The Journey Continues
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Copyright © 2015 by Saffron Bryant. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, businesses, events or locales is purely coincidental. Reproduction in whole or part of this publication without express written consent is strictly prohibited.
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Thank you to all adventurers, great and small.
Nova ran her hand along the charred remains of the hallway on her way to the cafeteria. It came away blackened with soot and the smell of ash hung in the air. The Jagged Maw was still undergoing repairs after the Confederacy attack. Most of the walls had been re-built but there were places where the damage spilled out into view. The bounty hunter base continued to buzz with the story of how Nova and her companions had destroyed one of the Confederacy headquarters.
She sauntered away from the charcoal slabs of broken wall and into the cafeteria. Cutlery clattered against plates and loud conversations echoed around the metal ship.
Nova grabbed a tray and stood behind the other waiting Hunters. Guns and knives poked out of their belts like extra limbs. Nova wore a gun at each hip, locked and loaded. Her black hair spilled over her shoulders, the single neon blue strand glowing under the bright cafeteria lights.
She grabbed a bowl of cereal from the industrial food generator and weaved through the crowd.
"Here, Nova," Tanguin said, waving.
Nova nodded and strode towards her friend. Tanguin bent over a small computer pad, her black hair hanging over her pale face. She wore a hood that covered most of her left side, hiding her cybernetic eye and the metal plates that made up part of her skin.
"Morning," Nova said as she sat down.
Aart glanced up at her and then back to the paper-thin computer screen in his hand, frowning.
"Having trouble with the morning crossword, Aart?"
Aart glanced at her over the top of the screen with a raised eyebrow. "No actually. I'm looking at a new job."
"Ooh, is it a good one?" Nova asked, leaning over the table to look at the screen.
She lifted a spoonful of cereal to her mouth as she tried to read the words upside down.
"Could be," said Aart. "Pretty good reward."
"Pass it here then," Nova said, holding out her hand.
"No can do, I'm afraid," said Aart, flicking the power switch at the side of the computer. The screen went blank. "The job was sent direct, invite only."
"If you're good enough, surely they'll invite me?" Nova said with a grin.
"It's always the same with you two; work, work, work," Tanguin said, spooning a mouthful of unappetizing green to her lips.
Nova couldn't imagine living on the gluggy gruel, but then she hadn't spent the first twenty years of her life hooked up to a virtual reality engine.
"Tanguin, may I please check my emails on your computer?" Nova asked in her sweetest voice.
Tanguin glanced at Nova and shook her head. "No."
"What?" Nova said, baffled. "Don't try and be nice to him."
"No need, I already checked your emails. I figured you'd want to have a look as soon as you saw Aart," Tanguin said. She smiled, but it wavered at the corners, like a shadow passing across the sun.
Nova pretended not to see it and narrowed her eyes as she smiled. "You know that's an invasion of my privacy."
"Oh please, I promise not to tell everyone about the massive collection of fluffle pictures you have… Oops," Tanguin said, referring to the artificially engineered pets that were arguably the cutest creatures ever invented.
Nova rolled her eyes. "We both know that if anyone has a fluffle collection, it's Aart."
"Do you want to discuss fluffles or do you want to find out if you got invited?" Tanguin said, her right eyebrow raising high.
"The job," Nova said with a nod of finality.
"You got an invite," Tanguin said, rolling her eyes. "Of course you did. You're Nova Tabryn, Bounty Hunter Extraordinaire."
Aart and Nova chuckled.
"If it's as good as you say it is, I guess we'll be working together and splitting the reward," Nova said to Aart, around a mouthful of cereal.
"I don't think so, missy. You're not cramping my style. Whoever gets the goods first is the one who gets paid."
Nova raised an eyebrow. "So it's a competition you want, eh? What are the goods?"
Aart grinned. "Some kind of ancient statue. According to the job description it's inside some tomb on Kopet."
"Where's Kopet?" Nova said, tossing her spoon to the bottom of her empty bowl.
"I was just looking it up. It's some outer-galaxy planet. Really small. It looks like human colonists went there centuries ago. It's been abandoned for a while now though, classified as a historical site."
"Does it say how many Hunters they're hiring?"
"No word," Aart said, "But then if you're such a Bounty Hunter Extraordinaire surely you're not afraid of a little competition?"
"Of course not," Nova said, grinning. "I was just worried about parking."
The three of them chuckled as they finished off their meals.
"Nice place," Nova murmured as her ship, Crusader, came in towards Kopet.
The Z400 model cargo ship that she'd modified somewhat into a passable bounty hunter craft had spots of rust but it worked where it counted.
"What's the Cloud say about this place?" Nova asked.
A forest spread out below the ship with primitive structures peeking out amidst the branches. A valley lay below them with mountains rising up on all sides. A strange blue light lay over the scene.
"The planet used to be occupied by a primitive race; they set up colonies here and chose to eliminate technology from their culture. They died out about a hundred years ago. Since then the planet has been held in private trust. It's protected under the historical relics act of course." Cal's robotic voice sounded displeased.
"Okay, so don't break the temples."
"It probably means you're not supposed to take relics from it," he said, processors whirring.
Nova waved her hand. "I'll be careful. Besides the job said he wants to put it into a museum."
Cal hovered away. "And why would this person lie?"
"We're being hailed," Crusader announced.
"Bring 'em up."
The front window of Crusader blinked and a broad metal face replaced the image of the approaching planet.
"Purpose of visit?" the robot said without introduction.
"We're here doing a job for Mister Malekite," Nova replied, keeping her back straight.
"Are you aware that Kopet is a level two planet?"
"Yes," Nova replied. Uninhabited but protected. If it had been a level one planet, Nova could have gone in and started her own civilisation for all the Confederacy officials would care.
"All technology deemed damaging or potentially harmful must be left on-board your craft. You will only be allowed to proceed with certain items."
Nova frowned. "Who made that rule?"
"Mister Malekite of course."
Nova's frown deepened. She was as keen to protect the history of Kopet as the next Hunter, but Malekite was taking it a step further by limiting their weapons. What if she encountered real trouble down in the tombs? Any mission was dangerous; a mission with only low-tech could be suicidal.
"Do you agree to only proceed with approved items?" the security droid prompted.
Nova thought on it for a few more seconds. She'd received no word from Aart so she had to assume that he'd agreed to their terms and was now without a communicator. She sighed. "I agree."
"Land in the indicated area. An officer will be waiting to check you over before you go on."
Nova nodded. Crusader took them down to the planet's surface where a green box showed them where they were to park. They fit into the spot as if Crusader had been measured and the parking space made exactly to size.
"Where's Cal? He should be here helping," Nova said as she reassessed her bag of belongings and decided what to take now that her technology level would be limited.
"He's in the storage cupboard. He told me to tell you he's having some computer trouble," Crusader replied. "I believe he disapproves of this mission."
Nova groaned and rolled her eyes. "I think from now on he can go and earn credits and I'll stay here and be judgemental."
"The labourbot disagrees."
"Tell him that I've left. I shouldn't be gone too long. I'll just get my hands on that statue and then I'll be done with it."
"Confirmed," Crusader said.
Nova grabbed her bag and slung it over her shoulder, striding through Crusader to the cargo bay. Here a big door slid open onto the outside world. The sun on Kopet glowed more blue than Nova was used to. The eerie colour changed the mood of everything. What should have been a beautiful warm day turned cold and supernatural under the abnormal sun.
A shiver ran up Nova's spine as Crusader's door hissed shut behind her. She marched towards a canvas tent erected at the edge of the parking area, the hairs on her neck standing on end.
Ten other ships spread out around her, their metal hulls glinting blue in the sunlight. The gravel beneath her feet crunched and a smell like rotting leaves filled the air.
Inside the tent, a dim artificial light flickered above the robot she'd just been talking to. He sat on a wide backed chair behind a cold metal desk.
"Name?" he said, without looking up.
"Nova Tabryn. And there wasn't anything–"
"Bag." He waved his hand at the desk.
Nova gritted her teeth as she hurled her bag up.
He opened it and poured everything out, squeezing it and running his hands along the seams. He separated the items into two piles and threw the bag on top of the smaller mound. It had a few medical supplies, her knife, her basic plasma pistol, and the rope she'd packed. In the other pile sat everything else, her underwater breather, her scanners, her communicator, grenades, and her automatic rifle.
"This is okay," he said, placing a metal hand on the first pile. "This isn't." He touched the second pile.
"Gotcha," Nova said through gritted teeth. Hot rage burned in her chest but she swallowed it before it could erupt and spill through the tent.
The restrictions were too much, even for a level two planet. She cursed herself for not hiding some more essential items around her body. It was too late now. The robot followed her out of the tent and watched her pile the banned items back into Crusader, leaving her clutching the now half-empty bag.
"Mister Malekite wants to meet you down there." The droid gestured down a narrow alleyway made of trees.
Nova threw the bag over her shoulder and stomped towards the corridor of trees, not bothering to look back. She glared at the other bounty hunter vessels as she went past, spotting Aart's ship, Sylar. Her mood lightened at the thought of seeing him, sure that he'd be as outraged at the limitations as she was.
Bird calls and the sounds of the forest engulfed her as she entered the tunnel of trees. The air got thicker and a humid layer clung to her skin. The scent of rotting leaves grew stronger until she could almost taste it. It was as if she was wrapped in a new world as soon as she stepped under the canopy. She laid a casual hand on the butt of her gun as she sauntered through the trees. She couldn't help but feel on edge; the last time she'd been in a jungle like this she'd nearly been digested by a giant planet, and before that had nearly had her brain taken over by a slug.
Ten minutes later, the trees opened up and she came to a clearing with a cave leading down into the dirt. A flat piece of wood hung from the side of the cave with words painted onto it in sharp white letters.
Unfortunately Mister Malekite cannot meet you. However, rest assured he is looking forward to meeting you and bestowing your reward in exchange for the statue. Kind Regards.
Nova re-read the note. "You've got to be kidding me."
She stood straight and looked around but there was no sign of another person or further instructions. The original email had included an image of the statue, which was the only hint she had as to what she was looking for.
She clenched her fists and considered going back to Crusader. Mister Malekite, whoever he was, was wasting her time and there was nothing she hated more. She took a step back towards the ships but stopped, picturing Aart's face if she didn't even try to find the statue. He'd never let her live it down if she gave up this early.
Nova kicked the leaves and glared around at the trees. There was no sign of the other Hunters which probably meant they'd already gone into the tunnels and had a significant head-start. If she had any hope of winning this prize then she had to get a move on.
"Good thing I brought this," she said to herself, lifting her trouser leg and untying her glowball from where she'd hid it.
She attached it to her belt and squeezed. It shone with a bright light. She stomped to the tunnel entrance where stairs led down into the darkness. They were made of rough yellow stone that was scratched and marked with the passing of centuries. Massive bricks slotted against one another to make the walls.
Nova stepped down. She had to bend her head to get under the low entranceway. The same stone as the walls and floor formed arches in the ceiling. Given the ancient people's lack of technology they had built a beautiful tunnel.
After seven steps the floor levelled out and stretched away into the darkness. Dirt and broken pieces of brick scattered across the floor and simple brackets designed to hold torches decorated the walls. Animal statues stood in alcoves, dug into the walls every twenty metres.
The air smelled like freshly turned dirt and bare stone, a deep, dry smell. The sounds of the jungle disappeared a few paces after the stairs and after that the only sound was her shuffling feet and her breathing.
She shivered as the cold of the tunnel ran over her, and pulled the long sleeves of her jacket down. The glowball created a circle of light that surrounded her as she made her way down the uneven tunnel.
The darkness and close walls reminded her of the tunnels on Archalon and an icy cold gripped her heart. Her breath caught in her throat as she imagined Ancients looming out of the shadows towards her.
After ten minutes the tunnel split in two. A simple map carved deep into the stone spread across the wall facing her. The lines were a deep brown as if the soil underneath were wet.
"These are recent," Nova whispered, tracing her fingers along the carving.
She looked over the simple map. A long line lead down from the roof, at the very top was a square with a primitive picture of a sun. The line ran down and then divided into two. These new lines ran in opposite directions, at right angles to the first.
A tiny spot of red sat at the intersection of the three lines. Nova leaned closer; bright crimson glowed in the dim light at her waist. She prodded the red spot with her finger but despite all appearances it was dry.
She frowned at the map, the red spot indicated where she stood and the two lines leading off to either side joined a myriad of other lines and squares. Multiple chambers and tunnels criss-crossed the simple diagram. There were other suns at various points on the map; other exits perhaps?
She forced herself to focus on the map and committed every inch of it to her memory. She closed her eyes and recalled the image. It was there, as clear as if her eyes were still open. She could even see the little red dot, shining against the yellow bricks.
A large room with a diamond shape carved into its centre filled the middle of the map.
"A treasure trove?" Nova said and raised her eyebrow. "If I had a precious statue, I know where I'd keep it."
She looked over the map one last time, taking note of the path she'd have to take in order to reach the room with the diamond. It was simple enough but impossible to tell how long it would take. The map could be a consistent scale but there was no way to be sure. What looked like only a few inches on the wall in front of her could actually be miles of tunnels for all she knew.
She turned right and strode forward. There was only one way she was going to reach the chamber and it wasn't by staring at an ancient map. Plus there was the competition to think of. If they'd got a head-start on her then she had some catching up to do.
Bare, cold stone filled the tunnel. A few meager weeds poked their heads up between the cracks. Even these tiny plants were dried and brown, the stones sucking the very moisture out of their leaves. Nova wished she'd packed more rations, already her mouth felt dry, like sandpaper.
If only she'd been able to keep her portable food generator. It utilised the atoms zooming about the air to make almost anything. With the right combination of carbons, hydrogens and nitrogens she could have a steak while sitting in the middle of nowhere. Instead, it looked like she would have to scrounge for food, just like being back on Tabryn.
She turned left down a side tunnel, following the path she'd chosen based on the map in her memory. Just as she expected, the tunnel opened up into a wider chamber. Here the ceiling lifted away, held in place by four stone columns. Stone pedestals scattered across the square chamber and the four columns created long shadows leading away from her glowball.
She stepped into the middle of the room. The coloured floor tiles created a blue spiral that circled around, finally ending in a purple square under her feet. She turned in a circle, admiring the columns and the high vaulted ceiling.
Ghosts of the past whispered against her skin. The room felt steeped in culture and ritual. In her mind's eye she could see the old citizens moving between the columns, their long robes flowing out behind them. She drew in a deep breath and tasted the ancient air and dirt of the chamber.
Nova smiled and stepped away from the spiral, some of her frustration forgotten. A second tunnel led away from the chamber, the next leg of her journey.
She'd almost reached the gaping tunnel when something slammed into her back.
Nova stumbled, using the momentum to roll forward and leap to her feet. Her back pressed tight against the brick wall. She whipped her gun out of its holster and pointed it towards the centre of the chamber.
Looming out of the darkness from between the columns approached a bulbous purple plant, as tall as Nova. Tentacles extended out of its base, covered with sharp barbs that glinted in the light. They waved through the air, whipping back and forth with harsh cracking noises.
Surrounding the purple bulb spread massive green leaves that curled over and shone in the light from Nova's glowball. The leaves flopped back and forth with the movement of the tentacles. The purple bulb pulsated in and out, almost breathing.
Nova's stomach clenched. The purple monstrosity reminded her of the orange plants that had attacked her and Jack on Drigoon. At the time, she'd had a gun that shot fire-balls capable of destroying buildings, and she'd still barely survived. Now all she had was a small plasma pistol.
Tiny legs underneath the tentacles scurried across the stone floor, carrying the monstrous bulb. They tapped out a continuous rhythm as the thing raced forward. The creature bent over so that the top of its bulb pointed directly at her. The bulb opened up to reveal a gaping cavity and a red vine shot out. It whipped through the air like a crimson spear, straight for her face.
Nova dived to her left. The red vine shot past her and slammed into the stone wall. Chips of yellow rock sprayed out across the floor and showered Nova's shoulders, filling the air with the scent of dry dust.
She squeezed her eyes shut and tucked her head under her arms, away from the shrapnel.
The vine recoiled back inside the purple bulb, which flicked up to vertical. The creature scuttled closer, pulsating.
Nova stepped sideways so that a column stood between them. Her heart beat erratically in her chest, fluttering like a startled bird. Her last run-in with a carnivorous plant had ended with her nearly being digested alive. Damned if she was going to let this purple posy get the best of her.
She strained her ears.
The scuttling legs gave the creature away. It skirted around the side of the column to her left. Nova darted to her right and came out right behind it. She aimed her gun and fired. A blue blast of energy crackled through the air and slammed into the creature.
The bulb charred and blackened where her blast hit. It screeched and ripped around to face her, rattling across the floor. Sap oozed out of the blackened wound, dripping to the floor and leaking tendrils of smoke.
Nova had expected it to fall down dead with her first shot and wasn't ready for its sudden advance. Before she could fire again the red vine flew at her face. She flicked her head to the side but it wasn't enough. The barbed vine scraped along her right cheek before whipping back inside the bulb.
A sharp sting ripped along her face like she'd been slashed with a hot blade. Her free hand flew to the wound and came away sticky with blood.
She aimed her gun.
A green tentacle-vine slammed down out of nowhere and knocked the gun out of her hand. It scraped across the stone floor, far out of reach.
"I hate plants!" Nova bellowed as the tentacle retracted back around the column and joined the waving mass sprouting from the purple bulb.
She darted for the nearest column and hid behind the yellow stone. The red vine chased after her. It slammed into the edge of the column and more chips of rock fell loose. They crumbled to the ground.
Her cheek stung and a warm trickle of blood slid down her face. Pain emanated out from her cheek and embraced her right eye as well as her ear.
Anger welled up inside her. Where the hell had the plant come from anyway? There were no other passages aside from the one she'd entered from and the one she had planned to leave through. Had the thing been following her the whole time?
The thought sent a shiver up her spine.
A green tentacle shot out of the darkness like a whip, creating a wave of air in the still chamber.
Nova darted to the side, but too slowly. The green vine slammed her against the column and pinned her in place, back pressed hard against the cold stone. She strained, muscles bulging, but couldn't break free. Her heart hammered and her breaths came in short gasps.
The bulb leaned forward like a cannon preparing to fire.
Nova pressed back against the cold stone, desperate to get away.
The red vine lashed out of the bulb and whipped through the air with a sharp crack. It moved faster than she could follow, lashing across the space between them and stabbing into her stomach. It pierced her like a sharpened knife, tearing her insides apart, before jerking back just as quickly.
Pain burst through her abdomen. It screamed through her veins and out to every extremity of her body. She cried out and clenched her eyes shut against the agony but it didn't stop the waves of pain. Tears sprung to the corners of her eyes, dribbling down to join the blood on her cheek.
The green vine withdrew, letting her slide down the column to the floor. She clutched her stomach with both hands, feeling blood seep between her fingers. A cold chill, like liquid nitrogen injected into her stomach, spread out from the wound. Icy tendrils spread through her body, her organs, until her fingers felt filled with ice.
She groaned and the plant drew closer, tentacles waving. "Get back," she gasped, the words barely more than a rush of air.
The plant scuttled forward and a green vine snapped around her neck, squeezing.
Nova's eyes bulged and her bloody hands flew to her throat, scrambling with the hard vine. Her nails dug in and peeled away green fibres but the plant appeared not to notice.
Nova dropped a hand to her belt and the hilt of her knife.
Each breath burned, scraping against her crushed windpipe, and her head throbbed. Stars floated across her eyes and darkness threatened to consume her. She drew a rasping breath and tugged the knife free.
Strength flowed out of her muscles along with her dwindling oxygen supply. Her vision had narrowed to just a tiny tunnel, filled with the purple plant. She blinked, straining to lift her arm. Her knife seemed to way a hundred pounds, dragging her hand back towards the floor. She took a ragged breath that scraped over her throat and heaved. A weak whisper of air escaped between her lips as her arm rose up. It wavered, level with her head, and then plunged down, carried mostly by the force of gravity, into the green vine.
The plant hissed and the green vine whipped back, jerking through the air.
Nova drew a deep lungful of air, relishing the sudden rush of clarity, and scrambled away from the column. Through clouds of pain she searched the ground for her gun. A dim shadow lay to her right. She fell to her knees, pain cracking up her legs as she hit the hard stone. Unable to walk she crawled forward, stretching one hand out.
Pain surged up through her chest and stars danced across her vision. She held her breath, stretching, until her fingers closed about the gun and she dragged it to her chest.
She fell against the nearest column, gasping for air, her hand slick with blood. She rolled her head to the side, catching sight of the vicious plant moving around to her right.
Barbed vines waved through the air. They lashed out randomly, clipping at the walls and columns of the room. Freshly chipped pieces of stone layered the floor. The scraping tapping of the plant's movements echoed around the chamber and an odd hissing accompanied the scuttling.
She gasped, trying to get over the pain that emanated from every part of her body but centered on her gaping stomach. It stung worse than anything she'd felt before. The burning spread out from the wound to the rest of her abdomen and then down her legs. She risked a glance down. Her flesh blackened and dripped with yellow pus. Blue tendrils spread like veins from the wound. Poison.
"Shit," she whispered.
She took a deep breath as the vine disappeared around the other side of the column. Using the stone, she struggled to her feet, biting her lip to stop a scream. She hobbled towards the lumbering shadow and aimed her gun.
She stumbled forward squeezing the trigger, so that blast after blast of blue energy careened through the chamber and slammed into the purple monstrosity.
It shrieked as burning holes opened along its flesh, bright embers glowing in the dim room. It scuttled towards Nova, tentacles waving.
She stood firm, still firing, her jaw clenched.
The blue blasts ripped into the plant's flesh, building up heat until flames whooshed into the air. The moist flesh sizzled as it caught fire and the tentacles fell motionless to the floor. The plant took a few more paces forward, teetered, and then collapsed to the sandstone floor.
Nova didn't stop firing until the entire plant turned into black ash.
She stumbled to the nearest column, leaning against it, and squeezed her eyes shut. Pain roared through her torso as if someone were hacking into her with blunt knives. She took a deep breath and lifted the corner of her shirt to reveal the wound beneath.
The gaping hole spilled blood down her side which pooled in a red patch on her pants and shirt. Black lines spread out from the wound like a spiderweb, reaching up across her chest and around her ribs to her back. Green and yellow pus smeared across her skin, giving off the scent of rotting flesh.
Bile rose to the back of her throat.
"Grishnak," she said, letting her shirt drop down. "Cal, I could really use some medical help."
Silence echoed through her skull. She sighed. If they'd taken her communicator, they'd have set up jamming equipment around the area. She was on her own.
She rolled her head to the side to look at the tunnel through which she'd come. Her heart clenched at the thought of stumbling back through the passages in search of the way out. She bit her lip and took a deep breath; she had to keep going.
Nova looked around the chamber with bleary eyes, every breath sending spikes of agony through her body. She blinked. Her heavy lids drooped closed and it took all of her effort to open them again.
She grabbed hold of her side and stumbled towards the second tunnel, wincing with every step. Shadows and shapes danced in front of her eyes, like demons. A lump formed in her throat. They looked just like the shadows that had stalked her on Archalon, the ones that were always at the very edge of her vision.
She ducked out of the way of their swinging arms. Her feet knocked against one another and her shoulder slammed against the wall of the tunnel. The stone scraped through her shirt and grazed her skin. She barely felt it.
She poured every ounce of focus into moving forward and staying conscious. Burning from her stomach coursed through her body. Her arms stung with it and sweat poured down her face.
Something gurgled. It sounded like someone trying to breathe through a pool of fluid. She daren't look back to see if someone was following her.
With a jolt she realised the sound came from her own lungs. Each gasp of breath became harder and she had to lean against the wall to stay upright.
Her feet scraped across the floor and she teetered on the brink of consciousness.
Something caught her foot and she sprawled forward. Her chin smacked into the stone floor and her teeth bit into her lip. Blood filled her mouth and left an iron taste on her tongue. She shivered, her whole body convulsing.
She turned to look over her shoulder. The sandy floor filled most of her vision but further back, near her feet, lay a body. Blood spattered the floor amongst torn pieces of dark clothing.
Warmth seeped through to her leg where it rested against the body. A fresh corpse.
Using her elbows, she hauled herself away from the body. New pain surged out of her abdomen and she cried out, curling into a ball. Tears trickled down her cheeks and joined the blood dribbling out of her mouth, choking her. Air bubbled through the pooling blood as she gasped for air.
She strained to keep her eyes open, to cling to the last vestiges of consciousness. It was no good. Poison pumped through her heart and she toppled over the precipice into darkness.
A voice shouted in the distance. It sounded familiar but she didn't want to acknowledge it. Too much pain swirled at the surface so she struggled to stay down in the swirling darkness of unconsciousness.
The voice sounded desperate. Why was her body moving? She felt so tired.
Nova's eyes blinked open and a face swam into focus. Light stabbed into her eyes and pierced through to her brain. She groaned with new agony.
Nova blinked again, squinting so that the burning light didn't hurt so much. She recognised the voice now, it was Aart. But why did he sound so far away?
"What the hell did you get hit by?"
His fingers prodded at her stomach and she groaned. Something rattled and then soothing warmth spread across her side, calming the pain that twisted through her veins.
With the release of pain she could breathe more easily. With her breath came a horrid smell. It made her gag and she choked on vomit as it flowed up to her throat. It poured out of her mouth and joined the blood and pus pooled on the floor.
"Dammit," Aart said. "You got my shoes."
Nova opened her eyes wider. Her head rested against Aart's leg. By her side swirled a coloured pool of red and green. Shreds of her shirt littered the ground and a white patch covered her stomach. The dead body she'd tripped over lay just past her feet.
She tried to sit up but collapsed back to the ground.
"Whoa, I think you should stay down," Aart said. "I just wanted to make sure you were okay."
Nova put a trembling hand to her forehead. "I'm not."
Aart snorted. "So what got you? Giant snake? Fighter droid?"
"A plant," Nova said with a sigh.
Nova nodded and Aart chuckled. "You really should stay away fro flora."
"You're telling me. I feel like I've died about ten times."
Aart nodded. "You don't look good either. Go back to sleep, you're fine; I've got your back."
Nova closed her eyes and slipped back into darkness.
Nova awoke wrapped in a warm blanket and lying next to Aart. He chewed on a dry biscuit and stared into the glowball on the ground.
"Aart?" Nova whispered. Her voice rasped in her throat and sent burning pains into her lungs.
"Hey, sleepy head," Aart said. "You've been out for hours."
He turned around and held a bottle to Nova's mouth. Cool water slid down her throat and soothed the burning like a miracle drug.
She sucked on the water, desperate for every drop she could get.
"Okay, that's enough," Aart said, putting the lid back .
Nova licked her lips and closed her eyes. She waited but the darkness didn't rise up to eat her. She opened her eyes again and pushed herself up so that her back pressed against the tunnel wall. Her head spun but she managed to clutch at clarity and stay sitting.
"What happened?" she said, looking at Aart through bleary eyes.
"I was hoping you could tell me," Aart said. "Did you have a run in with that guy?"
Aart gestured over his shoulder at the dead body.
"What? No," Nova said. "There was some kind of plant. Bastard poisoned me. That guy was dead when I got here."
Her voice cleared the more she spoke, but the raw burn in her throat and the deep pain in her side remained. It spread through her stomach and made her wince with every movement.
"Lucky for you I happened to be passing by," Aart said with a grin.
Nova glanced down at the white patch on her stomach. "What did you give me?"
"Just some broad spectrum anti-venom. Seems to have done the trick."
Nova sat a little higher, wincing. "How did you get that past border security?"
Aart shrugged. "Hid it."
Nova turned her head a little so that she could stare at Aart out of the corner of her eye. "You smuggled medical supplies?"
"And lucky for you I did too," Aart said. "I may have included a few other items, but that's not important."
"Well, thank you for letting your criminal streak shine through."
"Yeah. I wonder what happened to him though." Aart jutted his chin towards the dead body.
"I don't know. Maybe there were more plants or something?"
"Maybe. I heard screams before. I couldn't tell where they were coming from. They could have been his I suppose."
"Don't you think it's weird that we were all split up?" Nova said. "Not very fair for a competitive hunt."
Aart shrugged. "The lift wouldn't have taken more than one anyway."
Aart frowned. "The lift that brought you down into the tunnels? Wow, that venom must have done more damage than I thought."
Nova shook her head. "I didn't come in on any lift. There were stairs."
"Stairs? I haven't seen any stairs."
"Looks like they sent us through different entrances..."
"That's a lot of effort for someone to go through."
Nova nodded. "And why? What's the point?"
