rifled leant against the wall beneath a broken window. A large wooden desk sat in the centre of the room, shielding the middle-aged man with a smug smile on his face. A man stood on his right and a woman on his left; their bloodshot eyes gave away their addiction but they gripped their guns with firm hands, and fired.
Nova ducked out of the way.
The heat of a passing plasma blast seared her cheek like a hard slap. She ripped her gun around the corner and fired blindly into the large room.
Furniture clattered to the ground and someone grunted.
She took a deep breath, ready to press ahead, when something cold pressed against the back of her head.
"I think that's enough out of you." The man behind her snatched the gun out of her hand and shoved her forward through the door.
Two more guns bristled up from the guards at the desk. The man in charge scrambled up from the floor and righted his chair, slumping into it as if he'd been there all along.
"Look what I found in the hall," the man behind her said, sidling around so that she could see his fat face.
He pushed the gun hard against her temple, the cold metal biting into her skull.
"Nova Tabryn," said the man in the chair, grinning. "It seems like we didn't have to go looking for you after all. Good work, Rex."
"And who the hell are you?"
Rex shoved the gun harder against Nova's temple, sending a throb of pain through her head. "Show some respect."
"It's alright Rex, she's bound to be a little put out. For your limited time left on Earth, you can call me Randall."
Nova glared at him. If they decided to shoot she was gone, but she would take the bastard with her.
"What the hell is the Confederacy doing here drugging people?"
Randall's smile faltered. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Nova snorted. "Please, this place reeks of the Confederacy."
Randall laid his palms flat on his desk. "I don't know what you think you're doing but you're in no position to ask questions. You've given me enough headaches. Kill her."
Rex flicked a switch on the side of his gun and it gave a high pitched whirr, charging up for a more powerful blast; there'd be nothing left of her body by the time the smoke cleared.
Nova's clenched her knees, ready to dive to the side.
The goon's fingers tightened on their triggers, a hair's breadth from firing.
The window behind them smashed open and Rex collapsed to the ground. Nova jumped at the sound of smashing glass and her heart pounded against her ribs.
Randall cried out and dived under his desk.
Nova wrestled her nerves under control and snatched her gun from Rex's limp fingers. She fired at the female guard and her body crumpled to the ground next to the already dead male.
"Miss me?" Cal asked as he hovered through the broken window.
"You have no idea," Nova said between panting breaths.
"What are we doing with him?" Cal said, hovering under the desk to Randall. A pair of handcuffs dangled out of Cal's compartment and clicked closed over Randall's wrist. Cal pulled him out from under the desk.
"You can't stop this. You and your friends are as good as dead," Randall said. His eyes wide, manic.
Nova gritted her teeth and her fingers clenched around her pistol. She wanted nothing more than to kill him. He'd caused her extreme agony, nearly killed her, and planned to kill her friends, but something stayed her hand. Despite everything she couldn't kill him in cold blood.
Nova took a deep breath and holstered her gun. "We'll leave him with the patients from the hospital."
"Probability calculations suggest they'll kill him."
Nova shrugged and turned for the door. "He started it."
The three of them made it down the stairs to Tanguin whose face flushed with relief at seeing them.
"Hey Hunter," Randall said, jutting his chin towards the bottom of the stairs. "Look under that lamp."
Nova grimaced. "No."
"You'll like what you find."
Nova sighed and stomped to the lamp, ripping it off of the small side table. A fluorescent green pill sat underneath it.
Nova's stomach lurched and without realising it, her hand stretched out, shaking.
"Nova!" Tanguin said, yanking her back.
Nova jolted out of her trance and looked around with confusion.
"What—" she began.
"Haha! That will stay with you for the rest of your life. Enjoy!" Randall said, smirking.
Nova glared at the raving man. She pulled back her fist and slammed it into his face with an audible crunch. His laughter stopped mid-chuckle and his body collapsed to the floor. Cal dropped with the sudden weight.
"Sorry, I had to," Nova said.
"That's okay, his laughing was getting on my nerves too," Tanguin said.
"That's all very well for you, but you'll have to carry him now," Cal said, letting the handcuffs fall free of his compartment.
"Attention. Attention, all Hunters," Tim's voice crackled over the speakers and into Aart's private room at The Jagged Maw.
"What the hell?" Aart said, standing. Never in his seven years of being at the Maw had he ever heard a voice come over those speakers.
Orion sat up straighter, his brows coming together.
"Attention, Hunters. This is an emergency announcement. Unmarked Confederacy cruisers are heading this way. They are prepped for battle."
"What?" Aart said, mind racing. What were Confederacy cruisers doing this far out? Who would they be fighting; there was no one in this region of space except the Hunters.
"We don't know what to expect but given their advance pattern we must assume the worst. All power will be diverted to shields and weaponry. All Hunters are required to take up arms and prepare to repel any incursion," Tim's voice shook. "If you want to leave you have about three minutes, but know that you won't be welcomed back."
"No way," said Aart.
"It can't be," said Orion.
Nova burst into Aart's private room just as the announcement ended, sweat dripping down her face. Tanguin stood panting behind her.
"I told you. This is it, they're coming for us," Nova said. She clutched a gun in her hand and another one hung over her back.
"That doesn't make any sense. Why would they attack the Maw?" Orion said.
"Don't you see?" Aart said, dragging guns out from under his bed. "The Hunters are the last source of defiance for this Quadrant. If the Confederacy takes out the Hunters, who else would stand up to them?"
"You're partially right," said Nova, heart racing. "But you started it. They got wind of your rebellion and now they've come to stamp it out."
Some of the colour drained from Aart's face. "But we haven't done anything."
"Not yet maybe, but they're scared that we will. It's not like this is the first time this kind of thing has happened. Look at the motor gangs of last century; they were locked up just for being part of a group - they're going to do the same thing to us. I don't think we'll get the benefit of being locked up, they'll probably just kill us outright."
"We don't know that they're here for that," said Orion, eyes bulging.
"I can't think of any other reason they'd be here," Aart whispered.
"Trust us, we overheard them on Glod and raced straight here. We only just made it back in time to warn you, and that's only because the bureaucratic cogs of the Confederacy take so long to turn. Now get your arses moving!"
She looked back at Tanguin with sad eyes. As much as she had tried to deny the Confederacy's recent actions, she couldn't deny this. They were at her door, ready to beat it down.
"Damned if I'll let them take the Maw," Orion said, snatching a gun from a nearby table.
"Me neither," said Tanguin. Her voice quaked but she took her pistol from the holster at her waist.
"Let's go," said Aart, his face grim.
They moved out into the hallway where they were swept up in a current of people. Over two hundred Hunters currently stationed at The Jagged Maw, surged to the main exit with guns in hand. Some of them looked worried but mostly they looked angry. They'd all been screwed over by the Confederacy plenty of times; enough was enough. If some had chosen to flee, it wasn't many. That didn't surprise her, a lone bounty hunter was as good as dead and after running from a fight they'd never get accepted into another guild. On top of that, for many Hunters, The Jagged Maw was more home and family than anything else they'd ever known.
"Hunters. We've hailed the approaching vessels. They say they're here to collect a few individuals, but I have it on good authority that they plan to kill us all. They claim that if we lower our weapons and allow them entry that the people in question will be given fair trials," Tim said over the intercom. "I say, screw them."
The Hunters cheered and moved even faster towards the main entrance. There were already people lined up, rank after rank. Nova joined the nearest row with Tanguin and Aart on either side. There were many familiar faces in these ranks, some she liked and some she didn't, but all of them she liked better than the Confederacy.
"The Confederacy ships are taking aim," Tim announced.
Nova braced herself. Beside her the Hunters held their collective breath.
The room shook and a loud bang echoed over the chattering voices. Hunters were thrown off their feet and sprawled to the ground. A painting fell off of a nearby wall and crashed against the floor.
"Shields holding; they're preparing to board."
Nova checked her gun. It hummed under her fingers, ready to fire.
"How many?" Aart called out over the din.
Somehow Tim heard him. "There are seventy-five Confederacy land troops approaching, as well as twenty unidentified soldiers. They could be wearing mech suits. I regret to say they look very much like the super-soldier encountered at the Confederacy outpost."
Nova's stomach sunk. She looked at Aart with wide eyes and an open mouth. She shook her head from side to side. Aart's face whitened as he looked back at her. It couldn't be. How could they stand against twenty of those monstrosities when they had barely been able to kill one?
Boom. Boom. Boom.
The door from the landing bay buckled, the metal twisting inwards.
"Activating defence two, the first line has made it through the outer atmospheric shield. Three Confederacy fighter vessels were destroyed by external guns," Tim said.
A grating, grinding sound filled the entrance hall and then they were surrounded by gushing air. It whipped past them towards the buckled door, ripping hair and loose pieces of clothing towards the exit. The barest screams filtered through the whirlwind from the other side of the door.
"What the?" Tanguin said.
"Tim opened the external shield," Nova said. "Anyone outside of their ships will have been sucked away. Hopefully to die painfully."
Tanguin nodded, her mouth set in a firm line.
"Fifty Confederacy foot soldiers still approaching. Ten unidentified figures remaining. The rest appear to have asphyxiated – at least we know they're not invincible," Tim said, his voice stern with the barest hint of satisfaction.
The air stopped rushing past them and Nova let out a long breath. Half of the creature-machines were gone, that was something. But ten of them was still ten too many.
"They're coming in," said Tim.
The banging resumed on the external door. It buckled and bent, crashing to the floor. Beyond the metal door stood rows of Confederacy soldiers wearing crisp blue uniforms and carrying identical plasma rifles in front of their chests.
A screen flickered to life inside The Jagged Maw, showing a view of the shipping bay. Ten monstrosities stood just behind the lines of Confederacy soldiers and behind them, farthest from the door, stood a man with a red stripe running down the centre of his chest. He brought an amplifier to his mouth and when he spoke his voice boomed through The Jagged Maw.
"This is your one and only chance for surrender," he said. "Lay down your weapons and you will see a fair trial for treason. Choose to fight and you will die."
"Kiss my arse," Orion muttered.
Nova recognised his voice and glanced back to see him resting a sniper rifle on his right shoulder. He peered down the sight and a moment later a bright spark burst out the end.
The bullet weaved between the ranks of Confederacy soldiers and slammed into the lieutenant. The man exploded in a shower of blood and tattered pieces of clothing.
The soldiers closest to him gasped and drew back, colour draining from their faces. Meanwhile the Hunters gave a muted cheer. Orion grinned and winked at his companions. Nova had heard he was good with a sniper, but she'd never had the chance to appreciate it in person.
A roar went up from the Confederacy soldiers and the battle joined.
Soldiers on both sides of the battle fired. Bolts of energy streamed through the air in both directions. When they made contact balls of flames and pieces of body flew across the room. Screams and gunfire filled the air.
"Spiderfall!" Tim yelled over the intercom.
The Hunters dropped low to the floor at the code word, their bellies pressed flat against it. The attacking Confederacy soldiers paused their onslaught, gazing down at the Hunters in confusion. Then the walls opened and streams of gunfire shot out at chest height. Every inch of air filled with slugs and twenty Confederacy soldiers collapsed, dead. The rest pushed and shoved their way out of the room until the gunfire fell silent and the Hunters jumped back to their feet, guns blazing.
Blasts of energy flew past. She ducked and weaved as her eyes locked firmly on the targets ahead of her. She lifted her gun and squeezed the trigger. A blue shot fired out, rolling through the air, past her companion Hunters and into the head of an attacker. He screamed and went down, his face burning away and leaving nothing but a charred and broken skull.
The trap gave the Hunters the edge. They pushed forward, guns blazing. Blast after blast careened into the attacking Confederacy soldiers and the navy blue uniforms burst into flames as the bodies within them collapsed to the ground.
Nova cheered as she pushed forward, Aart next to her. Tanguin stayed back, taking her time and shooting with extreme accuracy. Nova held down her trigger and a spray of blue energy shot out to engulf the Confederacy soldiers.
"Nova! Nova!" Aart tapped her shoulder; his voice panicked, and pulled her out of her blood-soaked rampage.
She glanced at her friend and followed his gaze over the heads of the Confederacy soldiers. The monstrosities loomed over the soldiers, their feet pounding against the metal floor of The Jagged Maw. They wore metal armour that covered most of their bodies, except their faces and hands, revealing lumpy green skin covered in boils. They towered twice the height of a normal human. Confederacy soldiers ran out of their way, fleeing to make room for the super-soldiers.
"Shit," Nova said.
She lifted her gun and fired at the nearest giant. She aimed for the thing's head and held down her trigger. The blue blasts of energy slammed into the creature's face and it stumbled back a single pace. It brought both hands up and growled in pain but by the time its hands dropped back to its sides the skin had already knitted closed, leaving only a thin trickle of blood.
Nova kept firing at the advancing monstrosity.
"Come on, Aart!" she said through gritted teeth.
"I'm a little busy," Aart said.
Nova risked a glance to her left. Aart fired non-stop into the throng of Confederacy soldiers. They had reformed and advanced just behind the super-soldiers, cutting down Hunters.
Aart was one of the few Hunters firing at the foot soldiers, the others were too busy being killed by the monstrosities.
"I don't know how to kill them," Nova said.
She continued to shoot. The blue bolts burned away the creature's hands leaving charred bone beneath. But the thing didn't fall, or stop.
"Just die!!" Nova screamed, clutching her trigger tighter.
Click. Click. Click.
"Dammit!" Nova yelled, tossing the overheated gun into its holster. She pulled her second gun over her shoulder.
The brief respite gave the creature the time it needed. It lifted its hands and Nova's stomach clenched as its flesh reformed and knit back together. It was the same horrifying display she'd seen before.
The monstrosity turned towards her and pulled a massive gun from the metal holster at its waist. The gun was half as big as Nova, and just as wide. The barrel swung around to point at her; the black cavity gaped at her, threatening death.
She leaped away just in time, tossing her body to the side and sweeping Aart along with her. As her feet left the ground a white bolt of energy smashed into the metal floor. It left a black stain and nearby Hunters were sent sprawling.
They landed behind a tall support column.
"How the hell do we kill these things?" Nova said, gasping for air. Her heart raced and blood pumped hard through her veins.
"There's got to be a way. What did you do last time?" Aart said. He took the time to check his gun and let it cool down while other Hunters took their places and died under the onslaught.
They sat with their backs against the wall and watched death rain down all around them. The super-soldiers advanced, making the Maw shake. They had to duck to get through the entrance into the main hall.
"Cal noticed an anomaly last time. The thing had a hole in its head and when we fired into it, it collapsed." Nova closed her eyes and sweat dribbled down her forehead.
"And you thought you'd keep that to yourself!" Aart cried, jumping to his feet.
A chill swept through Nova's body. It was the only weakness she'd found on them and she hadn't thought to tell anyone. How many deaths lay on her hands?
Aart took a deep breath and looked down at her. "What does it do?"
"I don't know, but it went down as soon as we hit it."
"It's all we've got. We'll try to hit that one at the front."
"We'll need some height," Nova said. She had to yell to be heard over the screams and gunfire.
"Not if we trip it first."
Nova frowned and nodded.
"Okay, let's do this," said Aart.
They moved out of the shelter of the metal support column and stepped into the fray. With the help of the super-soldiers, the Confederacy forces pushed deeper into the entrance hall. The Hunters were being forced further back. It wouldn't be long before they were squeezed back into the network of tunnels and deeper into The Jagged Maw.
Aart pushed through the forces and looped a thick rope around the support column closest to the advancing creatures. He tossed the rest of the rope across the fighting crowd and Nova caught it, tying it as fast as her shaking hands allowed to another column, creating a trip wire in front of the closest super-soldier.
The monstrosity's head was too far above to see the rope at its feet and its massive metal leg pushed into the tight rope. The force of it made the support column groan but it held. The soldier stumbled and fell towards the Hunter troops.
The Hunters ran, desperate to get away from the falling soldier. The metal suit crashed to the ground and the super-soldier flailed its arms and legs. The limbs caught some Hunters off-guard and they flew through the air.
Nova didn't waste any time. As soon as the soldier fell, she dashed forward, leaping over fallen bodies and ducking under blasts of deadly energy.
She landed in a pool of blood and slipped along the metal floor. With waving arms she managed to keep her footing and kept running. She sped all the way to the flailing monstrosity and stood at its head, looking down.
The gaping hole moved in and out in time with the creature's breathing, wires trailed out of the hole and connected to the suit. From this close it was much easier to see that the thing was only partly human, if that. Growths and bumps dotted its face and discolouration marked most of the skin. The gaping hole at the top of its head was just one abnormality amongst many.
"Do it!" Aart yelled from his place at the creature's feet.
Nova lifted her rifle, aimed it at the hole, and squeezed the trigger. A bolt of energy shot out and disappeared into the creature's head.
After what seemed like an eternity, the creature's head exploded with a loud bang that sent pieces of skull and brain flying across the room, leaving behind tattered shreds of its face. The metal fighting suit appeared untouched.
"Yeah!" Aart yelled, jumping into the air.
Nova grinned up at him but only for the few seconds it took for her eyes to lift higher and see the nine other monstrosities stomping towards them. At least the Confederacy foot soldiers were falling back. Whether it was the staunch Hunter defence, or the sight of one of their creatures dying, the soldiers had stopped their advance.
"I believe Nova and Aart just earned themselves a week's worth of desert rations," Tim said through the speakers.
His joke lifted the spirits of the Hunters and they fought with new strength.
"Aim for the top of their heads!" Nova bellowed to her companions.
"You heard her," Tim said. "Shoot 'em in the head."
She slung her rifle over her shoulder and ran towards the door through which the enemy came. Three monstrosities were already inside the entrance hall and the others weren't far behind. A Confederacy soldier with a jagged knife sawed through the thick rope and it fell limp to the ground, useless.
Nova grabbed hold of a metal support column, using the side shielded from the Confederacy troops. It was made of crisscrossed metal bars, more for functionality than aesthetic appeal.
She put one hand in front of the other as she pulled herself up the column. The bars made a smooth ladder that she climbed with ease. It took her only a few seconds to get above the heads of her fellow Hunters. A few more seconds of climbing got her above the heads of the attacking super-soldiers.
Her back and arms ached but she wouldn't let that slow her. She took a steadying breath and let her mind focus, blocking out the sounds of her friends dying.
Of the two-hundred Hunters, already fifty lay dead or dying, mowed down by the massive creatures. Their colossal guns cut through the defensive lines in seconds and their armour shielded them from the Hunters' weapons.
Other Hunters grasped hold of the other support columns and hauled themselves up out of the fray. There were already four in position, including her. That was good, the more the better, in case she was shot down from her perch.
The people on the ground could do nothing aside from shoot and die. Nova's heart clenched as she watched another Hunter fall in a splatter of blood. Nausea rocked through her stomach and her eyes burned as she ripped her gaze away from the massacre.
She hooked her other arm around the column and held her body firmly against the cool metal. With her right hand she swivelled her rifle down and to her left so that it pointed at the closest beast.
Looking down the sight, she could see its vulnerable spot breathing in and out. It made no attempt to shield its head as it cut down the Hunters. It plodded along, each step shaking the ground and threatening to toss Nova from her post.
She took a deep breath, held the gun steady, and fired.
A blue bolt shot down, through the metal bars, and into the creature's head. It stopped dead, lifted one hand up and then collapsed; face forward, onto the ship's floor.
Hunters dived to either side to avoid it and cheered when it didn't get up. A few of them fired into the hole at the top of its head, just to be sure.
"I believe that's another set of rations for Nova. You see fellow Hunters; this is why she won the space-race. Makes the rest of you look like residents of The Happy Hunters!"
Nova chuckled, a sick kind of guffaw that caught in the back of her throat and came out as a choked sob. Tim's voice sounded strained, despite his jokes. Nova spotted him amongst the Hunters below, an oversized gun booming from his shoulder. An angry red gash split his right cheek and dribbled blood onto his shoulder.
