Copyright 2014 Saff
Published by Saffron Bryant at Smashwords
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To everyone who helped make this book a reality.
Another shockwave rocked the bounty hunter vessel, Crusader, and sent shudders through the metal hull. The old ship vibrated as the engines struggled. The ship was big enough for one person to work and live in, but only just.
Nova grabbed the nearest handhold. Red lights flashed above her head and a low siren wailed. Her black hair created a pool of darkness in the bright lights. Her violet eyes sparkled as they took in the emergency messages flashing across her screen.
She struggled to stay upright in the rocking ship. "What was that?"
She looked at Cal, the Class Four Labourbot. He hovered in mid-air, unaffected by the quaking ship. His spherical, metal body was the size of a large melon. The single camera lens that functioned as his eye roved around the control board, taking in the dials and readings.
"Fuel cell explosion detected," Cal said.
"What do you mean the fuel cell exploded?"
Nova's white knuckles clutched tighter as another shockwave rocked the ship. Her body whipped sideways, and her hip slammed into the nearest wall. She winced as tendrils of pain shot through her leg. Tears stung the corners of her eyes.
"Dammit!" Her thick boots thumped on the metal as she pulled herself up off the floor.
"The last collection we made must have been sabotaged. Explosives have blown a hole through the fuel cell."
Nova glared at the robot. Red warning lights flashed through the room and lit up Cal's panels. The ship's control board glowed with warning lights. Pressure gauges, heat gauges, fuel gauges, all of them pushed into the red zone, making the alarms wail louder. If they didn't sort it out soon, the ship was going to blow.
"Cal, can you fix it? At least well enough to get us home?"
"I can patch it up but it would never last all the way to The Jagged Maw."
"At least tell me we've got enough left to pay for repairs."
"Negative. The ship's maintenance scan reveals that the explosion cut a hole in the side of the cargo pod. Whatever we had is now in a trail behind us."
"So we've got nothing?"
"Please tell me that wasn't the same cargo pod that had my weapons in it."
"I'm afraid it was."
"Grishnak!" Nova cursed.
"Swearing won't help our situation," Cal said.
She clenched her teeth and glared around the control pod for any kind of solution.
"Why the hell would someone do that?"
"My scenario simulators suggest they plan to follow behind us and collect it."
"Why can't the bastards find their own damn jobs?"
"Human behaviour continues to baffle me."
Nova's teeth ground together. She clenched her hands into tight fists. If she ever got hold of whoever had done this…
Another shudder forced her to latch on to the handhold.
"Get back there and fix the fuel cells. And make sure the airlock holds."
Cal hovered away.
"Crusader!" Nova said. "Stop that alarm!"
The alarms cut short and were replaced with the rumbling and rattling of the old ship, as the thrusters choked.
"This is Aart's fault," she said to herself, thinking over the last twenty-four hours.
It had all been going so smoothly. Aart's info on a good haul proved better than expected. The drop had been easy; the goods had practically fallen into their laps. Even Aart couldn't have predicted how good the take would be. Now here she was, stranded, with nothing to show for it.
Crusader's smooth voice cut through Nova's thoughts. "The labourbot is damaged."
Nova's head whipped up. "What?"
She didn't wait for a response. Letting go of her handhold, she sprinted out of the command pod. The ship jolted and her body was hurled into the wall. Her shoulder and side exploded with pain. Grazes stung her arm and dribbled blood. She stumbled and leant against the wall. She took a deep breath and limped forward. Agony shot up her side with every step but she pushed on.
It was only a small distance to the engine room. Pipes and wires crowded close to her head. Each wall was covered in panels and drawers which opened into storage holds and cargo pods. The air stunk of oil and burning plastic. Dripping echoed through the close confines.
It felt like her heart was in her throat as she ducked under the machinery and hurried to the back where the fuel cells were pouring their contents onto the floor.
Cal lay in a flammable puddle. Black burns charred his panels and all of his lights were off.
"Dammit!" Nova said.
She fell to her knees by the robot's side. She pulled him away from the leaking fuel. He was hot to the touch.
"Systems critical. The fuel cells must be repaired," Crusader said. "Sealant from compartment four-b will be sufficient."
Nova reluctantly left Cal's side. She opened the small drawer labelled four-b and rummaged inside. Her hand brushed over glue sticks and a welding gun. Something sharp caught her finger and slashed it open.
She yanked her hand out of the drawer. A deep cut poured blood out of her middle finger and loose flesh hung on either side of the wound. Pain coursed through Nova's hand. It got worse with every beat of her heart. Her finger throbbed.
She wrapped her other hand over the cut and winced. Blood seeped out around her palm.
"Shit. Shit. Shit."
She cast around for anything to stop the bleeding.
"Cal! Can you-" Her eye caught the motionless robot and she remembered why she was there in the first place. "Oh dammit!"
"Compartment three," Crusader said.
Nova tucked her injured hand to her chest and used her other hand to open compartment three. It was much tidier than the other drawer and full of first aid supplies. She yanked out a bandage.
She used her good hand and her teeth to wrap the bandage around her finger. It turned bright red in an instant. She wrapped the bandage until a ball of cloth surrounded her finger. She slammed compartment three closed.
She ground her teeth together and stomped to compartment four-a. This time she pulled the knives out of the way before shoving her hand deep into the drawer. She found the sealant wedged at the very back.
She pulled it out and stepped over the puddle. She shook the tube and took off the lid. She squeezed the grey gel over the spurting hole in the fuel cell. It absorbed and hardened, forming a coat over the leak. It would buy them some time.
It wasn't the first time Nova had repaired a ship. She'd grown up fixing the rusted machinery she found lying around the dirty streets of her home world. Nova was born on Tabryn, an orphan left on the steps of one of the city's many brothels. The house mother, Roxanne, ran an orphanage from the same building. That was where Nova grew up and learnt how to survive.
There weren't many ways to survive on Tabryn.
Roxanne always told Nova that she either had to learn to spread her legs or learn to fight. Nova chose to fight. When she was older, she made some money in mech fighting. Before any of that, she repaired robots and machinery. Things were always breaking down on Tabryn and children were cheap labour.
When she was seven years old, Nova was almost crushed by a loose drill arm. She'd gone inside the multifunction mining machine to repair a busted pipe and the whole thing collapsed. She was lucky to crawl out of the wreckage alive.
She knew Crusader better than anyone; she was the one who had fixed the beaten up wreck and turned it into a functional ship. She'd picked it up cheap, battered, and broken after a drunk-driver crashed it into Tabryn's desert. It had taken a long time, but with Cal's help, she put the ship together again, and it was her ticket away from her hated home planet. Crusader and Cal were the reason she was still alive. They'd given her her freedom.
"The labourbot's backup systems will fail soon," Crusader said. "Immediate action is recommended."
Nova turned back to the burnt robot. She carried him to a workbench and set him down. The bench was squeezed in amongst the other machinery. It was only meant for emergency repairs; this seemed like the right time.
She held her injured finger out of the way as best she could and lifted the outer panels away to reveal the inner workings. The tiny chips and wires fit perfectly around the motor. Each mechanical section moved in tandem with the rest of the robot. The parts came together to create an ingenious whole.
The smooth-running machinery was severely damaged. A gear clicked over in an uneven rhythm as it strained to keep the robot's core functions going. Smoke hissed out from the motor and created acrid fumes.
Nova had to crane her neck forwards to see into Cal's inner workings. Blood rushed to her head and her neck screamed in protest. Her eyes were the worst of all; they stung from the onslaught of smoke and fumes. Tears poured down her face. She blinked furiously.
She wanted nothing more than to slump down into her chair with a hard drink, but she couldn't do that to Cal.
The process of reattaching wires was painstaking. Nova's hands shook with the pressure. Every now and again she ripped her eyes away from Cal to check the fuel cells. For the moment they were holding together, but how much longer would they last?
She gritted her teeth. "Crusader, how are those cells?"
"Probability analysis suggests they will fail."
"Yes, but when?"
"Between one hour and three days."
"You can't give me anything better than that?"
Nova bit her lip and took a deep breath. The worst thing she could do right now was lose her cool. Staying in control was the only way to save herself and Cal. If she didn't do it for herself, then she had to do it for Cal. He'd been her faithful companion from the start, right from that first journey into the unknown.
"Negative," Crusader said.
Nova shook her head and went back to work. The race was on. With every passing moment, more of Cal's systems shut down. The motor was slowing down. It wouldn't be long before it stopped completely and his systems would go into total shutdown. She could always reprogram him, but it wouldn't really be Cal anymore.
His quirky personality would be replaced with the factory presets. The boring monotone voices would be no replacement for Cal's brand of personality. Sure, he was a robot, but at least he understood her. Their connection had been formed over years of living together. No factory preset could do that.
Soot and grime covered her fingers. Streaks of oil traced up her arms, all the way to her elbows. The grey shirt she wore was covered in fuel and dirt; she wiped her forehead on her sleeve. The engine room was hot, especially with the failing fuel cells. Sweat dripped in front of Nova's eyes from her forehead. The metal rod she was trying to reattach dropped out of her slippery hands. She cursed and wiped them desperately on her long pants before returning her attention to Cal.
Her bandaged finger made it especially hard to work. It bumped into a collection of wires and knocked them free. Cal's warning alarm flared in response. The loose wires fell deeper into his machinery. She had to use her little finger to grip the cables whilst keeping the rest of her hand out of the way.
A quiet hiss snapped her attention from Cal's charred wires. Her eyes focused on the fuel cells. A new leak had sprung. It was smaller than the other one but fuel was spurting out and creating a new pool on the floor.
"No, no, no!" she said.
She carefully laid Cal's wires on the bench and dashed to the fuel cell. She'd left the tube of sealant lying on top. She pulled the top off. Her tense hands clenched too tightly and the grey sealant spurted out of the top. It landed on the floor with a splat and formed hard bumps.
"Shit!" she said.
The tube was squeezed flat. There was the thinnest layer coating the very top of the tube but that was all.
Nova's voice tremored as she looked from the empty sealant tube to the spurting fuel cell. "Do we have any more sealant?"
"Negative," Crusader said.
"Can we make some?"
"According to the Cloud, the formula is hidden by confidential patent."
"Of course it is."
Nova glared around the engine room for anything that could stop the leaking fuel.
"Could really use some help, Crusader."
"Scanning all inventory."
Nova kicked the lumps of sealant on the floor. They were completely solid, no chance of salvaging any from that. She gripped the work bench until the edge cut into her palms. Her head pounded as she tried to solve the problems crowding in on her. Crusader's engines were failing, Cal's systems were failing, the fuel levels were critical.
"Compartment twelve has rubber putty," Crusader said.
Nova ran for the cupboard. "Will that be enough?"
"It is the only possible solution."
Nova yanked open the compartment door. She grabbed the putty and massaged it as she moved around the engine to the fuel cells. She stretched it as far as she could and covered the leak. She wrapped the putty around the cell as far as it would go.
The leak slowed.
"It won't hold for long," Crusader said.
Nova didn't stop for breath. She dashed back to Cal's side and picked up a loose wire. She pushed the wire into the receiving jack. Cal's core systems stabilised. At least for the moment, he wasn't getting worse. The next part worried her the most. One wrong connection and she'd fry all of his internal circuits.
She breathed deep to steady her hands. She pushed her fear to the very back of her mind. She imagined a solid crate into which she shoved her emotions and then she mentally threw away the key. There was no time for emotions now. She put her cleared and logical mind to the task of fixing Cal.
Piece by piece, she reattached his intricate components. With every new connection, another system came back online. There were three wires left. She reached in for the red cable. As her hand brushed past the inner workings her bandaged finger caught on the stabilization switch.
She watched in horror as the fabric caught on the metal switch and tugged it loose. It clicked off. Lights flared up through Cal's inner machinery. The motor shot into action. It spun at ten times the normal speed. The inner machinery whirred as it went into overdrive.
"Fuck!" Nova whipped her hand back. Threads of bandage stayed caught on the metal, loose threads waved in the flowing air from the motor.
Each intricate part of Cal's machinery pumped faster. It was if each component was racing to fail first.
Nova plunged her other hand into Cal's body. She fumbled with the loose switch. It took all of her coordination to put it back in place with a single hand. She shoved the switch home and turned it on.
Cal's systems powered down to normal speed. The gears clicked into a steady rhythm and his motor stopped smoking.
Nova breathed a sigh of relief.
When she finally attached the last wire, she lowered the charred section back into place. She opened the interface panel and held down the red restart button. She squeezed her eyes closed and held her breath.
After what felt like hours, but was really only a few moments, Cal beeped. His motor whirred into action inside his metal casing and the robot lifted out of her hands. Cal righted himself mid-air. His camera-eye looked straight at Nova.
"There was a bright white light!" he said.
Nova sighed in relief. A smile spread across her face. Before she bought Crusader both the ship and Cal had been badly damaged. His fried circuits interfered with his artificial intelligence which meant that he could be uncomfortably human sometimes.
"Don't be melodramatic. You're a robot, remember?"
"My whole life flashed before my eyes!"
"It wasn't that bad."
"I thought I died!"
"Cal, be serious," Nova said. "I fixed the fuel cell for now, but it won't last long."
Cal turned in mid-air to study the fuel cells.
"How are your systems?" she said.
"Diagnostic scan reveals no major faults," Cal said, his voice returning to the flat monotone of his artificial intelligence. "However, long-distance travel is unadvised."
"Can you fix the cells?"
Cal hovered to the fuel cells.
Relief flooded through Nova's body. The dull, nagging pain inside her left temple disappeared. Her hands ached with the strain of fixing Cal. She stumbled to the pilot's pod and collapsed into her chair with a sigh.
The adrenalin faded from her veins and pain poured in to replace it. Her entire left side ached from where she'd smashed into the side of the ship. Her arm was covered in dried blood and her cut hand stung.
She stood on aching legs and stumbled to the first aid kit. She yanked the door open and pulled out a Parapem strip. She laid the painkiller on her tongue and let the tendrils of cool relief flood through her. The soothing sensation spread over her head, down her arms and into her legs. Nova closed her eyes and enjoyed the sensation while battling with frustration.
They'd gone from having the biggest haul she'd ever seen, to having nothing. Worse than nothing, in fact, because now Crusader was broken. She needed to get the fuel cells repaired or she'd be stranded in the outer reaches of space for the rest of her life.
Cal hovered into view. "The fuel cell has another leak."
Nova groaned and held her head in her hands. They were still too far away from a repair station. She needed those cells to hold together. Was it too much to ask that her ship just keep flying for a little longer?
Crusader had seen better days, even before the explosion. Now the engine screamed in protest. Every movement caused the motor to seize up and choke.
"How can it keep leaking?"
She gripped the steering wheel tighter as the ship jerked uncontrollably to the left.
"In addition to the explosion, it was due for replacement five years ago."
Nova waved her hand at Cal. The last thing she needed was another lecture about replacing parts. If she'd had the credits, she would have done it months ago, but she didn't, so that was that.
"How many credits do we have left?"
"Five," Cal replied.
"Only five hundred?"
She frowned and wrenched the veering ship back on course.
"Negative. Five total."
She risked turning away from the front screen to look at Cal. "Five? How can we only have five?"
"The recent sabotage has left us underfunded. Based on its current condition, the fuel cell won't last long enough to get us to the closest shipping yard."
Nova gritted her teeth. Her hands clenched tighter around the wheel. Blood surged through her veins and flushed her face. "Are there any jobs nearby? Anything at all? I don't care what."
The view in Crusader's front screen changed from showing the darkness of space, to a list of bounties. There were jobs all over the solar system. It was mostly small fish, simple robberies or missing persons. Too much work for not enough pay.
"What about that one?" she said, pointing to the third box down.
The other items closed and the box expanded to fill the whole screen. Two fugitives were missing from the Brakenreid Penitentiary.
Nova shivered at the thought. Brakenreid was one of the worst prisons, aside from Ankar. The prisoners were cruel, and the guards crueller. It was reserved for those criminals that the Human Confederacy found especially repulsive. These two fugitives were convicted of multiple terrorist acts against the Confederacy, they'd definitely fit in.
They'd escaped three days ago.
"Two thousand credits. That would be enough to fix Crusader and give us some spending money."
"I want every scrap of information related to their case; possible sightings, their habits, where they were nabbed last time. I also want to know if there are any Confederacy activities going on in this system. Every time they've escaped in the past they've made another attack within three weeks. I don't think they'll wait long to strike again."
"Confirmed," Cal said. His processors whirred into overdrive as he scanned the Cloud for information.
Nova bit her bottom lip. This could be just the break she was waiting for.
"Crusader, power down to minimal life support."
Nova concentrated on keeping her breathing steady to conserve oxygen.
"Systems powered down," Crusader replied. The voice was female, a standard for most ships after centuries of research had proved that a female voice calmed pilots.
The lights dimmed and the temperature dropped. The alarms stopped and the red flashing lights died out. The ship was running only the bare essentials required to keep Nova alive. With such a small vessel, they would barely register as a blip on the radar of any passing ship.
She kept a firm grip on the wheel but with the engines down, the ship stayed under control.
The front screen showed columns of sliding text. Pictures and maps zoomed past as Cal scanned the Cloud. It moved too fast for Nova to read but Cal droned out a summary as pictures sailed past.
"These are the fugitives," Cal said.
The screen was filled with two photos. Each depicted a dirt-covered man with a cruel smile. Their sneering faces dared the viewer to follow after them, a taunting kind of challenge twinkled in their eyes. Their skin was ragged and tanned; they probably came from the Resources Sector and they looked similar enough to be brothers. Their eyes were steely blue and deep wrinkles framed their mouths. Puckered scars covered their necks and arms, slashing across their skin in crisscross patterns.
"Jinks and Tiny Cupron," Cal said. "They're wanted for acts of terrorism against the Confederacy. They destroyed an embassy in the outer quadrants. Twenty Confederacy diplomats, who had been exploiting the outer planets for labour, were killed."
"Good on them," Nova said.
"The blast also fatally wounded four hundred innocents at the embassy," Cal said, his tone terse.
"Oh," she said, her frown deepening. "They should have come up with a better plan."
"They confessed to destroying a premium Confederacy starship and interrupting intergalactic trade. They also admit to killing two eminent ambassadors. It is estimated that they have cost the Confederacy over twenty million credits in the last ten years."
"They've been busy," she said, raising an eyebrow. "It's a wonder they haven't met some kind of accident."
"They have been in and out of jail for the last twenty years. Each time, committing a new offence after entering society."
"Why would the Confederacy keep letting them go? Good behaviour?" she said.
"No. They're good at breaking out of jail."
"If only they were better at staying out of them," Nova said. "Good. It's pretty safe to bet they've got plans. They won't be able to travel far without ID chips, so they're probably still in this system. Did you find any Confederacy activity?"
"There is very little going on in these outer planets," Cal said, "Either Confederacy Projects or otherwise."
"Yes but, Cal, you know as well as I do that they don't always log their projects, especially if they don't want people to know about them. I bet Jinks and Tiny know that too. What ships have passed through here in the last two weeks?"
There were so many cameras, sensor nets and monitoring equipment set up throughout the human colonies that it was impossible for ships to move without being observed. With the right passwords, it was easy to access the data feeds and find out who was coming and going. A few dollars to the right harbourmaster could also reveal a treasure-trove; all ships have to resupply, eventually.
Nova's neck crawled with the thought of how many eyes could be watching her at that very second.
"Seventeen unmarked ships entered this system in the last three weeks. Five have been registered leaving."
"So you've got fifteen ships unaccounted for. To me that sounds like something worth investigating. Is there any way to tell where they were going?"
"The last sighting had them heading towards the binary Galleas System. It's not far from here."
"Then let's get a move on. Crusader, take it easy and keep your scanners on."
"Confirmed," the ship said.
The engines whirred back into action and the ship turned towards the Galleas System. The lights and temperature control remained at low activity. They needed to focus on surviving, finding the fugitives and getting the fuel cell replaced. Then Nova could get out of these damned outer planets and back to The Jagged Maw. Perhaps there would be enough money to give Crusader a real overhaul.
Nova relished the idea of returning to The Jagged Maw. She would give Aart the beating of his life for sending her out on this fool's mission. If he'd just kept his big mouth shut, she would never have come out here. She chided herself. The thought of so much money was what had driven her here, not Aart.
She took the time to walk through Crusader and make sure there was no contraband lying around. Not that there was much risk of that after the main cargo pod was blown to pieces. Nova breathed a grateful sigh of relief that most of her possessions were stored in a lockbox back at The Jagged Maw. Without that stockpile she'd have nothing; she'd be thrown right back to where she was five years ago when she first left Tabryn.
The ship was a mess. At least, for the moment, it was a legally-sound mess.
The storeroom was the largest area on the ship. It had some basic supplies that Nova needed, and was also the main entry point to the cargo pods.
The rest of the ship was a collection of tightly packed pods. She went to her room and collected her clothes from the floor. Thick trousers and dark singlets were strewn across the pod. She shoved them into the small cupboard set into the wall and straightened her silver blanket.
She checked her gun, looking over the charge bar and the trigger mechanism. Catching the fugitives would be easy. They wouldn't have been constantly in and out of prison if they weren't easy to catch. She was much more concerned about the Confederacy. Most of the Human Confederacy didn't take kindly to the bounty hunters. They saw them as unruly outsiders that were difficult to control. It made the Confederacy a nightmare to work with.
"I've got a collection of ships up ahead, surrounding the planet Archalon," Crusader said.
Nova hurried through the transport tunnels, back to the pilot's pod. Crusader's front screen was filled with the darkness of space, interspersed with unmarked ships. They were evenly spaced around the nearby planet; their metallic hulls glinted in the light of the duel suns.
"Three," Nova said. "The rest must be on the surface. Can we get past these without being blown to pieces?"
"Low engine activity will make Crusader difficult to detect," said Cal.
Nova tied her hair back, threw her bag of supplies over her shoulder, and made her way to the storage area. She grabbed her trench-coat from where it was draped over the engine and shoved it into her bag. She pulled up the trapdoor and dropped into the pilot's seat. Glass rose up to surround her and with a few button presses, the lander clicked free.
The lander was a tight fit; Nova's arms and legs pressed against the sides of the ship and the top of her head brushed the glass ceiling. Her hands were firm on the steering unit as she guided the tiny craft away from the bigger ship.
The black of space was replaced with blue sky as she entered atmosphere. Nova marvelled at the crisp, clean air, so unlike the upper-atmosphere of most of the Confederacy planets.
The planet below was covered in clouds. The first few layers were thick, looking almost solid. Below that they thinned out and left wispy trails through the air. The clouds were mostly grey but the nearby sun reflected all the colours of the rainbow in the small water droplets. Green, red and purple glinted through the lander's front window.
The planet spread out in all directions. According to the scanners it was three-quarters of a standard planet, based on Earth, with no discernible continents. The whole thing was covered in brown dirt and sand. Mountains rose up in jagged peaks and smooth dunes. There was no sign of water. The entire planet looked like one continuous desert.
"There's no record of life on this planet," Cal said.
"So what do the Confederacy want with it?" Nova said. "Resources perhaps?"
"Possibly. Radar reports the Confederacy ships are to the west."
"Then that's where I'm headed. I'll touchdown near here and walk the rest of the way. Cal, stay in radio contact; you never know what those crazy Confederacy bastards are going to do."
The lander came to rest on the planet's surface with a gentle thud. The glass bubble retracted and Nova was slammed with heat and a harsh wind. She narrowed her eyes against the grit and glare and climbed out of the vessel. She jumped down, her boots landing in sand. She pulled on her thick trench-coat and laid a hand on her pistol.
The wave of heat rushed over Nova's skin. Sweat sprouted on her forehead and created a thin layer on her arms. She squinted against the sun. The warm desert wind did nothing to stop the water from evaporating straight off her body.
She reached into the satchel at her side and pulled out a thin pair of sunglasses. She slipped on the shades and sighed with relief. The smart-glass tinted according to the glare, in this case turning practically black.
With her vision restored, Nova observed the desert. There was sand as far as she could see. Loose powder danced down the sides of dunes the size of mountains.
A chip inserted into her brain allowed her to communicate with Cal and Crusader. The chip picked up on her thoughts, although she often spoke out loud from habit.
Her mouth was already parched from the desert air. "How far have I got?"
"Estimated two days walk," Cal said.
Nova groaned. She'd barely been standing in the desert for two minutes and it felt like tiny hammers were being smashed into her temples and along her forehead.
"I don't suppose our portable food-generator is working yet?" she said.
She gazed back at the lander. She imagined the carefully-controlled temperature, the shaded glass, wishing she was comfortably inside. For the moment, she had forgotten that the systems were turned off. Soon, the inside of the ship would be even hotter than the planet's surface.
"Negative," Cal said. "Recommend conserving water and looking for fresh sources when possible."
She snorted to herself. It would be just her luck to be stranded on some distant planet with no fuel and then die of dehydration. That would not be a glamorous way to go.
"Well the longer you stand here thinking about it, the more likely it is that it will happen," she said to herself.
Her chapped lips rubbed together and gave her the motivation she needed. She put one foot in front of the other and started off through the sand.
It was difficult. Her shoes sunk into the soft sand and the heat of the desert encased her feet with every step. Her dark trench-coat burned as it sucked in the heat of the day and poured it over Nova's skin. She considered taking the garment off, but then the sun would burn straight through her. By the time she reached the Confederacy site, she'd be a giant blister.
The desert looked the same in all directions. The monotony of the sandy landscape made way for Nova's imagination. She slipped away to thoughts of The Jagged Maw and the coolness of space.
"You could have called for help," Cal said, picking up on her thoughts of The Jagged Maw.
Nova sighed. He was right. She could have called Aart or Tanguin, but she wouldn't. She'd never admit to them that she was stranded. She certainly didn't get off of Tabryn by asking for help.
"No, Cal," she said firmly.
The heat and desolation of the desert landscape reminded her of Tabryn. What felt like a lead ball formed in the bottom of her stomach when she thought about her homeworld. She clenched her fists at her sides and her face flushed hot. Bile rose in her throat as she thought about how she'd had to fight for survival. She spat into the dusty ground but the foul taste wouldn't go away.
In an instant her mind was transported from one desolate desert to another as her thoughts were overwhelmed with memories of Tabryn. Nova could still remember the broken robots and machinery that dotted the sandy landscape like forgotten statues. Outer Tabryn was a festering squalor of drugs and violence. It was the inescapable product of Inner Tabryn, the biggest casino district in all the human colonies.
In the haze coming off the hot sand Nova could almost see the flashing lights of Tabryn's casinos in the distance. She shook her head and stared hard at the ground. This wasn't Tabryn. She dug the nail of her right index finger into her left palm. She pushed harder until tears of pain stung the corners of her eyes and brought reality crashing back. This was a different planet, a different galaxy; her childhood couldn't reach her here.
She forced herself to move forward, away from the lander and her memories.
It felt like an eternity before the second sun took its dive towards the horizon, delicately kissing the edge of the desert. The giant orb lit up the sand and sky with bright oranges and reds. It cast the clouds above into glowing halos.
The wind took on a chill which seeped straight through Nova's skin. She was suddenly grateful for the trench-coat clutched around her shoulders.
The sun was replaced by two full moons which rose from opposite sides of the sky. One glowed blue and the other was bright red, they glared at each other across the stars.
Nova admired the landscape. The insufferable, unending sand had been replaced with a rainbow kaleidoscope of crystals. The ground glimmered purple under the mixed light of the moons. They created opposing paths across the sand, like glowing bridges leading away into some other world.
Nova slugged through the thick sand. Hours after the sun had set, her thighs ached in protest. Her eyelids drooped lower, blurring her vision of the desert. She tripped over a dip in the sand and sprawled onto the ground. The fall knocked the air out of her lungs and she lay gasping for breath.
She pushed herself to a sitting position and looked around. There was nothing but desert in all directions.
"As good a place as any," she muttered to herself.
She used her legs to push the sand until there was a hole in the ground, big enough for her to lie in. She huddled into the hollow and tucked her coat tight around her shoulders. Her eyes flickered closed. Despite the exhaustion coursing through her arms it was hard to sleep. The sand scraped her cheek and tickled her nose.
In her half-awake state her thoughts zoomed to Tabryn, to the worst bed she'd ever found. The day had started so well. She'd spent the morning playing with the other orphans. She still remembered how light her heart had felt as they laughed and tossed a ball made of old rags to each other. In the evening it was time to work.
She spent the evening carrying plates of food to the customers and Roxy's ladies. The food always smelled so good. Nova's stomach rumbled and she licked her lips. All she'd had to eat was a few dried biscuits. Right here in front of her was steaming meat, and chips! All of it covered in delicious salt. She sniffed deeply, enjoying all the smells.
She put the plate on the kitchen counter and looked around. The other orphans were out serving food, for the moment she was alone. She reached out a tentative hand and clutched a warm chip. She brought it slowly to her mouth, enjoying the heat flowing through her fingers. She could actually feel the crystals of salt on her fingertips.
Her mouth watered. She opened her mouth and closed her eyes.
"What do you think you're doing?" Roxy hissed.
Nova's eyes flew open. Her hand opened and the chip fell through the air. It fell end over end until it landed with a soft thud on the wooden floorboards.
"I feed you, I give you shelter, and you steal from me!" Roxy's voice was soft but laced with venom. She moved across the kitchen towards Nova with the grace of a cobra.
Every muscle in Nova's body clenched. Her throat closed over and she couldn't talk.