"So we don't run into each other? I guess it makes it a fair competition. Until now of course, because the two of us together will be unstoppable."
"And what makes you think I'd team up with you?" Nova asked with a smile.
"I figured saving your life, again, would be enough."
"Hmm, I suppose that counts for something. But we make it an equal split on the reward."
"Excellent." Nova let her eyes fall closed for a few seconds. "And Aart?"
"You're always welcome," Aart said, tossing the last of the biscuit into his mouth. "This plant, what did it look like?"
"It was kind of purple with –"
"Welcome Bounty Hunters," a booming voice echoed through the tunnel, reverberating and surrounding them.
"What the hell?" Aart said.
Nova's eyes widened. She lifted her gun from her lap and held it ready. The voice had come from everywhere and nowhere at the same time. It was a deep all-encompassing noise, echoing out of the very walls themselves.
"I'm glad to see so many of you survived day one," the voice said, followed by hollow laughter.
Aart leapt to his feet and turned in a tight circle. "Who the hell are you?"
"You can call me the Watcher," the voice replied.
Nova sat up straighter. Whoever it was had heard them, and could probably see them as well. Were they lurking in the shadows or were their hidden cameras in these catacombs?
"What the hell do you want, Watcher, and why don't you show yourself?"
"I'm afraid I don't have to answer your questions, Artemis Goldson. Now down to business. Three of your companions died today, a few of you came close to joining them, but overall eleven of you survived. Congratulations on making it this far. You see there is far more at stake here than an ancient statue."
"You're not making any sense," Aart said.
"I think it's clear. This is about you Hunters... proving your worth and your ability to survive. You're competing for your lives. I hope you enjoy the presents I've left around for you."
Aart turned to Nova and they stared into one-another's eyes. There was always the risk in their line of work that a client would turn sour. The job could always be a fake, a set up, but there were measures in place to protect the Hunters from these kinds of things. They always told someone where they were going, they kept in contact range at all times, their AI ships would be within calling distance, and they would vet the client.
Nova's mind raced over the checklist, where had they failed? With a sinking feeling which made her want to wretch all over the floor she realised they'd failed on every count. They'd told each other where they were going, but then they were both here. It was possible Tanguin had seen enough of the job description to know, but she wouldn't be worried about them because they were supposed to be together.
With the technology restrictions, Nova had given up her communicator. There was no way for her to talk to the outside world except with her brain chip, and she couldn't even reach Cal or Crusader. What about the client? Who had vetted the client?
Aart's face turned as pale as Nova's. His mouth hung open and he stared at her with a mixture of horror and fear. No one had vetted him, it was a basic job and there was going to be a group of Hunters. Where was the danger in that?
Nova slammed her fist into the ground. "Shit!"
The movement pulled at the flesh on her stomach and she winced under the pain.
"We didn't follow procedure," Aart whispered.
"Don't be too harsh on yourselves," the Watcher said, "After all, you all made the same mistake."
Silence filled the tunnels.
"Good luck," the Watcher said, his voice fading.
Aart slumped down next to Nova. He kept his gun on his lap and his eyes scanned the tunnel.
"Trust us to get lured into a job for a nutcase," Nova said, trying to distract herself from the new pain in her side.
"Nutcase is right."
Nova closed her eyes. "I wonder what else he's put down here. I do not want to come across another one of those plants."
"If that's what you ran into on the first day, imagine what he might have planned for tomorrow?"
"Was there a map at your entrance?" Nova asked.
"Yeah, I was heading towards the central chamber; it had a diamond drawn on it."
"Mine was the same. Do you think we can get back out? We could just leave the planet and the nutcase behind."
"I'm afraid not," said Aart.
"What do you mean?" Nova said with a frown. Aart was an idiot to still be thinking of the monetary prize. If she knew anything about the sociopaths of the universe, this man wouldn't let them go, even if they did find the statue.
"I mean I went back to the exit to see if I could smuggle extra supplies in or something. The lift was gone."
"Just like I said. The lift went up without me and there was no way to call it down again. I would bet two hundred credits that yours was the same."
"Mine didn't have a lift."
Aart shrugged. "Then the entrance will be filled with rocks or something."
Nova bit her lip. "We have to at least go back and check. If there's a quick way out of here, we have to find it."
Aart sighed. "You're right. Do you feel well enough to walk?"
Nova nodded. "As long as we don't run into any plants."
They stumbled back down the tunnel, Aart supporting most of Nova's weight, past the dead body and into the chamber with the blue spiral. Ash piled on the floor amidst spatters of blood.
Aart gave a low whistle. "Looks like a major battle."
Nova nodded, barely glancing at the pile of ash. "Not something I want to do again anytime soon."
On the other side she guided them through the catacombs back to the intersection with the map and then back up the tunnel to the entrance.
As they drew closer Nova's stomach sunk until it lay like a weight in the bottom of her abdomen. No welcoming light spilled through the tunnel entrance, only darkness. At the end, the light from their glowballs fell across a tumble of thick rocks, too big for them to move or blast away.
Nova's jaw clenched. "He's trapped us down here."
Aart lowered her onto a boulder where she let out a long breath.
"When I find him, I'm going to tear out his stomach and see how he likes it."
"Ah yes, but first we'll have to find him," Aart said.
"Did you smuggle anything else useful?"
"It's all useful. But is it able to help us at this exact second? No."
Nova squeezed her side and drew a ragged breath.
"We should rest here," Aart said, frowning down at her.
Nova nodded. "It hurts like hell, even if this bandage of yours is working miracles."
"I'll take first watch."
"Good," Nova said, sliding to the floor. She kept her hand locked around the gun in her lap. "Oh, and Aart?" She opened one eye.
"Yes?" he said, glancing back at her.
"Remember that some of the Hunters will take this more seriously than you. They won't be afraid to kill us if it means meeting this madman's conditions and saving their own skins."
"Oh, Nova; always thinking the worst of people," Aart said, shaking his head.
Nova closed her eyes. "It's let me survive this long.."
"I know," Aart said, his voice dropping to a more serious tone. "I'll keep an eye out."
Nova nodded and let herself fall asleep. She felt as if she'd spent the whole day sleeping and yet she drifted back down into darkness as soon as her eyes slipped closed.
"Hey. Nova?" Aart said. He knelt over her, his face right next to hers.
"What? What is it." Nova sat bolt upright and lifted her gun, scanning the tunnels.
"Whoa. No nothing. I was just hoping you could keep watch for a couple of hours. If I try to do it any longer I'll just fall asleep. Then what good will I be?"
"About the same as normal," Nova said with a smile.
"Oh, haha. How's your stomach feeling?"
He leaned in close with his glowball and studied Nova's side. He lifted the bandage to reveal the wound beneath. There was still a hole where the vine had pierced through, but the blood and pus were gone. The black lines of poison had also disappeared.
"I'll stitch that up tomorrow," he said.
"Yeah. Alright sleepy head, go on and get some rest, I'll keep watch."
"You can handle it?"
Nova grinned. "Better than you I'd warrant."
He lay down on the dirt and used his pack as a pillow. Three minutes later he was fast asleep and snoring like a Hassard camel.
Nova turned her attention to the tunnels. They were just as dark as they had been when she went to sleep, with no sign of life in either direction. Not even the air moved this far underground, it hung stale and stagnant. If Aart was right and all the exits had been closed, then hopefully there was enough oxygen to go around. How many of them did the Watcher say were left? Eleven?
Why put out a job and summon them all just to kill them? As far as she could remember, Nova hadn't offended any sociopaths; at least not recently. So it wasn't personal, but then, why do it? Was it just one sociopath letting his madness loose on the world? Probably.
Nova waited for three hours, keeping watch, but nothing happened. The tunnel remained dark and the air remained still.
She laid a hand on Aart's shoulder and his eyes flew open.
"Time to rise and shine," she said.
"Already?" He sat up and rolled his head from side to side, rubbing his neck.
"Yeah, pass my bag? I'm starving."
Aart handed over the brown satchel and Nova rummaged through. She pulled out a nutrient bar and broke it in half. She handed one piece to Aart and chewed on the other. It had a pleasant fruity taste, a welcome change to the dry sand that had coated her tongue since she entered the tunnels.
Strength flooded her muscles with every bite. The ration bars were specially formulated to contain every piece of nutrition a person could need. You could survive your whole life on the simple snacks. Nova wouldn't dream of it though; life would be boring without cereal or chips!
Aart swallowed the last of his nutrient bar and rummaged in his own bag. He pulled out a sharp needle and a strong piece of wiry thread.
"I'm afraid we're going to have to do this the old fashioned way," he said.
"What? You brought a broad-spectrum anti-venom but no New-Skin-O?" Nova hissed.
Aart shrugged. "Border security found the New-Skin-O, this is the best I can do."
"Got any pain meds?"
"Yes, but I don't think you should take anything, you need to be at your best. In case we run into any more of your purple plants."
"You've got to at least give me some Parapem or I'm more likely to kill you than the plant."
Aart chuckled. "Okay fine, here you go."
He handed her a pack of thin blue squares. Nova picked the top one off the pile and laid it on her tongue. The numbing agent spread up through her mouth with a chilling tingling sensation. It moved to her cheeks, then her head and finally down through the rest of her body. It went to her stomach and the aching pain faded away.
"Alright, let's get it over with," Aart said.
He threaded the wire through the needle and tied the end firm. He pulled Nova's shirt up to reveal the wound and bent over it with his glowball by her side. He slid the needle into one side of the wound and threaded it through. He pulled each stitch tight so that the skin drew closed.
Through the Parapem Nova felt only the barest sting as he inserted the needle. It was almost like watching the operation be performed on someone else. She gaped as the two flaps of skin pulled together. The living flesh behaved just like torn fabric.
By the time Aart finished, the gaping wound was reduced to a single line with eight neat stitches holding it closed. He tied off the end and put the needle and remaining wire back into his bag along with the box of Parapem.
"Alright, now no more complaining out of you," he said with mock sternness.
She flicked her hand across her forehead. "Yes, sir."
She pulled her belongings into her bag and put her gun into her holster. With Aart's help she struggled to her feet. The skin stretched around the stitches and elicited a pang of pain but that was all. She wasn't looking forward to the Parapem wearing off, but she'd had worse injuries in her time.
"I guess we retrace our steps and keep heading towards the central chamber," Aart said.
Nova leaned one hand against the sandstone wall. She thought back to the day before, through the haze of agony which had coloured the afternoon. "I guess we don't have much choice."
"Alright, let's get moving. Keep your eyes and ears peeled."
Nova nodded and shuffled down the dark passageway. Their glowballs didn't reach far in the deep tunnels and the darkness pressed in on them. She tried not to think about the predators that might be lurking just outside their circle of light.
They walked for some time through the semi-darkness, passing through the chamber with the blue spiral, and past the dead body. They kept conversation to a minimum, their senses focused on any threats. They made good time through the meandering tunnels.
"What the—" Aart said. He strode in front while Nova kept an eye on their tail.
"What is it?" Nova said, stepping forward.
She frowned. They had come to a dead end. She put her hand against the wall but there was no way they could push through.
"Listen!" Aart said, grabbing hold of Nova's arm.
She stopped moving and strained her ears. Something ticked. It was very faint, distant, but it was there. It was getting faster, blurring into one continuous whir.
Right behind Nova and Aart a sandstone block dropped down from the ceiling and blocked the tunnel through which they'd come, trapping them.
Nova's heart leapt in her chest and she spun, hands running along the rough walls.
The whirring continued.
"The walls are getting closer!" Aart said, slamming his palms against the sandstone.
Heat flooded Nova's body and she pushed against the opposite wall but it did no good. The blocks closed in towards them, threatening to crush them to fine jelly.
"Oh, hell no," Aart said.
Nova's braced her hands against the walls. "Look up!"
The air felt different in this small section and now she knew why. The sandstone roof was gone. Instead, open air stretched above them, disappearing into darkness far above their heads.
The walls were only two metres apart now. Aart and Nova stood back to back, chests heaving. She pushed against the moving blocks but couldn't stop them.
"I don't suppose you brought a grav lift?" Nova said through clenched teeth as she strained to hold the wall at bay.
"I'm afraid not. We're going to have to climb. Back to back like when we were trapped in that jail on Blakgar."
Nova groaned. "That's a pain in the arse."
"I'm open to alternatives but you better think quick."
The walls drew closer.
"Dammit, let's do it," Nova said.
She pushed her back against Aart's and they locked elbows. They pushed against one another with the power in their legs. Nova put one foot against the advancing stone and Aart put his foot on the opposite wall. With painful, agonising steps, they inched upwards.
Nova stretched up and the stitches holding her side together burst open, sending fire up her stomach. Her wound gaped and new blood seeped through to stain her shirt. She clenched her teeth. Better a small stab wound than to be crushed.
The two Hunters fell into a rhythm, one foot after the other. They pushed hard against one another, using the other for support as they worked their way up.
Nova's back and neck ached and her legs shook with exhaustion, threatening to drop both her and Aart down to the bottom of the shaft.
"We have to stop," Aart said between gasps.
"We can't," Nova said, taking another step. "If we wait much longer the walls will be too close and we won't be able to climb."
Aart hoisted another leg up, but sweat coated his skin and his wet arms slipped against Nova's. "Just a second."
Nova's breath rasped, but she stopped climbing. Dryness filled her throat as the walls pushed closer. Already her knees were bent, costing her strength and stamina. She drew a sharp breath to tell Aart to move when something scraped against stone and he cried out.
She turned to see a thick wooden spike jutting out of the wall an inch to Aart's right. A thin cut marked his thigh and dribbled blood.
Another sharp scrape.
"Move!" Nova tugged Aart's arms and stepped upwards.
He followed, legs shaking. A moment later a second stake shot out of the wall and pierced the air where Nova's chest had been.
Nova stepped again. "Move!"
They strained against each other, climbing the thinning tunnel as fast as they could as more spikes filled the air below them.
"There's a ledge," Aart said. His words choked out of his mouth as he gasped for more air. His body shook against Nova's as they both strained to stay up.
Nova lifted her head and saw it. The wall against which her feet were pressed disappeared into darkness, another tunnel, with the same on Aart's side. The sight gave her new hope and her legs strengthened for the final few metres. She lifted her left leg up and Aart did the same. Then her right until they were both at the very lip of the ledge.
"How the hell are we going to do this one?" Nova asked.
"Good question. But we don't have time to work it out."
A spike thrust out of the wall just below them as if to underscore his words.
Both of their voices sounded strained. Nova's arms and legs quaked, threatening to give out at any minute and send them both plummeting to their deaths. Sweat poured down her face and stung her eyes. The slickness made her arms slippery where they locked against Aart's. Her heart pounded hard in her chest and her lungs ached as she gasped for more air.
"The wooden stakes below us," Nova said.
"Are you serious?" Aart squeaked.
"Yep. It's the only way. Ready?"
"Just be ready to grab on."
"This is a bad idea," said Aart.
"One," Nova said, ignoring him.
"Nova, it's been good knowing you."
Nova and Aart unlocked their arms and pushed against one another as hard as they could. Their backs slammed into each other and pain erupted up Nova's side.
She let her legs drop and felt like a rag-doll falling through the air. She stretched for the ledge as her boots landed on the wooden stake just below her. They caught for just a second, long enough for her to snatch the ledge, before the wood snapped and her legs swung through empty air.
Her fingers flicked with spasms, threatening to let her drop. How high had they come? Too high for her to survive the fall, that was for sure.
Somewhere beneath the panic she hoped Aart was doing better than she was.
Her palms scraped against the rough stones and her fingers cramped with the force of her grip. Her fingernails tore against the stone as her hands slid towards the edge.
She kicked forward, straining for purchase. Rocks and loose stone fell away from the walls, bouncing against the sandstone on their way down.
She swallowed as she imagined following one of those rocks.
She scrambled, feet scraping. Her right leg found a rock and she used it to take some of her weight while she adjusted her grip.
The rock fell loose, taking her leg along with it. She grabbed at the ledge again and this time found purchase. She gripped the cliff and let her breath return. She dangled above the perilous drop, held only by the strength of her hands. She risked a glance up. The loose stones of the ledge wouldn't hold long.
She flexed her arms. They shook with exhaustion. She felt around with her feet and found a ledge, resting some of her weight against it. It held. She put more of her weight and it continued to stay firm. She took a deep breath and pushed down on her leg, throwing her body up and forward so that she could clamber the rest of the way over.
She lay on the sandy floor breathing hard. Her cheek pressed against the dirt and it dug into her face. Her stomach burst with pain from being pressed against the floor but all of her muscles ached so badly she could barely face moving an inch, let alone rolling over. She relished in the feel of solid ground beneath her. The tingling in her legs from dangling above the drop dissipated, leaving just her gasping breaths.
"You know, I don't want to trouble you," Aart said, his voice strained.
Nova winced as she twisted to look back over the chasm at Aart. Pain surged up her side and her arms shook under the weight of her body.
Aart dangled from a single stone a foot below the ledge. His white knuckles strained to keep hold but his fingers slipped closer to the edge. He bit his lip and looked up at Nova, his face red. Dark patches covered his ripped clothes where they dripped with sweat. His legs kicked beneath him, where broken splinters jutted out of the wall.
The shaft fell down between them, gaping like an enormous beast. Nova's stomach churned as she looked over the edge. To reach Aart she'd have to jump to the other side, it wasn't far but the drop down made it seem much further. All of her survival instincts told her to walk away, but Aart had saved her life more than once. It was only fair that she do the same.
She got to her knees, breathing hard. She clasped her hand over the wound in her side, it came away sticky with blood. She stood on shaky legs facing Aart. Her heart raced against her rib cage and her blood pounded in her ears.
Her stomach clenched as she leaned forward and sprinted the few paces to the gap. She leapt, arms outstretched, her stomach dropping as the ground fell away beneath her.
Her feet smacked against the hard stone on the other side and a flood of relief rushed through her.
The jolt of landing sent new waves of pain up her side. She winced and tears stung the corners of her eyes. She lay down at the ledge and held out both hands.
"I don't want to rush you or anything…" Aart said, his fingertips clutching the edge of the rock. He stared up at her, the whites of his eyes shining in the semi-darkness. The walls kept moving, only thirty centimetres apart.
"I don't suppose you can grab on?" Nova said.
"Not really, no," Aart replied through gritted teeth.
Nova frowned; his hands were just within arm's reach. She could try pulling him up but she doubted if her upper body could hold his weight. She reached further so that most of her chest hung over the ledge.
Sweat poured down Aart's face. "I really can't hold on much longer."
"I'm getting there. You can use the wall behind you to brace your back."
Aart did as she said and some of the panic left his eyes. "If it keeps closing I'll be minced meat."
Nova said nothing, inching further so that her fingertips grazed his.
Blood rushed to her head, making her vision swim and her brain pound. Spittle leaked to the front of her mouth and dripped down through the air. A drop landed on Aart's fingers.
"That's disgusting," he said.
"I'm sure you've had worse."
She strained, stretching as far as she could and grabbed hold of his wrist with both hands. "Gotcha."
Aart slipped free of the rock. He snatched Nova's arms, his full weight tugging on her injured side and threatening to pull her over the edge.
She gritted her teeth, face red. "Climb up now. But I swear if you drag me down there with you I will come back and haunt you."
"Yeah, well you and me both." Aart glanced over his shoulder and grimaced.
"Ready when you are," Nova said.
Aart kicked out at the rock wall and grabbed Nova's wrist with his other hand. She slithered backwards as best she could while he climbed her hand like a rope.
"So far, so good," he said.
"Just climb your lazy arse up," Nova said, face scrunched.
"Dammit. I can feel the walls on both sides."
"Just keep climbing."
Grunts and curses floated up from the shaft. It took a few moments but then Aart's brown hair appeared above the ledge followed by the rest of his head. His face shone red with sweat as he hoisted himself up. He slithered over the edge just as the two walls slammed together with a puff of dust.
He lay on the floor next to her, panting. She collapsed and rested her back against the sandstone wall. She stared up at the ceiling, breathing hard. Every muscle in her body ached, overcome only by the agonising pain in her side. Blood dribbled out of the wound, soaking her shirt. Still, they were both alive. She let out a deep sigh.
Aart pushed himself off his belly and rested against the wall opposite Nova, his outstretched legs almost touching the wall by her side. They looked at one another, their faces mirror images of exhaustion and relief.
"I guess you owe me now," Nova said with a wan smile.
"I think we should call it even."
"Fair enough. As long as you give me some more of that Parapem. Also, I think you're going to have to do another patch up. Apparently your sewing isn't as good as you think it is." Nova waved her hand at her side.
"I didn't know it would have to stand up to that." Aart waved towards the shaft gaping to his left.
He tossed the box of Parapem to Nova and she pulled out a tiny blue square with shaking hands. She placed it on her tongue and relief surged through her body, melting her aches and pains.
"Just don't OD on that stuff," Aart said. "I might need to be hoisted out of a cavern again someday."
"You can find someone else to do it. I'm done with hoisting. Or even better, why don't you start working on your cardio?"
Aart snorted and pulled out the needle and wire as he shuffled over to Nova.
She lifted her shirt and winced at the sight of her own wound. Blood covered her side.
"You know you're a terrible patient," Aart said. "I'm sure I told you to keep this clean and get plenty of rest."
"What can I say? I was never very good at following instructions."
Aart reached back into his bag and pulled out a relatively clean cloth. He dabbed at Nova's wound, wiping away the excess blood. He pushed the needle through her skin and sewed her shut. The two flaps came together again in a jagged line. This time it took ten stitches to close the wound.
"You keep tearing it like that and soon you'll break clean in half."
Nova waved her hand at him. "Trust me; I'm planning to keep all strenuous activities to a minimum."
"Good. What say we stop for lunch?"
"Please. I feel like I could eat half a planet."
Aart grinned. "Maybe one of the smaller ones."
He pulled out a nutrient bar and handed half to Nova.
They chewed in silence, both regaining their breaths and allowing the sweat to evaporate from their skin. This was no place to be glamorous. Dirt, sweat, and blood coated their flesh and they smelled like the slums of Tabryn. Their clothes had been reduced to barely more than rags, but still, they'd seen worse. They were both orphans of the outer planets and no strangers to dirt and blood.
"With this little detour I have no idea where we are," Nova said.
"Me neither. Although I would suggest we avoid any further leaping or falling and continue down this way." He nodded into the darkness away from the shaft.
"Agreed," Nova said.
They struggled to their feet. Aart's stitches held firm as they hobbled down the dark tunnel. The smooth sandstone walls mirrored those of the tunnels below, stretching out like a maze.
"What sort of ancient culture puts traps in their tombs?" Aart said from behind Nova.
"From what I've read, most of them."
"I'll be damned."
"Probably," Nova replied with a chuckle.
They walked on in silence, their feet making a steady rhythm on the sandy floor.
"Wait!" Aart hissed, snatching Nova's wrist.
She stopped dead, her hand landing on her gun.
A new tunnel disappeared into inky blackness on her right. She took a step back so that she and Aart stood side by side. He already had his gun out and was staring into the dark side tunnel. Nova knew better than to ask what he'd seen or heard. If he thought it was safe to elaborate, he would. She strained her ears against the silence, searching for any hint of what Aart had caught. It didn't take long for her to hear it too.
Something skittered along the floor. Lots of somethings. The sound of grains of sand sliding against one another got louder. What had started as barely a whisper grew as it echoed down the tunnel towards them. Nothing moved within the light of the glowball, no hint to tell them what was coming, only the inarguable certainty that something was.
Nova and Aart aimed their guns into the darkness ahead of them. Her shoulders tensed as they stared into the unknown. Nova slowed her racing heart and forced her mind to focus. It was harder than normal around the drug-induced clouds that filled her head. The tapping grew louder, into a continuous whir, like a swarm of bees.
It seemed like an eternity that she and Aart stood shoulder to shoulder, waiting in the darkness. The feel of his arm against hers gave her some comfort, a fellow Hunter. She and Aart had seen many things. If she was going to face an enemy, she was glad that it was with him.
"You know I really don't think now is a good time to smile," Aart said as he glanced at her in the light of their glowballs.
"When's a better time?" Nova said. "Laugh in the face of danger, my friend."
"I'd rather laugh at the back of danger. You know, once it's passed me by."
"That would be a very boring way to live," Nova said.
"Maybe. But at least I wouldn't look like a madman, laughing while I was killed by… whatever is coming down that tunnel."
"Maybe it's just the wind?"
"If that's wind, then you can have Sylar."
"Ha! As if I want that cosmic crap-pile," Nova said, her smile widening.
"If we weren't about to be killed, I would shoot you for that. We both know that Sylar is one of the best bounty ships on the market. She has a four times capacity storage bay, can sleep up to fifteen AND the AI is ten times better than that rust bucket you drive around."
Nova chuckled. "Aart, I really don't think now is the best time to be comparing ships."
"And why's that?"
"Because they're here."
Shapes loomed out of the darkness into the circle of light. Their many legs tapped on the stone floor and their pincers snapped together, the noise echoing about the tunnel.
"Scorpions?" Aart said, incredulous.
"Giant scorpions," Nova confirmed.
The massive creatures lurched past one another in their effort to get to Nova and Aart. They were as long as Nova was tall and their bodies were just as thick. Their shiny carapaces glinted orange in the light from the glowballs, like a thick layer of armour. Their black eyes glimmered, reflecting their snapping pincers.
Nova squeezed her trigger.
The gun fired in her arm, sending small vibrations up to her shoulder. A blue bolt of energy shot out and slammed into the head of the closest creature. The orange shell turned black and the creature shrieked. Its cries reverberated and pierced Nova's ears, making her brain ring.
The beast closed its eyes and scuttled forward, pincers snapping like rusted scissors. They threatened to cut Nova in half if she gave them the chance. More creatures streamed into the circle of light. Their bodies extended down in segments, ending in a pointed tails. The very tip glinted a poisonous green in the dim light.
Aart fired green bolts into the creatures as they rushed forward. Their shells cracked under the heat and energy of the attack but they didn't stop coming. Their hard legs scuttled over the stone ground, bringing them closer.
Nova held her finger down on the trigger and her gun blasted a stream of shots aimed at the creature's face. The bolts of energy slammed into the scorpion and the concentrated blasts added together created an extreme centre of heat.
Small flames erupted from the creature's eyes. It squealed and reared up onto its hind legs, pincers snapping at the air as flames ate away its eyeballs, leaving behind blackened ruins made of ash. The rest of the orange shell turned to charcoal and bits flaked off, falling to the ground.
Nova gritted her teeth. "Aim for the face."
Aart focused his fire and a few moments later a second scorpion screeched in pain and came to a stop, clawing at its face. The two blind creatures bumped into one another as they jostled in the small tunnel, rearing up and smashing back to the ground. They scrambled in circles, but the press of the other scorpions pushed them forward.
The uninjured scorpions clambered over the shrieking beasts, their pointed legs crushing the burned shells of the injured scorpions and leaving gaping holes that leaked clear liquid.
The burnt scorpions screeched, flapping their pincers.
Nova lifted her hands up to her ears, sure her eardrums would burst at any moment. The noise vibrated straight through into her inner-ear, scratching at her brain. It was worse than fingernails on rusted metal. Her teeth tingled and sat on edge as goosebumps ran up her arms. Her neck stiffened as she risked a glance at Aart. His hands clamped around his ears and his eyes squinted shut against the pain. A trickle of blood trailed out of his nose and dribbled down to his mouth.
Aart flicked his tongue out, scooping the drop of blood with it. His eyes shot open and he spat and spluttered. He took his left hand away from his ear and wiped his upper lip with his sleeve, staring at the blood with an open mouth. He glanced at Nova, his brows drawn together. "Your nose."
"What?" Nova said. She lifted her own fingers to a warm wetness on her upper lip. Crimson blood coated the tips of her fingers. Her head rung with the screeching and she imagined more blood vessels bursting. How long until her ears started bleeding too?
"You bastards," she said, taking a firmer hold of her gun.
She held down the trigger and fired into the mass of insectoid bodies, focusing on the injured creatures. Their screeches died as another wave of scorpions lunged at Nova and Aart.
Their pincers snapped, inches from Nova's face.
She whipped her head back and a loose strand of hair flicked up. The pincers cracked shut, clipping through the strand like a razor. Nova's mouth dropped as it fell to the dirt.
The scorpion snapped again and its pincer scraped Nova's cheek, leaving a bloody line.
She gasped and smashed her gun down on the creature's head. It crunched under the force, caving inward, and the beast's legs went still. The rest of the scorpions raced over its dead body.
The scorpions swarmed forward, the first line falling into mounds of charred shell as Nova and Aart focused their fire. The rest of the horde scurried over the dead bodies, crushing blackened shell into the ground.