She bit her lip as she checked her gun and lowered it to take another shot. Before she could bring the next creature into her view it exploded with a bright purple flash.
As the light faded, the creature collapsed to the ground.
Nova looked around in confusion and spotted Gus sitting in the support column opposite her, grinning from ear to ear. He caught Nova's eye and winked. Nova nodded back.
Gus's face fell and he yelled something over the din.
Nova frowned and turned just in time to see a bright ball of fire screaming towards her. She let go of the column with one hand and pushed back, swinging to the side. The plasma bolt slammed into the column, making it shake, and leaving a charred circle where Nova's head had been moments earlier.
She swallowed the lump in her throat and peaked out around the column.
Confederacy troops aimed their guns up the columns. Hunters hung like immobile targets as they took aim at the super-soldiers.
"What out below!" Nova screamed as a volley of shots slammed into the columns.
A Hunter screamed and fell like a rock. His body twisted in the air and slammed into the ground, limbs twisted and a hole smoking in his chest. Other Hunters scrambled down the columns back to the relative safety of the floor.
Nova and a handful of others stayed clinging to the columns. She stayed as far behind the column as she could while taking aim at the nearest super-soldier. Plasma blasts careened into the column and half-blinded her but through the onslaught she fired.
The creature's head exploded.
From there, bodies crumpled to the floor on both sides of the battle.
A high pitched whistle echoed around the entrance hall and the Confederacy soldiers stepped backwards, away from the fight. The Hunters pushed forward, firing into the uniformed ranks and littering the floor with corpses.
A second whistle made the super-soldiers back away from the Hunters, through the main door and into the shipping bay along with the Confederacy foot soldiers. They didn't turn their backs until they reached their ships. They boarded, lifted into the air, and jetted away.
"What the—" Nova said as she loosened her grip on the column and allowed herself to slide a few rungs down, closer to the floor.
"They're running away!" cheered Aart, running to the base of the column and looking up at her.
"But why?" Nova said, frowning.
"Because they were scared of course," Aart said.
"I don't think that's it," Nova said. She slid the rest of the way to land with a thud on the ground beside Aart.
She looked around at the battered Hunters. They wouldn't have held out much longer, so many had died and those still alive looked like they wanted to be dead. Gaping wounds and blood covered most of them and deep shadows filled their eyes. Broken and overheated weapons dotted the floor and they'd been fighting in whatever clothing they'd been able to throw on.
In contrast, the Confederacy troops had been wearing crisp uniforms with some shielding capacity. They were well rested, and knew the fight was coming. Their weapons were the best that Confederacy money could buy and few of them ever overheated. More than that, they still had seven creatures to throw at the Hunters. They were in a winning position, or at least it looked like they were, so why would they leave?
"Nova, stop worrying about things. Just be glad they're gone," said Aart.
Nova looked into his eyes and then nodded, lifting the corner of her mouth.
"We'd better get these people sorted," he said, looking around at the carnage.
Nova smiled and relief flushed through her. "Look who made it."
Tanguin stumbled through the thick of fallen bodies to their side.
"Glad to see you survived," Aart said as she shuffled to a stop beside them.
"Me too," Tanguin said.
"Where's Lara? She's got the best medical training of any of us," Nova said.
"I'm here, I'm here, keep your pants on," Lara said from where she knelt next to a bleeding man.
"You're in charge. What do you need us to do?" Nova said.
"I need you to sort them. Those that can be saved and those that can't."
Nova nodded and strode through her fallen comrades. She knelt by each body, checking for a pulse, any sign of life. The ones that might be saved she left alone; the corpses she dragged towards the exit, creating a grim pile of bodies. Her stomach churned at each familiar face, the weight in her chest growing with each cold, lifeless corpse she dragged across the floor.
Aart and Tanguin did the same through the rest of the room and soon the other Hunters who were unharmed joined the grim search for survivors. The pile of dead bodies grew.
Nova grabbed hold of a pair of grubby hands and pulled the body across the metal floor. The woman, Rackel, Nova thought her name was, had probably died at the start of the battle, she wouldn't have even had time to process what was happening.
Nova lay Rackel's body next to the others and turned back to the dark scene. Her thoughts locked on the battle. Why would the Confederacy go through all the effort of staging an attack, and suddenly leave? What was the point of it?
She'd heard them talking on Glod, they intended to wipe out all of The Jagged Maw. Surely leaving half of them still alive was the worst thing they could do. They'd made some solid enemies and let them live. Nova shook her head. It didn't add up.
If she was the Confederacy and she wanted to get rid of opposition then she'd want all of the Hunters dead. She wouldn't have attacked in person at all, there was too much risk. But then maybe whoever was in control wanted some bloodshed. Maybe they wanted to see the Hunters suffer. But even the most bloodthirsty general wouldn't sacrifice a victory for a few extra litres of blood.
So then what was the backup plan?
When the front-on assault failed, what would their plan B have been? What would they do next?
"A bomb," Nova whispered.
Her eyes widened and she looked up at her fellow Hunters as they held their wounds. The healthy tended to the dying while the wounded lay in a state of anguish somewhere in between.
"A bomb," she said louder. There were too many people talking, too many muttered conversations, no one could hear her. And even if they could hear her, what could they do? There were too many wounded to carry them all to the ships, and then what? No, she had to do something herself.
Nova ran through the entrance hall. She grabbed hold of Aart and Tanguin on her way and dragged them into the corridors beyond where the hum of voices lessened and she could hear herself think.
"There's a bomb," she said.
"What?" Tanguin said.
"There's a bomb. They've left a bomb on the Maw."
Aart stepped closer, his eyes darting. "What makes you say that?"
"Just think about it, they need us dead. They've run away so that we can be blown to stardust."
"No," said Tanguin, her eyes wide.
Aart's mouth hung open but no words came out.
"What can we do about it?" said Tanguin.
"We have to find it," said Nova. "Or there won't be a Jagged Maw, or us for that matter."
"I'll get Delta to do a bomb scan," Tanguin said, backing away towards her room. Tanguin's computer was another level above any other in the Maw, more human than many people Nova knew. It gave her the creeps but if anything could find the bomb, he could.
"Remember, it's almost definitely shielded," Nova called after Tanguin.
"Good thing my tech's better," Tanguin said with a brave smile.
"We have to search too," said Nova. "And be ready to diffuse it."
"A bomb. Those bastards!" Aart said.
"Yes it's horrible and I'm sure we'll punish them for it as soon as we get the chance, but in the meantime we have to find it."
Nova and Aart ran in opposite directions along the corridor. There was no way to tell how long they had before the bomb went off, assuming Nova was right. Now that the idea was in her head she couldn't see any other option, it was the only logical explanation for why the Confederacy had left so suddenly. The bomb was planted and they could leave once they heard two whistles.
"Nova, we've got something in storage," Tanguin said over the communicator.
Nova's mouth thinned into a line. She turned down the corridor towards the storage bay and ran. She was past exhausted. Exhaustion was what she'd felt climbing down from the support columns after the Confederacy soldiers had left. This was something far beyond that; her very bones ached with the strain of running, fighting, searching.
"I'll meet you there," said Aart.
"Me too. I'll leave Delta to keep scanning," said Tanguin.
Nova's feet pounded on the metal floor. She pushed past injured Hunters as they limped and carried their fellows away from the blood-stained entrance hall. Her shoulders jostled against them but she didn't pause to apologise. There was no time for sorry now.
Nova raced deeper into the station. "How the hell did they get a bomb all the way down here?"
The corridors in this part were quiet, barely used even in the best of times. Food, weapons and other miscellaneous items that kept The Jagged Maw going filled this section. Corridors led off left and right to other small rooms with catalogue numbers stamped onto the doors.
"The Maw's scanners are registering a maintenance hatch left open in the storage bay." Tanguin's voice crackled through Nova's communicator.
"Grishnak! Someone let them in!"
"Delta's going through the video feeds now but yes. Someone left the maintenance hatch open so the bomb could be snuck in while we were distracted."
Nova burst into the main storage bay. The ceiling rose high above her head and the room stretched out, at least as big as the landing bay, if not bigger. On either side, stacks of crates and boxes piled high, many sealed with plastic and then covered with a thick layer of dust. The piles towered over Nova's head, reaching almost to the metal ceiling far above. Dim lamps hung from the roof, creating patches of dull light that cast deep shadows from the towers of equipment.
"Over here," Aart called, waving at Nova. He knelt at the base of a stack of crates and pointed a small flashlight at the floor by his feet. The bright circle of light reflected off a metal ball the size of Nova's head.
"Is that..?" Nova whispered.
"Delta says that it registers as a B52-sigma. Big explosive," Tanguin panted as she jogged through the door and knelt next to Nova.
"Has he found any others?" Nova asked.
"Not yet. This is it."
"Does anybody have any experience disarming bombs?" Nova said.
"Not me," said Aart.
"I tried to look it up on the Cloud but this particular model has no information. It's some kind of top secret Confederacy brand," said Tanguin.
"Grishnak," Nova swore.
Sweat beaded along her forehead and across her upper lip. The heat and pressure built up inside her, pushing against the inside of her skin, threatening to turn her inside out. Her stomach clenched and a hollowness crept through her chest.
"We've got to get Vicki in here," said Aart.
"You've got to be kidding," said Nova. The very thought of the stuck-up, useless, hussy made her fear disappear, replaced with anger and derision.
"She's a serious bomber," Aart said.
"Yep, I watched a video of her once diffuse a 76-alpha in under a minute."
"So, I've done that," Nova said, crossing her arms.
"She was seven," Aart said.
Nova frowned deeper and looked away from Aart to stare at the metal ball.
"Tim, we need Vicki now. We've got a situation," Aart said into his communicator, using The Jagged Maw's emergency frequency.
"Tim's with the medical team," Tom said, his voice strained. "But I can't help you, Aart. Vicki's not here."
"What? I saw her at breakfast."
"Yeah well, when you see her can you ask her?"
"What do you mean?" Aart said.
"Her, Kero, and some others zoomed out of here quick as you've ever seen not an hour before the Confederacy soldiers arrived," Tom said.
"What? You don't think..?" Aart's eyes widened. He looked at Nova and Tanguin and then back at the floor.
"I don't know what to think. It's been one shit messed up day, that's the truth," said Tom.
"You can say that again," Aart whispered.
"What do you need her for?"
"We've got a bomb."
"What?" Tom said, his voice cracking.
"Yep, shipping bay. It's a B52-sigma, special model."
"Frickin' Confederacy. No wonder they high-tailed it out of here so fast."
"Yeah, that's what got Nova thinking," Aart said.
"I owe that girl my life at least three times over and that's just from today," Tom said.
"She can hear you," chuckled Aart. "And the last thing she needs is a bigger head."
"Let her have this one," Tom said. "Besides, we may not be around for very much longer to enjoy it. Does the blasted thing have a timer?"
"If it does they haven't put it anywhere obvious. Thing's as smooth as an egg."
"Shit. I'm sending Tyra down. She knows her way around a bomb."
"Can't we just hurl it out the airlock?" Nova said.
"No!" Tanguin said, her eyes desperate. "B52s are designed to go off as soon as they hit vacuum. It'd blow a hole in the side of the Maw bigger than a planet."
Nova balled her hand into a fist.
"Get Tyra here now," said Aart. "Pretty soon I'm going to start cutting it open, and we all know how that's going to end."
"You with no fingers and me with no space station," said Tom. "I'll send Tyra down."
The communicator clicked off and Aart fell back onto his haunches. Nova and Tanguin followed suit. They made a grim semi-circle around the bomb, like companions gathered around a campfire.
"Shit," Tanguin said. "Delta just found who left the door open."
Nova and Aart met her eyes.
"Kero and Vicki."
"Those bastards!" Nova bellowed, slapping the nearest grate and sending a reverbing crack through the storage bay.
"When I get my hands on them, they'll wish they were dead," Aart said between clenched teeth."
"I never thought…" Tanguin hung her head.
"He's been pro-Confederacy since the day he was born," Aart said. "Bastard probably couldn't wait to sell us out."
"And Vicki is cut from the same stock," said Nova. She picked up a small screw from the floor and twisted it around in her fingers. The smooth metal was some small comfort as her stomach churned with hatred and the need for revenge.
"Heard you wanted some help?" Tyra said, stepping into the storage bay.
Nova had been on a few missions with Tyra. She was outgoing and liked to laugh, friendly with most people and had been an asset when the mission got hairy. Nova respected the girl, even if she didn't consider her a friend exactly.
"Please," Aart said. He held his head in one hand and waved the other at the metal bomb sitting at his feet.
"Stand aside," Tyra said, nudging Aart with the side of her boot.
Aart scrambled out of her way and Nova and Tanguin slid back a few paces. Tyra knelt down low and examined the outer casing. She ran her hand over the edge, her fingers dancing across the smooth surface.
"Um, shouldn't you be in more of a hurry?" Tanguin asked.
"Nah, good thing about these B52s is they give you plenty of warning before they go boom," Tyra said.
"So you've seen one of these before?" Nova asked.
"Once, but most of what I know came from some blueprints which the Confederacy probably didn't want me to have."
"Thank Jupiter for that," said Nova.
"You can say that again. I couldn't believe Tim when he said what you guys had found. Still, can't say I'm surprised. Damned Confederacy. Speaking of which, some fine fighting from you," Tyra said, glancing at Nova.
Nova nodded back and then returned her attention to Tyra's hands. Miraculously they had found a hidden seam in the metal surface. Tyra pulled a small knife from her pocket and shoved the edge into the crack between the metal plates. She used the knife as a lever and pulled the two metal sheets apart.
They resisted at first, refusing to bend under Tyra's knife but she was patient. The plates bent just a little and then with a snap they fell away from one another to reveal the inner workings. The metal sheets had been a simple shell for the real device. Wires ran back and forth through metal plates and vials. Tiny hammers poised ready to smash the vials and release the contents into a waiting collection bowl.
"That's beautiful," said Tanguin.
"I know," replied Tyra.
"It looks ancient," said Aart, leaning in close to look at the vials of multi-coloured liquid.
"Brand new," said Tyra. "They've used some mechanisms from last century because it fools modern bomb detectors. I'm impressed yours found it actually. A normal scan reveals nothing because in its current form there's nothing dangerous about it. It's not until the timer runs out and these little hammers smash the vials that things get ugly."
"So a few vials of rainbow liquid and we're all done for?" said Aart.
"But it's no problem?" Nova asked, her expression grim.
"It shouldn't, but it's not all smooth flying. These things are always rigged with a trap, to stop people doing exactly what I'm about to do. They change the colours of the vials with each bomb and some of the vials are fakes, if you touch them it'll set off the mechanism early."
"Great," said Aart.
"And you have no way of knowing which vials are fakes?" Nova asked.
Tyra shook her head. Her eyes ran over the wires. "Not easily anyway."
"Can't we just turn it upside down and break them separately?" Tanguin said, squinting at the vials.
Tyra sighed and tapped her finger against the outer casing. "If things get desperate, we can try it. But usually they've got a counter weight built in. Turn it the wrong way and we all go sky-high."
"And how much time have we got?" asked Aart.
"Ah well, you see this," Tyra said, pointing to a bright red vial with a spring coiled underneath it and a metal spike above. "The spring gradually uncoils and lifts the vial up until it hits this spike. The spike punctures through and releases red smoke."
"And that's when the bomb goes off?" Nova said, staring at the tiny distance left between the vial and the spike.
"No, no, that's your first warning that things are getting close. After that you've probably got about five minutes before the real thing blows."
"As much as I'm loving this educational session, by my calculations that means we've got ten minutes tops to get this thing disarmed," said Aart, his voice tight. "So maybe we should be focusing more on that."
"I'm getting to it," Tyra said, waving her hand
Nova glanced at Aart and bit her lip.
"I just need to work out which vial is the key initiator. If I can take that one out the bomb will be a hundred times weaker than it is now."
"But that wouldn't stop it completely?" said Nova.
"No, I don't think I have time to do that," Tyra said with a hint of resignation. "They don't make bombs like they used to. This thing is a monster. I think our best option is try to reduce the power and then let it blow somewhere where it won't do much damage."
"Okay," Nova said. She let out a slow breath which rippled over her lips. "Tanguin, start clearing an area. Make sure there aren't any flammables nearby. The last thing we need is to set off a chain reaction."
Tanguin nodded and darted off to start dragging crates left and right. Aart rose and joined her.
"And you can be my special helper," Tyra said with a flicker of a smile.
"Thank you," Nova said, her voice flat.
"If you can hold it I'll take a closer look."
Tyra thrust the ball of wires and vials into Nova's hands. Nova fumbled and clutched it as tightly as she dared. She could only imagine what would happen if she accidentally put her finger through a vial. What if she set the thing off? They'd all be blown to bits and it would be her fault.
"Just breathe," Tyra said, glancing at Nova's face.
Nova released the breath she hadn't realised she was holding and forced her shoulders to relax. Her heart raced but she'd be damned if she let Tyra see just how scared she really was. She loosened her hold on the bomb so that it balanced naturally against her palms. The vials were still intact and she lived to see another minute.
"Just turn it a little," Tyra said. Nova obeyed.
Tyra grabbed Aart's flashlight from the floor and shone it into the bomb's depths. Her eyes peered down into the semidarkness and her eyebrows drew together. Her mouth remained in a thin line as she examined the wires and glass jars.
The weight of the bomb in her hands made Nova's arms ache. But it was more than just the physical effort, her entire being focused on the responsibility of holding the bomb and stopping it from exploding. Sweat dribbled down her face and dripped from her chin, unnoticed. All that existed at that moment were her hands, the bomb, and Tyra's eyes peering down.
"Don't panic, it's about to blow the first vial," Tyra warned.
A second later the bomb shuddered. It jolted once and then returned to being still, only now it let out a small hiss. It wasn't until red vapour whispered out from between the wires and metal plates that Nova allowed herself to relax.
The red gas floated in a cloud around the bomb before spreading up towards the ceiling. Tendrils whispered around Nova's head and made her eyes sting.
"Please tell me you've got this," said Aart as he looked over his shoulder. He and Tanguin had cleared a sizable area in the middle of the room.
"Soon," said Tyra. "I think I've found the right one."
"Think?" said Nova, her eyebrows rising up.
"I'm afraid that's the best we're going to get," said Tyra. "Now I need you to stay still as if you're life depended on it, because it kind of does."
Nova stopped breathing and clutched the bomb tight. Her arms and shoulders ached with the strain but she couldn't let them waver for even a second.
"Okay, easy, easy. If the worse happens, it's been nice knowing you guys," said Tyra.
Tyra held her breath, reached into the bomb, and worked away at a vial. Her agile fingers moved around the small clasps and attachments, avoiding the other glass capsules. She drew forth the blue vial and placed it on the ground by her leg.
"I'm going to close it up again and we'll put it in the cleared area. Then we just have to hope I've taken the right one."
"And if you haven't?" said Aart.
"Then I won't have long to feel guilty about it," Tyra said.
Nova stayed still as Tyra clipped the two halves of the metal casing back into place and gingerly carried the bomb to the cleared space. She placed the metal sphere in the centre and stepped back.
"Even if I did take the right one, this thing is still going to blow. We have to get out of here. Now," said Tyra.
She didn't have to ask twice.
Nova turned from the bomb and darted for the far door. Aart, Tanguin and Tyra sprinted just behind her, their footsteps bounding against the metal flood.
Something tickled the back of Nova's neck, sending a shiver down her spine. It was as if the bomb had already exploded and she could feel the shrapnel tearing through her flesh. She pushed faster, her arms and legs pumping.
The doorway loomed just three feet away. Nova took a deep breath, ready to dive to safety.
