Copyright 2015 Saffron Bryant
Published by Saffron Bryant at Smashwords
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To everyone who challenges the past and strives for the future.
"Do you have any idea how worried we were?" Nova said, clenching her fist.
She squeezed Aart's shoulder, her nails burying into his flesh. He sat in a sparse metal chair, looking sheepish. They were in a back-alley bar on Tabryn. Nova had managed to follow his trail through the Pleasure District before finally catching up with him thanks to his loud mouth. Luckily for her, he had no problem spreading his name from one end of the universe to the other.
"I'm sorry," he said again, his cheeks reddening.
Nova shook her head and stared down at her long-time friend. She had spent days wasting her time searching through the district. She had been worried sick, and for what? To find him deep in his drinks in a dirty tavern, with unsavoury characters spattered all about him. She'd then dragged him through the streets until they'd found an abandoned warehouse.
"What were you thinking?" Nova demanded.
"You were worried about me," he said with a grin.
Nova's face darkened and she moved closer to Aart so that their noses were almost touching. She could feel his breath on her face. His eyes were light but they held something else, something more.
"What. Were. You. Thinking?" Nova repeated, emphasising each word.
"You don't understand," Aart said, shaking his head. He glanced around as if he expected to see Confederacy enforcers in every corner. "I found more."
"More what?" Nova asked, rolling her eyes.
"More people like me. Who see the Confederacy for what it is. Don't you see, Nova? With all of us working together we could finally overthrow the Confederacy and get rid of it!"
"Shh!" Nova's eyes flew wide and she clamped her hand over Aart's mouth. Her eyes flicked about the warehouse and her heart pumped into overdrive. He hadn't even whispered! "Do you have any idea what they'll do to you if you're heard talking like that?"
Nova lifted her hand away from Aart's mouth, but her shoulders didn't relax.
"Yes, but someone has to do it, Nova! We're being kept in the dark. The outer galaxies and Resource Districts are treated like cattle while the Confederacy goons live in places like Haven."
"Aart, you can't say things like that. You'll start a riot," Nova pleaded.
"Maybe that's a good thing. Someone needs to shake things up, and if that has to be me then so be it."
"Stop," Nova said, throwing her hands up in the air. "Just stop. I don't know what you've got yourself into, but I am not going along with it."
"Oh come on, Nova, you're already part of it. Besides, you should be fighting for this; lost little urchin of Tabryn."
"Don't you dare talk about that," Nova said, her nostrils flaring. "The Confederacy is not going to change. All you're going to achieve with this little stunt is an early grave."
"Nova, I really want to fight this war on the same side as you."
"I'm not on anyone's side."
"Don't you see? That's just it. By not picking a side you're already on their side."
"Aart, we can't talk about this here. We're in the middle of unfriendly territory and we have no idea who else might be listening. Please, just promise me you won't do anything stupid until we can sit down and talk properly. We'll meet at The Jagged Maw."
Aart stared at her. His mouth formed a flat line and the laughter left his eyes. He nodded once.
"Good," Nova said with finality. "Now please, get off this back-water planet. There're a lot of people waiting to hear from you at the Maw. The next time you decide to disappear on a suicide quest, please let someone else know!
"Yeah, okay," Aart said, a grin splitting his face. He was back to his usual self.
Nova nodded and stepped backwards, making room for him to get up from his chair. He stood and sauntered out of the warehouse leaving Nova surrounded by nothing but emptiness. She glanced around again at the walls and floor. There didn't seem to be any eyes or ears watching her but one could never be sure.
She left the warehouse and went straight to the relative safety of Crusader. She'd give Aart some time to cool down and wait for the others to talk some sense into him, before she'd return to The Jagged Maw.
Nova smashed the wrench down onto the metal desk and cursed under her breath. She dove under the control board, tightening bolts and rearranging wires. The small room filled with smoke that hissed out from between the cracks in the control panel.
Nova's black hair was pulled away from her face with a simple band and glowed in the flashing orange light that filled the command centre. Her legs poked out from underneath the command desk, wrapped in their customary black jeans and knee-high black boots.
"Argh! Why can't you work for just five minutes?" Nova shouted as an alarm sounded and she worked even more furiously through the steam.
"If you had replaced the wires a month ago when I informed you that their condition was poor, we would not be having this problem," said an exasperated voice.
Nova pushed herself out from under the metal desk for enough time to cast a glare at the metallic orb that hovered a little way back from the dashboard. C4L, or 'Cal' as Nova liked to call him, was round, about the size of a football, with a camera lens that swivelled down to stare back at her.
Nova sighed and returned to her work. She was desperately tightening valves as they came lose at the same time as trying to find the source of the original leak.
"The ship's maintenance log says the fifth input fuse has blown," Cal announced from his position, now even further away from the rattling, hissing, set of controls which was the command unit.
"Got it!" Nova yelled as she pulled out the offending fuse and replaced it.
The control board gave a final shake and burst of steam as the alarms stopped. She breathed a sigh of relief and let her head fall to the metal floor of the ship. She wiped the sweat from her brow with the back of her hand and pushed herself out from under the control board.
Nova pulled herself up and sat into the command chair, bringing her feet up to rest on the control board. The flashing orange lights were gone, leaving the many buttons and levers that guided her ship, Crusader. In the very centre of the control panel was an old-style wheel which she could use to control the ship's movements instead of the ever-present autopilot.
The front screen looked out over the black panorama of space. Distant stars twinkled through the night but surrounding them was quiet.
With her legs still on the control panel Nova turned and called over her shoulder, "Cal! You can stop hiding. It's fixed."
The robot hovered into view and came to a stop just in front of Nova.
"I wasn't hiding," he said. "I was taking inventory in the storage room."
"Really?" Nova asked, raising an eyebrow. "How many boxes of parts do we have in there?"
"I didn't get up to counting the parts yet," Cal responded, his voice flustered.
Nova grunted and turned back to her controls.
"Okay, so we've come all the way to the damned Pleasure District. Check the Cloud; are there any jobs on the boards?" she asked the robot.
Cal's eye turned to the front window where the display changed to show multiple boxes of text. Jobs had been posted onto the boards from all over the universe for bounty hunters such as Nova.
It was said the Cloud contained all the information there was to know, but sometimes someone would discover something new and had the great honour of adding the information to the Cloud. There used to be new things to add all the time, as new planets and alien races were discovered, but for the last fifty years additions had slowed down. There was less and less to discover as more of the universe became 'known'.
"There's a military coup over on Mildura," Cal said, taking data from the board.
"Ugh. I am not getting into one of those again," said Nova, waving her hand.
"There's a job transporting beans from Sello to Fastoon."
"Beans? Ha! Who would believe that? I'm not risking my freedom by transporting Sellovian drugs."
Nova closed her eyes and rested back against the familiar chair. Here in Crusader was one of the few places she felt she could relax, and no-where more so than her pilot's seat.
"Escaped convict?" Cal asked.
"Oooh, a convict! Where is it?"
"Milky Way Quadrant," Cal replied.
Nova narrowed her eyes at Cal. "The heart of the Human Confederacy? I don't think so."
"Someone wants help catching a casino thief, there's a couple of lost dogs, and everything else I told you about yesterday."
"What happened to all the good jobs?" Nova asked with her eyes still closed. "Where's the casino job?"
"Right here on Tabryn," Cal replied.
Nova's eyes flew open briefly to stare at the robot but Cal seemed not to notice. She sighed heavily, pulled her legs off of the control panel, and returned them to the floor, her chair creaking all the while.
"How much?" she asked.
"Two thousand credits," Cal replied, turning from the screen to Nova. "With that we could replace all the fuses." His tone was curt and Nova rolled her eyes.
"Why did it have to be Tabryn?" she asked. "I suppose I did say I wanted a job near here."
Cal didn't bother to respond.
Nova leant with her head in her hands as she went over her options. The control room was quiet except for the rumbling of her ship's engine and the whirring of Cal's cooling fan.
"Okay, make a course for Tabryn, but keep an eye on the boards. If another job comes up, I want to know about it straight away; preferably somewhere nice. This is the Pleasure District; there has to be somewhere that I'd like to be."
"Received," Cal said.
Nova nodded and sauntered away from the command pod as Crusader went into autopilot and prepared for a space jump. The command pod was small, taken up mostly by the controls. A narrow corridor led through the ship to the other compartments.
Past the dining pod, Nova took the right hand door and stepped into the largest room on Crusader: the storage bay. The engine took up most of the room, and panels and drawers lined the walls, leading into storage pods.
Nova surveyed the storage area and satisfied herself that everything was in order before returning to the eating area and the small alcove that lead off it. She used the side of her fist to punch a white button on the wall and a metal bunk dropped down with a squeak.
The sheets were still tangled from when Nova had last got up; it was a wonder that it had fit back into its wall space at all. She climbed onto the bunk and lay on her back with her eyes closed. The lull of Crusader soothed her into semi-consciousness. She was about to drop off when her thoughts returned to Tabryn.
Tabryn was a converted desert planet which, centuries before, had been founded by refugees and criminals. Unfortunately, it hadn't evolved much since. Even more unfortunately, Nova had been forced to grow up there.
The capital city that had been Nova's home for many years shared the planet's name. The rich and powerful lived in the small inner city where drug lords and the mafia ruled the streets, and wealthy business people spent their holidays. It was a wonder to behold.
Surrounding the jewel which was Tabryn's inner city was the dirt and squalor which made up the rest of the planet. In those outer reaches, away from the shine and glitter of inner-Tabryn, drug abuse was almost as high as malnutrition and violence. Limited jobs resulting from the planet's failing infrastructure meant that there was little hope for improvement for the citizens of outer-Tabryn. So they turned to the underbelly for the happiness they couldn't find in real life.
In the end, all that resulted was a huge number of orphans with no one to take care of them. Most of their stories went the same as their parents, and the same as it would for their children; a life of cold, loneliness, and hunger, ending with an overdose that would take away the pain.
Nova had been one of the lucky ones. She had managed to get food from a shelter that struggled with the swarms of hungry children. She'd still had to fight for her survival on more than one occasion; at thirteen, she had killed a man who had tried to take advantage of her as she slept in a cardboard box.
Nova's memory skipped forward.
She walked across the hard red dirt. The bottoms of her trouser legs were perpetually stained brown from the dust. The air was dry and hot. It burned her nose and throat as she breathed in, but it was the only air she'd ever known. One hand was clasped around the cred-stick in her pocket; the other clutched a knife, hidden under her jacket.
She was eighteen. Three years fighting in the Pits had given her a stack of credits, more than she'd ever seen in one place. She knew exactly what she was going to do with it; she was going to buy her way out. There was a whole universe to explore and she'd be damned if she was going to waste her life on the backwater which was Tabryn.
Once she had found her place in the Pits and made friends there, she'd been happy for a few years. But now that was over. Tabryn was a vacuum determined to suck the very life out of every resident.
But why did it have to take Caila?
She should have been prepared really. The signs were all there. She knew as well as anyone that Caila was spiralling down into a drug-addled haze, thanks mostly to the popular street drug Zine. She was so high most of the time that she couldn't even blink. The worst days were when she couldn't breathe. Nova would wake up to the sound of struggled gasps. She would run to Caila's side and find her gasping for air, fighting against her lungs which were no longer under her control.
Nova would sit there for hours, manually pumping air into Caila's lungs with the artificial respirator. When she eventually came round, Caila would cry and wail. She'd promise Nova that she'd stop now; no more drugs. Of course, that only lasted until the next pay check arrived.
So many times Nova wanted to leave, to get out. It was Caila's own fault after all. She chose to keep taking the drugs. She could have said no; she could have stayed clean. But despite that, something kept Nova there. She couldn't abandon her friend. They'd grown up in the same orphanage, fought the same battles. Nova just happened to have won more than Caila.
But last night Caila lost her final battle.
Nova was woken for the third time that week by ragged breathing. She ran to Caila's side, the respirator already in hand. She put the tube down Caila's throat, ignoring Caila's gagging reflex. Nova pumped gently on the ball at the end, forcing air down into Caila's throat. This time instead of recycling air, a spurt of red came out.
The crimson liquid poured out of the end, onto the floor, and over Nova's hand. The blood was laced with green and black. Chunks of meat floated amongst it. The smell was overpowering, a mixture of rotting meat and toxic fumes.
Nova stifled a scream and pulled the respirator out of Caila's throat. What had she done? Nova called for help but the night remained silent.
Caila's glassy eyes stared, unseeing. Blood seeped out of the side of her mouth, bubbling as she struggled to breathe.
Nova tried everything she could think of to save the other girl but it was to no avail. Roxanne, the woman who ran the shelter, explained later that eventually Zine causes the lungs and heart to literally burst. There was nothing left of her internal organs by the time Nova had arrived. Her body was just going through its final motions, and now Caila was dead.
Nova shook the memory from her head. She couldn't stay on Tabryn a moment longer. Everything reminded her of the cesspool of drugs, disease, and poverty that it was. She had to get out, to get free of it all. She'd travel into the stars; see the rest of the galaxy for herself. Tabryn couldn't have her.
So it was that Nova sauntered to the used ship yard with money and knife in hand.
An old man bent over a rusted ship, spanner in his hand as he cursed and grunted under the hot sun. His face was bright red, a stark contrast to his white hair and stringy beard. Desert dust stained his clothes red, intermixed with oil and grime.
"Hail," Nova said as she stepped up to the ship.
The man cursed once more, turned the spanner, and then lifted his head to stare at her. He squinted and his mouth turned down.
"I'm not a charity. Get out of here," he said, waving his hand and returning to the ship.
"I want to buy a ship," Nova said.
"Look, girl. I'd warrant you don't have enough to buy this spanner, let alone a ship." While keeping his attention on the ship, he held up the spanner and waved it in the air.
Nova's face went red and her blood boiled. Her hands clenched tighter around her money and the knife, not knowing which she'd end up using today.
"I have money," she said.
The mechanic turned to squint at her again. He frowned but stood straighter, laying the spanner down on the side of the ship.
"What are you after?" he asked.
"Something cheap. Something simple."
Nova glanced around the yard. She didn't want to give away how much she had straight away; on the other hand, she didn't know how much a ship should cost.
"I've got a thousand credits," Nova said. It was half true.
"Ha!" the man laughed, turning away. "You couldn't even get a broken hovercraft for that, let alone a working ship."
"I didn't say it had to be working," Nova said. It took all of her might to keep her voice steady. True, she would rather have a working ship, but she knew mechanics. She could get it running if she had to.
"Oh really?" he asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Yes," she replied, standing straighter, her chin jutting out.
"Hmph. The cheapest piece of junk I've got here is going to cost you two thousand at least. And I don't think you'll be able to get it working at all."
"Which one?" Nova asked.
The mechanic nodded towards a rusted ship. It was half buried in the sand with dents running up its sides. There were metal panels hanging off its side, and plenty of other chunks of metal scattered all around its base.
"Another drunk driver," said the mechanic as he shook his head. "I don't know how it happens when the ship has autopilot, but there you go."
"How bad is it?" Nova asked.
"I was gunna sell it as scrap metal. But I guess you could probably try to make it fly. I don't know how safe it would be though."
"Five hundred," she said, crossing her arms over her chest. There was no way a damaged ship was worth two thousand credits, and she was no stranger to haggling.
"Get out of here!" he scowled, turning away from her. "I wouldn't part with it for less than one thousand five hundred."
"I'll give you one thousand if I can scavenge pieces from your other wrecks and store it here while I fix it up."
Nova's heart fluttered in her chest. It was a fair deal but that didn't mean the man would take it. She was just hoping that he was as down on his luck as everyone else on this damned planet and needed the money.
The mechanic stared at Nova for a time, his white hair waving in the desert breeze. "Alright," he growled.
Nova nodded and pulled out her cred-stick, laying it on the bench next to the mechanic's. The numbers counted down from her total and were added to the mechanic's.
"Good luck," he said, turning his attention back to the ship he had been working on when she arrived.
Nova nodded and headed for the ship. The desert wind of Tabryn blew against her as she made her way across the red sand. Bits of grit flew up into her eyes and hair. She squinted against the glare of the desert sun and scurried up to her new home.
The front of the ship caved in where it had crashed into the sand, and wires poked out everywhere from the metal exterior. The ship was a dull grey and as Nova got closer she could see chips of red paint that had peeled off under the buffeting of the desert sand. The red block letters spelled out the name of the ship.
"Crusader," she said under her breath. It seemed to suit the ship perfectly.
She gripped the crude handle and yanked the door open. It squealed in protest. Nova stepped up inside, having to lean to one side because the ship was lodged in the sand at a strange angle. Inside, the ship was simple, but perfect for what she needed.
As she wandered through the storeroom, she opened various lockers and cupboards. Begging for some money or rare jewels, but of course all that was left was junk. The mechanic had already thoroughly inspected the craft for valuables.
Nova came to a single locker which was embedded into the ship's wall; it sat apart from the others and had the letters C4L inscribed on the front. She opened the door with curiosity. Inside she found what looked like a heap of scrap metal.
Wires and curved metal plates lay piled in a heap at the bottom of the locker. The power socket at the back had been torn part of the way out of the wall. Beneath the metal plates she found tiny robotic limbs and tools, as well as a hard metal ball.
Nova turned the ball over in her hands a few times. It didn't take long for her to piece together what she'd found. It was obviously a Class 4 Labourbot, or C4L for short. C4L's were robotic drones responsible for servicing small crafts, but it had been a very long time since this one was used.
She clicked her tongue. If she could get the robot working it could help her repair the rest of the ship. It shouldn't be too hard to fix; she'd done similar to robots she'd found in the Tabryn dump. She went to another locker in which she had previously spied a toolbox and sat on the floor of the ship, spreading the C4L's parts about her.
It was a painstaking process and Nova continuously found herself on all fours looking through the locker and the surrounding floor for the tiny screws which held the metal parts in place. It was like a three-dimensional puzzle as she tried to fit all of the tools around the inner ball in such a way that the outer casing would fit. There were some parts that were beyond salvaging, but luckily these were, at least for the moment, not necessary. She did have to scavenge some wires from the main ship to replace the ones which had been fried by the power surge from when the previous owner had crashed the craft. She made note of changes which would have to be made to the robot once the ship was fixed and she had the money.
It took the rest of the afternoon and most of the night, but eventually Nova put her tools aside and rested back against the wall. It was only then that she noticed the hard metal floor on which she'd been sitting for hours and the dimness of the room, lit only by the ship's emergency lights.
A pile of burnt wires and broken metal sat on her left, but resting on the floor between her knees was a large metal orb which looked almost as good as new, albeit with some minor dents and scratches. She reached down and lifted the orb until its projector eye was level with her face.
"Class Four Labourbot; power on," she commanded.
At first there was no response, but after a few moments Nova felt a slight vibration through her hands and a tiny red light blinked at the side of the robot. An audible whir emanated from the robot's centre. She was wary in case the robot exploded in her hands, but thankfully it stayed in one piece.
"Class Four Labourbot reporting for duty," the slightly digital male voice said from its invisible speakers. "Reporting massive damage, alert, alert, massive damage. Main control room non-responsive."
Nova breathed a sigh of relief as the robot reeled off the damage report.
"Thank you Class Four—" Nova looked to the side of the robot's swivelling eye where the acronym C4L had been stamped. "—Cal, from now on you will respond to the title Cal," she said.
The robot, now named Cal, fell silent at her words and the whirring got louder as it processed the new information. "Acknowledged."
"Good. I need to sleep now, but we'll get onto repairing the ship tomorrow. Please run a full diagnostic tonight and generate a list of urgent repairs required before the ship can fly."
"Acknowledged," said Cal, lifting up from Nova's hands and gliding through the storeroom.
Nova got to her feet with a groan as her cramped muscles straightened out. She hobbled from the storeroom to the tiny alcove which served as a bedroom. She tapped the button in the wall and the bed folded down. She wrinkled her nose at the obviously used sheets and pulled them from the bed, throwing them to the floor before collapsing onto the bare mattress.
It took almost a week with Nova and Cal working full days before the ship was flight-ready. It had required a lot of negotiations with the old mechanic for parts, but eventually they got everything they needed.
"Reports show a less than 60% chance of a successful flight. I recommend further repairs," said Cal as Nova took the pilot's seat.
"No-can-do I'm afraid, Cal. We've run out of money and it's time to move on."
A sequence of beeps emanated from Cal's centre which over their week together Nova had come to recognise as his version of a sigh of frustration. It was a very human expression; she suspected that some of his inner circuits had been affected when the ship crashed.
"Ready, Crusader?" Nova asked with a grin.
"As you know, I share the same circuits as the Class Four Labourbot and strongly recommend further repairs," the soothing female voice emanated from the central control panel. Nova understood that in the past, marketing research had indicated this voice template was the most preferred by all drivers, and the same research had also shown it improved pilot mood and reduced moments of rage while flying.
Nova rolled her eyes. "Let's go!" she commanded.
She sat back in the pilot seat and watched as numbers flashed over the front screen. The engine was running as well as could be expected. It whirred into standby mode, before gradually lifting up from the planet's surface.
"Where to, Captain?" the ship's voice asked, with a hint of sarcasm.
"Away from here," Nova said. "Take us to the nicest planet you can, with the fuel we have. We'll work it out from there."
The ship's engines hummed louder and the interior began to vibrate. Nova clutched the arms of her chair and held her breath as the gauges climbed higher. The needles flicked in and out of the red zone as steam hissed from the control board.
The ship rocked as it climbed higher and reached the edge of the atmosphere. Metal panels squealed in protest as they strained against each other. A part of Nova wanted to close her eyes, sure that she was about to burn up in a grizzly fireball, but another part of her didn't want to miss any part of this moment.
Crusader's engines choked as the ship blasted higher. Nova bounced in her chair and was almost thrown out. She braced her feet on the metal floor as the ship burst through the clouds and soared into space.
The wild shaking stopped and she let her breath out. Crusader's front screen showed Tabryn as it shrunk behind them. Nova watched her childhood planet disappear, a smile playing at the corner of her lips. Her heart burst in her chest and adrenalin surged through her veins; for the first time in her life she felt truly free.
From there, Nova travelled from planet to planet, getting work where she could. Finally, she found herself where she was always going to end up: The Jagged Maw; home to all of the bounty hunters and adventurers worthy of the name.
Nova sat up on the bed and yawned. She shook her head to remove the memories of her past. She hadn't thought of Caila in a very long time.
She stood and hit the button at the side of the wall, causing the bed to spring back into the side of the ship. She marched, now fully awake, to the control room.
"Show me the view," she requested as she settled into the pilot's seat.
The front screen changed from readings of the engine to the view outside the ship. They were still a way out from the planet and Nova could see the bright lights of Inner Tabryn lighting up the night like the beacons of a siren. Outside the brightly lit capital there was only darkness, hiding the squalor that spread out through the desert.
Thanks to the tilt and rotation of Tabryn around its sun, Inner Tabryn experienced nights almost twice the length of its days, but of course that suited the citizenry just fine.
The lights of Inner Tabryn got brighter, until they filled the entire view screen. They flashed neon colours, promising happiness and fortune with their cold glow.
Usually Crusader wouldn't land on a planet, as the energy cost of landing and take-off was massive. But Nova would never be able to afford a room in one of the casinos and she'd be damned if she ever spent another night on the streets of Tabryn.
Crusader slowed its decent as they neared Tabryn's biggest casino, The Lucky Coin. All around the main building, ships were parking and taking off. The entrance to the casino surged with fresh cash. Crusader's rusty bulk rumbled until it came to a screeching halt on the ground next to a sleek red ship. Nova recognised it immediately. She had drooled over the new Sunstar 3000 only days earlier when an ad for it appeared on her screen. It must have cost the owner a fortune.
"Now, Cal, remember what happened last time we were near a casino? Stay away from the roulette tables," Nova said, pulling her thick black trench-coat from the back of her chair.
"If I recall correctly, it was in fact your poor gambling strategy that lost us that game," Cal said, his voice condescending.
"Well then your memory chips have been fried, my friend," Nova said, sauntering away from the command pod.
She yanked out her 'mission bag' from a wall compartment and slung it over her shoulder, and clipped a stunner onto her belt. Her trench-coat fell back into place, hiding both the gun and the stunner.
The gun laws on Tabryn were loose at best but it could be a dangerous place and Nova would never be caught unprepared.
Cal floated behind her. "A technical scan reveals no faults in my memory chips."
Nova rolled her eyes and smiled as she reached Crusader's main exit door. She had upgraded the security system since she first bought the craft. It was one thing that she had refused to skimp on and it had saved her and her cargo more than once.
"You two stay here and monitor as usual," Nova said, stepping out of the craft. The door slid shut behind her.
She took a moment to survey her surroundings. As expected, the rest of the ships parked around hers were the latest models and gleamed in the casino lights. Crusader stood out like a rotten apple in a pile of jewels. She stood on the footpath and watched, as all about her milled the beautiful people of the world, with their expensive clothes and store-bought bodies.
Cosmetic surgery had taken off in the last hundred years and those that could afford it rarely kept any of their original selves. Noses, chins, arms, eyes. All were replaceable either with human parts or engineered parts; it was personal preference which you preferred.
Nova frowned at the long forgotten, but still familiar smells of Tabryn. Here at the casino there was an overwhelming scent of perfume but even that couldn't hide the underlying odours; the desert sand, the squalor of Outer Tabryn, the smoke from the cheap factories running in the slums.
She turned her head from the bright lights running down the footpath and instead focused on following the milling crowd through the gold-painted doors of The Lucky Coin. She was almost past the entrance and into the cacophony of noise and lights beyond when a firm hand grabbed hold of her arm and jerked her out of the flowing crowd.
The bouncer's hand tightened around her wrist as he sneered down at her. "I'm afraid you don't meet our dress standards, sweetheart." His voice was rough and thick with a Tabryn accent.
Nova glared at him before twisting her wrist and yanking it out of his hold. Before he could recover she whipped a thin knife out of her belt and pressed it against his throat. "Hands off, sweetie. I'm just here to see the boss." She held out her bounty hunter ID.
"Take it easy, you crazy bitch," he said, shoving her away. "This way."
He led the way through the crowds and slot machines, past the many tables and up the marble steps which separated the main floor of the casino from the high-roller rooms. Nova moved as fast as she could to keep up with the large steps of the bouncer.
At the top of the stairs they stopped in front of a broad wooden door and the bouncer knocked three times. It swung slowly open to reveal the lavish room beyond. Gilded chairs with plump cushions sat about the room. Ancient paper books, the likes of which Nova had seen on only one other occasion, lined the walls along with ornaments and paintings. Commanding it all was a sturdy wooden desk and the man standing behind it.