Nova took a step back, her spine pressing against the cold stone of the tunnel's wall.
"We need a better plan," said Aart, breathing hard. "How many do you think there are back there?"
"It's impossible to say, but it sure sounds like a lot."
"Bloody Hell. At least they can only get through the tunnel two at a time."
"My gun won't last much longer. Damn thing will need to cool down."
"Mine's still got a little bit left but it won't last forever."
Nova grimaced and glanced at Aart. "I don't suppose you've got any more contraband weapons in your bag?"
"I've got a few pulse grenades, but I don't think we should let them loose down here."
"Just throw them."
"They could bring the whole tunnel down on our heads."
"Okay, no grenades." Nova wiped a trail of sweat off her forehead with her shoulder.
"We could try and run," Aart said.
Their blasts kept the scorpions at bay for the moment. It was almost as if the creatures knew they couldn't shoot for ever, as if they were biding their time.
Nova fired. "We wouldn't stand a chance of outrunning them down here."
"I know. Just throwing out suggestions."
"Dammit! Ten shots left."
"I'm thinking! I'm thinking!"
"There's got to be something." Nova's mind raced over everything she'd packed. She bit her lip, tasting blood, and glared at the oncoming swarm.
Her gun clicked.
She slammed her gun into the holster at her waist and with the same motion drew her knife.
"Watch my back," she said, bending her knees.
"What? Nova!" Aart's voice cracked.
"Just a little while."
"Please tell me you're not about to do what I think you're going to do," Aart said.
A scorpion scurried over the dead bodies and Nova leapt forward. She ignored the sudden burst of pain in her side and swung her arm down, slamming her knife into the thing's head. Her blade sunk through hard shell and plunged into the scorpion's brain.
"Nova, that's really impressive and everything but it's going to take us a really long time to get out of this if you're planning to stab every single one."
"I'm open to suggestions," Nova said, pulling her knife free and lining up for another kill.
"Upgrade our guns?"
"If we make it out of here, I'll be sure to do that."
Nova dived for another beast but as she lurched forward it darted sideways. Her arm fell wide, her dagger scraping on the hard sandstone floor. "Grishnak!"
The scorpion reared up and shot forward, its tail swinging through the air, tip shining.
Nova held her hands over her face and rolled as the tail swung down.
It slammed into the ground beside Nova's face with a noise like a cannon, leaving a white scratch in the stone. Poison dribbled from the tip and created a small puddle on the stone floor that glistened in the dim light. The tail reared up, looming above Nova's pale face. She gasped and scrounged for her gun.
Green light burst around the creature and it howled as flames consumed its face.
Nova clamped her hands over her ears.
Aart was right, they couldn't hold them. Her gun burned hot at her waist, useless. She'd faced some deadly situations before, but never had she considered death by scorpion. What a messy way to go.
"Get back you ugly bastards!" Aart yelled. A small light on his gun flashed red; it wouldn't hold out for much longer.
Nova scrambled to her feet, snatching her knife from the floor. She took a gasping breath and licked her lip, tasting blood and sweat.
A new sound entered the close-quartered battle. A bright yellow light flashed, followed by a howl.
In the sudden blaze of brilliance, Nova made out two faces in the tunnel, on the other side of the scorpion horde.
The strangers continued to fire. Yellow and orange bolts blasted into the fray, eliciting cries of pain from the scorpions.
Nova grabbed hold of Aart's shirt and pulled him back. With the scorpions momentarily distracted they could pause and let their guns cool down. A few seconds now saved whole minutes later if they let their guns overheat completely.
They stalled for as long as they dared, but it didn't take long for the scorpions to notice the lack of fire and scuttle their way. Their hard legs tapped against the stone floor as they bore down on the bounty hunters.
Nova slashed, her dagger plummeting into the nearest scorpion's head. Its shell cracked and coated Nova's hand in sticky fluid. She scurried back behind Aart as he fired two shots. The beast screeched and slashed its claws but missed, blinded by the charcoal holes that used to be its eyes.
Aart fired a final shot and the scorpion collapsed, dead.Two more scorpions lumbered towards them out of the darkness but a flurry of bright orange plasma blasts from the other side of the tunnel caught their heads and reduced them to screeching piles of blackened limbs.
As they fell silent, an eerie stillness permeated the stone catacombs. Burnt scorpion corpses littered the floor amid circular soot marks.
Aart glanced at Nova and turned back to the darkness, taking a deep breath. "Hello?"
A rasping voice replied."Hello."
Aart strode forward, his boots crushing shells under his weight. Orange and black chips scattered around his feet, leaving a trail through the sand.
Nova tightened her grip on her knife and placed her other hand on the gun at her waist. She kept the tunnel wall close to her left shoulder to avoid being surrounded and squinted into the inky blackness. She bit her lip, wanting to curse Aart for rushing forward into possible danger.
Aart's glowball lit up a layer of scorpion bodies. Some had been killed by Nova and Aart, others were dead by someone else's hand. The light fell onto two sets of boots and trailed up to two human faces. They had furrowed brows and looked at Aart and Nova with the same caution she felt.
"Aart Goldson," Aart said, holding out his hand.
The man and woman glanced at one another and then the woman grasped Aart's hand.
"Maya Sicel. This is Tommy," she said, her voice soft and her eyes hard.
"So what brings you fine folks to a place like this?" Aart said with a grin.
Maya jutted her chin up at the ceiling. "We're Hunters, same as you I assume. Caught by the sick bastard."
"What guild are you from?" Aart asked.
"A small one, you wouldn't have heard of it," Maya said, running narrowed eyes over Nova. Her brown hair was pulled away from her tanned face, revealing a jagged scar running along her jaw.
"Sometimes small is better. We're from The—"
"Hungry Hunters," Nova said, slamming her boot into Aart's shin.
He grunted and glared at her.
Maya frowned. "I don't think I've heard of that one……"
Nova waved her hand. "It's small too."
Maya nodded, her lips pursed. "I see."
Nova's face remained expressionless. "How'd you get onto this level?"
"What do you mean this level?" Maya said, frowning. "We haven't seen any stairs or anything."
Nova grunted. She and Aart had practically died to get up on this level; it seemed unfair that these two hadn't even seen another one. But this area hadn't been marked on the map she'd seen. Did that mean the maps were useless?
"Is this the only trouble you've run into?" Tommy said. His short brown hair jutted up in spikes above bright blue eyes. He had a handgun tucked into his belt alongside a small knife.
"We've had a few troubles," Aart said, thrusting his thumb over his shoulder at Nova. "She was nearly killed by a plant if you'd believe it."
Maya grunted. "That's one explanation for the blood."
Nova's shoulders tensed and her grip tightened.
Tommy ignored Maya's interruption. "I sure would believe it. We've seen a few things too. When we heard you yelling, we thought we'd best lend a hand."
"What kind of Hunter lends a hand to strangers in a place like this?" Nova narrowed her eyes. These were hard times and soft-hearts were hard to find.
"The good kind," Maya said, her tone terse. "Now Tommy, hush your mouth."
"You two knew each other," Aart said, "Before all this."
"Sure did," said Maya.
Aart held his hands wide. "Well, I don't know about you but I'd rather travel with four of us than two."
Nova glared at the back of his head. "Aart—"
"I'm not sure if it would—" Maya glanced again at Nova.
"Maya, we need all the help we can get," Tommy whispered.
"Aart, we have no way of knowing if they are who they say they are," Nova said, stepping up behind Aart and whispering into his ear.
"Same as they don't have any way of knowing if we're who we say we are."
"Yes, but I know who I am."
Her skin itched at the thought of joining the strangers. It was bad enough to let people travel with you at the best of times, let alone in a hellhole like this. The hairs on the back of her neck lifted up as she stared at Maya's dark eyes.She hadn't lowered her gun yet either.
"Ladies, ladies," Aart said. "I'm sure we can work it out."
"Yeah, we don't know what else might come our way. I'd rather there be four of us when it does," said Tommy.
Aart nodded to Tommy. "See, the man speaks sense. Now if you two can just put your weapons away, we can talk like civilised people."
Nova glanced down at her weapon, which was still levelled just to the left of Maya's stomach, and then back at Maya. They stared into each other's eyes and as one they lowered their guns to their sides.
"Okay, now into the belts and we're practically friends," Aart said, the grin never leaving his face.
Nova lowered her knife, but only as quickly as Maya. Her knife dropped into place at the same time as Maya's gun and they lifted their hands away, palms up. The two women nodded at each other, so far so good.
Nova scrutinised every detail of the other woman; the way she'd holstered her gun, the way she held the weapon, the way her finger flexed on the trigger. Nova was sure she could beat the other woman to the draw if it came to it. She had of course faked clumsiness in her own display, best to throw her opponent off guard.
"Where did you folks come from?" Aart said.
"Back down the tunnel, same as you I'd say," Tommy said.
"Good. I don't know about you fine people, but if fighting scorpions does anything it makes me hungry. I'd be happy to share some nutribars with you."
"We've got our own," Maya said. "Thank you."
"But we'd be happy to stop and eat," Tommy put in, "It's been a long day."
Aart dropped to the floor. "It's settled then."
The blackened scorpion bodies lay just outside of their pool of light and the thought of them made Nova shiver.
Aart rested his back against the tunnel walls and pulled out a nutribar. He handed half to Nova.
She took the bar and nodded once at Aart before bending her knees and lowering herself against the wall next to him. Maya and Tommy did the same on the opposite wall so that the four Hunters stared at one another across the tunnel.
"Tell me what else you've seen down here," Aart said around a mouthful of food.
Tommy shivered. "There was a massive spider. Luckily it didn't have a shell like these things. Just horrible hairy skin; like leather."
"I'm glad you ran into that instead of us," Aart said, his eyes wide. "I hate spiders."
Tommy nodded. "There was fire in the ceiling."
"What?" Nova asked, staring at him.
"Yeah, some kind of trap I guess. I didn't take the time to check it out properly. Just got out of there as fast as I could."
"This place isn't right," Nova said, shaking her head and leaning back against the wall.
"No kidding," Maya said.
Nova glared at her and returned to sullen silence. They ate in quiet and the awkward lack of conversation grew inside Nova's stomach and made her want to squirm. She dug her fingernails into her leg and scowled up at the ceiling.
"Hello Hunters and welcome to day two," a booming voice echoed through the tunnel.
The four of them jumped as an image of the statue they'd been sent to find appeared projected into the air in front of them. The holographic image rotated around in slow circles and was then replaced by four grainy portraits.
"Unfortunately some of your friends didn't make it through. Little Don. Kaila Midden. Rob Laughlin. Their bodies are feeding my planet now."
"Who the hell are you?" Nova said, leaping to her feet and swiping her fist through the hologram. Her hand passed straight through and shot out the other side.
"Tsk, tsk, Nova. You should know better," the voice said. "I wanted to let you know that the rules have changed. It seems to me that some of you have decided to team up. Let me tell you, that's not how it works around here."
Nova glanced back at Aart and placed a hand on her gun. She noticed out of the corner of her eye that Maya did the same.
"I'm not completely without sentiment, so here's the deal Hunters. I will let your team survive if you all come from the same Hunter guild. If you're a mixed team, you'll all be killed, one way or another. And don't think I can't do it," the voice said with a chuckle. "So, just remember, if someone isn't from the same guild as you, they're going to see you dead. You will never get out of here while you all survive, because there can only be one winner. Let's settle once and for all which is the best bounty hunter guild. And let me tell you, it will take much more than a good space-race to win this one, Nova Tabryn."
The voice clicked off and disappeared along with the image of the statue.
"Someone's a few planets short of a solar system," Aart said after the voice disappeared.
"You always hear about the crazies. You know, taking people and hiding them away. Never thought I'd be a victim though," Tommy said.
Nova caught Maya watching her with narrowed eyes. "Nova Tabryn."
"From The Jagged Maw."
Tommy frowned. "Wasn't The Jagged Maw—"
"We weren't home when it happened," Nova said. "I don't want to talk about it."
Tommy shook his head. "I'm sorry…"
Maya looked less convinced but Nova didn't want her digging any deeper. "What do we do now?"
"The way you came in was blocked off?" Aart said, turning to Tommy.
Aart sighed. "We played right into his hands. With a reward that high of course Hunters were going to come running."
"Yes, we got suckered," Nova said. "The real question is, what are we going to do about it?"
"Keep moving," Maya said.
"I think we should rest first," Tommy said. "I don't know about you guys but I'm just about asleep already."
"It's only mid-afternoon," Nova said, even though her muscles ached and she couldn't imagine going another step.
Aart shrugged. "I don't think the nutcase cares when we sleep. Plus, after our fun today I'm ready for a rest."
Tommy nodded. "Yep. I'm beat."
Nova shrugged but didn't argue.
Maya's hand fell to her gun. "Fine. I'll take first watch."
Nova stared hard at Maya. "Oh no, I'll do it. I insist."
"Maybe we should both do it," Maya said, her eyes narrowing.
"That might be best."
"Fine by me," Aart said. "I will be sound asleep."
"Until I wake you up for your shift," Nova warned.
Aart winked at her and pulled a thin blanket from his pack. He used the bag as a pillow and lay with his back against the tunnel wall. Tommy did the same on the other side.
Nova and Maya sat on opposite sides of the tunnel, avoiding each other's eyes. With Aart and Tommy asleep, silence fell. The darkness pushed in on all sides along with the complete absence of sound. If there were monsters sneaking up on them through the darkness, they were keeping very quiet.
The two women glanced at one another, their eyes like hard pieces of flint that flashed in the semi-darkness. The light from their glowballs shone up from below and cast ominous shadows on their faces. Maya's shoulders hunched and Nova's fist clenched.
Two hours later, Nova's shoulders loosened and she let her legs relax. If Maya planned to attack her, she was taking her time about it.
Maya stretched her neck. "So… Tabryn huh?"
They spoke in hushed tones so as to not wake the other two. Nova wasn't one for light conversation and if she knew anything about reading people, neither was Maya. Then again, it would be better to know something about the people she was travelling with.
"Rough place," Maya said.
Nova shrugged. "No more than most. Where'd you run from?"
The corner of Maya's mouth twitched. "I suppose we're all running from something, aren't we?"
"Why else would we be here?" Nova flicked her hand at the darkness surrounding them.
"I was on Vix," Maya said.
She watched Nova from below lowered lids.
Nova kept her face neutral. "Would rather Tabryn any day."
"Yeah, me too."
"How long have you been a Hunter?"
"Must be about seven years now, although I was doing mostly the same thing on Vix towards the end. Just didn't have a ship to get off that rock."
Nova grunted. "Mostly the same story here."
"What are you riding now?"
"A beat up Zephyr four hundred."
Maya raised an eyebrow. "Retro."
Nova shrugged. "Their engines are good. Better than they look from the outside anyway."
"Oh I don't doubt it. Certainly wouldn't question mechanics from the illustrious winner of the space-race."
"That wasn't so much mechanical skill or even quality of ship. That was more that I was the only one racing that day with my head screwed on right."
Maya snorted. "Oh I saw the race. I know that's true."
Nova nodded and glanced back at the other woman. They stared at one another for a few moments, taking stock, reassessing. Nova let the final knot in her stomach loosen and decided to trust the other woman, at least for now.
"Did you see anyone else arrive?" Nova asked.
"No," Maya said, glancing down at her lap. "There were a few ships when I arrived though."
"Yeah, me too."
"What were you hoping to do with the prize money?"
Nova shrugged. "You know, ship upgrades. Stuff."
Maya rolled her eyes. "Okay."
Nova clenched her teeth and kept quiet. If Maya didn't believe her then so be it. She didn't exactly want to parade around the fact that she planned to break free of the outer border.
Maya sighed. "If you're not going to tell me that then I can't trust you and we should go our own ways now."
Nova glared at the other woman. "Even if I wanted to share my secrets with you, we never know who else is listening."
Maya grunted. "Must be a big secret."
Nova shrugged. "Just personal. Why, what did you want the money for?"
Maya's face dropped. "I've got a brother still on Vix. He got sold into one of the houses, you know? Makes them a mint too. I want to get him off, buy him a ship, set him free I guess."
Nova nodded. Maya wouldn't be the first Hunter to enter the trade to save a loved one.
"I tried to break him out once, a few years ago. The security they have in those houses is better than anything the Confederacy has. I barely got out without being sold myself. I haven't seen him since."
"I hope you find the money," Nova said.
She counted it almost as a blessing that she had no family to speak of. At least she didn't have to worry about saving them. It was just her, Cal, and Crusader. And occasionally her friends, she thought, as she glanced down at Aart's sleeping face.
"Yeah me too," Maya said, staring at her hands.
Nova bit her lip. "What say we wake these lazy sods up? I don't know about you, but I could definitely use a sleep."
"Count me in."
Maya leaned over and gently shook Tommy's shoulder. He grumbled but was awake in seconds. He sat up and rubbed his eyes, nodding once at Nova.
Nova was far less gentle. She tapped Aart's leg with her foot and he leapt to his feet, knife drawn. He glared down at her when he saw there was no danger and sat back down.
"You're it," Nova said. "And I swear if you fall asleep I'll carve my name into your cheek."
"Yes sir," Aart said, slotting his knife back into his belt.
Nova awoke hours later feeling rested and ready to face whatever the tunnels had to throw at her. She ate half a nutribar and checked over her weapons. The other Hunters did the same.
"Keep your eyes open for any sign of trouble," Maya warned. "We might be all chummy, but I'm sure some of the other Hunters won't be nearly as friendly."
"I'll take the rear," Nova said.
Maya stared at her for a few moments and then nodded once, taking a place at the front of their group. They headed off down the dark tunnel through inky blackness.
The rough walls and floor didn't change. They were all made of the same sandstone and covered with tiny grains of sand. Their feet scraped along the blocks, sending sand skittering in all directions.
The air at least was slightly fresher up on this level of the tunnels, unlike the dank staleness from below. Nova could almost imagine she felt a breeze on her skin, if she closed her eyes and concentrated very hard. Perhaps there was an exit nearby, leading out into the sun.
"Ahead," Maya whispered.
The other three Hunters stopped and arrayed themselves behind her, their weapons drawn. They stared into the darkness of the tunnel ahead, their eyes straining to see anything through the gloom.
Nova frowned as she stared. There was nothing but black ahead. What had Maya seen? Or thought she'd seen? But there was something different in the distance. Instead of inky blackness fading into nothing, the air was different. Grey. The darkness wasn't so dark.
"There's a light," Nova whispered. The other Hunters nodded.
It had to be a bright light for it to reach all the way down to this part of the tunnel but it didn't look like sunlight. It was too dim to be the sun, and it was the wrong colour, green almost.
"We have to check it out," Aart said.
"Be ready," Maya warned.
They advanced with cautious steps but the sandy floor made it impossible to sneak. Their feet scraped through the sand and tapped on hard stone, while their measured breaths bounced off the hard walls. Each of their weapons gave off a faint coloured glow that became less pronounced as they approached the real source of light.
They rounded a corner and the light surrounded them. The green glow was blinding compared to the dimness of their glowballs. Nova shielded her eyes against the artificial glare, squinting out at the new room.
The enlarged chamber was many times bigger than the tunnels, and green lights shone from the roof. They looked like soft mossy clumps that glowed with a natural coloured light, almost like sunlight through green leaves.
Plants filled the chamber. Their leaves dangled down from the walls and vines scurried over the floor. Ferns dripped tantalising sparkles of water to the sandy floor.
"That does look good," Aart said, leaning close to the drops.
"I'd stick to the bottled stuff," Nova said, scanning the room.
Aart sighed. "Yeah. Knowing this place, it's probably got nanobots that'll eat you from the inside."
"Over here," said Tommy.
They hurried to where he knelt on the floor in a dark corner of the chamber where even the green light from above was mostly blocked. A woman's body lay curled up against a stone wall.
Nova glanced around for any sign of danger. She couldn't see anything obvious, but that didn't mean it wasn't there. The body looked… fresh… for want of a better word. Her tattered clothing and small gun suggested she was another bounty hunter.
Aart took the gun from her holster. "I guess she won't be needing this."
Nova snatched his arm. "Aart!"
"Like you haven't taken a weapon from a fallen body before. We don't know what else is down here, we need to be ready."
Nova pursed her lips and looked away.
"Poison," Tommy said, pointing to a small spot of blood on her neck. "Some kind of dart I'd say."
"Like this one?" Aart said, picking a tiny metal needle up off the floor.
Nova turned in a slow circle, staring intently at the walls and plants. After everything she'd seen, she would never trust another plant for as long as she lived. At least these weren't moving, for the moment. There were no holes in the walls that she could see, but for a needle so small it wouldn't have to be a large gap.
"There's something behind her," Maya said.
With all the respect they could muster they pulled the stranger's body away from the wall. Carved into the stones on the floor under the body were symbols. They extended back into the dark corner and some distance away towards the centre of the room.
Aart frowned. "What sort of script is that?"
"I've never seen it," Maya replied.
"My chip doesn't recognise it," Nova said.
Circles and swirls formed a beautiful pattern, if you could get past the body lying just a few metres away.
"Do you think she was trying to read it?" Aart said.
Nova stepped away from the symbols and eyed the floor. "If that's the case then you should probably stop reading them."
"I don't think it's so simple," Maya said. "If you look here, there's a pile of sand. And this tile is almost completely clean. Something's been moved."
"Like what?" Aart said.
Nova stepped forward again and followed Maya's pointed finger. She was right. The sand covering the floor was scuffed up. Something heavy had been scraped along it. In fact, the sides of some of the tiles were scraped white.
She knelt next to the tile and thrust her fingers into the gap between it and the next large block. The tips of her fingers curled around the base. She strained and the tile lifted.
The weight of it stretched all of the muscles in her arm, making them quake. She grunted and forced herself to lift higher. Beneath the tile rested another hard sandstone block that rose up as she took the weight of the tile from it.
Aart whistled. "Well I'll be damned."
"Just make sure there aren't any poison darts coming in my direction," Nova said.
Aart twisted around, eyeing the walls. "I'm definitely not going to stand in their way if that's what you're thinking."
"I'll remember that," said Nova.
Tommy shambled forward. "I think it's a puzzle. The symbols look like they're cut-off, incomplete. But if you rearranged the tiles, maybe they'd make more sense."
Nova leaned the heavy tile on its side where it wobbled, the rough edge making it unbalanced. She held it upright with her right hand and wiped the left on her pants, taking away the sweat and some of the sand. Her palm stung, scraped raw from the rough tile, but she ignored the pain.
"He's right," said Maya. "The one you're holding would match up with this one."
She pointed her toe at another tile. It had a swirling line that fell off one side. A matching line rose up Nova's tile.
"So it's some kind of massive puzzle. Let's ask ourselves a couple of questions," Aart said. "First, from the evidence at hand, we can probably guess that that girl died because she did the puzzle wrong. Second, why do we want to do a weird, deadly puzzle? Third, Nova, be very careful where you put that tile because it could very well see us dead."
Nova looked at the other Hunters with a sinking feeling in her stomach. Aart was probably right. The way the block beneath the tile had lifted was just the kind of thing she'd expect from a pressure trap. And the chances were pretty good that this tile did not belong on that block.
"I know the answer to your second question," said Maya.
Aart lifted one eyebrow. "Oh?"
"There's a door here and it won't open." Maya tapped a section of wall with her foot. "My guess is, that puzzle will open it up and let us through. And seeing as it's the only other door in this room, I think we should get started."
Nova looked closely at the section of wall Maya had pointed to. She was right. There was a very faint outline, the slightest inconsistencies in the wall texture. If she squinted she could even convince herself that the door was a different colour to the rest of the wall. Of course, none of that changed the fact that if she dropped the tile they could all be dead in seconds. Somehow it made the tile feel even heavier.
"Let's get started," Nova said.
It was difficult to see the whole picture, kneeling on the ground. She could only see some of the tiles and they were warped out of perspective from her low view. She also didn't want to lose focus on balancing the tile exactly where it was. Even with it resting on the ground it weighed a huge amount. Sweat broke out on her brow and her arms shook to keep the tile upright.
From her vantage point the floor looked like a wild collection of swirls and patterns, no order to it at all. And certainly no way to tell which tiles went where.
Aart, Maya, and Tommy paced around the edge of the tiles, frowning as they examined the intricate stonework. No sign of enlightenment or discovery lit their faces, just complete and utter puzzlement.
"Let's brainstorm ideas," Aart said, throwing his hands up.
"Plants," Nova said, glancing at the green life all around them.
"Flowers," Tommy said.
The ideas kept flowing but none of them struck home.
Nova groaned. "This is ridiculous. There has to be another way."
"There's not," Aart said. "We haven't passed any forks since meeting these guys."
"Besides," said Tommy. "I have a feeling that this is the way we're supposed to go."
"In a place like this I don't think there is a right way."
"None of those things fit," Aart said, muttering to himself. "All of these orbs, and the swirls. What are they?"
"Planets!" Maya cried, looking at each of them in turn with wide eyes.
"What?" Aart said.
"They're planets and their orbits. Just look, here's the sun for this solar system, then you've got the inner planets and finally Kopet. It's all here."
"She's right," said Tommy. "If you count there are twelve orbs. It's perfect."
Aart knelt down beside Nova and lifted up the tile next to hers. "Let's get started."
"No wait!" Nova said. She was too late; Aart already had the tile in hand.
Her voice echoed around the chamber and bounced back to them, leaving silence in its wake. The four Hunters froze, scanning the walls for any sign of attack.
"What?" Aart whispered.
"Just because we know what it is, doesn't mean we know where the tiles go. It's a square grid," Nova said, nodding to the surrounding tiles.
"Oh," Aart said. A bead of sweat appeared on his forehead and dribbled down his cheek. His face glowed red and his arms shook as he gripped the tile.
"There has to be a way to work it out," Tommy said.
"There will be a reference point," Nova said. "Something stationary that will orient the rest of the galaxy."
"The only way to orient this kind of schematic would be to have neighbouring solar systems," said Maya.
"Even then, with the planets always moving, how would you know which side is which?" Nova said.
"We can work it out from the orbits," said Tommy. "Look, the tile with the sun has part of an orbit on it, from that we should be able to work out the rest. If we assume that the sun goes at the very centre."
"Can we make that assumption?" Maya asked.
Tommy shrugged. "It's all we've got."
"Then do it," Nova said. "But I'd suggest you get ready to dive."
Maya strode to the centre and pulled up the tile. They waited with baited breaths, but nothing happened.
She strained, tendons springing out on her neck as she lifted the tile and lumbered it away from the carved area, lowering it to the floor some distance away.
"Alright, wish me luck," said Tommy.
Aart grinned. "Good luck."
Tommy heaved up the tile with the sun carved into it, tendons straining. He dropped it into the central space.
They waited in silence.
The hairs at the back of Nova's neck stood on end, poised for the sound of a dart piercing the air. Her knees and legs ached from kneeling for so long under the weight of the tile but she daren't move.
"One down, eight to go," said Tommy.
Nova studied her tile. "I think mine attaches to the sun's orbit."
Tommy nodded. "Give it a go."
Nova strained, hauling the tile off the floor. Pain burned through her abdomen but she bit her lip and staggered to the centre where she dropped her tile into place. The curved line matched and the air remained dart-free.
She let out a long breath.
Together the Hunters pieced together the orbits and planets until only one space remained.
"Last one, Maya," Tommy said.
Maya glanced down at the tile in her hands. "What if it waits until the last tile before shooting the darts?"
"Then I just did a hell of a lot of work for nothing."
"And it wouldn't explain what happened to her," Aart said, nodding at the dead Hunter.
"Everyone keep low to the ground," Nova said. "If the darts are aiming at neck level they should hopefully go straight over our heads."
The others nodded and Maya carried the tile to the edge of the square. She squatted down and lowered it into place. A click echoed around the plant-filled chamber.
Instead of poison darts, the air filled with a grating, grinding noise.
Nova glanced up in time to see the section of wall sliding back to reveal a tunnel leading away into darkness. A breath of fresh air wafted out of the new tunnel and brushed over them. It smelled sweet, but with an undercurrent of something else, something far less inviting.
Nova stepped forward. Her arms and legs ached from holding the massive tiles, but she forced herself to walk upright, with her gun in hand. The glowball at her waist cast its light out over the new doorway and into the room beyond.
"What the hell?" Nova said, stepping forward.
Behind the door lay another corridor, but bland concrete bricks replaced the sandstone.
Nova glanced between the yellow blocks on the outside and the concrete on the inside of the corridor. Her mouth went dry. The modern bricks didn't belong here. Not on this planet and certainly not in this ancient tomb.