"You've been nothing but trouble. I will beat you bloody until you learn some respect! You little thief. After everything I've done for you…"
Nova's heart pounded into overdrive. She did the only thing that made sense; she ran. She sprinted around Roxy and bolted for the door. She burst out into the dirty street and kept running. Roxy's curses followed her all the way up the street. She daren't stop.
Nova kept running until she was as far from home as she'd ever been. She was at the very edge of Outer Tabryn; it was even more derelict than the rest of the planet. The buildings lay in broken heaps on the ground, the broken stones blending in with the broken bodies.
She shivered. Her bare feet bled from the shards of glass she'd stepped on in her mad escape. She wrapped her arms around her body and looked around. She couldn't go back to Roxy, at least not tonight. Maybe by tomorrow Roxy would be too hung-over to punish her. Nova took a deep breath and looked around; it would be suicide to sleep in the open.
There was a pile of rubbish bags stacked against the side of a dilapidated building. She scurried over to it, moving in the shadows. There were bound to be people watching her and it was best they didn't see where she was going. She darted in and out of patches of darkness until she reached the rubbish heap.
The smell of rotting meat flooded her nostrils and she gagged. Bile rose in her throat and made her eyes water. She forced herself forward. Her foot landed in something soft which squelched under her weight. Something warm and sticky spurted over her foot and between her toes. She froze and clenched her eyes shut. She refused to look down; it was better that she didn't know what it was.
She moved some bags aside and tucked down into the middle of the pile and then pulled the bags on top. She was overcome with the stench. Whatever clung to her foot reeked of death and decay. She tried breathing through her mouth but then she could actually taste the rot. She nestled deeper into the rubbish and closed her eyes. She just had to survive the night, and then maybe Roxy would let her back.
She was careful to keep her arms and legs tucked tightly against her body. Used needles glinted at her from amongst the waste. Their deadly tips pointed directly at her, waiting for her to prick her finger. She shivered at the thought of what disease or drug would pour through her system.
She pushed her back firmly against the wall of the building and fell into fitful sleep.
Nova's eyes flew open and she drew in a sharp breath. She tensed all her muscles, ready to spring into combat. Bright sunlight glared above her, reminding her that she wasn't asleep under a pile of garbage, she wasn't even on Tabryn. Her breathing eased as she realised it was just a memory come to haunt her dreams.
She stood and sand fell out of the folds of her clothes and from her pockets. The crystals tumbled off her in a course cascade.
She shook herself free of the tendrils of sleep and resumed her walk. She was eager to be free of the desert which seemed determined to drag back memories of her childhood.
Nova lifted her water bottle to her mouth and greedily gulped it down. "Cal, how much further? I'm running low on water."
"Not much longer. You should be within sight in one hour."
Nova pushed forward. True to Cal's word, not long after, she heard the rumbling of machinery. In the distance, the sparkle of sunlight reflected on metal.
She climbed a slight rise and was confronted with a hive of activity. People rushed back and forth between a collection of at least twenty ships and an oasis of trees and vines. The ships were unmarked but the clean lines and new engines meant they could only belong to the Confederacy.
The small forest was made of ancient trees, like those she'd seen on the Cloud when she was younger. She didn't think she would ever see one. Their majesty and many twisting roots were awe-inspiring. They thrust up, their bright green leaves defied the yellow sand. The trees were bunched in close together. Nova couldn't see past the first line; they spread out in a rough circle, at least one hundred metres wide.
Confederacy officers stood casually at intervals around the area. Their guns were slung over their backs. Their eyes flicked over the workers; they looked bored. The workers chattered excitedly as they hauled machinery from the ships towards the trees. All manner of tools were being transported to the concealed area.
Nova stared down at the Confederacy soldiers, in their navy blue uniforms, and a shiver went up her spine. There was something unnerving about the militant methods of the Confederacy. Just the sight of the soldiers made her want to retreat to Crusader. She couldn't though. She had no choice but to complete the job and get paid, otherwise Crusader was likely to break down somewhere in the middle of unchartered space, never to be found again.
She straightened her back and walked down the other side of the hill. Sand spilled down in front of her feet. Yelling voices erupted from below. She looked up to see Confederacy soldiers sprinting straight at her.
Nova laid her hand on her pistol and waited for them to reach her. She clenched her fingers around the gun and took a deep breath. She had to keep her temper; if she lost control here all she'd get was dead.
The Confederacy soldiers were breathing hard by the time they climbed the hill to her side. Sweat poured down their faces as they ripped their guns from their holsters. They looked worried and furious at the same time. The three soldiers shoved their guns into Nova's face.
"What do you want, hunter?" the female soldier said.
"Who said I was a hunter?" Nova said, jutting her chin and placing a hand on her pistol.
"Who else would come sniffing around Confederacy business uninvited?" the soldier said. "Search her."
The other two soldiers stepped forward. The first took hold of her arms and pinned them behind her back while the other snatched her pistol and handed it to the woman in charge. He went to work tapping his hands over Nova's arms and legs. He spent some time patting her chest while smirking at her.
Nova clenched her teeth. Her face flushed red and her breathing became ragged. She bared her teeth at the man and strained against the guard holding her arms. If she had thought she could get away with it, without ending up on a prison asteroid, she would have smashed her knee into the man's face. Instead, she tensed her jaw and waited in silence.
He pulled out seven silver daggers and a nine millimetre plasma pistol before he was satisfied and signalled to his companion to let her go.
Nova glared at the soldiers. "I want to talk to whichever Confederacy puppet is in charge."
"Well, I doubt he wants to speak with you," the female guard said.
"Oh really, then I suppose you can all be blown to a cosmic crap hole then," Nova said. She folded her arms across her chest.
The soldiers looked at each other, frowning.
"What's that supposed to mean, hunter? Are you threatening us?"
The female guard stepped forward and pressed her gun against Nova's sternum. The hard metal hurt but Nova kept her face steady.
"Just a concerned citizen."
"Start talking, or start walking."
"Trust me, it's above your pay grade," Nova said. She narrowed her eyes at the woman and shoved the gun away from her chest.
The guard's teeth clenched together and a menacing growl echoed from the back of her throat. Nova tensed, ready to duck the fist that was inevitably about to fly at her face.
It was obvious to Nova from their hesitation that these were grunts, not qualified to make any decisions. The fact that they were hesitating over whether to take her to the commander said there was a fallible command structure at best. Usually there would be at least four layers of superiors, above these gun-jockeys.
The female guard shrugged.
The man on Nova's left looked up. "Alaina. Do you really think he should be the one talking to her?"
The woman glanced at him and responded in another language. It was Confederacian, which was supposed to be a secret language, an inside code. Of course, it had taken less than a week for the translation files to leak to the bounty hunter networks.
"The General put him in charge before he left. What choice do we have?" Alaina said.
"Worst thing the General's ever done," the man replied.
She shrugged. "It's an exploratory mission, and not our job to question."
"Maybe not, but there was no point taking the bitch's weapons off her. She's a hunter, she could probably break the old-man's neck with her little finger."
"That's his problem," Alaina said, pulling a black communicator the size of her palm from her leather utility belt.
Nova watched the ground through the whole conversation, pretending she couldn't understand what they were saying. Their words only proved what she already knew; there was dissent in this Confederacy project.
Alaina spoke into her communicator, switching back to common tongue. "Sir, we've got a hunter on the planet surface. Says she's got some information and wants to see you,"
A wavering voice replied, "Oh um, ok."
"I'm bringing her up," she said. She turned and walked in front of Nova, gesturing for her to follow. The other two soldiers fell into step at Nova's sides.
She kept her lips pursed and her eyes straight ahead. At least these Confederacy soldiers seemed like the law-abiding kind. There were many who would have tried to kill her and save themselves the hassle.
Nova and the soldiers marched past the collection of ships and scurrying workers. Most were so engrossed in their tasks that they didn't notice the small party. The trees and shrubs disappeared as they left the strange oasis.
Rising behind the rows of single-person ships was a silver monstrosity the likes of which Nova had never seen. The command ship stretched in all directions, taking up a huge section of the horizon. It was bigger than some asteroids and shaped like a sleek bullet. The silver metal of its outer hull gleamed in the sunlight and its streamlined sides defied the harsh desert.
The shadow of the command ship engulfed them as they drew closer. Nova craned her neck to look up and take it all in. How such a thing got into space was a miracle in itself.
She was marched to a set of stairs which rose up into the hull. Alaina took the lead, her boots clinking on the metal steps. Nova and the second guard followed behind. The third stayed at the base of the stairs.
Nova laid her hand on the railing. The silver metal was cool to the touch even in the harsh afternoon sun.
Alaina called out as soon as she reached the top of the stairs. "Sir, the hunter is here to see you."
A second voice replied from deeper inside the ship. "What the hell is a hunter doing here?"
"She's talking about an explosion."
The door at the top of the stairs swung open. Nova marvelled at the sheer opulence. All of the lights were clean and perfectly positioned to show off the best of the ship. Plush lounges that looked like fluffy blue clouds rested against the walls. A statue of a small chubby angel rose out of the floor in the centre of the room. Massive bolts held everything in place.
Everything about the ship was in direct opposition to Crusader. The metal walls were clean and smooth where Crusader's were covered in rust and scrapes. The decorations were tasteful and elegant, Crusader didn't have decorations. But the real difference was in what lay beneath. The life-support systems purred noiselessly, keeping the temperature at a smooth twenty-five degrees. The lights glowed warmly, reaching every corner, and there wasn't one broken bulb.
The lush ambience was ruined only by the red-faced man standing in front of the stairs. He was slightly chubby with a round face and a bulbous nose. His hair was black with grey speckles and he wore a stained shirt with a laboratory coat thrown over the top. Cuts and scars ran up his arms and there was a slice of white, raised flesh on his left cheek.
"What's your name, hunter?"
"My name is Nova," she said, through clenched teeth. "And you are?"
The man glared at her, his mouth working as he ground his teeth together. He loomed over her and his chest puffed out as he spoke. "I am Doctor Codon, science officer of the ninth Confederacy fleet. I would suggest you tell me exactly what you're doing snooping around our site."
His hands rubbed back and forth on the legs of his pants. He looked down his nose at her. She thought to herself that he could probably barely see her around the bulbous thing but she daren't laugh.
"I'm looking for two fugitives," she said, holding out a small screen. Photos of the two criminals flickered up.
"And what exactly does that have to do with me?" Codon asked.
"They're terrorists known to target Confederacy endeavours. I figured you might be interested," she said, snapping the screen back onto her belt.
"I'm sure you'll get a healthy pay out of it," Codon said.
"True. But I sure as hell don't have to be here listening to you. There are plenty of other jobs I'd rather be doing. Trust me, I only came here because of the workers who might die, I sure as hell don't give a damn about you or your soldiers."
She pushed her chin forward and stared at him with her steely eyes. It was at least partly true; she didn't care one bit for the Confederacy soldiers. If they'd wanted to make an honest living they wouldn't be working for the Confederacy.
The doctor's mouth dropped open. Her eyes bore into him.
Doctor Codon spluttered. "Well – I-"
Nova cautioned herself. He was intimidated now but for some reason he was in control of this whole Confederacy operation, which meant he had power. She didn't want to push him too far, just a little nudge to keep him on his toes. She was counting on the military's apparent lack of respect for the doctor. If she'd spoken like that to one of their generals she would have been beaten to a bloody pulp.
"Take my word for it, Codon. If you don't let me find those fugitives you and your men are walking corpses. I dread to think what the Confederacy would do if this mission went to hell because you didn't check it out."
Codon's eyes flew open and he twisted his hand around the loose material of his coat.
She kept her face emotionless, playing on the man's insecurities. Without her gun all she had was her intellect. Codon could just as easily shoot her here and dispose of her body as listen to her. She doubted that would happen. The man was too green in his chair. He'd listen to her. It wouldn't be the first time that brash confidence had beaten a Confederacy puppet.
"Thank you for your information," Codon said slowly. His eyes flicked around the room, perhaps hoping for a solution to appear on the wall. "I'll have my soldiers look into it."
Nova's neck tensed but she kept her face serene. She needed this job for the reward, it was no good if Codon went and found the fugitives himself.
"While I'm sure your soldiers would do their best," she said, glancing over her shoulder at Alaina. "This is a job for someone with more experience."
Codon frowned and glanced at Alaina. "What do you mean?"
"Well," she said, her mind racing for a solution. "You're a man of science. I wouldn't expect you to march to war."
Codon nodded slowly at her, still frowning.
"Well, in the same way, we can't expect simple soldiers to understand the intricacies of such a delicate political situation. These kinds of fugitives are volatile and could break at any moment. If you send one of your soldiers in to handle something like this it would more than likely blow up in your face. Literally."
Alaina's face was red and her jaw clenched.
"And you've dealt with this before?" Codon said.
Nova smiled her most charming grin. Honesty had no place in matters of life and death. The lie came easily to her lips, "You could say it's my specialty."
Codon straightened his shoulders. "You're not to go to the dig site. You're not to interrupt my soldiers. Your purpose here begins and ends with those men. You can't jeopardize this dig. It's too important."
"Of course," she said, keeping her smile pinned to her face.
"Well, yes. Good. Just sort out the criminal problem and everyone walks away happy. I should warn you; if I so much as think you're thinking about interrupting my project, you'll be locked on a prison asteroid faster than you can say 'not guilty'."
She raised two fingers to her head in mock salute. "Yes, sir. And what exactly are you digging for? The Cloud has no mention of sentient life on this planet."
"I don't see how that's of any concern to you," Codon said. His tone had levelled out and he gazed down at Nova with barely concealed contempt.
"If I'm going to find these men, I need to know what's going on here," she said. She cursed fate again for getting her stranded on a desert planet run by the Confederacy.
"Let's just say the door promises 'enter and you will have the power to control the universe'."
"That's a big promise," Nova said.
The guard on Nova's right glared at her and cut in. "It's just what we need to bring the outer planets and you damn bounty hunters into line."
The soldier's harsh tone snapped Codon out of his hypnotised state. He shook his head and the frown returned.
"Remember the rules," he said.
"You've got it," Nova said. She turned to walk away. As soon as she moved, Alaina was at her side, gripping her upper arm.
"Your project sounds great," Nova whispered as soon as they were outside of the ship and back in the sun.
"Careful, hunter. It's an outer planet; accidents happen."
"Not to me."
Nova's hand flicked to her belt and she pulled a tiny blade out of the lining. It was razor sharp and so thin that it could curve in tandem with her belt. She ripped the knife through the air and pressed it against Alaina's jugular.
"Keep your threats to yourself and we'll get along just fine."
"We'll see," the soldier said, her eyes flicking between Nova's face and the knife.
"Yes," Nova said, keeping her knife in hand. "We will."
Nova stepped away from Alaina and started down the stairs. She was keenly aware of Alaina's eyes on her back. She wouldn't dare shoot here. Later, definitely, but not right here.
"Just remember, go snooping and you'll end up on a prison asteroid," the woman called after her.
Nova raised one hand but didn't bother to turn around. She glared at the man at the bottom of the stairs and held out both of her hands.
The soldier scowled at her for a few moments and glanced at Alaina before grunting and taking Nova's weapons out of his belt. He handed over her gun and knives. His face grew darker with each weapon. By the time she had all her weapons back the man looked like a thundercloud ready to burst.
She nodded once and walked away. They didn't follow her.
"Cal, did you get all that?" Nova said.
"Confirmed. The Confederacy is spending more money on a quest to control the outer planets and the fugitives may or may not be here."
"You've got that right. I don't know if the fugitives would waste their time on something as fruitless as this. Although I suppose there are a lot of Confederacy soldiers to wipe out."
"What's your next step?" Cal said.
"I'll ask around, see if anyone's seen these guys. I'm going to try and blend in, get my info from the inside. Don't wait up."
She entered a brown, canvas tent where over twenty men and women in dust and sweat-stained clothes were gathered around flimsy tables. Small silver bowls of brown gruel congealed in front of them, and they shovelled it into their mouths.
She glanced down at her worn jacket. It was already so covered in dirt and sand that she could have spent the morning working down in the tunnels. She walked to the serving table and grabbed a bowl before sitting down at a long table. She squeezed in between two large men who were intent on their meals. They barely acknowledged her as she sat, their attention returning to their food.
She spooned two mouthfuls and let the slimy paste slide down her throat. There was no flavour to the gruel at all. The worst thing about it was the feel of it. It was like chewing on glue, it stuck to her teeth, gums and tongue; it coated her mouth with a smooth layer of gunk. She forced herself to swallow and the glue went down her throat, leaving a slimy trail.
"You'd think with food generators they could give us something better than this," she said under her breath.
The men on her left and right grunted and continued to eat while opposite her a woman nodded her head.
"Still too expensive," the man on her right said. "Trust me, we've asked."
"Damned Confederacy," Nova said. "So how'd you get stuck working for 'em?"
The man shrugged, still eating. "Same as you, I'd warrant. Need the money and there's nowhere else to go."
"Ain't that the truth," she said. "I was working out in the Resources District. Came out this way looking for some friends of mine."
"Oh yeah?" the big man said without pause.
She studied his face out of the corner of her eye. It was square and set. He had a broad chin and a thick neck. His hair was cut short and muscles bulged out of his shirt. His whole body was large, threatening to break the table where his elbows leant against it.
"Yeah. Maybe you've seen them around?" she said.
The man's back stiffened and he lowered the spoon from his mouth. He laid his forearms on the table and turned slowly to stare at Nova. His bushy brows were drawn together and the corners of his mouth turned down.
"Maybe I have and maybe I haven't," he said. "What was your name again?"
"Lara," she said. A slight flutter in her pulse warned of her racing heart. It was all very well to make small talk but these weren't simple peasants. The scars across each of their arms and necks were proof enough that they'd seen their share. She had no doubt that the big man would see her dead if he thought she was some kind of Confederacy spy.
"I know what you're thinking," Nova said and held up her hands. "I just want to find my friends."
The man studied her before speaking. "Maybe they ran off."
"I heard they came here. I'll show you the pictures and if you haven't seen them then that's that."
The man's eyes remained fixed on Nova. His tongue worked at one of his yellowed teeth, perhaps it was about to fall out. He frowned again and then nodded.
"Show me the pictures."
Nova didn't waste time. She went to her pocket and drew out the screen. The two figures projected up out of it and looked at the man. Their sneering mouths and hard eyes were lifelike, unnerving.
The man glanced at the two criminals. His hand clenched tight around his metal spoon. "Never seen 'em," he said.
There was something in his eyes, a flicker of recognition.
"Are you sure?" she said, her stomach sinking.
He turned back to his gruel. "Sure."
Nova sighed and looked at the pictures of the two men. They had probably had their faces completely redesigned since these images were taken. If she was on the run from the Confederacy that's exactly what she'd do.
"Aren't they Doyle and Pete?" the woman across the table said, her eyes squinted.
"You recognise them?" Nova said.
"I might. They've got the same look as Doyle and Pete. Can't quite say what it is though."
The big man on Nova's right looked at her with narrowed eyes. "Wouldn't you know their names?"
Nova deliberately returned his hard stare. "My friends may have had reason to change their names."
The man grunted.
"Well if they're not the same boys then they're some kind of relative," the woman said.
Nova turned her full attention to the woman. "Where are Doyle and Pete?"
"Oh they're on digging. It's kind of their thing you see, they like working in the dark. Weird if you ask me, but each to their own."
"So they're down in the tunnels?" Nova asked.
"Yep that's right. I seen 'em a couple of times. They're quiet, keep to themselves."
"That sounds about right," Nova said.
The woman nodded. "Times like these, I'd want to find my friends too."
Nova tucked the small screen into her pocket and rose from the table. She glanced around at the other faces but none of them seemed interested in her.
"Aren't you going to finish your food?" the big man asked.
"What?" she glanced down at her bowl; she'd barely touched the food since her first few bites. "Oh, no. You go ahead."
The man grunted and pulled her bowl over, spooning grey mountains onto his tongue. Nova smiled once more at the woman and walked away. There were too many people for her to make a break for the dig site. No doubt by now Alaina would have warned all of the soldiers. They wouldn't let her even get a smell of the dig-site, let alone descend into the tunnels. She'd wait until dark, when there should be fewer people around.
She walked away from the crowded tent, back up the hill. Her footprints were instantly buried under a new layer of sand. Grey-green clouds filled the skies and were buffeted through the air by the unpredictable winds.
It was a peculiar planet. Barely a speck in the greater scheme of things and yet here the Confederacy was, ploughing through it. She wondered what they were looking for.
"Cal, can you bring the lander closer. I think it's safe from being shot down, at least for now."
"Not if that captain has anything to say about it," Cal replied.
Nova sat in the sand. She gazed out across the heat-hazed horizon. The Confederacy was up to something, there was no doubt about it, but that wasn't why she was here. She had one mission and one mission only; get the fugitives, and get paid.
She raked her fingers through the warm sand, drawing patterns in the grains. She chuckled as she drew Cal and imagined him buzzing around Crusader's storage bay.
An hour later a high-pitched buzz made her lift her head and gaze out at the horizon. The lander was just a faint silver glimmer through the heat. The buzz got louder as it approached until the shimmering silver blob resolved itself into the sleek lander. The ship parked out of sight of the Confederacy ships.
She trudged over in silence. Her ship already had a small pile of sand stacked against its side. The metal was dull and rusted compared to the ships of the Confederacy. She shrugged. It was hers.
She climbed inside. The engine roared into life and the glass bubble closed around her.
The ship rumbled and lifted off the ground. It hovered above the desert, sending swirls of sand into the air. Nova gripped the armrests, take-off was always the worst part in the small lander. The main thrusters ignited and the lander zipped away from the sand. Gravity and inertia tugged at Nova's body and she was pushed back into the chair. Her body vibrated with the movement of the ship.
Thick clouds zoomed past. The ship streaked up, carrying trails of mist through the air. In a burst of energy, the small lander shot out of the top of the clouds. Drops of moisture coated the glass bubble. The drops streamed off as the ship shot forwards.
It was a short journey out of the atmosphere and into the darkness beyond. The ship quaked harder as it shot through the atmosphere. Heat poured off of the outer shell and coated Nova's skin in a thin layer of sweat.
The blue sky and clouds were replaced with darkness and speckled stars. The heat dissipated in the vacuum of space and the wild shaking became a dull vibration. Nova allowed herself to breathe again. A deep sigh escaped her lips and her shoulders relaxed back into her chair.
The homing function guided the small lander straight to Crusader. The bigger ship loomed like a grey whale in the vast emptiness. The older ship was covered in rust and dents. From the outside it looked like a metal bubble with extra bits stuck on. The pilot's pod was a smaller bubble at the front and the cargo pods were small capsules attached to the sides. The model was massively outdated, but Nova loved it all the same.
Nova winced as she looked at the burnt-out remains of the right cargo pod. The metal was twisted and blackened. Jagged pieces of broken steel jutted out from a large hole through which the empty cargo pod could be seen. She clenched her fists as she thought of the haul which had filled that pod only days before.
The lander stopped below Crusader and the two airlocks clicked into place. Nova unclasped her belt and pushed against the trapdoor. It swung up and slammed down onto Crusader's floor. She placed her hands on either side of the door and pulled herself up into the main ship. She breathed deeply, the familiar smell of Crusader made her smile, it was home.
Cal waited beside the engine. His metallic hand clasped a cool drink of Blue. She accepted the glass and smiled at the robot. No doubt he'd seen the horrible grey goo she'd been eating and had felt a twinge of sympathy.
The blue liquid slid down her throat with the pleasant taste of berries and bubble-gum. It erased any remnant of the grey gruel and left a refreshing zing over her mouth. She couldn't help but smile at the sensation.
"That was perfect. Thank you, Cal."
The robot took the empty glass from her. "I'm just glad I didn't have to touch that gruel."
"Tell me about it," she said. "Were there any changes while I was gone?"
"Not really. We've been doing some preliminary scans, to get a better handle on what's going on. Whatever they're doing, it's big. Unfortunately they've shielded the area, so we can't get a good look."
"That's okay, I'm going in after dark anyway," Nova said. "I'll get a better look then. For now I need a nap."
"Good. There hasn't been anything else out of the ordinary. There are no other ships on the planet except for the ones you saw and it doesn't look like there are any others approaching either."
"Okay, so they've got all the people they need for whatever this is. How's Crusader's fuel cells?"
"Still leaking. I've patched them up as best I can, but it won't last long. We need money to get new ones. I don't suppose that lovely scientist you spoke to would give you the money?"
"I really don't think he's the type. Even if we have the money, will we be able to get anywhere?"
"Yes. There's a small repair planet not far from here. I've already checked their inventory. They'll have what we need."
"Good. Let me know if anything changes."
"Confirmed," Cal said.
Nova left the storage bay and went straight to her sleeping pod. She collapsed into bed and fell instantly asleep.
Nova checked over her supplies. It was a meagre collection compared to what she'd usually take on this kind of mission, but it was all she had left after the cargo breach. It would be a long time before she found replacements for her equipment. All she had were clothes, including her dirt-stained jacket, her plasma pistol, two metres of rope and her knives.
She looked down into the bare bag with a frown. There was no telling what she might come up against or how much of a fight the two fugitives would put up, that's if she actually found them. Still, it was the best she could do. She strapped a knife to her ankle and threw the bag over her shoulder so that it hung by her side.
"The usual plan. If you don't hear from me in twelve hours, take emergency measures. If there's no result after twenty-four hours, get out of here and try to contact someone from the Maw."
"Confirmed," Cal said.
Nova would have felt more confident if Cal accompanied her but it was too risky. There were too many unknowns and a robot would make it a lot harder to avoid the Confederacy soldiers. For this, she needed to be as quiet and unobtrusive as possible. Cal still needed a proper work-over; the occasional spark from beneath his compartment was warning enough.
Nova wore a dark skin-hugging suit. The non-reflective material would shield her heat signature from most infrared scans. It would probably raise suspicion if she was seen but she hoped it would allow her to go unnoticed. She patted the bag at her side and dropped into the lander.
The landscape was completely different in the dark. The ominous green clouds were cast in soft blue and red by the moons. The sandy desert shone. The dirt and grit were calmed into a solid ocean by the light, and the wind had died down to a gentle breeze. The bent trees looked less like they were struggling under an impossible weight and more as if they were resting, sleeping peacefully.
The only thing to wreck the calm was the sound of machines and digging, warning that the Confederacy had decided to continue their excavations through the night. There was a bright artificial glow coming from over the hill, evidence of the massive spotlights which lit the work area.
Nova cursed. Bright lights and workers would make it a lot harder for her to sneak past. Why couldn't they all be asleep like normal people? Still, she had to make it down into the tunnels. Who knew how much longer the fugitives would wait? They could be laying bombs while she sat there watching.
She bent low and skirted to the right. She kept her head tucked down near her shoulders and one hand on her gun. She was careful to move sideways so that she was behind the excavation and well out of the circle of light.
She crawled to the top of the hill on her elbows. She pulled her body across the sand, keeping as close to the ground as she could. Her pulse pounded in her ears. She was a sitting duck for any soldier with a sniper rifle.
She lay down on top of the hill and looked down at the workers. They scurried back and forth from the green trees to the desert, carrying dirt and other items which she couldn't identify. The guards were relaxed, standing at random intervals around the worksite and talking amongst themselves.
The sand was cold and rough against her skin. It left small indents on her forearms where she rested her weight. Some grains were lifted by the wind to patter into her face and fill her hair. She narrowed her eyes so the sand caught on her lashes.
Flashes of sandstone blocks glinted amongst the rustling leaves of the forest. A building of some kind nestled amongst the trees. She frowned; if the planet had never had sentient life then there shouldn't be any buildings.
Her eyebrows drew together. The Confederacy were here for a reason. They must know something which the Cloud didn't. Still, she couldn't be distracted by a crumbled building. She had one mission on this planet: find the fugitives and hand them over to the Confederacy for her reward.
She nodded once to herself and got to her feet. She sidestepped down the sandy hill towards the waving leaves. The trees hid her progress from the rest of the excavation. She crept all the way down to the very edge of the small forest. Leaves rustled.
Nova pushed forward through the first layer of branches. She ducked under a large leaf and into the forest beyond. Her breath created plumes of steam.
It was cold inside the trees. The harshness of the sandy desert was gone. She may as well have stepped onto another planet. Where the desert was desolate with no signs of life, here was a green forest surrounding the run-down remains of a great building.
The small sandstone blocks she'd seen from above were just the beginning. As she got further towards the centre of the trees, the scattering of blocks increased. They were covered in vines and moss, which created a stark green contrast to their sandy surface.
The rough-hewn blocks came together in the centre of the forest. They rose up to form what resembled a massive temple. The yellow bricks were arranged into a pyramid which ended just below the highest trees. The square levels went up like a set of stairs, a stepped pyramid.
Carvings traced every surface of the sandstone blocks; pictures of people and animals scampered from one side of the pyramid to another. Symbols and charms weaved up the structure; an ancient language. At each of the four corners, halfway up the pyramid, there were metal bowls. The massive dishes were stained black on the inside, the only remnant of ancient fires.
Every block had been carefully placed and shaped for its position. They locked together with barely any gaps between them.
As well as the metal dishes, other decorations dotted the corners of the pyramid. Statues of creatures which Nova had never seen stood as sentinels at the corners. At the very top, seated just beneath the canopy, was a gilded dragon. It crouched on the highest block, its eyes staring down the front of the pyramid. Its carefully carved scales glinted golden in the mixed moonlight.
Set into the base of the yellow rock building was a solid metal door. The silver metal contrasted with the ancient stone. The door had locks which would seal firmly shut, an obvious recent installation by the Confederacy. The door was open. Confederacy workers walked in and out in a continuous stream.