The man turned from the huge glass windows which looked down on the casino floor. He pulled a thick cigar from his mouth and stamped it out in a glass ashtray on the corner of his desk. A plume of smoke floated out of his mouth as he nodded to Nova and sat on the large chair behind his desk.
Nova took a seat opposite but stayed on guard. She took note of the two big men who stood with their arms crossed at each side of the room and casually placed her left hand near her waist, where her gun was within easy reach.
"No need for that, Hunter," said the man with the cigar.
Nova tried not to inhale as his smoky breath blew across the table to her. All of his features seemed proportionally large to his body; from his thick lips, to the big nose, to the beefy hands. He wore a white shirt and black pants but on top of these he wore a purple velvet coat that reflected the neon lights from the casino floor. Nova didn't respond, keeping her hand near her gun.
The man shrugged as he leant back in his chair. "I'm Cracos, owner of The Lucky Coin. If you take the job, you'll be working for me."
Nova nodded, but said nothing. Her violet eyes stared straight at Cracos as she waited for him to continue.
"Here's our problem, bounty hunter. There's money disappearing from our casino, but we don't know where it's going. The books match at the end of the night but somehow we're leaking cash."
Nova nodded, behind her expressionless mask her mind raced. Casinos were known for having the best security systems money could buy. For them to be bleeding money like this meant a professional was involved, probably an inside job.
"How long's this been happening?" she asked.
"Month or so."
"Two thousand credits when I catch the thief?"
"That's the deal, but I should warn you, we've got others working the case. Whoever catches the thief gets the money. There are no free rides on Tabryn." Cracos smiled as he pulled a new cigar from the top draw of his desk.
"Ain't that the truth," said Nova, standing and heading for the door. She stopped with her hand against the wooden panel and turned back to Cracos. "I'll need full access to the casino and your staff."
"Of course. I'll have Brick get you an ID," Cracos said with a greasy smile and waved his hand at the large security officer who had brought her to the office.
Nova nodded and pushed open the large door. Brick led her to a small room further down the hallway. He went to work updating her ID chip to include access to the casino. She placed her arm under the scanner and the computer added the extra files to the microchip hidden just below her skin's surface.
The chips had been introduced almost a century before. Initially it was a means of ID but now they housed almost every piece of information about a person, and could be updated at will. They were embedded directly after birth and began collecting information from there. They were designed to continually measure chemical levels to detect disease, to act as keys, and as a form of ID, and eventually to act as a biography after a person's death.
The more recent models had a major advantage over the old fashioned ones. The older ones could be cut out and inserted into someone else, making it too easy for security breaches and identity theft. The new models, released in the last fifty years, were intimately integrated with a person's immune system. The change meant that if a chip was inserted into someone else it would immediately be rejected. The thief's immune system would effectively destroy the chip, rendering it useless.
"There we go," said Brick. "I recommend you come back in better clothes. Cracos won't hesitate to throw you out if he feels you're wrecking his casino's vibe."
Nova rolled her eyes and pulled her arm out from under the scanner. She let him lead her back down the marble stairs to the casino's main entrance. She nodded at Brick as he took his position at the door and sauntered away from the flashing lights to where Crusader sat, untouched amongst the shiny rides.
"How was it?" asked Cal as he came hovering out of the storeroom to stop by Nova's shoulder.
"He didn't have much more information. Money is disappearing but they don't know how or where." Nova frowned, deep in thought. "Crusader, start searching the Cloud for unexplained casino robberies. I want to know if something like this has happened anywhere else."
Images and text appeared on the screen, whirring past as Crusader scanned the content for something that would prove useful.
Nova nodded and headed to the food generator. She stared at the device for a few moments before deciding.
"Hamburger and chips."
At her command the device whirred into action and she could see the nozzle moving back and forth as it created her meal from the bottom up. It took only a few moments before the machine dinged and the door popped open. Sitting within was a fresh burger with crispy lettuce, surrounded by warm chips.
She grabbed the meal, and carried it back to her command centre, taking a seat and watching the content flick over the main screen.
"Anything?" she said around a mouthful of chips.
"There have been many casino heists, however it appears that in almost all cases the how was known, it was the who which could not be determined."
"Cracos said he could see no errors in the books. The money wasn't 'missing' from anywhere, just that their totals were decreasing. They used to bring in two hundred million a week. Now they're down to one ninety, but nothing else has changed."
"Searches suggest someone could be altering their books, to make the money disappear," said Crusader.
"Yeah, I'll start with the staff. Keep scanning. I'll get ready for some scouting," Nova said.
She went to the storage area where a large compartment overflowed with all manner of clothing. Thick coats for the frozen wastes of Asthar rustled against wetsuits for the ocean planets of Rabcron and many other disguises, most of which she had had cause to use at one time or another.
Nova pushed past the jackets and coats to the back where a series of dresses hung. She ran her hand over the fabric before settling on a long black gown. She stripped off her singlet and long black pants, pulling the dress over her head. It hugged her body and stopped at her ankles.
She picked up a pair of silver heels with thin silver straps from the row of shoes at the bottom of the closet. She leant against the doorframe and lifted each of her feet in turn, pulling on the shoes and doing up the straps with one hand.
"Cal!" she called as she slammed the cupboard door behind her and stomped her way through the storage area. Her heels banged against the floor with each step.
"Yes?" Cal asked as he floated into view from the command pod. When he saw her he stopped mid-air. "What are you wearing?"
Nova scowled. "I have to blend in, remember? Makeup please. Keep it simple, just the usual," she said, standing still with her eyes closed.
Cal's interior clicked and robotic arms unfolded from beneath his metal casing. He went to work painting Nova's face, outlining her eyes with black and colouring her cheeks. She rarely wore makeup, but when she did it was more convenient to have Cal do all of the work.
"Will this suffice?" Cal asked as his arms retracted into the metal casing to be replaced by a mirror.
Nova glanced at her reflection. "It'll do," she said as she ran a brush through her hair.
She grabbed her trench-coat from a bench as she hurried to the main door. She placed a small stun device in her pocket as she pulled the coat over her shoulders.
"Check remote contact," she said.
Cal flew from the storage room and out of site. Nova heard his voice within her head, "Testing remote contact."
Nova projected her thoughts, "Received."
Cal floated back into the room at her reply. The technology was old, but Nova had upgraded their system to extend its radio distance. This way she could keep in contact with Cal and Crusader without talking out loud. Cal could also perceive her visual input, effectively seeing everything she could see.
Casinos used to block all radio communication but as technology progressed it got harder, so now they dissuaded cheating through more direct means and left radio contact unimpeded.
"Wish me luck," she said, opening the door to the crowded street and the flashing lights beyond.
She strode to the casino's door and nodded at Brick as she went past. He nodded back, but his eyes moved past her to the other patrons. This time she walked past the marble stairs and through to the main casino floor. Here the sounds of the slot machines and other gadgets pounded against her eardrums. Beyond the machines were the tables. Blackjack and poker had persisted for centuries and were still a favourite at casinos. No matter how hard the casinos tried, the newer tech-based games simply didn't catch on and could never replace the classics.
There were some out-worlders, or aliens as they were sometimes known, dotted amongst the tables. Tabryn had a reputation as a very humanist colony. Few out-worlders would be welcome on the planet, let alone in the most prestigious casino. Although, Nova reflected, there weren't that many out-worlders to speak of. Of course when the space revolution began, there had been talk of the millions of alien species they would find, but it had been harder than first thought. Then there were the problems with the alien-rights movement. In the end, wars had torn up most of the galaxy and there were very few places that remained where out-worlders and humans intermixed. Instead, humans had spread out further and further, colonising more planets, like Tabryn, which resulted in planetoid sects and interplanetary warfare.
Nova's eyes swept over the tables, counting dealers and players, analysing. There were so many alternative humanoid sub-species that they could practically be called aliens anyway. Whilst Nova retained the 'traditional' look, many of those electing for cosmetic alteration also took on some 'alien qualities' in a desperate attempt for individuality. There were mandates on certain planets that genetic alterations be made so that people originating from that planet would carry a particular marker. The Gremath humans insisted on blue-hued skin. The Rabcron humans insisted on gills, although they were an advantage on the water planet.
With all of the modifications and the ever-advancing field of genetics, biologists were continually pulling their hair out as they tried to define species boundaries. Was a Rabcron human really still human if it could breathe underwater? Nova shook her head to dispel the thoughts which had taken her mind on a tangent and returned her attention to the poker tables.
There were at least ten tables running continuous games. She walked to the nearby bar and ordered a Blue Sun. The vibrant drink came in a tall glass, the liquid glowing blue and a faint smoke drifting across its surface. She sat on a nearby stool where she could keep an eye on the poker tables without drawing too much attention to herself.
The drink was good, with the perfect amount of blue lemon and soda. A cool tang spread over her tongue as she sipped and watched the tables over the top of her glass. The dealers seemed intent on their games. She couldn't see any of them glancing away or performing other suspicious behaviour, but then this was a professional job; she wasn't likely to pick up someone straight away.
Next, she turned to the people at the tables. Most of them were what she had expected, well-dressed men and women of the upper classes. Some threw their heads back in laughter, enjoying the game for what it was. Others studied their cards and their fellow players, calculating.
As Nova scanned the faces she saw one which made her groan. Vicki.
Her gaze locked onto the other woman and her eyes burned. A hot flush spread over her neck and her fingers clenched her glass. An unpleasant taste settled over Nova's mouth that even the Blue Sun couldn't wash away.
Vicki sat in her low-cut scarlet dress, a glass of champagne in hand. She obviously felt Nova's gaze because her head turned, and the two women stared at each other across the crowded casino floor.
Vicki's eyes narrowed and her lips pursed as she saw Nova and she put her drink down by her side. She glared for a few moments before flicking her hair and turning her attention to the man at her side. Vicki's red hair shimmered in the neon lights and her eyes glinted as they turned away from Nova. Her high-pitched laugh cut through the crowd to grate at Nova's ears.
Nova threw back her head and drank down the rest of the Blue Sun. She slammed the glass onto the high table hard enough that a crack raced up the stem, before stomping to the blackjack table where Vicki was seated. Without saying a word to the red-head Nova sat down and nodded to the dealer who was just about to start a new hand.
"Three hundred," Nova said, holding up her cred-stick. The numbers counted down and the dealer handed her a pile of chips.
"Oh, Nova, how will you buy dinner tonight?" Vicki asked, her expression one of pity and false concern. Nova turned towards the other girl with a glare, but refused to reply.
Instead, she took in the other players. Immediately to Nova's right an old man sat hunched over his cards. He was one of the less well-dressed attendees; however his suit could still have paid for half of Outer Tabryn's food. He was down to his last few chips and his head hung low to the table.
Beside the older man sat two young men, both completely enraptured by Vicki, their minds barely in the game at all. They laughed as she told yet another joke and Vicki threw back her head to join them.
Nova turned away from the scene. Obviously Vicki was here as a bounty hunter as well. Nova gazed around the casino and nodded as she saw other familiar faces.
"Haven't seen you at The Jagged Maw for a while, Nova," Vicki said, batting her eyelids.
Nova kept her eyes on the dealer as she placed a chip on the table. "Busy. You know, working. You should try it some time."
"That sounds dreadfully boring," Vicki said, winking at the young men on her left who grinned back.
"You're here too," Nova pointed out. Vicki waved her hand as if it was of no consequence.
"I didn't see your rust-bucket outside," Vicki said. "I'm surprised they let you park it here."
"Interesting. I did see your new 3000, it would be a shame if it got scratched," Nova said, turning from her cards to stare at Vicki. She clenched her jaw and locked her feet behind the legs of her stool to stop herself from kicking Vicki under the table.
Vicki's face fell and her eyebrows drew together. "You wouldn't dare," she said. Her eyes darted for the door and the parked ships beyond.
"Just saying it would be a shame," Nova said, shrugging and turning back to her cards.
Vicki stared at Nova, as if judging whether her ship was indeed in danger of being scratched. She was broken out of her thoughts by the dealer gesturing for her to have her turn. Vicki blinked and waved for another card. She went bust and shoved her chips at the dealer, slumping back into her seat to glare at Nova.
Nova and Vicki had hated each other since the first moment they laid eyes on each other. As far as Nova was concerned Vicki was a shallow, conniving, talentless bitch whose only skill was using her fake boobs to distract men, whereas Vicki thought Nova was a brutish, rough, lower-class citizen who should have been male, and had said as much on more than one occasion. Their enmity went back years. Nova still couldn't believe that Vicki had been accepted into The Jagged Maw. She thought they had better standards than that.
Nova shook her head and turned her concentration back to the game, winning more money as play continued. The dealer was a young woman who barely seemed to notice the people she was dealing to. She looked like a de-emo, a person who elected to have their emotional centres removed. It was common in people who had suffered extreme loss or traumatic stress syndrome. They were often hired for jobs such as this where emotions could run high if they weren't kept in check.
Nova bit her lip; at least she could be pretty sure this one wasn't stealing the money from the casino. De-emos saw no value in money, much as they saw no value in almost all other aspects of life.
The young men left the table not long after Nova arrived, and Vicki's prior carefree mood turned to sullen brooding. The older man to Nova's right kept bleeding chips. After three more rounds he had none left and was forced to leave the table.
"Hard luck," Nova said as he got up and walked away. The man turned to her and nodded; his eyes downcast as he shuffled from the table.
That left just Nova, Vicki, and the dealer. Nova bit her lip as she looked at her cards, resolving to leave the game the next round. She would learn nothing more from this table and it would mean having to endure more of Vicki's thinly veiled attacks.
"You know Kero is here," Vicki said with a cruel smile.
"Oh really?" asked Nova, her jaw clenching. "Ask him how his racer's doing."
Vicki scowled. She was Kero's private cheer-leader. It must have hurt her pride almost as much as his when Nova had smashed him in the most recent bounty hunter space-race.
Nova nodded to the dealer and pushed herself from the table.
"Oh, but we were having so much fun," Vicki said, pouting her lips up at Nova.
"Ah yes; but sadly I have a job to do," Nova responded, striding away.
"You needn't bother, I think I've got it covered," said Vicki, giggling as she finished her champagne.
Nova let herself become lost in the crowds. She clenched her teeth but did her best to keep her expression neutral. The last thing she wanted was to give herself away to the thief.
She studied the rest of the casino. As part of her investigation she visited all twenty-seven bars, three pools, eighteen gambling floors, the gym, all sixteen massage rooms, both brothels, and the cybernetic upgrade clinic. She even spent half the night posing as a casino worker to gain access to the high roller room, and yet she found nothing. She was no closer to finding the thief than the moment she arrived.
With no obvious signs in the rest of the casino she turned to the cash outlet. It was the only place where the casino's books could be edited and that made the staff her prime suspects.
Nova pulled out the chips she'd won at the table, just in time for Cracos to see her as he strode past. He leant in close to her ear so that no one else could hear. "You're supposed to be finding my money, not taking it."
Nova shrugged and gave a thin smile. "Part of the job," she said, sauntering away.
At the cash outlet she placed her chips down and the woman behind the bars counted them. Nova watched her closely. She seemed good at her job, if a little bored.
"You must love working here!" Nova said in the most girly voice she could manage.
The woman behind the counter raised her eyebrows and stared at Nova. "Another bounty hunter, huh?" the woman asked.
Nova let her false smile fall. "That obvious?"
"Probably not to most, but I'm good with people," the woman said, looking back at the chips.
"Maybe you can help," said Nova. "Have you had anyone who looked suspicious?"
"If I had I would have told Cracos myself."
"Of course you would have. Of course," Nova said, clenching her fist beneath the counter. "But just in case, do you think there are any staff members who would take money? Change the books, perhaps?"
The woman frowned and held out her hand without a word. Nova handed over her cred-stick, but continued to stare at the woman.
"No. No one would be so stupid as to cross Cracos," the woman said. "Five hundred."
Nova watched as the numbers on her cred-stick jumped up. She could have made a living playing the tables, but she couldn't stand the atmosphere. The stink of desperation hung like a cloud over the casino and no one could keep up a winning streak forever.
"Thank you for your help," Nova said, turning away.
She tried to keep the annoyance from her face until she was out of the casino. Then her expression dropped. The fruitless night combined with running into Vicki had her fuming. She clenched her hands into fists and did her best to refrain from stomping until she got to Crusader.
Once inside she lifted a hidden compartment from the side of the main hallway and placed her cred-stick inside. A ruby the size of her fist that she'd been saving for a rainy day glimmered next to the cred-stick. She closed the safe and marched to her sleeping pod.
"Cal! Scan the video footage of the casino. I want to know about any anomalies. And keep an eye on that cashier," Nova called out through the ship before dropping down onto her bed. She didn't wait for a response before closing her eyes and drifting off to sleep, hoping with all her might that Vicki and Kero stayed out of her dreams.
When Nova woke the next morning, she felt as if she hadn't slept at all. Her head ached with the dreams she'd had and she wanted nothing more than to stay curled up in bed. Instead, she forced herself to stumble out to the food generator, before continuing on to the command pod, laden with a bowl of colourful rings. She shovelled them into her mouth, barely registering the sugary flavour.
"Did you find anything?" she asked.
"Nothing of special interest," Crusader's voice came over the speakers.
"My Class Four Labourbot is recharging."
Nova waved her hand but said nothing.
"Would you like me to show you the few images of note from last night?" Crusader said.
Nova nodded and continued to eat the cereal. The image of blue sky through the ship's front window disappeared, and was replaced with the dimly lit and flashing interior of the casino. The image was on fast-forward and Nova smiled as she watched people walk with double speed from table to table.
"Here we noticed two men acting suspiciously," Crusader said. "But they were only exchanging drugs."
A red circle highlighted the men exchanging the illicit material.
"Do a scan of the warrants. There must be someone who will give me money to bring those guys in," Nova said, resolving to get paid for at least something whilst she was here on this god forsaken planet.
While running from her dreams the previous night, Nova had come to a resolution. There was no way she was going to let the pouty-mouthed Vicki beat her at a hunt. The woman's only skills were batting her eyelashes. Nova felt an inescapable need to outdo the other woman, sure that if she failed she would have to give up the Hunter life forever.
"Anything else?" Nova asked, pushing thoughts of Vicki from her mind and focusing on the job at hand.
"A few more minor incidences," Crusader replied.
The screen split into four, showing footage from different cameras and different times of night with various red circles highlighting the unsavoury behaviour. A prostitute was selling her wares in one screen, a small robot flitted between the crowds stealing cred-sticks and jewellery in a second, and a brawl broke out in a third. None of them pointed towards the casino losing money. Chances were high that Cracos had a hand in all of the unsavoury pies being shown and was definitely taking a cut of the profits.
An hour later, Nova threw up her hands. "Nothing! All of that and we're left with nothing." She stood up and paced around the command pod.
"Our probability calculators suggest it is eighty-nine per cent certain to be an inside job, committed by a member of the casino's staff," Crusader said as Nova paced.
"I'll look into the staff. At least most of them are in the dark about the investigation; as long as that woman at the front desk can keep her mouth shut."
Nova left her formal dress on the floor of the ship and instead headed to the casino in her usual black pants and top. The familiar trench-coat billowed out behind her as she marched around the side of the casino to the staff entrance. She held her wrist against the lock. A moment later it flashed green and she pushed her way through.
Inside, the staff room was bare. The walls and floor were grey metal, lit by dim bulbs in the ceiling. The only decorations in the room covered the staff lockers, a few of which had various insignias stuck or carved into their surfaces. According to the casino schematics, this staff room was for the people who had direct access to the casino's money. If the theft was an inside job, the person's locker would be here.
Nova walked to the closest locker and went to work opening the door. The lock was basic at best and it took only a few moments for her to break through the simple encryption. The locker door swung open with a squeak and she peered inside, but revealed nothing except a change of clothes and a poster of a half-dressed woman.
She went to work on the second locker, then the third, and on along the rows. Most of them contained nothing of interest. Some contained personal items which would raise a few eyebrows, but nothing that would suggest a major theft operation.
Nova's stomach tightened as she went through the lockers. The one consistent thing was desperation. It leaked out of the lockers and spread across the floor like a noxious gas. As much as she wanted to get paid - and beat Vicki - a part of her wanted the thief to go free. They probably needed the money a lot more than Cracos.
In the end Nova found three lockers with items that could potentially be linked to the casino crime. The first contained a collection of small bottles, two of which were empty, one was half-full and those at the back remained unopened. With steady hands she picked up an empty bottle and peered at the worn label. She would recognise the logo anywhere. Siness.
The company name was used as a front by the biggest drug-dealers in Tabryn. To anyone on the outside they looked like simple medicinal jars but to anyone who had seen the underbelly of Tabryn, the jars contained Zine, the premier street drug, a combination of enzymes which removed inhibitions and increased adrenalin. If it was made by Siness it was guaranteed to be good quality, and an expensive habit. Nova looked through the rest of the items in the locker but aside from the vials there was nothing of interest. She took note of the locker number and moved on.
The second suspicious locker overflowed with photos. Her eyes narrowed as she looked over the pictures. It was odd for images to be stored in physical format - the cost compared to digital was astronomical but here they were. A whole locker full.
Nova studied some of the pictures. She had no doubt that they were for blackmail. They depicted various persons in compromising situations; often half-clothed. She flicked through more images; People doing drugs; having sex; or simply exchanging items of value in darkly lit alleyways. Cracos featured in multiple images, appearing naked with a variety of people, both men and women.
It was as if the photographer had walked around Outer Tabryn taking snapshots, but Nova knew that couldn't be the case. The subjects of the images were too well-dressed, too clean, their environments too luxurious. No; these photos were of powerful people and someone wanted control over them. Clearly this photographer had contacts, as well as the mental capacity to come up with an intricate plan.
Nova took note of the second locker's number. In her mind she ran over the limited information she had. It was far more likely that the blackmailer was committing the crimes than the druggie but she needed more information.
In the final locker of the row, Nova found that the lock had been upgraded. In fact it was one of the best models Nova had ever come across. She worked at the encryption but it took far longer than she'd expected.
Her heart jumped and she glanced at the door at the tiniest sound. She'd chosen the middle of a shift, but she'd already been searching for hours and people could return at any moment. She didn't want to know what they might do if they found her snooping through their things.
With a last desperate pull the metal door swung open. Nova's eyes bulged. A pile of cred-sticks almost filled the locker and when Nova first opened the door a few rolled out and fell to the floor. She picked them up and stared at the numbers running up their sides. Each stick held tens of thousands of credits. The locker had to contain over a million credits.
Nova stared at the fortune and a part of her wanted to grab the sticks and run. She'd go to Crusader, fly off into the stars and live out the rest of her days as a very rich person. The rest of her resisted the urge. Where could a simple casino worker get so much money, legally? The only answer Nova could come up with was that they couldn't.
The drug addict and the blackmailer disappeared from Nova's mind as she stared at the cred-sticks. She needed to find out who owned this locker.
"Cal, take note of locker number six-seven-seven," she said aloud.
"Acknowledged," Cal replied. "But shouldn't you get Cracos there now?"
"Innocent until proven guilty. If Cracos sees this he'll just take it. We need to be sure this is our guy before we get Cracos involved."
"Oh, and note down two-eighty-three and three-three-three," Nova said as an afterthought. She had already discounted those lockers once she'd seen the cred-sticks, but maybe there were warrants outstanding on the owners and she could make some extra credits.
She was sure to place the cred-sticks exactly as they had been and then re-locked the cabinet; the last thing she wanted to do was alert the offender. She left through the back door and strode with her coat pulled up around her face, trying to be as casual as possible, until she reached the safety of Crusader.
"Get me Cracos," she said as soon as she was inside.
By the time Nova reached the control pod, the screen showed Cracos's face.
"Bounty hunter, do you have some good news for me?" Cracos asked. A fat cigar hung out of the corner of his puffy lips.
"I need some information on locker numbers."
"That's hardly a breakthrough," Cracos said. "You're the second one to ask me that today."
Nova tried to hide her surprise at his statement, while begging that it hadn't been Vicki.
"That's good to know. I need to know who owns lockers six-seven-seven—"
"Let me guess, six-seven-seven, three-three-three, and two-eighty-three?" Cracos said, rolling his eyes.
"As it happens I already have the names in front of me." Cracos smiled at her and pulled the cigar from his mouth, allowing a plume of smoke to drift up out of view.
"Siaro Gallon, Zodac Xion, and Fenton Pict," Cracos said.
"If that's all?"
"Yes, thank you," Nova said, waving her hand to end the communication.
Cracos's face disappeared from the front screen and was replaced with blue skies. Nova pondered what she had heard. She wasn't the only one who had searched the lockers and whoever it was had found the same things she had. There was no time to waste, she had to find the criminal before anyone else, and if the locker full of cred-sticks turned out to be the one, then she was already far behind.
"Get me Tanguin."
At Nova's voice the screen flashed and Crusader's voice came over the speakers. "Calling Tanguin at The Jagged Maw."
In only a few seconds the screen flashed and Tanguin's face appeared. Her black hair shone in the light of her computer. She smiled when she saw Nova.
"Nova, how's the hunting?"
"Not too bad. I've got some cash for you if you run some names for me." It was a small price to pay given that Tanguin would get the information in a fraction of the time it would take Nova.
Nova repeated the names to Tanguin. "I need full background and personal details."
"No problem boss, I should have that within an hour. It's pretty slow here at the moment."
"Good." Nova nodded at the screen and gave a brief smile before waving her hand and causing the screen to turn blue once more.
Nova took the time to eat a burger and take a shower. The warm water felt good on her skin. She let the sound of the shower take her mind away from her current mission. She allowed herself to drift through her mind and to fully relax for the first time in days.
She was drying under the hot air jets when she heard Crusader's voice. "Incoming call from Tanguin."
"Coming!" Nova called, rushing to throw clothes on as she ran back to the command pod.
Tanguin's face was already on the monitor and she rolled her eyes at Nova as she plonked down into her chair, not quite dry from her shower.
"What have you got for me?" Nova asked, ignoring Tanguin's expression.
"I'm sending you through personal details, addresses, known contacts, etcetera."
Nova nodded approval.
"There wasn't much in their histories. One was suspected of drug abuse, but they never found evidence. As far as the records show, these people are clean," Tanguin said, shrugging.
"I guess I'll have to do some deeper digging."
"Be careful, Nova," Tanguin said, staring hard at Nova's face. "Don't do anything stupid just because Vicki's there."
Nova's eyes hardened as she looked at the screen. "How do you know that?"
"Because she called me half an hour ago for the same information I just gave you."