"How did that get here?" Tommy asked.
The four of them crowded around the entrance, eyes straining against the darkness. They tried to see further, to make sense of the misplaced tunnel. Even the air wafting out of it was different. It was fresher but also smelled of modern things, plastic and smog, not the sandy staleness of the rest of the tomb.
"I guess there's only one way forward," Aart said, stepping to the front.
Nova followed close behind and they crept into the unknown. A tingle ran up her spine as the cool wind brushed over her cheeks and lifted loose wisps of hair about her ears. For the hundredth time she wished she'd never arrived on the planet and vowed to punish whoever was responsible.
The tunnel rumbled, and Nova's legs wobbled. Loose pieces of rock fell to the ground. She fell against the nearest wall, shoulder grazing against the cement.
"The door!" Aart yelled.
The sandstone door scraped across the floor, hiding the glowing circle of green light.
Nova pushed off the wall and scrambled back down the tunnel. The shaking floor knocked her from side-to-side, slamming her against the bricks. She ignored it and kept running. Her heart hammered in her chest as the circle of light got smaller.
The others scrambled behind her, Aart's curses following her up the tunnel.
She dived at the door just as it snapped closed, killing the last thin sliver of light. She slammed her palms against it. "Dammit!"
The other Hunters got to her side, breathing hard. Their glowballs created a dim circle of light that cast flickering shadows across their faces.
Tommy ran his hand along the rough stone. "Bloody hell. I can't see a way to open it from this side."
Aart kicked the nearest wall. "Another damn trap. The sooner we get out of this hell-hole, the better."
Nova gritted her teeth and turned away from the door. "Let's go." Loose pieces of cement skittered under her boots and smacked against the hard walls.
The others followed, their feet scraping against the floor.
Nova clutched her gun tight, expecting creatures to leap out at her from the shadows. She imagined rabid scorpions scurrying beyond her circle of light, their pincers clicking.
The tunnel seemed to stretch on for hours. The same dull bricks went on in the darkness, without a turn or doorway. The Hunters strode in silence, only their footsteps breaking the oppressive darkness of the passageway.
An eternity later, Aart stumbled to a stop at the front of the group. "Whoa."
Nova frowned and stepped up beside him. "Cells..."
The walls and ceiling of the tunnel fell away, spreading out into a great hall where a set of stairs swirled around, up to the second level. Metal railings glittered at the edge of their circle of light. On either side of the wide hall stood thick steel doors set deep into the walls. Vertical bars lined tiny eye-level windows.
Maya brushed against Nova's arm as she stepped past. "It's a prison."
"Ten points for the little lady," the booming voice blasted from invisible speakers. "You're absolutely right and you know, in a place like this; prison rules apply. There are eight of you still alive and conveniently you've all managed to make it here. I'd suggest you find a defensible position."
The voice clicked off and they were left with the echoing silence of the prison.
"What is that supposed to mean?" said Tommy.
"There are other Hunters nearby," Nova said. "And depending on who they are, they might not be above killing us for the chance to get off this rock."
She swallowed, throat dry. What should have been a simple treasure hunt had fast become a fight for survival. Her heart beat fast against her ribs, but all of her focus was on the rest of the prison. She strained for any sound of approaching footsteps but all that came back to her was silence.
"I think we should take his advice," she said. "Find a defensible position. And keep your voices down."
Aart reached out and tested the door of the closest cell. The handle creaked down and the door swung inward. It squeaked as it opened and flakes of rust fluttered down from the hinges to create a small patch on the floor. Inside, the cell was more stark and unwelcoming than the corridor. A sheet of steel attached to the wall served as a bed, and a simple waste disposal unit decorated the other corner. The rest of the room was filled with emptiness.
The four Hunters crept inside and looked around. Aart closed the door so that only a thin sliver of the corridor could be seen and stayed there, staring out into the darkness with his gun in hand.
Screams echoed back to them from the prison complex. A high-pitched voice rang out, begging for mercy. It yelled and pleaded, but a few seconds later another gunshot silenced it. The prison fell still again except for ghosts that whispered through the old walls.
"Did you see the shooter?" Nova whispered.
Aart shook his head. "But I saw the body. Fell across the hall, to our right."
Nova ignored the spectres at the edge of her vision; now was not the time to let her control slip. "Turn your lights off."
The others did as she said, throwing the cell into darkness. They drew their guns and the three of them gathered next to Aart at the doorway. Their breathing sounded loud in the new silence of the prison.
"Clearly there's at least one person in here who's willing to kill," Nova said. "From now on we have to be careful. I don't think we have any other choice than to take him down first."
"You're right," said Maya. "What kind of person would kill his fellow Hunters just because some nutcase said so?"
"I can think of a few," said Nova, reminiscing on Kero's recent betrayal.
"Either way we have to work out a plan," Aart whispered. "We didn't see any sign of other people, so it's pretty safe to assume that there are other ways into this prison. I'd bet there's a way out too."
"We have to stay calm," Maya said. "He isn't going to let any of us go; he just wants to watch us kill each other. We have to stick together or we'll all end up dead."
Nova nodded. "Maya's right. Somehow he's built this whole thing; it's like a game for him. There has to be a way out, we just have to live long enough to find it."
The others nodded.
"Should we stay here or try and move further in?" Tommy said.
"I think it would be best to stay put for now. Try to get a grasp of what's going on, see if there are any other sane people in this place or if it's become a free for all," said Nova. "Try to stay calm; we'll need our energy later."
Maya nodded. "And we'd better wrap our guns with something to hide the glow. At the moment they're like giant neon signs pointing the bad guys right at us."
Aart pulled a spare shirt from his bag and ripped it into shreds, handing the pieces out. He wrapped his gun to shield its steady glow and stayed at the door, scanning the surrounding cells and the upper levels for any lights or signs of life while the others wrapped their guns.
Nova tied the rag in place. "I didn't see any glow out there before. I think it's safe to say the others have done something similar."
The others nodded.
Maya and Tommy huddled close together, eyes darting around the room. Their gazes met often and their hands stayed gripped on their guns.
Nova took a seat on the steel bed, just behind Aart, and strained her ears against the silence. Her spine tingled as she focused half of her attention on the prison beyond the door and the other half on watching Maya and Tommy for any signs of betrayal. If this kind of cage-fight was what this 'Watcher' wanted, then chances were good that not all of them were going to make it out alive. She would be damned if she'd let those two kill her while her back was turned.
Cold seeped up from the metal bed and sunk through her clothes, into her very bones. Her skin rose in tiny bumps and she began to shiver. Even with a thick jacket on she couldn't block the cold. On top of that, she was quickly running out of nutribars, she certainly hadn't planned on being down in the tombs for so long, let alone stuck playing prison rules with a bunch of other Hunters.
"There's someone up top," Aart whispered over his shoulder.
Nova slunk from the bed and in a single stride stood by Aart's shoulder, peering through the doorway. She followed his pointing finger to the metal grating that made the upper walkway on the opposite side of the hall. It ran alongside the far walls, interspersed with steel doors with vertical bars.
For the first time, Nova noticed the dim orange glow, like emergency lights, that illuminated the scene and cast eerie shadows across the cells. The grates created a criss-cross of shadows on the floor and the bars on the door made shadowed lines up the far wall of their cell.
In the dim light Nova saw what Aart had noticed. A tiny figure that could have been mistaken for a child, crept along the grated balcony, barely visible in the dim prison lights. A gun dangled at her waist and even with thick boots on metal grating, she made barely a sound. Her head flicked from side to side and every few steps she stopped and tilted her head, listening.
"Friend or foe?" Nova asked.
"Let's wait and see," Aart replied.
From their cell they had a good view of the upper level. They could see the entire opposite wall and some of the cells at each end. The girl edged from one end of the walkway almost to the other, her feet silent. She stopped dead and crouched low. Her head and eyes darted all around as she pulled the gun from her belt. Even from a distance her eyes looked wide and her skin pale.
She turned towards an adjacent cell and her mouth moved.
"Who's she talking to?" Aart whispered.
Nova shook her head. "I can't see or hear anything."
The girl shook her head, whipping it from side to side and spoke again.
A gunshot echoed around the cells. The girl dived to the other side of the grated walkway, but too slow. Her arm exploded into a flower of red flesh and she cried out. She whipped her gun up and fired three times into the darkness. Someone grunted and cursed. The small girl cast around, clutching at her bleeding arm.
Something rustled and she fired her gun into the doorway. More curses.
"I think we know who's friendly and who's not," said Aart.
Nova raised an eyebrow. "Do we? We have no idea. That girl could have killed all the others for all we know. The guys in the cell could just be defending themselves."
Aart rolled his eyes. "I really don't think so."
"But we don't know," Nova said, gripping his arm.
"They attacked first," Aart said, waving his hand towards the girl. "She at least deserves the benefit of the doubt."
Aart shook his head. "No buts. You know you're going to do it, so just be quiet and let's go help her."
Maya held up her hand. "No way, I'm not going out there in the middle of a fire-fight."
"She looks like she needs our help," said Tommy. His brows drew together and he glanced between the girl and Maya as if begging for a solution to fall from the sky.
"I don't care. I'm not going to risk my life for some tiny Hunter," Maya said, crossing her arms.
Aart let go of the door and turned around. "You can stay guard."
Maya nodded and stuck out her chin.
Nova frowned. She didn't trust the two Hunters enough to leave one of them unattended in what she considered base camp. Her years as a Hunter had taught her better than that.
"Don't stress," Aart said, glancing at her face. "What's the worst she could do?"
"You have no idea," Nova replied, her imagination running wild.
Raised voices echoed from up top as the girl with the bleeding arm lay unprotected on the metal walkway.
"Let's get up there," Nova said with a sigh. "Just think; the crazy guy said there were eight of us left. That means the four of us, the wounded girl up there, the dead body over there, whoever is shooting and one other person. So just keep an eye out for our missing person and we should be fine."
"I love the way you think," Aart said, rolling his eyes.
They opened the steel door as quietly as they could, no small feat given its rusted hinges. Aart led the way to the stairs, Nova at his heels, and Tommy at the back. They kept to the shadows and moved with silent feet. Nova lowered her breathing so that she was no louder than a puff of fresh air.
At the bottom of the stairs they hugged the shadows, inching up the inside curve. Even so, the metal stairs scraped under their boots with a noise that thundered in Nova's ears. She tried to tread lightly but that seemed to make it worse. She gripped her gun and went forward, ears straining.
Halfway up, an uneven grate caught Nova's foot. She snatched for the railing, missed, and fell forward. She landed hard on her knees with a solid clunk, the bare steel gouging deep cuts into her hands and legs.
She squeezed her eyes shut and bit her lip to stop herself cursing out loud. A slick film of blood slid down her palm and coated her wrists as Aart pulled her back to her feet.
She ducked her head low as she followed Aart up the stairs, wary of the approaching shooter. Her stiff legs moved like rusted joints as she tried to creep up the walkway. She peered over the top stair and into the far cell where the shots had come from.
The smaller Hunter sat against the wall a few metres away. Blood dripped from her arm and sweat poured down her face. Her arm shook as she pointed her gun at the far cell.
"Oi, injured girl," Aart hissed.
The girl's head rolled towards them, eyes glazed.
"We're coming up. Don't shoot."
"You got friends out there?" a rough male voice said from the far cell. "We'll blast holes in them too. The more the merrier."
"That settles it," Aart said with a shrug.
Nova sprinted up the last few stairs, firing shots into the open doorway as she went. The blue bolts of energy lit up the inside and highlighted the faces of two men.
Their eyes opened wide at the sudden blasts and they dived away from the doorway, further into the darkness. She continued to fire as she ran down the walkway to stand next to the fallen Hunter. The girl glanced up at her with a mixture of fear and thanks.
Nova nodded once, noting Tommy's head at the top of the stairs, and continued her advance towards the cell. She hugged close to the wall and continued to fire into the darkness. She ducked around to the side of the doorway, shielded from anyone inside.
Aart jogged behind her and took his time to nod at the girl before taking position on the other side of the doorway. A few drops of sweat dribbled down his face and his white knuckles stood out against his gun.
"Hi there cell-mate," Aart said, turning his head so that he spoke towards the cell. "I have a feeling you might be injured. Care to come out and let me take a look?"
"You're funny," a rough voice said from inside the cell.
Aart nodded. "A real laugh, you should come out and meet me."
A man inside grunted.
"We won't hurt you if you behave. No sense being a prisoner."
The man snorted. "I don't think so, pretty-boy. I'm here to survive. I didn't come here to play prisoner with a bunch of second-rate Hunters."
Nova tilted her head and shot Aart a meaningful gaze. There were two of them inside the cell, one of them injured. That meant that, provided the Watcher was telling the truth, then they were all accounted for and no one lurked in the shadows of another cell.
Out of the corner of her eye, Nova watched Tommy run up the stairs and kneel by the girl who'd been shot. He spoke to her in low tones but Nova couldn't make out the words. He helped the girl to her feet and led her towards the stairs. A little longer and they would be out of range and safe.
"Where are you going?" the rough voice said.
Before Nova could respond a red bolt of energy flashed out of the open doorway and seared through the air. It smashed into Tommy's back and he stumbled forward, falling flat onto his face with a cry of pain. His back smoked like a hunk of ham.
The girl who'd been leaning heavily on Tommy also fell. She tumbled forward and landed on the top step. The momentum carried her forward and she rolled down, limbs tangling about her body as she screamed. Her mouth smashed against the edge of a stair and her bottom lip burst open, leaving spatters of blood on the metal railing and staining her chin red.
Nova wanted to run to the girl, to stop her fall, but that would be suicide. Instead she watched as the small Hunter managed to stop her decent halfway down, still alive. The man inside the cell laughed.
"Tommy, can you hear me?" Nova called.
She waited for any sign of a response but all she got was silence. She looked at Aart with wide eyes. Aart shook his head once and jutted his chin towards the cell. There were more pressing things to attend to. They couldn't do anything for Tommy until the men in the cell were neutralised.
"Sounds like your buddy could use some help," Aart said.
The man chuckled.
"Not as much as yours."
Nova's face flushed red. Anger boiled in her veins and she wanted nothing more than to step around the corner and smash her fist into the man's face. Still, she couldn't risk it. The second man probably had a gun aimed straight at the door, depending on how injured he was.
"Look, we don't want to hurt you," Aart said. "I'm not a fan of killing other Hunters. We've got to stick together. But if you don't come out now with your hands up, I'll be forced to make a move."
"What are you going to do small fry? Throw a stick at us? That's the one good thing about low-tech planets like this; you know exactly what people are carrying."
Aart shrugged towards Nova and thrust his fingers into a tiny pocket set into the bottom of his shirt. He fiddled around for a few seconds and when he pulled his hand back he held a tiny orb between his fingers. He nodded once and tossed the ball through the open doorway.
Nova turned away from the entrance and covered her ears.
"You see, I've never been one to obey those kinds of rules, I'm sure you understand," Aart said before covering his head with his arms.
"What—" the man said.
He didn't get any further because at that moment a loud bang echoed around the prison and a puff of smoke shot out of the open doorway. The sound of falling rocks and broken cement burst out of the cell. Two terrified screams choked into silence a moment after the blast. Loose pebbles and rocks tumbled out of the cell and came to rest by Nova's foot.
Nova held her gun up and stepped into the commotion. The glowball at her waist illuminated a smoke-filled room of chaos. Debris covered the floor and half the ceiling and wall had caved inwards revealing loose dirt. Blood dotted the floor in a trail to the centre of the room where a hand twitched under the weight of a large brick.
Nova studied the small cell but it didn't take long to see that there was no one left alive. She breathed a sigh of relief. She didn't like to kill Hunters but those men had been blood-thirsty.
When she was sure it was safe Nova hurried back out to the open area and jogged to Tommy's side. He hadn't moved from where he'd fallen and a gaping black hole bore through his back. Wisps of smoke spiralled up out of the charred flesh.
Nova held her sleeve over her mouth, trying to ignore the smell of roast pork.
She placed two fingers on Tommy's neck and held her breath. There was no pulse or signs of breathing. She rolled him over onto his back. The blast had passed through his spine, through his internal organs, and out the other side. There was nothing left of his ribcage or his lungs except a few tatters of flesh.
"He's gone," Nova said as Aart came close.
"What a cosmic craphole," Aart said. He saluted Tommy with two fingers and turned away. There was nothing they could do for him now.
Nova got to her feet and started towards the stairs. She couldn't save Tommy but perhaps there was something she could do for the tiny Hunter. She got to the top of the stairs and stopped. There was no sign of the girl. The last she'd seen, the tiny body had been curled up on the landing halfway down. Now there was nothing.
"Okay, hands up, both of you," a stern voice said from behind Nova.
Nova turned, lifting her hands. Her brows drew together as she came face to face with the small Hunter. The girl held her gun in one hand, pointed at Nova's head, while the other arm hung limp at her side, bathed in blood.
"What the hell are you doing?" Aart said.
"Saving my arse same as you."
Aart stepped forward. "Um in case you didn't notice, we just saved your life."
The girl whipped the gun left and fired a shot into the wall next to Aart's head. "Don't move! Perhaps you saved me. Or perhaps you were just trying to get hold of the key for yourself."
"The key?" Nova said.
"Don't pretend like you don't know. I'm sure everyone in this damned place knows that I found it."
"Look," Aart said. "My name is Aart, what's your's?"
"Cara. Not that it's any of your business. But I suppose you won't live to know it very long."
"Whoa there, Cara. We don't know anything about a key. We just came up here because we thought you could use some help."
"Well I didn't, I can manage just fine. Thank you very much."
Nova's face flushed, she'd had quite enough from the miniature Hunter. "Look you little runt. I don't know what the hell you're talking about, but I would suggest you pull your head in. One of our companions died trying to save your sorry arse, so how about instead of trying to play with the big-people, you cut the shit."
Nova stepped forward so that she stood only one pace away from the girl. The smaller woman's weapon pressed into Nova's stomach but Nova paid it no mind. It hadn't taken long to sum up the girl. She was a newbie Hunter; probably on her first mission. She wouldn't have the guts to shoot in cold blood, not if there was a chance that Nova had saved her life.
"How dare you!" Cara said. "I have a gun."
"Yes, you do," Nova said. She glanced left, behind the girl's shoulder. Cara followed her gaze.
Nova seized the opportunity, grabbed hold of the pistol, and side-stepped to her right. She moved out of the gun's line just as the trigger went off. A purple bolt of energy sizzled through the air. Now that Nova had a firm grip on the barrel she twisted and pulled. The gun came out of the smaller girl's hands without a hint of resistance. It was easier than taking candy from a baby.
"What the—" Cara said.
Nova trained the gun back on Cara, casting an imposing figure. "I suppose you used to have a gun."
"I—I—" Cara stammered.
Nova clicked the gun's safety and stepped away from the stairs. "How about we start again? You say thank you to us for saving your sorry life. You take the time to thank Tommy for his sacrifice, and then you tell us what the hell this key is."
Cara folded her arms across her chest, her good hand clasping her bleeding wound. "I don't have to answer you."
"No, I suppose you don't. But before you choose that option, just know that I'm not afraid to kill people. Even tiny people like you."
Cara's eyes widened.
"In fact, I've done it many times before. Aart, how many children would you say we killed on Taive?"
"At least thirty," Aart chimed in. He leaned back against the railing of the walkway, his arms folded across his chest.
"And how many people would you say I've killed?" Nova asked over her shoulder, keeping her eyes locked on Cara's.
"I've lost count. Hundreds probably, especially if you count the Confederacy."
"Right, so do you think I'd have any problem killing little Cara here?"
"To be honest, I'm surprised she's not dead already."
Nova nodded. "Right, there we go."
Cara's eyes flicked between Nova and Aart. Her skin had lost all colour; she looked like a pale ghost in the dim light of the prison. She breathed hard and her hands shook by her sides.
"You'll let me live if I tell you about the key?" Cara whispered.
"For now," Nova said. "As long as you cooperate with us."
Cara glanced at the stairs. She looked again at Nova and her shoulders fell.
Nova lowered the gun but didn't put it away. "Good."
"It's this," Cara said, reaching into a deep pocket with her uninjured arm. Her hand came out clutching a large metal key. It could have been an ancient relic, covered in rust with an intricate design of flowers decorating the end.
"Where'd you get that?" Nova said. She wanted to touch its rusted surface, to feel the history of it.
"I found it in one of the cells. I think it opens the door out of here."
"Give it to me," Nova said, holding out her hand.
Cara snatched the key close to her chest. "No. I found it."
Nova frowned and lifted the gun. She didn't point it at Cara, but it was enough to remind the girl of her position.
"Fine," Cara said, thrusting out her hand. Nova took the key between her thumb and forefinger and marvelled at the detail.
"Have you seen the door out of here?"
Cara jutted her chin down the stairs. "At the end of the block."
Nova nodded and gestured for Cara to lead the way. They stopped at Tommy's body and Cara looked down at him with an unreadable expression. She clenched her hands into fists and turned away, storming to the stairs.
"Sorry, Tommy," Nova whispered, following Cara down.
Aart came behind her and their boots clunked on the metal stairs. They found Cara at the bottom, her back flat against the nearest wall and her hands splayed.
"There's someone here," she whispered.
Nova listened. The sound of soft crying weaved through the air.
"Maya," she said, a hard ball forming in her throat.
Without another word, Nova hurried across the hall into the cell where they'd left Maya. Instead of a strong woman, they found a huddled mess, shaking against the far wall. Her sobs echoed about the cell, filled with anguish.
"Maya…" Nova said, unsure what to say next.
"He was a good man. The best."
Aart moved past Nova and knelt on the floor next to Maya, laying a hand on her shoulder. She collapsed against his chest and gripped his shirt.
"He didn't deserve that. He was a good man."
Nova glared at the ground, refusing to acknowledge the tears stinging the corners of her eyes. She didn't trust herself to speak because the ball in her throat was so big that she struggled to breathe and had to settle for short sharp gasps that prickled her chest.
"He was a good man," Aart said, wrapping his arms around Maya.
She sobbed harder, her tears soaking through his shirt and darkening the material.
"He was a brave man and he probably saved us all," Aart said. "I'll never forget him."
Maya's red face screwed up and tears poured down her cheeks.
"I suppose you two were more than just fellow Hunters," Aart whispered.
Maya nodded but didn't speak.
Cara stepped forward, clearing her throat, a ragged piece of cloth fluttered from her arm where she'd bound her wound. A red smudge marked each of her cheeks and her lips shook as she opened her mouth. "He saved my life."
Maya blinked and turned to face Cara, pulling back from Aart's embrace.
"He didn't have to, but he did. No one's ever done something like that for me before."
Maya sniffed as more tears spilled down her face, glinting like jewels in the low light.
Cara took a deep breath. "I know it probably doesn't make any difference to you. You'd rather I was dead than your friend, but I'll never forget him."
Maya nodded and looked down at her hands. Her fingers bent into claws and dug into the fabric of her pants.
"I know you don't want to move," Aart said, laying a hand on Maya's arm. "But the sooner we get off this planet, the better. Who knows what the crazy bastard has planned."
Maya used the steel bed to haul herself to her feet, where she wobbled on shaky legs. "Can we take Tommy's… body?"
Nova studied the wall, sure that she'd never be able to look Maya in the eye ever again. She'd agreed with Aart to go and save Cara, and Tommy had died because of it. How could Maya ever forgive that? If their roles were reversed, Nova couldn't deny that she would probably have stabbed Maya by now.
Aart climbed to his feet and laid his hand on her shoulder. "I'm sorry, Maya. We can't carry him, it would be too much. But once we get off this damned planet we can send a team back, dig him out."
Maya gritted her teeth and marched for the door, brushing past Nova and Cara as she went. "Then let's leave."
Nova shoved the key into the rusted metal lock and turned it to the right. Something inside the door clicked. She pushed against the metal monstrosity and it swung open on rusted hinges.
She'd been expecting more darkness. More poorly lit tunnels with stale air and creatures lurking in the shadows. Instead, she came face to face with bright daylight. Bright colours, a cacophony of sounds, and the smell of leaves assaulted her senses. Fresh wind rushed against her skin, carrying away the clinging darkness of the tunnels and the despair that had gripped her like cobwebs.
The metal door opened up to the outside. Or at least if it wasn't the outside it was the best holographic replication she'd ever seen. Trees extended away from the door and hard-packed dirt and hardy grass covered the ground. Birds tweeted in the trees and the wind rustled the leaves. Even the blue-tinged light couldn't take away the beauty of being outside.
Nova stepped through the doorway and into the fresh air. She turned to look back at her companions. They stood frowning and squinting up at the sky.
The metal door opened out from a collection of rocks, almost a cliff-face. It fit so well against the stone that Nova couldn't believe that the rocks were real.
She reached out and brushed her fingers along one such boulder. The hard roughness felt real, as did the weight when she tried to push it out of the way.
"Well this is unexpected," Aart said.
Nova nodded. "We should be able to make it to the shipping yard from here and get off this damned planet."
"Any idea which direction we should be going?" Aart asked.
Nova frowned. "Not a clue. I can't get through to Cal or Crusader either."
"Oh, don't worry my dear. There's nothing wrong with your equipment," the voice of the Watcher echoed around them.
Nova jumped and drew her gun. She glared up into the trees but again there was no sign of anyone. Simple speakers could be made to such minuscule dimensions that she'd never be able to find them, even if she had a lifetime to look, which she didn't.
"You people are Hunters," the Watcher said. "So tell me, what is the greatest hunt?"
Nova glanced at her companions and they looked back at her with the same angry and confused expressions. What was this guy playing at? So many times she'd thought she was a step ahead but clearly he'd been planning every bit of their journey. And the bigger question, why? Why set up such an elaborate trap in the first place?
"No guesses? Well I'll tell you," he said. "You see, the greatest hunt of all is human. It's only then that you get to test your true skills against something that has all the same advantages you do."
Aart spat into the dirt. "I don't like where this is going."
The voice chuckled. "Quite right, Artemis Goldson. Today, right here, you will all get the opportunity to participate in the greatest hunt."
"We're not hunting each other," Nova said. She clenched her teeth and glared at the trees. Hadn't the nutcase learnt by now that they weren't going to kill each other? After the experience in the prison they wouldn't turn on each other. Not anymore.
"You mistake me, Nova Tabryn. I didn't mean you would be the hunter. Oh no. Today you are the prey." Mad giggling erupted from the hidden speakers.
"What?" Aart frowned as he glanced at the others.
Nova crouched, her gun drawn, and scanned the trees for anything out of the ordinary, any sign of danger. If what she thought he was suggesting was happening then things were about to get very ugly.
"Ah, now you see," the Watcher said. "Yes, I have a very gifted Hunter just waiting to try out his talents on you."
"Why don't you come and face us yourself?" Nova said, whipping her head from side to side.
"I'm quite comfortable where I am. Besides, I much prefer to watch."
"We will come for you," said Nova. "I will personally hunt you down and when I do, you'll wish you'd never invited us to this damned planet."
"Ah, Nova. I should have known you'd be the first to lay a threat. Although that's what keeps you running isn't it? Anger? Anger at your parents. Anger at your home planet. Anger at the Confederacy. Don't you wish you could just escape? Get past the border?"
Nova clenched her mouth shut. How did this stranger know so much about her? He would pay. Oh, he would pay well. "There are four of us. We won't run from your Hunter. We can easily shoot him down. Bring it on."
"I thought you might say that," said the Watcher. "So let me let you in on a secret. I may have said it would be a fair fight, same advantages and all that. The truth is, I lied. This particular Hunter won't stop for your simple plasma pistols."
"You're bluffing," Nova said. What kind of mod would make a creature immune to plasma blasts?
"Believe what you want, orphan of Tabryn. Before you can hunt me down, you have to survive. I would suggest you start running, but of course you could always stand and take your chances. You've almost lost your head-start."
Aart stepped forward. "What?"
"We have to move," Nova said.
"Where are we going to go?" Maya asked. "It all looks the same and we have no idea where we are."
"There!" Aart pointed at the horizon.
Nova squinted against the sun's glare. Far in the distance the trees thinned, forming a clearing, and in the center, metal glinted. "The ships."
Aart nodded. "It has to be."
Clara glanced up at the sun and back to the horizon. "We'll never make it by nightfall."
"So we'll keep running in the dark," Nova said, hoisting her bag higher on her shoulders.
Something above them moved and loose stones skittered down the cliff, raining onto Nova's shoulders.
"Run!" she screamed, her feet pounding against the hard dirt.
Aart and the others dashed after her, breathing hard.
"What the hell was that?" Aart said between breaths.