What are they doing? Nova thought to herself.
It was some kind of illegal excavation, that much was certain. The Confederacy had decided to steal a few ancient relics before the Ministry of Historical Affairs could get hold of them. These kinds of artefacts would be covered by the ancient monuments act, public property. The laws rarely applied to the Confederacy.
She watched the workers' movements, counting the time between them and taking note of the way they walked. It didn't take long to work out the pattern. She pulled the dirt-covered jacket out of her bag and threw it over her shoulders. She thrust her arms through each of the sleeves, ignoring the musty smell. She waited for a break in the line of workers.
In a moment of silence she crept across the sand. She kept her head low and her footsteps steady. She walked straight through the steel door without being noticed.
Inside was a wide tunnel with alcoves leading off to either side. Paintings of alien animals ran up the walls. Each alcove held a dusty podium where no doubt statues used to sit. Mixed in amongst the ancient relics was evidence of something more. Metal panels ran along the wall and emitted a faint glow which lit up the tunnel. There was no need for torches or glowballs because the tunnel provided its own light.
Nova ducked into a side alcove where she wouldn't be noticed and took the time to study the carvings. The walls and floor were mostly made of the same yellow sandstone as she'd seen on the outside. The metal portions were shiny silver, probably steel or something similar. The lights had an inner, bioluminescent, glow.
Beyond the metal doors and further down the tunnel was a large archway which spanned the tunnel. It was lower than the rest of the corridor and carved into it was a foreign script. There was a hint of familiarity to it though, something which tickled the back of Nova's neck.
"What language is that?" she said.
"It's similar to the ancient languages of Earth," Cal replied. "There are traces of ancient Mesopotamian, Mayan and Egyptian. There are also other symbols which I can't identify. Some of the images have been seen at ancient sites on other planets."
"What are they doing on the wall of a tomb, a hundred light years away from Earth?" she said. Her mind raced with possibilities. It was as if humans had made it into space eons before the first recorded moon landing, but that was impossible.
"That data is unavailable. However, a rough translation can be made based on human texts," Cal said.
"Alright, upload the patch," Nova said.
Cal sent through the software upgrade and the symbols transformed into something she understood. The translation software allowed her eyes and ears to interpret foreign languages, provided there was a patch for it.
She whispered the words under her breath. "Enter and you will have the power to control the universe."
"I suppose Codon was partly telling the truth," Cal said.
"Looks that way," she said. "I'm going to have to go further though. Those fugitives are supposedly working in the deep."
"Confirmed," Cal said.
She waited for the next worker to pass by her alcove and then stepped into place. She walked with her eyes locked onto her own feet, avoiding the gazes of everyone she passed. It wasn't hard to find her way; the lighting in the tunnel walls guided her.
The sounds of excavations echoed through the tunnels. It rumbled and shook the earth, threatening to cave-in at any moment. Not that that would be a problem for Codon or the Human Confederacy, it would just mean finding more workers and sending them to dig past their crushed companions.
There was no sign of digging. These tunnels must have been clear when the Confederacy arrived. What were they digging through now? The tunnels gave her no answer.
The further she went, the fewer workers she saw. They were assigned to scouring the tunnels for trinkets. For the moment that kept them mostly near the surface. Nova found herself alone in the eerily lit tunnels. The echoing excavations were her only company.
As she went deeper, the noise got louder, as did the vibrations. The shaking set her teeth on edge and she could feel her bones vibrating. Her legs wobbled with the motion of the ground. She kept one eye locked on the ceiling, scanning for signs of a cave-in.
As she reached a fork in the tunnel, she heard raised voices. She slowed down and tiptoed to the fork, listening.
"It's now or never. We don't know what's going to happen when they make it through."
"Maybe not, but it's too early. We're not ready."
"So what? How many more times do you think we're going to be able to get away? This might be our last chance and we have to make it count."
"What if whatever they uncover does our job for us?"
"We can't count on that. Besides, you saw it 'you will have the power to control the universe'. We can't let the Confederacy get that."
"That's a bunch of crap carved above an ancient tomb. It wouldn't be the first time idiots have fallen for that kind of rubbish."
Nova didn't have to hear more to know who she'd found. The fugitives were planning their next attack and from the sounds of things, it could happen at any moment. She frowned. She could use her gun and take them both out but then what would she do? Cart two bodies out of the excavation site?
She could threaten them and order them to walk out. Somehow she didn't think they'd come without a fight. They were on edge and that made them unpredictable. Unpredictable was dangerous.
She glanced at the yellow wall. There was more writing carved here. The letters were much smaller, the script spreading out over the wall and interspersed with tiny pictures.
"You rose up and grasped your hands around the universe. You held it in your grip and it was good," Nova repeated the words. There was something wrong about them; the beat of the sentences didn't feel right.
"Cal, how sure are you of this patch? It doesn't feel right," she said.
"I'm not sure at all of the patch. It's only been recently created and is largely based on dead languages, so it's impossible to confirm. Rest assured, I am collecting information based on what you see, and the patch will probably undergo multiple upgrades."
"Something's not right," Nova said. "It's like it's telling the reader their own history, but that doesn't make any sense."
"Perhaps it's a spiritual text?" Cal said. "The sentences in such documents are often aimed directly at the reader."
"Maybe," she said.
She continued to read the passage; it still wasn't right. She rested her hand against the wall. She didn't have time to stand there and read ancient alien carvings when there were two fugitives planning to blow the whole place to pieces.
She forced her eyes away from the wall and turned back towards the voices. There was only one thing for it. Even if she did have to carry two bodies out, she was sure that Codon would forgive her, in time. After all, she was saving his damned project.
She reached into her holster and pulled out her gun. She checked it over. The blue tube on the top glowed with pent-up energy. She strained her ears for their voices. It was easy to tell exactly where they were standing based on their raised words. She took a deep breath and stepped around the corner.
An older man with a thick moustache looked at her and his eyebrows shot up to his hairline. "What the-"
The other man also sported a thick moustache and a chunk of his left ear was missing. He followed his fellow's gaze and fell silent. They both stared at Nova with open eyes and mouths. Their fingers twitched, no doubt readying to dive for the guns at their belts.
"I will give you one chance," Nova said in a firm voice. "Come out of here with me now and you'll be able to live. Try anything and I'll be forced to do what I have to do."
"And who the hell are you?" one of the men said. He glanced sideways at his partner; their faces were emotionless masks.
"There's a pretty penny on both of your heads. Dead or alive."
"Well," the first man said and held his hands up high near his head. "We'd hate to cause you problems."
"I'm sure," she said.
"But we're not going to spend our lives wasting away in some jail cell when the Confederacy is blundering around like it does."
"Then you'll escape, like last time, and I'll find you and collect another reward," she said.
"Sorry," the second man said and his hand whipped down to his gun. He flicked it out of its holster and levelled it at Nova.
Nova held out her own gun, set her sights, and squeezed the trigger. Her arm flicked with the force of the kickback but she barely felt it amongst the hard vibrations going on all around.
The man's gun flashed white and sailed out of his hand and into the air. It clattered to the floor of the tunnel metres away. He let out a cry of surprise and grabbed his right hand to his chest, nursing it with his left. He looked at Nova with wide-eyes, his mouth working.
The other man wasn't so shocked. He had his gun out before his companion's hit the ground and fired once.
Nova stepped to her right, well out of the way of the shot. She squeezed her own trigger and a flash of blue light screamed through the air between them. The man's gun exploded with light and was also sent sailing through the air.
"Two for two," Nova said.
"I'll admit you're a good shot," said the first man.
"Damn right," the man with the missing ear said. "But we aren't coming with you."
"Too bad," she said with a shrug and fired two more shots. They slammed into the men's chests and they collapsed backwards. They crumpled down onto their backs and their heads lolled onto the sand, eyes still open.
Unseen by the fugitives, she had adjusted the setting on her gun. They would be unconscious for some time, but they would survive. She sighed; it looked like she would be carrying two bodies out of the tunnels.
She looked around the corridor and down the other fork. There had to be some kind of carting device for carrying the sand and dirt of the excavation back up out of the tunnel. She walked away from the men and down the other fork, towards the sound of digging.
She wasn't worried about the fugitives waking up and walking away. They would be incapacitated for some time to come.
The tunnels were darker in this area. The metal plating and strange lights dimmed, turning from a yellowy-red to blue. The floor was sandier and covered in newly churned dirt but there was no sign of a cart.
At the next turn there was more writing. Nova frowned at it. Her curiosity had gotten her into mountains of trouble in the past but it had also saved her life, and it was more reliable than her luck, however unlikely that was.
She'd always been fascinated by ancient civilisations. The thought that somehow ancient Earth languages had reached this tiny, far-away planet sent her imagination soaring.
They were so far away from Old-Earth, both in time and distance. It seemed impossible that any travel could have happened so long ago. But it was equally impossible to think that the same languages evolved independently. Her mind also turned with the why of it all; why was there no life recorded on this planet when there obviously had been.
"You are great. You are powerful. You should fear you," she whispered more of the text. "What? That doesn't make sense."
She frowned and re-read the writing. That's what it said. 'You should fear you.' She stared at the writing. What was that supposed to mean?
"Cal run some variance analysis on this bit of text," she said. "It doesn't add up."
"Confirmed," Cal said.
A few seconds later, Cal's voice returned to her head. "Variance analysis reveals only one possible solution based on syntax and word order."
"Well, what is it?" she said.
"The translation patch has mistakenly translated 'We' to 'You'," Cal repeated.
Nova said the passage again with the new translation. "We are great. We are powerful. You should fear us."
"Cal, update my chip," she said. The words rearranged themselves in front of her. There was something about the passage that she wasn't seeing. What did the translation error mean? Her memory ran over the words she'd seen so far.
The blood drained from Nova's face.
Open and we will have the power to control the universe.
It was the text above the entrance, the words that Codon was so excited about. She knew exactly what it meant. It changed everything.
She turned on her heel and sprinted from the sound of digging. Her feet slapped against the sandy floor, carrying her through tunnels and darkly lit passages. Her mind raced with what she'd seen, only barely aware of her direction, her movement.
She ran straight past the tunnel with the two unconscious fugitives. She barely acknowledged them. She was gone. Onwards and upwards. Her heart beat erratically in her chest; not from exertion, but from fear. Adrenalin pumped through her veins, making her muscles move faster.
Her legs sprung forward. It wasn't long before she passed workers making their ponderous trips into the tunnel. They watched her with their mouths wide open as she barged past and continued up the corridor.
She breathed hard, her lungs refusing to hold the air she needed. Painful gasps filled her chest, but it was never enough. Heat broke out on her forehead and sweat dripped down in icy trickles. There was a sinking feeling in her stomach. It clenched tightly along with her shoulders and neck.
She couldn't get the ancient words out of her head. How could the confederacy be so stupid? Didn't they realise what they were about to unleash?
She made it out of the tunnels and into the night air. She was hit with a blast of cool wind, but it wasn't enough to calm her nerves. She burst past a collection of workers and continued to run. She brushed past the trees and bushes of the oasis and exploded into the open desert scattered with Confederacy ships.
Shouts erupted around her as she sprinted out of the trees but she paid them no attention. She had to do something. There was only one thing she could do; get to Codon.
She pushed on, running from the trees and past the smaller ships. Confederacy soldiers closed in on her. They were right on her heels, calling for her to stop. She strained her ears to hear them. So far they hadn't pulled a gun. Good; she'd keep running.
It was hard to sprint through the soft sand of the desert. Her feet kept sinking. Each step she had to pull them free to push forward for the next step. The grit and grime of the desert flicked up into her eyes and nose. The calm serenity which she'd found so relaxing earlier had become the sinister silence of a graveyard.
Nova sprinted with every ounce of strength she had. Codon's ship was in sight when a large weight slammed into her back. The force of it sent her flying forward. She crashed into the sand and a flurry of grains poured into her open mouth.
Someone had hold of her legs and another held her arms. She was flipped over and a bright light shone down into her face.
"It's the damned hunter from earlier," a rough voice said.
"Why the hell was she down in the tomb?" another asked.
"She was forbidden by Codon himself. I heard it all."
"What did you expect? Probably trying to steal herself a tidy profit."
Nova spit the sand out and coughed as grains slid their rough way down her throat.
"I wasn't stealing anything and even if I had it wouldn't be any worse than what you're doing," she said. She glared at whoever was pointing the bright light into her eyes; she couldn't see a damned thing.
Her entire vision was taken up with the torch and the ring of darkness which surrounded it. Her arms and legs were pinned and the only thing she could move was her head.
"Let me go," she said. "I need to talk to Codon."
"Where are your manners, hunter?" Alaina's voice was unmistakeable. A sharp pain erupted up Nova's side, the result of someone's boot.
She spluttered. The blow knocked the air out of her lungs and it took her some time to get her breath back. Moments which she didn't have to waste.
"Let me go," she said. "I need to talk to him right away or I can promise you, you'll regret it."
"Go easy on the threats there," Alaina said. "I don't think you're in any position to be making them."
"And I don't-"
"He wants to see her," someone said, cutting Nova's hot reply short.
"Why would he want to see her?" Alaina said.
"I have no idea. Maybe he thinks she made some wondrous discovery."
"That damned man! He has no respect for how things should be done. Why the general left a scientist in charge beats the hell out of me," Alaina said.
"They're the orders," the other voice said.
A new voice spoke, "What do you think we could pin her for?"
"I reckon we could get ten years on the Zeta Asteroid for her."
Alaina's sharp words cut through the night air. "Blast the Zeta Asteroid. She should be shot. She's an insult to the Confederacy."
"Well the kick you gave her might just kill her."
"I wish," Alaina said. "Bloody hunters."
"Orders are orders."
"Fine," Alaina said. "But she won't leave this planet. She's a danger to the Confederacy and a fucking nuisance."
"You know I'll look the other way."
"Copy that," the third voice said.
Rough hands grabbed hold of Nova's arms and pulled her to her feet. She was pushed onwards through the sand, away from the muttering soldiers. A gun muzzle rested firmly against her spine. She would have bet a hundred credits it was Alaina's.
They shoved her forwards, knocking her from side to side every few paces, until they got to the monstrosity which was the main Confederacy vessel. They climbed the steps away from the sandy desert floor. The lights inside the ship were blinding, compared to the desert, and Nova had to squint to see.
"Where is he?" Alaina said.
The soldier in front of Nova glanced over his shoulder. "Where he always is."
They swept into the ship, passing people in Confederacy uniform. The workers checked screens and looked over equipment. Others were gathered in small groups talking. All of them stopped to stare at Nova as she was marched past.
They walked through multiple rooms. The ship stretched out in dark corridors. After walking down a maze of passages, they came to a thick steel door.
"Why does he need such a massive door?" the man in front said.
"To guard his precious research, of course," Alaina said. "I heard he's even got a new shield on it; better than anything our ships have."
"Why don't we have that technology?"
"Beats me. The man's a nut-case. He probably imagined the whole thing."
As Alaina finished talking, the door slid open to reveal Codon. He wore a thick pair of plastic glasses and the same clothes Nova had seen earlier.
"Codon, I have to talk to you," Nova said.
"Sir, she's a problem. She's already defied your orders by going down into the tunnels. I recommend you let me deal with her," Alaina said.
"She'll have to be punished. But first, what's the problem?" Codon asked. He glanced over his shoulder, into the room beyond, and then back to Nova. "The fugitives haven't escaped, have they?"
"No, it's worse than that," Nova said. "It's about what you're digging up."
"What about it?" Codon said.
She had to make Codon listen, make him understand. She couldn't do anything with Alaina's gun pressed into her spinal column.
"I've discovered something important," Nova said.
"Perhaps you'd want to keep it confidential?" she said. "You never know who's listening. This could be a significant find."
Codon's eyes went wide at her words and his tongue flicked out to lick his bottom lip.
"Leave her here. Wait outside," Codon said to the soldiers. His voice was curt and his eyes never left Nova.
"Sir, I don't think that's a good idea. It could be a trap," Alaina said.
"I'm sure I can take care of myself," Codon said.
Nova stepped away from Alaina and stood next to Codon, inside the door. He nodded once to her and gestured at the door. It slid shut on Alaina's face.
"Well what is it?" he said, turning to Nova and tapping his foot.
"Codon, you have to listen to me," she said.
Her eyes swept the room. It was a compact laboratory with sensing equipment and machines lined up along the walls. A bench covered in fragments of stone took up the middle of the room. A brush and tools lay next to the pile of rubble, ready for Codon to continue his work.
"No. You listen," Codon said and stepped closer.
He whipped his hand out from behind his back to reveal a black semi-automatic pistol. His mouth twisted up to one side. "I generously let you stay here, against my better judgement. I should have had you thrown off of the planet and been done with you. But I didn't. I let you stay so you could finish your little mission. I specifically told you not to interfere with my dig."
"I'm not finished!" Codon yelled. His face was red and his nostrils flared. "What were you doing? Hoping to steal a few trinkets and sell them on the black market? Was that your little plan? Were you trying to take my great discovery?"
"What made you come running? Tell me now or I will have you killed."
Nova's heart was beating hard. Fear welled up in her stomach and her chest. Her head pounded with the need to yell and scream at the man before her. Her fists clenched at her sides as she imagined slamming them into the man's stomach again and again. The timid scientist was gone, replaced by a stern and hard-faced man.
"Doctor Codon! I would suggest you shut up and listen or you and all of your men will be dead," she said. Her voice was even louder than his and drowned out whatever he was going to say. "You translated it wrong."
Codon's open mouth snapped closed and his eyebrow rose up. He stared at her with narrowed eyes and the outburst he had no doubt planned was cut short. "What do you mean?" he said through clenched teeth.
"I mean the words above the entrance. You translated them wrong."
"That's impossible. The languages are so similar to old-Earth dialects that it barely took the computers a minute to create the translation software. Plus, I'm never wrong."
"There's a first time for everything. Your computers got it wrong."
"Are you worried about a few grammar mistakes?" Codon said. His voice was low and stony, a condescending sneer played at the corner of his mouth. His eyes were cold steel, ready to send her to the nearest prison asteroid.
"It's a little more important than that."
"You read it as; enter and you will have the power to control the universe."
"Yes, that's the closest translation."
"It should be open and we will have the power to control the universe."
"What does that even mean?" Codon said.
Nova wanted to strangle the man. How could he not see what was right in front of him? It changed everything. "It means that whatever you're hoping to uncover won't help you."
"That's ridiculous. It's just some ancient text. I'm sure whatever is buried there will benefit whoever finds it. Which, by the way, will be me. I deserve it; I've worked my whole life for this, for the great discovery."
"I don't think you've—" Nova was cut short by the floor giving way beneath her feet.
The whole world lifted up on her right and fell down on her left. She watched, almost in slow motion, as Codon's eyes went wide and he tilted to the side, collapsing to the ground.
The ship was falling sideways.
Nova's eyes widened. How could a ship this big fall over? That was impossible.
She ducked down and tucked her body into a tight ball, protecting her head as best she could. That was all she managed before the ship collapsed onto its side and everything inside it, including her body, slammed into the wall.
Glasses, books and paintings whizzed past her face in a desperate race to reach the opposing wall where they exploded into hundreds of tiny pieces. Shards of glass shot out in all directions followed by chunks of metal and bits of plastic.
Nova and Codon's fleshy bodies struck with solid thuds. She landed shoulder first, tucking her head out of the way. Pain coursed through her arm, followed soon after by her side. The agony in her ribs compounded the pain from being kicked earlier.
Her eyes flew open to see a couch falling towards her. She grimaced and rolled to the side, taking Codon with her. Her skin scraped along pieces of broken glass.
They were only just out of the way, when the couch slammed into the side of the ship, leaving a sizeable dent. The wall shuddered under the force of the blow and other debris was sent flying. The couch shivered in place and then lay still against the wall.
That was the last of it. Everything else in the room was bolted down. The entire place leant sideways like a drunkard. The sounds of falling items echoed from other rooms.
Nova and Codon lay amidst a mess of broken items. Miraculously, their bones and bodies were still intact.
"What the hell was that?" Codon said. He pushed Nova to the side and stood up.
She scrambled to her feet. It was disorientating to stand on the wall of the ship instead of the floor. "I warned you. What sort of lab has a couch?" she said, putting a hand to her forehead.
"A mistranslation does not lead to an earthquake," Codon said.
He shouldered past her and climbed over the fallen couch. He stepped over pieces of broken furniture and made his way to the door.
She shrugged and trailed after him. It was like walking through the broken remains of someone's life. Little pieces of everyday things were jumbled together to create a garbage heap. Her boots crunched pieces of glass into even smaller specks that glinted in the still-working bright lights.
"I think you'll count yourself lucky if it's an earthquake," she said.
Codon was already at the door. It slid open at his command. The sheer size of it made it easy for the Doctor to clamber over and out of the lab, into the ship beyond. Nova followed him.
Three bodies were crumpled just outside of the door, Alaina among them. The soldiers had trails of blood leading out of their mouths, nostrils and ears. Their eyes were wide open and staring.
Codon knelt beside Alaina and placed his hand on her neck.
"She's dead," he whispered before moving to the next soldier and then the next. "They're all dead. What the hell happened?"
Nova didn't reply, she had nothing to say.
"Cal, can you hear me?"
"Confirmed," Cal said, his voice filled with relief.
"How's Crusader?" she said.
"No more damaged than before. We're some distance from the source of the blast. How are you and the others?"
"I'm with Doctor Codon but I don't think anyone else is left."
"Our scanners detected a massive shockwave. Technological systems appear unaffected, but some of your plants have died."
"What?" she said. Her eyebrows drew together. Why would Cal be talking about her flowers at a time like this?
"They were killed by the blast. They turned brown and wilted in a matter of seconds."
Realisation exploded in Nova's mind. "It targeted living things."
"It would appear that way," Cal said. "Although how you and the doctor survived is beyond my understanding."
"Mine too," she said. Her imagination was whisked away with thoughts of the soldiers and workers outside. She wondered what had let her survive, while they died. Then again, she didn't know they were dead. They could still be alive.
Don't be foolish, another part of her mind said.
"Damned thing!" Codon yelled. A loud bang brought Nova back to the present.
She forced her eyes to focus on Codon. He was back inside the laboratory, slamming his fingers onto a large screen. Numbers and maps flicked across the display.
"What is it?" she said, making her way towards him.
"We're grounded," he said.
"Where is the ship damaged?"
"That's just it. It's not damaged, we just can't take off."
"That doesn't make any sense," Nova said.
"Well thank you, hunter, for pointing that out. Work, damn you!" Codon said.
"Cal, are you able to leave?" she said.
"Negative. Crusader's engines are in working order, or at least are working as usual, but we are unable to lift," Cal said.
Nova couldn't help the corners of her mouth twitching. For a robot, Cal had an excellent sense of humour.
"Look, Doc, there has to be some kind of force-field," she said.
"What the hell would create a force-field like that?" Codon said.
"That's what I've been trying to tell you. The writing above the door said 'we'. 'Open and we will have the power to control the universe'. There was something waiting inside that tomb, waiting to be let out."
"That's ridiculous. What could possibly be down there?" Codon said.
"I'm sure we'll find out sooner than we would have liked."
Codon started off down the corridor, away from his laboratory and the three bodies. Nova trailed after him. The going was slow; there was rubble and pieces of broken furniture everywhere. Worse than that, the doorways were all the wrong way. They either fell away below their feet or opened above their heads in what was now the ceiling.
The ship had become a three dimensional maze, complete with hazards and debris. The most awful thing of all was the bodies. The workers and soldiers who had been standing throughout the ship were all dead. Their bodies were crushed beneath piles of rubble, bones broken. Their eyes stared blindly.
Trails of dried blood streamed out of the eyes, ears and noses of each corpse. While some of the bodies were broken from the ship's collapse, it looked as though something had killed them before the shockwave arrived.
Codon puffed hard as he climbed over yet another fallen chair. By Nova's estimates, they were about half-way to the main door leading out of the ship.
"If you people didn't spend so much damned time sitting down, this would be a lot easier," she said.
Codon didn't reply.
"Or at least if you'd bolt down your furniture. Who in the hell has a spaceship with loose, floating furniture?"
"I'll be sure to mention that to the Confederacy designers," Codon said. His tone was grating. "If I ever get off this damned rock."
Nova used both hands to vault over a broken table. She landed amidst more rubble and broken glass. It was as if every inch of floor had been coated in a layer of razor-sharp crystals.
It took them over half an hour to get from Codon's lab to the main entrance area. Unlike the many toppled couches they'd passed, the statues were bolted down and protruded out horizontally from the upturned floor. They looked ready to fall at any moment, waiting to crush an unsuspecting passer-by.
They made their way to the main entranceway. The door was set into the side of the ship which was now a wall, metres off the ground, far above them. Like the rest of the ship, the doors were out of place.
Codon reached the wall first and used a fallen table to climb up and press the green button. The door swung upwards, leaving a gaping hole. All Nova could see was dark sky outside, it filled the doorway and seemed to press in on them.
Codon didn't take the time to look. He climbed higher on some fallen shelves and hauled his body over the door's edge. His feet dangled inside.
Nova didn't need to look to know that it was as bad as she'd feared; his expression said it all.
"What? I-" Codon spluttered. "It's all gone."
"Let me look."
Codon dropped into the ship without a word. Nova stepped past and lifted herself into the doorway. Below the dark blue sky was the desert, but the smooth sand of a few minutes before was gone. In its place were jagged hills and deep chasms. Raw earth was churned up as far as the eye could see.
The smaller ships were only just visible. They had been sucked into the ground, hauled into chasms or tossed about on rising ground. The entire landscape had been changed, carved into a rough and harsh surface.
There was a smoky smell in the air. It reeked of burning plastic, wood, and flesh. Her eyes stung and tears dripped onto her cheeks.
Most disconcerting of all was the noise, or rather, the lack of it. Before there had been the constant buzz of the excavation, the murmur of voices and footsteps, now there was nothing. A deathly silence had fallen over Archalon.
There was no sign of movement. Small shadows lay about the base of Codon's ship. It was hard to tell from this height, but she knew in her gut that they were bodies. The soldiers who had escorted her here were now dead at her feet.
There was nothing left.
She dropped back inside the ship. Her heart and mind raced. She'd known something like this was going to happen. She had only two kinds of luck; the best and the worst. The words at the entrance said it all. It was both a warning and a promise. But now what? What had the Confederacy released?
"Yin? Trev? Get over here right now," Codon said.
There was no reply.
Codon's face was red and sweat poured down from his forehead. He breathed hard and leant against the wall.
"Yin. Trev. Do you copy?"
"I think they're all dead," Nova whispered. She gazed off into the distance, not really seeing the broken pieces of Codon's ship, but rather seeing the faces of all the workers and soldiers outside.
"How is that possible?"
"Like I said, I'm sure we'll find out soon. Whoever left that writing knew what was coming."
"But that's impossible. There have been no signs of life on this planet for centuries. This was supposed to be my big find, my break."
Codon let himself slide down the wall until he sat in an unruly heap on the floor, or at least what was the floor now but had once been wall. He blended in with the rest of the rubble piled up all around him, just one more relic of a failed mission.
"Listen!" Nova said.
Codon looked up at her and tilted his head to the side.
Nova strained her ears. She didn't have to wait long, a few moments later it came again, a dull thud which shook the ship and sent vibrations through her body. She had the sensation that the noise came from far away and dreaded the thought of how powerful it would be, closer to the source.
"What is it?" Codon whispered.
"I think it's them."
They turned towards the door of the ship.
It hung open, letting in the night air and whatever else might chance upon them.
"The ship's cameras should still be working," Codon said.
Nova nodded and let him lead the way. It was a massive vessel. Rooms and corridors led off in all directions. Passages disappeared beneath their feet, dropping into deep chasms.
They had to step over multiple bodies on their way. Each of the Confederacy workers was the same, blood leaking from every orifice and their eyes wide open. Their blue uniforms created a haunting pattern amongst the rubble.
It was a struggle to navigate their way to the control room. Luckily, there were multiple ways to get there, or Nova was sure they would never have made it.
Codon shouldered past the door. The massive walls were covered with smaller boxes, showing images of both the inside and outside of the ship. The pictures were crystal clear and hid nothing.
"Some of the cameras are broken," Codon said, pointing to four black squares.
"It was a pretty big shockwave," Nova said. "Which makes me wonder, how did we survive?"
She turned to Codon with her hands on her hips, conveniently close to her gun. It still bothered her, it was almost as if Codon had known what was coming.
"I know what you're implying," Codon said. "And no. My lab has the latest in shielding technology. The stuff protecting it hasn't even been published yet. If anything was going to shield us from some kind of shockwave, it was that shield."
"What about the rest of the ship?"
Codon shrugged. "The Confederacy hadn't bought it yet. Mine was a prototype."
"This place is massive. It could have saved everyone!"
She stepped towards the doctor with her hands clenched into fists at her sides. Her vision flashed red. It was typical Confederacy to hide technology from the rest of the world. What if all of the ships had been equipped with this kind of shield? What if the soldiers' armour had had it?
"Take your sanctimonious tones elsewhere," Codon said.
He stepped forward to meet Nova so that they stood in front of each other, their noses almost touching.
Codon's warm breath wafted over Nova's face. A blood vessel pulsed beneath the flesh of his right temple.
"I tried to warn you," she said.
"Yes I heard you the first time. Now, do you want to get a look at these bastards or not?"
She took a deep breath and swallowed. She forced her fists to uncurl, stepped away from Codon, and looked back at the screens. It wouldn't do either of them any good to argue now. They were the only two left on the planet, the only ones who knew what was happening.