"Did you tell her?" Nova stood from her chair and it swung backwards. Tanguin did jobs for most of The Jagged Maw for a tidy profit. As the resident Un-Connected, she was an invaluable resource to the bounty hunter guild and almost everyone called on her at some point or another. Having spent the first half of her life inside a virtual reality, she was good with computers. That was before the servers shut down and thrust the whole planet into the harsh reality and the Connected became the Un-Connected.
"Of course I didn't. I told her I have too much to do."
"Thank you," Nova replied, her voice softer. She pulled her chair back into place and sat down.
"She can still find the information. It will probably just take her a bit longer," Tanguin warned.
Nova nodded, but said nothing.
"Don't be stupid," Tanguin repeated as she watched Nova's mood darken.
"I never do," Nova replied, waving her hand and cutting off communication before Tanguin could reply.
The simple white shirts and black pants of the uniform she'd taken from the staff bathroom rubbed against Nova's skin. She strode around the main floor, surveying the rest of the room. Men and women walked back and forth, drinks in hand as they migrated between tables.
She nodded as one of her friends from The Jagged Maw walked past, but she didn't stop him for conversation; she was focused. It was good to see a friendly face, rather than Vicki's perpetual smirk.
The blue streak in Nova's hair shone under the neon lights but her alteration was nothing compared to some of the outrageous modifications others had. Coloured skin and tattooed make-up were some of the more conservative sights floating around the casino that night. Nova ignored the extravagance; she was here for one thing only.
That was when her target came into sight. The man wore the same uniform as she did and walked between tables with complementary drinks in hand. She watched him for some time, and at first she saw nothing out of the ordinary. But over time Nova noticed little things, like the way the man kept looking over his shoulder. Or the way he peered into the darkest corners of the casino, as if looking for something. Nova also saw the way he occasionally spilled drinks, as if his mind was far away. Clearly this man was worth talking to.
Nova strode in broad circles for over an hour before she made her move. The man ambled into the waste disposal room and Nova entered just after him. Three doors marked male, female, and other led out of the entrance room. She couldn't be certain which one he had gone through and so she waited in the hallway.
People stared at her with a mixture of confusion and disdain as they walked past. She was staff and therefore a lower form of life in many of their eyes. Nova was beginning to think that Siaro had disappeared, before he finally stepped out of the male waste-disposal section.
She didn't waste any time and leapt straight for him, pushing them both back through the door and locking it behind her. She shoved him to the side and did a quick walk around the room to confirm that there was no one else.
"What is the meaning of this?" Siaro demanded.
Nova looked at him for a few moments, taking the time to judge the man's character. He wore the casino's uniform but his hair was better kept than many of the others. From his accent, Nova knew he came from Inner Tabryn, or at least close enough that he shouldn't have to work at a casino.
"What are you doing here?" she asked, blocking the door, a hand on the gun tucked behind her back.
"I work here," the man said as if talking to a simpleton. "What are you doing here?"
"You don't work at the casino."
"No, but I work for the casino." Nova narrowed her eyes, her hand clasped round the stunner in her pocket. Siaro didn't look dangerous, but it was better to be safe than sorry.
"What do you want?" he asked.
"I just need you to answer a couple of questions."
"I don't see why you had to accost me and drag me into the bathroom for that."
"Trust me, that wasn't even close to accosting. Explain this." She held out an image of his locker and the piles of cred-sticks.
"How did you get that?" The colour dropped out of his face and a bead of sweat dribbled down his forehead.
"That doesn't matter. Tell me what you're doing with all of that money and I'll be on my way."
"If you stole my money I will wring your neck. I swear it." Siaro stepped closer to Nova and raised his hand.
"No closer." She pulled out her gun and held it out between them, only centimetres from Siaro's chest. "I didn't take your money. Now, where's it from?"
"Really? And do you usually wander around with that much credit on you?"
"Of course not! Do I look like an idiot to you?"
"Then what was it doing in your locker?"
"It's all of my savings. I needed it."
"Why? Developed a bit of a habit?"
Siaro shook his head. "No! No. Nothing like that."
"I need to hire some people." Siaro's eyes darted from side to side.
"What kind of people?"
Nova thought for a few moments, staring at him. "Why would a well-dressed man such as yourself need mercenaries?"
"I need them to—" The man looked down at his feet. "I need them to find my daughter."
Nova's arm dropped to her side as Siaro spoke. Her brows drew together.
"Tell me about it."
"Why should I tell you?" His voice broke and tears hovered at the corners of his eyes.
"Maybe I can help."
The man stared hard at her. "How can you help?"
"I know people. Just tell me what happened."
"She was taken; disappeared without a trace."
"From Tabryn? Are you sure she didn't simply walk away?" Nova asked, thinking of the rampant drugs which could easily suck anyone in.
"No! It wasn't like that. She was there one day and gone the next."
Nova felt a momentary pang of sadness as she remembered Caila. She too had disappeared suddenly without a trace, even if her body was still there. On Tabryn that kind of thing happened all the time.
"So what's the money for? Has someone asked for a ransom?" Nova asked, shoving her own memories to the side.
"There's an army. An army of soldiers; the best. They'll help me find her."
Nova raised her eyebrows in disbelief. "Siaro, I know you want to find your daughter, but are you sure that's a good idea? Mercenary armies can't be trusted, and they don't specialise in kidnappings. I—"
"These are different! You have no idea what I had to do to get that money. Anyway, what business is it of yours?"
"I just mean… this kind of thing happens and maybe you're wasting all of your savings—"
"Wasting? Wasting?! You think it's a waste of money to try and do everything I can to get my daughter back?"
Siaro put his face right up to Nova's. She could smell his breath as the warm air brushed against her face.
"Just tell me how you got the money and I'll be on my way," she said in a low voice.
Siaro pinched his nose with his hand and looked at her through blood-shot eyes. "It's a loan, from Frank Albertoni."
"The guy who runs the Opal Casino?" Nova's mouth dropped.
"Yes. And in exchange I will have to spend the rest of my life doing his dirty work, including spying on Cracos and working in this hell-hole. So don't you dare tell me that I'm wasting my money."
Tears spilled down Siaro's cheeks.
Nova swallowed the lump in her throat. "I'm simply saying people go missing here all the time. You shouldn't get your hopes up just because some mercenary lied to you to get a few credits."
"Get away from me."
Siaro took a step back, his face twisted with a deep pain that forced Nova to turn away. She shuffled away from him, her head hanging low. She feared Siaro would find nothing but more misery down the path he'd chosen.
Nova slumped into the pilot's chair and let out an audible sigh.
"Get me Tanguin," she said.
The screen in front of her flickered and after a few moments an image came up of Tanguin sitting cross-legged on her bed. The girl wore a long-sleeved shirt with a green vest, striped leggings, and her signature single glove.
"How's the field?" Tanguin asked as soon as her picture appeared on screen.
"Not so good," Nova said, sighing.
"How can I brighten your day?" Tanguin said, lifting her hands.
"I need to find out if Siaro's daughter was reported missing."
Tanguin frowned. "That should be easy enough; Crusader could have done it for you."
"I know," Nova said, leaning well back in her chair. "I just felt like talking to someone normal."
"Pfft. Normal's overrated," Tanguin said as she gave directions to her computer, Delta.
There was silence as Tanguin scanned the many screens in front of her and gave commands to Delta.
"Here we go. Yes, Siaro's daughter was reported missing a couple of weeks ago. Tabryn's police tried to find her. No luck so far, so they've given up the search."
"Well, he's another dead end," Nova said, letting her head fall back so she was staring at Crusader's ceiling.
"Weird," Tanguin muttered as her eyes read over the screens.
"What?" Nova lifted her head to look.
"There have been a lot of missing people there over the last few years."
"You think I don't know about the missing persons on Tabryn?" Nova's rage flared, she had told Tanguin all about her childhood on Tabryn, and her reason for leaving the sandy planet.
"No. I mean there's been a lot, more than there should be, even for a place like that."
"Ten reported in the last week, and only a small portion ever gets reported, and an even smaller number than that make it to the Cloud."
"Yeah." Nova hung her head at the news. It didn't help her with the casino case. "I don't suppose you've picked up on any useful information for me through the Cloud?"
"Afraid not, Nothing at all."
Nova slammed her fist on the control panel. "Why couldn't it just be a simple in and out case? Why do I have to be stuck on this god forsaken planet?"
"You could just leave the job," Tanguin suggested, turning to look at Nova.
"You know I can't do that. Giving up on a job this early looks bad."
"I know, but I thought one of us should at least mention the possibility."
Nova nodded. "I should let you get back to work, let me know as soon as you hear anything."
"Over and out," Tanguin said, saluting Nova with two of her fingers.
That night, Nova paced through the dark alleys of Tabryn. The address she wanted was in the outer reaches of Inner Tabryn — not quite in the slums, but too close for comfort. Zodac Xion lived in an upper-story apartment in a grey building with bars on some of the windows. The tall building crowded amongst many other identical structures, and the thin streets below were unlit.
Nova stepped from shadow to shadow, keeping in the dark behind buildings and large bins as she approached the cold metal stairs which led up the side of Zodac's building. She climbed the stairs, careful to avoid the gaping holes where some of the metal had been cut away. The night was filled with the distant sound of sirens and the much closer sounds of the outer city. Breaking glass and the occasional yell echoed from nearby apartments. Nova ignored it all.
Zodac's apartment was silent. He would be working at the casino until late, so Nova intended to make the most of his absence. The window of his apartment sat to the side of the staircase on the sixth floor. Nova climbed up onto the metal railing and from there stretched out against the wall. Her fingers crawled along the bricks until they encountered the open space which was Zodac's window. She placed her foot on the sill and leapt from the railing into the broken window. She rolled across the floor and jumped to her feet, knife in hand.
Silence filled the room. She allowed her eyes to adjust to the darkness until she could make out the lumps of furniture and the piles of clothing scattered across the floor. She gripped the glowball at her waist and it cast a soft light over the room.
The single couch was frayed; the stuffing pouring out of the cushion. A ragged rug covered in stains softened Nova's footsteps, while a small food generator sat to the side. It looked as though it hadn't been used for some time. She scanned the room and took note of a few cheap ornaments scattered about the place.
She sauntered through a gaping doorway and into the bedroom. The stink of sweat and filth filled her nostrils and made her choke. She covered her face with her sleeve, her eyes watering, and wasn't surprised to see more empty bottles scattered across the floor. Stray needles and syringes lay about the room, forcing her to watch where she placed her feet and hands.
A part of her was impressed that Zodac was still going to work. Clearly, he was lost deep inside the addiction. Most people would have given up on work, and most other things, by this stage.
Nova kicked a stray bottle and it bounced against the far wall. The room looked just like Caila's had towards the end. A lump formed in her throat and she clenched her jaw to stop the tears, taking a deep breath through her nose to shake away the memories.
An old screen covered part of the far wall, and compared to the rest of the apartment it was in excellent condition. It was a simple system that would usually require a scan of Zodac's chip in order to operate. Thanks to Tanguin, Nova had an override device that cut straight through the computer's security system.
"One new message," said the mechanical voice from the speakers.
"Play message," Nova said, staring hard at the screen.
The screen flickered and a gaunt face appeared. The man before her had dark, sunken eyes and sickly grey-green skin. His red eyes darted away from the camera every few moments.
"Z!" the man shouted at the screen before letting his eyes dart. "Come on man, you owe me for the last batch. You don't want the boss coming after you, do you? You want another hit right? You just gotta give me the cash."
The gaunt man twisted to look behind him and continued to stare that way for over five seconds. Nova could almost see his ears twitching like a frightened rodent. Just as quickly, the man spun back to the camera. "I can't keep calling you, Z. Pay up."
The man flicked his hand and the screen went black.
"End message," said the computer voice.
Nova exhaled a deep breath as the message came to an end. Zodac was in trouble. He definitely needed money.
"Take a few shots, Cal," she requested.
The chip in Nova's brain went to work, transferring what she saw with her eyes to Crusader and Cal miles away. The technology allowed easy recording, and everything Nova looked at was instantly saved.
She ambled between the two rooms, sure to focus on the empty drug containers and needles.
"I'm going to wait it out here. I'm sure I can handle Zodac," Nova said. She sat on the floor in the centre of the apartment, rather than risk the couch.
"That would not be advised. Evidence suggests instability," Cal said.
"Yes, yes, I know. I'll be fine," Nova said, rolling her eyes.
The robot fell silent and Nova contented herself with sitting on the floor and mapping out the apartment in her mind. If all went well, Zodac would be coming down off the Zine, weak and incoherent.
The thought of being stabbed in the eye with a used needle made Nova's stomach churn and so she got up and fetched an old broom to sweep all of the syringes to the far corner of the room. Broken glass glimmered across the floor.
She sat for hours, occasionally getting up to stretch her legs. The hour she expected Zodac to get home came and went, as did the hour after that. It looked as though Zodac wasn't coming home. Perhaps the drug dealer had got to him, or maybe he'd had just a little too much Zine.
Nova stood and was preparing to leave when muffled voices floated in through the open window. She crept to the side, her body flat against the wall, and peered into the darkened street.
"Fifty credits," said a shaky voice. Nova could just make out a gangly man in the uneven light.
"Confirmed, Zodac," Cal said into her head.
Nova nodded, focusing on the scene in the street. Two smaller shadows crowded next to Zodac.
"It was thirty last time!" said a high-pitched voice that could only belong to a child.
"Yeah well, the price has gone up," Zodac said.
"We can't afford that," the girl squeaked.
Nova's hands clenched into fists at her sides. The young girl could have easily been Caila, twenty years ago.
"Then I guess there won't be any Zine for you."
"But we need it!" the smallest shadow shrieked. She was no older than five and she lunged at Zodac's leg, her arms flailing.
Zodac whipped out his leg and kneed the girl in the face. She tumbled backwards onto the rough road with a yelp. "Get off me you crazy little bitch. It's fifty credits, or it's nothing."
Nova stifled a yell. She clutched the window sill, her heart pounding in her chest, and fought the urge to rush down to the street. She couldn't believe that Zodac was dealing to children so young and any sympathy she'd had for him disappeared.
"Forty!" the older girl said, wrenching a handful of credits out of her pocket.
Zodac snatched the money and thrust out a vial, no bigger than his thumb. "If she attacks me again, the price is double," he said.
The older girl seized the vial and hauled the smaller one off the street. They hurried away and disappeared into the shadows. Zodac turned towards his apartment building and shuffled out of sight.
Nova clenched her teeth and whipped around to face the door. Adrenalin poured through her as she crouched, ready to strike.
Uneven footsteps clumped outside the flimsy door, keys jingled, and someone cursed. With a click the front door swung open. The dishevelled man shuffled through, bumping his shoulder onto the left doorframe and bouncing into the lounge room.
He looked around his house with sunken, glazed-over eyes and ran his hands back and forth along the wall, searching for a light switch which didn't exist.
Nova stood straight.
He jumped and turned at the sound of her voice. "Who's that? I told Bemon I'd get the money."
"I'm not here for the money, Zodac," Nova said. She stepped forward so that the light shining in through the window lit up her face.
"Then what do you want?" Zodac took a step back, his hand roving about behind him. He could have been searching for a weapon, or he was still looking for the illusive light switch.
"How do you live with yourself? Dealing to children?"
Zodac waved his hand at her, reeling against the wall. "It's their fault for getting addicted. I was just helping them out."
Nova stepped forward, pushing him back against the wall and crushing his throat with her forearm. "Do you have any idea what Zine will do to them? You've killed them!"
Zodac's face turned red and a vein pulsed in his forehead. "It wasn't even Zine! It's a fake batch."
"They seemed pretty addicted to me. So, what, you gave them their first hit but now you can't bear to part with your supply?"
"Get away from me," he said, his voice choked.
"You make me sick," Nova spat. "Where'd you get the money for the Zine?"
She shoved him against the wall and stepped back, unable to bear the stench of his breath a moment longer.
"I don't have any money, do I? That's the problem," Zodac said as his fingers closed around a wooden ornament.
Nova held up her hands. "So where did you get the money the first time?"
Zodac's jaw tensed and his eyes hardened. Nova could see him measuring her through the haze of his high. His fingers flexed about the ornament and in one quick action he hurled the wooden statue at her head.
Nova ducked out of the way, just in time to be tackled to the ground by Zodac.
He tried to pin her wrists to the floor, but his arms were weak. Nova pushed him off and spun out of his reach. She jumped to her feet, stunner in hand, and looked down at Zodac, still lying on the floor.
"Just tell me where you got the money and I'll leave," Nova said, her breath returning to normal.
"I don't have to tell you anything."
"No, you don't. But it's strongly advised." She kicked her thick black boot into the man's stomach.
"Bitch!" the man spat out as he gasped for more air.
"The money," Nova said, relentless.
"I got it from a friend," Zodac said through clenched teeth as Nova's boot rose for another kick.
"Just a friend, she works at the casino. The Lucky Coin."
"Really? And does this friend have lots of money to waste on Zine-ers?"
"Screw you." Zodac rolled out of the way of Nova's next kick and pulled himself to a crouched position.
His eyes darted about the room, but they weren't focused. The stress was getting to him and it was obvious he needed another hit, soon.
"Which friend?" Nova asked again, stepping closer to Zodac and raising her stunner.
"Her name's Vira!" Zodac all but yelled.
"And does Vira have lots of money to waste on you?"
"No!" Zodac's shoulders slumped. "No, she lives just a few buildings over, no spare money at all."
"So you're telling me that some slummer, just like you, somehow found it in her heart to feed you Zine?"
"No," Zodac whispered.
"What?" Nova stepped closer and tilted her head to the side, threatening.
"She doesn't know." Zodac collapsed to his knees and his head hung low.
"How can she not know?"
"I told her—" Zodac's face dropped even closer to the floor. "I told her it was for rent. She's always had a thing for me, see. I told her I needed rent, that I'd pay her back. And I will!" Zodac looked straight at Nova as he said his last sentence.
"You'll be dead before you get a chance. If the Zine doesn't get you, those girls you just cheated will."
She turned on her heel and stalked out of the still-open door, a grim expression on her face.
Nova stood in front of Crusader's storage-bay wall. A screen lit up its surface and she frowned at the images scattered across it. There was a photo of Zodac and the bottles of Zine Nova had found with a red line connecting him to the casino. On another side of the screen were pictures of the two other casino staff; Fenton and Siaro.
Nova put a finger to the screen and drew a cross over Zodac's face. A red line appeared on the screen following her finger, covering his picture. She then dragged a picture of a pile of cred-sticks onto Siaro's face and drew a line across him as well.
She found the interactive board helped to organise her thoughts and arrange information. It wasn't often her hunting required this much analysis. Usually her job was simple. Catch the bad guy and bring him, or her, in. She put her hands on her hips. There was nothing more she could do but investigate her last suspect: Fenton.
Fenton's house was in the more reputable part of the city compared to Zodac. The streets were paved and only the occasional beggar in shabby clothes marred the otherwise pristine neighbourhood.
She strode up to Fenton's house, looking it over, examining the smooth outer surface and quaint garden. She opened the knapsack at her side and pulled out copies of the compromising photos she had found in Fenton's locker, sticking them to his door to create a rough collage of debauchery.
She stepped back to admire her work, then nodded and walked to the other side of the street. She stood partly shadowed by a tall building and folded her arms across her chest. Two transporters came and went before she spotted the man sauntering towards her.
The man wore a black long-sleeve shirt and black pants. He walked with a jaunty gait and swung his head from side to side, his chin tilted up as if he was looking down at the world. To the casual passer-by the man would appear carefree, but Nova saw straight through the façade. The sideways glances scanned for approaching danger, the jaunty swagger made his movements hard to predict. Nova inwardly nodded with approval.
When Fenton approached his own front door his pace slowed and his gaze locked onto the photo collage. He took a few quick steps to the door and began ripping the images down, holding handfuls of tattered pictures. He whipped around and stared to either side, his head swinging wildly. At first he saw nothing, his eyes remaining wild. As Nova stepped out of the shadows, his eyes narrowed.
Nova sauntered across the street, stopping some distance away.
"Interesting pictures you have," she said.
"What's it to ya?" he asked, pulling a few more pictures from the door.
"Just a casual observer interested in talking."
"I don't want to talk to you. Get out of here."
"That's a shame. Maybe you'd be more willing to talk if you could see a photo of mine?" Nova asked, reaching into her knapsack to pull out a final photo.
She held it up to the man and his hands went still. The photo showed Fenton's locker, open, with his condemning photo collection scattered throughout. Sitting on the very top of the pile of filthy images was one of Cracos, caught in a very awkward pose with none other than Zodac Xion.
"How did you get that?" Fenton hissed.
"Ah, so you are ready to talk?" Nova asked.
The man frowned but said nothing.
"I have copies of this ready to send out to all the casino staff, including Mister Cracos. I wonder what he'd think of it?" Nova asked, the picture of innocence.
"Don't!" Fenton cried out, stepping towards Nova with his hands held out.
"Then just answer a few questions for me and I'll be on my way."
Fenton gritted his teeth and stared down at his shoes. "Fine."
"Why do you have these?" she asked, holding up the picture of Fenton's locker.
"Security," Fenton said.
"I can't imagine taking compromising images of your boss is a good way to get job security."
"It's all I could think of. I have a wife and kids. They need me."
"How exactly does snapping your co-workers like this protect your family?" Nova asked, confused.
"So I can't disappear."
"What do you mean 'disappear'?"
"Like the others. I can't disappear just because Cracos decides he doesn't like me. These are an insurance policy," Fenton explained, gesturing to the images.
"The others?" Nova's brow furrowed at the man.
Fenton looked up and down the street before turning back to Nova. "People, they've been disappearing. They just won't show up for work and no one sees them ever again. That can't be me."
Nova thought for a few moments. Disappearances on Tabryn weren't that uncommon, the drugs and crime eventually took their toll, but Fenton seemed genuinely frightened. She stored the information away for the time being.
"Do you have more photos?" she asked.
"Why would I tell you?" Fenton asked, on edge.
"I'm working for Cracos," she said and Fenton's eyes widened. "On a completely different case."
Fenton let a long breath out.
"The casino is losing money. Maybe your photos will tell me where."
Fenton tapped his foot on the ground as he considered Nova. His eyes flicked to the gun at her hip and her hand which rested just next to it. His eyes returned to her face.
"Fine. Wait here," Fenton said. He felt around behind his back before allowing his chip to be scanned and sliding into his house as quietly as smoke.
Nova stared at the door; sure that Fenton would be able to see her via the door's security system. Her eyes didn't budge as she waited. Fenton may have planned to never come out. But eventually either he, or his beloved family, would have to leave.
Many minutes later, certainly longer than it should have taken, the door opened and Fenton side-stepped out, closing it right behind him.
"Here. This is all I have." Fenton shoved a small screen at her. She took the device in hand and looked down at the picture. She swiped her hand across the screen and it moved to the next image, and so on.
"You getting this, Cal?" she said out loud.
"Yes, it's being recorded."
Nova nodded when eventually the device returned to the first image.
"Thank you, Fenton," she said, returning the digital viewer.
"Is that all?" he asked, his voice rough.
"Leave me out of it," he said, regaining his courage now that Nova was leaving. "I have nothing to do with stolen money."
She strode to Crusader, parked only a few blocks away. She climbed inside and went straight to the command pod where Cal was looking up at the images as they flicked across Crusader's front screen.
She sat in silence and stared at the pictures as they cycled across the screen, shaking her head at the loose morals that were rife within the casino. Drugs featured in every second photo and the others showed married men and women in questionable positions with people other than their spouses.
Nova nearly choked when an image popped up showing Cracos in a dark corner of the casino. His arms were wrapped around a woman; one hand firmly grasping her right buttock, with their lips locked. Nova recognised the red-haired woman immediately and was relieved when the picture changed. There was only so long she could look at Vicki's pale legs wrapped around Cracos's midsection without throwing up.
Many of the images had been taken with the casino's own security cameras and some were taken with other image-capturing devices. Nova chuckled at a photo showing the elderly man she had sat next to on her first night at the casino. She looked hard at the picture and shook her head as she saw that the man was losing that game as well.
Overall the pictures revealed nothing of the missing money. Nova hadn't really expected them to; Cracos had already had his own security staff scour over every second of recorded video from the casino's extensive security system.
"Another dead end," Nova said, slapping the control panel. Tabryn was proving even more horrid than she had originally thought.
A vice-like grip clenched Nova's heart as she slouched down the all-too-familiar street. The pavement was cracked with the occasional weed pushing its pathetic way towards the sun. Dull grey buildings, decorated with graffiti, pressed in on her. Slogans pronounced various gang allegiances and down an alley a painted monkey smoked on a cigar. Mixed amongst the names and gangs were cries for help. No Way Back was a common tag in this area of the city, one of the bleakest areas of Outer Tabryn: the urchin district.
This was where Nova had grown up. Here, she had spilled her first blood, and here she had learned to fight. There wasn't much about her childhood that she liked to remember. Looking up at windows still broken from her youth, reminded her of how little the universe changed. She felt like she'd been running her whole life from that grim reality and yet here she was; her feet stepping down the same dirty pavement, breathing in the same smoggy air, and passing the same broken hovels.
What the hell was she doing back here?
But of course if something big was happening in Tabryn, like a major steal from the planet's biggest casino, then Roxanne would know. Roxanne. Nova's memories of her were clouded, usually by cigarette smoke. She ran a brothel and an orphanage. In a place like Tabryn, A always led to B.
Nova didn't remember arriving at Roxanne's door. Maybe she'd been born right there on one of the dirty beds? Nobody knew, and Roxanne had seen so many children come and go she wouldn't have been able to tell her. In Nova's memory, Roxanne was always wearing a deep red silk dress. It had a puffy underskirt which ballooned out in a bell. Apparently, they were all the rage in old-century Earth and Roxanne was determined to see them make a come-back.
Roxanne's hair was always made up to perfection; a bun with tantalising wisps of auburn hair framing her face. She had jewels aplenty which glittered in the buzzing electric bulbs of the broken-down house. She had been stern, unyielding, and determined to survive in a world where everyone else was dying. That was Roxanne.
Nova took a deep breath as she turned the last corner into the street she'd grown up on. Why did everything have to look the same? The tumbledown buildings, even individual bricks, lay exactly as she remembered. A broken toy lay abandoned on the sidewalk. Maybe it had been one of hers? Once upon a time.
The evening was setting fast, but she couldn't have come any earlier. Anyone who knew anything, would have told her that Roxanne's didn't open until dark. Everyone would be asleep while the sun was up.
The street glowed with dying orange and purple shades, all was quiet, except for one house.
In this region of Tabryn there weren't many houses, having been replaced with big apartment blocks, but Roxanne loved old things. She had insisted, and through sheer force of will, had managed to keep the old house.