It felt as if Nova's eardrums had been pierced by a thousand tiny needles and then carved into little bits by a jagged knife. She couldn't hear anything except the ringing inside her own head and bright lights danced in front of her vision. She was vaguely aware that she'd fallen over. She lay on her side but try as she might, she couldn't get up. No matter how hard she tried to push herself up she kept finding herself crashing back onto the floor. Her head hurt. Something dug into her ribs but she couldn't move to get rid of it. Something wet stuck to her cheek. She lifted a shaky arm. Her fingers came away covered in red.
The ringing dulled along with the bright flashes, so that only a few bright specs clouded her sight. Out of her left eye she could see someone lying on the floor, flailing like a dying fish.
Nova pushed herself up onto her elbows and dragged her limp body across the floor. Pain shot up her right side and she winced. Her cheek spiked with agony and tears squeezed out from between her clenched eyelids.
With gritted teeth she put one elbow in front of the other. She dragged herself along the cold, metal floor, keeping herself twisted up so that her injured right side stayed off the floor. She daren't look down at her body, scared that she'd find half of it missing. What if her legs had been blown away and she just hadn't realised it yet?
There were bright flames to her right. They raged through the storage bay and lit up the metal floors. The walls glittered with orange and the heat from the flames licked at her face. She turned away from the fire towards the helpless figure.
The person looked so familiar and yet a complete stranger at the same time. They were writhing around on the floor, covered in red paint. Why would Aart be covered in paint?
Nova's shell-shocked mind circled around the problem. Now wasn't the time to play dress-ups. Maybe Aart had got a new skin-changer mod; they were all the rage in some galaxies. But no, hadn't she seen him just a few minutes ago? It was right before… right before… blood!
Nova crawled faster, ignoring her own pain as she pulled herself to Aart's side. Blood drenched his body and his face contorted with pain as he rolled from side to side.
"Aart, Aart, I'm here," Nova said, grabbing his arm.
Her fingers slipped in the wet blood and she had to make another snatch for the flailing limb.
"Hurts," Aart whispered, his voice sounded like gravel in a blender.
"I know," Nova said. She pulled herself along on one elbow, bringing her face closer to his.
"The others?" Aart said.
"They're fine," Nova said. Her voice sounded quiet and far away; even she could barely tell she was lying. She couldn't see the others.
"Bloody Confederacy," Aart said.
Nova chuckled but stopped immediately as new waves of pain shot up her side. "Where does it hurt?" she said through clenched teeth.
"Everywhere," Aart said.
"Wimp," Nova said. "Where does it hurt most, you soft sack of flesh?"
"My ribs," Aart replied, not rising to her insult.
Nova moved her eyes from his white face to his ribs. There was so much blood, his shirt dripped with it and clung to his skin like a wet towel.
Nova reached down a shaking hand and pulled Aart's shirt up to reveal his chest. She forced herself not to recoil from the warm wetness of the garment. Blood dribbled down her hand, her wrist, all the way to her elbow before dropping off and forming a new pool on the floor.
A large piece of a nearby crate had broken off and plunged into Aart's chest. The wooden stake had lodged deep into his midsection; blood pouring out around it.
Nova's heart beat faster and a part of her wanted to cry over her friend. But what good would that do? No, she could cry later. Now was the time for action. She rested on her own agonised stomach and placed both of her hands onto Aart's wound. She pushed down, applying pressure to stop the bleeding.
Aart cried out as she pressed her hands down. He moaned and tried to move away from her but he was too weak. All he could manage was a soft whine.
"Help!" Nova tried to scream but it came out as a choked wheeze. Her voice scraped along her charred throat and she tasted blood. "Help!"
The blood soaked out between Nova's fingers until her hands were dyed red but she didn't dare remove the wooden fragment. She looked around for anything to stop the bleeding but they were surrounded by hard shrapnel and blood. How much blood could Aart have left in him when there was all of this spread out over the floor?
Nova's vision blurred. The pain in her side worsened, spreading up her chest and making her arms shake. The agony crept into her eyes and her head and made her want to scream. If she just let go of Aart then she could lie down properly and it wouldn't hurt so bad. But she couldn't do that.
She bit her lip and forced herself to hold the wound, to ignore the warm warmth trickling over her hands, and the agonised pleading of her friend. Bright lights flashed across her vision, threatening to overwhelm her, so she squeezed her eyes shut. Each beat of her heart sent new waves of pain through her body, as if someone was twisting a knife in her side.
With every gasping breath she told herself that she just had to hold on for one more second, then someone would arrive and save Aart, and then she could go to sleep. She repeated the lie over in her head, even as tears leaked out of her closed lids and dribbled down her face to join the blood.
She tried to stay strong but in the end the lights flashed too bright and she collapsed away from Aart, crashing to the ground with a deep thud, and lost consciousness.
Nova sensed someone moving near her. Her eyes were closed, but she could feel them. She pretended to be asleep, but she trained every one of her senses on the stranger. He walked with a limp, favouring one side. She assumed it was a male from the heavy footsteps. He was getting closer to her bed. She would have time to reach under her pillow for her gun and shoot him; she just had to wait until he was right next to her to get a clear shot.
She waited until she could hear him breathing and leaped into action. Her eyes shot open and her hand whipped up under her pillow for the hidden weapon. Her fingers raked under the cushion, but they felt nothing. Where was the cool metal of her gun?
"Whoa! Calm down," said a familiar voice. Nova returned her eyes to her would-be attacker and fell still.
"Tim," she said, finally relaxing.
"The one and only," he said with a grin.
"Where the hell am I?" Nova asked.
She tried to push herself up, but Tim laid a hand on her shoulder and pushed her back to the bed.
There was something wrong. This wasn't her sleeping pod in the Maw, and it definitely wasn't Crusader. So where was she? There was something on her head. She reached up with a tentative hand and felt a smooth bandage wrapped around her temple. Beds stretched out to either side of her; every one of them occupied.
"The medical bay in the Maw," Tim said. "I have a lovely position just over there."
He gestured over his shoulder with his thumb. It was only then that Nova saw the thick bandage wrapped around his bare chest and the bruises covering his face.
"The bomb," Nova said as the memory rushed back.
There was a battle, then the bomb; so much pain. Then there was Aart and blood, so much blood, pouring out of him. "The others… Aart! Tanguin!"
Tim grimaced and glanced down.
"Where are they?" Nova's stomach churned and an icy chill gripped her chest.
He rubbed his hand across his mouth, but didn't look up. "Look, we owe you. More than a few times--"
Nova struggled upright, the ice spreading into her limbs. "Where are they?"
Tim sighed and met her gaze. "They were hurt. Bad."
The blood drained out of Nova's face and she gripped the bed sheet like a lifeline. "Are they…"
"Tyra came away with barely a scratch." Tim laid a hand on her white knuckles. "Aart's in bad shape, but the docs think he'll make it. He lost a lot of blood. According to the medics, you nearly killed yourself holding those last few drops in. But if you hadn't…"
Nova swallowed, her tongue scraping against the roof of her mouth. Hot tears stung the corners of her eyes and her voice came out as a dry croak. "Tanguin?"
Tim's lips trembled and he looked away. "She's not so good."
Hot pain squeezed Nova's heart. "No."
"She's alive… but they don't think it will be for much longer." Tim's voice cracked and he coughed, staring back at the floor. "I thought you'd want to…"
Nova scrambled against her sheets, ignoring the pain that surged up her arms and legs with every movement. "Where is she?"
"Stay there. I'll take you to see her."
Tim limped to the top of Nova's bed and unlocked the wheels. He pushed it forward and guided it through the full hospital wing. Make-shift beds dotted the floor and people with shadowed eyes rushed between patients.
Nova barely registered them. All she could think of was Tanguin, lying dead in the storeroom. If only she'd made Tanguin leave when they first found the bomb… If only she hadn't asked for her help in the first place… If only… She choked on a sob that scraped her throat.
Tim patted her shoulder but stayed silent. He pushed her out of the main ward to the adjoining isolation room. A single bed lay in the centre; machines beeped and wires ran to the thin figure.
Nova's lips trembled. It couldn't be Tanguin. She refused to believe that her friend, the kindest person at The Jagged Maw, who'd already suffered so much, could be lying there.
Bandages covered most of Tanguin's body, but her unmistakable black hair hung in tufts across the pillow. A nurse stood on either side of the bed and they hung their heads as Nova entered.
Nova hurled her sheets to the side, and stumbled to Tanguin's side. Her knees wobbled and she fell, landing sprawled on the side of Tanguin's bed.
Her best friend didn't move.
"Tanguin. Come on. You're okay." Nova grabbed Tanguin's hand and a tear trickled down her cheek. "What's wrong with her?"
Lara stepped past Tim and stood at Nova's side. "She suffered burns to over eighty per cent of her body. Shrapnel lodged in her chest, piercing both of her lungs. A piece of metal pierced her eye and she broke a lot of bones. We set her bones and did what we could with her other injuries, but I'm afraid there's nothing more we can do. At the moment the machines are keeping her alive, but that won't last forever. I'm so sorry."
Lara hung her head. Dark circles encased her eyes and her pale skin seemed drawn tight.
Pain sprouted in Nova's chest and her throat closed tighter. "There has to be something you can do."
Lara shook her head. "Her lungs are ruined beyond repair. Without those machines she'll die."
Nova swallowed and watched the rusted machines move up and down, forcing air into Tanguin's chest. "So leave the machines on."
Lara sighed and rubbed her temple. "Tanguin's personnel file clearly states that she wants to be disconnected from any life support machines. The only reason she's still here is because Tim insisted that you'd want to say goodbye."
Nova stared at Tanguin through blurry eyes, hot tears streaming down her cheeks. She refused to let Tanguin die. She got her into this mess and she was going to get her out.
"A week," Nova whispered.
"Give me a week."
Tim laid a hand on Nova's shoulder. "She wants to go. She's already spent too much of her life connected to machines."
Nova shook off Tim's hand. "I'll make it better. Give me a week. It won't make any bloody difference to you!"
Tim sighed and turned to Lara. She shrugged.
"One week. But Nova, you're only hurting yourself. There's no miracle big enough to fix what's wrong with Tanguin."
Nova gritted her teeth. "I'll need a copy of her medical files, x-rays, everything you've got."
"Fuck your confidentiality! I have power of attorney, don't I? Isn't that in your precious personnel file?"
Lara bit her lip and nodded once.
"Good. Who else is up? Orion? Gus? Tyra?"
"They're all fine," Tim said.
"Good. Tell them I need to see them. I'll also need a workshop."
Tim sighed. "Nova, this is ridiculous."
"You gave me a week. I intend to use it."
Lara stepped forward. "I think you're forgetting the fact that you only just regained consciousness yourself. Until you're better, you're under my care and not going anywhere."
Nova glared at Lara, hot rage burning in her stomach like acid. "I'm leaving the ward and helping Tanguin," she snarled.
"You need to rest. If you don't give your body time to heal, then you might never fully recover. I can't release you in your current state. You can't even walk."
Lara shook her head. "I can't."
"Release me, or I resign from The Jagged Maw."
Tim let out a small squeak. "You know she's going to do it whether you give her permission or not."
Lara's face flared red. "Fine. Do whatever the hell you want. But when you're internal stitches break open and you're slowly dying in agony, don't be surprised that I think twice about fixing you up again!"
Nova's stomach twisted with agony and stars flashed across her vision. She sat in a hard wheelchair in the middle of a small workshop. A metal bench took up most of the space, lined with tools. It had taken all of her strength to stay conscious after moving from her hospital bed to the chair.
Orion, Gus, and Tyra walked through the door, their eyes downcast.
"Nova…" Orion said, frowning. "I didn't think you were supposed to be out of bed yet."
She waved her hand. "We have to save Tanguin."
Gus hung his head and fiddled with the corner of the workbench. Tyra's face paled.
Orion sighed. "Tim said you had some kind of crazy idea… Nova, I've seen her. She's not going to pull out of this one."
Nova slashed her hand through the air, ignoring the sudden pain that flared across her abdomen, and pointed to the door. "If you don't want to help, then leave."
Orion bit his lip and glanced at the other two. Tyra shuffled her feet. "It's not that we don't want to help… it's just that we don't want you to get your hopes up, or hurt yourself. Trust me, we all want Tanguin to be okay. You think I don't feel bad? If I'd just managed to diffuse that bomb then—"
Nova held up her hand again. "Enough! We've only got a week. If you won't help me, then you can all leave, but I will make this better."
Gus took a deep breath. "Of course we'll help you. What's your plan?"
Nova nodded, some of the pain fading from her chest. "The machines are keeping Tanguin alive. So all we have to do is integrate the machines into her body."
The other three gasped, mouths hanging open.
"Nova, you can't mean…" said Tyra.
Orion shook his head. "Even if it wasn't banned by the Confederacy… it's still not right. Tanguin would hate it. It would be just like when she was Connected."
Nova's head spun as she teetered on the brink of consciousness. She gritted her teeth. "No. I know her better than any of you. If she had to choose between life and death, she'd choose life."
"Even if it meant being a cyborg?" Orion murmured, his voice faint.
Gus shook his head. "Even without all that. We can't just add bits to her. I wouldn't even know where to begin."
Nova pressed her lips together as another wave of dizziness filled her head. She had to tell them her plan and get them on board, because she knew she wouldn't last much longer. "Tyra and I are good with machines. Lara will come around eventually and help us with the medical side. We can do it."
"Where does that leave us?" Orion asked, waving his hand at Gus.
"You two will do as you're told." She paused and took a deep breath. "You're the only ones I know who will actually help and you can still hold a wrench."
Tyra tilted her head and tapped her chin. "I suppose the breathing apparatus is just a simple diaphragm. If we can set it up on a continuous power source… integrating with her systems will be the hard part though."
"You really think we can do this?" Orion asked.
Tyra nodded and Nova breathed a sigh of relief.
"Cal and Delta will help too, but we've only got a week so we can't waste a second," Nova said, head spinning.
Tyra turned to the workbench and ran her hand over a glass panel. A holographic screen sprung up and hung in the air like a blank piece of paper. "We'll make a list of what we'll need, and then you guys can hunt the pieces down."
Nova closed her eyes and took three deep breaths. The pounding in her head made it hard to think. She opened them again and tried to ignore the worried glances thrown in her direction. "We'll need a small rechargeable power source, thin metal piping, some kind of membrane material, and a lot of wires."
As Nova said each item it appeared on the hologram.
Tyra nodded. "We'll need a gas-liquid exchanger."
"Don't forget her eye," Gus whispered.
Nova's chest tightened.
Tyra nodded. "A mini-camera. That shouldn't be hard to find; all the robots have them."
"She'll need flexi-metal," Orion muttered, "You know… for the skin."
Nova winced. She hadn't seen the full extent of Tanguin's injuries. She hadn't been able to bring herself to look at the pictures.
They worked for half an hour, building a list of materials. When it filled the screen, Tyra wiped her hand over it and dragged it to her personal device. The list flicked onto her screen and she handed the device to Orion. "Be as quick as you can. Anything you find, send it straight here. We'll get started as soon as we can."
"I'll make her better," Nova said, sitting next to Aart's bed. She'd rushed to his side as soon as she got word that he'd woken up.
"I know you will," he said. "You saved my life, didn't you?"
Nova's mouth twisted into a grim smile. "I guess we'll call it even then, after Taive?"
Aart frowned and shook his head. "This time was different, and you know it. You could have killed yourself saving my useless arse. And even though nobody is saying it, you and I both know that it's my fault the Confederacy came here."
Nova bit her lip. Usually she'd have some smart response that would kick Aart out of his guilt spiral, but today her exhaustion lay over her like a thick blanket, muffling her thoughts. "No one blames you."
"I'm sure some do, and those that don't should. Tanguin especially."
Nova sighed. "You should be resting. Not hacking yourself to pieces with guilt."
Aart pursed his lips. "So should you."
Nova grimaced. She couldn't argue with that. If the constant pain and dizzy spells weren't warning enough, the speckles of blood that flew out every time she coughed should have been. She pushed those thoughts down. Once she'd saved Tanguin she could rest, not before.
She patted Aart's arm. "Just try to get better okay? You don't recover from a stake to the chest in just a few days."
Nova's head flicked up. She'd been sleeping. How could she have been sleeping? They only had three more days before Tanguin's life support got shut down for good.
Gus lay curled up on the floor in the corner of the workshop, snoring. Orion had been off finding some missing pieces and still hadn't returned.
"Nova?" Tyra stood frowning at Nova's side, her hand on her shoulder.
Nova blinked and looked up.
Three days they'd been working, with almost no sleep, and yet they'd barely made a dent in their task. Bent pieces of metal and broken plastic lay strewn across the bench, all discarded failures.
Tyra nodded at Nova's lap. "What's that?"
Something hissed from inside the circle of Nova's arms.
Nova frowned and looked down, her stomach aching as the stitches pulled tight. She wiped her hand over bloodshot eyes and glanced down at the thing in her hands.
She froze. "I did it."
Tyra's grip on her shoulder tightened. "Is that…?"
Nova's heart fluttered. "I did it!"
She held out the contraption to Tyra. Two metallic spheres moved in and out in time with a thin piece of rubber covering one end. A small pump controlled the rubber, powered by the heat-charged battery Orion had found.
Tyra's mouth hung open. Air hissed in and out of the tops of the spheres, lifting wisps of her hair around her face. "You did it…"
Nova grinned and for the first time since she'd woken in the hospital, hope sparked in her chest. "I was so tired… I think I passed out when I finished."
Tyra shook her head. "What if you'd dropped it...?"
Nova hugged the metal lungs to her chest. "They're okay, but it's not over yet. We still have to test the gas exchanger and then find a way to implant them…"
"I suppose that's where I come in?" Lara said from the door. Orion stood at her shoulder, grinning.
"I saw that thing when I came back," he said. "Figured you two geniuses were onto something big."
Lara watched the lungs pumping in and out. "They look real enough. Power source?"
"Heat," Nova said. "And with the minimal pumping action, her body heat should be enough."
"They look heavy. I don't know if her body will handle it."
Tyra shook her head. "We've intentionally been working with a light alloy. They weigh less than her real lungs."
Lara bit her lip. "Well, I'll be damned. If you demonstrate a working gas exchanger then I should be able to find a way to… install… it."
"Actually, we've already done that," Gus said, rolling over on the floor. "It's over there." He pointed to the workbench.
Nova raised an eyebrow at him.
"What?" He winked. "You were asleep, and I'm not just a pretty face."
Nova smiled and let out a deep breath of air.
Lara strode over to Nova and gently picked up the mechanical lungs. "You're right; they're lighter than they look," she murmured, testing the weight of the contraption. She handed the lungs back to Nova, and moved to the workbench.
"The camera is easy," Lara said, picking up the small lens with one hand and examining it. "People have been using electronically enhanced sight for centuries… but the lungs…"
"It'll work," said Nova, face set.
"I'll do my best," said Lara. "But it's major surgery. There's always the risk of contamination."
"It'll be alright," Tyra said, laying a hand on Nova's shoulder. "We'll make this work."
Nova would have liked to help with the installation, but her hands shook too much and she didn't trust herself to stay conscious. Tyra was good. She'd handle the mechanical side while Lara handled the biological.
"Okay. Everyone get prepped," said Lara. "This is going to be a long day."
Nova sat outside of the surgery, chewing her nails to shreds. If she'd had the energy, she would have paced, but all she could do was sit, stare, and worry.
Every noise made her jump, her eyes flying to the door, but no one came out.
Orion sat with her a while, joining her in silence. But the tension must have got to him, because he left soon after.
Nova tapped her foot against the floor. All of her being focused on Tanguin, on her being okay. If Tanguin didn't make it through the surgery, Nova wasn't sure she'd be able to forgive herself.
The surgery door rattled. Tyra and Lara stepped through, their faces haggard.
Nova flew to her feet, ignoring the sudden spin of the room. "Well?"