"Cal, send a transmission out to Aart and Tanguin. They need to know what's happening and spread the word. Hell, get them to tell the Confederacy. We need all the backup we can get."
"I'm afraid I've already tried contacting them," Cal said.
"And?" Nova said.
A cold sweat broke out on her forehead.
"Our transmissions can't get through. They're being blocked by the same thing that's keeping us grounded."
"Try again," she whispered.
"I've tried many times, I've got a continuous loop going but it's not getting through. No one can hear us."
"Grishnak!" she said and slammed her palm down onto the metal bench.
"What?" Codon said.
"We can't communicate with the outside. We may as well be in a black-hole, because nothing's getting out of here."
"What the hell do they want with us?" Codon said.
"I'd guess it's not to chat."
She lowered herself into a swivelling chair and stared up at the screens. Her eyes were tired, as was the rest of her body. There were so many different video feeds spread out before her that she struggled to focus, to make sense of what was going on.
"There!" Codon said. "Enlarge feed forty-two."
In response to his command, the screen expanded to fill the whole view. Trees blocked most of it.
"They're alive," Nova said.
"What do you mean?"
"The trees. My labourbot said that my plants died, so I thought maybe the shockwave was meant to knock out living things, but those are fine."
Codon grunted and continued to stare at the video feed.
"What the hell is that?" Codon whispered.
Nova stared with wide eyes at the screen before her. The trees parted to reveal monstrous beasts that were completely foreign and yet hauntingly familiar. They were humanoid but made of metal. They had elongated heads of sleek black metal which attached to smooth, reptilian bodies. Sharp blades ran along the outer edges of their arms and their hands were tipped with razor-sharp claws. Their tales whipped back and forth, ending in four long barbs. They moved with unnerving speed and agility, darting between the trees and across the sand.
"The Ancients," she said.
"The ones who seeded Old-Earth."
Her mind raced over everything she had ever read about the Ancients, some called them gods. There were so many mentions of them throughout human history, and yet always they were relegated to myth and legend. Well here they were, as real as anything else.
"That's ridiculous," Codon said. "You sound like a damned creationist."
"The evidence is right there," she said, waving her hand towards the screen. "They use a language similar to that of ancient Earth. Their basic body structure is humanoid but they're far more advanced and much older than we are. It's the only thing that makes sense."
Codon blinked at the screen but didn't reply.
Nova's heart fluttered high in her chest. She'd never believed the Ancients existed either, not until this very moment. Her skin was cold and goose bumps covered her arms and cheeks. Her neck tingled, whether from fear or excitement, she couldn't say.
The creatures coming out of the trees became more terrifying as they neared; there was no sign of eyes or other features on their faces, just cold, black metal. They towered high above the bodies of fallen workers; at least twice as tall as any human. A few glanced down at the figures scattered before them, but most walked straight past. They spoke in fluid tones, their voices floating from the speakers.
"Is your translator working?" Nova said.
Codon frowned and cocked his head before shaking it from side to side and glancing at her.
"Mine neither," she said. "Cal, what's going on with the translation?"
"The translator patch doesn't work for the verbal form," Cal said. "There is no reference for such a language."
"But the written language is so familiar," she said.
"They're different; at least as far as the reference databases are concerned."
Nova tapped the metal bench with her fingers and stared at the creatures. They talked to each other, but there was no way to understand what they said. The creatures cleared the area around the forest. A group of four went to a fallen spaceship and with a mighty heave, they sent it flying.
The aliens worked until there was a clear circle extending at least fifty metres away from the trees. From there, they dragged pieces of machinery out of the tomb and scattered them across the ground. Small groups got together, welding pieces of metal.
"They're building something," Codon said.
"Ships," she said.
"We will have the power to rule the universe," Codon whispered, reciting the words carved above the entrance to the tomb.
"Exactly," Nova said. "I don't know if they were sleeping or imprisoned down there. Either way, you let them out."
"You can keep your righteous tones. I'm getting off this planet, if it's the last thing I ever do."
"We can't leave. If we don't stop them they'll enter the wider galaxies and destroy every human colony there is."
"They won't find me or the Confederacy. Oh no, we have measures in place to protect us from this sort of thing."
"You did this. Now you have to stop it," she said, placing a hand on Codon's shoulder.
Codon whipped around and knocked her arm free with his forearm. He pushed forward with his shoulder. She stumbled backwards. He pushed the advantage with kicks and punches.
Nova wasn't ready for the attack. His sudden outburst left her reeling and she was forced to back-pedal out of the monitoring room and into the hallway beyond. Codon slammed punches into her arms and shoulders before she regained her composure. She pushed back at him with all her strength.
She shoved him and he stumbled backwards.
Codon rounded on her. "Touch me again and I'll break every one of your fingers."
"Wake up!" she yelled, her fists at the ready. "We're the only ones left on this planet. If I wanted you dead, you would be crushed under a couch right now."
"Don't give me your empty threats," Codon said. His face was red and spittle flew out of his mouth, spraying Nova and the hallway around her.
"I assure you, they're not empty," she said. Her breathing returned to normal. She didn't doubt that Codon could kill her. The fumbling scientist was a thin façade for the soldier underneath. At least for the moment he was afraid of her.
"Get off my ship," Codon said.
"I said get off my ship. If you so much as think of coming back here, I will have the ship's automatic weapons take you out."
"Look, we can't afford to fight. We're the only ones left and that means we have to stick together, and find a way to beat these things."
"I don't think so. I'm leaving this planet and warning the Confederacy. That's my number one duty. You can do whatever the hell you want, as long as you're not on my ship when you do it."
Codon marched towards her, fists clenched at his sides.
Nova shrugged and backed away from the man. He just needed time to cool down. A few hours completely alone on the planet would see him begging for her to come back. In the meantime, she had things to do.
She let herself be backed all the way through the ship until they were in the entrance lounge. She climbed over fallen furniture to the open door.
"Call my ship, Crusader, if you want to get hold of me," she said.
Nova jumped up to the door and looked out. It was much the same view as before except that now there was a cleared area between the ships and the trees.
She didn't wait long to move, afraid that the creatures would see her. The chances were good that they could monitor her heat signal from afar, knowing very well that she was alive. Either way, she couldn't spend any more time sitting inside Codon's ship and hoping for the best. If he didn't kill her, her impatience eventually would.
She lifted her legs up over the doorway. She held tight with her hands as she hung from the outside of the ship. It was a long way down, three metres at least. She braced herself for the drop and let go.
Her body plummeted through the air. Wind rushed past her skin, pulling her hair up into a wild spread. Her clothes ruffled around her and her thick jacket buffeted up around her ears.
She landed with bent knees and allowed her body to fall and roll, taking most of the force. There was the slightest jab of pain through her ankle but when she tested it she could still walk. There was only a faint twinge each time she placed weight on the foot, nothing compared to what she could have faced.
As a stark reminder of what she survived, a bloody corpse lay next to her right leg. It was one of the soldiers who had escorted her to Codon's ship the first time. His eyes were wide and unseeing. Blood seeped out of the sockets and from his nose and mouth. More blood pooled in his ears and his body was twisted at odd angles. It looked as though he were a rag-doll which had been carelessly tossed through the air and let land wherever he fell.
Nova drew in a deep breath and turned away from the dead man. She was still here and alive, that's what she had to focus on. According to Codon she was the only one left who would do anything to stop the aliens and she didn't have much time. They were working hard on their ships. How long before they could fly? One day? An hour? A year?
She shook her head. She could go mad thinking about the possibilities. She had to focus. There was only one way she could overcome the alien threat; learn everything she could about them and use their weaknesses against them.
Easier said than done. She was already exhausted from her long night walking through the tunnels and arguing with Codon. Her ribs still ached where Alaina's boot had connected. She had no idea where to start.
"Observe and gather information," she told herself. The mantra sent her thoughts back to when she'd first become a hunter. She'd decided to learn everything she could in a range of fields, so that she could be the best of them. That particular line had come from a scientist, bent on teaching the human colonies about scientific integrity and inquiry. He was a relic from a bygone era; a dinosaur in the unquestioning, technologically-stagnant, modern world. He was similar to Codon in some ways but very different in others.
Nova nodded once and followed her own advice. She crept forward, shielded by the fallen ships and raised dirt. Her feet left deep prints in the newly churned soil but there was nothing she could do about it. She daren't take the time to cover her tracks.
She moved in as close as she dared; all the way to the final line of ships. These were all toppled onto their sides and dented from the shockwave. More bodies were piled all around, each bleeding, just like the others she'd seen.
She forced past the bodies and looked instead at the aliens. They were much clearer from here. The bright moonlight illuminated their metal bodies. They were like giant robots. Their torsos were segmented, each piece of metal overlapping the one below. Their legs resembled those of a lizard, with one too many joints; it was as if they were walking on the balls of their feet.
The sounds of working echoed across the desert. Hammers, welders and saws rang through the night air. Metal scraped on metal and clanged together. Under it all were the alien voices. Nova cursed her translator for not transforming the words, investigating would be a lot easier if she knew what they were saying, what they were planning.
Nova was convinced that the creatures before her were robots, or at least she did until one of them removed its head.
The alien lifted a hand to its neck and felt around. It said something and then lifted the metal casing from its shoulders to reveal an elongated head underneath. The face was covered in scales and the back of the head extended up to a bone crest. Two eyes, the size of Nova's fist, surveyed the landscape. The nose was barely visible, but the mouth was massive. It wrapped around the side of the creature's head and was filled with razor-sharp teeth.
The creature looked down at the helmet and ran its clawed fingers along the base, where the seal connected it to the rest of the armour. It yelled a few more orders and tossed the helmet to the side.
A smaller alien hurried over with a new helmet and handed it over to the bare-headed creature. The alien grabbed the new helmet and slammed it down over its head, tapping the seal as soon as it was in place.
The creatures were covered from head to foot in smooth metal armour, so perfectly fitted that they could have been robots. The segments moved in perfect tandem with the limbs underneath.
Nova had argued with Codon that their basic body structure was similar to that of a human. It was partially true, but up-close the differences were striking. Everything about them seemed sharp, from their claws to their spikey tails. They moved like shadows, flitting from one place to another. Their alien speed and lizard-like heads made Nova shiver.
"Anything?" she asked Cal.
"Some of their features match drawings on file," Cal said, "Other than that, they don't match any species designation."
Nova sighed. She hadn't expected them to register, but it would have been nice if they did.
"Which drawings?" she asked.
Cal forwarded a collection of images to Nova's chip. The device transmitted the images straight to her visual cortex, and she could see them as if they were right in front of her.
It was just as she'd suspected. The drawings Cal had sent were from ancient caves on Old-Earth, from the walls of the pyramids and other unreachable places.
The drawings showed creatures, much taller than the humans shown bowing before them. The drawings showed the creatures standing over humans and their cities. It depicted them bestowing gifts and killing people. They were gods in the eyes of the humans and now Nova had a chance to meet them.
The bodies all around her feet said everything she needed to know. These were not the gift-giving kind. These creatures were after one thing and one thing only; control of the universe such as they had once known.
"Observe and gather," she chided herself.
She blinked the cave drawings away and focused on the aliens. They worked on the ships and what looked like massive weapons. Long black barrels attached to hand-held triggers and cannons the size of cars were being assembled.
The biggest of the aliens yelled commands and supervised. It was a hive of activity; aliens scurried across the desert and back down into the tombs, collecting more parts. They returned with metal plates, spanners and other tools piled high in their arms. These were delivered in neat piles and then the creatures scurried off again for another load.
It was as if the aliens had come out of hibernation with a plan already formed. They were just acting out the final parts of some kind of rehearsed play. Nova's stomach churned at thoughts of the finale.
The weapons were a good hint to how the story would end. Whatever the aliens used to be, they weren't peace-bringing planet-founders any more. They were destroyers, if the dead bodies scattered across the planet were anything to go by. The only thing Nova could do was work out how to stop them before they repaired their ships and weaponry. Once they were done with that, there was no way she could stop them, and as far she knew, neither could anyone else in the human galaxies.
"How were they stopped before?" she asked herself.
She thought back on every piece of history, every scrap of research she'd ever done. She ran back over all the papers she'd read, theorising the existence of the Ancients. In all of them, one thing was certain. At some point in time, the Ancients vanished without a trace.
Nova's mind whizzed around in circles. There must have been some clue left over; some hint as to what happened. The creatures she saw before her wouldn't lock themselves away, not without a fight. So, why had they been trapped inside a planet?
She scurried, bent over, between the small ships. Her steps were silent and her breathing steady. She kept her eyes on the Ancients; she couldn't afford to miss a single thing. As she darted between a small green racer and a Confederacy service vehicle her foot caught on something solid. Her body flew forward and she fell to the ground. Grains of sand flicked into her eyes and ground between her teeth.
She snapped her mouth shut to stop a yelp and glanced back. She'd tripped over a body. The bloodied limbs were buried, askew, in the sand. She backed away from the corpse until her back was firmly against the service vehicle. She buried her feet into the sand, trying to get rid of the feel of the body against her legs.
Her eyes stung as the tiny crystals of sand scraped back and forth across her eyeballs. She lifted her hands up and rubbed furiously. More tears poured out of the corners and down her cheeks.
Finally, the offending grains scraped free and fell back to the desert to join the rest.
She remained sitting on the sand. She wasn't thinking straight and her muscles weren't working properly. There was no way she could even think about defeating an ancient alien race at that moment. All of her thoughts were on her grumbling stomach and tired eyes; she'd go back to Crusader and work out her next move from there.
She used the ships as cover and ran up the hill, away from the trees. The sounds of the Ancients carried on the wind. At the top of the hill she took a deep breath and looked back.
Metal weapons and ships reflected the light of the two moons; the little circle of activity was lit up like a stadium while the rest of the desert was dark and silent.
Nova relished the silence as she moved across the sand. For the first time since entering the tombs, she felt alone. Her heartbeat was steady and rhythmic. The cool desert wind steeled her nerves and let her think. The cold was refreshing, awakening.
By the time she got to her lander, which thankfully was able to take off, she felt more rested than she would have if she'd fallen asleep behind a toppled spaceship.
Crusader's trapdoor slid open and she stepped into the storage bay. Everything was just as she had left it. That struck her as odd. After everything she'd seen, the world should have changed in response. Something should have shifted, some kind of mark of the massive event. There was nothing. As far as the universe was concerned, or at least Crusader, nothing had changed.
Cal hovered by the wall. He had been busy; the dark stain was gone from his panelling.
"Today has been… interesting," Cal said, as the door slid shut behind Nova.
The robot's tone was cautious, confused. No doubt Cal's internal simulation software had not predicted the return of the Ancients.
"Crusader's engines refuse to take off," Cal said.
"Crusader, diagnose problem," Nova said.
"Diagnostics show no problem; however I am still unable to take off."
"It's probably a form of force-field," Cal said.
"They're trying to keep us here?" Nova said.
"There is no evidence that they know we survived. It is probably a safety precaution to prevent survivors from warning others."
"That's a lot of planning."
"Preparing for possible outcomes," Cal said, as if he would expect nothing less.
"I need to eat and think about this."
They moved through Crusader, to the dining pod. Nova pulled the folded bench down from the wall. It locked into place and she slumped down, resting her elbows on the table and head in her hands. She stared down at the patterns on the table, her eyes tracing each tiny bump and groove.
"Chicken and chips," Cal said, when the food generator dinged its completion.
She watched the robot hover towards her with a plate held in his thin arm. The pincer at the end clutched a plate piled high with steaming chips.
Cal placed the plate before her and produced a knife and fork from one of his many compartments. He handed them to Nova and then hovered away towards the command pod. The robot didn't usually fetch Nova's dinner, but just for today, she was happy to let Cal do it.
She shovelled hunks of spiced chicken and hot chips into her mouth. The salty taste was heaven on her deprived tongue. Every mouthful gave her more energy. Strength returned to her abused muscles and the stress of the day faded away. Warmth spread from her stomach and encompassed the rest of her body until finally, she laid down her cutlery and leant back in her chair.
Nova allowed her eyes to slip closed and her mind to wander. Her thoughts still raced with what she'd seen. The writing she'd translated, the massive shockwave, and the strange species.
First encounters with a new species of sentient aliens were rare. Very few had occurred in the history of the human colonies. Nova's stomach churned with both excitement and terror that she was lucky enough to be here. Her imagination soared with the possibilities. If she could get to know them, to speak their language, who knew what secrets and technology they held?
"If they wanted to exchange ideas," Cal said, picking up on some of Nova's thoughts through her chip, "Why would they send out a shockwave to kill all life on this planet?"
She frowned as her joyful imaginings were cut short by Cal's grim reminder. His words sent her thoughts back to the scenes of the desert. The toppled ships and torn bodies replayed in her mind.
"I don't know," she said, opening her eyes. There was no chance of returning to daydreams now.
"I'm just saying, if they were a peaceful species, they wouldn't have started with that," Cal said.
"Maybe they had a bad experience when they went in and they were making sure the same threat wasn't here?"
"That sounds like grasping at straws to me," Cal said.
"I suppose it takes a special kind of species to decorate their tombs with promises of taking over the universe."
"Well I'm not going to go in there with guns blazing. I don't want to be the one that starts a war."
"Shouldn't Doctor Codon be introducing the human species?" Cal said. "He is in more of an official position than you."
"You heard him," Nova said. "The Doctor would rather leave the planet and find one of his superiors to do it."
"I don't think we'll have that much time."
"Yeah, plus he's stranded too."
"I have a bad feeling about this."
"You're a robot," Nova said. "You're not supposed to get hunches."
"I can if all of the available data points to a poor outcome," Cal said, collecting her empty plate and disappearing around the corner.
She grunted and went back to staring at the table. She was bursting with energy, with the need to know who these new aliens were. She knew her body was exhausted, that she should probably rest, but how could she? There was no way to know how long she had before the Ancients had ships, and were on their way to the human colonies.
Her mind bounced back and forth from one course of action to another. She had to sleep; it was the only way to get her head back in the game. Six hours would be enough to get her body back into working order and mind straight. If the Ancients managed to make lift-off before then, well there wasn't much she could do.
She pushed herself up from the table and trudged to her sleeping pod. She collapsed onto it and relished in the cushioned mattress. The pillow was as soft as anything she'd felt, and promised a good night's sleep.
"You're covered in sand," Cal said. His voice ripped Nova out of her near-sleep.
"You should shower before going to bed."
"But I'm so tired."
"I have to clean your sheets."
"What do you mean clean them?" she said. "You pick them up and throw them into this shoot."
She held out her hand and tapped a rectangular panel next to her bed. It led down underneath her bed to where Crusader's more mechanical parts did their work. The sheets would be cleaned, dried and then sent back up to a shelf next to her bed.
"Well, it's annoying," Cal said.
"Again," Nova said, talking slowly and enunciating each word, "You're a robot. Things aren't supposed to be annoying; you're just supposed to do them."
"Ah but you're forgetting something very important," Cal said.
"I'm a very special robot."
Cal chuckled, hovering out of Nova's reach.
She groaned and swiped her hand after him, far too slow. She glanced down at her bed; there were already grains of sand spread across the sheets.
Nova awoke to Cal prodding her arm. His metal pincer jabbed her forearm repeatedly until she threw off the blanket and sat up. She glanced at the neon blue clock, six hours exactly.
"Morning," he said.
Nova scowled. She'd been having the nicest dream about a calm beach with no foreign aliens or dead bodies. Back to reality. She rubbed her eyes and stretched. Thoughts of losing her possessions, being stranded on a foreign planet, and confronting an alien race, had faded away. Her stomach rumbled.
She headed straight for the food-generator.
The machine whirred into action and one minute later, it dinged. She opened the door to reveal a steaming bowl, complete with a coating of sugar.
"Nova, we have a problem," Cal said, hovering in from the pilot's pod.
"They're about to test a weapon."
"It looks dangerous."
She frowned and stood up, carrying her bowl into the pilot's pod. The front screen was filled with a flickering image of the oasis, along with the Ancients. Grey lines of static roved across the screen and a loud buzzing drone overlaid the audio feed.
"How are you getting that footage?" Nova asked.
"We hacked into some of the cameras from the fallen ships. With no one on-board, security is minimal."
"Why is it dark?"
"With the planet's current orbital position, the day and night cycle aren't consistent," Cal said. "My sensors suggest there will still be three more hours of darkness."
Raised voices drew Nova's attention back to the aliens. Three creatures were gathered around a metal cylinder the size of full-grown man. An Ancient stepped forward and gestured towards it. Another Ancient ran forward and spoke in a flurry of syllables, also pointing at the cylinder.
The bigger creature nodded once and they all stepped back, almost to the line of trees.
The smaller aliens gathered around and propped up the metal cylinder.
"What are they pointing at?" Nova asked.
A second video feed opened on Crusader's front screen showing the sky and the small red moon. The image was tilted to one side; the camera feed had to be from a toppled ship.
"Based on the angle of trajectory, they're pointing at the moon," Cal said.
The faint crimson glow reflected off of the metal cylinder and bathed the surrounding ground in red.
An Ancient pressed a raised red button on the side of the cylinder and dove towards the trees. They scrambled over one another. Grunts and shouts crackled over the audio channel.
One Ancient was knocked back by his companions and fell into the sand. His heavy metallic body sunk deep. It struggled to get up, like a turtle on its back. Its head swung desperately, glancing first at the device, and then at the other Ancients, safely in the cover of the trees.
Nova's fingers clenched around her spoon, something tightening in her throat. The Ancients were scared, and that terrified the shit out of her.
The command pod filled with sound. A booming explosion echoed into every crevice of Crusader, blowing out some of the speakers.
Nova ducked, covering her head with her hands and squeezing her eyes shut. She waited for the inevitable rain of shrapnel, but nothing happened. She unclenched her arms and stood on shaky legs.
The cylinder was still there but surrounded by a crater gouged into the sand. The Ancient which had fallen over was now just a red splash on the sand. Pieces of black armour dotted the ground around the crater, intermixed with chunks of raw flesh.
The device glowed red-hot, almost white. Nearby sand had been melted into chunks of glass.
Nova's mouth hung open.
The aliens spoke rapidly in excited tones. They gestured and pointed to the sky. It was only then that she noticed the second video feed. The red glow from the second moon was gone. All that remained was a gaping piece of space with nothing in it.
"They destroyed a moon with that tiny thing?" she said. Her words caught in her throat and came out as a whisper.
"Worse," Cal said. "According to Crusader's readings, they turned it into a black-hole."
"The energy from the gun compacted the moon into a mini black-hole. It lasted only a fraction of a second, but it was there."
"How can that be?"
"Tiny black-holes lose their energy almost as soon as they're formed. Your eyes wouldn't have detected it, but the scanning equipment did."
Cal's voice was panicked.
Nova's mouth flapped but no words came out. Such technology was impossible.
"It can't be," Cal said.
"You just told me that's what happened."
"Yes, but it can't. No weapon could create a black-hole."
"Well apparently theirs can," she said.
It felt as though her heart had dropped through to her stomach with the demonstration. The sight of such awesome power, tossed around for the sake of a test-run, was mind-boggling. She trembled at the thought of what else they could assemble.
What had felt like an exciting adventure was slipping into a nightmare. The hairs on Nova's neck stood on end, poised and waiting.
She breathed hard. Her hands gripped the metal control panel, her spoon lying forgotten on the floor like the porridge at her side. It could get cold, go mouldy and grow its own ecosystem and she still wouldn't have noticed. It was too much. There was no way she could walk out there with confidence and convince them to be peaceful. She had nothing to bargain with. It was a wonder the Ancients hadn't detected her already and shot her into a cosmic crap hole.
"I think this further supports my hunch," Cal said.
"Yep," she whispered.
"Crusader," Cal said, "Try to leave again."
The engines rumbled underneath their feet but nothing happened. "I'm afraid we're still constrained here," Crusader said.
"I have to go out there," Nova said.
"I don't think so," Cal said. "They'll take one look at you and squash you like a bug."
"What else can I do? It would be pointless for me to go in waving my gun around."
"There are no viable simulations."
"Right, so you've got no ideas either."
"They're doing something else," Cal said.
Nova returned her attention to the front screen. All hunger had fled from her stomach. Her bowl of porridge looked like congealed sludge.
She looked back at the creatures with a furrowed brow. A new level of fear and respect coursed through her veins. Her legs and back tingled; all she wanted to do was run away from the new beings and their powerful weapons. Maybe if she ran hard enough she could make it. Somehow, Crusader could break free of the force-field and she could be free.
She chided herself; that line of thought was foolish. Creatures with the power to create black-holes could outrun anything.
Nova took a deep breath. Her heart beat erratically in her chest. Every muscle in her body was tensed, ready to spring.
She knew that her weapon would be useless against the creatures without having to fire it. Perhaps if they were without armour, then maybe her puny plasma pistol could do something. As it was, they were all covered from head to foot, unstoppable.
The only weapon she could be sure was strong enough was one of theirs.
As if in response, loud voices signalled another demonstration. The Ancients gathered in an armoured semi-circle. One wielded a long black gun, the same length but much thicker than the rifles Nova was used to.
Nova forced herself to watch every second of the display. She had to know exactly how to use that gun. There wouldn't be any time for practice shots.
The bigger creature, the leader, pointed at the nearest tree. The Ancient lifted the weapon to its shoulder, aimed, then fired. The gun kicked, sending the armoured beast three paces back. There was no evidence of a gun blast or plasma bullet; no bright spark or streak of lightning.
The tree collapsed on itself like a cardboard box. Every limb, branch and leaf took a mighty heave and fell inwards.
The impossibility of it all hit Nova like a slap to the face.
The lead Ancient marched to where the tree had been and bent down to something in the dirt. He heaved it up and held it aloft. His arm shook. To Nova, it looked like he clutched a tiny cube.
The creature tossed the cube towards the other aliens. It didn't soar, as Nova would have expected, and fell far short.
When the cube hit the ground, vibrations shook the area. A wave of sand shot up leaving a car-sized crater with the cube nestled at the very bottom.
"What the-" Nova's mind boggled.
"It's some kind of compression device," Cal said. "It compacted every atom of that tree into a tiny cube. No wonder it weighs so much."
Nova clenched her teeth and stared at the static-filled screen. Her stomach rolled, bile rising to the back of her throat. Cold gripped her heart and spread through her body.
She had to get hold of the gun. With a weapon like that, maybe she could protect the universe.
The aliens soon lost interest in the cube and the gun which had created it. The weapon was laid against the large cannon. The shiny rifle glimmered in the light from the remaining moon. It was polished to a sharp sheen, despite being stored in the core of the planet for who knew how many centuries.
Nova licked her lips; she wouldn't have long. There was only once chance. She had to grab hold of the gun, and tell them to back down or be killed. It wasn't much of a plan, but it was the best she could do, given the circumstances. The last thing she wanted to do was wait. The longer she took, the more weapons and power the aliens would have. Better to take them out now, when they were still waking up.
The aliens worked on the next project. It looked like a massive ship but there were still lots of parts to be added. The bigger creature stood near them, sharing in the conversation from time to time. All of their backs were to the black compression gun. No doubt they thought the rest of the planet was dead.
"They're unstoppable," she whispered.
"Something stopped them before," Cal said.
"We don't know that. Maybe they just decided to take a nap."
"I recommend we stay hidden and wait until they leave. Perhaps then, the force-field will lift."
"We can't do that. There's the opportunity of a life-time out there. And besides, there's no guarantee that we'll be able to leave once they go. But I bet they have the technology to get us out of here."
"It's a bad idea," Cal said.
"I know. But I'm doing it anyway."
"Business as usual then."
She nodded, still too shell-shocked by the demonstrations to laugh.
"Aright. Time to bite the bullet," she said.
"In the middle of the night?"
"Well it's not the middle." Nova said. "They're up. I don't want to leave it any longer. If they are planning to wreak havoc on the universe, then I want to stop them now."
"That's if they don't kill you on sight," Cal said.
"Well, be safe, I suppose."
She nodded and marched to her sleeping pod. She changed out of her sandy clothes from the day before and put on a black singlet, thick trousers with many pockets and her thick trench-coat. She wore a thick khaki belt made up of pouches. She slid her knife into a sheath on the left and her gun into the holster on her right.
"How do I look for an ambassador of the human race?" she said.
"Embarrassing," Cal said.
She rolled her eyes. "Monitor the situation. If things get bad, run the simulations. If there's a chance to save me, do that. If there's not, then get yourselves out of here. When you get out tell the guys at the Maw what happened."
She strode to the storage bay and climbed into the lander. She took a deep breath as she started the lander's engine. Her stomach rolled as she laid a shaky hand on the throttle.
"Have I got maximum shielding?" she said. She hated the tremor in her voice.
"Confirmed. Crusader can't even detect you."
"Good," she said, letting out a long sigh.
She pressed the detach button and the lander clicked free of Crusader. She grabbed the controls with both hands even though it was on autopilot. She swallowed hard as the lander dove for the planet.
Her course kept her well out of sight of the Ancients. She just had to hope that they weren't scanning for foreign ships, and that if they were that they thought she was just a bird. Chills racked her body as she thought about the compression gun and how it would feel to be crushed by her own weight. Her neck tingled as the planet drew closer.
She took the time to look around and relish in her own existence. She had no idea how much longer that existence would last.
The lander came to rest on the desert sand far too soon for Nova's liking. It took three minutes for her legs to stop shaking enough for her to stand and get out of the ship. She jumped to the desert and leant against the lander.
She breathed deeply until her head stopped spinning. She pushed herself up and surveyed the landscape. The desert was just as she'd left it except that the glow from the red moon was gone.