Light poured out of the windows and music flooded out onto the street. It was a charming attempt at happiness in the bleak and dreary neighbourhood.
Unlike the rest of the city, Roxanne's house had changed since Nova had last been there. Bits of it had fallen down and been replaced. There was even a new room tacked onto the side. Two doors led into the building, the one on the left was coloured red with a silhouette of a woman painted on its front, and it led into the warm room filled with music. The blue door on the right hung from rusted hinges and the dim light behind was accompanied by silence instead of music.
Nova took a deep breath. She could barely remember the last time she'd been here. Before she left Tabryn she would occasionally drop by to say hello to the children. She'd never liked Roxanne but she did respect the woman's strength. It took a lot to stick out your chin after being beaten so many times.
Nova grabbed hold of the doorknob on the red door and pushed it open. The light and noise grew tenfold and she felt like turning away and slamming the door behind her. Before she had a chance to turn tail and run, someone grabbed her hand.
"Well hello there, you. I haven't seen you around here before. What's your flavour?"
The girl holding Nova's arm had a pretty face and pouted lips. She blinked up at Nova with a sly smile and her busty dress showed off her modified assets. She held her hand out to the rest of the room.
It was still early and most of the patrons had yet to arrive. By midnight, the place would be alive with activity. As it was, there were only a few groups of people, mostly working men and women. They eyed Nova with a mixture of curiosity and greed. As an off-worlder, she would be a good source of credits.
There were men and women in various stages of undress with mods that made them especially appealing to certain tastes. A woman opened her mouth to reveal a set of pointed teeth.
Nova's breath caught in her throat; a lecheon! But no, it couldn't be, the teeth were fake and there wasn't a leach lurking behind them. Nova shivered. Who would be attracted to a lecheon? She forced the memories of her recent encounter with the coven on Boullion Five away and focused back on the young girl.
"I know. There are so many choices," the girl said with a giggle.
Nova frowned. "Actually, I'm here to see Roxanne."
"Oh." The girl's eyes went wide. "I'm afraid Mistress Roxanne no longer takes clients."
"I'm not a bloody client, she's a…… a friend of mine," Nova said, failing to think of a better word.
"I see. What's your name?" the girl asked.
"Nova," a cracked voice whispered from the far end of the room.
Nova looked up with surprise. She could barely recognise the woman before her. How long had she been away? Surely not that long? But it looked like Roxanne had aged at least twenty years compared to the woman in her memory.
"Roxanne," Nova said.
"Let her go Kell, we'll have tea out the back," Roxanne said.
She turned on her heel and swept back through the doorway from which she'd come. Her hair glimmered in its customary bun, but the bright auburn had been replaced with grey. The woman who had stood so tall and proudly for so long stooped as she walked. She shuffled along, as slow as an invalid.
Nova hurried across the room, ignoring the curious stares, and caught up with Roxanne. The room had changed from what she remembered. The furniture was new, or at least newer, and ornaments decorated the shelves. The staircase leading up to the bedrooms had been repainted. It was nice, for what it was.
One thing hadn't changed about Roxanne. She walked with her head up and her chin out. Her eyes still sparkled with defiance and bright intelligence as she lowered herself into a plush armchair and gestured for Nova to do the same.
Nova sat and stared at the woman who had been so many things; carer, teacher, task-master.
"So how is breaking heads?" Roxanne asked.
She leant back in her chair and eyed Nova with curiosity. A very young girl, too young to work in the front room, appeared and laid out a chipped teapot and two cups. She poured it with shaking hands and then disappeared, all in complete silence.
Nova's heart tugged, she could remember being that girl. She had scurried into this very room with a pot of tea. Only she hadn't been so graceful. She'd spilled the tea and in return Roxanne had backhanded her so hard that she'd stumbled across the room until she hit the far wall.
"Easier than breaking hearts," Nova said, reaching for a cup. She lifted it to her mouth and took a sip. It was the exact same flavour that Roxanne had kept decades ago. Some things never changed.
"Ha!" Roxanne laughed. "Each to their own."
Roxanne reached under the table and pulled out a long cigarette. She tucked it into her lip and held up a lighter. Taking a big suck, the cigarette caught, the orange embers casting a glow over the old woman's face. She blew out a plume of smoke around the side of the cigarette without bothering to take it out of her mouth.
"How's business?" Nova asked.
Roxanne glanced at the door leading to the front room. A tinkle of laughter drifted through; the festivities had begun.
"Same as it ever was. Only business that pays even when everything else goes to shit." Roxanne took another deep drag.
"Many children?" Nova asked. She fidgeted in her seat. The room was too familiar and yet too different. The same pictures stared down at her, but she should be an urchin running in with snacks, not sitting in the plush lounge.
"More every year," Roxanne said with a sigh.
She sucked again on her cigarette but this time her drag was cut short by hacking, deep and throaty. It sounded as if her lungs were filled with liquid, struggling just to get another breath in.
Nova's brow furrowed. She held out a hand but Roxanne waved it away. The room filled with the smell of the cigarette. It wafted up Nova's nostrils and made her head dizzy. She wanted nothing more than to be free of the poisonous fumes. It was another affectation of Roxanne's obsession; while the rest of the human colonies smoked clean drugs, Roxanne insisted on smoking the old-century toxic ones.
"Why are you here?" Roxanne said. "I'll admit you're probably the last person I expected to see walking through the door."
Nova nodded. She looked down at her hands. She hadn't expected to feel so intimidated. Apparently habits learned during childhood were hard to break because despite defeating entire lecheon covens and facing down the Ancients, her heart fluttered at confronting this ghost from her past.
"I'm doing a job," she said.
"Oh? And have you come to break my head?" Roxanne asked, the corners of her mouth twitching.
"No, no, nothing like that. I just thought I'd ask if you've heard anything."
"Me? Why would I have heard anything? I'm just a simple business owner," Roxanne said with a crooked smile.
"Let's not play games," Nova said, resting her tea on her lap. "I know as well as you do that this place is the absolute central hub for Tabryn gossip."
Nova stared at Roxanne. The older woman's smile grew, but she waved her hand for Nova to continue.
"I'm working for Cracos."
"Ah. His casino brings me a lot of business."
"He's losing money and he doesn't know how. Do you know of any major operations going on? If you give me something useful, I'm sure I can chuck a few credits your way."
Roxanne chuckled. "I assure you, my services are worth far more than a few credits. Or at least they were back in my youth. Regarding your disappearing money though, I don't think I can help."
"Really?" Nova said. "Let's not waste time. You name your price and we'll get a move on."
"As much as I would love to take your violently acquired money, I really don't have anything for you."
Nova sighed and sat back in her chair. Another dead end. She took a sip of tea. Somewhere in a far room children giggled. Nova shook her head; there were too many ghosts in this place.
"I'm sorry to have wasted your time," Nova said, standing. She placed the fragile cup back on the table and looked at Roxanne.
"Nonsense, it's always good to see one of my children again, alive. Sadly it doesn't happen often."
Nova had to nod at the grim sentiment. How many of the children she had grown up with were still alive? Not many, if any. Those that were alive were probably high on Zine or some other drug. Nova was an exception, for sure.
"Did you want to see the others before you leave?" Roxanne said, her old legs shaking as she stood.
"Would I know any of them?"
Roxanne waved her hand. "They're all the same when you get down to it."
Nova nodded. "No, thank you. There are too many memories in this place for me."
"You should try living here."
Nova smiled and nodded, heading for the door to the front room.
"You may want to leave the other way," Roxanne said. "Business will have started."
"Of course." Nova strode to the back door that led to the yard.
She laid her hand on the knob and stopped. "It was good to see you," she said, still facing the door.
"And you," Roxanne replied to Nova's back. "Stop by anytime."
Nova nodded and marched out into the night. She made her way through the toy-strewn yard and back onto the pavement. Night had truly set in and the streets were as dark as her thoughts.
"Take us to the Pits," Nova said as she stepped up into Crusader.
"So, things went well with Roxanne then?" Cal asked, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
Nova glared at him before stomping through the storage bay to a large cabinet. She threw open the doors; inside was a metal suit with red and silver sections that had become dull and dented over time. The layers of metal made it stand a foot taller than Nova and the arms and legs were three times the size of hers.
"The Pits will be the best place to get information," she said.
"That may be right, however that doesn't mean that you have to strap on your gear and get into a fight."
"I'm just looking," said Nova, closing the cupboard door. "I'll be good."
Crusader landed with a gentle thud and Nova went back to the sliding door.
The scene beyond was almost as familiar to Nova as Roxanne's house. The buildings were cleaner and less dilapidated, but the feeling was the same. They were in the outer suburbs, the edge of the slums, and the hotspot for Tabryn's criminal element.
Nova strode out of the small parking area. Crusader blended in amongst the other rust-buckets, and wouldn't tempt any passing thieves. The ships were mostly old or in desperate need of repair, or at least that's how they looked from the outside. Nova would bet fifty credits that the insides of the ships, the engines and the storage bays, were in top condition, good enough to get away from the authorities anyway.
She walked a block down the street until she came to a non-descript metal door. She knocked twice, paused, and then knocked three more times, before opening the door.
Thick smoke billowed up out of the door, revealing two large men dressed in black standing on either side; they looked Nova over but didn't move. Their necks were almost as wide as their heads and their mouths remained thin lines.
A set of bent wooden stairs led down past the security guards, winding underground. Shouts and laughter echoed up the stairs, as well as a welcoming, warm glow.
Nova had so many memories of this building, of these steps. This was where she had first learned independence, where she'd found a way to get herself off Tabryn. Here, she'd found real friends, mixed with a few enemies. She just hoped some of those friends were still alive.
At the bottom of the stairs was a warm bar-room, filled to bursting with men and women in dirty clothes. Many of them wore overalls, while others had brightly coloured shirts. They were the labourers and mechanics, the lower classes that helped keep the upper class afloat.
Drinks sloshed from glasses and spattered to the floor. Raucous laughter echoed around the room as large men patted even larger men on their backs. An old-fashioned game of darts played out in a corner of the bar while a pool table was being viciously assaulted by some very amateur players.
"Well I'll be damned," said a male voice over the crowd.
Nova turned towards the voice. It sounded so familiar, even after all the years. She hurried to the bar and sat down on a stool, ignoring the sticky remnants of whatever had been spilled. She grinned up at the red-faced barman as he stared at her with his mouth hanging open.
"Long time," Nova said.
"Damn straight it is. Why have you been keeping clear? Been in the slammer have you?" said the barman.
"Of course not!" Nova laughed. "As if I'd let the Confederacy get hold of me. You should know better than that, George."
"Well it's the only explanation I could come up with as to why you haven't visited me in so many years," George said. He pulled a dirty cloth from his shirt and futilely patted at the pools of liquid spread out on the bar.
"Been busy. You know how it is," Nova said.
"Oh yeah; found a better mech ring?" George said, raising an eyebrow.
"No, this one's the only ring for me." Nova chuckled.
"No. I've joined the Hunter business."
"Well, screw me."
"Oh c'mon George, that didn't work seven years ago, and it's not going to work now."
They both laughed and George pulled a large glass from under the bar. He filled it with amber liquid and shoved it across the bench into Nova's waiting hands. The air swirled with smoke but unlike Roxanne's poisonous fumes, these were lightly scented, floral, and best of all, harmless.
"So you're a Hunter," George said. "I never would have guessed it."
"Through and through," Nova said, lifting her glass.
"You come back here to reminisce, maybe step back into the ring for old time's sake?"
"No, nothing like that." Nova's heart fluttered. She'd missed this place more than she cared to admit. "I'm looking for some information."
"Well you know if I've got it, I'll gladly pass it on."
"The Lucky Coin is leaking money."
"Ha! Good. More for the rest of us." George handed a frothy jug to a waiting man and accepted the cred stick with a nod.
"I'm working for Cracos. I need to know where it's going."
"Aww come on now. Why are you working for that scum?"
"You know lots of people would say the same about this place."
"Yeah, but at least we're scum you can trust."
"Do you know anything or not?"
"No," George sighed. "Wish I did though, I'd happily have myself a piece of that pie."
"Too right about that," Nova said, taking a deep swallow of the warm liquid. It slid down her throat and left a pleasant burn in her mouth.
"Anything else, your majesty?" George said with a twinkle in his eye, feigning a mock bow.
"Nah, that's enough business. How have you been?"
"Same as it ever was. You know as well as anyone that nothing ever changes here."
"Too right about that, I'm pretty sure you still haven't washed these glasses since the last time I was here."
"You'd be right about that."
"Any of the crew still around?" Nova asked, dreading the answer.
"A few," George replied, a faraway look glazed over his eyes. "Honey's still around, probably downstairs getting ready for her fight actually. Lenovo didn't make it though."
"What happened?" Nova asked, remembering the older man's ready smile and quick wit. He'd helped Nova find her feet after she was kicked out of Roxanne's.
"Gang fight. You know how he was into the drug trade," George said. "I guess a deal must have gone bad, because he was found in the gutter, gunshot to the head."
Nova hung her head; she'd been afraid of this. The place had a lot of good memories, but what was the point of that if all the people responsible for those memories were dead?
"Tuft has moved on," George said, his eyes still gazing into the past.
"Moved on where?"
"Got a job in the Resources Sector. Decided to go there and make his fortune. At least that's what he said. Seemed like a pipe-dream to me."
"It was," Nova said with confidence. "The Resources District is in even worse shape than this cosmic craphole. People dying all the time."
"That's what I told him; of course the damned fool never listened."
"What about Linker?" Nova asked. He had been a good friend. Sure, he drank too much and gambled more than he earned, but he was a good man and he was as loyal as they come.
"Pissed and poor just like you'd expect," George said. "Still working downstairs, still trying to pay off his bills. A losing battle that one."
Nova nodded as she swallowed the last of her cider. She would have liked to stay talking to George and drinking until the morning came but there was work to do. The last thing she wanted was to waste time and let Vicki get the bounty. That was something she would never live down.
Nova got to her feet and tossed a cred-stick onto the bar.
"Was on the house," George said, pushing it back.
"Then spend it on yourself," Nova replied. "Let's call it an apology for the years I haven't visited."
"If that's the case then you still owe me." George grinned as he shoved the stick into the pocket of his dirty white apron. "You know the way down?"
"Better than my own mother," Nova retorted with a smile as she pushed her way through the crowd towards the next set of doors and the stairs beyond.
Behind the stairs a rickety lift rumbled along on rusted cables. There were already people waiting for it to make its ponderous journey back up from The Pits. Nova shuffled to the back of the queue.
There were people of many different types standing around her, but mostly they were the same characters she had seen in the bar; the overworked labourer, the well-dressed businessman with a secret habit, the thin woman just looking for some entertainment. They were the same people that could be found in any such establishment. They gathered around the furtive places, looking guilty but not moving. Nova didn't judge them; she could just as easily have ended up as one of them. And if she was being honest, wasn't she at that very moment standing in the same queue, to get on the same lift, to go down to the same violent arena?
The lift arrived and a few bedraggled passengers stumbled out. They pushed their way through the waiting crowd and into the bar-room beyond, their clothes covered in dirt and sweat glistening over their skin. Some of them looked sour as they stormed out of the lift, while others grinned and clutched handfuls of cred-sticks.
Nova moved with the crowd into the old lift. Her stomach jolted as they began the descent; it had always been her most hated part of the whole trip. She tried not to look over the side. The sight of the ground falling away below and being dangled in this cage of death by a single cable was too much. She preferred to lock her eyes on the roof and pretend that she was anywhere else. If it weren't so many floors she would just use the stairs, but by the time she made it down, the night would be over.
The lift bumped to a stop and the rickety door flew open. Nova followed her fellow lift travellers out into the bigger throng. The lift landed at the back of an upper level, but it wouldn't take long for her to get to the front. The rows of seats sloped forwards, hundreds and hundreds of them. People either stood or sat on their chairs, cheering and looking down into the arena far below.
From this far away the fighters were small toys. The nuances and subtle battle stances were lost, replaced by the bold-faced attacks. The sudden punch to the jaw or the kick to the abdomen was what this crowd craved. Their shouts and cries rocked over the stadium as they bellowed for blood.
Nova shut her ears to the yelling and pushed her way through the crowd. The press of bodies got thicker as she moved closer to the front. She thrust her elbows into the sides of those she was trying to pass and they moved away. A few curses followed her progress, but before anyone could respond she was already gone, moving on.
She fought all the way to the front of the upper level. The two fighters were in their third round. The one in blue was in bad shape, stumbling on the sand and barely keeping his fists up at his chest. The other one, with orange tinted armour, was ten times more ready for the fight.
Nova had to grin; she'd recognise that armour anywhere. It had to be Honey. She was a middle-aged woman who made her entire living on the fights. When she and Nova had first met, Honey had looked at Nova with scorn. A week later when Nova proved her worth, Honey became her staunchest ally. Honey took Nova under her wing and protected her from the worst of the mean streets. Here she was, still kicking arse.
The blue fighter stumbled forward and lifted his right fist in a feeble attempt at punching Honey's cheek. The figure in orange didn't wait. She blocked the slow arm and tapped it to the side, swinging her own fist with full force at her opponent's face. The blue fighter's armour crunched under the blow and he flew across the arena to land in a crumpled heap. He would not be making it to round four.
In the break between fights Nova took the opportunity to push down into the lower level and then fight her way to the changing room. This front area wasn't as packed as the top section. The people who sat here wanted to see every single drop of blood as it flew from the fighters' faces. These were the people who secretly hoped that a brawl like the 2154 championship would break out and they'd be showered with intestines.
"Whoa, I think that's far enough for you, little miss," said a deep voice. A thick hand landed on Nova's arm.
She glanced at the hand and then up at the person it belonged to, ready to tear their face from their head.
"Nova? Nova Tabryn? Is that actually you?"
The thick hand slid away and Nova was left looking at a square-headed man with his mouth hanging open. He wore black just like the security men upstairs and stood blocking the small tunnel that led to Honey's dressing room.
"Lucas! Surprise!" Nova said.
Lucas took a few seconds to regain his composure. When sense finally returned, he grabbed Nova in a massive bear hug and pulled her close to his chest. He smelled of the cigarettes he was always smoking, and sweat from the hot underground bunker.
"I can't believe you're back. What the hell are you doing here?" Lucas asked, grinning.
Nova didn't want to get into details. "Just catching up with old friends."
"Well then come here, friend," Lucas said, pulling her in for another hug. "And I suppose you'll be wanting to see Honey?"
"Well then, be my guest," Lucas said, stepping back and holding out his hand to welcome Nova down the corridor. "I bet she'll be even happier to see you than I am. Just wait until Silver hears about this!"
Nova smiled at him and sauntered down the corridor. She'd made this walk countless times, although usually strapped into her fighting gear. The high ceiling and wide walls were built for the large fighting mechs. She shook her head at all the memories. The first time she'd been to the Tabryn Battledrome, or The Pits as it was more commonly known, she was still a child. She'd followed one of Roxanne's clients after he left the house.
The client had walked through the backstreets of Tabryn before eventually reaching the non-descript door. He'd done the secret knock and disappeared inside. Without knowing what she'd find, Nova had done the same thing. The two security guards barely raised an eyebrow at the young girl finding her way into their midst.
It had been George who'd discovered her. She was hiding behind a chair, watching the people drink and swear. It was just like being back at home really. He'd seen her sneaking around and assumed she was a thief out to fleece his customers. His hands had clamped around the collar of her shirt and she'd lost all the blood from her face.
"What do you think you're doing you little thief?" George demanded.
"I'm not a thief! I was just watching."
"Ha! If I had a credit for every time someone said that I'd be a very rich man."
"Get off me, you stinky barman! I'm telling the truth. I came here accidentally. I live with Roxanne."
George had taken her words completely the wrong way. "You work for Roxanne? That's just sick. I thought she had a better sense of decency than that!"
George's face flushed red and his nostrils flared. He stormed to the communicator set into the far wall. He gripped Nova's collar and dragged her through the bar with him.
"What's your name?" he asked.
"N-Nova," she said, arms flailing.
"Right," George said, still gripping her shirt. He held the communicator up to his ear. "Roxanne? Yeah. Are you missing a runt?"
George listened for a few moments.
"Says her name's Nova. Yep. Yep. You bet." George dropped the communicator. "Well, it sounds like you're going to be in a world of trouble when you get back home. I would suggest you go straight there quick as you can. Roxanne's got a temper and I'm sure you're about to hear all about it."
George released his hold on her and Nova bobbed her head. She waited only a second before turning and running for the door. She sprinted all the way home and straight into Roxanne's punishment. A flurry of slaps put Nova straight, although not enough to stop her visiting The Pits whenever she could.
"Well I'll be damned if it isn't Knock 'em Dead Nova," Honey said as Nova pushed through the metal doors into the changing room.
Honey looked older than Nova remembered. Deep lines now gouged her face and her hair was speckled with grey. Sweat poured down her red face as she pulled off the hunks of metal covering her arms. Her helmet sat on the bench beside her. The sparse room held just a few lockers and the bench; no room for luxuries in a place like this.
"Wow, haven't heard that in a long time," Nova remarked with a grin.
"I've been wondering when you'd crawl back to the circuit," Honey said, slipping her foot out of the metal casing.
Honey's nose bent to the right where it had been badly broken years before, and scars ran across most of her skin. A fresh bruise turned her left temple purple.
"I see you're still street fighting?" Nova said, nodding at the bruise.
"What can I say? The pay's good and they're a bunch of wimps. But who cares about that. Let's talk about the real news: you coming back into the ring." Honey grinned at Nova, ignoring the beads of sweat that rolled down her face.
"Oh no, I'm not returning to the circuit. I'm just here to say hello."
"Ha! Ten credits say you fight tonight," Honey said. She slapped her hand down on the bench beside her.
"You're on," Nova said. She swiped her hand across her forehead, she'd forgotten how warm the changing room could get.
"Good, that'll buy my victory beer because I already hear Silver coming down the corridor and there is no way he'll let you leave without putting your suit on."
"He can't make me—" Nova paused. Now she could hear it too; excited voices approaching down the corridor. They got louder until the door burst open and three familiar faces rushed in.
"Nova! I'm so glad to have you back! You just tell me where your suit is and I'll have the boys bring it down," Silver said.
His stomach hung over the top of his pants and he wore a leather jacket which Nova knew from experience had many hidden pockets. His eyes were wide as he looked at her and a grin split his face. Two younger men, Hank and Pete, stood on either side of Silver. They had been children the last time Nova was here. They had filled out a lot since then, but they couldn't hide their boyish grins.
"Hold your horses, Silver; I'm not here to fight. I'm just saying hello to some old friends."
"I don't understand," Silver said, his face falling. He held his hands out in front of him, the very image of disappointment.
"I don't do that anymore," she said.
"That's two shocks in one day," Honey said, shaking her head. "Never thought I'd hear the day when the undefeatable Nova wouldn't give it a shot."
"You're right Honey, I think she's gone soft living up there with the rich folks," Silver said with a smirk.
"Rich folks? I live with bounty hunters. They're worse off than you are," Nova said with a chuckle.
"Still though, you've changed. What happened to hitting 'em where it hurts just for the fun of it?"
Nova held up her hands. "I haven't fought in ages. I have no idea what condition my suit is in, and I didn't come down here prepared."
"Excuses, excuses. It looks like I'm going to have to find someone else to be a kickass role model for the kids; can't have them going soft. Isn't that right, Hank?" Silver said, glancing over his shoulder at the younger boy.
Hank grinned and looked up at Nova. He used to help her with her armour. She taught him a thing or two about mech fighting, but he was under Silver's pay now. "You're right, even just listening to her I think I'm about ready to quit The Pits and start dress-making."
"Oh, I see how things are," Nova said. "You can try all you like, but I'm not going into The Pits. Not today."
"Really? Even if I offered you two hundred credits?" Silver said. "There are a lot of locals here tonight who would bet big on the home favourite."
"Two hundred credits isn't even one percent of what you'd make from those bets," Nova said.
"More than I'm getting paid," Honey said as she pulled the last of her armour off and added it to the pile at her feet.
"I'm already on a job," Nova said. "And it pays more than two hundred credits."
Silver smiled and looked up at Nova out of the corner of his eye. "Would it change your mind if I told you the next fighter is Tate?"
"Tate?" Nova's eyes widened and she whipped her head around to stare at Silver.
"Yep," he replied, still smiling.
"What the hell is he still doing here? Shouldn't he have died by now?"
"Probably," Silver said with a shrug, "But he hasn't. He's still here and still kicking some serious mech-arse."
"He's a cheat!" Nova said, her mouth hanging open. "You know as well as I do that he wins half his fights by playing dirty."
"What do you want me to do?" Silver said. "The Pits aren't exactly legal themselves. Should I call the local law enforcements down to arrest him?"
Nova frowned. Tate was a dirty fighter. He packed his mech suits full of contraband weapons; poisonous gas canisters and the like. They went against the very nature of The Pits, but no one had ever proved it and so he kept on winning.
One year, Nova had prepared to beat him down and reveal his hidden weapons, but he snuck into her house the night before and tampered with her suit. The next day when she stepped into the arena, a massive electrical shock rocked through her body and she was sent to the medics. It took weeks for her to recover from that and by then, Tate had moved on to other arenas.
Now he was back.
"Ah I see you haven't forgotten him," Silver said, watching her closely.
"Well, he's about to go up against one of the back-listers, a new guy. There's a lot of money riding on Tate. Let's say the new guy hurt his leg and you stepped in. That could be very profitable for certain people," Silver said.
"Certain people like you?" she asked.
"And you, I'm willing to offer three hundred credits."
"I'd put money on that fight," Honey said.
"Five hundred," Nova said.
"That's outrageous!" Silver cried.
"You said yourself there's a lot of money riding on Tate. If I win you'll make a fortune. You can spare five hundred. And I'm allowed to place a bet."
"You know I don't let fighters bet against themselves," Silver said.
"Oh no. I want to place it on me."
"Of course!" he said. "How about five hundred credits?"
"Perfect," Nova said with a grin. "My suit is up in my ship, usual parking spot."
Silver nodded to Hank who turned and hurried out of the changing rooms, back into the stadium.
"Welcome back," Silver said with a grin, his hands held wide.
"Just make sure Tate doesn't know it's me until he steps into that arena," Nova said.
"Of course. I think you were the only one he was ever scared of. I'm looking forward to watching him crap himself."
Silver turned and walked away from the changing room. He rubbed his hands together, a wide smile plastered over his face.
Nova nodded once. She hadn't come down here for this, but she couldn't let Tate just walk away. She owed him one and she'd be damned if she was going to let the opportunity fly by.