Nova bit her lip, pain shooting up her injured side. "I didn't get a good look, but I know I don't want it to get any closer."
The gentle slope fell away under Nova's feet and she fell to her side, sliding down the steep hill. Rocks grazed her ribs and tore her palms. She rolled onto her back and let the momentum carry her forward until the slope softened, forcing her back to her injured legs.
Branches snapped just behind her, accompanied by heavy footsteps.
She leaned forward and pumped faster, trees whizzing past on either side and twigs slapping her bare skin. Something tugged loose at her side and wet warmth spread out from her wound.
"Dammit," she whispered, glancing at the spreading patch of new blood.
Aart flashed like a blur on her right, darting between the trees and leaping over fallen branches. Two other, less familiar, shapes ran on her left, crashing through the undergrowth.
Sweat poured down Nova's face and her lungs ached with each breath. Her heart hammered against her ribcage and the thought of something hunting her sent adrenalin pouring through her veins.
"I think we've lost it," Cara's strained voice drifted through the trees.
Nova listened, but couldn't make out anything over her own pounding footsteps.
"I can't hear it either," Maya said, slowing.
On Nova's other side Aart stumbled to a stop and tilted his head. "You're right. I can't see it."
Nova stumbled to a stop several paces past Aart and bent double, breathing hard. Her aching legs wobbled and the leaves at her feet spun. She clutched her stinging side, warm blood coating her hand.
She drew a sharp breath. "We can't stop. It won't be far behind."
"Shit, Nova," Aart said, kneeling at her side and frowning at the blood dripping between her fingers.
Maya's red face dripped sweat and her lips thinned when she saw Nova's wound.
Cara ran a hand through her hair. "We can't run forever either."
"We don't have to run forever," Maya said. "Just until we get to the ships, then we're out of here."
Aart prodded Nova's side and she winced, stumbling away from him. "You've pulled all your stitches."
"We don't have time for you to play doctor and nurse," Maya said.
Nova grimaced and peered back up the hill, breathing deep despite the pain shooting through her side.
Aart kicked the ground, sending up a flurry of leaves. "Look how much blood she's loosing! She won't make it to nightfall."
"Shit. Incoming!" Cara bellowed, turning and dashing away down the hill.
Nova saw a dark shadow pushing through the trees at the top of the slope and darted after Cara.
The four Hunters sprinted in a ragged line, dodging trees and fallen debris.
Nova ducked under a branch and leapt over a fallen log. Her calves ached like she'd been shot, and her dry lips rubbed together like sandpaper, but she couldn't stop and pull her bottle from her pack.
The forest seemed to stretch on forever, as did the day. Identical trees rushed past on either side, never changing. Nova felt trapped on a massive treadmill with no way off. They'd been running for what felt like hours, and yet the sun had barely begun to dip towards the horizon. Its blazing heat beat down on them like an oven, making Nova's head throb.
Occasionally the pounding footsteps behind them would fade away and the Hunters would slow, allowing themselves the briefest hope that they'd escaped. But every time the thing returned, racing down the hill towards them.
It felt like an eternity since they had left the prison when the sun finally dropped below the horizon, casting long blue shadows through the trees. Sinister howls and the buzz of insects filled the forest, while unseen animals foraged in the ground at their feet.
Nova stumbled to a stop, legs shaking as she leaned against a tree gasping for breath. "We can't keep running in this. We'll break our necks."
Aart clapped a hand on her shoulder. "We can't stop. We have no idea what's chasing us, and I don't want to gamble that it'll take a break."
Nova swallowed a mouthful from her water bottle, some dribbling down her chin.
"What about the glowballs?" asked Cara. "That'll at least give us a bit of light."
"And make us easy to catch," Maya said. "If you're wearing a glowball you may as well shoot yourself now."
Nova bit her lip and closed her eyes, breathing deep. Her side throbbed with a deep pain and her extremities ached with cold and lack of blood.
"We'll keep moving but we'll go slowly," Aart said, taking the lead. "And stick close together."
Maya nodded and stumbled after him. "It's better than sitting here doing nothing."
Cara glanced once at Nova and went after them.
Nova stayed leaning against the tree for three more breaths, wishing that she could stay there. Even the thought of the thing behind them was barely enough to get her moving. Everything hurt and her head spun; lights flashed across her vision as she pushed off the tree and shambled after her companions.
Her feet caught on loose logs and sticks, and she staggered, her hands scraping on rough bark. It felt like she'd been trapped in the forest forever, and yet when she looked up it was as if she hadn't moved at all. The trees dragged past, dimly lit by a red moon. Each one leered at her, twisted limbs tugging at her torn clothes.
A branch snapped behind her. Then another.
"It's here!" she scrambled forward, hands held out in front.
To either side, her companions dashed forward, cursing.
"How does it feel? For the Hunters to become the Hunted?" a rasping voice, that wasn't the Watcher, echoed through the trees.
Nova tripped on a branch and sprawled to the ground. Her knees collided with hard rock, sending numbing tingles through her legs.
"Watch your step there, Nova, the forest is a dangerous place at night."
"Shit." Nova scrambled to her feet and kept running. "He's got a night-vision mod!"
Nova's lungs pumped like a bellows, heaving air into her aching chest. Each gasp brought new agony to her injured side and each step brought more stars dancing across her vision. She clenched her teeth and kept moving. Sound, like rushing wind, filled her ears, blocking out everything else.
A sudden burst of pain exploded through Nova's arm, coursing down to her fingers and up her shoulder. The blow sent her stumbling forward and she careened into a tree, crumpling to the ground.
"Nova!" Aart called through the trees.
Nova clamped her free hand over her injured arm. "Keep going! I'll be fine." Even she didn't believe it.
Blood coated Nova's arm, dribbling in a thick river to her fingers.
She squinted in the darkness.
A bloody cross-bow bolt sprouted from her upper-arm, surrounded by loose flesh. She winced and squeezed her other hand above the wound, slowing the flow of blood. Each beat of her heart brought a new wave of pain that washed through her arm and spread to the rest of her body, joining her other aches. She struggled for breath, to stay conscious.
She used a tree to get to her wobbling feet and stumbled forward.
"Nova, Nova, Nova. How far do you think you'll get?"
She ignored the voice, hobbling forward with one hand still clutched around her injured arm.
The man behind her chuckled. His footsteps made a steady rhythm, barely faster than a shuffle, but they were getting closer.
She drew a rasping breath, her feet dragging across fallen leaves and catching on twigs. Drops of blood fell from her fingers and left a dotted trail behind her. At least with the Hunter preoccupied with her, the others had a chance of getting away; the thought gave her a small flush of comfort in the cold darkness.
A branch snapped behind her and her heart fluttered. She could hear the man breathing, air grating in his throat, and imagined she could feel the warm puffs of it tickling the back of her neck. She shivered.
The Hunter chuckled. "To be honest, I had hoped you'd put up a better challenge. I'd heard that you are formidable."
"Maybe try when she hasn't been shot, you bastard," Aart bellowed from the shadows and a plasma bolt burst through the trees.
Nova stopped, turning to watch the blast. "Aart… No."
The green ball lit up the forest and slammed into a tree a few metres behind Nova. It burst into flames and the flickering glow lit up their attacker.
He stood a foot taller than most men, with scars covering most of his body. Mods sprouted all over him, from enlarged ears and glowing eyes, to bulging muscles. In some sectors he wouldn't even be classed as human anymore. He held a cross-bow in one hand as if it weighed little more than a stick.
"Brave and stupid. You, Artemis Goldson, fit your description perfectly," he said, lifting the crossbow and aiming into the trees.
"You seem to know a lot about us," Aart said from another area of the forest. "Don't you think you should introduce yourself?"
Nova's knees gave out and she slid to the ground, dark shadows passing over her vision. Her uninjured arm fell away from the wound and landed on her gun. Her blood-coated fingers slipped on the holster.
The Hunter peered into the trees over the top of his cross-bow, squinting against the bright firelight.
More shadows, people, flickered before Nova's vision. She squeezed her eyes shut, begging them to go away. She'd held back the visions, the time slips, for almost a year, but when things got bad they surged back, shattering her control.
The shadowed people ran back and forth through the trees. Some of them looked familiar, one in particular she recognised, much as she didn't want to. It was herself, stumbling through the trees, clutching her injured shoulder.
Nova shook her head and blinked, shoving the visions down. They faded, although faint outlines still moved through the trees.
She licked her cracked lips and with one finger slipped her gun loose of its holster. It fell to the ground with a rustle of leaves and she froze.
The Hunter sneered at the trees, oblivious of Nova. "You can call me Zudikas. It means killer."
"Don't you think that's getting a bit ahead of yourself?" Aart said from another part of the forest.
Zudikas growled and fired, the bolt zipping into the forest and knocking leaves loose. "I hope you're enjoying dancing through the trees. You won't last long."
Nova inched her hand forward and clamped it around her gun. She lifted it slowly, begging for Zudikas not to look at her.
"You bet," Aart said.
A smile flickered across Zudikas's face as he reloaded and levelled the cross-bow. "I don't know what you hoped to achieve. Your friend is as good as dead."
"Clearly you don't know Nova—"
Zudikas and Nova fired at the same time. His cross-bow bolt whipped into the trees as her blue plasma bolt slammed into his ribs. He grunted and stumbled back as flames flicked across his chest, blistering his skin.
Nova's hand dropped, sapped of all energy, and her head fell back against the tree-trunk. "Aart? Aart, are you okay?" she whispered.
Zudikas grunted and whirled on her, his mouth twisted. "Your friend's dead. But he was right about you. A tough nut, aye?"
He stepped towards her, aiming the cross-bow at her face.
She stared back at him, jaw clenched. His dark eyes reflected firelight as he loaded a new bolt. She took a deep breath and held it, thinking of Aart and hoping he was alright.
"Hey, you bastard. Why don't you pick on someone your own size?" Cara shouted, purple bolts streaming through the trees and knocking Zudikas off balance. The cross-bow fired and the bolt slammed into the dirt.
"Yeah, you ugly piece of cosmic crap." Maya fired from Zudikas's other side, more plasma bolts slamming into his stomach and chest.
He spun in a circle, hands held in front of his face as he glared into the trees. Blackened holes opened up along his flesh and he howled. Charred chunks of muscle fell to the forest floor, smoldering. "Show yourselves, cowards!"
He loaded a new bolt and fired into the darkness.
"Missed," Cara sung through the trees.
He growled and threw the cross-bow to the ground, pulling a massive gun from his back. It filled his arm, at least as big as any weapon that Gus would carry. Zudikas pulled back the safety and squeezed the trigger. A stream of fire bellowed out of the wide barrel and lit up the trees. Flames licked across the ground, and nearby branches burst into fire. Someone in the trees howled.
Nova blinked, her eyes drooping closed despite the heat bellowing from the flames.
"Nice gun." Aart's voice sounded strained but Nova's heart fluttered and she forced her eyes open. A new stream of gunfire joined the battle, pounding Zudikas from three directions.
Zudikas roared and swung his gun on Nova. "Cease fire or she's dead."
The plasma bolts stopped streaming through the forest, leaving Zudikas surrounded by a circle of flames. His skin clung to his body in blackened shells, his clothes fused to his flesh. Anyone else would have died.
"Nice stamina mods," Nova said, voice rasping in her dry throat.
Zudikas glared at her, gun unwavering.
Smoke filled the air and scratched Nova's lungs, she coughed, blood spattering the leaves around her. Heat scratched over her skin, her arms turning red before her eyes. Fierce crackling filled the air, combined with glowing sparks that rose up into the trees.
"Surrender and we'll let you live," Maya said.
Zudikas didn't move his gaze from Nova. "No. You all must die."
"We've got you surrounded. There's no way you win this."
"Kill him!" Nova rasped. Darkness swirled just at the edge of her vision, threatening to swallow her into unconsciousness. If it meant the others could live, she'd dive in whole-heartedly.
"No one has to die," Aart said. "Just put your gun down, Zudikas, and we can all walk away."
Zudikas glanced down at his charred hands and then back to Nova. He hoisted his gun and his arm tensed. "Maybe not, but I can at least take—"
His head exploded into fragments of broken skull and brains that sprayed across the ground and splattered Nova's boots. His body wavered and then fell forward with a heavy crunch.
Behind him, outlined by the firelight, stood Aart, his gun still raised. Blood poured down his right leg but he grinned at Nova.
She grimaced back before everything went dark.
Pain surged through Nova's body and she woke, arms flailing. She grabbed hold of her injured arm. The excruciating pain felt like thousands of electrodes jabbing into her flesh. A part of her considered cutting the damn limb off, because surely that would hurt less than the hell she was currently enduring.
She had no idea how long she'd been out, but sunlight was already peeking through the trees.
"Looks like you need another fix-up," Aart said with a raised eyebrow. He leaned over her, face lit by flickering firelight.
Nova swallowed. "What—"
"Ugly is dead and we decided to risk sitting still while we get you fixed up."
"Everyone's fine… except you, so nothing's changed."
The corners of Nova's mouth flickered but then the pain made her wince. "I think I could do with a couple of stitches."
Aart snorted. "Yeah, that's all you need. Side or arm first?"
"Wasn't your leg injured?"
"Yes, but I've bandaged it up. Now answer the question."
Maya and Cara spoke quietly out of Nova's field of view. She couldn't make out what they were saying, not that she had the energy to care.
Aart pulled the needle and thread from his bag and Nova lifted her shirt with her good hand. The red gash gaped in the forest air, bleeding down her side to stain the ground below. Loose threads poked from the sides of the open wound.
Aart pulled them free. The sight of the thread sliding through her skin made Nova's stomach churn.
"Don't I get a Parapem or something?" she said through gritted teeth.
"I'm afraid not. Can't afford to have you doped up out here."
"Screw you," Nova said with a breathless sigh.
Aart pinched the flaps of Nova's stomach together and threaded the needle through.
Nova grunted and her hands clenched, grabbing handfuls of dry leaves that crackled in her grip.
"Here," Maya said, shoving a ball of cloth into Nova's mouth.
Nova bit down hard as Aart pushed the needle through her skin a second time. The thread burned as it weaved through her flesh, tugging. Nova squeezed her eyes shut as she did her best not to lash out and kick Aart's face.
"You know this is the last time I'm going to do this," Aart said. "There's only so many times a man can sew shut someone's stomach."
"Well if you sewed it better, you wouldn't have to keep doing it," Nova said, her voice muffled by the cloth.
"Careful or I'll have to sew your mouth shut too," Aart said, holding up the needle. "Alright. Twelve stitches, a new record. That's that one done. Please try and take it easy from now on. Even if I did want to keep sewing you shut, I'll run out of thread eventually."
"I'll do my best," Nova said.
"Let's look at this shoulder."
Aart moved around to Nova's wounded arm. He frowned at the protruding piece of metal and the blood still gushing out of it.
"I can still move my hand and fingers so it hasn't damaged any major nerves," Nova said.
"Yeah," Aart said. "Okay, pull it out."
Nova turned to glare at him. "What do you mean, 'pull it out'? Aren't you supposed to be my medical specialist?"
"Yes. And I'm quite happy to sew things shut for you, but…" Aart moved his eyes from the crossbow bolt to Nova's face. "The last time I tried to pull an arrow out of you, you punched me in the face."
Nova's mouth twitched as the memory flooded back. "That's because it hurt like a damned hot coal to the eyeball."
"I hardly think this is going to be less painful, and I do not want to have to get surgery again just to fix my face from your meaty hands."
"They're not that meaty," Nova said, a grin tugging the corners of her mouth.
"Meaty or not, you're going to have to pull it out."
Nova sighed and pushed herself up straighter. Her injured arm dangled at her side, covered in blood. She reached her other hand up and gripped hold of the metal bolt. It was cool to her touch even through the layers of blood.
She tightened her fingers around the bolt and took a deep breath. Squeezing her eyes shut, she pictured a calm field with bright green grass waving in a slight breeze. She clenched her teeth on the chunk of material and yanked.
It ripped free of her arm with a sickening sucking sound. Her good arm swung away from her body and she released the bolt mid-movement so that it sailed through the air. The sharp metal flew through the trees, snapping leaves and branches as it went, and clattered to the ground some distance away, out of sight.
Nova screamed as the bolt came free. Tears stung the corners of her eyes and she gasped for breath. Her arm exploded with new levels of agony that coursed right down to her fingertips and made them clench uncontrollably.
Aart dashed in and held a piece of medical cloth over the wound. He stifled the gushing blood and the bandage turned red. He pushed down and Nova winced.
The bandage contained clotting agents that would help stop more blood-loss. Nova tried to be grateful for that.
Hazy clouds billowed at the edges of her vision, threatening to draw her into unconsciousness again. She blinked and bit her lip, hoping that the new pain would keep her awake.
"We've got to keep moving," said Maya. "We have no idea what else that nutcase has sent after us."
Through her haze Nova saw Aart frown. "She's lost a lot of blood. I don't think she should move."
"I'm afraid doctor's orders don't mean much right now."
Aart glared up at Maya, keeping the bandage firm on Nova's arm. "She's saved my life more times than I care to count. I'm not going to leave her here."
"Aart, don't be such a wimp," Nova whispered, her eyelids heavy. "Get that wrapped up and we'll move out." Her voice sounded weak even to her own ears, but Aart grinned down at her.
He foraged through his bag and pulled out another bandage with sticky edges. In one quick movement he pulled the first bandage away and slapped the second in its place, smoothing it over her arm with the care of a practiced nurse.
The bandage stuck in place, even on her blood-soaked arm, and released its numbing agents. Pain fell away from Nova's upper arm until it became the only part of her not throbbing in agony.
"Thank God," she whispered.
"My name's Aart," he said with a grin.
Nova smiled back but didn't have the energy to correct him.
"Well I must say, I'm surprised," the Watcher's booming voice filled the trees. "I didn't expect you to get so far. Still, I'm glad you did. This is always my favourite part."
Nova's stomach clenched and she swallowed. "You've done this before?"
The Watcher chuckled but didn't reply.
Aart glared up into the trees. "What do you want, Watcher?"
"Did you Hunters stay in school long enough to learn about HAV?"
Aart's jaw clenched. "Of course."
"Um, not all of us," Cara said, stepping forward.
Nova took a rasping breath. "2050. It practically wiped out all of human civilisation. Set us back hundreds of years and made room for the Confederacy."
The Watcher chuckled. "In short. But did your teachers ever tell you of the Reapers?"
Aart spun in a tight circle. "That's just a legend!"
"Then prepare to meet a legend."
Nova's heart hammered in her chest and her stomach dropped like a lead weight. She scrambled to her feet, ignoring the pain rocking through her muscles. "No."
"I thought it would be a fitting last stand. And the best part is, when you succumb, you'll become part of the trap for the next band of Hunters."
Nova shook her head and met Aart's gaze, their mouths hanging open.
"What the hell is he talking about?" Cara said.
"They'll be with you soon, I suggest you start running."
Nova turned and dashed into the trees. Aart's boots slammed into the ground behind her. Cara and Maya pulled ahead, their light feet sending sticks and leaves flying.
Nova gasped for breath, pain searing up her side. She didn't have much hope for the stitches holding.
"He can't mean it," Aart said between breaths. "It's a legend."
Nova darted around a tree trunk and jumped a fallen log. "I don't want to hang around to find out."
"Would someone please tell me what you're talking about?" Cara said, face red.
"Reapers," Maya said, eyes fixed forward.
"It's just a legend," Aart said. "Some stories say that HAV created monsters. But there's never been any proof. He's bluffing."
Something behind them shrieked.
"Then what the hell was that?" Nova said.
They sprinted faster, dodging thick walls of trees and ducking low branches. Nova strained to keep up but every step brought new pain. Her lungs burned as she fell further behind. She gasped for more air but it wouldn't come, leaving her light-headed.
The sounds of pursuit grew louder. Animal-like screeches echoed between the trees and branches snapped at their backs.
Nova stumbled, her feet dragging on the ground, catching on branches. It felt like they'd been running for hours and yet the forest hadn't changed.
"There's something ahead," Maya called from the front.
"I was hoping you'd find it," the Watcher said, voice echoing from invisible speakers. "I thought it only fitting that you face the Reapers in an Old-Earth style city. It cost me a lot. I hope you like it."
A minute later Nova burst out of a line of trees onto a smooth bitumen road. Buildings lined either side, complete with billboards and ancient cars.
"What the hell?" Aart said.
"He's a mad-man," Maya replied.
Cara peered back into the forest. "I don't think we have time to admire the view."
Nova winced and squeezed her side, scanning the buildings. Most stood only one or two stories high and each had advertising out the front. A food store, a clothes shop, an inn. More buildings spread out on side streets, blending together in the distance.
"How did we not see this from the hill?" Aart said.
"Simple hologram," the Watcher replied. "No hard feelings I hope."
Nova swallowed and red heat burned across her face. If he'd used a hologram then there was no way for them to know if they were near the ships. They could have been heading in the wrong direction the whole time.
"It's rude to listen in on people's conversations!" Aart bellowed.
The Watcher chuckled. "Tick tock."
"Something's coming!" Cara said, backing away from the trees.
Nova jogged towards the nearby inn. "Inside. It's our best chance."
"We'll be trapped," Maya said, eyes wide.
"If the legends are even half true we'll never outrun them," Aart said, "Even if we weren't injured. We have to fight."
"You can't fight a Reaper!"
"We have to."
Nova pushed open the heavy door, breathing a sigh of relief that it wasn't locked, and waved the others through. They hurried in and Nova slammed the door shut behind them, pushing the lock home.
She leaned against the solid wood, breathing hard. "Aart, check for more doors. Cara and Maya, help me push furniture against this one. We have to block it."
Cara grabbed a heavy chair and pushed it towards Nova. "What kind of monsters are these that a bloody big door like that won't hold them?"
Nova shook her head. "I've only heard stories, but better to be safe."
She limped to a small window beside the door, too small for someone to crawl through, and peered out onto the street.
Aart stepped back into the main room. "There's a back door but it looks pretty—"
"Shh!" Nova waved her hand and held her breath.
Three people in tattered clothing burst out of the trees. They stopped at the edge of the city and squinted at the buildings, their lips pulled back to reveal sharpened teeth.
"What the hell?" Cara whispered, peering out of another window.
The Reapers' heads snapped towards the inn.
Nova gripped her gun. "Shit."
"They have super-hearing?" Cara whispered, her voice hoarse. "You didn't tell me they had mods!"
"It's not mods," Aart said, taking a position by the door and checking his gun. "It's mutation."
Cara's face went white. "Great. Is there anything else I should know?"
Nova bit her lip. "The legends don't say much. All of their senses are enhanced and they're rabid. They won't stop hunting until they're dead."
"So let's shoot the suckers!" Cara said, pulling away from the window and brandishing her pistol.
"Incoming!" Aart called, bracing his shoulder against the door.
Something slammed into the door, rattling the hinges and sending Aart staggering back. Dust fell from cracks in the wood, spiraling through shafts of sunlight and coating the Hunters' shoulders.
Nova pushed against the door with her uninjured side and strained as two more bodies smashed into it. The lock shrieked and the chairs bounced away from the entrance.
"Hold it!" Nova said, pressing her back against the wood.
The other three joined her, legs braced on the wooden floor and faces tight. The Reapers threw themselves against the doors in quick succession, the solid thumps like cannonballs.
"It won't last," Aart said between thumps.
Nova scanned the inn, breathing hard.
"They must have a weakness," Cara said. "Something."
"Not that was ever mentioned in the stories," said Maya.
Nova's teeth clipped closed on her bottom lip and blood filled her mouth as another jolt whipped her head forward. "There's only three of them," she said. "There's four of us. We can take them down."
Aart's mouth dropped open. "Nova, we can't—"
"What else are we going to do? Keep running behind doors that aren't strong enough?"
Aart shook his head, mouth gaping.
"She's right," Maya said. "They started out human, so a shot to the head should still kill 'em."
Cara glanced between Nova and Aart, brows drawn together. "If it means we get off this rock…"
Aart sighed. "Fine. But you better hope it kills them. And that you're a bloody good shot."
"The door makes a bottle-neck," Maya said. "I say we take cover behind the bar and when they break in, we take them out. Just make sure we put as much in their way as we can to slow them down."
Nova nodded. "Sounds like a plan."
"A bad one," Aart said.
"On the count of three," Nova said, leaning forward. "One. Two. Three."
The Hunters sprinted away from the door to the bar, hurling furniture behind them as they went. Aart vaulted over the counter and landed with a thump out of sight. Nova went to follow but a flash of pain up her side made her wince and she ran around the side instead.
The sound of cracking wood filled the inn and splinters shot through the air. The Reapers burst through the door, chests heaving. Foamy saliva dribbled down their chins and created clear paths through their dirt-stained skin.
The Hunters knelt behind the bar and fired, coloured plasma bolts raining into the Reapers. The noise of gunfire pounded the air, filling it until Nova couldn't hear herself think.
Plasma bolts knocked the Reapers back and left smoking wounds, but seconds later new skin spread out and covered the injuries, healing them and leaving barely a scar.
"Shit," Aart said.
"They can heal," Cara whispered.
Nova gritted her teeth and kept firing.
The Reapers snarled and leapt forward, heedless of the gunfire. They moved like wild beasts, darting across the inn and leaping for the bar, teeth gnashing. Their limbs seemed too long, too thin and bony. Their fingers snatched at the Hunters like long-legged spiders.
A Reaper caught hold of Nova's wrist hauling her up onto the bar.
She screamed as her injured side scraped the hard wood, tugging her stitches. Blood dribbled out of the wound and left a trail across the counter. The other Reapers stopped and turned on her, eyes wild. They surged to the bar, crowding around the blood trail.
The biggest pushed the others away and leaned down, running his blackened tongue through the stream. The others fought for position, both licking at Nova's blood.
Aart, Cara and Maya stood with mouths open.
"Kill the bastards!" Nova screeched, wrenching her hand free of the Reaper and firing.
Her shot caught the biggest Reaper in the temple and it fell sideways off the bar with a screech. The others turned on Nova, their nostrils flaring and eyes locked on her bleeding side.
Before she could fire again, they leapt. Their hands clamped over her arms and legs, knocking her gun free and pinning her in place.
Nova strained, wrenching her arms free and snatching hold of the backs of the Reaper's shirts, holding them up and away from her injured side. They pulled against her, inching closer to her wound.
"Take the damn shot!" Nova yelled.
"It's too dangerous," Aart said. "You're in line."
"Do I look like I give a damn?" Nova said, wrestling to keep the Reapers' sharp teeth away from her bleeding stomach.
The Reapers pushed against each other, fighting to get to the fresh meat.
Bright plasma blasts slammed into the first Reaper's stomach and pushed it off balance. Nova's right leg kicked free and she slammed her knee into its side as it bent its head to her side. She knocked it sideways just as its black tongue touched her wound.
The rough flick of its tongue on her skin made bile rise to her throat. It felt like sandpaper, like a predator, designed to strip fur from flesh. With renewed strength she wrenched her limbs free and scrambled away from the Reapers. Somehow she could still feel its saliva, chilling the skin on her side like a trickle of ice.
She crawled on all fours to her gun and spun, already firing.
Aart shot and the smaller Reaper's head exploded into bits of flying flesh. Its body slumped to the floor with a dull thud, twitching. The final Reaper snarled and dived for Aart as all four Hunters fired.
The Reaper's head disappeared in a bright blast of fire, leaving nothing behind but a smoking hunk of spine thrusting up out of the thing's neck. It crumpled forward, joining the others on the floor.
Nova let out a long sigh and collapsed to the floor, staring up at the stained ceiling. Pain throbbed through her side and she lay still, gasping for air.
"Ugly bastards," Aart said, wiping splatters of blood from his hands.
Cara leaned on her knees, breathing hard. "That wasn't so bad."
Nova clenched her jaw. "Aart. I need you to disinfect me. The bastard licked me."
Aart froze, lifting his gaze to meet Nova's. "Did it—"
"I don't know."
Aart stepped to her side and pulled a bottle of clear liquid from his bag. He ripped it open and splashed it over Nova's stomach.
Fiery pain stung up her side and she grunted, curling into a ball.
Aart laid a hand on her shoulder. "That's all I've got."
Nova nodded, eyes squinted shut.
"What?" Cara said.
Aart sighed. "It's infectious."
Nova let out a long breath and slowly unfurled her body, rising to a sitting position with a wince of pain.
Cara gaped at Nova, mouth hanging wide. "You mean she could…"
Aart waved his hand. "It's not going to happen. Nova's too tough for that. Besides, I used the best disinfectant on the market."
Cara stared hard at Nova but closed her mouth.