She checked her weapons one more time, drew her back straight, and steeled her nerves. There was no way to put it off any longer; she was here and she had a mission to do.
She trekked through the sand in her thick boots. Her mind raced with what she'd say to these aliens. Her imagination filled with visions of her trying to communicate and failing miserably. In one scenario the aliens couldn't understand her and shot her on sight. In another replay they thought she declared war and retaliated by destroying the nearest human colony.
She clenched her teeth and shook the images free. There was no reason for the meeting to go badly. She just had to keep calm and be reasonable. The logical thoughts didn't stop her stomach clenching or the blood draining from her face. She bit her lip and strode on.
For whatever reason, she'd been left with this job and she'd be damned if she turned away now. As much as it should have been Doctor Codon in her place, she was glad it was her. The chance to have first contact came once in a million lifetimes. Even if the meeting did go badly she'd be remembered for the rest of time. Or she would be so long as there were human colonies to remember.
She lay on her stomach and dragged herself up the last of the rise overlooking the oasis. The broken remnants of the Confederacy ships spread around her and surrounded the Ancients. She used the ships for cover as she scurried down the hill. Her heart clenched in her chest every time she heard an Ancient speak. Miraculously she made it to the very edge of the tumbled ships without being detected.
She took a deep breath. The black-hole cannon and the compression gun leant against each other in the centre of a minor crater. The rest of the Ancients were gathered in groups, scattered around the area, working on small projects.
Nova took a final breath and stepped out from behind the ship. She approached the nearest group of Ancients with her hands held out to either side, palms up. Her breath was ragged and dry in her throat. She got five paces before she was spotted.
The nearest Ancient glanced up from his work and froze.
A torrent of words poured out of his mouth. Heads whipped around at his voice and some of the Ancients jumped to their feet.
Nova was surrounded by a chattering circle of tall creatures, all staring at her. Her chest constricted but she stood straight and stared back at them, her gaze unwavering.
"I come in peace," she said.
The lead Ancient muscled its way to the front of the crowd.
"I come in peace," Nova said again, the words coming out in a rush.
The Ancients stared down at her. They sounded like a swarm of beetles as they spoke to each other. Their clicking voices buzzed around Nova's head. More of the creatures gathered to see what the fuss was about.
"A human? What is a human doing here?" the lead Ancient said, stepping forward.
It took Nova a few moments to realise that she understood what it said.
"I can understand you," she said.
The Ancient waved its hand as if the event was of no matter. "You haven't answered my question."
"I- er- this planet is part of the Human Confederacy," she said.
"The humans claim to own part of this galaxy?" the Ancient said. "The parasitic human race dares?"
"We- we've been expanding for some time now. I wish to ensure that you will not harm the human colonies," Nova said. Her heart sat right in her throat but she had to do what she came for. She may not care for many humans, but she'd be damned if she didn't try to stop the total annihilation of human life, if that's what the Ancients had planned.
"Why not?" it said.
"Well-" Nova's thoughts stumbled over the question. It was so simple and yet so layered with meanings, possibilities. "We have as much right to live and be free as you."
"I don't think so," the Ancient said. "We have fought too hard, for too long to be usurped by the likes of you."
The alien held up its clawed fist and a barrel clicked open at the end. The Ancients advanced towards Nova. Their feet stomped onto the sand, leaving a trail of holes. They spoke to each other in their foreign language.
Nova's mouth dropped open. The careful negotiations she'd gone over in her head were over before she'd started. A buzz warned her that the Ancient's weapon was powering up.
She backed away from the closing circle. Her eyes flicked left and right. There was no way she could outrun their weapons and she had no hope that her plasma pistol would do anything against their armour.
She darted left, pushed past the Ancients and made a mad dash towards the crater and weapons. As she ran past her arm caught on the blade of an armoured forearm. Her flesh ripped open and dripped blood into the sand. She tucked her arm to her chest and kept running, stifling a cry of pain in her throat.
The sound of pursuit was right behind her. The sand to her right exploded in a flash of red. Smoke poured out of the hole where melted sand glowed white-hot.
She stumbled away from the explosion, darting left and right in a desperate effort to avoid their gunfire. It was hard to run in the newly churned sand. She nearly tripped on the solid cube, sitting at the bottom of its crater.
She regained her balance and pushed on.
Only five more steps, three, one. She was there.
Nova swung her arm around and pulled up the compression gun. It was heavy; her arms and back strained to pick it up. She lifted the gun to her shoulder, placed the index finger of her right hand on the trigger and turned to face the Ancients.
They stopped chasing and stood in a rough semi-circle around her. Each of their helmeted heads was turned in her direction. It was impossible to see any fear on their faces behind the damned emotionless helmets.
The biggest Ancient had its fist-weapon pointed at her. She lifted the gun higher on her shoulder and put the alien in her sights. The armoured figure filled up the whole targeting area.
She clenched her teeth, readied her shoulder for the kickback, and pressed the trigger.
She'd squeezed her eyes shut against the inevitable pain but it never came. She opened one eye and then the other. The aliens still stood in front of her. Nothing had changed.
Nova frowned and squeezed the trigger again. This time she watched the gun, but nothing happened. There was no sudden burst of light, and the creature didn't collapse into itself.
A new sound broke through Nova's confusion. Loud clicking; it sounded like laughter.
She looked up from the gun and saw the armoured creatures laughing. If she'd ever wanted to see terrifying aliens reduced to a joke it would have been this. But the joke was on her.
The lead Ancient lunged at Nova. It leant down, grabbed hold of the rifle, and plucked it out of her grasp. She had no hope of resisting; the gun slid out of her hands as if she was a newborn.
"After all our time fighting the Zions, and the Plims, and all the other pretenders, we worked out the species lock," it said.
"I-I," Nova stuttered. She didn't understand most of what the Ancient was talking about.
Without further warning, the Ancient lifted its fist and a blast of light shot out. It exploded into Nova and filled her vision. The force of it sent her body and mind reeling before she lost consciousness.
Nova's head pounded. Lights danced behind her eyelids. There were voices, but her ears were ringing and she couldn't make out the words. There was a smell too, like musty dirt. It was as if she'd stumbled into a cupboard which hadn't been opened for centuries.
Fragments came back to her; she'd confronted the Ancients and they'd shot her. Was she dead? Her heart kicked up faster at the thought. No, she couldn't be.
There were voices.
She forced her eyelids to open. The brief flash of light was all she needed. She was back in the tunnels, in a small room. She'd caught a glimpse of two Ancients near the door. Her eyes were closed again, but in her mind she went over every detail she'd seen in that brief glimpse.
The voices emerged over the buzz filling her ears.
"You have to get the information out of her. Remember what happened last time?"
"We were nearly wiped out."
"We can't afford to let that happen again. If they're the dominant species then they're the biggest threat. We have to know everything we can about them."
"What if she refuses to talk?"
"Do whatever it takes. Do you understand? I don't care if you have to tear this planet apart – we need to know what they can do, so we're ready. I refuse to be forced to hide underground a second time."
"I'll make sure she talks."
"Good. And do it now. They might already be on their way. We need any advantage we can get."
"I'll get it done."
Footsteps faded away. Something grated, like stone on stone. Nova flicked her eyes open again to see an Ancient slide a thick stone door across the entrance. Purple lights glowed from the walls, casting an ominous glow over the creature's black armour.
"Time to talk," the creature said, as it turned and locked eyes with Nova.
Even the helmet couldn't hide the intensity of the creature's gaze. She felt intelligence, cunning, annoyance, and curiosity, pouring from the alien.
She forgot her aching head and bruised body. There was just her and the Ancient.
It didn't waste any time and went straight to the far wall, pulling down a small pistol. Wires and lights sprouted out of it. Nova could only guess at its purpose.
She struggled to her feet. If the creature was going to kill her, she'd die standing. She pushed her back against the furthest corner, the rough stone scraping down her skin. She scanned every inch of the room for a way out. The only exit was through the passage, which was blocked by a solid stone door. Her breaths came hard and fast and her legs twitched to get going, to move, but to where?
"What's your name?" Nova said. It was the first thing she thought of to buy time.
"You'd never be able to pronounce my real name. For our short time together you may call me Tobius. It means torturer in your most primitive language."
"How can I understand you now? I couldn't before."
"We updated your mind-chip. Primitive technology."
Tobius lunged across the room and slammed his armoured hand into Nova's cheek. Her head snapped sideways, her body sprawling onto the floor.
Pain tore through her face like fire, engulfing her cheek and temple. The stinging agony brought tears to her eyes.
"How far have the humans spread?"
"Fuck you," Nova said.
She pushed herself upright, her arms and legs shaking.
"I'd like to see you try."
Tobius took three long steps forward and snatched Nova's neck in his hand. His fingers wrapped around her throat and squeezed.
Nova's heart roared into overdrive. She couldn't breathe and blood pounded in her temples.
"How far have you spread?" Tobius said in a venomous whisper.
Nova clenched her teeth and refused to answer. Even so, her mind's eye was filled with mental maps of the solar systems. She couldn't help thinking of the outer planets. It was just like the time Tanguin had told her not to think of a pink elephant.
"You're a long way from home."
Nova refused to respond, even though her traitorous mind immediately went to thoughts of her childhood on Tabryn. She hadn't thought of Tabryn as home for a very long time, not since she'd found The Jagged Maw.
"The Jagged Maw," Tobius said, plucking more information from her head. "What is it? A military base?"
Tobius's grip tightened around her throat.
She squeezed her eyes shut. Stars danced at the edges of her vision as she struggled to stay conscious. She couldn't listen to him, couldn't let him win. She focused on an image of a cloud. The fluffy white form floated in a blue sky. Nova floated next to it, both of them blown along on a warm summer's day. Tobius spoke but his voice was carried away by the wind.
"I don't have time for your games," Tobius's voice was a thin whisper.
His grip loosened about her throat and she drew in a great gasp of air. She relished in the sudden burst of oxygen, until pain exploded inside her head. She screamed and her eyes flew open.
Tobius had the gun aimed at her head. It felt as if every neuron in her brain had simultaneously exploded. Every part of her was on fire. She wanted to tear out her hair so that she could get to her skull and rip it open. Anything to release the agony.
Something writhed inside her head. It was as if worms convulsed between her ears; each of them burrowed through her skull and pushed against her head. Her brain was alive, it was a living pulsating thing and it felt like it was trying to get free of her skull.
She clutched her head with both hands. She screamed but she couldn't hear it. Stars flashed in front of her eyes, the rest was darkness and pain. Her body collapsed to the ground, she writhed and kicked, completely losing control of her limbs. Her fingers scraped at her head and left bloody claw-marks.
That was when she saw them. Thousands of spiders poured out of the walls and crawled out of the floor. They were the size of gulf balls and they scurried on hairy legs. They came straight for her. They swarmed across the ground like a living wave.
She rolled away from them but they kept coming. She cast around for anything she could use; her gun was no good against a swarm of spiders. There was nothing. She struggled to her knees; if she could just get to her feet she could stomp them to death.
It was too late; they were already on her. They latched onto her arms and legs and climbed. Their hairy legs brushed over her as more of them clamboured up her limbs. Her legs had become writhing masses of brown bodies and they were climbing higher.
She flicked her arms, sending a handful of spiders flying through the air. She brushed at her body but as two spiders went flying, four more climbed onto her. Her hands worked desperately to get rid of them but she was too slow. She watched in horror as the horde reached her throat and then went higher. They scurried over her face.
She clenched her mouth tightly closed but they forced it open and climbed inside. They burrowed into her ears. Her mouth was full of them and more poured in. She gasped for air as they pushed deeper down her throat.
She refused to be choked to death by spiders. She forced her hand away from her head and reached for the pistol at her waist. Just one squeeze and it would all go away. The pain in her head would disappear and she wouldn't be able to feel the spiders crawling down her throat.
Her fingers clasped around the pistol; her hand shook with the effort.
"I don't think so," Tobius said.
Nova blinked and the spiders were gone. She swiped at her clothes but there was nothing there. She heaved a mighty sigh of relief and curled up into a ball on the ground. She didn't feel the tiny rocks and pieces of sand digging into her, or feel the tears dribble down her cheeks. All she could do was focus on her own breathing and keeping her sanity.
She blinked a few times, her vision blurred by salty tears.
"I will do it again unless you tell me what I want to know."
"I can promise you the pain will be ten times worse the next time."
She clenched her fists and sat up.
"How much technology do you humans have?"
She tried not to think, to keep her mind blank, but her brain was still heaving from the recent turmoil.
Nova involuntarily flinched.
"Technology," Tobius said, his voice seething with hatred.
The word brought a barrage of associated images. Nova's memories soared back over everything she'd seen. The Confederacy ships, contraband weapons, and the troops. She tried to stop herself but once the mental floodgates were open she couldn't close them again. Everything she knew came pouring out as a stream of conscious images.
"Still barely more than parasites," Tobius said, when she'd run out of memories. There was a note of relief in his voice.
"Who, who are you?" Nova whispered. Her voice was dry and strained. It scraped over her throat like sandpaper.
"We're the Ancients. Your gods," Tobius said. "But you already knew that."
The pain had mostly subsided; all that remained was a dull headache. Had she just sentenced all of humanity to die? She couldn't do that; she had to be strong. But the pain was so bad. It was a red cloud in her recollection, a bad place where she daren't go again.
"How did you survive the shockwave?"
Nova clenched her jaw. She refused to think about Codon's ship and his new shield. She pictured Cal. He floated around Crusader's storage bay. It wasn't the most imaginative image but it was all she could do.
"Didn't you learn last time?" Tobius said.
She pushed her jaw forward and stared straight at him.
"This weapon will do things to you that you can't even imagine."
A part of Nova screamed at her to give in. She couldn't withstand another blast from that gun. She'd be pushed over the precipice and sent into madness. There was no escaping it. She clenched her teeth and continued to visualise Cal, zooming around Crusader.
"I call it the time-vortex. If nothing else it will be an interesting way for you to die. What you've given is enough for us to be ready. We won't be trapped here, not again."
Tobius clicked a few dials on his weapon and aimed it at Nova. She met his eyes briefly and the gun fired.
If Nova thought she knew pain before, it was nothing compared to the agony coursing through her now. Her head was engulfed by fiery pain; the nerves and veins running up and down her arms and legs burned.
Pictures and scenes flew past her on all sides, making her cringe. She soared through a tunnel of hallucinations. All of history played out around her. Tiny bacteria multiplied, growing and dividing until they grew into creatures with legs and eyes. Next to them, mountains thrust up out of oceans and were then worn down by storms until they crumbled back into the seas.
Spaceships flew through the air. Stars exploded and collapsed on themselves. All of creation, the universe, was happening around her head. It was terrifying and beautiful, all at the same time. Agonising and yet wonderful, maddening.
Her mind was slipping. With each new image, her brain tipped further towards the edge. There was so much knowledge, so much information flying straight at her. Her mind couldn't cope with it all. How could any one person contain the entirety of time and space inside their heads?
She squeezed her eyes shut but the images didn't stop; she could still see them through her eyelids. There was no escaping the enormity of it all.
She watched as electricity flowed through wires, and impulses flowed through neurons. She watched babies born and people die. Creatures with legs as long as buildings stomped through trees with blue-glowing leaves. Other animals, like slugs the size of ships, rolled along the floor of a tropical rainforest. Entire planets were reduced to rubble. Bombs, black-holes, bodies.
Sounds boomed from all directions; every colour had its own frequency. Nova heard the blue of the sky, she listened to the darkness of space, the sound of leaves growing, of seeds bursting, of hearts beating.
Her focus zoomed in on individual noises. It was as if she could hear every noise that had or would ever been made. She could hear each individual heartbeat of each individual organism as they pondered their arduous way through life.
She thought she heard water flowing down rivers; instead, her vision was filled with blood flowing through veins. The crimson liquid splashing against the sides of blood-vessels created a cacophony in her ears.
Smells. So many smells. She sensed new rain, the fresh scent of falling droplets plummeting out of the sky. Flowers bloomed and their fragrance was so strong that it made her head light. For the first time, she smelt fear; it was a tangy acrid scent which made her heart beat faster, made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end.
She could feel things too. While her eyes, ears and nose were accosted and overwhelmed, she touched every piece of creation through her fingertips. She stroked a blooming flower. Her fingers caught a falling raindrop. She put her hand through an exploding supernova.
It felt as though the entire universe was flying straight at her; all of her senses were being overrun.
There was only one thing that made sense amongst all the madness. Directly in front of her, so obvious he was practically invisible, was Tobius. He was smiling at her, the gun still aimed at her face.
He was oblivious to the atoms flying past his head, to the big bang and big crunch happening over and over again. He looked only at Nova. She clung to that thought. If she could just block out the rest, block out the universe happening all around her then maybe she could cling to the shreds of whatever sanity she had left.
She blinked and glared at Tobius. His smile faltered with her gaze but he continued to point the gun at her.
It was so hard to focus on this one individual when there was so much happening. So much knowledge, so many questions answered. She couldn't ignore the beauty and majesty of it all.
But she had to.
There was something in her hand. What was it? She daren't glance down. To look even an inch to her side would mean staring directly into the sweep of time. She was sure that her sanity would be lost if she did that. Instead, she squeezed her fingers tighter. The cold object was so familiar. It felt like safety, like home. There was only one thing in the world that felt like that. Her gun.
She gripped it tighter, sure that she would have only once chance. A part of her knew that Tobius couldn't read her thoughts; he wouldn't dare while time and space were flying through her brain. She was free, alone, her only chance.
She lifted the familiar gun. It felt a thousand times heavier than usual, weighing down her arm and shoulder. It took all of her force of will to raise it up and take aim.
Tobius grunted with surprise.
Nova squeezed the trigger and her shoulder jolted backwards with the force of the recoil. The sound echoed around the closed room, sending ripples through the images flying past her. She didn't see if her shot hit, all she was aware of was a bright light, searing pain, and then darkness.
Nova's mind clawed back from the brink. Its blood-stained claws clutched at the shreds of darkness all around and hauled her consciousness back to the surface. She wanted to snuggle back under the dark shrouds, to drift away to the timeless gloom where she could watch all of time and space fly past her. The rest of her refused to give in.
The survivor in her clutched and scrounged, searching for anything solid to grip onto, anything real. Questions streamed through her mind; what was reality? Hadn't everything she'd seen flying past been part of reality? Didn't that make her tiny fleeting existence, the dream?
No! She couldn't drift away on such thoughts. She had to focus on the here and now; the rest of time and space could wait. As she regained awareness, she discovered that reality was just as dark and shrouded as her imaginings had been.
She lay in rough dirt. It dug into her flesh and left scrapes and bruises along the side of her body. Her head ached and pounded in time with her beating heart. Her breathing was laboured as if she'd just been running. The purple lights running along the sides of the room were dimmed, barely lighting anything at all.
Her muscles were weak. She felt like she'd spent her whole life straining against something and now her body was paying the price. Her memories were shattered, and the broken pieces were all the wrong shapes.
She pushed herself up onto shaky arms that quaked under her weight. She breathed deeply and pushed harder. Her vision was clearing; the lights weren't dim at all, it was her eyes. They were shaded, darkened, seeing the world through a shadow.
She blinked, wiling her eyesight to return. Gradually the lights got brighter and she could make out silhouettes in the room. There were two black shapes on the floor, one next to her and the other two metres away. She squinted at the closest object.
Material. Two leather boots. Why did they look so familiar?
Nova's stomach dropped; it was her body. She was looking at herself, but it felt so foreign.
She reached out a shaky hand, patting the limbs which extended out from her torso. The feel of them was so familiar and yet it was like tapping another person. Her legs dimly registered the contact, but the internal connections were fried. Her hand could feel and her leg could feel, but they barely recognised each other.
She ripped her eyes away and looked at the second object.
Shiny metal came into view. Tobius!
Memories of the creature came back to her. He had shot her with the impossible gun. She looked around. There were shattered pieces of metal and plastic scattered around the small room; all that remained of the powerful weapon.
Nova breathed a sigh of relief; the threat of the gun at least was gone.
…Beginning to get tired… No good… How about…
Nova whipped her head around. Where had the voice come from? The whispers tingled over her ears. They brushed around her head, weaved their way through the air.
She turned in tight circles where she knelt on the ground. Her boots sent dirt flying in all directions. There was no one there.
But the voices!
They continued to talk at her, garbled chunks of conversation, half-heard sentences melding into an ongoing stream.
A shadow moved at the corner of Nova's eye. It ran from one side of the room to the other. She turned but there was nothing there.
Another shadow on her other side. She whipped around. Nothing.
A flash of purple on her right. Red on her left. Images flashed just out of her range of sight. She cringed. The Ancients were probably playing more tricks on her. She wished they'd just let her go.
A loud groan caught her attention and stilled the faint images. Tobius was stirring.
She drew a shaky breath and crawled over to his body. The armour glimmered in the purple lights; solid, unbreakable. She daren't touch it.
There was only one way she would get free of this hellish room; she had to kill Tobius. But how could she kill him when he was encased in unbreakable armour?
She'd seen one of them take his helmet off, there had to be a way. She looked over the sleek capsule. There were no obvious hinges or clasps. But there was a button. Or at least it looked like a button, a circle of purple light.
Nova reached out a tentative hand and pressed down. A loud click echoed around the room and a gap opened at the base of the helmet. She reached out; her hands shook, and pushed the helmet free.
It rolled away from Tobius's body and left his head revealed. He looked very much like the creature Nova had seen outside, with a scaled face and massive eyes. His eyes were closed but moved rapidly beneath his lids.
She couldn't wait another second.
Nova braced herself and pulled her trusted gun up so that it was pointed directly at Tobius's head. She squeezed her eyes shut and clenched her index finger. The gun went off in her hand and she was showered with warm blood.
She breathed deeply, not wanting to open her eyes, but knowing she had no choice. She opened one eye and looked down. Tobius wasn't there anymore. Or at least, his face wasn't there anymore.
In its place was a gaping crater filled with grey flesh and brown ooze. It bubbled and dribbled around the mess of broken bones. Grey chunks spread out from the armoured body. They were scattered across the floor and over Nova's legs.
The trail of flesh continued up her arms and coated her hands and shoulders. The front of her shirt was covered with the stuff. It soaked through her clothes and she could feel the warmth of it against her skin.
Bile rose in her throat. Her eyes were pinned on the grizzly mess. She tried to look away but her eyes kept returning. She couldn't help but stare at the blood trailing all over her body. It smelled. It had the tangy metallic scent of blood and something else which she couldn't place.
There was something on her face. She reached a horrified hand up to feel her cheek. It came away with more blood. The sticky substance dried on her cheek, pinching her skin together like a thin layer of glue.
It was too much.
Nova's stomach heaved. Her entire body clenched and convulsed at once and a mass of vomit poured out of her mouth to join the rest of the mess on the floor. Her vomit mixed with the brown blood and created a marbled mess of bodily fluids in the sand.
As Nova watched, the fluids swirled. The colours joined together and came apart again. The patterns changed until there were faces looking up at her, familiar faces and strangers. They stared up at Nova from the putrid puddle. They were screaming. Why were they screaming? With the images came the sounds. Voices yelled at Nova. They begged and pleaded with her, they screamed.
Nova's face became a horrified mask. She looked down at the puddle with her mouth open. The swirling patterns changed again and now there were monsters looking at her. Their dark eyes stared at her and their mouths opened wide to eat her. Razor teeth in the night.
She scrambled away from the puddle until her back was against the cold wall.
With distance came clarity and the monsters disappeared. The puddle became just a mix of blood and bile.
The sand at least absorbed the liquids and stopped them leaking further. Red and brown droplets spread out from Tobius, dried remnants of what he had been.
His body was completely still. Whatever great technology they had, it appeared that in the end, even the Ancients couldn't stop death. They also made mistakes; there was no way Tobius would have shot her with the gun if he knew she'd survive. Of course that didn't help her now; she was still trapped in the dim room.
Her only way out was through the rock door the size of a small space ship. She got to her feet. Her legs shook as she stumbled to the door and fell against it. She used all of her weight to push, but it didn't budge. She heaved, but nothing happened.
She took three steps back and fired at the door. A few chips of rock flew off but that was all. There was no way she could get through. Worse still, the voices were returning.
Nova backed away from the door, shaking her head. Her hands were quaking so badly that she dropped her gun. It clattered to the sand and lay forgotten. She continued to backpedal until her back was flat against the wall.
Shadows ran around her in the darkness.
Something shrieked to Nova's left. She whirled around and scooted backwards, her shoulder scraping along the sandstone wall. She searched desperately for whoever, or whatever, had made the noise.
Fingernails scraped over a blackboard while rusted metal knives scratched together. A hundred noises pummelled Nova's head and raised the flesh along her spine. Her skin tingled, threatening to fall straight off. She shivered uncontrollably.
Her teeth scraped and scratched each other as she clenched her jaw. She forced her mouth shut, stifling the scream in her throat. It was so loud and yet she was completely alone.
Someone laughed. It was a deep throaty voice with a chuckle that echoed around the room. It circled Nova's head, taunting her. She swatted at the noise with her hands, but it didn't go away.
The sandstone room was replaced with a green forest. She was surrounded by vines and trees. They covered every speck of ground she could see, reaching out to grab her. The sandstone walls were gone. There was no sign of Tobius. Birds screeched overhead, flapping their mighty wings and flying between the trees. Other creatures scurried through the undergrowth. There was a smell in the air, fresh and green.
She got to her feet, shaking. She had no idea how she got here, but at least there was a way of escape. She didn't know where she was going but she leant forward and sprinted. Her only thoughts were of getting away, finding her way to Crusader, and flying free.
She went five steps and slammed into a solid wall.
Her lip split open and she toppled over. She fell on her back, crying out as pain surged up her spine. She looked around, but the forest was gone. She was back in the small prison, lying in a pool of Tobius's blood. More blood poured from her lip. The tangy metal taste seeped over her tongue, reminding her of something.
She couldn't remember what.
She was still lying on the ground, but on the side of a city street. There were people walking past her, but they didn't notice her prone body.
She twisted her head from side to side. The taste of blood was strong.
A man stood in a side street. It was dark, but Nova could make out his black clothing by the dim glow of a street light. He had slanted eyes and pale skin. He watched the street and sniffed the air. He looked familiar and yet Nova was sure she'd never seen him before in her life.
The man's gaze flicked to his left, where a young girl approached. The man smiled and before Nova could react, he leapt out of his ally and drew the girl back with him. He had her on the ground, leaning over her neck. There was something coming out of his mouth. It looked like a black snake. No! A leach. The man was a lecheon.
He was leaning over the girl, sucking her dry. Her skin went pale as the blood was drained out of her. She struggled at first, but the energy slipped out of her and she fell silent. The man continued to suck until there was nothing left. He lifted his head from the girl, grinning. He stood up and let her body fall to the concrete, sprinting out of sight.
"Hey! Are you ok?" Nova called to the girl. There was no response.
Nova struggled back to her feet and stumbled towards the girl. She held her hands out in front of her face but she couldn't remember why. Her lip was bleeding.
Her hands slammed into something solid and rough. She frowned and stared hard at the air in front of her face; something shimmered. She looked harder and in an instant, the world disappeared around her.
She was back in a sandstone room, facing a solid wall and surrounded by spatters of blood.
She lifted a finger to her bloated lip, then drew it away, covered in blood.
She whirled in a circle. The room was just as she remembered. There was no sign of the forest or the city.
Nova ran to it, pushing and banging against it. There was no response from the other side.
"Cal! Cal! Can you hear me?" Nova's eyes rolled. There was no reply.
The ground tilted beneath Nova's feet. She was thrown off balance and collapsed. The walls vibrated and rocks dropped around her. She closed her eyes and sheltered her head with her arms.
The quaking continued for three minutes. Only when she was sure it had stopped, did Nova open her eyes. Something was different. The body and blood were gone. The door was open!
She ran to the doorway and peered into the tunnel beyond. There was no sign of life, just the dark corridor lit by blue lights. It seemed cleaner than before. There was less dust and loose dirt.
She looked back but there was no sign of her gun. Maybe she'd fallen asleep and the Ancients were playing some kind of trick on her? She felt naked without her weapon, but she didn't have a choice. She had to get back to Crusader.
She tiptoed along the tunnel. She had no hope of remembering the way, so she settled herself with always turning right. Eventually, she had to get to the exit. Her feet scraped along the rough floor, but there was nothing she could do about it. She pushed forward.
So much of her body ached. Her ribs cried out for attention, her head pounded, and her lip was bloated and bruised. No matter what Cal said, there was no way she was going to stay on this planet. Let the universe be damned. She'd fly away. There had to be somewhere that the Ancients couldn't get to.
Voices shook Nova out of her reverie. She slowed down and crept forward towards the sound. It wasn't hard to find them. Two Ancients, both in black armour with eye-slits that glowed yellow, were talking. They stood close together, their heads bent forward.
"You understand your orders?"
"We are to stay here until the tomb is disturbed. From there we will carry out our sacred duty to guide the galaxies forward."
"Correct. I don't know how long this plague will last or how bad it will be. Perhaps we'll survive it, in which case I'll see you in a few weeks. If we don't-"
"If we don't, then it's your job to finish what we started."
"Good, now get on with you."
The two Ancients held up their hands. Yellow light shone out from their armoured palms. The light grew brighter as they moved their hands closer. Their hands connected and the yellow light sparked brighter before it died out.
They turned away from each other. One of them walked into a deep room and the other slid a massive door in front of the entrance. After sealing it shut, the alien walked away from the tomb with its head hung low.