"So… When do I get that tenner?" Honey said, wiggling her eyebrows.
"Here," Nova said, tossing a handful of coins in Honey's direction. The older woman caught them and stuffed them into her deep pockets.
"You better know that I'm putting them all on you to win. So you'd better win, dammit."
"Oh if I don't, you have permission to bury me and steal my ship," Nova said.
Honey nodded and sauntered out of the changing room. For the moment Nova was left alone with her thoughts. It had turned out to be a very peculiar night. But still, revenge was a dish best served now.
Cal tightened the last strap on Nova's arm and hovered around to check her helmet. His tiny metal arms dinged against the bigger metal monstrosity that covered Nova from head to foot. Only her face was visible and that would soon be covered by the retractable shield. She winked at Cal as he hovered in front of her face.
"I told you it wasn't a good idea," Cal said.
"It'll be fine. Besides, it's money that we need."
"Yeah," Cal said, noncommittal. "You're ready to go."
"Alright. Let's do this."
She punched her fist into the green button at her shoulder and the shield slid up over her head to cover her face. Her vision wasn't affected by the shield but to the external observer it was an opaque silver-green.
She stomped down the long corridor towards The Pit. The yells of the crowd got louder as she approached even though the sound was muffled by her helmet. They thought she was some new-comer and were probably ready for blood. A few of the locals who had been attending The Pits for years might recognise her suit, but that was unlikely.
Her boots clunked on the gravel floor and already she could feel the heat inside the metal casing. It was like wearing a second, unbreathable piece of skin. The only air came through a grate near her mouth and it filled with smoke and haze. Nova's eyes watered and sweat dribbled down her face. Memories flooded back. It had been a long time since her last mech fight and damn how she had missed it!
Cal hovered in front of her. Once he was inside the square arena, he moved to the corner. Nova followed him and stood with her back to the crowd. Her eyes locked on the opposing hallway and the approaching figure. He was backlit, with only his silhouette visible. It was a great hulking thing that reflected the lights of the arena. The black suit hid everything, including his face, but there was no mistaking his arrogance, or the pretentious suit. It had to be Tate.
The gates to the changing rooms slammed shut and the clanging of metal rang around the stadium. It quietened the crowd as they waited for the fight to begin. A smaller side gate opened and a scantily clad woman strode out, holding up a piece of metal with the number one painted on it. She walked an entire lap of the arena.
Nova tensed. The fight would begin as soon as the girl walked out and the gate closed behind her. She'd be damned if she let herself be taken by surprise by Tate.
The girl paused halfway around the arena and held up her sign to the lit box where the commentator sat. She smiled and winked at the crowd.
"Ladies and gentlemen, do I have a surprise for you." The voice echoing from the speakers wasn't the usual commentator. Nova recognised Silver immediately. He'd once been a commentator in the legitimate mech fighting circuits. After seeing how overly taxed and poorly managed they were he decided to start his own. Thus The Pits were born. His voice carried out over the crowd and had every person on the edge of their seats, holding their breath to hear the surprise.
"You all know Tanker Tate."
Some of the crowd got to their feet and cheered, others booed. The majority remained silent, waiting to hear what was coming.
"But tonight he will not be fighting New-guy Nathan."
The crowd muttered amongst themselves. Tate glanced between Nova and the commentator's box. Nova couldn't see his face, but she grinned as she imagined his confused expression.
"Tonight I am very pleased to welcome back an old favourite. A girl who many of you know and love. For those of you who haven't seen her before, get ready for a real, mech fighting treat. Old friends will know her real name but for tonight please welcome back, Smasher Sam!" Silver's voice echoed around the stadium.
As he said the name a section of the crowd went wild. Smasher Sam was the pseudonym Nova had used when she used to fight in The Pits years ago. Clearly there were still many who remembered her. They jumped to their feet, cheering her name. Some of them jeered at Tate and a few others ran to the ticket boxes to place last minute bets. Many booed and hissed at her, throwing cans at the fence surrounding the arena.
Nova lifted her hand to the crowd, her signature salute, but her eyes didn't leave Tate. At her name his head whipped up and looked straight at her, and he'd taken an involuntary step backwards. Nova grinned; she had him scared. She'd waited a long time to kick the crap out of him. He knew it was her, which was the best thing. He recognised her fighter name and knew exactly what it meant.
The scantily clad woman resumed her walk around the arena and lifted the metal sign up to each section of the crowd.
"Look who came crawling back," Tate jeered, his voice muffled by his helmet.
"Only so I can watch you fall."
"Aww, c'mon, don't be like that. Hey, why don't you play nice? I'd sure like to see you on your back for me."
Nova clenched her teeth and resisted the urge to lash out. If she struck before the round started she'd be disqualified. "Over my dead body."
"Perhaps," Tate said.
The woman with the sign made it full circle and stepped out of the arena. The wire gate snapped shut behind her and the fight was on.
As Nova predicted, Tate ran straight for her. He sprinted across the arena, careening like a boulder across the dirt floor. He tucked his head low as if he meant to head-butt her to the fence and he growled as he approached.
Nova held her ground for as long as she could. She pulled back her fist, as if aiming a punch, and at the last minute stepped to the side. Tate's weight carried him forward. As he shot past, Nova turned and slammed her elbow down into his back. Their metal suits clanged against one another. The force sent a jolt up Nova's arm that made it tingle. She'd forgotten what it was like to be encased in a metal suit; she was protected but so was he.
Tate whirled to face her and without warning he rained fists down on her head. He beat at her with all of his strength, smashing left and right.
Nova held up her metal arms and his blows bounced back. Each hit sent another shock vibrating through Nova's arms until she was sure they were going to fall right off. A tightness formed in her stomach; she couldn't remember the last time she'd checked the connections in her suit, and a cold sweat broke out at the thought that it could all fall apart.
She shook her head, she couldn't think about that now. She turned her focus back to the fight. At the moment, she wasn't doing anything but defending as Tate hit her again and again. No fight was ever won just by blocking. Nova let three more punches land before she leant backwards and swung her right foot through the air in a roundhouse kick.
Her leg smashed into Tate's side and sent him stumbling. The metal suits weren't made for moving sideways, the vision was limited and the balance wrong. Tate faltered until finally regaining his balance. By then Nova was on him.
She rained down punches of her own. Instead of letting him block the hits, she changed her angles, aiming for his head, then his stomach, his crutch, then back to his head again. The onslaught had Tate peddling backwards. He tried to get around, to lash out with his own arms, but it did no good. Nova was too quick. She blocked every blow and still had time left to attack him.
Tate's back slammed into the fence and it rattled. The crowd behind him went wild. Some threw bottles at the arena, and they shattered, sending pieces of glass in all directions. The bright specks caught the arena lights and cast rainbows on the violent scene.
With Tate backed into a corner, Nova had the advantage. She slammed her knees up into his ribcage. The metal suits would protect him from some of the force but the constant hits would hurt him bad, possibly break a few of his ribs if she aimed them right.
Nova had victory in her grasp. There was no way Tate could get himself out of the corner. Mech fighting had come back as easily as walking to Nova. She slipped straight in and overpowered her opponent as easily as she had when she was fighting every day. Inside her suit she grinned; Tate was finally getting what he deserved.
Pain stabbed up Nova's side. She grunted and her forward attack failed. She reached down to the source of pain but her metal hands stopped her from reaching it. She looked down, trying to see over her own armour to her side. Pain shot up into her chest.
While she was looking away, Tate lifted his right fist and slammed it into the side of Nova's head. The blow sent her flying across the gravel arena. Her head snapped to the side and her body crashed to the ground. She wanted to get up but the pain in her side made her cringe; she could barely move. The best she could do was curl into a small ball, hoping to minimise Tate's attack.
She groaned. Tate ran straight for her. His foot lifted off the ground, swung down and smashed into her stomach. Nova's organs clenched and vomit rose to the back of her throat. Pain surged through every inch of her body. Her side boiled with agony and yet she had no idea why.
This was it.
Tate prepared to smash her face in. He wouldn't show any mercy, and she'd be dragged out of The Pits in a body bag. She wouldn't be the first one, and the only way to avoid it was to get to her feet, to stand. She tried with all her might to push herself up but her muscles refused to respond. Every ounce of energy she had was consumed by just staying conscious through the haze of pain.
"End Round One," Silver's voice boomed over the speakers.
"Lucky you got friends up top," Tate said, nodding to the commentator's box.
From her position on the floor, Tate looked huge. He towered over her and his massive helmet blocked out most of her vision.
"Look at that. You did roll onto your back for me," he said. "If I were you, I'd bow out now. You won't survive round two."
He stomped away from Nova to his own corner of the arena.
Nova was instantly surrounded by people. Cal hovered near her head, talking, but she couldn't understand a word he said. Her vision and hearing were cloudy, foggy and unreadable. Silver ran into the arena and stood in front of her. At first he looked mad and was yelling. Nova couldn't make out his words. After a few moments his face fell and he pointed at Nova's side.
She tried to look down, see what he was pointing at and what was causing her such agony but the helmet made it impossible. At Silver's gestures the crowd around Nova changed, their mood darkened and the voices became quieter. Jonas was there. He was so old he was practically ancient. Apparently he'd once been a vet in the inner galaxies. No one knew why he wasn't still there but it was qualification enough to be a medic in The Pits.
A flicker of Nova's consciousness wondered what Jonas was doing by her side. He should be worrying about Tate; he was the one that was going down.
She continued these delusions, until she dropped into unconsciousness and the world went black.
"Nova? Nova? Come back to me girl," Jonas said.
Nova's eyes flickered open at the sound of his voice. Her back rested against the arena fence and a bright light burned over her head. Her abdomen ached like death itself. Jonas stood next to her; his beard rough and his clothes dirty, just as she remembered.
"Hey, Jonas, what's up?" she whispered through the pain.
Her mind sifted through her memories. What had happened? She'd visited Roxanne, then she'd come here to ask questions. She'd met Honey and then…… Then she'd been in the arena against Tate! She was winning, but something had happened. There was something she was supposed to remember. Something important.
"He stabbed me!" Nova shouted. She tried to sit up, but the pain in her stomach forced her to wince and lean back.
"You see? Now we have proof," Lucas said, stepping into Nova's field of view.
"Lucas, you know I can't do anything on the word of some pain-addled fighter," Silver replied.
"She's not just some pain-addled fighter. This is Nova. She was going to kick the crap out of him and he turned cheat, just like he always does."
Nova listened to the exchange. She wanted to yell out, to tell them that Lucas was right, that Tate was a cheat, and a liar, and not fit to fight in these circles. But she couldn't. Every breath was agony as the skin around her stab wound stretched and pulled. She tentatively reached her hand down and patted her side. Just under her ribs was a layer of bandages.
She winced at a new surge of pain and squeezed her eyes shut.
"We've never been able to catch him before and it's the same now. No matter how hard we search him, the weapons never show up. I can't kick him out without a good reason," Silver said.
"Yes, you damn can! It's your place," Lucas replied angrily.
"'I'd lose half my customers doing that. They like him because he's a sure win. I can't kick him out without evidence."
"That's bullshit," Lucas said.
"I agree with that," George said from outside of Nova's vision.
"Could you fit her suit Honey?" Silver asked.
"I don't think so boss, she's too short," Honey replied.
Nova's brows drew together. She tried to put the pieces back together. Tate had stabbed her, but there was no way to prove it. And then, Honey… Honey was going to…
"No!" Nova said. This time she did manage to sit up although she swayed. Jonas placed a hand on her shoulder to keep her steady.
They crowded around her, blocking her view of the far corner where Tate was sure to be.
"Glad to see you're awake girl," said George, his mouth lifting.
"She can't go out there," Nova said sluggishly.
"Neither can you," Silver said. "And I've got at least three more rounds to fill if I'm going to stop a full riot."
"I can do it," Nova said.
Cal hovered over to her and his internal systems scanned her eyes and then the rest of her body. His processors beeped, but he didn't say anything.
"I don't think so," Jonas said, putting more pressure on her shoulder in an attempt to make her lie down. "You nearly died on me back there. You've lost way too much blood for this nonsense."
"So get me some synthetic," Nova said. "I know you've got stacks of it down here."
"Nova, I'm sorry I pushed you into a fight, but you really shouldn't do this. Tate's not going to go easy just because you're hurt. He'll try to kill you," Silver said, rubbing his forehead.
"You're forgetting that I also have a bet on this match," Nova said. The effort of staying upright and talking was making her head swim. She took three deep breaths to settle herself.
"Screw it; you can still have your five hundred," Silver said. "Just promise not to sue me for damages over this." He gestured to her stomach with a weak smile.
"I have to take him down," Nova said. "If I can just prove that he's cheating, then everything will be fixed."
"It's not as easy as that," Silver said. "I've been trying to pin him for years."
"Yes, but you didn't have me."
"Look, my girl. You don't have anything to prove. We know you're a bad arse and you would have won that fight if that bastard hadn't cheated," said George. "Don't hurt yourself more just for an ego boost."
"It's not just my ego. He has to learn and it's my lesson to teach," Nova said stubbornly.
At that second Nova caught sight of Tate through the press of bodies surrounding her. His visor was up and he sneered at her across the arena. An icy cold settled over her racing heart and a sudden calm spread through her. She clenched her teeth.
"Patch it up," she said.
"You can't be serious," Jonas said.
"I said, patch it."
Jonas glanced at Silver who sighed and threw his hands into the air. "Do it."
Jonas pulled a canister from his medical kit and sprayed it through the gaping hole in Nova's mech suit. The sudden pressure sent a new wave of agony through her and stars danced across her vision. She blinked hard and locked her gaze on Tate. So long as he was sneering, she'd stand and fight.
"Here," George said after Jonas had finished. He held a metal panel over Nova's damaged side.
Cal hovered closer and extended the welder from his central panel. With great care he attached the spare panel over Nova's wound.
"Is it sewn up tight Doc?" Nova asked, wrenching her eyes away from Tate.
"Good as I could get it," he said.
"Good," she said. "Get me a bag of blood, A neg. How long have I got before it's a forfeit?"
"The crew still have to come out for a dance, you've got time," said Silver.
Nova nodded. She breathed in shallow gasps to reduce the pain.
"Here," Cal said, holding out a square of Parapem. Nova took it with a nod.
Jonas ran off to find the blood and Nova stayed sitting, trying to collect herself.
"Damn your stubbornness," George said.
Nova shrugged and smiled. "I learnt from some of the best."
"Let her go, George. If she wants to throw her life away then let her, we've all got to go some time," Honey said.
"Oh, I'm not worried about her. I was speaking on behalf of Tate. He's a dead man walking, you know," George said with a smile.
"That bastard did a number on your suit, Nova," Honey said.
"Ten credits say he's going to go for that place again."
"I'd agree with you there."
"Here we are," said Jonas holding up a bag of synthetic blood as he walked back into the arena. He went to Nova and inserted a needle into her arm. He attached the drip and held the bag up high.
Nova grimaced as the needle sunk in and looked away. The sting persisted up her arm, joining the rest of the pain that coursed through her body.
It took a while, but eventually the blood bag was empty and Nova felt much better. Jonas pulled out the needle and Nova stood. Bright lights flashed in front of her vision and she wobbled, arms spinning for support.
Honey grabbed hold of her shoulders and held her steady while Nova leant forward, resting her hands on her knees. Her crunched side burst with new pain, but she couldn't risk passing out, so she waited until the stars cleared.
"One last time. Are you sure you want to do this?" George asked, placing a hand on her shoulder.
"You bet," Nova replied.
"Okay. Give 'em hell, girl."
Nova nodded at each of her friends and pushed down the green button on her collar. The helmet slid into place and the others hurried out of the arena.
The dance crew was out in full force. They were very attractive men and women who had had multiple modifications, their bodies carved and shaped to exactly match the perception of beauty for this month. When the fashions changed next month they would no doubt go and get new mods and upgrades to keep up.
The crew jumped over each other and spun through the air, performing summersaults and backflips in quick succession. They danced to an upbeat song which was almost contagious. Even Nova in her near-dead state and encased in metal, felt the need to move her head in time to the music.
The song came to its end and the crew jumped up over one another to create a towering human pyramid. The crowd went wild, cheering and stomping their feet. The crew smiled and layer by layer came down from the pyramid and left the arena. Nova nodded at them as they walked past, whether they had bided time for her of their own accord or because of Silver's instructions, she didn't care, they'd done her a favour.
"Give it up again for The Pit's Crew!" Silver said from the speakers. The crowd cheered, but a lot of their attention was now focused on the two fighters.
"I apologise for some technical difficulties but these have been resolved and we can return to the main attraction. Here they are, ready for round two: Tanker Tate and Smasher Sam."
The crowd erupted. Nova stepped into the arena. Tate did the same on the other side. As before the scantily clad woman stepped into the ring and walked around the edge, holding a metal plate with the number two printed on it.
"How's your side?" Tate asked.
"You know blades are forbidden in this arena right?" Nova said.
"Wasn't my blade girl. I guess your cheap-arse armour must have broken or something."
"That's a good story, you should stick to it." Nova spared a glance for the girl; she was halfway around, still some time. "Rest assured, you are a dead man."
"Hmm, I don't feel very dead," Tate replied, his tone mocking.
Nova didn't respond. The gate clanged shut and she lunged, catching Tate by surprise. Her metal body slammed into his and they both fell to the ground.
She didn't stop for breath, pounding into Tate with all of her force. It only took three hits before she was exhausted. Her muscles ached, her vision was hazy, and the world started closing in on her.
Tate pushed her off and they both struggled to their feet. She couldn't let up now. Ignoring the stars in her vision she rushed forward, arms swinging, until he was against the fence. She refused to show any weakness, even when her whole vision blacked out.
"Oh girly, didn't you learn from last time?"
Nova smiled inside of her helmet.
Tate swung his right arm up and a blade shot out of a slot on his forearm. It shone red with blood and bits of flesh dangled from the serrated edge. As Tate swung his blade up towards her ribs, she turned to her side so that her back was against the fence next to his.
The blade sailed up through the air, missing her entirely. She was ready for it and lashed out, slamming her fist into the thin blade so that it snapped clean off.
The crowd watched as it sailed through the air and clattered to the gravel arena. Everything went silent. Many in The Pits knew that Tate cheated, but to have actual proof was something else entirely. The knife slid a few feet across the ground and came to rest.
Unlike the rest of the arena, Tate and Nova didn't stop. As soon as the blade snapped, Tate smashed a button on his other arm and revealed a second knife. He slashed at Nova, aiming for her injured side and forcing her to move and twist. The motions pulled the stitches in her wound and she felt her skin pull apart. Blood seeped out between the gaps.
She watched the knife wave in front of her face and then stomped forward. The sudden movement put her inside Tate's reach but the knife was on the wrong side. He tried to turn it around to stab Nova's back, but she was too fast. She slammed her open palm up into his head. Her metal casing smashed into his green face shield and a crack ripped up the centre.
With her other hand, Nova lashed out at Tate's shoulder. She aimed straight at his pressure point and with the force of her blow his arm went limp. Nova lifted up her right leg and kicked out with full force. Her foot collided into Tate's stomach and he flew backwards, crumpling to the ground near his broken blade.
Nova smiled, even though her abdomen hurt more than anything she could imagine and she felt as if she was going to pass out at any moment. Tate was down and they had proof of his cheating. She grinned and waved up at the crowd, her breath coming hard and fast. Her ears were filled with the sound of cheering.
"Ladies and gentlemen, it looks like we have a winner. And what a win it was too! The champion is Smasher Sam. Make sure you show her your appreciation, she's an off-world visitor and we want her to come back," Silver said.
The crowd cheered.
"On a more serious note, I think it's safe to say that after tonight Tanker Tate will not be fighting in The Pits again. We may evade the law ladies and gentlemen, but we have our own honour code and I think it's pretty clear that Tate's been spitting in the face of that for quite some time."
Most of the crowd cheered. There were a few boos and hisses, but they were drowned out by the rest. Some of Tate's staunchest supporters slunk out of the stadium. Nova grinned at their retreating backs. Let them cower.
She stood in the centre of the arena, while workers dragged Tate's body off to the side. They pulled him and his metal suit from the arena through the gravel, leaving a trail of blood in his wake. He was still conscious, but only barely. Nova's kick had been a good one, and he'd landed with a deep thud. Probably his head had smashed against his helmet. He wouldn't be the first one to be felled by his own suit.
Nova nodded up at the crowd for a few more moments and then disappeared up the corridor to her own changing room. She managed to walk upright until she was inside the tunnel at which point she crumpled to the floor with a groan.
She tried to breath, but it was too painful, each gasp cutting into her side like a hot iron. She rolled her head to the side and saw her friends running at her down the tunnel, silhouetted by the bright lights of the arena.
She sunk in and out of consciousness, barely aware of her surroundings. Her friend's faces came and went, but Cal hovered above her throughout. She tried to talk, but her words died in her throat with new waves of agony.
It felt like days before she stabilised enough to stay conscious, although according to Cal it was only a few hours.
"You've used up six of my blood bags!" Silver said with mock horror. "Do you know how much that costs me?"
Nova smiled and tried to sit up higher on the make-shift bed. "I'm sure you made it back on the fight," she said, her voice rough.
"Lucky for you."
"So, will you be coming back to join us?" Honey asked, smiling.
Nova snorted. "Believe it or not, this isn't exactly appealing." She gestured to her side.
Bandages wrapped around her midsection, hiding the wound.
Despite the agony, she was glad she'd come back to The Pits, and even gladder that they'd convinced her to fight. Defeating Tate was almost worth coming to Tabryn in the first place. Even if the casino job didn't work out, she'd won a tidy profit here which made up for having to come back to the hell-hole which was Tabryn.
"You're mostly patched up," Jonas said. "You can stay here or we can take you back to your ship."
"As charming as this changing room is," Nova said, glancing at the dull walls. "I think I'd rather go back. Cal can look after me from here."
"It was good to see you, Nova," said George, echoed by the others.
Nova smiled and closed her eyes, feigning exhaustion so they wouldn't see the tears glistening at the corners of her eyes.
Nova took three days on Crusader to rest and recover from her wounds. Cal's tutting echoed throughout the ship whenever she winced or showed any sign of pain. Even so, he took the time to repair her mech suit and return it to the cupboard.
On the third day, Nova hobbled into the storage bay.
"Cal," she said. "Where's my dress?"
"Where did you leave it?"
"Here on the floor."
"Exactly," he said with a huff. "I hung it up in the cupboard."
Nova rolled her eyes as she hunted through the closet. Tears welled in her eyes and she groaned as she pulled the black dress over her head.
Another night 'blending' at the casino. She couldn't think of anything worse.
"Keep scanning those photos, and all the other images we have. I don't want to waste one second more in there than I have to."
"Confirmed," Cal said.
She nodded and strode out of the ship, her movements completely at odds with the tight black dress. She threw on her customary trench-coat as she walked through the night air. The thick material warmed her skin against the chill and hid her from prying eyes.
Once inside the casino, she stopped to look around. She nodded to a couple of guards who had become familiar to her and walked deeper inside the casino. She noted the de-emo who had dealt for her on the first night. Behind the cash counter was the woman who had all but told her to shove off.
At a far table, Nova spotted the elderly man she had sat next to on the first night and she couldn't help but smile to herself. The universe just kept spinning.
Nova took a seat to the man's right and smiled at him. "How's it going tonight?"
The man looked up at her through cloudy eyes. "Oh hello. Not so good I'm afraid." He gestured to the meagre pile of tokens sitting in front of him.
"There's always time to get it back," Nova said, waving for the young man holding the cards to deal her in.
"I don't mean to offend you, but you weren't much luck last time."
"Ah. I'm feeling much luckier tonight," Nova said as she lifted the cards up. "What's your name anyway, friend?"
"Call me Ted. Everyone else does." Ted's tone was bleak as he turned back to his own cards.
"Well, Ted, fingers crossed that tonight is your night."
Nova played, but her attention was spread out over the rest of the casino. As with the other nights she could see nothing strange or suspicious. She was so preoccupied that she barely noticed when Ted ran out of tokens.
"That's me," he said with a sigh, pushing away from the table.
Nova looked up at him with a hint of concern. "Already?"
"I told you, you're bad luck," Ted said with a smile.
"Can I give you ten to make up for it?" she asked, holding up a blue edged token. A part of her felt bad for the man. What if that had been all of his life savings?
"Thank you, pretty lady, but a wise man knows when to fold 'em." Ted grimaced and shuffled away.
Nova watched him go before turning back to her cards. As her gaze swept the room her eyes locked onto a cascade of red hair. Vicki. The woman bent over a roulette table, her breasts brushing against the surface. She batted her eyelashes at the ball jockey who flushed red and seemed utterly lost.
Nova sneered at the display and tossed her cards onto the table at the end of the hand.
Despite the pain in her side, she stalked around the card tables, searching for anything suspicious. The first table she stopped at was filled with players. These were the high-rollers. They watched the cards with intense concentration. She doubted any of these stole the money; the high-rollers respected the art of gambling almost as much as Cracos himself did.
The bets at the centre of the table grew bigger until the total was much more than Nova would earn in an entire year. Her eyes lit at the pile of tokens. She imagined what she would do if she could just win that hand. But of course, she wouldn't even try a hand at this table. The players here knew every card counting trick there was, and then some.
Nova wandered to the next table. A lone man played at this table and the de-emo dealing didn't look up as Nova stood off to the side. The man wore a black coat and torn jeans. His messy black hair hung over his face, partially shielding his stubbled face. A part of Nova was surprised that the casino had let such a scruffy man through the doors.
It was then she noticed the gold-rimmed chips. He had money. Nova narrowed her eyes. What was a man who looked like he should be in the farthest reaches of Outer Tabryn, be doing in a casino with that kind of money?
He seemed to be breaking even on most hands, so she guessed he wasn't making money off the tables.
"Cal, get me a history of this guy," Nova said under her breath.
She waited and watched as the ragged man tossed thousands of credits into the centre pool, sometimes to lose them and sometimes to win them back.
"Dustin Feders. Son of billionaire and planet founder Geron Feders." Cal's voice came through to Nova's ears.
"That's Geron Feders's son?"
Geron Feders was known through most of this galaxy, and the next, and probably the one after that. Geron had made his fortune as a young man by exploring unchartered planets. He would claim these as his own and then sell them off piece by piece to development companies. It was dangerous work, but it had paid off for him many times over.
"What's Geron's son doing here? And like that?" Nova asked, her eyes still fixed on the scruffy man.
"The specifics I don't know, but the Cloud says Dustin has always been a thrill-seeker and chose not to follow in his father's footsteps. There's not much information about him in the Cloud other than a picture and a few irrelevant facts, birthday, etcetera." Cal's drone filled Nova's ears and she shook her head.