Maya plonked a bottle of amber liquid from beneath the bar onto the counter. "I don't know about you guys, but I could use a drink."
Nova struggled to her feet. "Count me in."
Aart grinned and swaggered to the bar. "I'll have a double and—"
"Shut up!" Cara hissed.
Nova froze, gripping her gun.
Cara spun slowly to face the shattered door. "Listen."
Nova held her breath, ears straining. Something shrieked.
"There's more!" Cara turned and ran from the door, feet pounding on the wooden floorboards.
Nova scrambled after her, boots slipping in slick puddles of blood.
Maya snatched the bottle off the bar and pounded after them, Aart at her side. Cara dashed through a low arch, pushing chairs and tables out of the way.
The shrieks raced closer, echoing off the walls and mixing with pounding footsteps and scraping furniture.
"The back door!" Cara said.
Nova raced after her, pushing through the swinging door and bursting into a narrow alley bathed with sunlight. She squinted against the glare and followed Cara up the street, barely glancing at the buildings as they streamed past on either side.
She glanced back to see a pushing mass of creatures swarming into the front of the inn. Their long limbs jerked like spider legs and their teeth shone. They screeched after the escaping Hunters, pushing against each other, leaping forward.
"We need cover," Nova said, leaning forward and sprinting after Cara.
Cara veered to the left into a glass-fronted building with tinned food and groceries.
"Glass doors, really?" Aart called from behind Nova's shoulder.
Cara shot the glass doors and dove through as they shattered. She disappeared into the darkened building. Nova had no choice but to follow.
Inside, the shelves made long shadows across the white linoleum floor. The smell of thick dust and rotting vegetables filled the air, making it hard to breathe.
Nova darted around a pyramid of bean tins and raced after Cara's disappearing back. "I hope you have a plan."
Their boots ground the shattered glass into a fine powder, crackling and skittering across the floor like glitter. The creatures' feet slapped against the bitumen road outside, accompanied by gnashing teeth.
Cara ran to the back of the store and wrenched open a thick metal door with rubber seals, cold air billowed out like a thick cloud. "In!"
Nova dashed inside, Aart and Maya on her heels. Cara dived in last and swung the door shut behind her, slamming it closed with a solid thump. Darkness fell over them like a blanket, so thick it felt like a physical thing, pushing in on them, suffocating them. An icy chill lifted bumps on Nova's skin and made her shiver.
Nova ripped the rag from her gun and the dim blue glow created a small circle of light, big enough for her and the others to find their glowballs. She squeezed hers and let out a sigh of relief, which died in her throat.
She gasped and stepped back until her spine pressed against the freezer door.
The others turned to follow her gaze.
Amongst the boxes of frozen meat and produce lay four human bodies. They were curled into balls on the floor, huddled together. Icy crystals covered their blue skin and glazed eyes, unseeing in the dark.
"Shit," Aart whispered.
"Hello," Maya called. "Is anyone alive?"
Silence greeted them.
Cara knelt beside a frozen corpse. "How long—"
Something solid slammed against the freezer door, the sound echoing through the small room and setting Nova's teeth on edge. It came again, and again, incessant banging. At the edge of her hearing Nova caught the faint sound of animalistic howls.
"I guess we're going to end up like these poor bastards," Aart said, flopping to the ground and leaning against a box of peas.
"It's the only thing I could think of," Cara said. "I don't even think their super strength will let them break through that door. Although I guess I never thought about them opening it…"
"Based on the noises from out there, they haven't quite mastered doors yet. It was a good plan," Nova said, sliding to the floor and gripping her side.
Aart nodded towards the bodies. "That's what they thought."
Nova rolled her eyes and shifted, trying to ease the pain throbbing up her ribs. The cool of the freezer seeped through her thin clothes and numbed some of the agony, but the feeling in her fingers was fading too.
"It's okay for now," Maya said. "But we can't stay here long. We'll freeze like these guys and be no better off."
"I'd rather die here than be ripped to shreds by those things," said Cara.
"We're not dying," Aart said. "We're getting out of here and we'll make that bastard pay."
"Speaking of, we haven't heard from 'the Watcher' in a while," Maya said.
Nova grimaced. "Maybe he doesn't have any cameras down here."
Cara tossed a loose piece of ice against the far wall where it shattered. "Or he's enjoying himself too much."
The banging on the door continued.
Nova closed her eyes and tried to block it out, breathing deeply. An aching exhaustion filled her muscles, seeping into her bones. She wanted to sleep. Was that too much to ask? Then she could float away on a white fluffy cloud, at least for a while, and forget the pain that roared through her body. She could—
"...Nova... Nova... Nova!" Aart shook her shoulder.
Nova's head whipped from side-to-side as she swam back to consciousness. She blinked, Aart's face floating into view. "Aart."
"Dammit Nova. You can't fall asleep like that. You'll be dead in minutes."
Nova blinked and shrugged his arm away. "Don't be ridiculous. I was just closing my eyes."
"You've been out for ten minutes and I've been trying to wake you for two!"
Nova swallowed, but she kept her expression neutral. "Just a powernap."
Aart snorted. "Yeah. Right."
"Before she drops into another powernap, what are we going to do?" Maya said, clutching the amber alcohol bottle to her chest like a life-line.
They huddled in a close circle, shoulders touching. Their breath made foggy clouds in the air and created an eerie mist in the dim light.
"We've got to get away from this place," Aart said. "I don't know where he's been keeping all these things but if we can get away from here they might not follow us."
Cara frowned. "I don't know. To me they seemed pretty keen to follow."
Nova nodded. "And there are too many. They'd catch us as soon as we opened that door."
"I don't suppose there's a secret exit from here?" Aart said.
Cara shook her head. "I already checked."
"So we can't leave, and we can't stay," Maya said. "Things are really looking up."
Nova wrapped her arms across her chest and shivered. "We have to find a way to leave. Let's think about what we know. They're vicious, and strong."
"They feel the need to eat us."
"They stop if you shoot them in the head."
Nova nodded as they all put forward their thoughts. "And they're infectious."
Cara's head flew up. "But—"
Nova pursed her lips. "I don't think there's any denying that these are monsters created by HAV. In normal infection, it's airborne, but seeing as we're still alive, I'm guessing it's moved past that stage."
"Thank bloody hell for that!" Cara said, eyes glinting.
"But," Nova said. "The virus still runs through them. According to the legends, a Reaper's bite is deadly. We can't let ourselves be caught."
"Which is why he doused you before. But what about him?" Cara thrust her thumb towards Aart. "He was covered in blood from that last lot."
Nova gazed into Aart's eyes. "He's not infected."
"And how would you know? You a doctor now, too?"
"We'd all be dead."
Cara's mouth dropped and Maya hung her head.
"I'm beginning to think you guys should have just left me to be shot in the prison. It would have been a hell of a lot better than this," Cara said, throwing her arm wide.
Maya's lips pressed together and her eyes turned steely. "If I could go back and change it, I would."
Cara's gaze flicked to Maya and her mouth opened, but as their eyes met she snapped it closed and hung her head. "I'm sorry… about your friend."
Maya nodded. "Me too."
"I am grateful that you saved me. And that he…"
Maya nodded and drew a shaky breath. "He'd probably know just what to do with these bastards. He loved history, was always going on about the HAV outbreak and all that nonsense. I wish I'd paid more attention…"
Aart lay a hand on Maya's shoulder as her voice cut off in a choked sob. "Tommy was a good man. But more than anything I bet he'd want you to get out of this, to be safe. And that's exactly what we're going to do."
The back of Nova's throat stung and she turned away from the glowballs so that no one could see the tears glistening in the corners of her eyes.
Maya cleared her throat and ran her arm across her face. "You're right. We have to focus on getting away, not sit on the floor in some freezer crying."
Aart smiled and patted her back. "That's the spirit."
Maya gave him a crooked smile and sat up straighter.
Nova nodded. "Seeing as we're all alive and well, our first priority should be to get out of here without being bitten, eaten, or generally mauled."
Aart grinned. "That's why I keep you around; always know just what to say."
Cara slapped her hand on the cement floor. "Would you two be serious? What the hell are we supposed to do if we're not going to freeze to death in here?"
Nova scanned the cold-room, blinking against the ice that threatened to freeze her eyeballs. "We use the boxes."
"Hmm, good idea Nova," Aart said. "We'll hide inside the boxes and crawl out. The Reapers won't know what to make of it."
Nova rolled her eyes. "No. We use the cardboard for armour. It's not much but it's better than nothing; it could be the difference between getting bitten and not."
The others nodded and Aart smiled. "That just might work."
Nova shrugged. "It's all we've got. Start emptying the boxes and keep an eye out for tape, or anything to keep it in place."
Nova wrapped the last piece of cardboard around her forearm and tied it in place with a plastic cable. Similar pieces covered the rest of her arms and her shins while a small segment surrounded her neck like a collar. The others stood similarly armoured.
"We look ridiculous," Cara said, studying her arms.
Aart smacked his covered forearms together. "Better ridiculous than Reaper."
"So what now?" Maya said.
"We open the door, and we shoot," Aart said, spinning his gun on his finger.
Nova nodded. "We keep them outside in a bottle neck and kill them all."
Maya frowned. "Risky."
Nova shivered. "We don't have many other choices. Give us another hour and we'll look like them." She nodded at the bodies.
"Ready?" Aart said, his hand on the door.
"Ready," they replied.
Aart gripped the handle and pushed it open, bracing himself to stop the Reapers pouring in.
"Die you bastards!" Nova said, firing through the gap.
She'd expected Reapers to stream through the opening but instead, a long-fingered arm flopped through the entrance, dead on the freezer floor. Other Reapers lay in bloody piles, burning wounds smouldering and sending up tendrils of smoke.
"Whoa! Watch it you crazy bastards. Do you want us to leave you—" A burly man with a thick red beard stepped through the door and froze, hand flying to his gun.
Nova and the Hunters levelled their weapons at him as three others crowded around his back, a woman and two men, all with guns pulled.
"Who the hell are you?" the bearded man said.
"Bill, it's Janey and the others," a thin man with black hair whispered at the man's shoulder, motioning towards the frozen corpses behind Nova.
Bill's gaze dropped to the freezer floor and the bodies. "What have you done?! Is this some kind of joke from that crack-pot, no good, son-of-a-bitch? I hope he burns in—"
"We're Hunters," Nova said, stepping forward.
Bill's grip tightened on his gun. "What did you do to Janey?"
Nova glanced at the corpses. "Nothing. They were like that when we got here."
The woman with Bill stepped to the side and knelt by a frozen body. Her tangled hair hung in knots down her face, hiding her eyes. "They froze to death. There's not a mark on them."
Bill swung his arm and slammed the butt of his gun against the freezer door. "Dammit! If we'd got here sooner..."
"There was no way," the thin man said. "The Reapers..."
"I know, Wren... I just..." Bill's face glowed red and his eyes glistened.
The third man who'd been silent stepped forward. "Doesn't explain them."
Dark shadows surrounded his eyes and a bloody gash ran down the side of his face. Purple bruises bloomed on his cheeks and arms where they peaked from beneath his tattered clothes.
Bill straightened and aimed his gun at Nova. "No. It doesn't. Answer the question. Who are you, and what the hell are you doing here?"
Cara stepped forward and folded her arms across her chest. "We could ask you the same question. There's no way the four of you could have killed all those Reapers, so what, are you working for the Watcher?"
Bill's eyes narrowed. "I asked you—"
"They'll be back soon." The woman by the body stood and walked past Bill without looking at Nova and the other Hunters.
"We should leave them here; we can't trust them," said Wren.
Bill frowned. "Bloody hell! They'll have to come with us, if they're on our side we can't just leave them here."
"And if they're not?"
Bill shrugged and turned to Nova. "You'll come with us to our safe-house. Keep your guns out, there'll be more Reapers. But if you people try anything... you'll be deader than those Bleeders." He nodded at the pile of corpses outside of the freezer.
Sid stood back and waved Nova and her companions through after Bill, taking a place at the rear. They hurried out into the relative brightness of the store. The neatly stacked beans now lay scattered across the floor, tins dented. The shelves hung from broken supports and spilled their contents on the ground.
Nova stepped over the piles and followed the new group out into the sun. It glowed orange, close to the horizon, creating a glimmer across the road. Distant shrieks echoed between the buildings, mixed with snarls and breaking glass.
Bill turned away from the noise and jogged in the opposite direction towards a low-set building with a solid metal door. The woman with tangled hair already stood in front, gun drawn and one hand on the handle. As soon as they reached her, she shoved the door open and they piled inside.
Flickering yellow lights lit up two rows of beds and a rickety table with chairs. Tins of food stacked against the far wall along with an axe and three long hunting knives.
Aart raised an eyebrow and let out a low whistle. "Why didn't we come here instead of that freezer?"
"You'd have been killed before your hand touched the door," the woman said, sliding a thick bolt across the closed door.
Bill flopped onto a chair and glared up at Nova and her companions. "Alright, we saved your lives. It's time for answers."
Aart folded his arms across his chest. "We might have made it. I'll have you know, we—"
Nova kicked him in the shin with her boot and stepped forward. He glared at her. "Thank you for your help... Bill. My name is Nova, this is Aart, Cara and Maya."
Bill stroked his beard and nodded. "You know me and Wren. The quiet one is Sid and she's Vayla."
Nova nodded to each of them in turn.
"What are you doing here? And what the hell are you wearing?" Bill said.
Nova glanced at her cardboard-covered arms. "The best armour we could think of with short notice."
Bill nodded. "Clever."
"And we're here probably for the same reason you are. We were tricked."
Wren stood to their right and his hands twitched. "We can't trust a thing she says. She's probably working for HIM."
Bill sighed and laid his gun on the table. "We have no way to know."
"So we kick them out, let the Reapers deal with them."
"Oh, thank you very much," Maya said, whirling on Wren. "Maybe we should do the same with you? We don't know any more about you. You could be working for the Watcher for all we know."
Wren's lips pulled back and his hand tensed around his gun.
Maya squared her shoulders and gripped her own gun tighter.
"Maya, put it down," Nova said.
"We can't trust them," Maya said.
"This is our place and you're trespassing," Wren said.
"Firstly, you brought us here. Secondly, if you're dead it won't make much difference, will it?" Maya said, lifting her gun.
"Maya!" Nova's voice cut through the dim room like a knife. "Put. It. Down. If it weren't for them we'd be freezing to death or having our faces bitten off."
A muscle flickered in Maya's neck but she lowered her gun.
Bill waved a meaty hand at Wren. "You too."
Wren mumbled something under his breath but lowered the gun to his side.
"Good. Now we can talk like civilised people," Bill said.
Nova nodded and sunk into the chair opposite Bill.
Bill nodded. "For the moment I'm going to assume you're not servants of the Watcher, but rather unfortunate Hunters who fell into the same trap we did."
Nova frowned and looked around the bunker. "It looks like you've been here for weeks."
Bill nodded. "Where have you lot been hiding? The Prison?"
"We've only been on Kopet for about four days."
"Five at the most," added Aart.
Bill hung his head. "There was evidence of people being in those catacombs before us. I never thought there'd be people after…"
"He's done this before?" Aart said, falling into the chair next to Nova.
Bill nodded. "Multiple times if you're anything to go by."
"And I'm sure he'll organise another group after us," Nova said.
Maya stayed standing near the door. "If he'd been calling Guild Hunters in for so long someone would have noticed."
Bill spread his hands. "I think he's only just started contacting Guilds. Based on the bodies – people – we saw in the catacombs, they didn't have much experience. They were probably rookies or not even Hunters at all."
"Practice," Aart said.
Nova frowned. "If you supposedly got through all the challenges, how do you explain that bastard with the crossbow?"
"The Hunter?" Bill said, his eyebrows lifting almost to his hair.
Nova nodded, tense and ready to snatch her gun.
"We barely got away from him. Lost two good people doing it."
"You managed to run away?" Aart said.
Bill nodded and took a deep breath. "He was right on our heels, we wouldn't have made it another ten minutes, but then he just stopped. Five minutes later we burst out of the trees into this hell."
"Something keeps him away from the Reapers," Nova said.
"Self-preservation?" Aart said. "Even he wouldn't have been a match for fifty Reapers."
Bill's head tilted to the side. "Wouldn't have?"
"We burned him," Aart said.
"Bastard won't be shooting anyone," Nova said, running her good hand across her injured shoulder.
"Got you, aye?" Bill said, nodding to her arm. "Me too." He lifted his shirt to show a bloody gash running along his ribs. "Another few inches over and he'd have got my heart."
Maya stepped away from the door. "All this reminiscing is fine, but what the hell are we supposed to do now?"
Wren glared at her but the others dropped their eyes to the floor.
"There's no way out," Bill said. "Unless you somehow managed to pack a miracle, you should get comfortable."
Maya whipped her head to the side. "No way. We're getting out of here. We'll make a break for the trees."
Wren sneered and Bill shook his head. "It's no good. They'll come at you as soon as you try it. You'll be dead before you reach the forest."
"It's worth trying," Maya said. "Better than rotting here."
Bill flew to his feet. "You think we haven't tried it? A good man died trying to make it. We rested all our hopes with him; if he could get away, he could get help. He died not twenty metres from this room."
Bill towered over the other Hunters, his chest heaving.
Maya's jaw tensed, but she said nothing.
"He was the fastest of all of us and he didn't stand a chance," Bill said, dropping back to his chair. "The forest is no good."
"So what?" Aart said. "We're going to dig our way out?"
"Solid concrete walls," Sid said, making everyone jump at the unexpected voice. "Can't dig through them."
"How many Reapers are there?" Nova said, biting her lip.
"I've counted at least fifty," Vayla said.
"Eight of us," Cara said. "We should be able to take them down. That's only a bit over six Reapers each."
Bill shook his head. "It sounds fine but once you're out there, it's different. They're too fast, heal too quickly, too vicious. We'd be dead in a minute."
"Is there any way to pick them off in small groups?" Nova said. "A sniper outlook or something?"
"No," Vayla said. "All of the buildings can be easily overrun and the only other places are like this one, no shooting opportunities."
Nova threw her hands into the air and slumped in her chair. Her shoulder ached in time with the rest of her body and her brain refused to come up with any other ideas. In her imagination she saw Reapers waiting on the other side of the door, shoving against each other to get to her.
"I think we should all get some sleep," said Bill. "Maybe we'll have some better ideas in the morning."
"And where are they sleeping?" Wren said, his mouth twisted.
"In the other beds," Bill said, nodding to the tussled sheets. "The others won't be needing them anymore."
Wren frowned. "But surely—"
"Wren! I've put up with your snivelling and back-stabbing for long enough. Keep whining and I'll throw you to the Reapers myself!"
Bill stormed to the far wall and lay down on an unmade bed. His broad shoulders poked out over the edge of the thin mattress as he closed his eyes and turned away from them.
Sid and Vayla went to their own beds, leaving Wren glaring after Bill. Nova and the Hunters hurried to beds of their own and lay down, although Nova kept a hand on her gun the whole time.
"And Wren, get the lights!" Bill's voice thundered through the bunker.
Nova lay in the dark, eyes open. The sounds of breathing filled the small bunker, but outside something scratched at the door, like long fingernails on rusted metal. She gripped her gun underneath her pillow and pulled her knife close to her chest. The creatures outside made her stomach clench, but it was Wren that kept her awake. His uneven breathing betrayed his sleeplessness.
Nova kept her own breaths slow and steady as she gazed into the inky blackness. She wanted nothing more than to sleep, her body screamed with the need for rest. Her lost blood seemed like a chain pulling her towards unconsciousness, but every time the shadows drew in she pinched herself. If she fell asleep and Wren attacked, there'd be nothing to stop him.
Thoughts of his pallid skin and greasy hair made her skin crawl. He gave off waves of deceit, like a snake. She had no doubt that he'd turn on them the first chance he got if it meant saving his own skin.
She shivered and gripped her knife closer.
Her eyelids drooped and she forced them open, but a moment later they flickered closed again. This time she let them be; she couldn't see anything anyway. Instead, she strained to hear past the breathing and the scratching.
Something heavy thumped to the floor.
Nova's eyes flew open and she shot out of bed, gun and knife out. Adrenalin poured through her veins, making her heart pound against her ribs. Every muscle in her body stretched taut, ready to spring.
Bright light stung her eyes. She blinked and stumbled back.
"Take it easy," Bill said.
Nova lowered her gun and squinted against the glare. Bill's broad form stood near the table, hands on his hips.
"Why are you up?" Nova said, glancing at Aart who got out of bed and came to stand at her shoulder.
"Because it's morning and that's what people do."
Nova's frown deepened. "We've only been asleep for an hour at most."
Bill snorted. "You must have needed a nap. You've been down for eight hours at least."
Nova swallowed and met Aart's eyes. He nodded and stretched. She tucked her knife into her belt and holstered her gun before running a hand down her face. She wanted to kick herself; she'd fallen asleep, left them unprotected. What if Wren had attacked?
Wren sat on the edge of his bed, frowning down at the floor. His hair hung in limp tendrils, hiding his face. His white knuckles stood out against the dull bed frame, tendons in his hand pulsing.
"Right. There's not many options for breakfast but at least we've got something," Bill said. He lay tins of food across the table. "Only one each. There's no way to know how long we'll need it."
"Thank you." Nova circled the beds and sat in the chair furthest from Wren before taking a dusty tin of beans. She peeled back the lid as the others sat down and ate without tasting. The beans slid down her throat like slimy balls of goo, leaving a sticky layer over her tongue.
"What do you guys do for fun?" Aart asked, licking sauce from his fingers.
Vayla grunted but didn't look up.
"I don't even know what fun is anymore," Bill said. "Here it's just a matter of surviving the day. Sometimes we go out for supplies, most days we stay here."
The beans turned to ash in Nova's mouth but she forced herself to swallow. "You just sit here?"
Bill shrugged. "What else are we supposed to do?"
Maya slammed her empty tin onto the table. "I will not sit here slowly dying. I'm getting out of here. Today."
Red spots appeared on Bill's cheeks. "I told you, there's no way out."
"Then I'll die trying! Better than sitting here."
"I agree with Maya," Nova said. "We have to try."
"I'm going where she's going," Aart said between mouthfuls.
"You bloody fools," Bill said, hurling his tin towards the door. It clattered against the metal and rolled across the floor. "It's only because you don't know. You haven't really seen what they can do."
"I told you they'd be trouble," Wren said, rocking back and forth at the end of his bed.
Bill's nostrils flared. "There's no way out of here. Why can't you just listen?"
"We know you've suffered," Nova said. "We understand. But we have to do what we can."
"Trouble. Trouble. Trouble," Wren muttered.
"Those things will tear your faces off as soon as you step through that door," Bill said. "You'll be nothing but lunch."
Maya sprung to her feet. "Even if that were true, it's our choice!"
"Trouble!" Wren lunged from his bed and tackled Maya to the ground. A knife glinted in his hand as he plunged it towards Maya's chest.
"No!" Nova dived at Wren.
Cara leapt for Wren's wrist, throwing her full weight against his arm and pushing it sideways.
The knife plunged into the ground beside Maya's head, sending up sparks.
Maya shoved him free and slammed her fist into Wren's face. "What the hell, you crazy bastard!"
Nova crashed into Wren and pinned him to the floor, wrenching his arms behind his back. She kicked the knife out of reach and twisted his arms until they threatened to break.
Maya sprung to her feet and loomed over Wren, fists clenched.
"Whoa!" Bill stepped forward, arms outstretched between Maya and Wren.
Maya glared at him. "Get out of the way. He attacked me, it's my right to get him back."
Bill shook his head, red hair glinting in the dim lights. "I'm sorry for what he did."
"Sorry?" Red flushed Maya's cheeks and she stepped forward.
Wren struggled in Nova's arms but she held him tight. Cara knelt beside her and helped grip his arms to his body.
Maya's jaw clenched. "Oh, I'll show him a struggle."
Bill sighed and let his arms fall to his side. "I didn't know him… before. I don't know if he's always been… unpredictable… or if this whole thing has made him that way."
Maya's gaze flickered to Wren and then back to Bill.
"Either way," Bill said. "I don't think he always knows what he's doing. We can't hold him responsible for that."
Maya snorted. "I'm pretty sure I can. And besides—"
"Then I'm asking you not to."
Wren's writhing stopped and he sat still, muscles twitching every few moments.
Aart stood at Maya's side and laid a hand on her shoulder, before turning to Bill. "I think we're just a little concerned because he tried to kill her."
Bill nodded and hung his head. "I'm sorry. That's all I can say. We'll tie him up for the rest of the day. He'll probably calm down."
Aart nodded and Sid and Vayla took Wren out of Nova's arms and led him to the back wall where they tied him to a support column with thick knots. "Does this happen often?"
"Only a couple of times," Bill said. "Not that bad though."
"He's as bad as the damned Watcher," Maya said, throwing her hands wide.
Nova climbed to her feet, side aching, and sunk into a chair. "He didn't do any damage. Thanks to Cara."
Maya's eyes narrowed. "He could have."
Nova nodded. "Yes, but he's tied up now."
"So I'm just supposed to forget it?"
Nova shrugged. "You wanted to escape today, remember? He won't be with us for much longer."
Maya scowled but she dropped her gun back into her holster and sat at the table beside Nova.
Bill sighed. "I suppose that didn't exactly help my case."
Nova shook her head. "One way or another, we're leaving here today."
"It's suicide. They'll know what you're planning, smell it."
Nova shrugged. "We're not staying here. It's our only other option."
Bill shook his head but said nothing.
"Got guns?" Vayla asked.
Nova nodded, gesturing to the plasma pistol in her holster.
Sid shrugged. "That's better than what Jarred had."
Bill rounded on Vayla and Sid. "You can't be thinking…"
Vayla met his eyes. "They're right about one thing. We can't stay here forever, and with all eight of us it's the best chance we're going to get."
"And with their guns we've got eight plasma pistols. That might be enough to take down fifty Reapers," Sid added.
"Have you already forgotten what it was like? Last time…" Bill trailed off.
"Of course not," Vayla said. "But back then half of us were armed with blunt axes. This is different."
"Don't forget the booze," Maya said, some of the fire leaving her eyes.
"What?" Bill turned to face her.
"Fire bombs just waiting to happen. The legends always said Reapers are like moths when it comes to fire, can't stay away."
Bill sighed and rested his head in his hands. His red beard peaked out from behind his fingers in bright tufts.
Wren glared across the room at Maya although his displeasure seemed to radiate out, including Vayla, Sid, and the other Hunters. "Trouble! Suicide!"
Maya locked her eyes on him, glaring with unveiled hatred. "You don't have to come, in fact I'd rather you didn't. You can sit here and slowly rot away. But I'm taking the chance and it sounds like the others are coming with me."
Bill lifted bloodshot eyes. "I don't like it. But it is the best chance we'll have. If we stay here while the rest of you try… it'll be worse for everyone."
Nova's heart fluttered and she nodded.
"Wren?" Vayla said, fixing him with a solid gaze.
Wren's mouth twisted and his fingers tapped a feverish rhythm on the floor. "It's madness."
Bill turned away. "He'll come around in a bit. One thing I can guarantee, Wren doesn't like being left on his own. I guess this is it, we're doing it. Madness."
"Better to go down fighting," Aart said.
"Or not at all," Bill said. "We do this properly. We've been here a while and we know more about the Reapers. If we're going to get out of here we need to be smart.
Nova nodded. "We'll follow your lead. Just tell us what to do."
Bill bit his bottom lip. "We'll use the fire as a distraction and run for the trees in the opposite direction. The last thing we want is a fire-fight with these things."
"You're gonna send some poor bastard out to start a fire? Like a lamb to the sacrifice?" Wren spat from the floor. "No, thank you."
"I'll do it," Nova and Cara said at the same time.
They shared a glance.
"You're not in any position to run," Cara said, nodding at Nova's blood-stained shirt.
"I can go," Aart said. "I'm the fastest. It'll only—"
"Whoa," Bill said, waving his hands. "I'm very impressed that you're all so eager to throw yourselves at the Reapers. But I can't ask anyone to take that kind of risk."
"You're not asking," Aart said. "I'm volunteering."
"With that busted leg?" Cara said, raising an eyebrow. "I don't think so. I'm the fastest and uninjured."
"Fools," Wren growled.
Bill sighed. "Alright. We need to do this right. The girl's got a point. No offence, but you all look like shit. If she's the fastest, then it's best for all of us if she's the one."
Cara nodded once.
"There's a gas station on the other side of town. If you can light that up it'll create a distraction and just maybe we can sneak out of here alive."
"We'll wait for night?" Aart said.