Tyra rubbed her hand across her forehead. "We got everything installed."
Nova wobbled on her feet, waving them on.
"For the moment, everything is working," Lara said. "But there's no guarantee there won't be complications. She hasn't woken up yet. Keep in mind that even if her body seems to be working now, she might be too damaged mentally."
Nova swallowed and sat, trying to sort out her feelings. Relief that the lungs seemed to be working; dread that something bad could happen at any moment; guilt that it was all her fault.
"All we can do is wait," Tyra said. "In the meantime, I need to sleep."
"She's awake!" Fists slammed against Nova's door and she immediately flew out of bed.
She ripped the door open to see Orion's panting face.
Nova pushed past him and stumbled down the hall. She'd taken to sleeping just a few rooms away from Tanguin, ready for the worst.
Voices filled the hallway near Tanguin's room and people filled the narrow corridor. They turned to stare as Nova approached, before pushing up against the sides like a parting sea.
She hurried into the room, her pain forgotten beneath the icy clamp around her chest. "Tanguin?"
Black hair fell like a curtain over Tanguin's face and she gripped her sheet high up near her chin, covering her body. Aart leaned on a crutch in the corner of the room next to Tyra and Gus. Orion went to join them, while Nova rushed to Tanguin's side.
"Tanguin?" Nova fell onto Tanguin's bed and laid a hand on her covered arm.
"Make them leave," Tanguin whispered. Her voice echoed, sounding nothing like it had before.
"Everyone just wants—"
"Make them leave," Tanguin repeated, her voice rough.
Nova bit her lip, a heavy weight settling into the bottom of her stomach. She turned to the gathered Hunters. "Can we have some privacy please?"
The Hunters looked at one another, but filed out without talking. The door clicked shut behind them, leaving the room filled with silence except for the intermittent beep of the machines.
Tanguin turned and her hair fell back from her face, revealing a black reflective lens where her left eye used to be. Her breath came out like a low whistle, rasping in her chest. She let the sheet drop enough to reveal the metal plates embedded on her shoulder and chest and the scars criss-crossing her arms.
"I'm a monster."
Nova's heart clenched and her throat closed over. "No."
Tanguin turned away, shielding her face with her hair. "Yes."
"We did what we could to save you. You would have died."
"You call this life? You know how cyborgs are treated. They're less than human."
Nova shook her head and laid a hand on Tanguin's shoulder. "That's not true. Things are changing."
Tanguin sighed and again looked at Nova. Her remaining pale blue eye glistened. "I thought I died."
"I think you did for a while there," Nova smiled through the tears sliding down her face.
"I don't know how you managed this," Tanguin said, waving a hand at her body. "But no one will look at me the same. It's bad enough that I'm Un-Connected… but now…"
Nova gripped her shoulder tighter. "Nothing's changed. If anyone looks at you sideways, I'll kick their arses."
Tanguin chuckled. "I'm sure you would." Her laugh died in her throat. "I know I should say thank you. By all accounts you and the others performed a miracle."
Nova shook her head. "No—"
Tanguin held up a scarred hand. "Thank you. I'm sorry I'm not as grateful as I should be."
Nova's lips trembled. "No. I'm so sorry, Tanguin. I should never have dragged you into this mess."
"This mess would have been here with or without you."
"It's okay. I'll just have to get used to it, I guess."
Nova nodded. "I'll be here for you every step of the way."
Tanguin smiled, the skin crinkling around her metal eye. "Good. But you don't look so great yourself. Maybe we should both get some rest? Say thank you to the others for me… I just don't think I can face everyone right now."
Nova nodded and stood.
Tanguin smiled, but as Nova went to the door, she couldn't help but notice a single tear glistening at the corner of Tanguin's remaining blue eye. It spilled over and fell slowly down her cheek.
"No running, jumping, fighting, climbing, or any other active thing. You need to rest," Lara said.
"Got it, doc," Aart said, using his crutch to flick his bag at Nova. She caught it, grunting as some of the weight hit her injured side and sending a shot of pain up her body.
Lara threw up her hands. "I don't know why I bother; Hunters are all the same. Just try and be careful when you go and do whatever stupid thing you're going to do."
"Will do," he said, grinning.
Lara nodded and strode to the next bed.
"She'll miss me when I'm gone," he said, hobbling next to Nova. He smiled but a shadow lurked around his eyes. Nova pretended not to see it.
Nova limped beside him, every step sending new shoots of pain through her abdomen and chest. "Tanguin is getting out too. Be cool."
They shuffled out of the main ward to Tanguin's small room. The lights inside were off and a shadow leaned against the doorway.
"Hey," Nova said, stepping towards the shadow. Her stomach crawled as a single red glow swivelled to face her. "Ready?"
Tanguin nodded and stepped out of the darkness. Most of her face lay hidden behind a thick hood she had pulled low over her face. It hung over her shoulders, covering her neck and the metal plates embedded in her skin. Long sleeves and gloves shielded the rest of her, hiding any hint of skin.
"Hey Tanguin, how's it going?" Aart said, thumping forward with his crutch.
"I've been better." Her usual voice came overlaid with a deeper, mechanic voice.
Aart chuckled and if Nova hadn't known him for so long she might have believed he didn't have a care in the world. "Me too." He held up the crutch.
Tanguin bowed her head but didn't reply.
"Look who it is!" Orion bellowed from the end of the corridor. He and Gus stood leaning against the wall, false smiles plastered over their white faces.
Tanguin had refused any visitors other than Nova in the week since she'd woken up and their apprehension filled the hallway like suffocating cotton wool.
The five of them walked, or hobbled, towards the cafeteria in awkward silence. Whispered voices followed them as they went.
Nova bit her lip. Couldn't they see this was hard enough without being followed by gossiping voices? Her heart ached for Tanguin, she'd already spent her whole life standing out and being stared out, now she'd suffer ten times worse. Nova glared over her shoulder and the voices stopped, only to resume once she rounded the far corner.
It took three times longer than usual to reach the cafeteria but when they did, a group of Hunters got up from a table and cleared the way for their small group. The table was the best in the cafeteria, close to the food and the entertainment. The other group of Hunters stepped out of the way and sat at the end of a long bench.
"What the—" Nova said as Orion led the way to the newly-vacated table and sat down.
"Don't question it, just enjoy it," he said. "You know they'll have forgotten you three in no time and then it'll be back to fighting over scraps."
Nova frowned as she sat down at the table and looked back at the other group of Hunters. They huddled shoulder to shoulder and cast glances in their direction.
"So, we stop a bomb and suddenly we're famous?" Aart said.
"Yep, you guys are pretty much the only thing anybody talks about," said Orion.
Tanguin tensed at Nova's side and pulled her hood lower over her face.
"Tyra's so sick of it she barely ever leaves her room now. Although I have a feeling she'll be joining us shortly."
"You'd be right," Tyra said, sitting on the bench next to Orion.
"Ah, here are my favourite group of Hunters," Tim said as he strolled up to the table, Tom at his side.
"What'll it be? You can have anything, whether it's on the menu or not," said Tom. Like everyone else their voices and expressions seemed fake and brittle.
Nova shifted in her chair. Everyone was trying to be normal, to let Tanguin adjust, but it felt so wrong! Like a man ignoring his burning house as he complained about the cold night. Bile rose in Nova's throat. She wanted to slide under the table and hide. She'd stay there forever if it meant she didn't have to suffer through the charade. Her heart ached for Tanguin who had to be suffering far worse.
Nova swallowed and took a deep breath, joining in the façade because it was the only thing she could do. "Can I have a burger and chips please?"
The others put in their orders and in a matter of minutes steaming hot food was laid out in front of them.
Nova's skin crawled as she poked the chips but didn't eat any. "What are we doing eating lunch? Shouldn't we be building some kind of defence for when the Confederacy come back?"
"No chance of that," said Orion.
"Nope, as soon as the bomb went off the pilots took us straight into stealth mode," Tyra said "We're currently circling a black hole, the Confederacy wouldn't be able to find us if they tried."
"Oh," Nova said. She filled her mouth with chips to avoid having to say anything else.
Beside her Tanguin swilled her spoon around a bowl of purple but didn't eat.
"But that brings us to the real question," said Aart. "Are we going to take this lying down?"
"Hell no," said Gus, ripping into a large hunk of bloody steak.
"No way," said Tyra. "I know just where I'd like to stick a giant arse bomb."
Nova nodded. "There is no way I'm in this much pain and not going to give them something to wince about." In reality she'd barely thought about her own injuries. She needed to get revenge for Tanguin, justice had to be served.
"Same here," said Orion. "I had to break in one of my good guns in that attack, I was saving it for something special."
"I'll kill them all," Tanguin whispered.
The rest of the table shared worried glances before staring at their food.
Aart cleared his throat, breaking the awkward silence. "Then we're agreed. It's time we gave the Confederacy a taste of their own medicine."
"Should you be talking so loud?" said Nova, glancing out of the corner of her eyes at the surrounding tables.
"Ha! Nothing to worry about on that front. This place is a powder keg waiting to blow in the face of the Confederacy," said Orion. "The bomb conveniently wormed out all the traitors because they weren't here."
"You're sure?" said Nova.
"Yep. Don't think they haven't tried to come back though. A few people have received private messages asking for coordinates. At this stage we've gone for complete radio silence. As far as the rest of the universe is concerned, The Jagged Maw blew up."
"Good. But what about the people who were out on legitimate business?"
"For now they'll just have to cry over us, until we work out a better solution," Orion said.
Nova nodded. "So what's our plan?"
"That's what we're here to work out," said Aart.
"Obviously we have to focus on this Quadrant of the Confederacy. The rest of them may not have done us any good but as far as we can tell they didn't have anything to do with the attack," said Tyra.
"Makes sense," said Nova. "And we already knew that Quadrant Two was up to some creepy shit."
"Yep, same bastards who control the Resources District," Aart said.
"We need to go in as a small group and take out the Minister running Quadrant Two, and whoever else is involved. There's obviously something more going on here than just the usual power-hungry maniac. We need to find out what it is so we know what we're up against," said Nova.
"I'm in," said Tyra.
"Sounds like a good plan. Although I don't think we'll be able to just stroll into Confederacy headquarters," said Orion.
"We'll work out details later," said Nova, waving her hand. "Because we can't launch a full attack until we're all… better." She cursed herself for pausing.
"You know we can't leave it too long," said Aart. "We have no idea what they might do while they think we're all dead. And you said yourself that they're planning to expand past Quadrant Two."
"Yeah, yeah," said Nova. "It's not like you're in any shape to go for a deep mission."
"So we're agreed that we'll wait for the two cripples to get better, then we hit 'em hard," said Gus, pointing at Aart and Nova.
Tanguin hunched deeper in her chair and bowed her head.
"It's a good plan," said Orion. "If we wait a bit they'll be sure we're dead and won't be expecting any retaliation."
"Agreed," they said in unison.
"And I suggest we keep it small – get in and get out. If we can make it look like some kind of extremist terrorist attack then we should be fine. If we march there with Hunter flags flying then the rest of the Confederacy might get involved, and we can wave our lives goodbye," said Nova.
"Bastards," said Aart.
The next few weeks were spent healing, planning, and collecting equipment. The whole of The Jagged Maw was behind them and one of the hardest things was explaining that they couldn't all go in for the attack. Weapons, fuel, and armour were handed over in piles and soon the small group were equipped better than many Confederacy troops.
The plan was simple. They would infiltrate the Confederacy headquarters based on information Tanguin dug up from the Cloud. From there they would have to get to the core of the space station, find out what was really going on, and then Tyra would get to work blowing it to pieces.
It was simple and deadly, just the way Nova liked it.
The day they were set to leave the Maw every single Hunter gathered in the exit bay. Even those who were bedridden had been wheeled out to watch the departure. Black smudges covered the entry hall walls and dents pocketed the doors, but the debris had been cleared away.
The main door sat propped against the adjacent wall, too broken to repair. From the entrance hall the Hunters could see clearly into the shipping bay.
The six of them stood just inside the door, looking out at their fellow Hunters. Tim and Tom stood at the front of the crowd, their expressions grim.
Nova stared back at her companion Hunters, her jaw set and her eyes stern. She wore simple battle armour that would deflect a basic plasma blast. The pain in her ribs had faded, only a small twinge when she turned remained of the agony. Her two pistols sat ready at her hips and a bigger gun hung over her back.
To Nova's right Tanguin stood, her features hidden beneath her thick hood. She played with the hem of her shirt and her feet twitched as if she might run at any moment. She wore a small handgun at her waist and a knife tucked into her belt. If everything went to plan she wouldn't need to fight, she would be safely sitting on board Aart's ship feeding them information.
Aart and Orion had dressed like twins in thick vests with multiple pockets and large rifles slung over their backs. They grinned out at the crowd and winked now and then as they saw friends smiling back at them.
Gus stood at the back of the small group, not bothering to look at the crowd but rather going over the massive gun he held in both hands. It was as thick as his bulging arm and looked as powerful as any weapon Nova had seen before. The tattoos on his arms danced in time with his muscles as he rechecked the magazine.
Tyra wore tight armour that hugged her body. She carried a medium sized gun at her waist but the rest of her belt was occupied by other equipment, screwdrivers, lasers, lock-picks and all manner of other things. Nova hoped that she had everything she needed; blowing up Confederacy headquarters was no easy feat.
"Good luck," said Tim and Tom in unison, raising their right hands in fists to the left sides of their chests. The Hunters behind them followed suit.
The six Hunters saluted back before striding away from The Jagged Maw. They marched to their individual ships, Tanguin joining Aart, climbed inside, and a few minutes later shot up and out of the landing bay, through the shield protecting The Jagged Maw and out into the darkness of space. They'd all flicked to stealth mode to prevent any locators from locking onto them.
"Lock and load," said Nova as she let go of Crusader's wheel and switched into autopilot.
"Aart, what are we doing here?" Nova asked.
Deep gouges scarred the barren landscape. Ruins smoked from either side of the road, the only remnants of broken buildings. Shattered doors and stones scattered across what remained of the road.
"I had to see it for myself. We need to know what we're fighting for," said Aart. "It's not just the Hunters that the Confederacy has screwed over."
"But this?" Nova said.
She waved her hand through the air to encompass the landscape. Tanguin stood just behind Nova's shoulder, her mouth set into a grim line. Gus, Tyra, and Orion stood with them, the six Hunters made a grim collection of life amongst the death.
"We had to know," Aart said.
Charred bones littered the landscape; skeletons lay twisted on the ground. A few skulls gazed up at Nova with their wide, unblinking eyes, judging her.
Her spin tingled and she ripped her eyes away. "I can't believe they destroyed everything. What have they achieved?"
"Obedience," Aart said. "None of the neighbouring moons would dare disobey now."
Gus's fingers flexed around the barrel of his gun.
"But why are we here?"
"Fire for our revenge."
Nova sighed and lowered her eyes. "From here it's only a short trip to their headquarters. Tanguin you've got that info for us?"
"Yes. There's a section worth checking out, the layout schematics marked it 'Confidential'," Tanguin said.
Nova nodded. "Good. That will be a priority."
Tanguin growled. "Revenge first."
Nova's spine tensed at the venom in Tanguin's voice. She tried to shake off the feeling but it clung to her like a dark cloud. She grimaced and led the way back to their ships. They traipsed through a desert of burned ground and broken bones.
The last time Nova had been on Agrios it had been a green planet covered with simple farming communities, a beautiful planet with a stark mixture of technology and medieval ways. Collections of sheep created white dots on the green fields while wooden shacks housed the simple people.
Ships came and went from Agrios regularly. It acted as a major trading hub in this part of the galaxy, which was probably why the riots started here. There were so many people talking, bringing stories and news. Chatter was bound to bring discontent and when the Confederacy stepped in to raise the trading taxes, the planet erupted.
Of course all of that was hidden from the rest of the human colonies but word filtered out. The sudden closure of a main trading hub was bound to raise a few questions and gradually the anti-Confederacy groups got wind of it. Aart had heard the news and now here they were.
Nova's stomach churned. Allegedly, the corruption and festering violence of the Confederacy was contained to just this Quadrant. The same branch Jack had told her about, the cannibals. Of course, that didn't mean the other Quadrants would step in and do anything, that's not how the Confederacy worked. Each Quadrant ran their planets however they wanted, uninterrupted, and as long as trade and labour continued, no one stepped in.
Usually she wouldn't have worried herself with politics, but whatever was happening here was much bigger than a power struggle between dignitaries. The missing people, the massing armies, the mutant super-soldiers, the attack on The Jagged Maw, and now this. There was something more going on.
Nova had read about these take-overs before. They were usually silent. Any opposition was hidden from the rest until, before anyone knew what was happening, they were enslaved. It was easy for the Confederacy when they controlled the media, the Cloud, and almost everything else. The only people they didn't control were the free riders; people who didn't settle on any one planet but moved from place to place. The Hunters posed a major threat; free riding, armed, and dangerous.
Maybe that's why they attacked The Jagged Maw. It was a foolish move on their behalf though. Now the bounty hunters were really against them, if they'd just left it alone most Hunters would probably have minded their own business. Now it meant war.
Nova climbed into Crusader and set course for the Confederacy headquarters. They had a job to do.
Nova sat in the pilot's chair of Crusader and gazed out into the emptiness of space. They sat right on the edge of the Inner Galaxies, as far from any of the checkpoints as they could get. Blocking the Inner Galaxies from the Outer, was an invisible shield that would fry all of Crusader's circuits and probably her as well if she tried to go through. There wasn't even the faintest shimmer to show where the sun-powered shield started.
"You know you can still turn back," said Cal, hovering beside her.
"Scared?" Nova said.
"No, why would I be scared?" Cal said. "I just wanted to make sure you had explored all of your options."
"Thank you for your concern, Cal, but yes I have. Besides, this is the easy part."
"We'll see," said Cal, hovering away from the command pod.
"Nova, are you ready?" Tanguin's voice filtered through Crusader's speakers but she had the video feed turned off.
"Ready and waiting," Nova said.
Confederacy ships used the checkpoints where small portions of the shield could be lifted for authorised craft. The Hunters were about to attempt the impossible and go straight through.
"Alright, on the count of three. Two. One," Tanguin said.
As soon as Tanguin reached one, Nova pushed forward with the throttle. Crusader lurched into life and shot headlong towards the barrier. She couldn't help but close her eyes as they passed through the deadly shield, half expecting the electric burn to fry her body into tiny pieces. When there was no pain she squeezed her eyes open.
They were well inside the boundary of the Inner Galaxies, alive.
"Step one," muttered Tanguin. "I've updated the Confederacy's log books so they have a record of you coming through the checkpoint without a problem."
"Excellent work," said Nova. "Make sure the others stay strong."
"A few of them came through in the same blast as you. I'll send the others through in a bit; if I leave it open for too long at a time there's a chance someone might notice."
"Of course," said Nova. "Where's Aart?"
"Here," Aart said, his voice joining Tanguin's.
They were speaking openly but to any outsider it would sound like idle chatter between acquaintances. The code had been entered into each of their computers, almost unbreakable. Tanguin had spent days developing it and it worked like a miracle.
"Aart, let's keep it clean remember. You've got your disguise?"
"You bet," said Aart.
"Okay, let's do this."
Nova pushed Crusader faster and they cruised through space. Moons and planets shot by on either side, but Nova paid them no attention. Her destination was simple; Confederacy headquarters for Quadrant Two. A part of her hoped they were having one of their cannibalistic meals when she arrived. That would make it easier to open fire.
She kept her hands firm on the controls. Autopilot could have driven her there but that would allow her more time to worry. This way she was distracted, her concentration focused on the act of flying rather than on what would happen if they were caught breaking into the Confederacy base. Being tossed into a blackhole would be the best possible outcome if they were caught.
Nova shivered at the other possibilities.