If only she had been given the opportunities Dustin had been given! She would have become a planet founder herself. She still might if she saved up enough money. The only undiscovered planets now were many light years away and that was an expensive trip. Not to mention she'd have to cross the Confederacy's damned border.
"I doubt he would need to steal money from the casino," she said.
"Quite right. Despite their falling out, Dustin still receives a healthy sum from his father, according to the Cloud."
"I guess it's not him then," Nova said, looking away from the solitary man.
The next table sported a young woman in a dark suit. Her blonde hair cascaded over her shoulders in curls and created a stark contrast against the dark fabric. Thin stripes covered the jacket which came down to her wrists.
To either side of the woman were young men. They bent over the table and fought for position next to the woman as she continued to play, uncaring. The men wore tight-fitting black shirts and similarly tight black pants. Every strand of hair on each of their heads sat perfectly in place as they jostled amongst themselves.
Nova couldn't help but shake her head as the men fawned over the woman. It was quite a common sight in places such as the Lucky Coin. 'Hangers', Nova liked to call them. They trailed around after the wealthy and successful, hoping to be taken in, ideally married, and live out the rest of their days in luxury. Nova had had to restrain herself from striking hangers on many occasions.
She eyed the group. She dismissed the hangers immediately; while they probably needed the money, she doubted they had the collective brainpower to pull off a casino heist, let alone individually. The woman caught Nova's attention though. She sat with confidence and seemed unfazed by the men around her. She barely spoke to the dealer, but gestured to him for another card.
Nova sat at the bar and studied the woman. She had simple pearl earrings and her face was plain. Nova suspected the woman was 'all original', a rare occurrence in a place like the Lucky Coin. Her fingernails were short and her mouth remained a firm line. Nova watched the woman for nearly an hour, but in the whole time the woman did nothing to raise concern.
Nova shrugged and moved on, she would keep the woman in mind, but for now it was a dead end. Similarly, the rest of the casino had little to offer; ordinary people sat at tables and machines, but they all seemed to be doing what they were supposed to be doing: losing money and feeding the casino machine.
Nova walked around the edge of the floor to get a look at the other side. The soft green carpet bounced underfoot and she took the time to enjoy the flawless wooden decorations. Halfway around the casino, a firm hand grasped her arm and pulled her through the crowd.
She let out a yelp of surprise mixed with pain, but before she could stop herself she was dragged into a small side room. Her eyes took a few seconds to adjust to the dim lights and the smoky air. She coughed and waved her hand in front of her face. The grasping hand on her arm was gone.
She looked up; her hand already resting on her stunner. To her left was a burley security officer, obviously the one who had pulled her in. Across the room, Nova was surprised to see Cracos and Zodac, the Zine addict, whom she had accosted just a few nights ago.
Cracos sat in a large armchair with his customary cigar leaning out of the side of his mouth. The addict stood with his arms folded across his chest as he glared at Nova. Cracos's usual jovial expression was gone, his thick eyebrows drew together.
Nova's stomach sunk as she looked around the room.
"Nova," Cracos began. "Nova, Nova, Nova."
Nova expected more but Cracos stopped speaking and went back to staring at her. She shifted on her feet.
"Um… Yes?" she said. Her hand moved from her stunner to rest on her gun.
"Can you please explain to me why poor Zodac here came home to find you in his apartment?" Cracos asked. Zodac glared at her.
"You told me to investigate. That's what I was doing."
"From what I hear, you weren't so much investigating as accosting," Cracos said.
"She threatened me!" Zodac swung his arm up to point at Nova before returning it to its position across his chest. Cracos gestured for him to stay still.
"He's obviously on Zine; he will need money from somewhere. What makes you think he's not the one stealing from you?" Nova asked, incredulous that Cracos could be mad at her for investigating as he'd instructed.
"He wouldn't do it," Cracos said, shaking his head.
Nova stared with her mouth wide open. How could someone like Cracos be so foolish? Then she remembered one of Fenton's photos. Hadn't it shown Cracos naked with Zodac, before he was high on Zine.
"Look, you told me to do whatever was necessary. I was completely within my rights to question him." Nova waved her hand at Zodac.
"Breaking and entering one of my employee's homes is not within your rights," Cracos said, his voice getting louder with each word.
Nova's eyes flashed with rage and she clasped her hand around her gun.
"Don't you dare. You'll be dead before you can get it out of your belt," Cracos said. "I knew I shouldn't have hired you. Vicki warned me, but did I listen?"
"Vicki." Nova's skin went cold as she thought of the other woman whispering into Cracos's ears.
"Yes, she told me all about you."
"Everything she said to you is a lie. She's a venomous, conniving bitch and—"
"Enough!" Cracos yelled, slamming his fist onto the wooden desk. "What would make you feel compensated?" Cracos said more gently as he turned to Zodac and placed a hand on the other man's arm.
Zodac stuck out his bottom lip and pouted as he looked between Cracos and Nova. His hands shook and his lips were covered in scabs from where he had chewed at them.
"The Hole," Zodac said after a few moments.
"You're right. It's nearly show time." Cracos nodded to the large security officer and before Nova knew it, her arms were pinned behind her back. She fought with all her might but his hands were like vices about her arms. She kicked and yelled, but all she managed to achieve was to knock over one of Cracos's chairs.
She ripped her arm free and shot her elbow up at the security officer's nose. He grunted but didn't miss a beat as he grabbed hold of her arm again.
Nova yelled until a meaty hand covered her mouth, blocking all noise. She tried to bite down on the flesh, but the man behind her twisted her arm so far it felt like it might break so she released her teeth.
He half carried, half dragged her through the door and onto the casino floor, then across to the other side of the room and a broad set of double doors. The room beyond had an odd scent to it; like sweat and blood, a rowdy crowd gathered in the centre, yelling obscenities at one another.
Nova tried to look around, but her head was held tight and she could barely see over the thick fingers covering most of her face. Fingers jabbed her in the ribs, sending agony through her fresh wound, and jeers cast after her as the security officer hauled her through the crowd.
Tension crackled through the air and she knew that trouble was coming. The noise of the crowd beat at her eardrums. Then, in one quick motion, the security guard tossed her forward. She expected to be stopped by the wall of people, but she kept falling. Then, she expected to be stopped by the floor, but that didn't happen either. When her eyes finally focused she saw herself falling into the bottom of a circular cement pit.
She held her hands out to break her fall and managed to roll off to the side. Agony whipped up from her injured side and blood wept from grazes on her hands.
The crowd sneered down at her, laughing. A fat man in a blue suit spat at her, the goblet landing on her bare leg.
Bile rose in her throat as she pushed the pain out of her mind and scrambled to her feet. She spun in tight circles, searching desperately for any way out, but there were no stairs and the pit was too deep for her to jump and reach the edge.
"What are you doing?" she yelled up at the faces.
No one replied.
"Sensing distress. Is intervention required?" Cal's voice was like that of an angel in Nova's ear.
"They've trapped me! They're planning something. I need you to—"
"She's got a chip!" the man in the blue suit yelled.
"Start the interference," another voice said.
"Awaiting further command," Cal said.
"Cal, I need you to—" but the rest of Nova's message didn't reach Cal. The casino was well equipped with jamming devices. Usually, they were left off for the pleasure of the clients, but here in this room, in the Hole, anything goes.
"Dammit!" Nova said and spun in a desperate circle.
Nova stopped mid-spin when she caught the sound of screeching metal. On the other side of the Hole, two large men lowered a cyborg soldier. Nova's eyes widened with horrified realisation. The individual looked as if it had been made of two separate creatures, then stitched together. The left half was that of a man, with brown hair and a green eye that eventually fixed on Nova. He had no shirt and the muscles of his arms and shoulders glowed in the neon lights. Over his waist he wore a simple pair of jeans and a thick boot covered his left foot.
The left hand side, the man, might have been handsome if it wasn't for the right half. The right side had no hair; instead a shiny metal surface reflected the many lights. A dark orb sat in place of his right eye. His nose and mouth were gaping holes.
Where skin met metal it looked as though the two had been fused together with extreme heat. The seam continued down the bare chest, which on the right side glinted hard steel. The metal groin and leg were unclothed, the jeans crudely cut in half. Nova tried not to let her gaze linger too long on the cyborg's crotch, although a part of her wondered how that part of him had been fused.
The cyborg reached the floor of the Hole with a crunch and the crowd cheered.
"What is this?" Nova yelled up at the people. No one responded.
"Begin in five seconds," the cyborg said. His voice was an odd combination of human and computer and the lips of the man moved while the robot's features remained motionless.
"Cracos!" Nova whirled around to get a look at the man but he was nowhere to be seen. "This is madness!"
"Three, two, one," the cyborg counted down, its tone remaining consistent.
At zero Nova pulled the gun from her belt and rolled to the side. The cyborg raised its right hand and a red beam of light shot out. It hissed over Nova's head and slammed into the far wall, creating a burning hole.
Nova rolled to her feet and turned on the cyborg. The creature was fast; it had already got her back in its sights and she was forced to roll to the side again, sending new waves of pain up her side. She clenched her teeth and hoped that her stitches stayed together.
She darted towards the cyborg before she'd even finished her roll and fired at the creature. Her own gun emitted a blue flash as it sent out a deadly blast. The cyborg stepped forward and the blast made barely a dent in its metal surface.
"Shit," Nova said, running as fast as she could to the other side of the Hole. Sure enough, another beam of red shot across the arena and left a burning crater.
"Look, let's be reasonable," Nova said as she darted around the small area. "I don't want to kill you, and you don't want to kill me. Let's call it even."
"The main imperative is to survive. Only one of us can leave the Hole," the robot voice responded, much to Nova's surprise.
"No, no! I promise to lay down my weapon just as soon as you lay down yours. I've been a friend to the cyborgs, I always supported your rights," Nova said, pleading with her eyes as the creature fired at her.
The battle for cyborg equality had been going for decades; the right to marry and the right to bear children had all been hard won, and still there were many areas of the known universe that a cyborg shouldn't tread - at least not if they planned to go on living.
"It is not my decision. It is them." For just a brief second the cyborg stopped shooting at Nova and gestured to the jeering crowd.
Security guards with large guns resting on their shoulders stood at intervals around the Hole.
"Only one will live. The imperative is to survive." The creature stopped talking and started barraging Nova with red blasts of energy.
She dropped low to the ground to avoid being hit and ran, half crouched, towards the creature. She refused to think about the man before her and instead focused on the gun in her hand. She ran past red energy blasts and dodged the pieces of rubbish hurled into the ring by the onlooking crowd. She sprinted up to the human side of the creature and there she stopped.
She took one second to look into the creature's human eye. "I'm sorry," she said as her gun fired and her blue plasma bolt punched through the man's skull, through the brain and into the robot's circuits. The moment her shot went off the cyborg's arm dropped to its side and its eyes went blank. Just a few seconds later the body collapsed to the ground.
The two halves twitched, out of tandem with each other as if they were trying to get away from one another. Nova stared down at the display and nausea rolled through her. All around her the crowd roared, the noise pounding Nova's eardrums. She wanted to turn her gun on the watchers and fire until either there were no more bullets or no more people, but she held back. If she wanted to survive, she had to hold back.
She refused to look up at the crowd as they cheered. She gazed at the cyborg until it twitched its last and lay still. She then went about checking her gun and when she was satisfied all was well, she stood still, staring down at the floor of the Hole.
Her elbows and knees dribbled blood and her black dress hung in tattered rags from her hips. Dirt covered most of her body, interspersed with purple bruises, but she didn't react to the pain or the filth. She stared at the ground, unmoving.
The crowd lost interest as Nova refused to move. Their cheering died as they moved away from the Hole to find different entertainment. A grimace crossed Nova's face as she caught the scent of burning plastic from the cyborg's head. The scent of boiling flesh came next. The smells and a faint smoke hung in the air.
Rage boiled through Nova's veins, coursing through her body like rivulets of fire. Her hands clenched into fists at her side as she imagined the many ways Cracos and the onlookers would pay for what they'd done to the cyborg, and to her. Her anger choked her throat and made her breath ragged, stinging her eyes with furious tears.
"Quite a fight," the familiar voice came from above the Hole. Nova refused to look up.
"I have to say I'm surprised. Gendon has been with us for some time and never lost. Until now, of course."
Nova glared at the floor, ignoring Cracos. Whatever he wanted, she wasn't interested.
"Just shoot her!" Zodac growled.
"Now, Zodac, don't be spiteful; Nova's paid her debt."
"And what did he do?" Nova glared up at Cracos. Her shaking finger pointed at the fallen Cyborg.
Cracos smiled down at her with his bloated lips. "Freaks will not be tolerated here on Tabryn." His many chins jiggled as he laughed.
"He was just a man," she said, cursing herself for speaking to Cracos, but at the same time unable to stop.
"An animal; nothing more." Cracos's tone lost its humorous edge and he sucked hard on the cigar in his mouth.
Nova's mouth formed a hard line and she returned to glaring at the ground.
"You're free to go, Nova. Your punishment is done," Cracos said.
Nova didn't look up.
"Lower the ladder," Cracos ordered, stomping away from the Hole.
Nova heard the rope ladder fall down the Hole's wall and come to rest a foot from the ground. Only then did she lift her gaze, and only enough to see the ladder and make her way to it.
She climbed the twelve rungs with ease, as quick as a sewer rat, despite the pain coursing through her. She crested the lip of the Hole and stood to her full height. Her expression made the security guards take a step back and glance at one another.
Nova's eyes flashed with intense anger. Murder filled her mind.
"I- er- think you should leave," said the first security guard who had initially tossed her into the Pit.
The second guard nodded but said nothing, his eyes wide.
Nova had kept her gun in hand as she climbed the rope ladder. She took her time inspecting it and watching the way it reflected the casino back at her on its shiny surface.
"Er- firearms are not to be possessed within the casino," the first guard said, stepping forward as if he meant to take the weapon.
In a move too quick to follow, Nova swung the gun down and pointed it at the man's chest. "That's close enough," she said.
"Ma'am, I'm going to have to ask you to leave."
"Oh I'm going. I wouldn't stay in this cosmic craphole for another second." She glared at the men, the only ones left near the Pit. "I just want to make sure that I remember the faces of the men who let this happen."
"Look, we're just doing our jobs." The first man held up his hands. Nova's gun remained aimed at his chest.
"And what a fine job you did too," she said between clenched teeth.
"Cracos said you can leave," the second guard said.
"Hmm. I suppose I'm off then," she growled, her finger twitching against the trigger.
She turned towards the casino's main exit but not before moving the gun to the second man and pretending to shoot him, and then blowing imaginary smoke from the barrel of her gun.
She sauntered towards the main exit, followed by hundreds of stares, the very picture of cold confidence. Inside, she reeled with revulsion, guilt, and anger. A part of her wanted to take out her gun and go on a shooting spree throughout the casino. She would kill as many as she could on the way to Cracos's office. When she finally reached his door, she would burst through and fill his body with her deadly blue blasts. In her imagination, Vicki was in his office too and they would both be filled with plasma shots, until Nova was surrounded by cold, lifeless corpses.
In reality, Nova put her gun back in its holster and pushed her way through the milling crowd. Her expression was as dark as thundering storm clouds and the crowd parted before her, leaving a clear way to the exit.
Nova stormed towards Crusader and climbed aboard with a grim expression. As soon as she was past the entrance, Cal flew to her side.
The robot was piled high with medical supplies as he raced towards the ship's entrance. His tiny arms balanced bandages, skin grafts, and anti-septic in a precarious pile.
"Communication was blocked. Report injuries," Cal said. The concern in his robotic voice nearly made Nova smile, but not quite.
"Minor injuries, Cal. Liquid bandage should suffice."
Cal juggled the items he carried until the can of bandage was at the top. Nova plucked it from the pile and sprayed it onto the grazes that covered her arms and legs. The liquid was cold as it came out of the can and formed a clear layer over her wounds.
"Thanks, Cal," she said as she placed the can back onto the pile in Cal's arms.
She marched through the ship and sat in the command chair.
"Perhaps a status report would be best?" Cal asked as she stared at the air in front of her.
She didn't reply. Her mind raced with everything that had happened, but she couldn't think through the haze of anger.
"Yes, Cal, I heard you," she said, waving her hand. After a few more moments of silence she proceeded to recount the events of the last fifteen minutes, since her communication with Cal had been cut off.
The robot watched her and didn't move an inch through the entire story. Nova's voice grew hoarse as she described the cyborg and how she had had to kill it. When she finished her tale, she slumped into the chair, her shoulders bent.
"Analysis of the facts suggests this event is not tied to the casino theft," Cal said.
"No, I don't think it was. Just Zodac wanting revenge; and Vicki, of course, fanning the flames."
"What further commands do you have?" Cal asked.
Nova stared at the robot. She considered leaving Tabryn and the ridiculous casino case. A part of her hoped Cracos did get all of his money stolen; the man obviously deserved it. She opened her mouth to tell Crusader to lift off from the foul planet, but she stopped before the first syllable. Her mind turned to Vicki. That was exactly what she wanted, to scare Nova away. Nova couldn't allow that. She couldn't let Vicki win again.
Nova bit her bottom lip. She didn't give two craps about the thief now, but she would make Cracos and Vicki pay. They'd nearly killed her, and they'd tortured and killed the cyborg. There was no way Nova was going to let them get away with it.
"Start re-running footage from last night. Look for anything out of the ordinary. If someone sneezes, I want to know about it," Nova said, standing.
She shuffled to her investigation board where she now had three photos with red crosses over their faces. There was little other information on the board. What else did she have? She'd already been here many more days than she'd planned and so far all she had were dead ends. Not that that mattered much anymore; now her mission was simple. Revenge.
She reached up and, using her finger, wrote the words The Hole on the board and dragged it off to the side. It probably wasn't important, but it was definitely something she wanted to remember. Justice would come to everyone in the end.
She turned away from the board and back to her chair, where she watched four separate video feeds from different areas of the casino.
"Cal, bring me an icepack would you?" she asked as she propped her bruised legs up onto the control panel. Her black dress hung down in limp tatters about her legs.
Cal hovered away and came back within minutes with a blue cloth bag which was chill to the touch. Nova grabbed hold and placed the bag over her eye. She couldn't even remember how she'd managed to injure that part of her, but now it throbbed and her cheek was beginning to swell.
The cool bag soothed the growing pain and she let out a sigh of relief as she turned her attention to the screens. The rest of her ached, but she didn't have time for that now. She wanted to get away from this planet as soon as possible, but not before she put Cracos in his place.
As if reading her thoughts - which with the mind-chip he possibly could - Cal brought over a pile of chips and a can of soft drink and placed them on the controls. Nova smiled at him and popped open the can, before gulping down a fizzy mouthful. The bubbles made her eyes sting but the taste was good. It was exactly what she needed after the events of the day.
Sitting in her command pod with Cal, she actually started to feel better; this was her home after all.
"Camera four has sighted Cracos and Vicki," Crusader's voice filled the pod. Nova's stomach churned and all good feeling disappeared.
"Zoom in," she said. The video from camera four filled the entire screen and just off centre were Cracos and Vicki. Vicki leant against the casino wall and gazed up at Cracos with her ridiculous eyelashes. Cracos rested his hand up against the wall and bent over Vicki.
"Turn up the volume," Nova said, filled with reluctant curiosity.
The noise of the casino filled the ship's speakers. It pounded at Nova's eardrums until Crusader adjusted the input and Vicki's laugh drowned out the other sounds.
"I wish I'd been there to see it," Vicki said, tossing her red hair back as she giggled. The tips of her fingers brushed her lips as she looked up at Cracos.
"It was quite a fight. A shame my last cyborg had to go," Cracos said. He didn't look too upset as his eyes traced down Vicki's shoulders to her chest.
"Yes. Nova is known for her… brutishness," Vicki said, turning her nose up.
Nova's eyes narrowed and the corners of her mouth turned down as she stared at Vicki through the casino's camera.
"I don't think you'll be seeing her back here. She looked pretty pissed when she left," Cracos said. He turned away from Vicki to light a new cigar and inhaled deeply.
"I hope so. I can't stand working near her," Vicki said with a dramatic tone.
"How has your investigation been going?" Cracos asked, giving Vicki the courtesy of blowing the thick blue smoke out of the corner of his mouth instead of directly into her face.
"Nothing new to report. I must say your staff are strange, but none of them have taken your money." Vicki tossed her head and gazed about the casino.
Nova leant in close to the screen, eager to catch any information Vicki might let slip. The ice-bag hung loosely at Nova's side, forgotten.
"Where will you look next?" Cracos asked. His cigar smoke clouded around both of their heads.
"Look," Vicki said, pushing against his chest. "Let me do my job. You do yours." She stalked away from the casino manager.
Nova was taken aback by Vicki's response. Maybe she had already gotten everything she could from Cracos and had no need for him anymore? Vicki disappeared from the video's frame and Cracos stared after her, his mouth hanging open. He held the cigar in his ham fist where it burnt itself out.
Cracos shook himself and headed for the marble stairs and his private quarters. He looked tired and frustrated. Halfway up the stairs he stopped to look out over the floor.
"What's he seeing?" Nova asked.
The image on Crusader's screen changed to show the main floor. At the very centre three security guards held down a brown haired man of medium build.
"You know the penalty pal," a security officer said as the sound from the casino filtered through Crusader's speakers.
"Look, it was just one time. I'm sure this is unnecessary," the man said as he tried to pull away from their beefy hands. Their fingers didn't loosen from his arms.
"What's going on?" Cracos said as he reached the small group. His eyes narrowed and his hands clenched into fists. "Why are you making a scene in my casino? People come here to forget the real world!"
"Cards up his sleeves," the first security officer replied.
Cracos's eyes widened at the response. The penalties for hiding cards on Tabryn were in no way worth the small advantage a player gained. Many casinos killed offenders, which wasn't much different to what the law would do anyway.
They wrestled the man through the casino, Cracos following just behind. But the man wasn't led out of the casino, as he would have been on any other planet. They hoisted him into the adjoining room that Nova knew all too well. The Hole.
A hot flush crept up her cheeks and a rock fell through her stomach as she thought of what was to become of the man. He didn't look like the type who would survive the Hole. Not for long anyway. A part of her wanted to run into the casino, kill Cracos and his security guards, and release the man herself, but she'd be dead before the first body hit the ground. So she dug her fingernails into the armrests of her chair and stayed where she was.
Fifteen minutes later, Nova pushed herself up from the chair and stomped away from the command pod. She made a direct line for the decontamination room where she peeled off the torn black dress and tossed it with disgust into a pile on the floor. Her underwear went next, adding to the heap, until she stood naked.
"Water," she said.
Hot jets shot at her from the ceiling and walls of the chamber. She relished in the feeling of the filth of the Hole being washed from her skin. The warm streams took the grime and washed it down the drain.
"Soap," she said.
Between the water jets, new sprays emitted a foamy substance. Nova ran her fingers through her hair with the sweet scented gel. It was almost as if the bad memories of the cyborg were washed away along with the more visible dirt.
She stood in the streaming jets, leaning against the wall and letting the warm water soak into her skin and her muscles relax. Only when the skin of her fingers wrinkled into soft ridges and Cal tapped on the door to check if she was okay, did Nova open her eyes and step out of the streams of water.
"Dry off," she said.
Gusts of warm air replaced the water and brushed over her. In only a few moments, the water was gone and Nova felt more refreshed than she had for some time.
She reached into the shelves set into the side of the ship and lifted out a pair of grey pants followed by a simple black singlet. She kept her injured shoulder immobile as she pulled the top over her head.
"Yes, I'm coming!" Nova yelled through the door as Cal continued to tap and call through in his metallic voice. The knocking stopped and under her breath Nova muttered about computers and how Cal's wireless link with Crusader should have made it clear that she was fine.
She kicked her torn dress and other items into a corner of the room; Cal would deal with it later; before pressing the button to open the metal door. It slid with a hiss and she stepped into the ship's main corridor. Cal waited just outside.
"Okay. Now I'm ready for first aid," Nova said, nodding at the robot.
She led the way through the ship to her bunk and sat down with her left leg stretched out in front of her. Cal hovered to the end of the bed and pulled medical supplies from the upper cupboards. He then went to work on Nova's wounds, first her legs and then on up her body.
The cuts across Nova's body stung as he sprayed the antiseptic Second-Skin. She bit her lip and glared up at the ceiling, channelling all of her pain into plans for revenge. For some of the more severe injuries, Cal used glue to hold the separated pieces of flesh together, before spraying on the Second-Skin.
Once her legs and torso were finished Cal turned his attention to Nova's injured shoulder. Cal's projector eye flickered and moved over her shoulder, his sensor switching to X-ray and ultrasound mode.
"Image indicates mild dislocation; no breakage," Cal said.
With no more ceremony, he grabbed hold of Nova's upper body and pushed her shoulder and chest together. Her shoulder cracked as it moved back into place and she let out a small cry.
Cal scanned the area again. "Dislocation solved, recommend resting and no movement."
Nova rolled her eyes at the robot, like that was ever going to happen. Cal ignored her gesture and moved his scan to her face where her left eye was almost closed due to the swelling.
"Bruising; no fracture; no permanent damage, but temporary loss of function," Cal said.
"Yes, I know all of that. Can you fix it?"
Cal turned to his medical supplies. He pulled out what looked like a piece of cloth and with utmost delicacy he placed it over the left side of Nova's face. She furrowed but didn't move as the robot smoothed the material over her face. She winced at the slight pressure on her bruised skin.
Just as she was about to rip the material off and yell at the robot, something moved in the side of her face. She reached up to feel what had happened but Cal's small metallic clamp snapped out and stopped her.
"You mustn't interfere," he said.
"What is that thing? It feels like it's eating my face!" she said. She clenched her fist, resisting the urge to rip whatever it was off her cheek.
"It is a new product. Healseal. It's a rather simple technology, but it has its place," Cal said as he watched the progress on Nova's face.
She couldn't resist and turned to stare into the small mirror opposite her bed. The white cloth lay atop her face like a second skin. The cloth rippled and the swelling in her face went down. It was almost as if the material was somehow sucking the swelling out.
"How does it do it?" she asked in wonder.
"It induces the blood which has swollen into your face to return to the bloodstream. As I said, rather simple technology."
Cal packed up the medical supplies. "Your face will probably be fixed before you go to bed."
"Cool," Nova said. She watched with fascination until her face returned back to its normal shape and the blue-black colour was gone. Her unobstructed eye blinked back at her in the mirror.
"It has to come off now," Cal said, hovering over to peel the white cloth from Nova's skin.