Bill shook his head. "They've got every advantage on us in the dark, they can see better, run better. No, we'd be dead in seconds. If we're going to do this it has to be during the day."
"Today?" Nova said.
Bill rubbed his forehead. "It's so soon…"
Vayla stepped forward. "Tomorrow isn't guaranteed. I think we should take a chance while we've got it."
Bill nodded. "You're probably right. Okay, today it is then, but we'd better act fast. Everyone finish your meals. Cara, I'll draw you a map."
Nova crouched in the shadow of a rusted car, peering down the street towards the gas station. Cara had dashed off ten minutes ago and should have reached her target. Nova's stomach clenched. She should have gone, injuries be damned. At least then she wouldn't have to wait, not knowing.
Aart knelt at her side while the other five huddled a little further down the street. Shadows flicked between buildings up and down the street. Reapers. Occasional howls split the air, bloodthirsty and starving.
Nova's neck tingled and her feet ached to run, be free.
"C'mon," Aart whispered. "Dammit. I should have gone."
Nova swallowed, not trusting herself to speak.
A bright flash of light filled the street, followed a second later by a rumbling boom. Orange flames licked the air, just visible above the buildings, and black smoke billowed out above the town.
Shrieks echoed between the buildings and Reapers poured out onto the street, racing towards the brightness. They shoved at one another as they ran, like a herd of rabid buffalo, teeth gnashing.
"Let's go!" Nova said, grabbing Aart's shoulder.
Sticking to the shadows they ran in the opposite direction, away from the fire. The trees loomed ahead, a line of green at the edge of town. The street seemed clear, the Reapers racing towards the crackling flames.
"What if Cara—" Aart puffed at Nova's side.
"She'll make it," Nova said, unable to consider the alternative.
They sprinted towards the trees, every step sending pangs of agony up Nova's side. Stars flashed across her vision but she blinked them away and kept running.
"I think we're—"
"Get back!" Bill's voice filled the street as he came pelting back around a far corner, Maya, Vayla, Sid, and Wren at his heels. "Get back!"
Nova and Aart hesitated, stumbling to a stop in the middle of the road.
"Back to the bunker you idiots!" Bill said, shooing them onwards.
A moment later a pack of Reapers swarmed around the nearest building, teeth gnashing. Their long limbs chewed up the road, lunging them closer.
Nova's heart clenched and she turned, sprinting back the way they'd come, back to the bunker. Her arms and legs pumped, ignorant of the flashes of pain that ate up her side and made every breath agony.
The sound of Reapers grew louder.
Nova glanced over her shoulder in time to see one lunge at Sid. It snagged his shoulder but he lifted his gun and shot it without breaking stride. The rest of the pack jumped over the fallen Reaper, getting closer.
Nova loosened her gun and pulled it from the holster. The bunker seemed an eternity away, too far to get to with the Reapers so close. Aart breathed heavy at her side, also bringing out his gun.
"I told you it was madness!" Wren howled. "They'll eat us all!"
"Shut it or I'll trip you," Maya muttered.
"We've got to make a stand," Sid said. "They'll have our backs in seconds."
"Nearly there," Nova called back. "I'll turn and cover you while you get it open. Do it fast."
"Me too," Aart said.
The bunker door loomed fifty metres away. Thirty. Twenty. Ten. One.
Nova took one step past and spun, gun already firing. Reapers lunged at the Hunters, their sharp teeth glistening with spit. Nova's first volley took a Reaper in the head and it collapsed in a spray of blood.
Wren reached the door first, his fingernails scraping on the metal handle, hands shaking as he tried to open it.
"Get out of the way," Bill said, shouldering him to the side and wrenching the door.
Aart and Nova stood shoulder-to-shoulder, guns firing. The pack of Reapers surged forward but the first three fell in a volley of bright plasma blasts.
"Get in!" Bill called from inside the bunker. "They'll be attracted by the gunfire. You'll be dead in minutes."
Nova stepped towards the door, still firing, Aart at her side. At the last second they dove through the door and Bill slammed it shut behind them, the thud echoing through the bunker.
Nova leaned against the table, breathing hard and clutching her side while the others stared at the walls.
"Cara," Maya said in a soft voice.
"She could still be okay," Aart said, holstering his gun. "We don't know."
"Are you kidding?" Wren said, throwing up his arms. "She's either deader than those Reapers or she sold us out, ran off somewhere else."
Maya and Aart turned on Wren, fists clenched, while anger simmered inside Nova's stomach.
"If she ran in another direction to stop herself getting killed, what's so bad about that?" Aart said.
"She's not frickin' dead," Maya said in a low tone.
Wren rolled his eyes. "Your idiot plan turns to shit and you can't even admit it."
"Wren!" Bill barked. "Shut it or I swear I'll toss you back out there myself."
They spent the rest of the evening in tense silence. Nova sat by herself disassembling and reassembling her gun, Aart kept packing and repacking his bag, while Maya sat glaring at the wall. The others whispered occasional conversation but mostly they sat, lost in their own thoughts.
"She was a good kid," Aart said when it seemed like the tension would physically fill the room and suffocate them all.
"Yeah," Maya said. "And she did it for us."
Bill nodded. "I say we break out a bottle of the good stuff. I'm sure she'd rather we celebrate her than sit in silence."
He rummaged through their pile of food and pulled out a glowing green bottle. He poured a small shot into seven glasses and handed them out.
Nova clutched hers like a lifeline, her gaze getting lost in the swirling green colours.
Bill raised his cup. "I'm sorry I didn't get to know her better. She seemed like a good Hunter and a great person."
Nova tipped her glass and the green liquid slid down her throat, leaving behind a pleasant burn that helped scorch away the ache in her side and the pain in her chest. She held out her cup for a second round.
Maya cleared her throat. "We didn't know her for long, and I know at first I hated her, but she's a good kid. She deserved—"
The door slammed open and a dark shape spilled to the floor inside, the door swinging shut behind it.
Cara sprung to her feet, hands on her hips. "I go out there, risk my life to save your sorry arses, and while I'm running for my life, you're here getting pissed?"
Nova's mouth hung open, similar expressions mirrored on the other Hunters' faces.
Cara sauntered over and took the bottle from Bill's hand. "Don't mind if I do." She put it to her lips and took down a large swallow. "Wouldn't recommend going outside at night time. It's a bitch."
"You're alive," Maya said, hands trembling.
Aart grinned and clapped a hand on her shoulder. "I told you she'd be fine."
Wren scowled and shuffled to his bed where he lay with his back to them. Most of the tension lifted out of the air, leaving behind a pleasant buzz.
Cara grinned. "Those bastards were everywhere. I'd nearly caught up with you guys when the pack got you. They cut me off from the bunker, and I've been laying low since then, waiting for them to get bored."
Nova let out a long breath and slid into a hard chair. "Thank goodness you're okay."
Cara smacked her palms together. "So what's plan B?"
Bill shook his head and crumpled into the chair beside Nova. "How can you say that? After today… we almost all died."
"But we didn't," Cara said.
Vayla and Sid hung back, their faces partially hidden in shadows.
Bill shook his head. "You've seen how hopeless it is. Why are we repeating this conversation?"
"Because nothing's changed," Maya said, stepping forward. "We still intend to leave, no matter what."
Nova nodded. "Today was a setback, but I'm not giving up."
"Me neither," Aart added.
"Bloody hell," Bill said, hanging his head.
Vayla stepped forward and laid a hand on his shoulder. "I think they're right. We survived today, there are other ways. We come up with a better plan and we keep trying. I don't want to spend the rest of my life cooped up here. Better to die fighting and all that."
Bill sighed. "Fine. If that's what everyone thinks…"
The other Hunters nodded, except Wren who remained curled up on his bed.
"Cara managed to stay hidden from them all evening, so there has to be a way to escape notice. If we set up a distraction like we did today, but be more careful about our line of escape… maybe," Bill said.
They went to work planning.
Nova ran behind a low wall, bent double. Stinging pain shot out of her scrunched side but she couldn't risk straightening, not with the Reapers so close.
Their rabid shrieks echoed through the empty streets, filled with blood lust. They prowled between the buildings, their black eyes glinting and sharp teeth gnashing.
Nova stopped behind the inn and pushed her back against the wall, breathing hard.
Maya darted around the corner and slammed into the wall beside Nova. Sweat trickled down her forehead and her arm felt cold and clammy where it brushed against Nova's.
Nova edged towards the back-door. Easing her feet to the dirt to avoid noise, she strained for any sound of alarm.
Something clattered at the end of the alley.
Nova's head flew up and she clutched her gun.
A Reaper crouched, silhouetted against the early-morning light. It sprung towards them, shoving aside a metal can that clattered to the road.
Nova's heart lurched. She snatched Maya's shirt and hurled her towards the open door, tumbling in behind.
The Reaper reached them as Nova turned to close the door. It grabbed Nova's ankle and ripped her backwards with a snarl.
Nova's feet flew out from underneath her and she fell to the floor. She scrambled, nails scraping on the wooden floorboards for anything to hold onto. Splinters tore into her fingernails but she couldn't stop herself from being dragged back out of the building.
Maya dropped to her knees and grabbed Nova's flailing arms, bracing her feet against the door-frame. Red spots bloomed on her cheeks as she heaved, fighting against the Reaper's superior strength.
New agony surged from Nova's side and shoulder. It felt as though she'd be torn in half. She met Maya's panicked eyes and clenched her jaw. "Let me go."
"No!" Maya's eyes opened wide.
The Reaper snarled and pulled harder, yanking Nova's joints to breaking point.
"I've got it," Nova said. "If we don't take it out now, it'll attract others."
Maya bit her lip. She nodded once and let go of Nova's arms, her hands flying to the knives at her belt.
The Reaper stumbled back, pulling Nova through the door. It fell on her, snarling and biting. Saliva sprayed across Nova's face accompanied by the foul scent of rotting flesh.
Nova gagged, pressing her lips together to stop any of its spit entering her mouth. She held the Reaper back with one hand while scrambling for her knife with the other.
The Reaper slashed at her with its long nails and tore through her thigh, leaving three bloody gashes.
Tears stung Nova's eyes but she twisted her arm free and brought her jagged knife slamming down. It plunged into the Reaper's back with a spray of hot blood.
The creature howled and twisted, lifting off Nova.
She withdrew her knife and stabbed again, this time at the Reaper's brain. Her knife smashed through its skull and lodged deep inside its head.
The Reaper froze, its howl dying in its throat, and collapsed forward, falling on top of her.
The weight of it knocked the air from her lungs and she gasped for breath. She strained to push it off, but her injured shoulder couldn't budge it. Thick blood dribbled from the Reaper's head and back, trickling across Nova's skin and coating her hands.
She twisted her head away, straining to keep clear of the infectious fluids.
"Bloody hell," Maya said, appearing in Nova's field of view.
Maya grabbed the Reaper's shoulder and rolled it sideways off of Nova. It flopped to the ground in a bloody heap.
Nova sprung to her feet and stumbled away, stomach heaving. She spat sour bile into the dust, leaning against a wall and breathing hard. She kept her hands away from her face, held away from her body like red flags.
Maya ran to her side, arms held out but not quite touching Nova. "Did you swallow any?"
Nova shook her head, not trusting to open her mouth.
"Cosmic crap. We've got to wash you off. There's a tap inside, let's hope it works."
Nova stumbled into the inn after Maya, following her to a dim bathroom with a rusted tap. Maya wrenched on the handle and clear water burst out, splashing across the sink and floor.
Nova frowned at the water and met Maya's eyes.
Maya held up her hands. "There's no way to know if it's infected and quite frankly, you can't afford to wait. With all your cuts if you don't get that blood off you now, you're bound to get infected."
Nova's heart pounded. She ran to the tap and scrubbed her hands beneath the flow. The water turned red as it drained away. Blood stained all the way to her elbows but no higher. She washed her face a dozen times before she risked a sigh of relief.
"Don't ever do that again," Maya said, wiping a hand across her forehead.
Nova stayed leaning over the basin and nodded.
"Come on, we've got to move. We're already way behind schedule and if we don't get there in time we'll all be covered in Reapers."
Nova took a deep breath and pushed away from the sink. "Alright, let's do this."
They crept into the bar. Shattered wood and pieces of furniture dotted the floor, interspersed with pools of blood. Three dead Reapers lay near the bar, their flesh already blackened and rotting. Outside, the street appeared empty but the sounds of nearby Reapers made Nova's skin crawl.
Nova and Maya hurried behind the counter and pulled out bottles of flammable alcohol. They stacked as many as they could carry and ran from the bar, arms overflowing.
They ran as fast as they dared to the end of the street and hid behind a green dumpster. The forest loomed only a hundred metres away, but Reapers prowled around the outer edges. Open ground separated them from the trees, broken only by a bitumen road that ended abruptly at the trees, making them easy targets for the monsters.
"And one minute to spare," Maya said.
Nova nodded as she unscrewed the first bottle and shoved a torn shirt partway in. A stack of ripped clothing sat beside them, prepared the night before and put in position.
A minute later they had five bottles each, fuses ready, with lighters in hand.
"They should give the signal any second," said Maya.
Nova tried to keep her breathing steady but she couldn't help glancing over her shoulder every few seconds, sure that there'd be a Reaper sneaking up behind them. Her neck prickled.
A piece of red material flicked into view on the other side of the street.
"This is it!" Nova lit her first bottle and hurled it into the next building over. Flames leapt up and licked the wooden panels, casting flickering light on the street.
The closest Reaper turned from the forest and snarled at the flames, its grey-green skin reflecting the orange glow. It lifted its head to the sky and howled. From the streets and buildings answering wails echoed, accompanied by pounding feet.
Reapers burst out of the nearby buildings onto the street, heads whipping sideways. They bared their teeth at the flames but backed away from the heat.
Sweat poured down Nova's forehead as she hurled another bottle, spreading the wall of fire. She squinted against the bright flames, turning from the furnace, shoulders hunched. Black smoke billowed out and surrounded her, rasping against her lungs. She buried her face into the crook of her arm as coughs wracked her body.
"It's working," Maya said, shaking Nova's shoulder.
Nova's eyes burned but she blinked through the tears to see the Reapers scrambling up the street, mesmerised by the flames.
She staggered to her feet and sprinted away from the building, towards the trees, hurling her remaining bottles as she went. Aart and the other Hunters dashed from the opposite side of the street and ran at her side. Her chest heaved, lungs burning with smoke, as she pushed her legs to run faster.
The trees grew closer, every step taking her nearer to safety.
"They've got our tail!" Bill bellowed.
Nova looked over her shoulder as she ran. Reapers sprinted at them, ignoring the flames that leapt into the air on either side.
They snarled as they drew closer, their long limbs carrying them faster than the Hunters could hope to run.
"We've got to make a stand!" Bill said. "We won't make it to the trees."
"We don't all have to make it!" Wren called, his thin frame pulling ahead of the others.
"Wren, you bastard! Come back. You'll die on your own."
Wren kept running.
Bill stumbled to a stop, staring after Wren.
Nova stopped at his side, drawing her gun and aiming at the oncoming horde. "Ignore him. We've got bigger problems."
Bill shook his head and turned to face the Reapers. The Hunters stood shoulder-to-shoulder, creating a barrier between two walls of fire. They aimed and fired.
Bright plasma blasts lit up the street and slammed into the front-most Reapers. They collapsed in a flurry of howls as those behind leaped over their bodies, teeth bared.
"Shit. They just keep coming!" Aart called, spraying plasma blasts and knocking down two Reapers.
"It's been nice knowing you," Bill said.
Nova clenched her teeth and kept firing.
The blood curdling scream made Nova's neck tingle. She glanced back, towards the forest.
Wren lay on his back, two Reapers standing over him, their long claws raking across his skin and leaving deep gouges. He howled again as a chunk of his arm ripped free and the Reaper lunged on the raw flesh.
Nova's stomach twisted. "They got Wren."
"Stupid bastard," Bill whispered.
"We've got to try for the trees," Maya said. "Once they've finished with Wren we'll be surrounded."
"Walk backwards and keep firing," Nova said, taking the first tentative step.
The others followed suit, each shaky step taking them closer to the snarling Reapers tearing into Wren's body.
The Reapers in front seemed to sense their prey getting away. They fought against each other to get closer, even stepping near the flames. They lunged like wild beasts, their feet scraping against the road.
Two Reapers lunged for Nova, hands outstretched.
She fired, plasma bolts slamming into their chests. Burning holes opened up in their ribs and they collapsed, writhing, to the ground. As soon as they fell, two more leaped forward, muscled legs carrying them to within a foot of Nova.
She stumbled back out of their reach and fired, knocking them down.
Wren's screams died to a dull moan.
"Cover me!" Nova called, killing a lunging Reaper as she turned. She aimed and fired at the two Reapers bent over Wren's body.
Burning holes bloomed in their heads and they fell forward, across Wren.
Dull thumps sounded and Nova turned back to the fight to find three Reapers dead right in front of her. She let out a long breath, grateful that the other Hunters had been paying attention.
They edged backwards to Wren's body, only ten metres from the forest.
"He's down," Nova said, nudging Wren's foot with her boot.
"Idiot!" Bill said.
"He got what he deserved, in the end," said Sid.
A metre back from Wren's body, and nine from the forest, Nova began to think they might make it.
Wren's leg twitched.
"He's turning!" Vayla said, taking three big steps backwards.
Bill cursed. "Their blood…"
Wren convulsed, arms flailing, and threw off the two dead Reapers like they were rag dolls. He sprung to his feet. His bloodshot eyes stared at them, unblinking, and he snarled before lunging.
The Hunters stood, gaping, as Wren hurled himself at them. He slammed into Vayla and knocked them both to the ground. She kicked him back but he dived forward, slamming into her shoulders and pinning her to the ground.
More Reapers lurched towards them, hungry eyes glinting.
Nova fired, taking out the front row, but more rushed in to fill their places.
Vayla's arms shook as she strained to hold Wren away. His teeth slammed together, spittle flicking across her face.
Nova turned her attention back to the attacking Reapers.
"Somebody kill it!" Vayla screamed.
"There's no clear shot!" Bill bellowed.
Sid ran in and grabbed Wren's shoulders, hurling him backwards. He stumbled a few paces but shot forward with renewed strength, smashing into Vayla so her head thumped into the ground.
"Stubborn bastard!" Sid said, hauling Wren back and tossing him.
Before Wren could come back, Sid aimed his gun and fired. Wren's head disappeared into a shower of red droplets and he crumpled to the ground amongst the other Reapers.
Vayla crawled backwards, wiping her hand across her face, mouth twisted.
"We're clear to the trees," said Cara.
"Has anyone planned what to do if they follow us into the trees?"Aart asked above the gunfire.
"Not something I wanted to think about," Bill said between gritted teeth.
"On the count of three, we run," Sid said, hauling Vayla to her feet. "Don't look back, just keep running. If we can stay together, great; if not… well, it's been nice getting to know you all."
The Hunters nodded.
Sid fired at the attacking Reapers. "One."
Nova swallowed, ready to run.
The Reapers surged forward.
The Hunters turned and sprinted into the trees as the Reapers leapt after them.
Nova felt a brush of air as a Reaper swiped at her neck. She ducked and kept running, leaves flicking her face, and branches scraping her arms. She pushed through the thick foliage and kept running.
Footsteps pounded on either side but worse were the snapping branches behind her. She couldn't bring herself to look back and see the Reapers closing in, so instead she kept running, hoping that Aart and the others were ahead.
Nova ran until her legs burned like fire and her lungs sounded like a wheezing engine. Even then she stumbled through the trees, putting one shaking foot in front of the other. Sweat poured down her forehead but all she could think of was running, getting away from the Reapers.
A voice filtered through the sound of her breathing. It sounded familiar.
A male voice. She couldn't place it but it made her smile.
Nova blinked and found she'd stopped moving. She tried to step forward but her legs refused to obey. She stood, knees wobbling and every muscle trembling, frozen in place. She turned to look over her shoulder, resigned to watching the Reapers tackle her to the ground.
Instead of gnashing teeth, a worried face came into view between the trees. Aart rushed to her side and grabbed her shoulder. "Nova. What are you doing?"
She looked down at her feet and then back at him, unable to respond.
"They stopped chasing us half a kilometre into the trees. You looked like a mad spirit, sprinting off."
Nova blinked at him. His words seemed to take a long time to get to her, like they travelled through thick molasses before finally reaching her ears. "Reapers." Her voice scraped like an unused engine.
"They're gone." Aart wrapped his arm under her good shoulder and guided her back through the trees.
Her feet dragged and she would have tripped if he hadn't held her upright. A small flicker of self-directed anger burned inside her; Aart would never let her forget that he'd had to practically carry her. The anger didn't take the exhaustion from her muscles.
It felt like they spent hours stumbling through the trees before they finally hobbled into a clearing.
"There she is." Bill stood from a fallen log, his bushy red eyebrows drawn together. "What happened to you? You ran like you had demons chasing you."
"Not far from the truth," muttered Sid.
Aart eased Nova onto a log where she sat staring down at the leaves and breathing hard.
Bill patted Nova's back and handed her a bottle of water. She drank it down, some spilling down her chin. The cool spray brought back some of her senses and she handed it back with a shaky smile.
"At least we made it," Vayla said. "No thanks to that bastard Wren."
Bill sighed and sat beside Nova. "Fear does strange things to people."
"He was a cowardly snake from the start."
No one spoke up to disagree.
Bill stood and ran a hand across his fuzzy beard. "It's already past midday. I say we stay here for the night and move out in the morning. I don't know about you lot, but my legs feel like they won't hold me up another minute."
The others nodded.
"I'll set up some trip wires," said Sid. "If we keep a watch we should be okay."
He lumbered into the trees pulling wires from his bag.
They sat in companionable silence for a time, listening to the wind rustle the leaves. Nova took the time to massage her aching shoulder and check her burning side. Miraculously the stitches had stayed together, although purple bruising covered most of her abdomen.
"Looks painful," Vayla said, nodding at her.
Nova pulled her shirt down and nodded. "Had worse though I suppose."
"I hope you noticed the expert stitching," Aart said.
Nova rolled her eyes and the others chuckled. The tension of the last few hours seemed to flow out of them and they eased back, shoulders relaxing and frowns fading.
"So, where are you lot from?" Bill asked
"Freelance," Cara said, staring down at her feet.
Nova could understand; most bounty hunters didn't last long on their own.
"I'd take it as a complement that you were invited here as a freelance," Bill said, waving his hand at the trees.
Cara snorted. "Yeah. Some prize."
Bill turned his attention to Nova and Aart. "You two seem friendly. Same guild?"
Nova met Aart's eyes but kept her mouth shut.
A grin split Aart's face and he shrugged. "Something like that. It's a long story."
Bill raised an eyebrow. "That story wouldn't happen to involve a certain guild being blown to pieces in a mysterious explosion, would it?"
Nova looked away. Aart's grin widened, but he said nothing.
Bill shrugged. "Keep your secrets, but I thought she looked familiar." He nodded at Nova. "A certain space-race…"
Nova swallowed and cursed herself for ever entering the race. People recognised her, and that could only be bad.
"Makes sense why you're laying low," Bill said. "I would too."
Nova nodded without looking up.
They spent the few hours until sunset in quiet conversation until Nova slid down from the trunk to the leaves and rested her head against the hard wood. No sooner had she closed her eyes then she drifted into tormented sleep.
A booming voice ripped Nova from sleep as dawn's light pricked through the trees. Her eyes flew open and she gasped, but her lungs spasmed and she choked. Pain, like a long metal spike being driven into her ribs, filled her chest and made even shallow breathing agony.
"You Hunters have made the Watcher very mad." The voice sounded strained, very unlike the over-confident voice Nova had come to know and hate. He hadn't expected them to beat the Reapers. She suspected that he wasn't too far away either. This was supposed to be the grand finale, they were killed by Reapers in the greatest hunt and then he could come and gloat over their bodies.
"You've made me pretty mad too," Aart yelled into the trees.
"And you've damaged my property. Zudikas didn't come cheap, and don't get me started on the Reapers. You will have to pay for this."
"Hey, Watcher," Nova said, ignoring the choking pain that set stars dancing across her vision. "We're coming for you. We will find you. And when we do, you'll be sorry."
"Oh, I don't think so," he replied. "This ends now. I've had enough of you. You're like toys that have outlived their usefulness. Goodbye Hunters, and good riddance."
Nova glanced at Aart and then at the other Hunters. What new hell would the Watcher release on them now?
Bill, Vayla, and Sid gripped their guns tight and stepped together so that their backs pressed against one another. Cara and Maya levelled their guns at the forest.
Nova held her breath, pain flaring up her side and through her shoulder. Aart held out his arm and helped her stand. Her legs wobbled and she leaned against a tree, peering into the forest.
A nearby twig quivered, leaves shaking. A second later they twitched again.
"Something's coming," Nova whispered.
Heavy footsteps shook the ground, drawing closer. The forest fell still, silent, except for the footsteps. The earth shook, rocking beneath whatever creature approached.
Maya stumbled back. "We've got to run."
Aart clenched his fist and glared at her. "Nova can't run! Look at her."
Nova gritted her teeth but her legs wobbled when she tried to move. "She's right. You should all go. I'll hold it off as long as I can."
Cara and Maya took a few faltering steps, glancing between Nova and the shaking branches.
Aart turned away from them and watched the forest, his knuckles white against his gun.
Maya groaned and stepped next to Aart, followed by Cara. Bill and the others joined them.
Nova used her free hand to pull her gun from its holster while leaning heavily against the tree. Each breath wheezed and sent waves of agony through her chest. Stars flashed across her vision but she blinked them away.
Metal glinted in the trees, sparkling.
The metal flash came again, closer.
"Fighter droid!" Aart roared, diving to the side behind a thick trunk.
The other Hunters ran behind trees while Nova did her best, half-falling, behind cover.
She peeked between two twigs and her stomach dropped.
The fighter droid stood twice as tall as her and at least twice as wide. Thick metal arms ended in gaping guns and steel legs crushed the undergrowth into kindling. Black sensor panels glinted where its face should have been.
Nova swallowed and gripped her gun tighter. A single fighter droid could take on a whole army; seven wounded Hunters didn't stand a chance.
It lifted its right arm and a red light flashed on its wrist. A thick barrel protruded where its hand should have been. It turned and pointed at the trees beside Nova. Light exploded through the forest, followed by a deep boom.
Nova crumpled to the ground, blind. Her eyes burned and heat scorched her side. She scrambled away from the warmth, hands held-out. Her ears rung, shaking her brain and making it impossible to think straight.
Firm hands snatched her wrists and dragged her sideways, tugging her wounded side.
She screamed, pulling against the grip.
Muffled voices whispered at the edge of her hearing and shadows moved in front of her stinging eyes. She squinted, trying to focus. The shadow looked familiar.
"Nova!" Aart shook her shoulders.
She shook her head and mumbled.
"Nova! Bloody hell."
"I'm okay," she whispered, voice cracking.
"Aart, it's coming this way," a woman's voice said, barely audible.
Aart looked at something over Nova's shoulder. He bent and wrapped her arm over his shoulder, hauling her forwards.
Pain seared up Nova's side and she tried to scream but it came out as a quiet moan.
"Stay here," Aart said, dropping her to the ground.
Nova tried to grab him as he turned away but he slipped out of her grip. She blinked and rubbed her eyes. Her vision seemed to be clearing; she could make out nearby trees. Roaring gunfire that had sounded far away grew louder with every moment until it boomed right on top of her.
She took a deep breath and peered around her tree. Aart and the others stood behind cover firing at the monstrous droid. A section of the forest burned with red hot flames that licked at the dry leaves.
She glanced at her hand, still clutched around her gun, and couldn't help but smile. At least her survivor instinct hadn't completely failed her. She slid around the tree-trunk, using it for support, until she had the robot in her sights.
The droid levelled its right arm at Maya and the red lights flashed. She dived out of the way just as a stream of red flames surged out of the droid's wrist and engulfed the forest. The tree she'd been using as cover burst into flames, turning to black ash in seconds.
The droid lifted its left arm and pointed at Maya's new position. She scrambled through the dirt as it fired. This time an invisible pulse careened into the closest trees and turned them to flying splinters. Branches shattered into twigs, leaving nothing but jagged stumps.
Maya flew through the air as if she'd been kicked by an invisible giant. Her body thumped to the ground, motionless.
Aart roared and swung out of cover, firing at the robot. His green blasts left black soot marks on the droid's surface, the only sign he'd even hit. Cara crept through the bushes on the droid's other side, towards Maya.
The droid's middle section turned, rotating so that its cannon-like arms pointed at Aart. Red lights flashed.