Nova followed. She crept behind the creature as quietly as she could manage. It was hard when everything hurt, threatening to fall apart beneath her.
The creature's back was bent as if it carried a massive burden.
Nova's mind raced. If the Ancients were worried about a plague then maybe they weren't as big a threat as they pretended to be. It sounded like all she had to do was wait until the aliens died of natural causes. That would certainly help her guilty conscience when she left the known galaxies.
The Ancient led her straight up to the exit, and she followed it into the moonlight. The red and blue glowing moons illuminated the scene before her. The Ancients had been busy while she was gone. The alien ships were arranged in neat rows, built and ready for invasion. There was no sign of the Confederacy ships, or bodies for that matter.
Nova frowned; something wasn't right. She couldn't tell how long she'd been gone, but surely it would have been easier for the Ancients to leave the Confederacy ships wherever they fell. They wouldn't bother moving them. There was something else; a sinister red glow covered the landscape.
Nova's heart leapt into her throat.
The red moon had been destroyed by the Ancients. She'd watched it happen. The whole thing was reduced to a black-hole and then nothing.
She looked up and stared. The red moon glowed above them as if nothing had happened. There was no sign of the black-hole.
A rumbling roar surged from the fleet. The entire armada's engines fired and they lifted into the sky. They created an intimidating force; so many powerful ships with unimaginable technology. There was no way for Nova to stop them now.
The air thundered with the force of the ships. Gale-force winds rushed past and sent her flying backwards. She landed with a hard bump.
Back inside her sandstone prison.
The panorama of the outside, of the ships taking off, was gone. Instead, she was back inside the small room with Tobius's body. The blood stains were still there as was her gun. The door was shut.
Nova clenched her head in her hands.
She remembered clear as day following the yellow-eyed alien back up into the world. Why was she back here? How!
She scrambled over to her pistol and, with shaking hands, put it into her belt's holster. At least she was armed. Whatever mind games the Ancients were playing with her, at least she was armed.
Rage burned inside. She hated whoever kept laughing. She hated the voices, just at the edge of her hearing and the sights and smells she couldn't quite perceive. She hated feeling like there were a thousand eyes on the back of her head and that her mind was on the very edge of madness.
Most of all, she hated the damned room.
She stomped over to the door. All the rage bubbled inside her. It felt as if a vat of acid had been poured into her veins and coursed through her. Her whole body felt red and raw; her chest was constricted, burning with fury.
She reached the door and raised her fist above her head, swinging it forward with all her might. She would break through this door, chipping away individual specs of sand if she had to.
Her fist sailed towards the door. In her mind's eye streaks of red trailed behind it, like the blazing trail of a rocket.
Just as it was about to hit the door, Nova's hand disappeared.
She stared at the piece of empty space, her mouth gaping.
The anger drained from her body as she stared up at the impossibility. A cold spear of icy dread went through her heart and dropped to her stomach. Her wrist ended in empty space and she could see right through to the door beyond.
Panic rose in her throat. It was hard to breathe or think.
It felt like her fingers were still there. She waved them back and forth, feeling the air brush past them.
Vomit threatened again, this time from pure panic. Perhaps she had slipped into the abyss of madness. It was the only way to explain what she was seeing. Tears welled at the corners of her eyes.
She imagined throwing a grappling hook and catching the very last shreds of her sanity.
She did the only logical thing; she stepped backwards.
Miraculously, her hand reappeared. It was as if it withdrew from behind a curtain. Her palm, followed by her fingers, came into view. Only it didn't look like her hand, it was dark, practically black, and covered in a fine powder.
She brought her hand to her face and stared at it. Soot. There was a fine layer of ash and soot over her hand. She frowned deeper and rubbed her hand on her torn jeans. With each pass, more soot came off.
She kept looking at the appendage as if it could disappear at any moment. For all she knew, it could.
She shook her head. Despite everything she'd seen there had to be a logical explanation. She walked towards the door and swiped her left hand through the air. Nothing happened. She lifted her right arm and waved it through the area. Again nothing happened.
She tried a few more times, but her hands remained firmly in place. She sighed and stomped to the far corner. She slumped down and stared between the door and her hand.
She had only one explanation; she'd been subjected to the time vortex and in response she'd gone mad. It made sense. What sort of person could see all of time and space flying by them and not go mad? It was the only natural response. So here she was, trapped in a tiny room of her memory.
"But if I were mad," Nova said to herself, "Wouldn't I know it?"
"No. That's the whole point," she replied.
She rolled her eyes, trying to bring her panic under control.
Usually she prided herself on being a rock, completely unshakable.
The Ancients had shaken her.
Whatever she may have seen in the past, nothing had prepared her for the madness she faced. Things swirled on the edges of reality, or perhaps reality swirled at the edge of her madness.
She closed her eyes and leant against the wall. If she was going to survive her madness, she was going to need sleep, and a lot of it. She let her mind drift, floating from one daydream to another. It was difficult to relax when she was sure that her mind was lost.
She thought about everything she'd seen while in the time vortex. Entire galaxies had flown past. She could have been there forever, watching every bit of reality happening at once. But if she'd done that, she would have gone mad.
"You're already mad," she said to herself and giggled.
The first picture she remembered was of a bright light. It had looked like a picture at the time, but in her memory, it was a movie. She watched in slow motion as the bright light expanded out. It was intense, immeasurable. In front of it pieces of rock and dust blew out on a wave in front of the bang.
Nova's vision homed in on a rock. There were so many facets to it; so many surfaces. It spun through space. It had no destination, just the force pushing it onwards, outwards. There were colours everywhere. The bright white light was broken up into every colour imaginable.
The colours bounced around her body in an inconceivable rainbow. Her tiny rock rolled with her, also bathed in the many-hued light. Blues and purples shimmered next to greens, yellows, reds. A psychedelic mixture filled her mind. There were colours here she couldn't name. Some of the light went into the infrared and ultraviolet spectrum and yet somehow she could see them, she could see everything.
She could see the future path of the rock; how it would spin through space before reaching another rock and then more until together they formed a planet.
Everything around her was the same. She could see the past and future of everything. Every speck of dust had a story, every atom of every star going on through big bangs and crunches.
It was too much for her mind to handle. There was too much information. This was why she'd stopped looking into the vortex in the first place. Why couldn't she stop seeing it? She forced her eyes open but they were blinded by bright white light, as if she was staring into the very heart of a supernova.
Someone was screaming.
Nova squeezed her eyes shut and opened them again. The screaming was louder. It was her. She was curled up on the sandy floor, writhing.
Her hands were clenched in her hair.
She closed her mouth, confining herself to stifled cries. She stopped convulsing, instead staring straight at the door and thinking how peaceful death could be. Her memory shied away from the vortex, from everything she'd seen. She drew deep breaths. She had to stay calm, to keep the madness at bay.
There was someone at the door.
Nova whimpered in the darkness. She rocked back and forth, her back hit the wall every few seconds. There were noises outside the door, but she didn't trust her ears, not with all the other noises echoing around her.
The noise got louder. It was footsteps, footsteps outside the door.
Nova's heart clenched. She couldn't stop terror rising in her throat as panicked thoughts crashed around her head. If an alien came down, then she had to do something. They'd show her the time vortex again and there would be no coming back from that. Assuming she'd made it out the first time.
Grinding came from the door and the massive stone block slid to the left. Nova's gaze was pinned to it. Her shaky right hand clasped her gun. Her palm was sweaty and the gun threatened to fall out. She clutched it tighter and pointed it towards the door.
She would only get one chance. The alien wouldn't hesitate to kill her; it probably thought she was already dead. It was impossible to tell how long she'd been trapped with Tobius's body. With the hallucinations swirling around her, time had become meaningless.
The door opened wider and the glint of metal was all the confirmation she needed. She rested her hand on her knee to steady it, staring down the barrel.
"Tobius, are you done with the human? What did she say?"
The door opened fully and an armoured alien stepped through. The helmeted head glanced around the room in confusion and then down at Tobius. The Ancient whirled around to face Nova, reaching for its gun.
She didn't wait a second longer, squeezing the trigger. A blue blast of energy slammed into the red button at the creature's neck. An audible click signalled that the helmet was loose.
She fired two more shots.
The first sent the helmet flying free and revealed the hard flesh underneath. The third shot slammed into the creature's face and melted the expression of surprise. The Ancient stumbled backwards and fell in a heap next to Tobius, dead.
Her hand shook worse than before. It rattled from side to side. She couldn't trust herself not to shoot her own face off. She lowered the pistol back into its holster. It took four tries before she managed to push the gun into place.
She stared at the open door. It looked real enough, but she'd already escaped once from the small room. It could be another mirage, another trick of her imagination.
She pushed against the wall and hauled herself onto her feet. The room spun around her. Her thoughts flitted around her head like moths searching for a flame. Noises and colours swirled at the edge of her senses. She tried to block them out, to focus on what was in front of her, but it was hard. There was so much going on at the edge of her awareness. She was sure she saw herself a couple of times.
"That's impossible," she said, shuffling towards the open door.
The corridor was dusty and covered in sand, just as she remembered from when she first arrived but very different to the last time she'd walked it.
"It was just a dream," she said.
"Then if you follow the same path it won't take you outside," she replied.
She nodded firmly. There was only one way to separate reality from imagination. If she followed the same path she'd taken in the dream, there was no way it could lead to the outside, and then she'd have proof.
She strode into the corridor. She remembered the path as if it was burned into her memory. She remembered hearing the voices and following the Ancient through the catacombs. She followed the twists and turns of the tunnels.
The further she went, the more the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. The path was so familiar, and yet she'd never been here before, except in a dream. The corridors turned and split just as she remembered. Every step was like a familiar dance.
By the time light spilt through the end of the tunnel, her breathing was ragged. The proof she'd been looking for, that it had all been some vivid dream, was nowhere to be found. Somehow the path had led her straight to where it promised: outside.
Only this time, when she crept out of the tunnel, she was faced with the broken remnants of the Confederacy forces. The Ancients were still working on building their ships. There was no sign of the formidable force which Nova had watched take off.
Her head ached, crying out in agony. It all blended into one. She stumbled away from the tunnel entrance and into the trees. She clutched her head in her hands; her eyes were narrowed slits.
Outside, the sounds were worse. A cacophony beat at her eardrums, a million voices begging to be heard. The light was just as bad; so many different shades and colours pierced through her eyeballs. She shut her eyes tight, but the colours were still there. She stumbled on through the trees until she was far from the tunnel entrance and out of view of the Ancients.
She leaned against a thick tree and looked around. There was no one in sight.
"Cal?" she said.
"Nova!" Cal replied, "Where have you been? What is all that noise? What's going on around you?"
"I don't know," she whispered. She felt like breaking into tears at the familiar voice. "I don't know what happened."
"Come back to Crusader. It's not safe for you to be out there."
"I can't," she said. "I have to see someone. They're everywhere. There has to be a way to stop it."
"Nova you're not making any sense," Cal said. "I need to run a full diagnostic."
"No time," she said. "All the time."
Her mind slipped away from her robot and floated around the trees. There was so much going on all around her. Day and night, winter and summer; it was all here. Some of the trees were covered in snow, while others were in full bloom. Midday sun lit some branches, whilst others were cast in the blue glow of the planet's moon.
One thought rung in her head above the cloud of delusion. She had to get away. She had to find fellow humans. She had to find something solid. The closest thing she had was Doctor Codon. His ship was closer than Crusader and he was a doctor. If anyone could stop the madness inside her, it was him.
She pushed away from the tree and ran through the forest. She knew roughly which way to go. There were so many trees in her way. Some she pushed past, while others disappeared as soon as she got close. Projections perhaps? Her rational mind suggested. She shied away from further questions, like why there would be tree projections in a place like this.
She reached the edge of the trees, some distance away from the working Ancients. They were bent over their various machines. There was no sign of an Ancient with yellow eyes. That had probably been part of her dream.
She kept her head low and ran across the sandy desert to the nearest fallen ship. From there she darted between the craft, heading to the outer edge of the fallen fleet, to where Codon's ship would be.
Running through the desert was like moving through a land of ghosts. There were people everywhere, just at the edge of her vision. Some of them were just shadows on the sand. She daren't talk to the mirages; sure that was the way to madness.
It felt like a lifetime before Codon's ship came into view. The vessel was still tilted to the side and the door through which she'd come was metres above her head. There had to be another way inside.
She ran to the side of the ship that leant against the sand. It was dented and bent, but there were multiple doors. She grabbed hold of one and pulled with all her might. It didn't move.
Nova slammed her palm against her forehead. She stepped closer to the ship and pressed a small green button to the side of the door. The metal panel slid open with a smooth hiss and revealed the ship beyond.
Broken silver pipes hung from the ceiling and piles of loose equipment were jumbled against the walls. She had to tiptoe across the mess. Her boots crunched small pieces of glass. She kept a hand on the wall of the corridor.
At least there were fewer ghosts inside the ship, less shadows to distract her. She just hoped they didn't wander in from the desert; best they stayed where they belonged.
She didn't know the ship very well, but it didn't take long to find the main entrance foyer and from there, retrace her footsteps through to the pilot room, where she knew Codon would be.
"What is it, you damned machine?" he yelled, slamming his open palm down onto a row of screens.
"Codon?" Nova whispered. She wasn't sure she could trust her eyes but she had to try.
"What?" he said, whirling around. "I thought I told you to never show your face here again."
"We have to get off this planet," she said. Her eyes flickered from side to side.
"I know. I told you that before you stormed off in a righteous rage, remember?" he frowned hard at her. His already messy hair flew about his head in loose grey wisps.
"Yes, but I was wrong," she said. She glanced behind her; she could hear things moving. "We have to get off the planet and fly as far as we can, out of the known galaxies."
"Well that's all very well," Codon said and waved his hand at the screens. "But something's keeping us here and I've tried everything to get off."
"We have to," she whispered and looked over her shoulder again.
"What's wrong with you?" he asked. His frown deepened.
"They've got powers," she said. "Too much power."
She reached a clawed hand up to her head and grabbed a fistful of hair. She tugged at it and looked over her shoulder. Searching for the noises.
"What did they do to you?" he asked. "They carve out your wits or something?"
Nova shrugged. "Maybe."
She did feel crazy. There were so many sounds and lights. She didn't know how Codon could stand it. But then, it didn't look like he could hear it.
"My hand disappeared," Nova said, her voice catching in her throat.
"My hand disappeared. One moment it was there." Nova lifted her right hand up into the air to demonstrate. "And then it was gone." She covered her right hand with her left.
Codon stared at her.
"That doesn't make any sense. I'm sorry for whatever they did to you, but there's nothing I can do to help. Every second I spend listening to your delusions is another second that I'm not getting off this planet."
"It happened!" Nova said. Frustration boiled up inside her.
How was she supposed to find her feet when everything kept getting thrown off kilter? How dare this Confederacy pig to dismiss her.
Codon rounded on her, he took three steps so that his face took up her whole vision. "Look you crazy bitch--"
Nova's temper snapped. She pulled back her right fist and slammed it through the air.
Codon was prepared and stepped to his left.
Her fist whipped past his head and disappeared.
Her mouth dropped and eyebrows shot up. She kept her arm outstretched and her fist remained out of sight.
"See?" she whispered. Her body was shaking again.
Codon looked at her fist. His red face drained to pale white. He blinked a few times, rubbed his eyes, then stared again.
"See?" she said, her voice more urgent.
"I do," Codon said, his voice just as strained.
"What is it?" she said. "What does it mean?"
"I don't know."
"There's something there," she said. She was on the verge of tears but she'd be damned if she let this Confederacy man watch her cry.
"What do you mean?"
"I can feel something. My fist is brushing against something."
"Well then grab it."
Her lip trembled. She forced the fingers of her missing fist to open and then close around whatever brushed the top of her hand. It felt rubbery.
It was just like before. Her arm stopped at her wrist and the rest of her hand was missing.
"What happens if you move forward?" Codon said. Some of the colour had returned to his face and he stared between Nova's face and her missing hand. He stepped closer and tried to peer down her arm. There was nothing there.
"I don't want to move forward," she said. "I want it to stop."
"We have to understand it," Codon said. "Try stepping forward."
"No." Her voice grew shakier.
Codon whipped his arm around and pushed Nova on the small of her back. She wasn't ready and stumbled forward. The rest of her arm disappeared, all the way to her shoulder. Her hand brushed past more mysterious rubbery things followed by her forearm.
Her whole arm was missing. Her shoulder waved around, attached to nothing.
"Incredible," Codon said. "Just fascinating."
He stepped closer to Nova and stared with horrified fascination at her shoulder stump.
"Your whole body is coming to pieces," he whispered. "It's like your limbs have popped away and are floating inches away from their sockets."
Nova's eyes flew over her body. Aside from her missing arm, everything looked in place.
"Look!" Codon's voice was shaky as he snatched a piece of shattered mirror from the floor and held it to her face.
Nova's eyes bulged.
Her head floated above her neck, an inch of air separating them. Her features were slipping. It was as if she was melting. Her mouth drooped down on one side, and her nostril slid after it. Her right eye dropped lower, tilting down her cheek. It slithered over her cheekbone like a runny egg.
Codon's arm was shaking as he held the mirror.
Nova had completely forgotten her missing arm. A missing limb was nothing compared to the horror she was watching. Her skin faded in and out of view. One minute it was there, and the next it was gone, revealing the sinewy muscles and blood vessels underneath. She could actually see each of her ribs as they pulsed in time with her panting breath.
She stumbled back, practically running. Her arm reappeared, followed by her hand. It came back into view as it had before.
This time, instead of being covered in soot, she clutched a handful of green leaves that rustled between her fingers. Her hand popped open of its own accord and the leaves fluttered to the ground.
She stared between her hand, the leaves, and the empty piece of air. She breathed hard and her heart raced.
Codon shook his head.
Nova's body had reformed and her face had snapped back into position. Skin reformed over her ribs, hiding her organs.
Codon stepped towards the mysterious piece of air and waved his own hand through it. Nothing happened. He tried again, but still nothing.
"What happened?" he asked, his mouth wide.
"I don't know," she whispered.
"Where did those leaves come from?"
"I don't know."
"What did they do to you?"
"They—they shot me with something they called a time vortex," she said. "I saw the whole universe fly past me. Then things started happening. I don't know what it means."
"A time vortex?" Codon said. "That doesn't make any sense."
"That's what they had. It was in a gun and he shot me. And now this." Nova waved her hand at the scattering of leaves.
"It did something to you," Codon said with certainty. "Somehow it's opened up all of time to you. Think what we could do with that technology!"
His eyes were bright and smile wide. He sprung from foot to foot as he stared down at Nova.
"Even if it were true," she said slowly. "I can't control it, so it's no good."
"Well then, you have to learn to control it. With that kind of power we may actually have a chance of getting off this rock. We just have to work out how you did it."
"I was trying to punch you."
"What about before, when you were covered in soot?"
"I was trying to hit the door," she said, thinking back.
"Okay, so hitting things makes it happen?" Codon said. He was leant against the control panels, scratching his chin.
"Not always," she said. "I hit the door a few times before that."
"Alright, so it's something linked. Emotions maybe? What were you feeling at the time?"
"Angry," she said, without hesitation.
"Anger. So when you're angry, you can somehow reach through time," Codon said. His eyes were wide open and he stared at Nova, licking his lips.
"Maybe," she mumbled. Her brain ached and the last thing she felt like doing was puzzling over the greater mysteries of the universe. The thought of being able to reach through time was just too much for her to process.
"But don't you see?" Codon said. "This is fantastic. With your ability, we might be able to stop these bastards."
"I don't know. Reach forward and pull back some kind of super-technology?"
"I can't control it. I can't just think of what I want and expect to get it."
"How do you know?" he asked, "You haven't tried."
"Well I certainly wasn't thinking about soot or leaves the last two times."
"So if you don't direct it, it takes you wherever."
"You're just theorising."
"Well, it's a damn sight better than whatever you're doing. If we're going to survive this thing, you need to get it under control. Concentrate really hard on something. Best to start with something simple, and then grab it."
Nova's bones ached. Her eyes kept drooping shut, threatening to take her off into sleep. Her brain was working at a quarter of its normal speed, every thought coming only with a huge effort, like pushing a boulder uphill.
She wanted to lie down on the floor and sleep. That wasn't too much to ask was it? To rest, just for a little while.
"Come on, we have no idea how much time we have left."
She looked up at Codon. There was no sign of pity or sympathy, just hard determination and rampant curiosity. He looked down at her, his hands on his hips. She couldn't face arguing with him, so she did the only thing she could; she stepped forward with a groan.
"Okay, something simple," Codon said.
"A leaf," she replied.
"No, that's no good. It has to be something else. We don't know if the leaf was a default or something."
"Um." She tried to push her brain, but it just kept circling to leaf. Of all the objects in the entire universe, she couldn't think of anything other than a stupid green leaf.
"How about a handful of sand?" Codon said. "This planet is covered with it so it shouldn't be too hard to find some."
Nova nodded. She closed her eyes and thought about sand. She saw individual grains in her mind's eye. She pictured their many-faceted surfaces, the way each grain had its own colour. She thought about how every grain was made of atoms that had once been part of the big bang. The one she'd seen. She'd witnessed matter coming together and forming neutrons, protons, electrons. She'd seen these join together and make atoms and then molecules, until finally they culminated into a grain of sand, an insignificant and yet vitally important grain of sand.
She imagined how the sand would feel between her fingers, clenched inside her fist. She could even taste it on the tip of her tongue; the rough grains filled her mouth with salt.
She lifted her hand. It shook, but she couldn't see it from behind her closed eyelids. She reached out, stretched her arm until it was held in front of her body. She imagined her hand disappearing.
She moved her hand from side to side, scanning the new world for any trace of sand. She couldn't feel anything; even the rubbery leaves were gone.
Nova cursed herself; of course the sand was going to be on the ground of the planet, not floating around in mid-air. She lowered herself onto her knees and leant forward. Her hand stretched down and patted around the ground. It felt strange, cold and smooth. It certainly didn't feel like sand. She tried to close her hand around it, to take a sample, but she couldn't. It was too smooth.
It felt like metal.
"What the hell are you doing?" Codon' s voice shattered Nova's visualisations.
Her eyes popped open. She was on her hands and knees on the floor of the ship. Her hand opened and closed on the smooth metal floor. Codon stood over her, his boots beside her hand.
She looked up; her eyes followed his legs, all the way to his face. He stared down at her, a frown plastered over his features. His face was redder than usual and dominated by a deep frown.
"I was looking for sand," she said.
"It would defeat the purpose if you found it right where I'm standing!" Codon said. His nostrils flared.
"It doesn't make any sense," she whispered.
The voices were back. They muttered just at the edge of her hearing. Sometimes she caught words or phrases but mostly it was a continuous buzz of conversation. She looked over her shoulder to try and see where it was coming from. What did grains of sand matter when she could hear voices?
"You're falling apart," he said. "You need me to keep you together and I need you to focus."
She nodded at his words.
"I have something that might help. Then you can relax and we can work it out together."
Codon's voice was smooth, calming. It flowed over Nova's crazed thoughts and soothed them. He was right; if she was left on her own she'd likely shoot herself just to be rid of the voices.
"Here you go." He handed her a small white pill. She clutched it and tossed it to the back of her throat without a second thought. She pinched her eyes shut, hoping that the voices and shadows would disappear.
"There's a design flaw," she whispered as she waited for the drug to take effect.
"What do you mean?"
"Their helmets. There's something wrong with them. They don't seal properly so if you shoot them right, they pop off." It was an effort to talk but at least the words made sense. Talking helped her keep a grip on her sanity.
"A design flaw."
"Are you serious?" Codon said.
"Yes." Her reply was less sure, barely audible.
"You expect me to believe that the secret to destroying an ancient alien race is a design flaw in their helmets? I'm just supposed to take the word of an insane hunter?"
"I didn't ask for this!" Nova yelled, getting to her feet. Her own anger and frustration boiled to the surface. "I'd be just as happy if you'd been the one zapped with a time vortex. Then you'd be trying not to go mad while a thousand voices whispered in your head."
Her hands clenched into fists. She was furious; Codon had no idea what she was going through. It was hard enough to concentrate on something as simple as a grain of sand in the best of conditions, let alone with people moving and talking all around you. Worse still was the embarrassment. She thought of how ridiculous she must have looked, crawling around the ship with her eyes closed, blindly tapping her hand along the metal floor.
Why would I give a damn? She thought to herself.
"Try again," he said.
"I can't," she said. "What if using it makes it worse? I'm sure they're getting louder."
She shivered, silently begging Codon for a different answer, an escape plan. "We have to find another way."
"I am not going out there to face an entire horde of ancient aliens, armed only with a plasma pistol," Codon said. "Now get yourself under control and try again. I gave you medicine so you can focus, don't make me regret it."
Nova's blood boiled. How could he make her so mad?
Her face was red and she deliberately slashed her hand directly for the doctor's face. A part of her hoped that she could reach past him, ideally into a pile of sand. Another part of her didn't really care, because if it didn't work, at least she'd get to punch him in the face, and have a semi-reasonable excuse.
Codon flinched and ducked out of the way.
Her hand disappeared.
Nova's eyes flickered wide but this time the shock wasn't as overwhelming. She scrounged around, moving her hand left and right.
Her hand was warm, hot almost. It felt like she was holding it above a fire. A new panic rose in her throat. What would happen if she thrust her hand into the heart of a sun? Or into some poisonous plant? She had no idea where she'd end up. It could be deadly.
The sudden panic was enough to make her draw her hand back. She whipped it to her chest with viper-like speed. She clutched her hand and looked at it. There didn't seem to be any damage and the heat was gone. Still, she couldn't help wondering; what if?
"Well? Did you get it?" Codon asked. He'd taken a few seconds to recover from her fist slamming towards his face.
She let the fingers of her right hand uncurl. There was nothing in her palm.
"What the hell, hunter?" Codon said.
"It was hot," she replied.
"Well of course it was damned hot, it's a desert!" Codon thrust his hand out and vaguely gestured to the outside of the ship.
She cursed herself. She felt stupid and slow; her brain refused to think straight. It was so hard to focus with noises hammering at her eardrums. On any other day, she would have realised in an instant. A desert.
"Do it again."
"I really don't think I can," Nova said. The rollercoaster of emotions and the struggle to cling to her sanity was all taking a toll on her body. Now all she could think about was curling into a ball on the floor and sleeping for the rest of her life.
"I don't think you've got much of a choice," Codon said, nodding to the screen behind her head.
She turned to look, not really caring what she saw, and came face to face with a monstrous armoured Ancient with glowing yellow eyes. It stepped out of the tomb and surveyed the other Ancients spread out around it. They turned to face the new-comer, each of them bowing their heads.
"Do you think that's their leader?" Codon asked.
"I've seen him before," she whispered.
"Well that's dandy. You were down there for a damn long time," Codon said.
"No, in a dream."
"You saw a giant yellow-eyed alien in a dream?" Codon said. "Whatever crazed hallucinations you've had, I really don't think they're going to help us now. Look at that thing, I bet he's armed to the teeth."
"You don't understand," she said, clenching her jaw. How could she explain that the dream she'd had wasn't really a dream? That somehow her dream had led her out of the maze and that she'd watched this alien enter the tomb centuries before.
"Back in time," she whispered, finishing off her line of thought.
"I saw when they were first locked in there," she said, excited.
She shrugged. "How can I reach through time and pull back leaves? But I saw him. There was another one. They were talking about a plague, something was threatening them."
"So they hid away here until what? Until we happened to find them?"
"I think it was meant to be a time capsule," Nova said. "In case the rest of their species died out there would always be this group, waiting until someone freed them."
"Well, I'll be damned," Codon said.
"Yes, so all we have to do is find out what threatened them back then."
"And how are we supposed to do that? There aren't exactly any records from that time."
"No, but the other aliens, the ones that left, never came back for these. So that means they probably died out," Nova said.
"What if one of them was already infected? They were here on the planet's surface. The answer could be here."
"Where?" Codon asked.
"No," she replied. "When."
"Look, I appreciate that you're trying," Codon said. "But that's a fool's mission."
Nova's sprits fell. Codon was right. There was no way she'd be able to sift through the entire history of the universe for a tiny bacterium. It couldn't be done. She sighed.
"I guess we're back to my first plan. We shoot for their helmets and take them out that way."
"Look how many there are," Codon said. "We'd be dead before we had half a chance."
"Well then, please make a suggestion because I'm all out," Nova said, slouching down into a nearby chair. It was soft and spun in a gentle circle.
Codon slumped into his own chair and they stared at separate parts of the ship. They were trapped here.
Nova tried to push herself to think, to come up with ideas, but it was no good. The very last bit of energy was gone from her mind. Her eyes flickered closed and she drifted into sleep.
When she opened her eyes, she was surrounded by darkness. It was impossible to make anything out in the gloom. Nova sat up in her chair and squinted. She reached down and squeezed the soft ball she kept clipped to her belt. It started glowing.
The glowball emitted a dim yellow light and lit up the command centre. There was no sign of Codon. The equipment was already starting to rust; red chips flaked off and landed on the floor as Nova brushed past.
She walked back the way she'd come. She called out softly for Codon, but daren't yell. She had no idea what kind of technology the Ancients had.
She tiptoed through the darkness, her hand resting on the wall. The glowball's light created a dim circle around her, which lit up the dented and broken walls. The air was stale; it smelled of dust and decay. How quickly things could break down.
The glowball cast shadows on the walls and ceiling. The broken debris made shapes in the darkness. Heads reared up and threatened to consume her. Monsters leapt from shadow to shadow, always just out of sight.