"Or what?" she asked, sarcastic.
"Or it will cause all the rest of the blood to leave your face. Your skin will die, and your nose will drop off," Cal explained, matter-of-factly.
Nova's eyes went wide. "Hurry up then!"
Cal peeled the material free.
As soon as the robot moved clear, her hand rushed to her face, feeling for missing chunks of skin and squeezing her nose to make sure it was still there. She scowled at Cal as he tossed the Healseal into the waste disposal unit and hovered back to her.
"How does it feel?" Cal asked, ignoring her expression.
"Better," she said, and it did. The swelling had disappeared and the pain had faded away. "What time is it?"
"Approximately one hour until dawn," Cal replied.
"Shut everything down. I need some sleep."
Cal put the last of the medical supplies away and hovered away from Nova's bed. She lay down on the thin mattress and closed her eyes. All around her the ship powered down. The lights turned off and the noise from the engine faded away until there was just a dull hum. Only then did she fall into an exhausted sleep.
"I need a drink," Nova said, holding her head in her hands. She stared down at Crusader's controls and willed them to give her answers.
The familiar voice crackled through Crusader's speakers. Nova's head whipped up and she stared at the front screen. Aart grinned back at her.
"What the hell are you doing?" she asked.
"I heard you needed a drink and happened to be in the area," Aart said with a shrug.
"How exactly did you hear that?"
Nova was furious. She'd specifically told Aart to leave Tabryn and go back to The Jagged Maw.
"Aart requested communication half an hour ago," Cal said.
Nova whirled on the robot. "And you're only telling me now?"
"He said he'd wait until you were ready," Cal said. The tone of his voice made Nova think of the small robot shrugging with indifference.
"Next time, tell me he's listening!" Nova said through gritted teeth.
"Don't worry, Nova." Aart chuckled. "All I heard was you grumbling. So… Me. You. Drink. Where do you want to meet?"
"What are you even still doing here?" Nova turned her attention back to Aart. Her hands clenched into fists at her sides.
"Not stirring up trouble," Aart said. "When I heard you were sticking around, I figured I may as well stay nearby. You know how you always get into trouble."
Nova smacked her forehead against the metal console. The dull thudding made the frustration just a little more bearable.
"Don't be like that," Aart said. "My shout. Where do you want to go?"
"Not The Lucky Coin," she said.
"No problem. What about Traveller's Rest? It's pretty good."
"On the edge of Inner Tabryn?" Nova asked.
"That's the one."
"Fine. I'll meet you for one drink, but after that you're going back to the Maw."
"Whatever you say, Boss," Aart said. "I've got a surprise for you."
Nova groaned. "No, Aart! What is it? Don't —"
"See you in ten!" Aart said as the screen flicked off.
"I'm going to kill him," Nova said in the silence. "That's the only way. I'm going to kill him."
The Traveller's Rest was a seedy bar set in the basement of a dilapidated apartment complex on an empty street. The paint peeled off the outside and graffiti covered the stairs leading down to the bar. The only noise came from the raised voices and rowdy music floating up the stairs through the wooden door.
Nova took a deep breath and pulled her coat tighter so that it hid the gun in her belt. She'd changed into jeans and a simple black top. She'd be ready for trouble if it came along. If she knew Aart, it probably would.
She stepped down the small flight of stairs and pushed open the wooden door. It squeaked in protest, before light and noise poured over her. The atmosphere rushed through the open doorway like a river. The music had a strong rock beat that made the stairs vibrate. Smoke hung in the air and seeped up out the top of the door.
Nova slipped inside and closed the door behind her. People pressed together in the crowded bar. Most of them had drinks in hand and spoke loudly to each other. Swaying bodies made use of a small dance floor near the live band.
Nova scanned the bar-room. It wasn't hard to spot Aart. He rested against the bar and grinned at her. She rolled her eyes and stomped over to him.
"Best cheer up," he said before she could open her mouth. "I hear they chuck people out if they're wrecking the mood."
Nova couldn't help smiling. "What the hell are you doing here?" she said. "I told you to get your arse gone."
"Yeah, yeah," he said. "But I ran into some people."
"What people?" she said, eyes narrowing.
He waved his hand and suddenly the people gathered around him turned and smiled at Nova. Her face went bright red. She knew most of them from The Jagged Maw. They were some of the few people she'd call friends.
"And last but not least," Aart said, nodding to the space behind Nova.
She frowned and turned around. Tanguin stood beside her with a blue drink in hand.
"What are you doing here!" Nova said, mouth dropping.
Her cheeks and ears flushed red. She hated attention and now here she was right at the very centre of it.
"I may have mentioned that you were having a bad time of it," Tanguin said in a low voice. She smiled, but looked guilty at the same time.
"So here we are to cheer you up!" said Aart.
Nova groaned. "You guys know I don't have time for this. I'm on a job."
"We know, we know. Hell, Tyra is working the same case," Aart said, nodding to the brown haired girl with a leather jacket.
Nova groaned. "Please tell me you didn't invite Vicki."
"No," Aart said, with a smirk. "Tanguin made me promise I wouldn't. I hope you appreciate that. She would have made this place a whole lot nicer to look at."
Nova shook her head and rolled her eyes at Aart. "You're a perv. And, you owe me a drink."
Aart smiled back and waved at the bartender. Nova ordered a blue Saturn. It came in a triangular glass with ice that glowed blue and a thin layer of mist across the surface.
"Let's take a seat," she said, nodding to the tables.
The other Hunters followed her and they gathered around a large table. Nova's drink was delicious. It tasted like blueberries mixed with lemon. The zingy aftertaste made her mouth tingle.
It didn't take long before the Hunters were contributing their own uproarious conversation to the general din. With the others distracted, Nova turned to Tanguin, her heart aching.
"They put me in an arena. Made me fight. It was a cyborg," Nova said.
Tanguin's eyes widened with horror; the Un-Connected were especially sympathetic to the cyborg cause, being almost the same thing in many respects. "You didn't kill it?" she asked, her voice barely a whisper.
"I had to. It was me or him. Or both." Nova's head shook as she remembered the twitching body and the smoke wafting up out of the hole her shot had made.
"There must have been another way. How could you?"
"I had no choice!" Nova said through gritted teeth.
Tanguin turned from Nova and feigned intense interest in the far side of the bar. Her expression was unreadable, like a cold sheet of ice.
"Tanguin, please. You know I wouldn't have done it if I had another option."
"I know," Tanguin said, but didn't meet Nova's eyes.
Nova sighed and took a large gulp of her drink.
"Nova, I haven't had a chance to congratulate you on your wicked win," said Tyra, leaning across the table.
"That race was incredible," said Orion, slapping his hand on the counter and grinning.
"Kero's still furious, you know," said Tanguin, her gaze returning to Nova and softening.
"Do we really have to congratulate her?" Aart groaned. "Don't you think it'll go to her head if we keep pointing out how well she did?"
"Are you kidding?" said Orion. "Flying like that, she's allowed to have a big head."
Nova grinned. The space race had been spectacular.
"I'll assume those lecheon bastards didn't stand a chance?" said Aart.
Nova frowned and looked around, expecting to see a lecheon glaring at her from the shadows.
"Oh, as if they'd be here on Tabryn," Aart said, waving his hand. "They'd be shot before they breached atmosphere."
Nova nodded. He was probably right. Tabryn took a very dark view to the lecheon species. They were bad for business.
"How're you going with this case?" Tyra asked. Her eyes looked desperate. She'd probably had as much luck, or less, than Nova had.
"Not good," Nova responded. "Everything seems to run into dead ends. Although after the last few days, I'm not so interested in catching the thief as congratulating them."
She may be friends with these Hunters but that didn't mean she was going to give up her pay check by sharing her hard work.
Tyra rolled her eyes. "Tell me about it. I'm thinking of just heading home with this lot. Save my time and do an easier job."
"It's crossed my mind too," Nova agreed, nodding.
"And what have you been up to, Gus?" Orion asked the big man sitting on the opposite side of the table. Gus had a bald head and tattoos, and his muscles bulged out of his shirt. Nova hadn't seen him since she went to Taive and was nearly taken over by a brain-slug.
"Same old," said Gus. He took a long swallow on the thick amber liquid in his jug. "Getting money where I can. There are some good mercenary jobs going at the outers."
"That'd be just right for you!" Aart said with a grin. "I wouldn't want to mess with you. I've seen what you can do with a gun."
Gus nodded without speaking and took another drink.
Their celebrations continued for many hours. The highlight was when Aart suggested they play a game of Mars-pool. The Hunters cheered and gathered around the table.
The bar had cleared and there was now room enough to move around easily. Some of the smoke had dissipated and it was much easier to see through the hazy air. The bartender had kept their drinks full and Nova had already had four Saturn blues. She figured another one would probably knock her right out. Still, she was determined to conquer the others at pool if it was the last thing she did.
"Alright," Aart said, taking charge as usual. "Standard rules. No cheating. No happypins. No yokels. No rounders. All clear?"
"Yes sir," the rest of the Hunters said in unison and gave Aart groggy salutes.
"Alright. Then game on. Today we're competing for the ultimate reward. The winner will get the title of greatest pool champion of all bounty hunter history."
The Hunters cheered and made a circle around the table. It was a simple enough game. Each player was assigned a ball and they weren't allowed to sink any ball directly. They had to use other balls and bounce them indirectly into the pockets. The last player with their ball still on the table won. It added another layer of difficulty onto the usual game.
"So alphabetical order it is," Aart said, snatching the cue.
Nova smacked her forehead with her palm. One day she'd remember to call out a different rule before Aart took control.
"Prepare to be amazed," he said.
The other Hunters looked on. Tanguin swayed on her feet. She'd only had two Purple Blasters, but she was the lightest drunk Nova had ever seen, thanks to her Un-Connected heritage.
Gus looked the most stable of them all, even though he'd had the most to drink. His eyes glittered as he watched the table.
Aart was up to his usual tricks. He often pretended to be far drunker than he actually was and he'd hustled countless games of pool with that strategy. Usually Nova helped him, but today she had to keep focused. She'd beat him.
Orion and Tyra hung off each other, laughing hard. Their hearts weren't really in the game. They'd probably take a few shots and get disqualified; no real competition there.
Nova smiled. Games like this always made her competitive streak come right to the front.
"Here we go," said Aart.
He leant over the table and pulled the cue back. He tested the shot three times and then let fly. The white ball shot out, slammed into the cluster of balls, and sent them skittering across the table.
The nine went down. No one had the nine, so Aart took another shot. This time he set up the shot to try and get Nova's seven down. He missed and her ball sailed just to the left of the hole.
"Cosmic craphole," Aart said, handing the cue to Gus.
Gus took his time. He walked around the table and examined every possible angle. He bent over and tested different shots only to stand up and do another lap of the table.
"Oh come on, Gus," said Orion. "We'd like to get out of here sometime this century."
"Magic takes time," Gus replied.
He settled on a shot, drew back, and struck. It was perfect. The six careened into the ten which bounced off of the twelve and dropped into the pocket.
"You did that on purpose!" said Orion, his face flushing.
"You're the ten?" Gus said, innocently.
Orion scowled. "This game is rigged!"
Play continued. Nova took her turn but she was a little bit shaky and overestimated the distance. The ball went way too hard and missed her target by three inches.
"Grishnak!" she cursed.
Orion was already out so he didn't get a turn.
Tanguin was so tipsy by the time it was her shot that she accidentally sunk her own ball. She laughed and collapsed onto a nearby stool.
After just three rounds, only Aart, Gus and Nova remained. It got harder with fewer balls on the table. There was less chance for a clean hit, and fewer options. It was Nova's turn. Gus's ball sat in front of Aart's. If she got the angle just right then she should be able to sink Aart's ball. It was a hard shot though; she'd have to rebound it off the cushion. She'd done much harder shots before but this time her eyes wouldn't focus.
She forced herself to take a deep breath and steadied her hand. She pictured the straight lines on the table; how the slight tilt of the table would cause the balls to curve. She bent over and closed her left eye, drew back her arm, and let fly.
The white ball rolled across the green table. In Nova's mind it moved in slow motion. It collided with Gus's ball which also rolled in slow motion. It curved with the tilt of the table and clipped Aart's ball on the side. Aart's ball bounced away and fell into the corner pocket.
"No!" he yelled. "No!"
Nova held the stick above her head and cheered. The other Hunters joined in, applauding.
"No!" Aart said again. "You can't beat me at the space race and pool."
"Sorry," Nova said with a wicked grin. "I guess this just proves who the real champion is."
"Now, now, let's not forget that it's not over until it's over," Gus said from the other end of the table.
Nova's cheers stopped and she handed Gus the cue. She held her breath, her chest tight. Somehow in the atmosphere of the bar and with her friends, the casino job didn't matter. All that mattered was that she won this game. She would be the greatest player.
Gus's shot was difficult. There were only two balls left on the table; his and Nova's. He would have to hit his own ball and use that to sink Nova's. Neither of them were in a very good position. He'd have to pull off a miracle to make it work.
Nova held her breath. He couldn't get it. He just couldn't.
Sweat dribbled down Gus's face as he studied the table. He took a deep breath, bent over, and shot.
It was wide. The white ball went way off course, barely touching his own ball, let alone moving Nova's.
"Grishnak!" he yelled, swinging the stick at the table. He managed to pull himself short before he snapped the cue in half.
"Alright," Nova said, taking the cue.
This was it. With Gus's failed shot, hers was lined up. It would be as easy as one-two-three. She bent over the table and lined up both balls. They made a straight path for the middle pocket. It wouldn't take much. She just had to watch her power.
She took three deep breaths, pulled back, and let fly.
The white ball went straight, set to smack her ball and then collide with Gus's. It was inches from Nova's ball when a dirty hand smacked through the air and grabbed hold of it.
Nova's mouth dropped open. Who would dare take a ball off the table mid-shot?
Everyone near the table went silent. Simple bar-room etiquette had been broken, and that never ended well.
Both Nova and Gus turned to face the man responsible. He sneered at them, revealing green teeth that went well with his twice-broken nose. He tossed the ball into the air and caught it.
"What the hell?" Aart said, jumping to his feet.
The rest of the Hunters looked furious.
The man had a crew of his own. At least five people stood behind him, ready for a fight. They scoffed at Nova and the other Hunters.
"Hunters are ya?" the man at the front said, still throwing the ball into the air.
His tossing of the ball was infuriating. Nova couldn't stop her eyes from watching it rise up through the air and then fall again.
"What's it to you?" Gus said. He stepped around the table, fists clenched.
"Well, you see," said the man. "I don't much care for Hunters."
"And I don't much care for backwater, in-bred, imbeciles," Aart said, stepping forward to stand next to Gus.
"What the hell are you doing, Shane?" the bartender yelled. He glared at them over the top of his bar. The other patrons stopped and turned at the sound of his voice.
"I was just saying I don't much care for Hunters," Shane said.
"I've told you a hundred times not to cause trouble in my bar," the barkeeper warned.
"Then maybe you should stop letting riff-raff in."
Nova bristled. The bounty hunters weren't welcomed in all corners of human society but on somewhere like Tabryn she hadn't expected this.
"I mean it, Shane. Shut up or get out."
"Don't think so," he said. "Make these turds leave. This is our place."
"It's my place," said the barkeep. "And I will ban you for life."
Shane turned and scowled at the bartended. "You wouldn't dare. I bring you good business."
"It's not worth the trouble."
"We'll see," said Shane.
With no further warning he pulled back his arm and hurled the solid pool-ball at Gus. It smacked him in the head and he crumpled to the floor, unmoving. Blood poured out of his forehead.
The Hunters leaped to the attack. The drunken haze dropped like a veil and they jumped into full fighting mode. Nova considered pulling her pistol, but decided against it as that would mean that things would get really ugly. She'd save it in case things got really bad. She wasn't above killing Shane or his goons if he threatened one of her friends.
Shane's cronies jumped forward as soon as he threw the ball. They swung their beefy fists at the Hunters. Their faces twisted with malice and a thirst for blood.
Aart was at the front. Two men jumped at him at once, but he ducked out of the way and spun around. His fists flew at his attackers. He lashed out with his left leg and caught the first attacker on his knee. An audible crack went through the bar-room.
The thug collapsed with a wail.
Nova didn't have time to watch any more. A man with a gold tooth was on her. He grinned and spread his arms wide as if meaning to take her in a bear-hug.
Nova kicked, ignoring the pain that shot up her side and burst through her shoulder. Her heel caught him in the groin and he winced, stumbling back. She brought the pool stick down over her shoulders and slammed it into the man's head. The stick cracked with the force of impact. Splinters flew in all directions.
Her attacker fell to his knees as blood dribbled out of a split in his head. His eyes glazed over and he looked like he was going to fall forward onto his face.
Nova ignored him and moved to the next attacker. She wielded the pool cue like a deadly weapon. She smacked the closest thug on the arm, leaving wooden splinters bristling out of his flesh. He turned and growled at her. She whipped the stick back and bashed his legs. He lost his balance and fell to the floor.
Meanwhile, the bar-room was in an uproar. The other patrons joined the fight, some with the Hunters and some against. Others started fights of their own. Glasses shattered against the walls and alcohol pooled on the floor.
The bartender bellowed at the top of his lungs, but no one paid him any attention. It wasn't until two men tried to climb over the bar that he really got involved. They went for the expensive alcohol and the bartender leaped at them, slamming the first man's head into the bar. He collapsed instantly.
The second man stopped with one leg already on the bar.
"I wouldn't, sonny," said the bartender.
The man glanced longingly at the alcohol but took his leg off the bar and returned to the fight. He picked up a barstool and slammed it into the woman next to him. She roared in response and smacked him with a bottle of bourbon. His teeth flew out of his mouth and he crumpled to the floorboards.
Tanguin was holding her own, but not for long. She rarely spent time in the field and her combat skills were minimal. She had almost no muscles to speak of and weighed less than some children. She ducked and weaved around Shane's goon; he was getting tired, but so was she.
Tyra banged the heads of two men together like coconuts. They both looked unconscious but that didn't stop her giving them another few slams just to be sure.
For the moment, Nova was free. Shane looked less sure of himself, but he was still smiling. She wanted to beat his face in. She could do it too, she knew it. On the other hand, Tanguin looked like she was in trouble.
Nova darted around the pool table and smacked her stick onto the shoulder of the man that was targeting Tanguin. He grunted in pain and turned around. Nova smiled at him and swung the stick with full force.
He held out his forearm, blocking the blow, although the force of it made him wince. He didn't stop to look at his wound, instead going on the offensive. He grabbed hold of the pool stick and yanked it out of Nova's hands, tossing it over his shoulder where it clattered to the floor.
He lunged forward with his calloused hands outstretched. His nails were caked with mud and blood.
Nova ducked and rolled. She came to her feet out of his reach and cast around for a weapon, but there was nothing close by. She ran at the man, swinging her fist in a wide arc aimed straight at his forehead.
He was faster than he looked. He ducked out of the way and brought his fist up. He caught her in the chin and she reeled. The force of it made stars burst in her vision. She tried to blink them away but was too slow; he was on her with his hands wrapped around her throat.
"Pity I'll have to kill ya," he said. "Could have had some fun with a girl like you."
"Glad I'm dying then," Nova said through gasping breaths.
He grinned down at her with chipped and yellow teeth. Red veins stood out around his eyes. He had all the symptoms of a Zine addict.
His breath on her face smelt like rotting flesh and it made her gag. The warmth of it stuck to her face, like a wet rag.
Blood surged through Nova's veins. Her ears rang and dark splotches bounced across her vision. She drew in a ragged breath but the oxygen couldn't get past the man's clenched hands. She couldn't feel her legs and her thoughts were getting slower. Her focus thinned down to a narrow tunnel; she lost track of the bar-room and the fighting. There was just her and the man in a circle of darkness.
She used the last of her strength to struggle against him, but it was no good.
Something smashed into the man's head and he fell to the side. Blood surged into Nova's head and her vision cleared. She spluttered for air. It flowed into her lungs and brought a soothing sensation.
Tanguin stood over her holding a chair. She looked scared, but triumphant at the same time. The man lay unconscious on the floor beside Nova, his eyes rolled back in his head.
"Is he dead?" Tanguin asked, her face dropping.
Nova glanced at his moving chest. "Unfortunately not."
Tanguin helped her to her feet. Battles raged around the bar-room, but the action around the Hunters was almost over. The prone bodies of the fallen thugs surrounded them. Orion smacked out with a deadly right hook and knocked out the last of their attackers. Only Shane remained.
His smug smile was gone. He stepped away from the Hunters, glancing around. None of his cronies were left and the Hunters stood between him and the exit.
"You bastard," Gus grunted. He used the pool table to get to his feet. A massive purple lump sprouted from his forehead. He looked around at the destruction. "And I've missed most of the damn fight!"
He turned towards Shane and his lips drew back from his teeth. "You," he said, pointing at Shane's chest.
"Just leave and there won't be any trouble," Shane said. His fat face was frozen but his shaky voice betrayed him.
"You're wrong, sunshine. There's going to be a whole world of trouble."
"I'm warning you," said Shane. He tapped around behind his back. All he found was a half-burnt cigarette.
"Too late for warnings," said Gus. He pushed his sleeves higher up his arms to reveal bulging muscles. The other Hunters formed a line behind him.
Their eyes flashed with anger and they made a formidable force.
Nova filled with pride and fury in equal measure. She wanted to see Shane torn into tiny pieces, for every spec of him to be blown apart. He was obviously a trouble maker; she'd be doing the world a favour if she just got rid of him.
She'd let Gus decide what to do with him. She kept half of her mind on the rest of the bar. A few brawls were still going on, but none of them were nearby. Most of the patrons were either passed out on the floor or stumbling back to their chairs; their eyes fixed on Shane and the Hunters.
"My friends and I were just here for a drink," Gus said. "Now you've put me in a very bad mood."
"I'm not afraid of you Hunter," said Shane, his legs shaking.
"You should be," said Gus, stomping towards Shane with fists clenched and teeth bared.
"I'll buy you a drink!" Shane said. His façade finally broke and he held out his hands.
"I'm not thirsty."
Gus pulled back his fist and slammed it through the air. It cracked into Shane's temple and he sprawled to the floor.
He scrambled across the floor away from Gus like a worm, his shirt soaking up the spilled drinks and blood.
"Typical Hunter. Hit like a wimp," Shane called over his shoulder, his voice cracking.
Gus gripped hold of the back of Shane's shirt and hauled him to his feet. He spun the other man around and pounded his fist into Shane's stomach.
Shane bent over double and spat blood onto Gus's shoe.
"Is that all you've got? You ugly bastard," Shane panted.
Gus slammed his knee up and caught Shane in the face. His nose poured blood. Shane swung a limp punch, but Gus easily dodged and slammed his knee into Shane's groin.
Gus didn't stop until Shane lay unconscious on the floor, bleeding from multiple wounds. Three of his teeth adorned the floor some distance away, surrounded by a pool of blood.
"There," Gus said, turning around.
He wiped his hands on his pants and nodded at the other Hunters.
"So, Nova. A rematch?"
The Hunters leant back against tables and chairs, poised for another attack.
"I'm afraid I was forced to break the cue," she said.
"We'll call it a tie then," Gus said, shrugging his hefty shoulders.
Nova nodded. Normally, she'd be furious that her sure victory was ruined. As it was, she figured the giant welt on Gus's forehead was payment enough.
The silence of the bar-room was replaced with whispered conversation. The other patrons stopped staring, drawn back into their own conversations.
"Some fight," the barkeeper said, coming to stand beside Gus.
He folded his arms over his chest as he looked down at Shane.
"Sorry for the damage," Aart said. "But as you know, we didn't start it."
"I know you didn't," said the barman. "Still though. I'll give you each a drink on the house, then I'm going to have to ask you to leave."
"What!" roared Gus. "We didn't do a damned thing!"
The bartender held up his hands. "I know how it started. But you're all obviously fighters. You're making the rest of my customers uncomfortable."
"This is crap!" said Aart, throwing his hands in the air.
"One drink. Then you leave."
"We'll take it," Nova said. "Thank you."
The bartender nodded and walked away.
"You're just going to accept that?" said Aart, incredulous.
"You don't know what it's like here," said Nova. "If we don't leave when he tells us, he'll just call the cops. And trust me when I say they'll throw us into prison just for the fun of it. None of you are ready for that."
"Such a nice place," Orion said. "I don't know why we don't come here more often."
Nova rolled her eyes.
"Kind of explains why you're so friendly," he said, smiling at her.
Nova slumped into a nearby chair and the others did the same. The bartender came around with their drinks and they sipped in relative quiet.
"Any injuries?" Aart asked.
"Are you kidding?" Gus said, pointing to his forehead.
"Pfft. That's nothing!" said Aart. "Anyone got some real injuries?"
"Just a few scratches," said Orion.
"Yeah. I think I'll get a bruise on my arm, but they're a lot worse off," said Tyra, pointing at the prone men on the floor.
"Nova nearly died!" Tanguin said.
Nova frowned at her and Tanguin blushed.
"As if the great Nova could die," said Aart.
"It wasn't that big a deal," Nova said. "Tanguin took care of it."
"With a chair," Orion said. "I saw it all. Everyone be careful of that one, she's a lot more deadly than she looks."
Tanguin flushed a deeper red and sipped on her drink. The Hunters chuckled, drawing worried glances from the other patrons.
Nova slurped the last of her drink. "Any plans from here?"
"I think it's nearly morning," Aart said. "Any recommendations?"
"Nah," said Nova. "Besides, I have to get back on this case. I've got some unfinished business here."
"I think I have to rest my head for about a week," said Gus, prodding his forehead and wincing.
They stood and ambled from the bar. Nova heard the room erupt into conversation as the door swung shut behind them. Hunters weren't uncommon on Tabryn, but the fight had been quite extraordinary.
"Alright, back to the Maw for us," said Aart.
"Make sure you actually go there this time," Nova said. "Tanguin, I'm putting you in charge of making sure he gets there."
Tanguin groaned. "You know he never does what I say."
"Just remind him of all the times we've saved his arse. Then tell him that next time I'm going to let the slug eat his brain."
Aart scowled. "That's the last time I throw you a surprise party."
Nova smiled and put her hand to her forehead. "Thank goodness. I wouldn't want another brawl like that for quite some time, thank you very much."
"Admittedly the brawl wasn't part of the plan," conceded Aart.
"See you back at the Maw," said Gus as he and Tyra left the group for their own ship.
"Yeah. Say hi to Vicki for me," Orion said, gazing dreamily into the distance.
"In your dreams," said Nova, rolling her eyes.
"You bet," he replied. He skipped off before she could smack some sense into him.