"You guys might want to see this," said Tanguin. "Now that you're past the perimeter you can pick up more signals than we get in the Outer Galaxies. It's an encrypted channel but whoever encrypted it should be sacked."
Nova's screen flickered and the panorama of space was replaced with scenes of rioting. She let go of the controls and Crusader took over.
The video showed bodies strewn across the ground. Smoke and debris filled the air as people stumbled like zombies through the waste. In the distance the sounds of gunfire stuttered through the blurred audio feed.
"Where is that?" Nova asked.
"Amcon," Tanguin said. "It looks like your info was right, Nova. The Resources Districts are still rioting but the Confederacy is censoring any coverage of it."
"I'm not surprised," said Aart. "The Confederacy has been treating us like slave labour for too long."
"But, Aart, look at it. That's not a riot, that's a massacre," Nova said.
"We'll pay them back," Aart said with venom. "At least the riots will provide a distraction; their lives will not be lost in vain."
Nova shook her head with sad eyes and pushed forward. How many of them would end up with their bodies bent and broken on the ground before this fool's quest was over?
"You're nearly there," said Tanguin. "Slow approach speed and start emitting the coded signal."
Nova did as instructed and allowed Crusader to take them down to the space-station. It played home and office to everyone of any importance in the Human Confederacy for this sector. Here inside the glowing metal, it was hard to imagine the rich and powerful feasting on human flesh.
"Halt. Identify," a voice said over Nova's intercom.
"Nova Tabryn, Special Forces, reporting back from Outer Galaxy mission," Nova said in a calm voice, trusting that Tanguin had finalised her fake identity.
"Confirmed. Approach," the voice replied.
Crusader lowered, coming to a stop against the high-security landing bay and the doors locked together. Powerful guns lined the edge, pointing into space. Large figures in thick armour manned each weapon behind reinforced glass.
Nova pulled on her disguise; a Confederacy issued Special Forces uniform. The simple tracksuit allowed temperature control and basic shielding from low-power weapons.
Nova strode to the door. She knocked three times, paused, and knocked twice. The door swung open to reveal a well-lit corridor leading in a slope down into the complex.
She followed the lights through the twisting tunnel until it opened up into a large reception area. A well-dressed woman with electric blue hair sat behind a broad desk made from a slab of real marble. An intimidating welcome.
Nova stepped up to the bench. The woman with blue hair looked up at her with a smile.
"Hello, how can I help you?" she asked. The flashing badge at her chest announced her name; Crystal.
"Reporting back after reconnaissance," Nova said. She held out her arm for scanning.
Her heart leaped into her throat and it felt as if every drop of blood had drained out of her face. She tried to keep her expression neutral and her shoulders relaxed even though her breath was being choked in her throat.
"Sorry, it seems to be having some trouble," Crystal said, holding the scanner closer to Nova's arm.
Nova's face flooded with heat. It wasn't working. What would she do when the scanner reported back that Nova had no business being on Cyon, let alone inside the Inner Galaxies? Her eyes darted around the room. She would block the exits and shoot Crystal. She might have a chance to make it back to Crusader before the alarm sounded. But then what? She'd never make it out of the Inner Galaxies alive. It was better than nothing. Nova clenched her fists, ready to snatch her gun.
"There we are. Welcome back, Nova," Crystal said, smiling at her.
Nova breathed a long sigh of relief and nodded to the other woman. She pulled her arm back to her side and clutched her right wrist with her left hand.
"Um, I think a few of my friends are coming off duty today too. Is it okay if I wait for them here?" Nova said, trying to sound casual.
"Of course," Crystal said. "Would you like some entertainment?"
"No thank you, I'm fine just here," Nova said, plonking herself down into a chair which sat flush against the far wall. The regulation suit rustled as she sat.
Crystal went back to doing whatever she did with her days and Nova's thoughts turned to the next step. She would wait for the others here and then they would all go into the Inner Sanctum of Cyon together. Tanguin's skills would get them that far but the very inner parts of the space station were guarded by internal security mechanisms, completely unconnected to the outside world. From there they were on their own.
It felt like hours before Aart sauntered through the door, although it was only a few minutes. He walked with a casual swagger that Nova envied. If she hadn't personally known him, she would have been fooled into thinking he worked here. He strolled up to Crystal and grinned down at her, his eyes twinkling.
"Well hello there, gorgeous. Back from duty in the outers," he said.
Crystal's mouth opened as she stared into the dark depths of his eyes. "Good to have you back," she stammered. "How was it?"
"Let's just say I'm glad to be back. It's like living with a bunch of animals out there. I don't know if I'll ever feel clean again."
Crystal looked up at him with sympathy as she pulled out her scanner and held it over Aart's arm. "You poor thing, as long as you know your sacrifice doesn't go unnoticed."
"Seeing a pretty face like yours makes it all worthwhile," Aart said with a grin.
Crystal smiled back at him and visibly melted. She bent over her desk and when she stood again she thrust a crumpled piece of paper into Aart's hand. He winked at her and turned away.
Nova watched the whole exchange from behind lowered eyelids. He pretended to do a double-take and then strolled towards her.
"Is that Nova?" he said in a booming voice.
Nova pretended to look up in surprise and allowed a smile to spread across her face. "Aart?"
"What the hell are you doing sitting here?" he asked.
"I thought a few of us might be getting off duty today. Thought I'd see if you wanted to catch a drink or something," she said. They'd rehearsed this speech as a series of coded messages. Her words meant, so far so good.
"Well, you were right, Gus and Orion are getting in today too. They should be right behind me actually." The others had got through to the Inner Galaxies.
"Great. Here, take a seat," Nova said, patting the chair next to her.
Tanguin would stay on board Aart's ship, monitoring.
"So, how was Cupron?" Aart asked.
"Awful. You'd think after all this time they'd be grateful you know?" Nova said.
They lapsed into silence until Gus arrived, at which point they repeated the charade of old comrades being reunited. Orion and Tyra arrived last and together they thanked Crystal, striding through the door to the next level of the Confederacy headquarters.
"Your trip was good?" Orion asked.
"Everything's tip top," Nova replied. "I believe Aart even scored a phone number."
It was the first break from their prepared script but she couldn't help herself. Orion snorted and shook his head while Aart grinned.
"I can't help it if women find me irresistible," he said.
The others chuckled and moved forward.
After the reception area they stepped into a labyrinth of tunnels and doorways, constructed specifically to slow down invaders. The hidden files on the Cloud said that traps lined the tunnels, waiting to kill anyone who happened to take a wrong turn. Real Confederacy troops had emitters that shut off the traps when they got close, but Tanguin hadn't been able to find the signal anywhere, and so the Hunters were left to hope they saw the traps in time.
The layout of the labyrinth had been easy enough to find. Lots of people had made copies of it and saved it to their personal computers, probably to stop themselves from taking a wrong turn, Tanguin had found it in no time. Unfortunately, the traps weren't marked because the Confederacy troops didn't need to know where they were.
"Alright, here goes," said Aart as he stepped to the front.
They tried to look casual as they moved through the corridors. They laughed and chatted about mundane things whilst pretending they had walked this path a hundred times. The security surveillance in Cyon was unmatched; their every footstep would be being monitored by security bots and human guards alike. One sign of trouble and they'd be obliterated. The robots could scan for body stress, facial expressions, eye movement, and a million other things that Nova could only guess at.
They stayed silent for the most part to avoid giving themselves away by some poor word choice. It wasn't unusual for Special Forces to be the strong, silent type.
Aart led them through doors and corridors, weaving an intricate path through the maze. Each of them had a copy of the map overlaid on their vision via their brain chips. Nova kept track of their progress; they had to be about halfway. She stared at the floor just in front of Aart, ready for any sign of trouble.
"How about the Mars space-race?" she said, trying to keep her voice steady.
The others froze and turned towards her. They kept their expressions neutral but the sudden halt in conversation at the mundane topic must have looked as unnatural as a flying elephant.
"Um, I can't believe they let Yilat Flanderbot win," Aart said, lifting one eyebrow.
They'd practiced dialogue to fill in such a gap in conversation but all of their minds must have gone blank because neither Gus, Tyra, nor Orion said anything.
"Oh come on, you've always had a thing against the Flanderbot's," Nova said, improvising and pushing through the others. Pretending frustration with their obsession over the race, she stepped in front of Aart and then very deliberately stepped over the tripwire. The faintest glimmer had given away the tiny piece of platinum that was otherwise invisible.
Beads of sweat sprung out on Nova's forehead as she stepped over the wire and continued walking. She dare not look over her shoulder to see if the others had caught her subtle signal. They had already given the game away by halting mid-conversation. Damn, damn, damn, there was no way the security bots didn't catch that.
"Bloody space-race is a waste of time if you ask me," said Gus from behind Nova.
His gruff voice made Nova breathe a sigh of relief. The footsteps tapped not far behind. They'd seen the tripwire. Now she just had to hope that the security bots had chosen that exact moment to look the other way.
"You're only saying that because you couldn't fly a racer to save your life," Aart said, pushing past Gus as if in disgust. He came up alongside Nova, eyes darting left and right.
They walked on in silence, keeping their shoulders relaxed, low, and their faces neutral. An outside observer would see deep space Confederacy agents back from a long haul on the outer planets. Of course they'd be tired and a little out of sync. Nova let her head hang low, it hid her face from most of the cameras but it also meant she could keep a firm eye on the floor in front of her feet.
She spotted two more tripwires before they came to the end of the labyrinth. She was sure to step over them very deliberately and caught Aart's eye each time so that the others would pay attention. It was far more obvious than she would have liked, if only they'd organised some kind of other signal, something less obvious. It was too late now. They were on their own.
"Good to be home," said Nova as they stepped out of the final doorway. Orange globes lit the broad metal corridor and tall buildings. It looked more like a street than a space-station. The lights cast a warm light over the otherwise cold scene. Metal structures rose out of the smooth steel floor, matching the cold walls. Black numbers painted over the doorways and ladders acted as the only decorations.
"I expected something more… opulent, in a Confederacy base," said Tyra.
Nova frowned and nodded.
"I guess the rich and powerful don't come here," Aart said. "Just soldiers or something."
"If that were true we wouldn't be here," Nova said. A cool chill tickled her skin and brought goose bumps up across her flesh. "It's something else. It's like they rebuilt the place and stripped away anything that didn't have a function. The political leader of this quadrant lives here, why wouldn't he want to be surrounded by nice things?"
The others shrugged but no one had an explanation.
At the end of the entrance corridor they stopped to gaze out at the main tunnel. People surged in a single-minded wave towards wherever they were headed. Their measured footsteps tapped in time with each other like a rehearsed dance, or an army.
"Creepy," said Orion.
"Institutionalised is what it is," said Aart.
"Shhh," Nova said, whipping her head back to stare at them. They would be monitored just as much here as they were in the labyrinth. The last thing she needed was their big mouths getting her killed.
"I think I'm going to take a load off at the club," she said. If she'd learned anything from her life as a bounty hunter it was that the best place to get information was the local bar. Alcohol and friends made tongues loose, she couldn't count the number of times she'd cracked a mission because she'd been listening in the right bar at the right time.
"I'll come with," said Gus.
"Count us in," said Tyra.
They did their best to march in time through the crowded streets to the local bar. Like the rest of the station it was made from smooth metal plates.
Inside, a chill filled the air, amplified by the bare walls and metal furniture. The dim orange globes inside matched those in the walkways outside, and did nothing to lift the bleak atmosphere.
A single man stood behind the bar wearing a well-made shirt with long black pants. He wiped the bar with a blue cloth as he watched them enter. The empty room created repeating echoes of their footsteps.
Nova shivered as she sat down in a corner booth where she could see the door and the bar. The others took up similar seats around her, all of them with their backs to the wall. Aart strode up to the bar with a smile on his face.
"Evening," he said.
"Evening," the barman replied, his face emotionless.
"It's been a while since I've been in these parts," Aart said. "What drink would you recommend?"
The bartender shrugged. "We've got 'em all."
Aart paused and stared at the man before widening his smile and barrelling on. "Excellent, then I'll have five Tinnies for me and my friends."
"Righto," the barman said, lifting five spotless glasses from under the bar. They gleamed in the dim light as he filled each glass with amber liquid from the centre tap. "Fifty creds."
"Wow, price has gone up since last time I was here," Aart said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his cred-stick.
The barman's response was another shrug.
"It seems awful quiet in here," Aart said.
"Shift doesn't end til eight."
"Oh," Aart said.
"Seems you and your friends are mighty lucky to be off so early," the barman said, looking at Aart and then each of the other Hunters in turn.
"Ah, we don't run on the same clock," Aart said, gathering up the drinks in his hands, deftly balancing them against one another. "We just came from the outer planets, and trust me, we deserve an early finish."
The bartender grunted and went back to wiping down the bench. Aart spared him one last nod and came back to the table with the glasses in hand. He laid them down and each of the Hunters took one, cradling them in their hands.
The hardest part about this mission, Nova decided, was not being able to talk freely. There was no way for her to communicate with her companions. She couldn't say how the bar would be no good to them with no one in it, and that they should keep moving. All she could do was watch, wait and hope that their limited code words would be enough. She couldn't even talk to Cal and Crusader because it was too risky.
They'd planned on finding out what was inside the Confidential area before going there, in case it housed a nuclear reactor that would incinerate them as soon as they opened the door. They also needed to find the core if they were going to plant the bomb, but that hadn't been on Tanguin's blueprints either. The bar would have been the perfect place to find information, if there was anyone other than themselves and the surly bartender inside.
Nova sighed and pulled out a deck of cards from the inside of her jacket, dealing them out to the other Hunters. They each picked up a hand and began a very disjointed game of poker. Nova was usually very good at it, being able to see straight through people's faces, but today her mind was not on the game. Her eyes roved about the room, cataloguing escape routes, weapons, and potential traps.
Her stomach tightened as the bar remained eerily empty. Their whole plan to gather information was falling apart faster than she could deal the cards. Cold sweat dribbled down her neck.
The others were similarly distracted, if the poor bets were anything to go by, but the game provided a pretence for them staying in the bar. The barman was suspicious enough as it was, the last thing they needed was to look out of place.
Half an hour later, Nova was ready to hurl the deck of cards to the floor. She gritted her teeth and glared at the cards in her hand, sure they would burst into flames at any moment. Her foot rapped against the ground in an agitated rhythm as her eyes flew between the empty door and the cards. There was nothing they could do, even talk, and until that moment there hadn't been a single peep of another soul, aside from the gruff bartender.
At eight o'clock everything changed.
An alarm sounded three times. Moments later people poured through the open door. They chatted and jostled one another as some grabbed tables and others grabbed drinks. What had until that moment been a quiet barroom turned into a rowdy hall in a matter of seconds. Drinks splashed over tables and chairs, dripping down in pools to the floor. People laughed and giggled, breaking out cards of their own.
The bartender lost his angry expression, replaced with a welcoming smile. He patted regulars on the back as they ordered their drinks and slid glasses down the bar, into the hands of waiting patrons.
"I feel offended," said Aart as he watched the bartender laughing and joking with a pair of men leaning against the bar.
"It's weird," said Nova. "Go up and order some more drinks."
"We've barely touched these ones," Aart said.
Gus grunted, took in a deep breath and laughed at the top of his lungs. He slammed his large fist down onto the table and swept it across the wooden boards. His meaty arm collected the glasses as it glided along and set them all crashing to the floor where they smashed into a thousand tiny, sparkling pieces. The amber liquid spilled out over the floor, creating a slippery puddle.
Nova winced at the sudden noise and startled glances of nearby patrons. Gus wasn't the perfect choice for a covert mission.
"Oops," Gus said.
"You owe me fifty credits," Aart said, pointing his finger as Gus. Gus shrugged, wiping the drinks from his arm onto his shirt.
Aart stood and strode through the crowds of people. Some had stopped to stare at the group of Hunters, startled by the smashing glass. They watched for a few seconds before growing bored and turning their attentions to their own conversations. Even the puddle didn't last long; an instant later a small labourbot appeared. It soaked up the spilled drink and swept the shards of glass off the floor, disappearing as fast as it had arrived.
Nova watched Aart at the bar. She couldn't hear what he was saying but the bartender smiled and nodded. An instant later Aart strolled back with a handful of drinks.
"Definitely weird," Aart said as he laid down the glasses.
"Why?" Nova said, reaching for a glass and taking a long swallow. The cool liquid felt good on her throat. She couldn't have too much though, she needed a clear head.
"He was all friendly. Like a completely different person," Aart said, also taking a drink.
Nova frowned. "That's not the only weird thing."
"What?" Gus said.
"Look at them," Nova said, nodding her head towards the crowd.
The other Hunters swept the bar with their eyes.
"What is it?" Gus asked.
"Just look at them, really look," said Nova.
The others peered harder. The sight sent a shiver up Nova's spine. How had she not seen it straight away? There was too much going on, too much noise for her to see the real danger underneath. The crowd gathered in the barroom looked normal to any passing observer but when you looked closer the cracks started to appear.
Goosebumps ran up her arms and the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end.
"It's like they're all… stuck," said Orion.
"Exactly," said Nova.
The individuals looked normal enough but if you took the crowded room as a whole, it was clear. Every ten seconds half of the bar-room took a drink. Ten seconds later the other half took a drink. It was like an intricate ongoing dance. Add to that the timed laughter; every five seconds a new group laughed, loudly.
"Are they bots?" Gus asked. His shoulders tensed and his hand slid off the table, ready to pull the gun from his back.
"I don't think so," said Nova. "But they're not entirely human either. I think something much worse than a power-hungry minister is going on here."
"The guy in the corner," Tyra whispered. "He's not doing it."
Nova slid her gaze across the room, roving past the corner. The man stood out amongst the other patrons, he hugged his glass close to his chest and glared down at the table. He sipped randomly, out of sync with the rest of the room.
"There's two more." Orion flicked a stray droplet from the table towards the far side of the room.
Sure enough two men with red lieutenant stripes sat at a table talking in low tones and ignoring the rest of the bar. They too kept their own time, and in a way that was more sinister.
One of them looked up and caught Nova's eye, whispering something to his companion.
Nova's heart fluttered and she ducked her head, taking a long swallow of her drink. The liquid burned down her throat and her eyes watered as she placed it back on the table, not daring to look back at the two men. "Are they still watching us?"
"Not anymore," Gus said, his chair naturally facing the two men. "But they look like trouble."
"If the rest are all just pawns being controlled then those guys are the most dangerous things in this place," Nova said. "We've got to be careful."
Orion chinked his glass to the table. "At least if they're not following the pattern we don't stand out so much."
"We should mingle, try to get some more information," said Aart.
"Agreed, but take it easy. Stay away from the ones that aren't in sync. Be careful and keep your eyes open," said Nova.
"I'll observe from this table, meet you all back here in an hour," said Gus, leaning deeper into his chair and taking a long drink from his glass.
Nova stood up and walked away from the others, straight for a table where a group of people were playing cards. Based on their body mods and the tattoos on their wrists they had to be Confederacy foot soldiers. Perhaps they had been among the ones that attacked The Jagged Maw.
"Hello friends, mind if I play?" Nova said, her voice light.
"Plenty of room for all!" said one man as he reached behind and pulled a chair over from a nearby table.
Nova smiled at him and sat down. The dealer gathered up the cards and dealt a new hand.
"Standard Confederacy rules, twenty credit minimum," said a woman with a firm nod in Nova's direction.
"The usual then," Nova said, picking up her cards.
While she pretended to study her cards, she looked around at her fellows. They were all stern, military types, and they kept the same freakish patterns which had taken over the rest of the bar. The woman and the dealer lifted their glasses at the same time and ten seconds later the rest of the table did likewise. Even their light conversations seemed rehearsed, false.