The voices followed her.
… No more… I don't see why… I'm over here…
She jumped and turned, but only empty shadows were following her.
She made it all the way to the outer door without seeing Codon. The door hung open from its hinges, sand piled against it.
Nova frowned. She was sure she'd closed it. There was no reason for Codon to go out into the night without telling her. Even he couldn't be that stupid.
She glanced behind her, but there was no sign of the doctor. She checked the gun at her belt and pulled her jacket tighter around her shoulders. She braced herself and stepped through the doorway, into the darkness beyond.
Sand slid away under her feet. There was a massive dune built up against the side of the ship, lit by the glow of a single lonely moon. Nova stared at the sand; it had already covered most of the ship's side. If that's what could happen in one day, then she couldn't imagine what might happen in a week, let alone a year. There would be no evidence that the Confederacy had even been here.
She looked away from the sand dune and stared towards the oasis, expecting to see lights and Ancients. There was nothing.
The blue moon lit up the trees well enough; they looked bigger in the darkness than they had during the day. There was no sign of the Ancients anywhere. A brief hope fluttered in her chest that somehow Codon had got rid of them.
Her heart beat faster and she jogged down the sand dune towards the oasis. The other smaller ships of the Confederacy fleet were gone, buried under sand, along with the bodies of the workers.
She tripped in the sand and fell. When she landed, the sand parted before her. It gaped open and drew her in. Grains poured into her nose, mouth, ears. Her eyes were scraped with crystals. The sand continued to open. A sinkhole. She was being sucked down into the planet. Nova struggled to get free, tossing out her hands and clutching for something, anything, but she was surrounded by loose sand which cascaded into her grave.
She worked her legs but with each movement, she sank deeper. She tried to think back, to remember. There was something about sinking sand; you weren't supposed to struggle, but she couldn't stop with the sand sliding down her throat, threatening to drown her.
The sand was up to her arms. She was only just keeping them up, enough to keep her nose free, enough to keep breathing. Even that was getting harder as the sand pushed in on her chest, constricting her lungs. She couldn't fight it forever.
Her eyes stung with sand, which refused to fall out. Her mind ran in circles. She couldn't face the thought of being suffocated by grit.
The sand reached her nose. Even though she fought with every ounce of strength, she couldn't keep her head up; she sank beneath the desert. Nova held her breath for as long as she could but it wasn't enough. Her mouth burst open and she breathed deeply.
She expected the dry crystals to fill her mouth, scrape her tongue, gums, and throat, and then gag her.
Instead she breathed air.
She opened her stinging eyes. She was lying on top of the sand, covered in loose grains. They filled her hair and every crease of clothing. There were crazed patterns in the sand all around her; sweeping arcs extended out from her arms. It looked as though someone or something had thrashed about on the sand.
"Grishnak!" Nova cursed, slamming her hand down. Another vision, a hallucination.
She laid her head on her forearm and sobbed. She hated to cry, but couldn't stop it. She wept for her sanity which she was sure was long gone.
It took a while to bring her gasping breaths under control, at which point she pushed herself into a sitting position. Strands of hair had come loose from her hair tie. The wispy threads curled and kinked about her ears and down her neck. Everything was covered in sand.
She got to her feet and ignored her burning arms. The grains of sand had scoured her skin and left red gashes down both sides.
"Cal, can you hear me?" she said. There was no response. She held her breath, waited. Without Cal and Crusader she was truly alone.
She was met with silence.
"Shit. Shit. Shit." She kicked the sand.
If there was something wrong with their communicators again, she was going to find the merchant that had sold them to her and make him eat them.
She made it to the trees and her eyes scanned around the sand. There were no tracks or pieces of equipment. Wherever the aliens were, they'd taken all of their tools with them.
"What if they've already left," she whispered to herself. She stared up at the sky.
Nova wasn't sure what she expected to see; what hint the stars could offer her that the aliens were up there somewhere, on their way to reclaim their rule over the galaxies.
"Codon?" she whispered. Her only reply was the cool desert wind blowing across the sand.
There was only one place she could think to go: back into the tombs.
She pushed forward through the trees until she got to the tunnel entrance. Vines dangled over the sandstone and trees leant forward towards the open door.
"You move almost as quickly as the sand," she said, just to hear a familiar voice.
A weight was lifted from her shoulders when she still saw no sign of the Ancients. She shouldn't really feel happy, it meant that they were probably about to kill the rest of human civilisation, but after the trauma of the last twenty-four hours, she found it difficult to care.
She stepped into the crypt. Unlike before, glowing lights didn't light her way down the tunnel. Perhaps they were only on when the Ancients were around; without them there was no need for fancy lights. It didn't make much sense for bioluminescent colonies. There was so much about the Ancients' technology that she didn't understand; she didn't stop to ponder it.
The dimly lit sandstone tunnels were familiar. She'd only been down a few times, but it was enough; the way was burned into her memory. It was like scar tissue that never disappeared. But like a scar, it was laid over other memories; scenes from her childhood were marred, distorted, barely visible to her mind's eye. At that moment, she didn't notice the missing memories, much like she didn't notice the loss of skin beneath her physical scars.
She kept an eye on the floor, searching for Codon's footprints, while also searching the darkness in front of her. There could still be Ancients lurking in the tunnels, or something else. She shivered as she thought about the desert beasts that might enjoy the relative safety of the catacombs.
Her gun was in her hand, ready to fire. She was exhausted, half-mad, and probably beyond saving but it was an improvement to the complete hopelessness she'd felt before going to sleep. She was trying to accept whatever the time vortex had done to her, wrestling with reality. It didn't come easy.
She came to the small room where the two aliens with yellow eyes had spoken. She could see ghosts of them in the air. She remembered watching them talk, connect palms, and then one of them walk away.
As the room spread out around her, she was distracted by the carvings in the walls; they were different compared to the last time she was here, covered in a dark layer. It looked like soot. The carvings were only just visible beneath it. She stared around at the scribbled words and pictures of strange creatures with heads as long as their legs and ships the size of planets.
She was so engrossed in the panorama that she tripped over a fallen brick and sprawled forward. Her arm smashed into the ground and her gun skittered across the floor, out of sight. Her hip landed on top of the glowball and its light blinked out.
Nova's jaw smashed into the rocky ground. She let out a hiss of pain. Her chin stung with the force of the impact. She opened her eyes but couldn't see a thing. Even her hand held up in front of her face was invisible.
She reached down for the glowball, but it had come unclipped from her waist.
She got onto her hands and knees. She felt along the rough ground for either her gun or the glowball. The sand was rough beneath her palm, tiny grains making gouges in her skin. The crystals wedged under her fingernails and coated her hands in a fine layer of dust.
She went slowly. The last thing she needed was to smash her head open on the brick wall. In the darkness, the small room felt infinitely huge. She crawled for what felt like hours and still didn't reach the other side. Sand sifted between her fingers with no sign of her belongings.
She pushed forward. There wasn't even a shred of light for her eyes to adjust to. There was just her and the darkness. She was utterly and thoroughly sick of the planet and of the Ancients. If she never saw another ever again, she would die happy.
Her hand came to rest on something cold and smooth. It was metal under her hand but didn't feel like her gun. She pulled the object closer and ran her hands along it. It had one hollow side. It almost felt like…
"A helmet!" she squeaked and tossed the helmet away from her body.
Her eyes whirled around the room, wildly looking for the rest of the Ancient. There was no sound of movement in the darkness.
She took a few deep breaths and kept moving. Further on, she found her gun. She clutched it tight in her hand and brought it close to her chest. She didn't have to see it to know where the right button was. One swift click and a beam of light shot out.
It filled the room with bright white light that reflected off of the walls. The helmet rested in the corner, a shiny ball amidst the sand. Her glowball wasn't far from it, nestled in a small crater of sand. She clipped the glowball back to her belt and surveyed the room.
A carving caught her eye. It didn't belong amongst the others; it had been engraved on top of some of the drawings, a scar. The letters were chillingly familiar.
Put it on the podium. NT
Nova stared at the letters with a gaping mouth. The words would mean nothing to most people, graffiti by someone desperate to leave their mark. But to Nova, they represented something more. The letters were her own, even the signoff at the end. It was hers. Her initials were carved over the ancient walls. NT; Nova T-.
Her heart constricted in her chest and pushed adrenalin through her veins. She'd forgotten her last name. Her breath caught in her throat as the realisation struck. She had no idea how she could forget something which was so much a part of her. Her name. It was the same as her home planet… another orphan in the streets.
Tears welled in Nova's eyes. Her last name… name. Same. Game. Tame. Lame. Blame.
Words echoed around her head. Thoughts of her name were pushed out by the tumult of nonsense. She clutched her head in her hands and squeezed her eyes shut.
That only made it worse.
She forced her eyes open, making herself focus on the only point of interest. The words. Her words.
But how could that be? She'd left this room only the night before and there'd been no writing. There was no way her words could suddenly appear on the wall.
Her heart beat faster in her chest. The overwhelming confusion and madness from the day before crept up her spine. Her skin rose in small bumps and her breathing became hoarse. A hand gripped her chest and squeezed.
"I didn't write that," she whispered.
"But I must have," she replied. "That's my signature."
"Someone copied it."
"I don't think so."
She stepped closer to the letters and reached up a single, tentative index finger. She traced the letters, one after another. The letters were too familiar. If she was going to carve on the wall, it's exactly how she'd do it, what she'd say. There was no way for her to argue it, she'd left this message.
She stepped away from the letters, whirled around, and surveyed the room. Her eyes took in things they hadn't noticed before. Tiny details which would have been so obvious if only there weren't so many voices whispering into her ears.
"The lights," she said, spelling the clues out to herself. "The dust and soot. There's no sign of anyone."
She whirled around in a circle. This wasn't the next day. This was the future. It could be decades or even centuries from the moment that she'd fallen asleep in Codon's ship.
Her hands shook uncontrollably, sending the light from her gun zipping around the room. A hard ball of panic blocked her throat. Somehow she'd accidentally fallen into the future. That was why Codon was nowhere to be seen. That was why Cal didn't reply; his motor would have powered down years ago.
"They got out," she said. It was the only explanation. There was no sign of the Ancients' bodies. They had escaped from Archalon and made it to the rest of the universe. There was probably nothing left; no Jagged Maw, no hunters, no Confederacy. If Codon had succeeded in killing the Ancients, there would be bodies.
"The helmet!" Nova whirled back to the corner of the room. It was still there, glinting in the bright light. She spun around, but there were no other parts. The helmet was the only piece of Ancient left in the room.
She frowned, bent down, and picked it up. It was only then that she noticed her hands. They were covered in black soot up to her elbows. The helmet was similarly dusted with a fine layer, broken up by her fingerprints.
She looked around. The layer of soot here was thin. It was enough to dust her fingers maybe but not enough to coat the helmet and her arms. The helmet had come from somewhere else. Some-when else.
She hadn't been trying to break through the time vortex, it was an accident. She'd tripped and fallen. She'd been annoyed, but it wasn't the bone-crunching anger she'd felt before, and yet somehow the helmet was here.
"An accident," she whispered. She turned the helmet over in her hands.
A sticky grey substance coated the inside. She curled up her nose, but reached her soot-covered hand in anyway. Her fingers came away sticky, a mix of grey, red and green strung between them. The flesh looked dead, diseased.
"Diseased," Nova said, cursing herself for talking out loud. If she wasn't bordering on madness before, she certainly would be if she kept talking to herself.
She looked again at the massive letters carved into the wall. If she'd left that note, it was from the past. Somehow, she had to make it back again. If she'd written it, there had to be a reason.
What did it mean? Leave it on the Podium. Leave what?
She glanced down at the helmet. There was only one thing in this room which didn't belong.
Her head spun with the implications. Her future self had left a note in the past, but she had no idea what it meant, or why she'd leave it.
"So I know where it is," she whispered. It was the only thing she could think of. For some reason her future self wanted to know where the helmet would be.
She couldn't argue with herself.
She carried the helmet to the small podium set in the centre of the room. She put it down the right way up so that the insectoid eyes stared straight at the entrance door. It looked like it belonged there, overlooking the darkness.
Nova stepped away from the podium and the helmet.
She looked around the room. There was nothing else. No clues and no help. She made a mental note that when she carved massive letters into the wall, she would add a sub-note, instructions.
"But I've already been here," she said. Her head pounded with swirling thoughts. Her logic ran around in circles.
She chided and cursed herself for being ridiculous. And yet here she was, standing in front of a message she hadn't written yet.
She turned and walked away from the disturbing helmet and the giant letters. She wondered how long they'd be there, and whether future archaeologists would curse her for ruining the ancient text. Probably.
She shuffled through the tunnels, back the way she'd come. She only had one idea for how to get back home. It was less a plan and more a vein hope. She stumbled out into the desert.
The night wind was no more forgiving. It beat at her and threw her coat out in whipping waves, trying to tug her off balance. The wind brought pelting grains of sand which slammed into Nova's exposed flesh, trying to pierce her eyes. Tears welled to the surface in a meagre attempt to get rid of the sand.
She stumbled to a stop. There was more than the wind howling. There was something else. It sounded like a dog wailing in the darkness. Her heart beat faster and she turned in rapid circles.
A shadow darted to her right. She turned to face it, and was met with sand. Something ran past her left, she felt a brush of air as it went by. She turned again, but it was already gone.
Her hands shook and teeth chattered. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end and every part of her, every muscle, was poised to spring. There was something else with her in the darkness but the planet was abandoned.
Her imagination supplied a terrifying image of a massive black dog howling at the moon. Saliva dripped from its teeth and its yellow eyes glimmered. The black fur was raised up as it howled. Its sharp claws gouged into the sand.
Nova shook her head. It was just her imagination. But the howling was still there. She could hear it coming for her, getting closer.
She ran without thinking. Her torn clothing streamed behind her as she pushed forward. She ran up a hill of sand, her legs aching with the effort. She wouldn't be able to keep running for long.
The beast's claws sunk into her back. A massive weight slammed into her spine and sent her sprawling. She was pinned to the sand, the creature's weight holding her down.
Its claws and teeth sunk into the small of her back. She cried out in agony. She could feel every movement as it dug deeper into her vertebral column. It tore out her nerves; stringy tendons came lose. The creature ripped out her spine and she felt every section as it was pulled out of the gaping hole in her back. She lost all sensation in her legs.
This was it. This was the end. She was paralysed and dying, being mauled to death by some massive creature. She'd fought for so long that it was almost a relief to know that the end was near. She couldn't even run anymore, not without her legs.
Her shirt was soaked with blood. Claws tore down from her shoulders. Her skin broke apart and hung in tattered flaps.
She screamed into the night.
Her back was being crushed and the massive weight compressed her chest, making it hard to breathe. She drew one ragged gasp after another. She couldn't crawl away; her hands scraped futilely in the sand.
The rabid beast tore through her back with its teeth. The wet tongue lapped up her blood and scraped against her intestines. It worked its way deeper, devouring more of her body as it went. It was excruciating torture but she couldn't do a thing to stop it.
She closed her eyes and waited for it to be over.
A cool wind blew over her face and body. Her lower spine tingled.
She frowned. It shouldn't tingle. She should be dead.
She opened her eyes and found herself lying face down in the sand. There was no sign of the beast.
She lifted her hands and patted them down her back. It was all in one piece. There were no gaping holes or trails of blood.
She rolled over and sat up. The sand around her body had claw marks in it, but they were from her. There were no massive footprints to suggest a creature had walked away. She looked over herself. The only blood on her clothes was the dried patches from Tobius.
She let her head drop into her hands and curled into a ball. The cool wind brushed over her, leaving a chill. It was impossible for her to get up. She wanted to sit right where she was until she was covered in sand and became another relic of the cursed planet.
The wind howled and her mind filled with images of black dogs. She could feel the thing at her spine. She couldn't go through that torture again.
It was getting closer.
She pushed herself to her feet. Her legs shook under the strain. She stumbled forward, desperate to get away from the creature in the night.
Her skin was covered in bumps, chilled to the very bone. Her muscles ached and so many parts of her cried out in pain that she'd lost track of all her injuries.
Despite the pain, she ran forward. If she could just get back to the ship then she'd be safe. It never occurred to her that she could be trapped on the desolate desert planet for the rest of her life, with no way off, and no one to know she was there.
She climbed the sand dune against the side of the ship. It made so much more sense now. If she was somewhere in the future, who was to say how long the sand had had to build up and grow its way up the ship. It could have taken centuries.
Her thighs moaned against the uphill climb. Her cold muscles refused to work and every step felt like ten. It was an eternity before she reached the ship's door and stumbled her way inside. She slammed her fist onto the close button. The door creaked and groaned but barely moved.
She cursed and grabbed hold of the manual handle. She heaved and strained. Shadows leapt across the sand. The black dog.
She heaved harder.
The door was rusted and fixed in place.
She had to put every ounce of energy into it before the door budged. Her fear fed her strength. She pushed harder and the door fell closed, leaving the ship in deeper darkness.
She sighed, relaxing her shoulders.
The lights were out, just as she'd left them. She had to navigate her way through the debris and pieces of furniture until she came to the command room. In the middle of the room, the only object not covered in dust, was the chair she'd woken up in. It was like an old friend recently reunited.
She stepped to the chair and lowered herself down into it. It accepted her with soft cushions. Her legs were grateful for the break as she stretched them out in front of her body.
If this didn't work, she was out of ideas.
She tried to push that thought out of her head; it certainly wouldn't help her get to sleep. She forced herself to close her eyes and take three deep breaths. She let her imagination wonder. It was an exercise she was used to practicing. Sleep had always been difficult for her to find. It wasn't helped by having to grow up with a knife under her pillow.
In her adult life, when she found safety on-board Crusader, she'd learned to calm her nerves, to throw the worries of the day out, and let her body relax. She put her mind to it now. She pictured a serene ocean planet, like Mistylake or Selene. The entire surface covered with a sloshing ocean of blue. The water was pure, fresh and welcoming.
She felt the warm sun engulf her in its rays as she dived from Crusader's door into the ocean below. The water was warm. It soothed her skin and her hurts, washed away the pain and the dirt of the day. Sometimes her friends would swim with her, but today she needed to be alone.
She relished in the cool water and dived below the surface to watch the many fish swim back and forth. She imagined being able to swim like them, moving her tail as she shot through the water. It was like flying, but without the fear of falling.
Before she knew it, she was asleep.
Nova blinked. Bright lights shone in her eyes. She squinted against the glare and looked around. She was still in the Confederacy ship's command pod, but all the lights were on. It looked almost new, if it weren't for the angle and the piles of debris stacked against the wall.
"Codon?" she said.
"Oh I see you've finally woken up," Codon said, stepping into Nova's field of view.
"How long have I been asleep?"
"About an hour. I was about to pull the chair out from under you to wake you up. There's been a lot of movement."
She blinked a few more times, clearing the miasma from her mind, and pushed herself higher in her chair. She looked up at the screen taking up most of the wall. It showed the view outside.
The Ancients had been busy. There were half-built ships scattered across the sand, and many imposing weapons. The creatures were still bent over their work, intent on their tasks.
"It won't be long before they're ready to go," Codon said. "I don't suppose you're ready to pull a miracle out of the air?"
"I had a dream of the future. I have to go back in there."
"Whoa, hang on. You had a dream and now you're going to give yourself a death sentence?"
"No. Yes. Maybe," Nova said, standing up. Her back and limbs were stiff, but some of the exhaustion from before was gone.
"What if it was just a dream?" Codon said, giving voice to Nova's biggest fear.
"Do you have a better plan?"
"Then I'm going in."
"And once we impossibly get past them, what's your plan?"
"I don't have one."
"So you're relying on luck?"
"It wouldn't be the first time." She massaged her temples as she spoke. Sharp jabs of pain shot through her brain every few seconds.
"Well better to die fighting I suppose," Codon said. "Because this damned thing isn't getting off the ground any time soon."
"Lock and load," Nova said.
She pulled the pistol out of her belt and checked it over. As she turned it on its side, a trickle of sand fell out and clattered to the floor. It spread out across the metal, tiny shining crystals.
"Sand!" she said. "From the tomb. See? It wasn't just a dream!"
"Nova," Codon said, looking at her with stern eyes. "You spent the last two days in a desert. That sand could have come from yesterday. There's no reason to assume it came from the future."
Nova frowned. She'd thought she'd found proof, but Codon was right. She couldn't ignore the possibility that her trip to the future was just another hallucination. Hell, she could be hallucinating right now. All the other images had seemed so real, only to toss her back inside the cell with Tobius's body when consciousness struck. A part of her expected to run into one of the walls at any moment and be rudely awoken back in reality.
"I'm ready," Codon said. He had a Confederacy issued side arm and a less-conventional heavy-duty shotgun.
"All right." She put her gun back into its holster and led the way through the ship.
The path was familiar, right down to the dangling pipes and pieces of torn wiring. They climbed over fallen furniture and avoided the mangled bodies. They were almost at the exit door when Nova tripped on a loose piece of piping and stumbled against the wall. Her arm scraped along the jagged metal. Flesh tore from her arm and clung like limp cloth to the sharp steel.
She cried out and gripped hold of her wrist. It stung. The pain coursed up from her wrist, through her arm, elbow, all the way to her shoulder. The wound burned hotter as she gripped tighter.
She forced her eyes down to look at the damage. It was even worse than she'd thought. Blood spurted out from around her fingers. It seeped over her hand and dropped to the floor. It had flicked all over her clothes, which were already dyed red from Tobius's blood.
The chunk of flesh that had been scraped off dangled just behind her, taunting. She looked at it, disbelieving. She turned back to her hand; there was no way to stop the blood. She gripped tighter but her heartbeat kept pulsing, pushing more of her life-blood between her fingers.
She turned to Codon, her mouth hanging open. Her eyes begged him.
"Do something!" she yelled.
He stared at her.
She felt weak. She'd lost too much blood and the effort of standing was too much. Her legs wobbled, her knees collapsed, and she slammed onto the metal floor, shins first. Her head snapped forward with the sudden drop. Her eyes were locked again on her arm.
So much blood.
It created a pool by her legs, reflecting the dim lights of the ship. The red was deep, crimson.
Codon was beside her. His hand was on her shoulder and he was talking. She couldn't make out his words. Her hearing and sight were failing. It wouldn't be long now and the last drop of blood would fall out of her veins. She'd be dead.
Codon pulled on her arm.
Couldn't he see that she was dying? Couldn't he let her do it in peace?
She gritted her teeth and pulled her shoulder out of his grasp. She desperately held her right arm closed but it was no good. The wound was too big, too deep.
The pool on the floor got deeper.
She gave up holding the wound together and let it go. Without the pressure, the blood flowed faster. It cascaded from her arm and into the pool like a red waterfall. She was mesmerised by it. Her eyes locked on the rapids and ripples which splashed away from the waterfall's base.
Then she was there.
She stood next to a red lake. A waterfall dropped sticky crimson droplets into the pool. There was a smell in the air, like rust.
She smiled as she looked at the pool. She took three steps back and took a running dive, throwing herself into the pool, head first. The blood consumed her, covering her from head to foot.
She swam under the surface, her eyes closed. She enjoyed the feel of it sliding past her. She held her breath for as long as she could and then shot out of the pool in a burst of red waves. She gasped for air and chuckled to herself. She played her hand across the surface of the pool, creating patterns and splashes.
She barely noticed the blood dry to her face and hair. It created a sticky brown coating and clumped her hair together in wet tangles. She was too busy enjoying the day, the pool, and the bright sun overhead.
She frowned and looked up from the puddle. Something wasn't right about it. It was too bright… or not bright enough. It was the wrong colour. And wait, there were lots of them, all lined up in a row… like lights.
She turned in circles. As she spun, the red pool and waterfall disappeared. The lights brightened. She blinked against the glare.
She was staring up at ceiling lights. She was on her knees on the floor. Her legs ached. Her wrist stung.
She glanced down. There was a small cut on her arm, the thinnest line of blood marked it.
"What the hell are you doing?" Codon said. He shook her arm.
"What?" she said, her voice was soft, confused.
"What the hell happened? You were walking along and suddenly you collapsed to the floor wailing about blood."
"I cut myself…" she said, trailing off as she looked at her arm.
"I'd hardly call that a cut," Codon said. He looked at her with hard eyes, gauging.
She clasped her head in her hands and stared down at the floor. There was no pool of blood, or a red waterfall.
"I don't know what's happening to me," she whispered.
Her heart pounded in her chest. She'd been so sure she was going to die and yet it had all been part of her madness. It was just like the quicksand. How many times would she have to die before she really went mad? If she wasn't already.
"When will it stop?" she said. She rocked back and forth, her knees pulled up to her chin. She couldn't live her life quasi-mad.
"I have no idea. But you're sure their helmets will break? That wasn't a delusion?"
"I… I…," Nova looked up at him, begged for him to take charge, show her the way. He frowned down at her.
"I don't know," she said.
"Well I'll be damned if I'm going in first," he said. "After you."
Nova used the wall to get to her feet. Her legs were like jelly as she walked forward, threatening to collapse beneath her at any moment. She forced herself on. Better to die fighting than be thrown into a mental asylum. She shivered at the thought.
It was surreal to step out of the ship's side door and find that the sand had barely created a mound. The massive dunes she'd seen were gone, or perhaps hadn't been formed yet. It was a confusing concept to get used to.
"We'll go around the side," she said. She was breathing hard, still recovering from her near-death experience. "And make our way into the tomb. I know where we're going so just follow my lead. Only engage if we're actually seen. Once we're inside the tomb, I need you to provide cover fire."
She tried to sound confident even though every fibre of her being screamed at her to turn and run away. Her legs wobbled as she walked, despite her attempts to stand tall.
"Got it," Codon said.
They darted across the sand, using fallen ships as cover. The Ancients were engrossed in their tasks and didn't see the two human figures move closer. She would have expected them to be more on edge; there were two Ancient corpses down in their catacombs. Perhaps they hadn't found the bodies yet.
They skirted around the edge of the Confederacy ships. From there, it was just a small distance to the trees, where they would have reasonable cover until the tomb entrance.
Nova went first. She sprinted to the trees. The hot desert sun beat down on her face and exposed skin. The sand made it difficult to run and her boots sent grains scattering in all directions. She darted under the tree line and held her breath.
She strained her ears; there was nothing except the rustling of the trees. The cool shade of the oasis felt good on her skin and she relished in the green shadows. It was so much easier to stay hidden in the cover of foliage than in the open, treacherous desert.
She leant around a tree and gestured for Codon to follow. He nodded once at her and glanced at the Ancients. He waited before performing his own mad dash.
Once Codon was in the trees, they both held their breaths. They'd gone unnoticed.
She moved on through the trees. The thick leaves and branches blocked her view of the tomb, but it also provided cover. Rubbery leaves brushed against her arm.
They got to the edge of the trees, right where the tomb disappeared into the ground. The entrance was clear of encroaching vines and fallen branches, very unlike the last time Nova was there.
The Ancients darted in and out of the pyramid sporadically. They were going down into the tombs to collect more parts and tools.
"We're just going to have to go for it," she whispered to Codon. "Remember, follow my lead and only shoot if you have to."
"Got it," he said.
Nova waited for the next alien to lumber past and then darted into the tomb. The blue lights lit her way and she followed them without looking back. She forced herself to ignore the shadows dancing at the edge of her vision. They were always there, constant companions to her wondering mind.
If Codon was following her, he was being very quiet. She couldn't waste precious time or resources on turning around and checking, so she kept moving. The tunnels felt shorter this time, in the light. Somehow the darkness had added kilometres to them.
Stomping footsteps and crunching sand warned Nova of an approaching Ancient. She looked around desperately for somewhere to hide. With each moment, her heart beat faster, and it was harder for her to think straight. She was like an animal trapped in the headlights of an oncoming train.
The only cover was a tiny alcove in the wall. It was mostly taken up with a pedestal. There had probably been a carving sitting on top before Codon and his Confederacy goons had shown up and taken it.
She ducked to the side and squeezed herself in. The rough stone scraped against her skin and left grazes. They oozed blood over her fingers. She bit her lip and kept quiet.
She held her breath as the footsteps neared. She squeezed her eyes shut, sure that the Ancients, with their all-powerful technology and the ability to read minds, would sense her. There was no way it could walk straight past.
She just hoped the doctor wasn't standing in the middle of the tunnel.
The Ancient got level with her alcove and walked past. She barely had time to register that it was there before it was on its way, down the tunnel, and out of sight.
She counted ten seconds under her breath before she let herself relax. She closed her eyes and forced her heart rate back to normal.
"Well that was close," Codon said, appearing next to her.
"Where the hell were you?" she hissed.
"Found a side tunnel. You may be small enough to fit into one of those things, but I know I wouldn't," he said, using his gun to gesture to the alcove.
She grunted and pushed her way past the pedestal, back into the main tunnel.
"Not much further," she said.
They crept down the tunnel. She led the way with sure steps and it wasn't long before they were just outside the widened chamber. So much had happened in that small room. She'd seen the two Ancients with yellow eyes, left a note to herself, gone to the future, and now hopefully she would end it all.
"So what—" Codon began.
"Shh!" she said, slapping her hand onto his shoulder to hold him flat against the wall. She pointed to her ear and then to the room beyond.
Nova heard voices. Her mouth filled with the bitter taste of déjà vu. The voice was hauntingly familiar. She imagined the scene beyond: two Ancients together, and an empty pedestal between them.
"How long?" the familiar voice said. Nova knew deep down that it was the one with yellow eyes who had descended deeper in the tombs during her hallucination.