"Thanks for coming," Nova said to Aart and Tanguin.
"Thought you could do with a laugh," said Aart.
"You have no idea. I'll be honest with you two, I was pretty much ready to quit before you showed up."
"You never quit!" said Tanguin, shocked.
Nova shrugged. "It's this place. It messes with my head."
"I don't blame you," Aart said. "It's a bitch of a place."
Nova looked around. "And this is the good area."
"Are you alright after your fight with the cyborg?" Tanguin said, frowning.
Nova nodded. "Makes me want to take out the whole casino though."
"So why help him?" said Aart. "You could just leave the job now. If it's taken you this long to solve it, I don't think anyone else will be able to. Just leave it; let Cracos keep bleeding money."
"I don't intend to help him. He's more of a criminal than whoever is taking his money. I plan to make him pay for it."
"You know," Aart said. "In lots of circles we would be considered criminals."
"I know, I know." Nova waved her hand at him. "But it fits into my own warped sense of code, okay?"
"Warped is definitely the right word."
"Wish I'd seen you mech fighting."
"You've seen my fighting before."
"Yeah but this is different. This is on your home turf. It's special."
Nova chuckled. "It was special all right. Nearly died from blood loss."
"You're better now though right?" said Tanguin.
She pulled up the side of her shirt to reveal the jagged stitches that held her skin together in a raised ridge. Fresh blood dribbled down from where she'd strained it during the fight but it looked a lot better than it had a few days ago.
"That's disgusting," Tanguin said, her face turning white.
"It hurt at the time."
"I bet," Tanguin said.
Nova let her shirt fall back into place. "Alright, you two. Leave. Go back home. Tanguin, please try and talk some sense into this maniac. He knows what about."
"Yes sir," Aart said and saluted.
He and Tanguin turned towards the shipyards and started to shamble away.
"Thank you for coming," Nova called after them.
They turned back and smiled at her. "What are friends for?" Aart yelled back.
Nova smiled and waved. They disappeared into the mass of ships. Nova turned back for Inner Tabryn and Crusader. She felt a lot better than she had on the way over. Usually, she liked to do things on her own, but there was something to be said for teamwork. She just hoped that Aart got the message and stopped his foolish ideas about defying the Confederacy.
She walked back to Crusader and collapsed onto her bed, still buzzing from her Blue Saturns. It sent a pleasant tingling all the way to her toes. She closed her eyes and drifted into sleep.
Nova woke up feeling far less joyful than she had when she went to sleep. Her head pounded with the after effects of the Blue Saturns. She couldn't believe that after all these years, alcohol still came with the same damned bad side-effects. At least now there were drugs which mostly took care of it.
She went to the food generator and typed in the code for Parapem, placed the blue square on her tongue, and waited for the magic to take effect. She slumped into her command chair.
Video footage of the casino filled Crusader's front screen. Nova scowled when she remembered the recording she'd watched the day before.
"What else is going on in that damned awful place?" she asked Crusader.
The video screen zoomed out so that there were four separate displays. Nova studied each of them in turn.
The bottom left corner showed the card tables and Nova shook her head as she saw the elderly man, Ted, playing again. She was relieved to see that he appeared to be doing better than the previous nights. Another part of her was sad to see him still wasting his time, and money, away at the casino. Of course, she could understand. On a planet like Tabryn, the man probably had no family, no one to look after, so he may as well flush his credits away on cards.
She watched the man for some time as he played hand after hand. Her eyes flicked to the other screens, but always they returned to the elderly man. His back hunched over his cards and his tattered jacket sported many holes.
Finally Ted stood and tossed a chip to the dealer who nodded before turning to the rest of the table. Ted shuffled towards the cashiers, pulling chips from various pockets until by the time he reached the woman behind the desk his hands were over-flowing.
Nova's eyebrows rose. "Hopefully that makes up for his losses all the other nights," she said, mostly to herself.
"I should think so, the elderly man usually does quite well," Cal said from his position by Nova's side.
Nova turned to the robot with a frown. "I've sat next to him at least twice, and he's lost all of his chips each time."
"You must be mistaken. He has walked out of the casino with credit every night."
Nova bit her bottom lip as she turned back and watched the elderly man push a sizeable pile of chips towards the woman behind the desk. His entire countenance had changed, the bent shoulders were now straight and he held his head high. He even appeared younger than Nova had originally thought. He joked with the woman behind the counter with calm confidence and flicked her a chip. It flipped through the air and landed on the desk in front of her. The man winked and held out his cred stick.
Nova watched with an open mouth as the numbers on the stick skyrocketed. "And he wins that much every night?"
Cal was silent for just a second as his internal systems processed video footage from the previous nights. "Yes, he has gained between ten and fifty thousand credits each night."
"Son of a bitch," Nova swore.
"I want every bit of history you can get on that man. Scour the Cloud and don't you dare leave one file unopened."
The sound of Crusader's computer kicking into full gear echoed around the command pod with a whirring, reminiscent of an old-fashioned helicopter. Nova paced about the command centre, scraping both hands through her hair.
"C'mon!" she said, twirling her hand for Crusader to begin.
"Theodore Granite. According to preliminary records, he is seventy-eight and lives in a small apartment. He has no family and few friends."
"Deeper," Nova said, waving.
"However, further analysis shows that this identity only came into existence three years ago." Crusader's curt tone suggested the computer was annoyed that Nova had interrupted. "He appears to have little in his name aside from a bank account and the apartment. Records of where he came from originally and what his real name is, cannot be found."
"Get me those bank account details."
"I'm afraid his account has a security level which my processers would take over a decade to crack."
"We don't have a decade," Nova said through clenched teeth. "Get me Tanguin."
The official file on Theodore disappeared from the screen to be replaced by Tanguin's face. Dark patches circled her eyes and her hair was bunched up on one side.
"Tanguin. I need a favour from you straight away," Nova said, leaning her hands on her chair as she stood over the controls.
"Nova? Why the hell are you calling me so early? Call back when I'm not asleep."
"Take a Parapem. This is important."
"You should have thought of that before you made me drink those Purple Blasters last night."
Nova rolled her eyes.
Tanguin patted her hair with her hand and blinked, her eyes bloodshot. "What do you want?"
"I need all the bank records for a Mister Theodore Granite."
"Gee, Nova, that sounds a little illegal," Tanguin said, yawning.
"Please, Tanguin. I'm nearly there, I'm sure of it. I can't get off this planet soon enough."
"Get on it, Delta," Tanguin said.
Silence filled both their rooms, broken only by the whirring of Delta's cooling fan.
"All known bank history recovered," Delta's voice was smoother than Crusader's, more human.
"Send it to Crusader," Tanguin instructed. A moment later the documents appeared on Crusader's monitor.
"Thank you," Nova said, locking eyes with Tanguin. The two stared at each other, their expressions saying more than words ever could.
"Be careful," Tanguin said, more awake.
Nova sighed. "You too."
Tanguin's face disappeared.
"What do the bank statements tell us?" Nova asked.
"There is a significant quantity of money. At this point in time, one million five hundred and twenty-three thousand credits. A deposit of ten thousand credits was just made."
"That would be the money he just won," Nova pondered. A part of her wished for a logical explanation, that the man was innocent and just eccentric, but in her heart she didn't believe it.
"Where does he withdraw credit?" Nova asked.
"No withdrawals," Crusader replied.
"What do you mean?"
"There have been no withdrawals."
"Before that then, where did he last take money out?"
"No money has been withdrawn from this account."
Nova's eyebrows bunched together as she stared at the statements. Crusader wasn't wrong; down the page was a line of credits made every night from the casino, but nowhere was there a sign of the credit being withdrawn.
"He must use a different account to get the chips," Nova said. "What other bank accounts did Delta find?"
"No other bank accounts found for Theodore Granite."
"Dammit!" Nova said. "He must have another name."
Her eyes moved about the command pod as her mind raced with the possibilities.
"Where is he now?" she asked.
The image flickered and showed the view from the exterior casino cameras. Ted strolled out of the casino with his ragged coat and a slight skip in his step. Nova watched him with narrowed eyes all the way down the street until his silhouette disappeared outside of the camera's frame. Only then did she turn away.
"Nothing," she said. "We still have nothing."
"We have a suspect at least," Cal piped up.
"Yes, but I wish it wasn't him."
Both Crusader and Cal were silent at that last statement and made no comment.
"I'm going back to bed."
Nova slept through the day and awoke feeling refreshed. As soon as she sat up, the lights returned to her pod and she stretched. Her body felt oddly out of sync with the rest of the world. It was getting towards night time and yet she was only just waking up. As a bounty hunter she was often running on a different time zone to the planets she visited, but she still hadn't got used to the feeling. It made her body confused and she hesitated at the food generator for some time. Should she be having breakfast or dinner?
In the end, Nova sighed in frustration and all but yelled at the food generator. "Cereal!"
The food generator complied and Nova stumbled through the ship with a bowl in her hands. After eating a few mouthfuls she felt more human; the out of step feeling receded and her hunger quieted.
"Cal!" she called. She heard banging from the store room and a little time later Cal hovered into view. "I need a tracker," she said.
Cal disappeared. Nova could have sworn she heard him grumble as he floated off. She narrowed her eyes after him, but he didn't turn around.
He returned with the tiny device held between his thin pincers. She took hold and lifted it to the light. It was about the size of her fingernail and just as thin. The technology was available to make them smaller of course, but keeping track of the tiny objects was nearly impossible.
"You'll be going back to the casino?" Cal asked.
"Let the records show I advise against it for medical reasons."
"Yes, Cal, I know. You're released from all legal obligation, etcetera, etcetera," Nova said while waving her hand.
He nodded and floated off down the ship. As he disappeared, his voice echoed off the metal walls. "I suppose you'll want a new dress?"
"Yes," Nova said. "Something I can run in." She wouldn't let herself be caught out again, this time she would be ready if Cracos tried anything.
Half an hour later, Nova disembarked from her ship in a short black dress that allowed her legs full movement. Her usual coat covered most of her body and concealed the multiple weapons she had stashed about her person. Stuck to her left hand, partially hidden beneath a ring, she carried the tracker.
She strode with her head held high past the guards; one of whom was the same man who had tossed her into the Hole. He opened his mouth as if to jeer at her, but one glance at her hard eyes as she walked past and his lips froze.
The tide of people instinctively moved out of her way. Nova ignored the sideways glances and the following eyes. She made her way directly for the card tables. Just as she'd suspected, Ted sat bent over his cards.
"We meet again," Nova said, flashing a smile at the man.
"Hello," Ted said with a wink. "I hope you're doing better than I am every night, otherwise you should really be somewhere else."
"I could say the same to you!" Nova said, her tone light. The last thing she wanted to do was put him on edge. The elderly man chuckled and shook his head as he returned to his cards.
She studied the man's clothes; they were much the same as every other night, simple and worn. He wore the same jacket as the previous night and no jewellery adorned his body that she could use to hide the tracer.
She pretended to gaze at her cards as her mind ticked over the possibilities. Then, as if on command, a drunken man stumbled over his own feet as he hobbled past. He fell onto Nova and she used the momentum to fall into Ted. She dropped the tracer from her jewelled finger into his pocket.
She let out a cry as her shoulder collided with the older man and pushed the drunkard from her. She scowled at the intoxicated man and he held up his hands in surrender. A small crowd gathered around the commotion and Nova was sure to look pointedly at the few guards who had seen the sequence of events. As if at her mental command, two of them strode to the table and clamped their hands over the drunkard's wrists, leading him to the main exit.
"Sorry," Nova said to the elderly man who had almost been knocked from his stool. She batted her eyelids and was sure to cast an angry glare at the retreating figure.
"No harm done," said Ted. He smiled back at her as he brushed some of his spilled drink from the tattered sleeve of his jacket.
"Right." Nova nodded and turned back to the game. She played a couple of hands before letting out a deep sigh.
"I don't think I can play any more of this tonight." The way she said the words one would think that having someone trip into her had been the worst thing to ever happen in her life.
"Probably a good idea. I won't be far behind," the elderly man said, nodding at Nova as she rose from her seat.
She strolled away from the table, sure to keep her pace steady. She moved her head about the room as if taking in the wonder of the casino. Really, she was looking for Cracos and his men. Nova's mind was already racing with the many ways she could pay Cracos and Vicki back.
Once out in the night air, Nova dropped her air of wonder and marched to her ship. Safe inside its metal walls, she let out a sigh of relief.
"Get that tracker online. I want to know as soon as he leaves the casino."
Nova peeled off the dress and exchanged it for a loose pair of pants and a black long-sleeved shirt. She tossed on her trench-coat and checked that her weapons were still in place. She pulled on a pair of thick boots and flicked the collar of the trench-coat up so that it covered most of her face.
"He's on the move," Cal announced as he watched Crusader's main screen.
"Wonderful," Nova said, pulling a portable tracker from its place in the ship's wall.
She waited on the inside of Crusader's door as she watched the small red dot move across the satellite image of Tabryn. The red dot moved out of the casino and paused just outside the doors. Nova tapped her foot as she watched the dot refuse to move. It stayed still so long that she felt the need to rip open the ship's door and make sure the old man was still there.
Her hand rested on the door's activator when the red dot came back to life and moved up the street. She gave it a few seconds head start before she opened the door and stepped down onto the sidewalk.
She hunched her shoulders in her large coat and hurried down the street after the red dot. The sea of people parted before her and she walked with relative ease. Every few moments she glanced down at the screen in her hand. She kept a steady pace, she didn't want to catch up to Ted but she also didn't want to let him escape.
The device clutched in her right hand picked up sound from the tracker but it was difficult to distinguish from the general sounds of the street. It wasn't until the red dot turned off the street and into an adjacent building that the noise from the device quietened.
Nova's pace slowed as she approached the building. It turned out to be a large hotel of a prestigious chain. It serviced many of the wealthier travellers, while also providing hundreds of jobs to the residents of Tabryn.
Nova stood to the side of the door, facing out towards the street as if waiting for a friend. Out of the corner of her eye, however, she watched the hotel like a hawk.
Ted did not re-emerge and so after five minutes Nova pushed herself off from the wall and marched purposefully through the glass entranceway. Inside, the hotel was nothing short of glamorous. Gold lining adorned most of the furniture, and classic pieces of art hung on the walls. Men and women in fine clothing strolled about the room, staring at Nova with scorn. She ignored their stares and instead watched the tracker. The red dot had moved to the side of the building and had stopped.
Her brows furrowed as she watched the stationary dot. She moved her eyes from the screen to the wall where Ted should have been standing. Instead, there was a set of elevators.
Nova rolled her eyes at herself, of course it looked like he was standing still; he was moving vertically. She walked to the side of the lobby and took a seat on a luscious chair. She sunk into the cushioning and couldn't prevent a small sigh of comfort.
She jumped when the voice emanated from the device in her hand. There was another voice but she couldn't make out the words, they were probably too far away from the tracker.
"About forty thousand credits," the first voice replied, no doubt that of Ted.
The second voice spoke again, this time slightly louder. Nova only caught a few of the words. "Total… People… Suspicious."
"What do you suggest?" Ted asked.
"It would be easier if you actually won a few games," the second voice said, ringing with frustration.
"Why don't you go in then?"
"You know I don't do that," said the second voice. "But it's getting too risky. I say we do one more, bigger than ever."
"I've got about one hundred thousand in chips."
"That's a lot of money," Ted said. "The casino is going to notice."
"Exactly! That's why we make this the last one; we're in and out. Then off this pathetic rock."
"I don't know if it's a good idea. I have a bad feeling."
"Don't be pathetic. They have no idea what's going on. Who would suspect the chips? They're too busy looking at the staff or examining their books."
"Okay, fine. One more, but then we get out of here," Ted said, a tremor in his voice.
The following night Nova draped her trench-coat over her shoulders, her mouth dry. She'd never deliberately gone against an employer before, but Cracos had crossed a line. She clenched her fists as she contemplated revenge. She had a weapon in every pocket in case things didn't go to plan.
"You are going against the prime directive," Cal said as Nova prepared to leave the ship.
"I know," she replied, grabbing her familiar bag.
"It is advised that you abort current mission and instead report to the paying client."
She rolled her eyes at Cal. While sometimes the robot could be unsettlingly human, other times he was nothing but robotic.
"I have to give him a chance," she said, marching out of Crusader.
The tracker had stopped transmitting not long after Nova overheard Ted's conversation the night before. It was possible that it had malfunctioned, or been exposed to heat or water. She refused to think of the other possibility; that it had been discovered. Even without the tracker she walked through the casino with sure steps, knowing exactly where to find Ted.
"Ah, if it isn't my fellow gambler," he said, as she approached.
"I know what you've done," she whispered, sitting next to him.
His brows furrowed as he looked at her. "I beg your pardon?"
"I know what you've done and I know what you plan to do," she said under her breath, pretending to study her cards.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
He fidgeted on his chair and his eyes darted around the room, his face flushing red.
She felt sorry for the man. He'd been nice to her, and on Tabryn you never knew why someone needed money. Maybe a loved one of his had been kidnapped too? Nova didn't think so. One thing she did know for sure; she didn't like Cracos and the man could probably stand to lose a few hundred thousand. Despite the bounty hunter's code, Nova felt no ethical debt towards Cracos; the man could be thrown in his own Hole for all she cared. On the other hand, Nova needed the credits and what Ted was doing was wrong.
"I don't want to turn you in. Cracos tried to have me killed, so as far as I'm concerned he can choke on a crabstick. But, I do want to get paid, and I do want revenge."
"What are you suggesting?" Ted said, a bead of sweat sliding down his forehead.
"I've got a plan. All it'll cost you is two thousand credits and a few of those special chips you've been collecting."
Ted stared at her out of the corner of his eye. "I feel like a drink."
"Me too," Nova said.
They folded their hands and walked away from the cards to a secluded table in the shadow of the bar. There, Nova explained her plan. As she spoke, the sweat disappeared from Ted's forehead and he nodded along with her.
"You can't come back here," Nova warned, once she had finished. "There are lots of Hunters on this case and it won't take them long to work it out."
"I know. I'm done with this."
Nova tucked the cred-stick into her jacket as she strode towards the main exit. Just as she reached the door a grating voice called out.
"Oh, Nova. So good to see you're still alive."
Nova glanced back to see Vicki sneering at her, wearing a low-cut red dress that matched her blood-coloured lipstick.
Nova's teeth clenched and her hands balled into fists inside her pockets. "No thanks to you."
"Oh, don't tell me you're upset about that," Vicki said, pouting and batting her shadowed eyelids.
"Why don't we settle this?" Nova said, anger boiling in her chest. "You and me, blackjack, alternate banking."
Vicki threw back her head and her red hair bounced as she laughed. "I don't think you'd be able to handle it."
Vicki shrugged. "Your money."
She turned and strutted to the private tables, her eight-inch heels shining in the neon lights. Nova stormed after her.
They sat across from one another. A new deck of cards sat to the left and Vicki snatched them up, ripping the plastic wrapping with the sharp edge of her nail. The cards were smooth and shiny as she shuffled them.
Nova plunged her hand into her pocket and drew out a fistful of chips that she dumped onto her side of the table. Vicki placed hers in neat towers and dealt the first hand.
They played without talking, barely glancing at their cards as they glared at each other across the table. Vicki's face was plastered with a condescending sneer, while Nova settled with a glower of contempt. No one tried to join them, no doubt sensing the waves of animosity pouring off the table.
They were both good, but Nova was better. As play continued the pile of tokens in front of her grew and Vicki's smile slipped.
"I guess I could handle it," Nova said as Vicki dealt another hand.
"Luck," Vicki said.
"Then let's make it interesting," Nova said. "All in, this hand."
She clutched her cards close to her chest and kept a steady gaze on Vicki. The other woman glanced at her cards and her pupils dilated.
Nova's stomach clenched. Vicki had good cards, whereas she'd been bluffing; her ten and six weren't going to do her any good.
"All in," Vicki said, her sneer returning.
Nova bit her lip, considering another card, but that would be a sure way to lose. She took a deep breath and revealed her cards.
Vicki's sneer turned triumphant as she lay down two queens. She hugged the pile of chips and pulled them to her chest, licking her lips.
"Grishnak!" Nova slammed her palm onto the table and stood up.
"I guess the best player won after all," Vicki said.
Nova didn't bother responding. She marched away from the private tables and stormed out of the casino, all the way back to Crusader. Once inside, she let her shoulders relax and a grin spread across her face.
"Did she buy it?" Cal asked.
"Hook, line, and sinker," Nova replied. "Time for phase two."
She dropped into the pilot's chair and composed her face.
"Cracos," she said.
A moment later the screen flickered and Cracos's chubby face appeared, complete with a fat cigar that hung out of the corner of his mouth.
"What the hell do you want?" he said, frowning.
"I thought you'd like to know who the thief is," she said.
Cracos pulled the cigar from his mouth and blew a puff of smoke at the camera. "Well?"
"Two thousand credits."
"If your guess comes through then you'll get paid."
Nova crossed her arms over her chest. "Vicki."
"What?" Cracos said, the cigar nearly dropping from his mouth.
"She's been using fake chips. You can search her now if you want to."
"You're lying. The chips are scanned when they're counted. Counterfeits would be spotted immediately."
"Then somebody got hold of your codes. I didn't think you'd believe me, so I took the liberty of sending one up to you. It should be on the floor outside your office."
Cracos's nostrils flared as he waved at someone off screen, who appeared moments later with a red and black chip, decorated with gold designs. Cracos ripped his top desk drawer open and pulled out a scanner that he ran over the chip. It flashed green.
"See, legitimate," he said. "I'll kill you for wasting my time."
Nova stared, unblinking, back at him.
He growled and from the same drawer withdrew a razor sharp pair of scissors. With a brutal clunk he clamped them around the chip and it fell in half, revealing red plastic. He stared with an open mouth at the broken chip.
A bead of sweat rolled down his nose as he waved someone over, and Brick's large body filled the screen. They spoke in low tones for a few moments and then Brick disappeared. Nova heard the faint sound of a door closing.
"Two thousand credits," she said.
"After the trouble you've caused me, do you really think I'm going to pay you?"
"Honestly?" Nova replied. "Not really."
Cracos frowned and sucked harder on his cigar. "Then get out of my face," he bellowed, reaching for the disconnect switch.
"I just thought you'd want to know," Nova said. "I sent a few photos of you to some people."
"What?" Cracos's frown deepened.
Nova snatched the copied images from her control board and held them up. The first showed Cracos in a very compromising position with the wife of his competitor.
Cracos's face flushed red. "What? How—"
"It's amazing what you find lying around," Nova said, flicking through the other images.
Some of them showed him negotiating deals, handling drugs, handling people, and all of them would make him a target.
"You can't send those. If they're seen by the wrong people, I'll be killed!"
"Unfortunately for you, I've already sent them. I guess you've just been thrown into a fighting pit. If I were you, I'd leave Tabryn within the next ten minutes."
Cracos's face went slack and beads of sweat rolled down his forehead. He yanked the cigar from his mouth and tossed it into a far corner. His eyes rolled about the room before finally coming to rest back on Nova.
"After all the trouble you've caused me, did you really think I'd let you get away with it?" Nova said, mimicking him.
"You bitch! You've killed me!"
Nova shrugged. "We'll call it even then."
She severed the connection and leant back in her chair. "I suppose we should get out of here before they find us."
"I thought you'd want to see this," Cal said.
Crusader's front screen filled with a new image of the casino floor. Vicki was strutting between the tables when two burly men grabbed her arms. They yanked away her purse and pulled out the chips, cutting one in half with a sharp knife. Red plastic glinted like blood in the bright lights.
Nova couldn't hear what they were saying but Vicki's expression of horror was entertainment enough.
"What if they kill her?" Cal said.
"They won't," Nova replied. "She'll tell them it was me, and they've got video footage to prove it. At least it'll give her a scare, keep her on her toes for a while."
Nova chuckled. "Okay, let's get away from this hell hole."
"Where are we headed?" Crusader asked.
"Just grab the next warp trail and let's see where it takes us."
She didn't bother watching Tabryn disappear behind them. She planned on staying away from the crime-riddled planet for as long as she could.
Stars whizzed by as Crusader sailed along on the warp-trail of some other ship. It was a cheap way to travel but you never knew where you were going to end up.
Just how it should be.
"The Confederacy are planning something big," Aart said, snatching a gun from his shelf and shoving it into his overflowing bag. "We've got to get out there."
"What are you talking about?" Nova asked, holding one hand over the bag and gripping his arm with the other.
She'd just returned to The Jagged Maw from Tabryn, only to find him in the midst of gathering a small army. So far she'd only managed to extract frenzied fragments from him.
"It's got something to do with those missing people on Tabryn," Aart said, brushing her arm aside and shoving more weapons into the bag. "I followed a lead, thought I might be able to help you out. And it ended up being connected to the bloody Confederacy. There's something going on, and it's headed straight for Grixis."
"Yep, small outer-planet. It's only recently been colonised; just one city so far. Whatever the Confederacy are doing, it's happening there."
"So you're taking an army with you?"
Nova threw her arms into the air. It was as if Aart had lost all common sense and was ready to throw his life at the Confederacy. She grabbed his bag and hurled it onto the floor, snatching his shoulders and staring into his eyes with fierce intensity.
"It's not an army," he said, shrugging.
"It looks like an army."
"There are only eleven of us. Just a few Hunters checking out a new planet. There's nothing wrong with that. Twelve if you come along."
Nova groaned and collapsed onto the end of Aart's bed, holding her head in her hands. He patted her shoulder as he collected his bag from the floor.
"I've never known you to want to bury your head in the sand."
"I'm not… I just don't see the point of rushing in, guns blasting. We have no idea what's going on."
"Exactly. Which is why we have to find out."
"I've signed up for another job. It starts in a couple of days."
Aart rolled his eyes. "I think this is a little bigger than a job."
Nova clenched her teeth and stared at the metal floor. A part of her wanted to hurl Aart into a dark closet so he couldn't leave, while another part of her knew that he'd never stay there and that she couldn't let him leave without her.
She groaned as she got to her feet.
"So, you're coming?" Aart grinned at Nova, eyes twinkling.
"I can't let you go off on a suicide mission. Someone's got to keep you alive." She gave a half-hearted smile.
"I knew you'd come." Aart winked at her. "The others are already loading up their ships."
Nova nodded once without looking at him and stomped out of Aart's room, annoyed that he was dragging her into yet more trouble.
Nova's Journey Continues…
After the Ancients and the lecheons, Nova is looking for something simple, but life is never that easy.
Murder, man-eating plants, and rumours of cannibalism from the Inner Galaxies all await Nova in Book 5: Justice.
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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]