Nova played the game, keeping her bets simple, normal. She didn't want anybody remembering her the next day. She needed to melt back into the faceless mass of the bar. As she played, she noticed the conversation of her companions circling. They returned again and again to the same rehearsed dialogue. Even their bets were rehearsed, completely separate from the cards they were actually holding.
"So how'd the raid on those Hunters go?" Nova said, stepping out onto a precarious ledge with her choice of conversation.
Her fellow players stopped and looked at her. Their faces wore puzzled frowns as they glanced first at Nova and then at one another.
"I beg your pardon?" said the dealer.
"Oh come on, you don't have to pretend with me," said Nova. "I'm Special Forces, just got back from some work in the outer planets and heard about your little foray."
The others stared at her. Nova took a long sip of her drink to hide her trembling hands.
"It went well," said the dealer. "The bomb got them in the end. Blew the bloody Hunters to smithereens."
"Good riddance," said the woman.
"Yeah. I heard we had some kind of new special weapon?" Nova said.
Once more the others stared at her, their gazes stern.
"You're in Special Forces and you don't know about Project Indigo?" said the woman.
"Like I said, I've been in the outer planets for quite a while. We don't get much word out there."
"Mind you, bloody Hunters nearly killed them all," said the dealer, turning back to his cards. "You know what that means."
"More gathering," said the woman.
"Bet I get put on that rotation again," said the man who had pulled over the chair for Nova.
"Gathering?" Nova asked.
"Yeah, for the project," the woman said, glaring at Nova. "They got a good haul from the Resources District last time I heard, they'll probably head there again."
"Oh," Nova said, nodding as if she understood. She daren't ask any more questions and returned to playing her hand. After ten seconds of silence the conversation reset itself and they started the same script they'd been repeating before Nova's questions.
"I think that's enough for me," she said. She'd managed to win a small profit; it was easy when the bets were predictable.
"Good to meet you," said the dealer.
Nova nodded and sidled back through the bar to Gus. Tyra and Aart were already there. Sitting next to them, she lifted Aart's glass to her mouth and took a long gulp.
"Weird huh?" Aart whispered.
Nova nodded but didn't say anything. She'd never seen anything so creepy in all her life. Every twitch, every facial expression, was repeated over and over again. Every person acted like a programmed computer.
Orion stumbled towards them from the darker corners of the room. His face glowed red and he wore a grin from ear to ear. He banged into a chair on his way towards their table and flew head-first into the metal floor. The onlookers laughed at him as he struggled back to his feet and resumed his shambling way.
Orion slumped down into a chair next to Nova and rolled his head around, looking at each of them in turn with a big grin.
"Man, now was really not the time to hit the sauce," said Aart.
"Nah don't worry about it," Orion said, the words coming clear from his lopsided head. "Got into a drinking game with some fellows. You know some guys just can't hold their alcohol inhibitor patches."
Orion followed his words by lifting his sleeve to reveal the clear patch on his arm. The alcohol inhibitor eliminated the effects of alcohol, but they sometimes had some nasty side-effects. They weren't very popular; after-all, who would want to drink and not feel anything? Orion slumped down in his chair, doing a tremendous job of playing the part.
"What did we all get?" Tyra said.
Orion leaned forward. "The guy I spoke to was real shut-mouth at first but after a few drinks he opened up like a supernova. Not that he was making much sense though, he did mention the Confidential zone, but kept talking about pens of people stretching out to the horizon. He was saying he hoped to have them one day, but that he wasn't at the right station yet."
"Cannibals," Nova whispered.
"No way, you don't think?" said Aart.
"Why else would they have pens of people?" Nova said.
"But why would the guy want to eat them?" Orion said, screwing up his nose.
"I don't know, but we have to find out," said Aart.
"I managed to get some rough directions to the core," said Tyra.
"Wow, how'd you manage that?" said Nova.
"Pretended I was maintenance on my first day. Luckily the guy wasn't the sharpest blade in the arsenal."
"Nice one," said Aart. "I pulled some info on the riots. Apparently they're still going. The Resources District is putting up a real fight. They're unhappy about all the disappearances. It's weird though, I haven't heard anything from my contacts there, not for days."
Nova stared at Aart, her mouth turned down at the corners. "Maybe there's a reason for that."
"No way," Aart said, shaking his head. "I know what you're suggesting and there's no way."
"You don't know that," Nova whispered, leaning across the table. "If there's been a lot of violence then people will have died, possibly including your people."
"Enough!" Aart hissed, glaring into Nova's eyes.
She leaned back in her chair and surveyed the room. The other patrons were still performing their timed dance. Now that she'd noticed it, it was impossible not to see the little patterns, the inhuman inconsistencies.
"Here's how I see it," Nova said, "We have to blow the core, that's priority number one. But I also think we need to investigate what else is going on here. What if it spreads to the rest of the Confederacy? Whatever it is."
Tyra bit her lip and glanced around the bar. "That's a lot of people."
Nova sighed and hugged her drink closer. "I know. But I don't think there's any other way that would let us be sure we'd stopped them."
"I agree," said Aart.
The others nodded.
"It's settled then," said Aart. "Nova and I will investigate, the rest of you head down to the core and get this thing going. Make sure you give us a heads up before you hit the go switch."
"Right," said Orion, standing up, suddenly stone sober. Tyra and Gus also stood and the three of them walked out of the bar into the empty streets.
"Let's get to it," Nova said as she and Aart left the bar.
"How are we going to find out what's going on?" Aart said.
"I say we start with the big section labelled 'Confidential' and go on from there," Nova said.
The enclosed metal streets lay deserted. The buildings on either side rose like silent guards, their black, empty windows staring down at the pair of Hunters.
"According to the map it's past the keep out signs," Nova said, nodding her head to the left.
Down an alley between two tall buildings sat a thick metal door ringed with yellow and black tape. A large metal sign drilled into the centre of the door warned 'authorised personnel only allowed beyond this point. Trespassers will be shot'.
Aart nodded. "Do you have any ideas for making sure we don't get shot?"
"Tanguin is pretty confident that she's given us the highest level clearance. It should be a simple case of scanning our chips and we're home free."
Nova hoped she sounded more confident than she felt. They'd had no contact with Tanguin and Cal for hours; anything could have happened in that time. The highest level security Tanguin had given them was just what she could find on the base-level servers. There was every chance that the real security clearance details were kept on the internal servers.
Nova stepped up to the door and placed her wrist beneath the small scanner. A red line traced down from her palm to the middle of her forearm and then back again. The door dinged and a lock clicked inside the wall. She pushed and it swung open on silent hinges.
A dark hallway stretched out from the door. As soon as Nova stepped through, lights flicked on all the way down its length, illuminating the simple metal corridor. Aart stepped in behind and pushed the door shut behind them. Other doors led off to either side but they were marked with mundane names; storage lockers and the like.
Nova ignored the side-doors and marched down the main corridor. Aart stayed at her side and the sound of his breathing combined with hers created a gentle rhythm. Their footsteps echoed along the empty corridor which got colder the further they went. Nova's skin rose in tiny bumps and she rubbed her hands along her upper arms.
"Why would they have the cooling system on down here?" Aart said, looking around.
"I don't know, but I hope we find out soon. Much more of this and I'm going to lose a few fingers," said Nova.
"Hey, Aart, I found that restaurant you were talking about," Tyra's voice came over their communicators. The coded message informed them that the other three had found the way down to the central core.
"It's quite a walk though, you could have warned me," Tyra continued. They would take a while to get there.
"I know, I know," Aart replied. "But it's worth it, trust me. Nova and I are going for a walk today as well."
"Well you kids have fun," said Tyra and the communicator clicked off.
Aart and Nova glanced at one another. So far so good.
They walked on down the freezing corridor, their teeth chattering and their muscles contracting involuntarily. Nova hoped they didn't come across any trouble; her hands quaked so badly that she doubted she'd be able to get her gun out of its holster.
"What the—" Aart said as they reached the door at the very end of the corridor.
Warning signs covered its surface, broken only by a small window set in at head height. A thin layer of frost covered the glass but it was clear enough to see through. Aart pressed his nose against the glass and stared into the room beyond.
"Aart, if someone sees you doing that I can guarantee we'll be sent to oblivion faster than you can blink," Nova said.
"Just look," Aart said, pulling away from the door with an open mouth.
Nova frowned and stepped forward. She leaned against the glass and icy tendrils wrapped around her cheeks and ears, making her shiver. The room on the other side of the glass looked coated in a layer of ice.
She pushed herself to look past the cold and into the room beyond. It took a while for her eyes to gain focus and make sense of what she was seeing. Massive metal arms swung across the room carrying large metal cases. More cases stacked against the walls and rose in tiers from the ground. Lifts travelled between the tiers while people in white coats walked along the platforms holding screens. The people looked tiny in comparison to the giant metal cases.
Pipes and electrical wires weaved across the walls, disappearing into the cases along with taps the size of Nova's arm. The people in white coats wore thick gloves and what looked like temperature control suits.
Nova's eyebrows drew together.
A big metal arm dragged a case past the window. Dials and screens covered most of the black metal box but the centre had a round window much like the one she was looking through. Past the window, trapped inside the metal box, stood a man who wasn't a man. Boils and growths covered his skin and his bruised eyes had swollen shut.
"What the hell," Nova whispered.
"We have to find out what's going on," Aart said, his lips blue. "That's the area marked confidential."
"If we go in there we'll be noticed," Nova said, gesturing to her shivering body.
"Ah, but I've found the perfect disguise," Aart said, indicating a door set into the left side of the corridor.
Nova followed his hand. The door led to a simple storage room, complete with temperature control suits and white coats. She smiled at Aart. Together they pulled on the temp-suits, strapping their guns onto the outside. Warmth covered Nova like a hot blanket and stopped her violent shivering. Her teeth stopped chattering and she could think clearly again.
Next they pulled on the white laboratory coats, which hid their guns from sight. The gloves came next and finally the portable computer screens. The screens weighed almost nothing and rested easily in Nova's palm.
She led the way back to the secured door and slid her hand under the scanner. It traced up and down her arm three times and with each sweep Nova's heart leapt further up her throat. Her hand clenched around the portable screen, ready to toss it and run if things went bad.
On the third scan the door beeped and unlocked, swinging open onto a metal platform that looked out over the massive room.
Aart followed close behind and they stood side-by-side at the railing. The room was even bigger than it had looked from the outside. Tiers of metal cases extended not just up, but also down below their current level, deeper into the bowels of the station. The metal arms, like cranes, lodged firmly into the walls as they carried the cases. The metal platform on which they stood had stairs leading both down and up. A metal disk with a small control panel sat in front of them.
"Transporter lift," whispered Aart. "It's even better than in the pictures."
"Here goes," said Nova as she rolled her eyes.
She stepped forward onto the transporter and Aart got on next to her. They gazed at the control panel, not knowing what to press. In the end, Nova slammed her finger down onto the number forty-two. The transporter lifted up and shot across the empty space. Aart stumbled at the sudden lurch and would have gone careening off the side if not for the energy shield that surrounded the lift. He bounced off the invisible barrier, legs wobbling and snatched hold of Nova's arm for balance.
The lift carried them up and over, past the centre of the room. They gazed over the edge of the transporter and Nova's stomach churned. The drop would kill her three times over before she reached the bottom.
They stopped at a platform five tiers above. Metal boxes lined the walkway on one side and a railing overlooked the massive drop on the other.
"May I help you?" said a small man as he came scurrying up to them from further along the platform. His shoes clicked against the grated floor.
"Yes," said Aart.
"We're here for the regular service personnel informational screening session," Nova said, blurting the words out as they came to her.
"What? I've been working here for twenty years and I've never had one of those. How can it be regular?"
"This is the first," Nova said, glancing at Aart, "But rest assured that from now it will be regular."
"I see," said the man, glancing between them. "I'm sure you won't mind if I ask to see some ID?"
"Of course not," Nova said, turning to Aart. "Take note, question one passed."
Aart nodded back and made a note on the screen in his hand. They both held out their wrists. The small man's face flushed red as he pulled the scanner from his waist. He held it over Nova's wrist and the red bar swept over her arm. The machine beeped and the small man lifted the scanner to read the tiny screen.
Nova's heart fluttered in her throat as she bit her tongue. Her feet itched to start running but she stayed her ground, shoulders back and chin up.
His face went white as he looked from Nova to Aart. "Why didn't you say you were Special Forces? Here I am treating you like common trespassers!"
"No need to apologise," Nova said, holding up her hand.
"I-I'll get Mister Orland."
Before Nova could reply the man scurried down the platform and disappeared behind a thick door. Muffled voices came from inside and then the door burst open and another man in a white coat strode out, his face flushed. The badge on the front of his coat said Orland.
Orland tugged at his collar and glared at the other man as he scurried away. "Sorry about the delay."
Nova nodded. "Just answer our questions and we'll be on our way."
"Of course," he said.
"So, Orland, why don't you tell us about these," Nova said, nodding towards a metal case where a woman with growths that looked like horns sprouting from her face, stood trapped with her eyes closed, possibly sleeping.
"These are the out-takes from Project Indigo," Orland said. "We keep them for monitoring for a while and if they don't improve, we send them for incineration."
Nova strode off along the walkway. Orland scurried to keep up.
"And what do you know about Project Indigo?" she said. She kept her tone light, disinterested, but her ears strained for every answer.
"I'm sure you've read my file. I designed Project Indigo," Orland said, his voice shaking.
"Of course I've read your file," Nova snapped, glaring down at him. "I want you to tell me what you know."
The man cowered away from her, his mouth and hands shaking as his wide eyes stared up at her.
"Of course, I'm sorry," he said, shaking like a leaf. "Project Indigo uses the riff-raff of society to create super-soldiers for the Confederacy. We've had some successful trials so far but none of them have been perfect."
"How many have you sold to the other Confederacy divisions?" Aart asked.
"What? None of course. The other divisions haven't accepted the Project, some kind of ethical conundrum. I'm sure they'll come around though," Orland said.
Nova inwardly sighed with relief. The super soldiers that had almost destroyed The Jagged Maw were at least confined to Quadrant Two. She turned away from Orland and kept walking. "Tell me about the failings of the project."
"Well, um, at first it was everything. The subjects died during processing, a few actually exploded right inside the cases. That was messy," Orland said. He stared at the ground and shook his head. "Subjects are hard to come by, as I'm sure you can appreciate, so we hated to waste them."
"Where are you getting your subjects?" Nova asked.
"I don't like to ask too many questions. That's your people's department of course," Orland said.
"Where do you think they come from?" Nova said, changing her line of questioning.
"The Resources District mostly. They all have the origin tattoos and with all the rioting…" Orland trailed off as he glanced up at them.
Nova nodded and pretended to make a note on her portable screen. "Tell me more about the failings."
"As I said, at first there was complete failure. We have better success rates now, but some of them just don't take to the treatment." Orland lifted his hand towards the woman in the case closest to them. "They go mad or are so deformed that they can't work."
"I see," said Nova.
"But even the ones that do go through processing without problems aren't perfect. There's something about them, it's like they have an expiry date. They will be fully functioning for about four weeks and then they just start to fall apart," Orland said.
Aart raised an eyebrow. "Fall apart?"
"Yes, I can show you if you want, the newest batch started going down yesterday." Orland waved them back onto the transporter disk.
They stepped on and he pressed fifty-four on the input pad. The transport lifted higher through the air, zooming past levels of metal cases as it went.
"These all have waste bodies in them?" Nova asked, horrified at the sheer number.
"Oh no, not yet anyway. Eventually we want to store the soldiers in them, a kind of stasis until they're required."
Nova nodded but didn't say anything.
The transport pad came to a stop high above their starting point at a particularly wide platform. They stepped off and Orland led the way to an imposing door set into the wall of the large room. He pushed it open and they stepped through into a blinding white space. People in white coats stopped to stare at them as they came in but went back to work at Orland's pointed glares.
Four creatures stood inside the room, the same monstrosities that Nova and Aart had faced twice already. Only instead of the rampaging, unstoppable beasts she'd seen before, these were broken bodies. They stood leaning against the white walls, whimpering with pain.
As she watched, the creature closest to the door let out a particularly loud cry and its right arm dropped clean off. One minute it was attached and the next minute it fell to the floor where it landed with a wet splat. The nearby scientists rushed in and dragged the fallen limb away from the creature, dissecting it two seconds later. A bloody section of bare muscle hung from the creature's shoulder where the arm used to be.
"That's disgusting," Aart said, lifting one arm to cover his nose from the overpowering smell.
"It's always the same," Orland said with a sad shake of his head. "They'll be fine and then after a time they just start falling apart. That keeps happening until all of their skin and muscle sloughs off and they collapse into a lifeless pile of flesh."
"How can this happen?" Nova asked.
"If I could work that out I'm sure I'd be a very rich man," said Orland. "Nobody knows. We think it must be something in the process, it sets off a timer, perhaps an increased rate of DNA mutation."
"I see. Obviously this is a major concern to the Confederacy," Nova said, forcing herself to remain cold and calculating.
"Of course," Orland said, bobbing his head up and down.
"Perhaps we should see the processing in action," Nova said.
"Of course you can," Orland said, staring at his feet. "It's just that many people find it quite disturbing. It's all been approved by the Minister of course, but still…"
"I assure you, we won't have any problems," Nova said. Aart nodded from behind her shoulder.
"Please just let me know if you would like to leave at any time." Orland glanced down at the screen in his hand. "Another bout of processing is happening in ten minutes, if we hurry we should make it."
Nova gritted her teeth, while the rest of her features remained frozen, expressionless. She forced her hands to stay relaxed at her sides. Her feet spread shoulder-width apart in front of the doomed man.
Aart wasn't nearly as composed. Rage, despair, and guilt contorted his face. His fingers clenched and unclenched at his sides and he bounced from foot to foot as he stared at the man before him.
Nova tried to block Orland's view of Aart. At least for the moment the scientist was occupied with the 'processing' that was about to take place. The room surged with people in white coats. They moved around checking dials, turning on switches, and making notes. The room smelled of heady chemicals that rose up Nova's nostrils and sent her mind into a daze.
Bright white lights filled the room and made it feel even more sterile, hostile. The sterilized benches and glass vials belonged in this room far more than Nova did, or the man being strapped down.
His head lolled from side to side as a pair of scientists pushed him up against the body-shaped depression in the wall. They held him in place while others rushed forward and attached straps. The metal clasps clamped over his wrists, arms, chest, and neck, but he barely moved.
"We always drug them beforehand. It makes it easier you know, if they don't struggle," Orland said as if reading Nova's mind. She nodded in response.
The man was naked beneath the metal clasps. His red skin glowed in the white light and multiple bruises covered his body. His matted hair hung in unkempt tangles and thick stubble sprouted from his chin. His origin tattoo claimed that he was from Cupron in the Resources District, not that that would matter to anyone in the Confederacy.
Dirt and blood covered him while grazes created angry red spots on his knees and hands. But behind the scratches and the drug-induced stupor bulged rippling muscles. More than that, on the one occasion when his eyes opened, Nova saw a deeper strength. It swam under the surface, a defiance, an inability to lie down.
The man was strong in every sense of the word; exactly what the Confederacy needed for its super-soldiers.
"Just step back a few paces," Orland said, gesturing to a thin black line painted onto the floor.
Nova and Aart stepped to the other side of the line. Aart felt like a ball of electricity at Nova's side. He jerked every few seconds as if he was about to run forward and try to save the man. His breath rasped in and out next to Nova's ear, grating at her worn nerves.
Her own breathing was more steady, but only because she forced herself. There was nothing they could do for this man now. He was at the mercy of the Confederacy, just another puppet in their ongoing game. He would either die here during processing or die later. She fought an internal battle, one part urging her to pull her gun and save the man, the other warning that it would expose them all and ensure that her friends would die.