Nova fired a stream of shots at the robot. "Get out of there!"
Aart dove behind a tree as a stream of fire ate more forest.
On the other side of the clearing Bill, Vayla and Sid knelt behind a fallen log, firing at the droid, but it seemed not to notice.
The robot turned and Nova ducked behind her tree, wincing as the stitches pulled at her side. Her knuckles gleamed white on her gun, divided by red cuts.
"It's a long-range fighter," Aart called. "If I can get in close it won't stand a chance."
Nova's stomach dropped. "No! Aart it's too risky."
"I'm going in."
Nova crawled around her tree to see Aart running out from behind cover, gun blazing. In the trees Cara knelt over Maya's motionless body, frowning. Bill and the others did their best to provide cover fire. The robot spun to face Aart. Its yellow light flashed.
Nova aimed down her barrel and fired.
The blue blast slammed into the robot's arm and knocked it up a fraction of an inch. The branch above Aart's head exploded into a thousand splinters. He ducked and kept running, firing into the droid's chest.
The robot brought its arm back down but Aart darted inside its reach. It fired but the blast slammed into the ground, creating a hole in the red dirt.
Aart pushed his gun against the robot's chest and held down the trigger, firing a continuous stream. The robot jerked and took a step back. Aart hurried forward, staying out of the line of fire.
Smoke curled out of the robot's chest from a pocket of twisted metal.
Nova's heart fluttered; if they could hurt it, they could stop it.
Aart slammed his gun into the robot's chest and fired, creating another stream of smoke. The droid swung its arm back over its head and brought it crashing down.
"Aart look out!"
Aart stepped away too slow. The droid's arm slammed into his shoulder and he crumpled to the ground with a howl. His arm hung loosely from its socket.
Nova cried out and crawled forward.
The robot took three deliberate steps backward and aimed its gun at Aart's chest.
Bill stepped out of cover, gun blazing. "You bastard."
Nova's head buzzed. She glared at the robot through burning eyes, straining for any weakness. She'd spent so many hours mech-fighting that she knew a combat suit like the back of her hand, and battle droids weren't really that different.
Some old robots still had emergency cut-off switches, a relic from the time when everyone thought robots were going to take over the world. Not this one though.
Black panels glimmered on the droid's shoulders.
"Solar!" Nova croaked, her voice scraping her throat.
Aart curled into a groaning ball, clutching his shoulder.
Nova grimaced and levelled her gun, arm shaking. Pain surged through her body and stars danced across her vision.
Red and yellow lights flashed across the droid's arms.
Nova steadied her gun with her other hand, held her breath, and fired. A plasma bolt shot through the trees and slammed into the robot's right shoulder. It exploded in a shower of black shards and the droid's arm flung wide as it shot.
The ground to Aart's left erupted in a shower of dirt and he groaned.
The droid rounded on Nova, guns flashing. She tried to crawl behind cover but her arms and legs wobbled, unable to pull her weight. She bit her lip and held her chin high, ready to face the robot head on.
It lifted its right arm and the red light flashed. The noise of building energy buzzed through the trees but as it reached a crescendo it died, whirring down to silence. A dull beep echoed from the droid's interior.
Nova's heart fluttered and she swallowed. "Power trouble?" she whispered.
The droid lowered its right arm and instead aimed its left at Nova. Where the red light had died the yellow light flashed full of life.
Nova's stomach dropped. "Shit."
She scrambled to aim her gun at the droid's other shoulder but her arms shook, her gun waving through the air. She clutched the butt with both hands but couldn't steady it.
The robot's weapon powered up, the yellow light flashing faster.
Nova held her breath; just when she'd thought she'd made it, the bastard had to have another trick up its sleeve. She fired but the plasma bolts went wide, slamming into the trees behind the robot.
The buzz of power reached its peak and Nova's heart clenched.
Something flashed through the air behind the robot and slammed into its shoulder, metal glinting. Cara. She clung to the droid's back like a monkey, her arm hooked around its neck, and with her free hand she slammed a jagged knife down on the second solar panel.
It cracked and sparks flew through the air.
Cara snatched the loose pieces and ripped them free, hurling them to the ground. The robot swung its handless arms and caught her on the side of the face. Her head whipped sideways and she slipped free, body crashing to the ground with a dull thump.
The robot staggered back and aimed its gun at her. The yellow light flashed once, twice, and then died. The droid twitched and its arms fell loose by its sides, all lights and movement stopping dead.
Nova stayed frozen next to the tree, holding her breath.
The robot didn't move.
Cara pushed herself off the ground and wiped a hand across her forehead. "Is it dead?"
Nova bit her lip. "I think it's out of power. Let's hope it doesn't have a backup. How are the others?"
"We're all fine," Bill said, kneeling by Aart. "That was incredible. You guys are amazing."
Cara crawled to Aart's side. "Maya will be okay, but she has a broken arm. Aart's shoulder is dislocated, but nothing fatal."
Nova let out a long sigh. "And you?"
Cara massaged her jaw. "It'll bruise but I've had worse. How are your stitches? You know Aart will kill you if he has to sew you up again."
Nova chuckled and winced as the stitches tugged her abdomen. "I think they held." She leaned her head back against the tree trunk. "But I'm exhausted."
Cara and the others helped Maya and Aart to Nova's side where they made a sorry circle. Aart's arm dangled out of his shoulder socket and white bone peaked out of Maya's forearm. Her face glowed white and dripped with sweat.
"You all look like shit," Cara said, standing over them.
Nova squinted up at Cara's face which was already turning purple. "You don't look so great either."
Cara rolled her eyes. "Aart, hold still."
She knelt at his side and gripped his arm. With deft movements she pushed his arm back into its socket with an audible crack.
"Oi!" Aart's scream echoed through the trees and he fell to the ground gripping his shoulder.
Nova patted his side. "Stop being a whinger. I think Maya has it worse than you and she hasn't said a word."
Aart bit his lip and his groans subsided into the occasional whimper.
Cara turned to Maya and bit her lip. "I'm not a medic."
Maya shrugged. "None of us are. I sure could use some Parapem or something though."
"Aart's got some painkillers in his bag," Nova said.
"Here I've got some." Vayla handed two strips of Parapem to Maya who took them and laid them on her tongue before closing her eyes. A few moments later her shoulders relaxed and the line between her eyebrows eased.
"I'll try to set it and then I'll hold it in place with a bandage. It's the best I can do for now," Cara said.
Maya nodded but didn't open her eyes.
Cara gripped Maya's forearm and pushed the bones back into alignment. Sweat poured down Maya's face and she grimaced. Cara snatched a clean bandage from Aart's bag and wrapped it around Maya's wound and then over her shoulder to keep her arm in place.
When she'd finished Cara fell back to her knees and let out a long breath.
Maya pursed her lips and nodded.
Cara wiped a sheen of sweat from her forehead and turned to the others. "So what do we do now?"
Aart pulled himself up beside Nova. "We head to the ships and get the hell out of here."
Maya nodded but didn't speak.
Nova bit her lip. Most of her wanted to get as far away from Kopet as she could, but another, deeper, part thirst for revenge. "I say we go after him."
"Who?" Aart said.
"The Watcher, or whoever the hell he is. He can't get away with what he's done."
Cara nodded. "She's right. He needs to pay. We kill the bastard."
"We can't let him keep doing this," Nova said, her own voice stinging her throat.
Bill, Vayla and Sid shared a glance.
Aart shook his head. "No. We need to get out of here now. We can send in an army or something once we're out of here."
"Last I checked, you didn't have an army," Nova said.
"We call in back-up, we get friends, we go in hot," he said.
Cara took a long drink from her bottle. "He'll get away. As soon as we leave he'll be gone, if he's not hopping into his space-ship right now. If we're going to stop him, it has to be now."
"Look at us!" Aart said, waving a hand at his injured arm and then to Nova and Maya. "We can't fight any more. Whatever giant monstrosity he's got lined up for us next, we won't win."
"I don't think he has anything more," Nova said. "I think he's scared."
"Why?" Aart said.
"Because he's so quiet. If he had something lined up he'd be gloating about it, but he's not."
Cara nodded. "So now's the perfect time to strike."
Maya sighed and tried to sit a little higher, her eyelids flickering. "I want revenge for Tommy, but even if there aren't any more giant robots, I don't know how much good I'll be."
Nova grimaced and looked down at her wounds. Her head spun and bright lights flashed across her vision; she knew how Maya felt.
"I'll go on my own," Cara said with a shrug. "Either way, I'm going after him."
"No," Nova said, "We're all in this together. We all go."
Bill cleared his throat. "I don't think we'll be joining you."
"You can't mean to let him get away with this?" Cara said, her mouth hanging wide.
Bill shrugged. "I want him dead as much as you, but we're tired. We've been here longer than you, our strength is used up. We just want to leave."
"You're leaving us to do the dirty work?" Cara said.
Nova waved her down. "They've been through enough and lost good people. Plus, we'll need someone to send back up, just in case."
"And how are they planning to get out of here?" Maya said through gritted teeth.
"During our stay in the city we managed to get up on top of one of the roofs," Bill said. "We saw the ships, the real ones, not the hologram. They're just a little further down-hill from here."
Nova swallowed, her mouth dry like the sands of Tabryn. The ships were so close… would it be so bad to leave now?
Aart sighed and flexed his injured shoulder with a grimace. "Fine. We'll get the son-of-a-bitch."
"There's still a few hours of daylight left," Sid said. "If we start now we might make it to the ships before night, and that is something I'm very keen for."
Bill nodded. "It was good to meet you all. I think it's safe to say you saved our arses."
"You saved ours first," Aart said with a grin.
The Hunters exchanged awkward handshakes before Bill and the others disappeared into the trees.
Nova ran a hand over her forehead. "Now to kill the Watcher."
Maya's mouth twisted. "Are you guys planning on carrying me there?"
Nova caught Maya's eye and raised an eyebrow. "Your legs aren't injured, don't tell me you're going to wimp out now."
The corners of Maya's mouth lifted. "Tommy was right, we are similar."
Nova nodded. "We stay here for an hour or so, then we find the crazy bastard."
"How are we going to find him?" Aart said.
"That robot left us a trail." Nova nodded into the trees where a cleared path of broken branches disappeared into the forest.
Aart shook his head. "An hour it is then."
Nova used her good arm to cling onto Aart's uninjured shoulder and he lifted her to her feet. She winced at the new pain in her side and teetered, but Aart kept her steady. She took three deep breaths. "Okay, let's do this."
"Yep, I can't get off this planet soon enough," Maya said.
Cara nodded. "Me neither."
The four wounded Hunters staggered through the trees along the robot's trail. Maya clutched her broken arm close to her chest while Cara's face swelled with purple bruises.
Nova gritted her teeth as she leaned against Aart's shoulder and dragged her feet forward. Her side burned like she was being stabbed with a hot iron and exhaustion flooded her muscles.
"Watcher is being awful quiet," Aart said with a grin.
Nova nodded. "I have a feeling he might be packing."
Maya clenched her good hand into a fist. "I hope we catch him before he goes anywhere."
"Oh, we will," Nova said. She refused to let him get off the planet without meeting face to face.
As she suspected, it wasn't far from where they fought the robot to its home base. The trees opened into a wide clearing where the robot's tracks disappeared down a long ramp. It lead underground and ended in a rolling door. The thick metal looked almost as out of place as the robot had.
Faint tyre tracks marked the ramp but they were old and covered over with the robot's footsteps.
"Ten credits says our man is in there," Aart said.
Nova snorted and then winced as a sharp pain jabbed through her chest. "I'm not taking that bet."
"What are we going to do?" asked Cara. "Just go down and knock on the door?"
"Somehow I don't think he's going to answer it for a group of vengeful bounty hunters," Aart said.
Maya went to step forward but Nova gripped her arm, pulling her back into the trees.
"What?" said Maya, pulling her arm free.
"After everything he's had lined up for us on this planet you think his home base is going to be unguarded?"
"Did you miss the giant fighter droid back there?"
Nova rolled her eyes. "More than that. I just think we should be careful."
Aart grabbed a rock with his good arm and hurled it towards the underground bunker. At the peak of its arc it burst into a million tiny pieces with a bright flash of light. "Lucky that wasn't you, Maya," he said with a grin.
"Motion sensor turrets," Nova said.
Aart nodded. "I saw one in the trees to the right."
"I spotted one above the roller door," Nova said.
"Something moved over there," Cara said, pointing to the left of the door.
Aart nodded. "Shouldn't be hard to disable. He was probably counting on his giant robot friend to take care of any unwelcome visitors."
"I'll circle around and take out the one above the garage, it's blind on the back side," Nova said, already limping into the trees.
"We'll take care of the other two," Aart said.
Nova waved her hand in acknowledgement but didn't look back, she didn't want them to see the pain twisting her face with every step. She breathed in reluctant gasps, each one another jolt of agony.
It felt like hours that she spent walking through the forest, circling the underground bunker, before finally reaching the other side. Here the only sign of the bunker was a slight mound of dirt covered in grass, like a low hill.
A bright flash and a sharp crack burst on the other side of the hill where the turret in the trees had been. One down.
Nova bent low, ignoring the pain in her side, and crept up the hill. Near the top she dropped to her knees and then her stomach, peering over the top and into the forest on the other side.
Shadows moved in the trees; Aart and the others. A moment later another explosion took out the second turret, a trail of smoke lifting into the air.
Nova inched forward and peaked over the hill where it dropped sharply onto the ramp. The turret sprouted just to her left, a roving motion sensor and metal plasma pistol glinting in the sunlight.
She crawled closer. No grenades. No high-powered weapons. No scramblers. She frowned down at the machine, mind ticking. She reached down, hands like claws, and gripped the motion sensor at the back. She strained, chorded muscle standing out on her arms, and twisted.
The thin stalk connecting the motion sensor to the rest of the gun snapped, coming loose in Nova's hand. She pulled it back up over the ledge and lay panting in the grass. She drew a deep breath. "Aart! Give it a test."
A moment later a rock sailed out of the forest. It soared through the air and clattered onto the ramp, rolling forward until it bumped against the roller door. The turret didn't move.
"Threat neutralised," Nova said, climbing to her feet and staggering down the side of the hill. The others lurched out of the trees and joined her, the ragged group shuffling down the ramp to the rolling door.
"So much for his high security," Aart said with a grin. "But what do we do now?"
Nova nudged Aart to keep moving. "It can't be that hard to get in. The robot managed it."
Maya sauntered to the other side of the ramp. "There's another door around here."
Nova and Aart hobbled over to stand next to her. She pointed down a thinner ramp with a small door at the bottom, obviously designed for people rather than machinery. The door didn't look nearly as thick as the rolling door and a simple number pad blocked the way.
Cara stepped out in front. "Allow me."
She strode down the ramp and examined the number pad, squinting at the numbers for just a few moments before punching in four digits. The door buzzed and a red light flashed over Cara's head.
"What are you doing?" Nova said with a frown. They would never make it in if Cara was going to try and guess the combination.
"These pads are always the same," Cara said. "The numbers that make up the code are always worn. Look."
Cara pointed to where the number four should have been written. It was barely readable compared to the five next to it. Nova looked over the rest of the keypad. Cara was right; the four, seven, and one were all worn down.
"You put in four digits," Nova said.
"These kinds of locks always use four digit codes," Cara explained. "One of them must be used twice."
"Oh," Nova said. "And how do you know so much about locks?"
"You know guns," Cara said, trying another code. "I know locks."
Nova shrugged. "Fair enough."
The door buzzed red.
Cara tried six different combinations until, on the seventh attempt, the door buzzed green and clicked.
Cara pushed against the metal and it swung inwards. They stepped inside, guns raised.
The dark corridor beyond the door rang with desperate and panicked noises, scuffling and cursing. Someone cursed in the darkness ahead. Nova's chest tightened. She had no way to know what to expect and in her current state she'd make a less than average opponent.
The four Hunters crept down the corridor, towards a faint red light. They stepped around the corner at the end of the hallway as a single group and stopped.
A large room lined with screens and buttons surrounded them. The screens displayed different views of the planet and Nova recognised many of them; the burnt remains of a massive purple plant lay on the floor in one screen while a corpse filled another. Scorpions littered the floor of another scene.
An overweight man with dark stains under his arms stood in the centre of the control room. The sweat made his shirt stick to his fleshy body as he shoved things into a duffel bag, talking to himself. "Stupid, stupid Hunters. But they won't catch me. No sir."
"Hello, Watcher," Aart said, stepping forward and leaving Nova leaning against a control unit. He aimed his gun at the man's head.
The man jumped and squealed like a stuck pig as he stumbled back. He tripped over a chair and sprawled backwards. He landed with a grunt and scrambled on all fours away from them, whimpering like a caricature of himself.
He reached the far wall and pushed his back up against it. His feet kept pedalling even once he stopped.
"D-don't come any closer," he said, sounding nothing like the ominous Watcher who had stalked them across the planet. "There are guns aimed at you. You'll be dead before you take the first step."
Nova leaned against the computer terminal and took a deep, painful breath. Her side hurt, her shoulder hurt, and her head hurt. She hated the fat man who had tried to play god with their lives, and the anger seethed just below her skin. He'd already killed a handful of good Hunters. What if one of them had been Aart?
"I don't think so," Maya said, taking another step forward.
"N-No, but your next step will mean death," he said, still sitting on the floor.
Maya took another step forward.
"Your guns seem to be broken," Maya said, her voice icy.
"Look, just let me go please. I didn't do anything wrong."
"I'm sorry?" Maya said, stepping closer. "You see, it sounded like you just said that you didn't do anything wrong, but my dead best friend would probably disagree."
"It wasn't my fault," he said. "Tommy was killed by one of you Hunters. It wasn't my hand that pulled the trigger."
Maya's hand clenched at her side and somehow her bandaged arm made her seem even more intimidating. She towered over the man, staring down at him. He flinched under her gaze, his mouth twitching as sweat poured down and created a pool on the floor.
"I'll tell you what," Maya said. "Let's play a game. Why don't you give me one good reason why you should live."
"His name's Garin," Cara said, pointing to a computer terminal where his photo and details gleamed.
"Okay, Garin," Maya said. "Why do you deserve to live?"
Garin looked around the room with wild eyes. He stared at each of the Hunters in turn, begging for mercy.
"Because I-I have money!" Garin said. His voice rose in triumph.
"Oh?" Maya said. "How much money?"
"Several thousand," Garin said. "It's right there in the drawer." He nodded his head to a metal drawer.
Aart stepped over and yanked it open. A cred-stick rolled to the front and he snatched it up. "Eight thousand."
"You see?" Garin said. "That's two thousand each. Twice the original bounty."
Garin pushed himself up the wall to his quaking legs and stepped closer to Maya. He whispered to her but his words carried easily in the small room. "Of course, if you kill your companions there'll be more for you."
Maya glared at him, her eyes flashing. "Gee you're right. Except that these people saved me. So no, I don't think that will be happening."
"Fine, fine," Garin said. His voice regained some of its cock-sure tone and it made Nova shiver as memories of the sandstone tunnels came flooding back. "But if we're all done here I'll be on my way."
Garin took a step to Maya's right, towards his half-packed bag. Maya also took a step sideways so that they stood face to face.
"Come now, Maya, don't play games," Garin said, his voice faltering.
"But I thought you loved games?"
"Look, I gave you the money. Now let me go."
Aart tossed the cred-stick into the air and caught it again. "The guy owns a planet, I'm sure he has more than eight thousand."
The four Hunters stared at Garin.
"Well- um. Of course I've got more credits. But they're stored off world. If you let me leave I can transfer them straight to you. You'll all be rich."
"But, Garin," Nova said, stepping away from the wall and walking towards the man to join Maya, ignoring the lashes of pain that coursed through her. "If we let you go what's to stop you doing this again? To other people?"
"You have my word," Garin said. He sounded affronted at the very notion.
"Somehow, that's not good enough," Nova said. "I don't know about the others, but I don't think two thousand is enough credits for me. I'd much rather see justice done."
Maya lifted her gun and pressed it into Garin's forehead. "Me too."
He flinched away from the metal, his back pressing against the wall.
Nova lifted her hand and placed it on Maya's weapon, forcing it down, away from Garin.
"Oh mercy. Thank you Nova Tabryn. You are a great woman," Garin said, out of breath.
"I wouldn't be thanking me yet. You see, as much as I'm sure you deserve to be shot, I think it would be a much more fitting punishment to put you in the catacombs."
"What?" Garin's eyes popped wide.
"You subjected other people to them, surely it's only fair for you to feel what it's like."
"That wouldn't work," Garin said. His head whipped to either side, and his lips trembled. "I built them; I know how to get out."
"I don't think so," said Nova. "You never planned to be stuck down there. That place is sealed like a grave. Kind of fitting don't you think?"
"Be reasonable!" Garin said. "That's not humane."
"I've found the signal blocker," Cara said, flicking a large red switch.
Static filled the air and then a lone voice filtered through Nova's chip, Cal. "Nova? Nova? Come in. I've had strange readings from the planet. Please confirm location."
"Cal," Nova said.
The other Hunters gazed into the air, probably also communicating with their ships.
"Nova! I've been trying to reach you for days."
"Yeah, we ran into some complications," Nova said. "Can you come and get me? I can't get off this planet soon enough."
"Confirmed," said Cal.
Nova nodded and turned to the other Hunters.
"My ship is on its way. Who wants the honour of putting Tubby here underground?"
Aart stepped forward. "I think we'd all like to see that."
It didn't take long for the ships to arrive. Nova loaded Garin into Crusader and locked him in the small cell in the storage bay. The four ships flew back to the tunnel entrance that led down into the prison.
"I'm going to go in and get Tommy's body," Maya said. "Unlike the rest of us, he actually has people who will care that he's gone."
Aart stood. "I'll help."
"How about the only person without an injured arm gets him?" Cara said.
Together, they carried Tommy's body back up from the prison tomb. Nova watched in solemn silence. It was rare for a Hunter to be given so much respect after death. Usually they were left to lie wherever they fell.
Next, they pushed Garin towards the tunnel entrance. He stumbled and fought against them, but they pushed him forward, faces stony.
"It's no use," Garin said. "I'll just get out and then you'll regret it."
"I'll tell you what," Nova said. "If you get out, you just try and find me. I might regret it, but not as much as you."
Garin's mouth snapped shut and he stared at Nova with wide eyes. She glared back at him with cold hatred and shoved him the last metre past the door.
The four of them heaved the door closed, taking the rusted key with them. The thick door blocked everything, including Garin's screams.
Nova pulled out her pistol and aimed it at the cliff-face above the tunnel entrance. She fired four shots into the rocks. Small chips sprayed through the air followed by bigger rocks, starting a small landslide that sent a tumble of rocks collapsing down to cover the doorway. There was no way Garin was getting out this way.
"I'd call this a job well done," Aart said.
Maya frowned. "I'd call it a massacre."
Cara placed a hand on her shoulder. "Yeah."
Maya met Cara's eyes. "I guess the guild could use a new Hunter now... you seem alright."
Cara's eyes widened and a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.
"Couldn't ask for better," Nova said.
"I took note of your ships' call-signs," Maya said, turning back to Aart and Nova. "Maybe I'll see you around."
Aart grinned. "You bet. The next time I get trapped by a psychopath you'll be the first people I call."
Nova nodded. "You know, with all the abandoned ships and hardware left by the other Hunters there's quite a bounty."
Maya's expression froze and she nodded slowly.
"Hell, you could buy a whole house on Vix," Nova said, locking eyes with Maya.
Maya nodded once more. "There's enough here, someone could almost get through to the outers."
Nova smiled but it didn't reach her eyes. "There's a lot, but not enough for that. Not that."
Aart looked between them. "I don't know what secret messages you guys are passing but I'm starting to feel left out."
Nova clapped a hand on Aart's shoulder. "Don't worry your pretty little head about it."
"I heard bounty."
"Yeah, we'll split what's here, then I'm leaving this damned planet."
"Home?" Aart said.
She clutched her side, holding the stitches together and trying not to puke across Aart's shoes. "Yeah, I think I need to see the medical wing anyway."
Aart grinned. "I'll see you there."
Nova nodded to Maya and Cara. "See you around."
They nodded back and shuffled to their own ships.
Nova climbed up into Crusader and hobbled into her sleeping pod. Cal hovered along behind her.
"Cal, can you please fix up the dressings. Crusader, take us back to the Maw."
"Confirmed," Cal and Crusader said in unison.
With that, the ship lifted off Kopet and shot into the sky.
Nova winced as Cal inspected her wounds, but it wasn't long before she collapsed into much-needed sleep.
Aart snatched Nova's arm and pulled her to the side of The Jagged Maw's cafeteria. "Nova, they're onto us."
"What do you mean?" Nova's stomach clenched, she'd been so looking forward to a break, but the panic in Aart's eyes said that wasn't likely.
"The Confederacy. They've found out about us, that we're still here."
Aart shrugged. "They must have tracked us or something. Either way, we don't have much time left."
"What the hell are we supposed to do? Gather another army?"
"I don't think that will work this time. Here, Jack's waiting for you on Tanguin's communicator."
Nova ripped her arm free and sprinted down the corridor. Her heart pounded against her ribs, straining to break free. She pelted around the corner and skidded to a stop inside Tanguin's room.
Jack's face filled the screen covering one wall. He looked ten years older than when Nova had last seen him on Drigoon. Sweat dribbled down his pale face and he kept glancing over his shoulder, flinching at every sound.
"Nova!" he said.
"Jack. What's going on?"
"I don't have much time. Something's stirring here. I could be shot for even thinking about talking to you, but I couldn't just stand by and do nothing. They've got video of you, and Aart, and the others, breaking into Quadrant Two Headquarters. They've labelled you terrorists. At this second just about every Confederacy soldier in the universe is looking for you."
Nova bit her lip. "We'll run, same as before."
Jack shook his head. "That won't work this time. They've managed to get your bio-imprint from the debris in Quadrant Two. They can chase you anywhere, and they mean to make an example."
Nova's stomach dropped. With a bio-imprint there was nowhere she or her companions could hide. Her own DNA would give her away as soon as anyone scanned her.
Something behind Jack clattered and his head whipped up. "Gotta go."
His screen went black and Nova's heart leapt into her throat.
"Do you think…" Aart began.
"He's fine," Nova said, refusing to consider the other possibility.
Tanguin's pale face looked up at them from where she sat, knees under her chin, on her bed. "They're coming."
Nova slammed her fist into the wall. "Grishnak!"
"It'll take them a while to get a full lock on us," Aart said. "We've got to find a way to get free by then."
"You can't just get free of a bio-imprint," Tanguin said, voice shaking.
Nova collapsed onto the bed next to Tanguin. "We've gotta break the border."
Aart rolled his eyes. "I really don't think now is the time to get lost in your fantasy of getting to the far outers."
"I'm serious," Nova said. "Past the border is the only place the Confederacy won't chase us."
"Yeah. Because it's impossible to get past."
Nova shook her head and leaned forward. "Not impossible. That mob operation does it all the time, and the Confederacy ships get past it somehow. If we stay here we're putting everyone in The Jagged Maw at risk, it's our only option."
Aart gritted his teeth. "Nova, I think there are better—"
"No. There's not. The border is the only thing that'll keep us safe from a bio-imprint. I'm going. You can either come with me, or you can stay on this side and spend the rest of your – short – life running."
"I don't even know how we'd start to get past it."
"We ask someone who's already doing it."
Aart's eyebrows flew up. "You mean the mob boss?"
"Mason Carter, yes. I've been meaning to speak to him for a while, I guess now's as good a time as any."
"Gee, that sounds great, Nova, except that he's got life imprisonment on Ankar."
"Then that's where I'm going," Nova said, her heart fluttering in her throat.
"You're going to break into prison?"
"No, that would be ridiculous. I'm going to get caught." Nova's chest tightened and every breath hurt but she refused to let the fear show on her face. "Call the others. We need to tell them what's happening and come up with a plan."
When Aart left, Nova shivered. A cold shard of fear pierced through her spine and lodged itself in her heart. Getting sent to Ankar was like putting her own head in the noose. She just hoped she lived long enough to look back and laugh about it.
Nova's Journey Continues…
Ankar. A prison moon from which no one's ever escaped.
Nova. Alone, unarmed, and out-numbered.
Somehow she has to convince the toughest mob boss in the Quadrant to give up his biggest secret, and escape the inescapable, or face certain death at the hands of the Confederacy.
It will take wits, guts, and nerves of steel - and even that may not be enough.
Book Eight: Prisoner
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Find all of Saffron's Books At:
The Lost Child Saga - An Epic Fantasy Series
The Nova Chronicles
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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