She understood Aart's response. In his eyes, every victim was a close friend, a family member, someone that he should have protected. She understood, but she wished he'd hide it and calm down. If he gave them away then there would be no way for them to save anyone, let alone the man before them.
"Begin," Orland said, nodding to the scientist standing beside a large computer monitor. She nodded and flicked the switches.
Out of the ceiling above the man swung two metal arms. At their ends sprouted needles the size of Nova's arm. The points glinted in the bright lights and rocked towards the prisoner. The needles didn't pause for dramatic effect; they slammed through the man's chest, one on each side of his sternum.
The points slid between his ribs and punctured the tissue beneath. The man gasped. It could have been a cry of pain but through the drugs, who could tell? The plungers pushed down and the green fluid from the needles siphoned into the metal tips and disappeared into the man's body.
"We inject them with growth hormones," Orland said as the needles pulled away. "And then we basically cook them, increase their metabolism, and begin the growth process."
The tips retreated into the ceiling; the glinting metal disappeared into an alcove above their heads. Bloody holes gaped from each side of the man's chest. They leaked a trickle of blood that dribbled down his abdomen and caught on the metal clasp about his waist. The blood pooled until it spilled over and splashed onto the floor.
The metal clasps holding the man lit up. At first Nova though it was a kind of UV light display but then she realised it was actually the blue glow of electricity. Thousands of volts shot through the man's body and fired out the other side.
"He should be dead," Nova breathed.
The blue electrical glow filled the room and Nova had to narrow her eyes to see the man through the glare. It cast stark shadows of the people and the equipment scattered around the lab.
"Yes, he should. The pod provides a resuscitation function. He's basically dying and being resurrected over and over again. It's the best way we've found to stimulate the growth process."
Even the drugs weren't enough to keep that kind of pain at bay. The man writhed against his metal clamps, his muscles straining against them, glowing in the blue light. His head whipped sideways, but it was cushioned in place. He screamed with all the pain and agony anyone could ever feel. The processing continued.
Tears streamed down his face and his eyes begged with Nova. He stared at her with a mixture of hatred, pleading, and confusion. How could she stand there and watch? His eyes said. She didn't have an answer for that.
"Turn it off," Aart said through clenched teeth. His voice was so quiet that only Nova heard him. She grabbed hold of his upper arm and gave him a stern jerk. He glared at her but clamped his mouth shut. Nova stared at him with hard eyes before returning her gaze to the prisoner.
"As you can see, the treatment is starting to take effect. After this point we have to loosen the clamps but don't fear, you're perfectly safe," Orland said.
As if on his command the prisoner's body began to deform. Muscles bulged out and didn't relax. His arms ballooned. The metal clasps groaned as the automated machine loosened them to match the man's new size. His neck grew to three times its original size, the tendons straining as he screamed.
The rest of his body followed suit. It was as if someone had pumped his body full of gas; he became a seething mass of muscle and pain. He grew taller until his head brushed the roof. Miraculously, the metal clasps remained intact.
"What's that?" Aart said, pointing to a new machine descending from the ceiling. It had a sharpened point, much bigger than a normal needle. A hose extended out of it leading back into the metal roof.
"Ah, one of my personal inventions. We can't have the super-soldiers going off mission you see."
"You take away their free-will?" Aart whispered.
"You could call it that. I prefer to think that we're giving them peace in their duties."
"Is this where the processing failures usually occur?" Nova asked.
Orland frowned. "Yes. As I said, some of them just can't handle processing."
The metal spike extended and poised itself just behind the prisoner's head. Somewhere above them a motor whirred into life. As quick as a snake, the spike shot forward. It slammed into the back of the man's head and burrowed through.
From her position in front of him Nova couldn't see all of the gruesome details but her imagination gladly filled in the rest. The hollow spike drilled into his head and severed the vital connections. The internal mechanisms attached wires to the lobes of his brain and these wires threaded back through the spike and into the hose beyond.
As the spike penetrated, the man's screaming stopped dead. His head lolled forward and his eyes rolled back. Every part of his body stopped moving and he hung like a dead pig. Seconds later, the spike withdrew with a sickening squelch. It trailed a bunch of wires that disappeared into the back of his skull.
As the spike pulled away, white-coated people ran forward. They laid their hands on the man's wrists and neck. They looked into his eyes and patted his cheeks. A man turned to Orland and nodded once.
"He made it!" Orland said with a grin, clapping his spare hand down onto his clipboard.
After checking his vital signs the scientists got to work hooking him up. One climbed up onto a small set of steps and grabbed the cables coming out of the man's head in one fist. She pulled a pair of scissors from her pocket and cut through the coloured wires.
Another scientist stood below and handed up an open-faced metal helmet. Nova had seen the like before, a few times now. This one was blue with no crests or signs of identification.
The first scientist took the helmet in hand and with infinite care she attached the wires in her hand to the matching ones in the helmet. When she finished she lowered the helmet over the unconscious man's head and it clicked into place. Nova knew that if she looked down at the man she'd see a gaping hole in the back of his head, his weak spot, at least now she knew where it came from.
She swallowed the lump in her throat and took a deep breath. "Why are you processing so many new soldiers?"
Orland glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. "Oh… I wouldn't want to speculate."
"Answer the question. I'm not here to arrest you for spreading rumours."
A red blush crept over his cheeks. "I think – that is to say – I've heard, that the Minister is planning to move on the other Quadrants if they don't cooperate."
Nova nodded, keeping her face emotionless.
"Of course, he has to get rid of the bounty hunters first." Orland's eyes darted over Nova's face and he seemed disappointed to find no response.
Nova nodded and pretended to write on her tablet.
The scientists clipped the rest of the man's armour into place. The metal clasps had been released and he stood upright thanks to the massive metal legs which had been attached to his unconscious body. In minutes, armour covered his body and just like that, he looked like any one of the other super-soldiers who had attacked The Jagged Maw.
"Activate," Orland said.
The man's eyes sprung open. They ran over the collection of scientists and onlookers before returning to stare at Orland. The man's face was fully alert with no sign of the drugs or pain that had clouded his mind just a few minutes before. He stood to attention like any good soldier, and awaited his next command.
"Forward two paces," Orland said.
The soldier stepped forward two paces, his feet rocking the ground.
"Please, enjoy," Orland said, waving his hand at the soldier.
Nova stepped around to stare at the back of him and forced Aart to do the same with a swift tug on his arm. Thick armour plates covered the man's back, smooth and beautiful. If it wasn't for the grim circumstance Nova would have liked to study it further, to find out who had made it. A suit like that would give her a distinct advantage in her next mech fight.
Aart stayed frozen to the ground, staring at the monstrous half-human with a clenched jaw. His eyes glinted with repressed rage and hatred. Nova ignored him for the moment; she had to learn everything she could about the creature before another group of them showed up on her doorstep. She couldn't see any weaknesses in the suit. Even standing this close, with the creature right in front of her, and no threat of being shot, she couldn't see a chink in the armour.
The only sign of weakness was the one she already knew about; the gaping hole in the tops of their heads. The metal spike drilled in, attached wires, and then the helmet slipped over the top. But they couldn't block the hole completely. Whatever they did to the man's brain it must need air because his helmet, just like the others, had a hole at the top that looked down into his skull.
"You said they don't last long?" Nova said, stepping back from around the super-soldier and looking at Orland.
"Yes, it's a side-effect of the excess growth. It causes multitudes of tumours to spring up all over their body. The tumours will grow over the next few weeks and before you know it his heart and lungs will collapse. Not so super after that," Orland said, chuckling.
Nova nodded. She looked up into the man's eyes but the pain and anger were gone, they were barely human at all. The poor man had been taken, tortured, and would die not even knowing it.
She shook her head, she could mourn the man later, now was the time for vengeance.
"The only other room of interest is where we store them before processing. It's not much to look at though," Orland said, staring at the two of them.
Nova took the lead. "Our report requires us to see all the major facilities. Please lead the way."
Another trip on the transporter took them to another level, the biggest yet. Massive double doors led off of the platform and into the room beyond.
"We just ask that you don't try to talk to any of them. It tends to get them excited," Orland said as he led the way through the doors.
Nova stopped dead as soon as she passed the threshold. Glass walls lined the wide corridor, looking through into square boxes filled wall to wall with people. They shuffled against one another, vying for positions next to the walls so that they could lean for a time. There wasn't enough room for them all to sit, standing room only.
Some of them turned to watch Nova, Aart, and Orland as they entered the complex but most of them stared with dead eyes at the blank walls. Cubicle after cubicle ran along both sides of the walkway, with hundreds of people squished together. Urine pooled on the floor, the smell would have been overpowering if it hadn't been for the glass walls that separated them from the prisoners.
"What?" Nova said, struggling to maintain her composure.
"This is where the subjects come from. We always pick the strongest for the trials; the weak ones never make it through processing."
"Steelon, Amcon, Cupron," Aart said as he stepped up to the glass and recited the origin tattoos he saw through the glass.
"Yes. As I said, we've been taking most of them from among the rioters. They're trouble-makers after all."
Nova grabbed hold of Aart's upper-arm and pulled him away from the glass. He resisted at first, staring at the prisoners trapped on the other side, red blotches appearing on his cheeks.
"Of course," Nova said. "What happens to the weak ones?"
Nova swallowed the bile rising in her throat and clenched her fingers tight around Aart's arm. Her previous panic galvanised into rage and the need for justice.
"Sorry?" said Orland, his brows drawing together.
"You said only the strong ones are selected for processing. What happens to the others?"
"Oh, I wouldn't know about that. You would probably know more than me. I don't ask questions, of course."
"Of course, good man," said Nova.
Her blood boiled at Orland's apathy. Don't ask questions, keep your head down. That seemed to be his philosophy, but didn't that make him just as guilty as the rest of the Confederacy? More so maybe, as it was his idea.
"Well, I think that's everything I have to show you," said Orland. He stood staring up at Nova with wide eyes, ready for his assessment.
"You've done very well here," Nova said, choking on the words even as she said them.
"Thank you, of course, just doing my duty," Orland spluttered, blushing.
"If you wouldn't mind, we'll stay here and survey the subjects for a time, perhaps we can find a way to convince the rest of the Confederacy to take on your project," Nova said.
Orland's eyes lit up and he grinned. "Of course! Please let me know if you need anything."
"We will, please carry on," said Nova, waving her hand at the exit.
Orland took the hint and hurried away from the two Hunters, his feet clicking on the floor.
"How long have they been taking people?" Aart whispered, his voice hoarse.
"A lot longer than we thought," said Nova. "When I was on Tabryn, they kept talking about people going missing. I didn't think for a second it was the Confederacy."
"How can they get away with it?" Aart asked. "Why hasn't anybody done something?"
Nova shrugged. "Some people wouldn't know, other people are like that arse; they just don't care."
"It's disgusting. I'm even more sure of blowing these Confederacy bastards to bits," Aart spat.
"Shh!" Nova glared at him. "This place is monitored. Keep it down. Speaking of which, Tyra, what's the story?"
"I've put the baby to bed, it'll probably be there thirty minutes," said Tyra.
"Excellent," Nova said, clicking her communicator off.
"Nova, we can't let these people be blown away as well," Aart said, gesturing at the glass boxes.
Nova waved at him. "We don't have a choice. Now shut up! Do you want to bring every guard in this place down on us? We've gotta go."
Aart stepped away from her to the glass wall and rapped his fist against it. "I can't leave them here. They deserve better than that."
Nova gripped his shoulder and pulled him away, her eyes flying to the cameras staring at her from every corner. "There are hundreds of them, we can't just shepherd them out," she hissed.
Aart shook her hand free and ran back to the glass, running his fingers over it. A few weary heads inside the glass turned his way but most of them stared at the ground, faces drawn. He pulled out his gun and aimed it at the glass.
Nova's heart leapt into her throat. "Aart! No!" She stumbled forward to stop him, arms spinning.
He fired and a bolt of energy shot out. The glass exploded into millions of tiny shards that showered Nova's hair and shoulders. Sparkles covered the people inside the box.
They turned towards Aart, their eyes confused. They stared at him as if they hadn't noticed him before and then looked around at the shattered glass. The sharp shards covered the floor and their bodies. With tentative steps they shuffled towards the now-open window.
The putrid scent of unwashed bodies and waste flowed over Nova in waves ahead of the people. Her stomach and nostrils clenched against the assault but she couldn't stop the smell invading all of her senses. Her eyes watered as she struggled against the urge to vomit.
The first of the prisoners stepped over the threshold and the world exploded with sound.
Alarms rung through the air so loudly that Nova could feel the vibrations in every cell of her body. The high-pitched whining beat at her ear-drums and threatened to burst them. She squeezed her eyes shut and held her hands over her ears, but the sound penetrated through. She managed to keep her feet with only the strongest force of will.
The prisoners clutched at their heads and added their own screams to the cacophony.
Nova spun in a tight circle. They had mere seconds before the guards were sure to arrive with no way out. Anger burned in her stomach. She wanted to punch Aart in the face, he'd doomed them all. She stumbled towards the only way out.
"Aart? Aart is that you?" An elderly man stepped out of the crowd, his white hair matted.
Aart's mouth dropped open and he stepped forward "Cole?"
Cole took another trembling step forward, his knees quaking. His eyes glistened in the bright lights. "You came for us."
Aart took hold of Cole's shoulder. "Of course we did." He hooked his arm around Cole's waist and hobbled towards the exit. He glanced at Nova as he went past. "Cole was in charge of the rebellion on Amcon. He's been getting people free of that hell-hole for as long as I can remember. Me included."
Cole lay a wrinkled hand on Aart's arm. "After this lad, I think we'll call it even."
Nova's heart clenched. She couldn't see anyway that they could make it out of the space-station alive.
The main entrance door burst open, revealing dozens of black guns pointed at Nova's face.
"Stop right there," said the front-most soldier. A gold badge shone from the chest of his crisp, blue uniform.
Nova's hand flew to her gun.
The soldier stepped forward and pressed the barrel of his gun against Nova's forehead. "I wouldn't do that if I were you. Come quietly or come dead, I don't care."
Nova clenched her jaw. She lowered her gun into its holster and put her hands on her head. Aart stepped up beside her, leaving Cole leaning against the nearest wall.
"The rest of you, back to your cells," the sergeant yelled.
"Fuck you!" Cole bellowed, pushing away from the wall and diving at the soldier.
The soldier turned his gun from Nova and squeezed the trigger. A bright flash of light filled the doorway along with a loud bang.
Cole collapsed to the floor mid-dive. He grunted and curled into a ball at Nova's feet, blood leaking out between his hands where they clutched his stomach.
Aart fell to his knees at Cole's side. "You bastards!"
Cole's watery eyes squinted shut, his teeth clenched.
"Anyone else feel like being a hero?" the soldier asked, looking out over the prisoners.
Nova's fingers tingled, urging her to snatch her gun. But two other soldiers had their guns aimed at her face. She'd never reach it in time. She risked a glance over her shoulder.
The prisoners stood facing the soldiers, their faces grim.
"I said get back to your cells!" the soldier yelled.
As one the prisoners surged forward. Their bare feet pounded the ground as they sprinted for the narrow doorway. They let out an indistinct battle cry, raising their fists.
The soldiers swung their guns from Nova and Aart and aimed at the crowd.
The commanding soldier pursed his lips. "Do it."
A volley of shots boomed from the soldiers' guns, lighting up the doorway like a series of fireworks. Prisoner's collapsed, their bodies falling lifeless to the floor as others jumped or climbed over them, still running.
"No!" Aart ripped his gun from its holster and fired at the soldiers.
Nova's heart pounded high in her chest as she whipped her gun out of its holster. As they tried to take down the soldiers, dozens of prisoners died at their backs.
Aart tossed his gun to the floor and threw himself at the soldiers, his body blocking the oncoming prisoners. His body jolted as three shots hit him before he slammed into the commanding officer.
Nova darted forward. "Aart!"
The commander shoved Aart's bleeding body to the side. "Take them out! Code Red!"
A soldier at the back pulled a small black device from his pocket and pushed down the red button on top.
Nova turned just in time to see all the remaining prisoners collapse to the floor. It was as if they'd all been shot simultaneously only there weren't any bullet wounds. They were just dead.
Her mouth hung open and her arm dropped to her side. More than fifty prisoners lay dead behind her, their limbs twisted and mouths frozen open in screams.
Aart wailed, seeming impervious to his own wounds, he lashed out at the commander, landing a punch to his face.
The commander growled and threw Aart back against the wall. "I'm going to enjoy watching the Minister take care of you."
The sergeant climbed to his feet and stalked off down the corridor. A few of his men stepped forward, took Nova and Aart's weapons and marched them along the new corridor. They walked in silence, only the continuous beat of the soldier's footsteps echoed through the corridor.
Nova glanced out of the corner of her eye at Aart. Wounds smouldered from his right shoulder and leg but they weren't fatal unless they went untreated. She allowed herself a small flood of relief, at least he wasn't about to bleed out on the floor next to her.
His head hung low and a line of tears trailed down his face, making a clear path through the blood.
"Here," the sergeant said as they reached a non-descript grey door at the end of the short corridor.
A soldier pressed a green button beside the door and a few moments later it slid open. The sergeant led the way in. Two soldiers pushed Nova and Aart through and then the door slammed shut, locking the rest of the soldiers outside.
"What have you brought me?" said a refined voice.
A man in a dark suit stood behind a massive metal desk. Papers scattered across the surface but a large screen took up most of the space. It showed live images of different parts of the base, including the pile of dead prisoners.
"Minister Lenovo, our records have them down as Nova Tabryn and Artemis Goldson. The accuracy of those records is in doubt. They have already hacked into our system and altered their chips," the sergeant said.
"Good job, Tyco. Lucky they were so foolish. And a good thing we had those chips put into the cattle – can't have them running wild through the station."
"Yes sir. It was most effective."
"You won't get away with what's going on here," Aart said through clenched teeth.
"My dear boy, it's not like you can stop me now is it?" said Minister Lenovo.
"You'll all burn for what you've done. We—" Aart began but Nova cut him off.
"Not right now, but you will be stopped," she said.
"Hunters, is that right?" said Lenovo. "I kept saying it was strange that the Maw disappeared out of the sky."
"We'll keep coming for you," said Nova. "Whatever you're trying to do, you won't get away with it. There are other Hunters out there."
"Maybe, but I doubt they'll have time to do anything. My plans are drawing to a close and then everything will fall into place."
"What plans?" Nova asked, jutting out her chin.
Lenovo chuckled. "I think I will reserve sharing my plans with you until you've been fully integrated."
"Integrated?" Nova said.
"Yes, you saw how well-behaved my children were, didn't you?" Lenovo said, nodding towards the screens, at a stream of people marching through the main corridor.
"Your children?" Nova said, confused.
"Sir, medical scans reveal previous contact with Flumes," Tyco said, glancing down at the screen in his hand.
"What?" Lenovo said, staring up at Tyco.
Tyco shrugged. "That's what the scans say."
Nova's mind raced over the name. Where had she heard it before? There had been so much going on at the time; Crusader was stranded on Taive.
"No," Nova said with wide eyes as she looked up at Lenovo. She whipped her head around to stare at Sergeant Tyco. The mild concern fell from their faces and they grinned down at Nova.
"Ah, I think she knows," Lenovo said.
"Know what? Nova, what's going on?" Aart said, staring between their captors and Nova.
"The slugs on Taive. The ear slugs," Nova whispered. "You know, the ones that crawled into your brain, took control, and turned you into a rabid monster?"
"What?" Aart blustered, his eyes opening wide.
"Ah, so you both know us. That will make this less of a shock then," Lenovo said. He reached into the draw to the left of his desk and when he pulled it out again he held a collection of black slugs. Unlike the ones on Taive, they had bright blue stripes running down their backs.
"I believe my cousins use the more primitive method of infection, but this is a new era and we've learned to adapt," Lenovo said with a cruel smile.
He got up from his desk and strode towards them.
Nova's eyes widened and her heart pounded against her chest. She swallowed, finding her throat as dry as sandpaper, and cast around for any way out.
"Your cousins are dead," she said.
"What?" Lenovo said, pausing in his path towards her.
"We killed them all. That putrid, ugly queen took a single blast, blew into a thousand pieces," Nova said, barrelling on.
"You killed her?" Lenovo's face fell, turning grey.
"Just like we'll kill you."
"You're trapped. You have no way out, and seconds to live," Lenovo said, staring down at her with the slugs still clutched in his hands.
"I've faced worse," Nova said, sticking her chin out.
"Tyco, hold her still. I'm going to enjoy this," Lenovo said.
Tyco kicked the back of Nova's legs and she collapsed to her knees, jarring pain shooting through her knees.
He snatched her head and wrenched it to one side so that her right ear pointed up to the ceiling. She struggled against him, but he braced her shoulders with his knees, trapping her.
"Nova!" Aart yelled.
Before he could move, two guards grabbed his arms and shoved him to his knees.
Lenovo selected a slug from the writhing mass in his hand. He lifted the creature up to his eyes and smiled at it before bending down and holding it in front of Nova's face.
"Say hello to your new brain," he said with a chuckle.
Nova's heart raced. The slug squirmed in front of her eyes. From this close she could see the slime shimmering along its length, she imagined it sliding along her cheek, leaving a wet trail that would go cold in the air.
Lenovo lifted it towards her ear. The slug swayed back and forth through the air.
He was just about to release it when a commotion erupted outside the metal door. He looked up just in time to watch the door explode inwards.
A piece of metal flew through the air and caught a soldier in the neck. He clutched at his throat but it punched through to his vital arteries and blood poured out. His fingers, wrist and arms were soaked in his own blood and he collapsed to his knees. He gurgled something unintelligible before falling onto his face.
"What!" Lenovo said, he released the slug and stood up.
The slug dropped onto Nova's cheek and without pause it inched towards her ear. The wet trail was just as she'd imagined. It left a cool line across her cheek that made her shiver and brought bile to her throat. She imagined the thing crawling inside her ear and burrowing its way into her brain.
She twisted left and right, trying to wrench her arms free or shake the slug loose. She fought with all her strength, her muscles straining against Tyco's firm grip.
The slug got to the edge of her ear. It poised itself on the rim like a diver preparing to jump.
Nova strained her arms again. This time Tyco's grip went loose and the force of her movement sent her sprawling across the ground. She whipped her hand across her temple, swatting the slug away. It clung to the side of her head with suckers, squelching.
She hit the slug and it flew through the air, plopping to the ground with a wet splat. It turned around and squirmed across the floor back towards her. It moved in undulating waves, the blue line flashing up and down.
The blood drained out of her face as it came at her a second time. She scrambled to her feet, lifted her thick boot, and slammed it down onto the slug. It exploded under her shoe and sent black entrails shooting out. When she lifted her boot, bloody remains interspersed with blue decorated the floor.
During Nova's private battle something bigger erupted behind her. The room which before had been so quiet, filled with noise. Guns fired, people screamed, and alarms blared. Aart wrestled a bigger man, their hands clasped around each other's throats. While two other guards fired through a smoky haze into the corridor beyond.
A blue blast shot into the room and caught a guard in the chest. He grunted and collapsed, his ribs a smoky ruin. The other guard glanced at his companion, his face pale, and kept firing.
Nova spun and kicked the man strangling Aart. Her boot caught his ribs and he groaned and glanced back at her. Aart reared back and slammed his head into the other man. A hollow thump echoed out and the guard slithered to the ground at Aart's feet.
A sizzling bolt of plasma swept through the room, bigger than the other shots, and slammed into the desk. It went up in a small ball of flames.
The heat licked Nova's cheeks and sweat sprung out on her forehead, but she couldn't help smiling. She recognised the colour and shape of the blast.
The remaining guard trembled as he glanced back at the burning desk. A second blast careened through the open doorway and slammed into the man's abdomen. He shrieked as flames licked over his clothes and he became a howling inferno. He collapsed to the floor, wailing, until the flames turned him into a blackened pile of charred bones.
"Guess who?" Orion said as he sauntered into the room followed by Gus and Tyra.
A flood of relief flowed through Nova's body and her shoulders relaxed.
Lenovo stood in the centre of the room, desperately clutching the handful of slugs. His lips trembled as he looked at the Hunters and then down at his dead companions.
"You'll pay for this," he whispered.
"Doubt it," said Gus, hefting his massive gun higher on his shoulder.
Nova strode up to Lenovo and looked down at the writhing mass of slugs. She quelled the jolt of fear that flashed through her as she remembered the wet slug trailing its way towards her ear.
"Drop them," she said, her voice low.
"Nova, we've got to go. You know what won't wait for us," Tyra said, her voice taut.
"I won't be long. This is something I've got to do." Nova turned back to Lenovo. "Drop them, or I'll shoot your hand off." She pulled her gun out of Tyco's belt and levelled it at Lenovo's hand.
"You wouldn't dare. I am the Minister for this division of the Confederacy; you'd be sentenced to a death worse than a black-hole."
"That's a chance I'm willing to take. This is your only warning. Drop the slugs."
Lenovo looked between Nova and the slugs. His lips shook but he let the black parasites drop between his fingers. Soon all that was left in his palm was a mass of slime.
The black creatures writhed on the floor. They untangled themselves from each other and inched towards Nova and the other Hunters. They didn't get far. As soon as the last slug hit the ground Nova fired her weapon.
The blue blast engulfed the slugs. They sizzled as they heated to bursting and then the room filled with tiny pops like gunfire. Slug entrails burst about the floor. They kept burning until the flames went out, leaving nothing but charred remains.
"My children," Lenovo said, staring down at them. His eyes brimmed with tears.
"I'm sure you've got plenty more," Nova said. "Now tell me something else. If I kill you, will the rest die?"
"Of course not, we're not primitive like my dear cousins," Lenovo spat at her.
"Excellent, that's all I needed to know," Nova said, firing a shot into Lenovo's kneecap.
He collapsed to the ground with a scream and clutched at his burning limb. Beneath the skin and muscle sprouted charred bones.
"We've got fifteen minutes before this thing opens up," Tyra said from her position at the door. Gus and Orion stood in the hallway keeping watch while Aart retrieved his guns from the security guards.
"Alright, let's get out of here," said Nova.
"What about Cole and the others?" Aart said, looking up from looting the soldier's corpse.
Nova sighed and laid a hand on his shoulder. "They're gone, Aart."
Aart's face twisted, lip trembling.
"She's right," Gus called from the hallway.
"Fourteen minutes," Tyra chimed in.
"I'm sorry," Nova said.
"Sorry isn't enough for leaving them behind," he said.
"No," Nova said, pulling a small device from her belt. "Sorry for this."
She slammed the sedation device into Aart's chest. He stared at her with an open mouth and burst into giggles. He laughed hysterically and pointing at the dead bodies.
"What the hell did you do to him?" Gus said, poking his head around the corner.
"Just a minor sedation drug. He'll be okay," Nova said.
"We've got to get moving. It looks like trouble is heading our way," Orion called from the hallway.
Gus moved passed Tyra and put his arm around Aart's waist. He steered the other man for the doorway. "Alright, giggles, we've got to get out of here."
Nova followed Aart and Gus into the corridor, tucking the sedater back into her belt. "I assume you guys know the way?"
"Yeah, it's not far from here. When your communicator sent the alarm we heard a commotion, figured you couldn't be far," said Orion.
"Thank you for coming," Nova said. "Otherwise I'd have a slug halfway to my brain by now."
"Don't mention it," said Orion. "Seriously. I saw enough of those things when we were on Taive."
"Agreed," Nova said.
They hurried down the corridor, slowed by Aart's shambling, laughing pace. He pushed Gus from side to side and even the bigger man's weight wasn't enough to keep them on course. Aart's loud voice echoed around the corridor. If the Confederacy soldiers didn't know where they were before, they would now.
They came to a door at the end of the corridor. The clean metal sign set into its centre pronounced it to be the end of the restricted zone. The five of them pushed out of the narrow corridor and into the main street.
Nova's sigh of relief died in her throat as multiple guns thrust towards her face. "Crap."
"Grishnak!" Gus said. He let go of Aart's waist and pushed the smaller man to the floor behind a pile of boxes. Aart lay on the ground laughing. He would be less helpful than a Hasard Camel in this fight.
The door had opened up onto the main street but crates and vehicles lined the walkway and piled near the door. It made the wide space feel closed, and the Confederacy soldiers surrounded them.
The Hunters dived for cover. Their practiced battle-senses didn't fail them and they were well-hidden behind boxes, crates, and transporters before the Confederacy soldiers fired a single shot.
The shots came hard and fast. Multi-coloured blasts of energy careened at them, making coloured lights in the air. Electricity crackled between them and explosions filled the air as the bolts collided with walls, buildings, and loose objects. The smell of smoke filled their nostrils and made Nova's eyes water.
The Confederacy soldiers yelled at one another to move forward. There had to be ten of them at least.
"Cut 'em down!" Gus bellowed.
He stood up from behind his crate and fired into the smoke and commotion. His massive gun shot plasma bolts twice the size of an ordinary hand gun and they filled the air with deadly missiles. The first blast took down three Confederacy soldiers and had the others ducking for cover.
Gus bobbed down to let his gun recharge and as soon as he was below cover, Nova stood up. She looked down the barrel of her handgun, pinning a Confederacy soldier in her sights. She squeezed the trigger and watched as a blue bolt blasted from her gun and into the chest of her enemy. The soldier screamed, grabbed his chest, and collapsed to the floor to join the other three bodies.
Orion and Tyra managed to take down two more soldiers, leaving four. These seemed smarter than the other grunts. They stayed hidden behind cover and kept their breathing and voices quiet. Nova couldn't tell if they crouched directly in front of the Hunters or if they were inching their way around for a surprise attack.
A piece of metal scraped across the ground to Nova's left. She darted out of her place of cover and fired without looking. Her shots streamed through smoky air before igniting a crouched soldier. The piece of broken piping he'd accidentally kicked lay like a broken promise on the floor.
Nova dove through the air towards the soldier she'd just killed. The heat of a passing energy bolt singed the side of her face as she twisted and fell forward. She landed on top of the dead soldier, using the momentum of her dive to grab hold of the front of his shirt and pull him over on top of her.
His heavy body convulsed as more energy blasts pounded into it. The heat from the shots went through his back and came out his stomach where it sizzled against Nova's clothing. The bolts burned through her shirt and bit into her chest, leaving smoking wounds that sent barbs of pain through her body. She squeezed her eyes shut and bit her tongue to stop from crying out.
As the shooting lulled she shoved the soldier off her injured chest and rolled behind a crate. Judging from the direction of the shots, the three remaining Confederacy soldiers were hiding behind an armoured transporter with thick wheels and blast-proof shielding. She peered at it through a crack in the crate, eyes narrowing. She was about to give up any hope of catching sight of them when a shadow moved in one of the windows.
"They're inside the armoured transporter," Nova bellowed. "No external weapons."
"We've got seven minutes," Tyra yelled back, a hint of panic in her voice.
The pressure of the impending explosion pushed against the back of Nova's neck; she could almost hear the clock ticking down to the moment they would all be consumed in flames. Her heart fluttered faster.
"Hold onto your hair, ladies," Gus called out.
Nova didn't know what he meant but she ducked further behind her crate and put her hands over her head just the same.
A few seconds of silence were followed by a ground-shaking explosion. A part of Nova thought that Tyra's time had been off and that the end of them, and the Confederacy, had come six minutes early. But the explosion wasn't big enough; they weren't being hurtled off into space.
She risked a glance over the crate and saw the remains of the transporter. The blast-shields hadn't protected it against whatever bomb Gus had been carrying, leaving nothing but a hollowed out shell. The rubber tires gave off poisonous fumes as they burned.
A fiery figure leapt away from the charred remnants of the transporter and ran in circles. He screamed as the very flesh fell off his body. He held his hands to his head as he collapsed to the ground, rolling across the floor. It was too late to put out the flames.
The soldier cried and wept as the flames ate his skin, muscle, and bones. He screamed until the flames ate his very lungs away and then he was nothing but a charcoal corpse.
Nova winced; it was a painful way to go.
"Five minutes, we have to get moving now!" Tyra yelled, running out of her cover.
Gus had Aart back under his arm and the five of them ran down the metal street. Their footsteps echoed along the empty path, flames crackling behind them as the fire took hold of pieces of debris.
"Where is everyone?" Gus said. "We should be surrounded by people with guns by now."
"There aren't that many Confederacy soldiers based here at headquarters," Nova puffed as she ran. "Mostly these are the important people; ministers, administration, not many soldiers."
"But then we haven't really solved the problem at all," said Orion.
"I think we have. I would bet that the Flumes have only infected the high command, the people here. They wouldn't want to send themselves out as grunts to get killed."
"That's just wrong," said Orion.
"But there's no way to be sure?" Gus said.
Nova bit her lip. "No."
"Four minutes. There's no way we can get through the labyrinth in time," Tyra said, glancing down at the timer on her wrist.
"We don't have to. Coming in is the hard part, going out is easy," Nova said.
They reached the end of the street where the entrance to the labyrinth disappeared into a closed corridor. Nova ran to the wall next to the labyrinth and pushed her shoulder against a yellow square, just like Tanguin's blueprints had said. Something inside the wall creaked and the wall swung away.
Nova led the way through into a metal box and the door swung shut behind them. They stood shoulder to shoulder, all panting for breath, except Aart who giggled against Gus's grip.
Nova stomach dropped as the lift shot upwards, coming to a grinding halt after ten seconds of rapid ascent. The door sprung open and they found themselves back in the reception area. The opulent desk and other fixtures shimmered in bright contrast to their now dirt-stained and bloodied clothing.
"Thank the stars for shortcuts," said Tyra. "Three minutes people."
"What..? I'm going to have to ask you to wait here while I call security," Crystal said from behind her massive marble desk. The screen next to her blinked with the security insignia.
"Crystal, we're out of here," said Orion.
"I must insist that you wait here," Crystal said.
"No, thank you," said Nova, striding towards the main exit.
"Not on my watch," Crystal said.
She slammed her fist down onto a big red button to the side of her computer screen. The open door began to slide shut. The weight of the monstrous thing scraped along the floor, screeching in protest at the sudden lock-down. A red light flashed in the ceiling and a wailing alarm sounded.
"I am so sick of bloody alarms," Gus said.
He pulled the over-sized gun over his shoulder, levelled the sights, and pulled the trigger. A bolt of energy careened across the room and slammed into the door's closing mechanism. The gears exploded into a shower of metal and the door came to a sudden halt, half-way open.
A metal click echoed from the reception desk.
Crystal slung a gun almost as big as Gus's over her shoulder and aimed it at the Hunters. "I said, not on my watch."
Nova dived away from the door, back towards the desk and Crystal. "Get down!"
The stream of energy seared through the air and heated the room ten degrees. A bright light flashed, sending the room into stark relief and the booming echo left Nova's ears ringing.
Sweat sprung out over her skin and dribbled down her face as her wet palms slid on the metal floor.
"Why is it always the handsome ones?" Crystal said, stepping around the side of the desk and pouting at Aart. "I should have known you were trouble."
Aart giggled and held his hands up in mock surrender.
Crystal frowned. "What's wrong with him?"
Nova scrambled across the floor and tackled Crystal's legs, sending her crashing to the ground. The gun sprung out of her hands and clattered across the floor.
Crystal wrenched her leg free and slammed it into Nova's face. "Bitch!"
Stars danced across Nova's vision and the taste of blood filled her mouth. She snatched for Crystal's legs but the other woman was already crawling for the gun.
"Should have given me your number," Orion said, firing his handgun across the room and blowing Crystal's face across the floor. Her body seized and lay still.
Nova's stomach churned as she pushed to her feet and backed away from Crystal's body.
"Two minutes," Tyra whispered.
They sprinted into the landing bay where their ships waited for them, the engines already running.
"Cal, can you hear me?" Nova yelled as she ran.
"Loud and clear," Cal replied.
"Tell Aart's ship and Tanguin to get out of here. He's in no condition to drive."
"Got it," said Cal.
"Evasive manoeuvres in case the anti-air guns are still operational!"
The smooth silver ship, Sylar, lifted into the air and shot out of the landing bay, into the waiting space beyond.
"I'll take him for now," Gus grunted, shoving Aart through the waiting door of the blue ship. He jumped in behind and a moment later they shot up into the stars.
Orion and Tyra reached their crafts and flew away. Nova got to Crusader last. She fell through the doorway and as soon as she was on-board Crusader lifted into the air. The door slid shut and then they were off. They only just cleared the landing bay when the explosion occurred.
Nova struggled to her feet and ran into the pilot's pod. The main screen showed the view from the back of the ship. Flames licked at their retreating tail as the Confederacy headquarters were engulfed in the explosion. The metal sucked in, imploding on itself, and then burst outwards. Rolling waves of heat shot out into space followed by metal shrapnel. Pieces of the wreckage zoomed past Crusader and disappeared into the distance.
"Shields holding," Cal said, hovering near Crusader's screen.
"We made it," Nova breathed. "We made it."
"A close one by the looks of it," Cal said.
"You have no idea," Nova replied. "Make sure everyone does a full scan for Flumes."
"Already done," Cal said. "As soon as you all got on board."
Nova nodded and sighed with relief, they weren't infected.
"Woohoo! That's what I call a success," Orion cheered, his image appearing on the front screen.
"Nice wiring, Tyra," Nova said as the other woman's image appeared next to Orion's.
"No problem," Tyra said.
"Yes, it's all flowers and cake," said Gus, his face appearing below the other two. "But what the hell am I supposed to do with this?"
Gus reached his hand out of view of the screen and when he brought it back he was clutching Aart's shirt. Aart smiled into the camera, a line of drool tracing down his chin. He was still chuckling.
"This is the only footage they've put out," Tanguin said, leaning away from Delta. A deep hood hid most of her face.
Nova looked up from studying the latest space-racers to watch the screen. A thin woman with neon blue eyes stood in front of a screen showing the exterior view of the Confederacy Headquarters as it exploded.
"Sources confirm that mechanical failure is to blame for the recent loss of the Quadrant Two Confederacy building. As yet the number of casualties remains unknown, however Confederacy soldiers from neighbouring Quadrants are working continuously to clear the debris…"
Nova raised an eyebrow. "Mechanical failure?"
Tanguin shrugged. "I guess they don't want to admit to sabotage; makes them look vulnerable."
"At least our faces aren't plastered over the Cloud."
Tanguin grimaced. "Not yet. According to private transmissions they've sent at least four scouting units to look for traces of The Jagged Maw."
Nova's heart fluttered. "And?"
"They haven't found anything yet and they seem to have given up for now. But it means they did suspect us."
"Of course they do – they blow us up, so we return the favour..."
Tanguin nodded and flicked off the repeating video feed.
Nova settled back into the cushions of her room at The Jagged Maw and went back to reading. But a part of her mind cycled over the last few days. They were safe for now, but that wasn't going to last forever. The only way she was ever going to feel free was if she got past the border, and that wasn't going to come cheap.
She sighed. A few well-paying missions without complications, that's all she needed… but when did that ever happen?
Nova's Journey Continues…
While the Hunters of The Jagged Maw pick themselves up and rebuild after the Confederacy's assault, Nova gets an anonymous invitation.
With the promise of a special bounty and a lavish reward she accepts. But, the challenge isn't what it first appears and before long she's fighting tooth and nail for survival.
As if fighting the Confederacy wasn't bad enough, she's about to learn that sometimes people can be even worse.
Book Seven: Adventurer
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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.
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EMAIL: [email protected]