"Two turns of the sun at most," another voice replied.
"Good, I should have full strength by then. There have been no signs of attack?"
"No. We had one survivor, but Tobius is dealing with her."
"Ah, very good, very good. We need to know the state of this quadrant as soon as possible. For all we know the Zions could be at full strength. They'd wipe us out without a second thought."
"Tobius will be able to tell us more soon."
"Good. We need every advantage we can get."
From their voices, Nova gauged their approximate positions. It sounded as if at least one of them was going to be in the room for a while. She couldn't risk another Ancient coming down the corridor behind them. If she was going to act it had to be now. She turned to Codon and looked him straight in the eye.
"I'll take the yellow-eyed one towards the back," she said. "You take the other. Remember, shoot for the button near their shoulders and then for the helmet."
Codon nodded once.
She took a deep breath and stepped around the corner. The room was just as she remembered it, only the massive carved letters were missing. The pedestal was empty, just as she'd predicted.
The two creatures turned to face the new noise. They didn't hesitate to react. They both brought up their arms and purple energy shot out of the ends. The blasts crackled through the air, straight for Nova and Codon.
The two humans dived for opposite sides of the room, narrowly avoiding being hit. Nova landed on her side but didn't waste time getting up. She looked down the barrel of her gun and got the creature in sight. The button blinked on its shoulder.
She took a deep breath, levelled her aim, and fired.
Her blue plasma blast seared across the room and hit home. An audible click filled the chamber. The Ancient cursed and fumbled for its helmet. Nova fired three more shots, each aimed directly at the Ancient's helmet.
Her aim was good but the creature's arms were in the way. It held its helmet in place, protecting the vulnerable flesh.
Codon fired on the other creature. His small handgun fired yellow bolts, much smaller than Nova's. They flicked across the room, barely visible, but he was a good shot.
The first bolt hit the button. The second slammed into the top of the thing's helmet, and it toppled to the floor. Pincers and grey-green flesh emerged from beneath the helmet. The hard beak-like mouth snapped at the air, echoing around the chamber. The obscure features glared at Codon and the thing hissed in the back of its throat.
Codon stopped in his tracks, his mouth falling open, and stared up at the creature. He choked on garbled words, his face frozen.
Nova cursed him, but she couldn't waste her time saving his life. She had her own Ancient to worry about. The creature had worked its helmet back into place and another click told her that it was locked on. The button at its neck was blasted to smithereens. Leaving Nova with no way to knock it off and reveal the vulnerable flesh beneath.
She stared around the room for any kind of help. There was none.
The Ancient stomped toward her. Its footsteps shook the sand and sent loose granules flying.
Nova was still on her side. She scrambled to a sitting position and scooted backwards. She was slow in comparison to the Ancient, and it was on her before she could react. It bent down and grabbed hold of her jacket, pulling her to her feet and then higher so that she dangled in the air.
She closed her eyes and squeezed her trigger so that hot blasts slammed into the Ancient's armour. The heat from the shots seared Nova's face. Sweat poured out of her forehead and stung her raw cheeks.
The Ancient slapped her hand and the gun toppled to the ground. Nova's eyes flew open. A few dark smudges on the Ancient's armour were the only evidence that she'd shot at all.
"The prisoner has escaped!" the Ancient bellowed.
His voice echoed around the chamber and up the surrounding tunnels. The rumble of running footsteps echoed back amongst shouts and clicking armour plates.
"You killed Tobius! I can smell his blood all over you!" The Ancient slammed her back into the wall. Her head collided with the sandstone and burst with pain.
"Did the Zions send you?"
The creature shook her and slammed her back again, sending another wave of pain through her body. Her teeth clapped together. A sharp chip broke away from her back tooth and lodged itself in her cheek. Blood seeped out of the wound and coated her tongue.
"Did the Zions send you?"
Nova's head throbbed with pain as her body was shaken like a ragdoll.
"No!" she said, blood dribbling out of the side of her mouth.
"They must have. Who else would have the power to kill Tobius?"
The Ancient's grip around Nova's collar was so tight that she struggled to breathe. Her face was hot as she drew a ragged breath.
"Scouts! I need soldiers! The Zions have infiltrated!"
The Ancient's yellow eyes flickered away from Nova's face and to the main tunnel where the footsteps were getting louder. The coming voices surged at the Ancient's words.
Nova's bleary eyes looked to the other side of the room, in time to see Codon stumble backwards. He was bleeding from a smoking wound in his shoulder but he had the shotgun out. He levelled it at the other creature's head and fired.
The blast echoed around the small room. A bolt of energy crashed into the creature's bare head and it exploded. Pieces of meat scattered across the room and patterns of blood adorned the walls. Codon turned his gun towards Nova.
"Look out!" Nova cried and struggled to get free. She used her free hand to point towards the doorway behind Codon. More Ancients were coming. Their blue eyes shone down the hallway. There were at least three of them. The first came into the room and leapt at Codon.
"Look out!" she screamed.
She couldn't understand why Codon wasn't firing at it. He was going to be killed.
"What?" Codon called. He turned desperately in place.
"They're right there!" she said. "There's at least three of them. Kill them now."
"Nova," he said, levelling his gun once more at the yellow-eyed creature. "There's nothing there."
"What are you talking about?" the Ancient pushed Nova against the wall and leant against her throat so that she couldn't breathe. His yellow eyes cast a glow over her face and made her squint. "I can see it in your eyes. Tobius got to you, didn't he? Good, now answer me, you little primate. Where are the Zions?"
"I don't know! I don't even know what they are!" Nova screamed back. Specks of blood splattered the Ancient's armour.
Tears stung the corners of her eyes as she glanced at the tunnel. She could still hear approaching footsteps and raised voices but she didn't know what she could trust anymore. Codon had his back to her, his gun aimed down the tunnel, so she guessed that he could hear them too.
"I don't have time for this," the Ancient said.
He let go of Nova's jacket with one hand and pointed at her leg. A sudden blast of purple light exploded out of his finger and engulfed Nova's boot. Agony blasted out of her foot and spread up her leg.
She convulsed as fire consumed her limb and sent her thoughts into spirals of pain. Tears poured down her cheeks as she struggled to breathe. She glanced down at her foot, but all that was left were pieces of tattered flesh mixed with charred leather. Blood dripped out of what was left of her ankle and created a pool on the floor.
"Fuck you!" she screamed when she had enough breath to talk.
"Where are the Zions?"
The Ancient moved his hand so that it was pointing at her other foot.
Nova sobbed. With each beat of her heart, more pain surged up from her mangled foot and blood pooled on the floor. A mixture of adrenalin and panic boiled inside her. Every muscle tensed as she faced her imminent death.
"Tell me where the Zions are and I'll end this quickly. Otherwise I will keep blowing bits of you off until there's nothing left."
"There are no Zions!" Nova gasped. "Humans control this part of the galaxy. This planet belongs to us."
The effort of talking made Nova's stomach roll and bile rose to the back of her throat. She closed her eyes and focused on the darkness to still the nausea but all she could see was the mangled remains of her foot.
"We don't recognise your authority," the Ancient said. "Humans would never come so far alone. This is your final chance to tell me where the Zions are."
"More are coming!" Codon bellowed from the tunnel.
Nova tightened every muscle in her body. New pain surged through her leg as she tried to pull it up to her body. It was now or never. She whipped her head to the side and lashed out with all of her limbs. Her arms and remaining leg pushed against the Ancient's body and she came free of its grasp. She fell to the floor in a flailing ball.
Her chest hit the ground and the air was knocked out of her. She writhed like a dying fish on the floor, gasping for air. She reached out a shaking hand and grabbed her gun off the floor. She aimed it at the Ancient but her arm was shaking so badly that she couldn't get a clean shot and each blast went far wide, leaving black soot marks on the walls.
"Enough!" The Ancient ran at Nova, swiping a heavy fist at her head.
She held up her arms just in time. The blow hit her forearms and the force of it sent her sailing across the room. Her gun flew out of her hand and clattered to the other side of the room. Her limp body collided with the stone podium.
The force of her fall knocked the podium over. Nova crumpled with it. Her arms and legs smashed against the hard stone. Her head stung from a sharp blow although she could barely feel it over the agony pouring out of her foot.
Every inch of her throbbed. She blinked her eyes, but her vision stayed cloudy. Dripping blood from her eyebrows came in and out of focus. The Ancient was coming for her. Its massive shape lunged across the cavern.
Nova's weapon was too far to reach. She tapped around blindly. Her hand clasped around something hard. She drew back with all the force she could muster.
When the Ancient was close, Nova slammed her arm and the solid object in a wide arc. It crashed into the Ancient's head and knocked it sideways. The hard object fell out of Nova's hands and rolled to a stop, not far from the fallen Ancient.
Nova drew in a ragged breath, clasping her free hands around her ankle to stem the flow of blood.
She blinked the pain away and the mysterious weapon came into focus. It was a helmet; a dirty, dusty helmet that she'd seen before.
"What—" the Ancient said, scrambling to his feet. "It can't be. The totem of destruction—"
Nova studied the helmet. It looked up at her with sightless eyes. The thing reeked of rotting flesh, death, and disease.
She vaguely remembered seeing it in a dream. She'd been in this very room except that it was covered in soot. There'd been a strange carving on the wall and her initials were there. But none of it matched up with what was happening now.
"If we're going, then you're going with us," the Ancient cried, raising a shaking arm to point at Nova.
Nova barely registered him. The pain in her foot was going to her head and darkness clouded the edges of her vision. She couldn't think straight and had no idea what the alien was talking about. All she could focus on was how good a nap would feel at that very instant.
Thoughts of sleep made her think of her dream and the helmet on the podium. It hadn't been there before she'd banged into it. More thoughts crowded in, forcing her away from passing out. A part of her said that she couldn't die here because she still had to get back to The Jagged Maw and kick Aart's arse for sending her out here in the first place for sabotaged cargo.
Nova pushed herself up further so she was sitting. The Ancient was standing with his gun aimed at her head and yet he seemed powerless. She couldn't see the emotions on his face, but his voice shook with fear.
"After everything we worked for, I stand defeated by you?" he said.
The noise from the other Ancients was on them. Nova could hear Codon's gun, but it sounded as though it came from far away.
The Ancient shook itself, levelled its gun at Nova's chest, and fired.
With the last ounce of her strength Nova snatched the dusty helmet from the floor and held it in front of her like a shield. The purple bolt of energy slammed into the helmet with enough force to knock Nova backwards. Her ribs crunched under the force of it and pressed against her lungs.
Her vision was reduced to nothing but a thin tunnel with pain on every side.
Without knowing quite why, but knowing that she had no choice, she reached her hand inside the helmet. It was filled with bloodied, diseased meat. She grabbed hold of the rotting flesh and scraped some of it into her palm, pulling it free. It came loose with a wet plop.
She pulled back and tossed the flesh at the creature. Agony seared through her chest as she moved.
She didn't have any reason other than that the Ancient was terrified. She expected him to shoot her, or the chunk of flesh, but the weapon remained silent. The Ancient desperately back-pedalled away from the flying hunk of dead meat.
He was too slow. He hadn't gone one step when the flesh landed on his shoulder with a wet splat. Grey-green flesh dripped over his arm and created trails of juice down his armour.
"Do you have any idea what you've done?" the Ancient asked. Its arms fell still by its sides; its shoulders slumped.
"Survived," Nova whispered.
"We are so much more than you."
Nova's eyes dropped closed. A ghostly version of herself was flailing through the air, towards the podium. She watched her body slam into the stone table, smashing it. Just as her body hit the pedestal, the helmet materialised on top. It skittered to the ground along with the pieces of broken stone.
The scene replayed over and over again, a continuous loop in front of her eyes. She lifted her heavy eyelids.
"It begins," the Ancient said.
It took a deep gasping breath and collapsed to its knees. Its whole body was shaking, shivering. He gasped and choked for air.
The creature clawed for the button at its neck but it was a charred ruin, there was no way to get its helmet off now.
The Ancient fought, forcing each breath in and out of its lungs. At the end it lost the strength to stay upright and the armoured body fell forward; face first into the sand. The force of the fall was enough to detach the broken helmet. It rolled across the floor and came to rest against the far wall; ready to be picked up by Nova in the future.
The head beneath was covered in purple bruises and swollen. The flesh ballooned out around the remaining armour. Two more breaths and the gasping stopped.
Nova's eyes flickered open, but as soon as they did, she wished she could fall back into oblivion. Her chest ached with every breath, no matter how shallow, and her head throbbed. Unimaginable agony coursed up her leg. She remembered. She struggled to sit up, to see if she'd imagined it.
"I wouldn't—" Codon said, but it was too late.
Nova's eyes locked on the mess of flesh where her right foot used to be. Nausea rocked through her. She leant to the side and vomited across the sandy floor. The acrid taste burned her throat and tongue, making her eyes water.
"Where are the rest?" she whispered between heaves.
"Dead," Codon said. "It was like a wave spreading out from that one. I don't know what was in that helmet but it hit 'em bad."
Nova nodded, her head hanging low as she spat the last of the bile from her mouth.
"A design flaw," Codon said, shaking his head. "We should get out of here. Your foot needs to be taken care of."
Nova pushed herself up on shaky arms. She used the wall for support and managed to get up on one leg. The pain in her chest hadn't subsided and it was harder than ever to breathe.
"The writing," she gasped.
She dug into her belt and pulled out her sharp knife. It glinted in the light of the chamber. She reached up as high as she could and began to carve. It was hard to keep balance with just one leg and twice she toppled to the sand where she had to struggle to get upright, but she refused Codon's help.
Her knife made a shallow dent in the sandstone, running over ancient runes. The rock crumbled under her blade and scattered to the floor.
"What are you doing?" Codon said. "That's defacing heritage. I could have you shot for that."
"Trust me, Doc," Nova said. "Without this, we'd both be dead."
"How? That doesn't make any sense."
"No," she said and continued to carve, "It doesn't."
She kept working; she had to go over the letters three times before they were bold enough. She didn't know how long it would be until she arrived, or how time may affect her words. She couldn't take any chances.
As an afterthought, she added the T to her initials. She still couldn't remember what it stood for, but it was a part of who she was.
"Alright, let's get out of here," she said.
She leant over and gathered the helmet up off the floor. She hopped the first few paces, but the effort left her breathless, and her body was already in so much pain that she struggled to stay conscious.
She allowed herself to lean on Codon's shoulder and together they shuffled out of the tunnels. When they reached the top of the chamber, they surveyed the desert beyond. It was scattered with the fallen Ancients. They lay across the sand, mostly with their helmets off. Their skin was purple and bloated like the creature in the chamber. All of them were dead.
"They're gone," Codon said with a sigh.
"Cal," Nova said, her mind straining to keep up with events. "Are there any signs of life on the planet?"
"I detect critical physical injury. Immediate medical attention required."
"Just answer the question."
"Two humans remain," Cal replied.
"Crisis averted," she said.
Her whole body was overcome with relief. A massive weight lifted off of her shoulders and she felt as if she could float away on the desert breeze. It was over; the whole damned ordeal was over.
Except the madness.
The voices hadn't disappeared along with the Ancients. The shadows still moved at the edge of Nova's vision. A part of her had dared to hope that when the Ancients died, so would her insanity. Her insanity appeared to be coping just fine.
She wanted to scream, curse and yell, and stomp on every last Ancient until they were all indistinguishable piles of goo.
"You damned bastards!" she yelled.
She held the helmet in her hand and drew back over her shoulder, ignoring the screaming pain in her chest. She let fly and lobbed the helmet up into the air. It soared across the desert, sparkling.
It was about to hit the sand when it blinked out of existence.
"What?" Codon said.
"It's gone," Nova replied, equally confused.
"Did you do that?"
"I don't know," she said. "Maybe it went back to where it came from?"
"Maybe it did."
"You don't think—" Nova began but cut short, her thoughts working.
"No time to sit and wonder," Codon said, waving his hand. "Let's get back to my ship and hope the damn thing flies."
Nova nodded and let him help her across the sand, blood trailing out behind them.
Codon lowered Nova onto the command pod's swivelling chair, with an audible sigh. Beads of sweat dribbled down from his forehead and collected on the end of his round nose.
Nova squeezed her eyes shut and bit her lip as her wounded ankle bounced against the chair. Agony raced up her leg.
"Please tell me you've got Parapem or something stronger," Nova said through clenched teeth.
"The medbot should be able to help you out," Codon said. "Medical unit to command pod."
His ship replied, "Medbot dispatched. Arrival in one minute."
It was the longest sixty seconds of Nova's life. She clutched her leg, just above the knee, in an effort to stop the pain spreading to the rest of her body, and to stop the blood from pouring out of the mangled stump. She kept her eyes closed as Codon moved about the command pod, begging for any kind of relief.
The buzz of a motor entering the room made Nova open her eyes. A square robot hovered across the rubble and came to a stop in front of her. It scanned her body with a red light and its internal mechanisms beeped.
"Multiple injuries and major damage detected."
"I know that!" Nova said. "Give me something for the pain!"
The robot opened a compartment and a tray extended out with a single Parapem strip resting on top. Nova snatched it off the tray and laid it on her tongue. The soothing numbness spread upwards and eased her throbbing headache. The Parapem strip couldn't reach her leg or stop the agony coursing up from her missing foot.
"Missing limb detected. Tissue sample required."
"Do it," Nova said, her voice barely audible.
For the first time since arriving on the planet, she was grateful that Codon's ship was here. The medical technology of the Confederacy ships was far beyond what she'd find in Crusader. A hard weight dropped to the bottom of her stomach as she thought about her foot. With just one leg, she was a cripple. There was no way she'd be able to compete in the lead bounty hunter circles. Her whole livelihood was at stake.
The robot hovered closer and, without warning, jabbed a long needle into Nova's upper arm. The thin point sunk through her skin and into muscle. The area burst with pain and Nova had to bite her lip to stop from crying out.
The robot withdrew the needle and it disappeared into one of the many compartments.
"Will it be able to stop the bleeding?" Nova said, straining to keep her mind off of her future.
"Stop the bleeding?" Codon said. "That's the latest in med-tech, I designed it myself. We'll have a new foot for you in no time."
"It's got tissue printing?" Nova said, her mouth dropping.
"Of course it does. All Confederacy ships have tissue-regen facilities."
Nova shook her head and fell back into pained silence. The outer planets were flat-out getting bandages; meanwhile the Confederacy was overflowing with tissue-regeneration equipment. It was unbelievable and yet completely typical. Nova's emotions battled; at that moment she was filled with equal measures of hatred and love for the Confederacy.
"Tissue analysis complete. Please raise the wounded area," the robot said.
Nova gritted her teeth and forced her wounded leg up so that it was horizontal. Her stomach churned at the sight of the mutilated end. Loose bits of flesh dangled down and dripped blood onto the floor.
The robot positioned itself in front of Nova and encased the end of her leg inside one of its compartments. Its motor whirred louder and Nova's leg tingled. It was as if someone was running a feather up and down her injured leg and was taking the pain away.
As some of the agony lessened, she breathed easier and her shoulders relaxed back into the chair.
"Engines are clear for take-off," said Codon. "Whatever was holding us here is gone."
Nova let out a slow breath; she could leave this hell-hole.
It took ten minutes before the robot spoke. "Regeneration complete."
Nova opened one eye and looked down at her leg with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation. She had no idea what to expect but was sure that anything other than mangled flesh was an improvement.
Instead of blood and shredded tissue, her leg and foot looked just like normal. The skin was lighter than the rest of her leg, as if she'd spent her whole life wearing a thick sock, but apart from that, it was as if the incident had never happened.
She tentatively tried to wiggle her toes. The smallest one jerked out away from the others and then clenched tight into a ball. She tried again and this time her whole foot spasmed up and slammed back to the floor.
"Perfect coordination will take time," said the medbot.
Nova took a deep breath and focused on lifting her foot away from the floor. It jerked up faster than she'd intended but she managed to hold it still for several seconds before it dropped back to the ground.
"Incredible," Nova whispered.
"Old technology," Codon said, waving his hand.
Nova shook her head, speechless. It looked as if she did have a career in bounty hunting after all. A sharp sting in the side of her cheek reminded her that she wasn't back to full-health yet. Her tongue poked around until the jagged tooth popped free. She spat the sharp junk into her waiting palm. A rivulet of blood followed after it, creating a tangy trail across her tongue.
"Are any more repairs required?" the medbot asked.
"No. That will do," Codon said. The medbot turned and hovered out of the room.
"Um—" Nova said, holding her tooth in one hand and her aching side with the other.
Codon whirled away from the controls and stood over her. The calm facade was gone, replaced by a stony mask.
Nova's hand clenched around her tooth and her heart fluttered in her chest. Her eyes flew around the room but she was cornered in the chair with no way out and no room to stand up, if her new foot would hold her weight.
"What—" Nova let the tooth fall off her palm and clatter to the floor, her hand flicking to the gun at her belt.
It felt like an eternity before her hand came to rest on the butt of her plasma pistol and by then Codon already had a gun aimed at her head.
"I can't let you leave," Codon said. "With all of that technology and your powers, it's the greatest discovery since warp-travel. I'll be recognised as the greatest scientist of all time."
Nausea rolled through Nova's stomach. She wanted to kick herself for ever thinking that Codon was anything more than a self-serving, arrogant, pig.
She used the chair to get to her feet and stood as high as she could with her aching side. She hunched over to her left as her ribs spasmed in protest. She sucked in a shallow breath, the room spinning around her as she teetered on the edge of unconsciousness. She rested her right foot lightly on the floor of the ship but it was shaking uncontrollably and couldn't hold her.
"You don't own me and neither does the Confederacy. If I want to leave, then I'll damn well leave." She had to take shallow gasps at the end of each sentence. Her chest felt like it was being ripped open with every word. "You know as well as I do that the Confederacy would turn those weapons into death machines. They'd wipe the whole of humanity out by themselves."
She loosened her gun and pulled it an inch from its holster.
A bright yellow ball of energy screamed past her and slammed into the wall at her side.
"Perhaps I didn't make myself clear," said Codon. "You're required by the Confederacy to better help us understand this technology. Destroying it would be in direct violation of Confederacy law. You're now my property under the cyborg act."
"What?" she said, momentarily stunned. "I'm not a cyborg."
Codon shrugged. "I guess that depends on the definition. We'll just have to agree to disagree. In the meantime, stay right where you are."
Codon reached behind his back and pressed more buttons. The ship beeped twice in response and Codon grinned.
"Prepare engines for warp," he said.
"Preparing engines," the ship replied.
Nova clutched the butt of her gun, calculating. She was fast, but Codon was trained. She'd only get one shot.
"I wouldn't," Codon said. "If you move that gun an inch, I'll blow your hand off. I'm sure you'll be almost as good to us without limbs."
"You fucking bastard," she said.
"For the greater good," Codon said with a shrug. "Your welfare doesn't mean much in the face of the Human Confederacy."
Nova's mind raced. The ship was on autopilot. Codon could stay standing with his gun aimed at her until they landed at Confederacy headquarters. There'd be no chance for escape.
She wiggled the fingers of her left hand back and forth through the air as subtly as she could. She was desperate to brush up against something, anything that could help. She tried to picture a distraction, anything, but if she'd thought she had control of her powers before, she was wrong.
Instead of reaching through time and pulling out a miracle, her fingers wriggled futilely in the air. Her sharp gasps were getting more painful as each breath tore her wounds deeper. Stars flashed at the edges of her vision as she swayed on her feet. Her eyes searched desperately for a way out, surveying the room, chairs, desks, debris. The engines had righted the ship, but there were still things scattered all across the floor.
She had to do it.
She let her body collapse behind a nearby desk and whipped out her gun. Her body and head dropped out of Codon's line of sight while her gun flicked up and fired.
A yellow blast burned through the air and hit her hand where it clutched her side. The skin seared and blistered. Nova screamed and clutched her hand close to her chest.
Her first shot had gone far wide, taking out a video feed and sending new shards of glass scattering across the room. She drew in a gasping breath from where she lay on the floor and fired through the legs of the desk. All she could see of Codon were his legs and it took three blasts of her pistol before she managed to hit him.
Codon's knee shattered. He cried out as pieces of bone exploded out, along with tendrils of tendon, and specks of blood. He collapsed to the ground, howling. His gun clattered to the floor as he grabbed hold of his knee with both hands.
There were tears in his eyes and his face was bright red. A continuous stream of curses and cries of pain poured out of his mouth, much like the streams of blood between his fingers.
Codon hissed words between clenched teeth. "You bitch! You'll never make it out alive. I'll see to it you're a prisoner for the rest of your life."
Nova was in too much pain to reply. Codon writhed on the floor on the other side of the desk. Through her haze of agony she kept her pistol trained on his body. Her arm shook with the effort.
Codon glared at her for a few seconds before he was forced to squeeze his eyes shut in pain. His jaw clenched.
"Cal, please tell me you're on your way," she said.
"Crusader is touching down now."
"Thank fuck," Nova said through a gasp of pain. She silently thanked whoever had invented the neural linkage chips. Without them she'd be dead a hundred times over.
"Medbot, get in here!" Codon screamed.
Nova blinked the tears out of her eyes and kept her gun pinned on him. His weapon lay forgotten by his side as he rocked back and forth on the floor, clutching his leg.
The medbot and Cal entered the command pod at the same time. Cal had his small plasma pistol out and trained on Codon. Nova let out a shuddering gasp and her arm fell loose onto the floor. She vaguely heard Cal and Codon talking but she was in too much pain to make out the words.
"Nova. Nova!" Cal said.
His voice brought her back to consciousness.
"Yes?" she whispered.
"Do you want him dead?" Cal said.
Nova's head lolled to the side where Codon was lying on the floor with his arms tied above his head. She hadn't realised she'd passed out for longer than a second.
"Do you want him dead?" Cal repeated.
"No," she said. "Let's get back home."
With a great amount of pain and effort, and four Parapem strips, Nova made it to her feet. She wobbled and leant on the desk for support. She took the time to glare down at Codon. His face was red and twisted as he stared back at her.
"Let's be very clear about something," Nova said after a long pause. "You're not to tell anyone I was here. If you do, I will personally hunt you down and destroy you."
"How dare you," Codon spat from the floor.
"No," Nova said, holding up her uninjured hand. "How dare you! I saved your life and you turn on me like the good-for-nothing coward that you are. You will leave and never bother me again."
"How am I supposed to explain what happened here?" Codon said.
"I don't give a damn. That's not my problem."
"There is a fortune of alien tech down there. If the Confederacy thought that I lost it, I'd be thrown into a black-hole."
Codon's voice cracked. He was losing a lot of blood through his knee, and the pain must have been unbearable.
Nova couldn't find much sympathy for him. After everything that they'd done, he betrayed her. Not that she should be surprised. That's how things always played out, in the end.
"You're a smart man, right?" she said, wobbling as a wave of dizziness washed over her.
He didn't reply.
"I'm going to blow that alien tech to the multiverse. Now, weren't there some terrorists here recently?" she said.
Even through the pain, Codon's eyes opened wide.
"There you go," Nova said.
A part of her wanted to see him dead. She wanted to watch him pay for his betrayal. But she'd seen enough death to last a lifetime; she decided that a broken knee would be punishment enough, this time.
"Fine," Codon said, breathless.
"Good," Nova replied. "I would suggest you stay right there until I'm off the vessel."
"I can't exactly go anywhere," Codon ground out. His nostrils flared as he glared at her.
She nodded back and hobbled away. She lurched from one desk to another until she reached the corridor and from there she used the wall to hold herself upright. Cal hovered behind her, his gun still out and ready for any sign of betrayal. She had to stop every few steps to regain her breath and to push past the pain welling inside her. She'd lost track of her injuries and knew only that if she didn't get help soon she'd be dead.
After what felt like a lifetime she reached the small side door. When she opened it, there was just a small drop to the sandy desert below.
She took one last glance, but Codon was nowhere to be seen. She took a deep breath and stepped down from the ship. Her new foot landed on the sand and gave out under her weight. The rest of her body collapsed to the ground in a sprawling heap. New pain surged out of her chest and she succumbed to the darkness.
Nova became aware of a constant beeping and a bright light moving across her closed eyelids. She could hear something moving to her right. The last thing she remembered was falling out of Codon's ship but it didn't feel like she was lying on sand. The surface beneath her was soft but firm.
Her eyes flickered open. There was a bright light above her head and to her right was Cal, floating in the air above her body. At least five of his compartments were open and tools whipped past her head towards her body, out of sight.
"Cal," she said. Her throat was dry and the words stung.
"You're awake!" he said.
"With a lot of trouble I managed to get your lazy body back to Crusader. I don't know how you managed to get so injured."
She didn't have the strength to smile. "Me neither. How long have I been out?"
"Five hours. The Confederacy ship left as soon as you got out."
"Five hours. We've got to get rid of all that stuff. Codon will have Confederacy soldiers swarming this place in no time."
It hurt to talk and to think, all she really wanted to do was sink back into unconsciousness but if she did that then the Confederacy would get hold of the Ancient's technology and that was almost as bad as the Ancient's still being alive.
"I'm taking care of it," Cal said.
Nova clutched her side as she sat on the workbench and leant against Crusader. Cal had barely finished stitching her up but she refused to stay bedridden. Her hand was coated in a soothing gel and wrapped in a thick bandage. Cal had reset her ribs as best he could. She had a box of Parapem strips by her right hand and was popping them like mints.
Cal lugged a fuel canister the size of a small child through Crusader's door and stacked it against four others. Other pieces from the Confederacy ships, including computer hardware and basic weapons, were loaded into the cargo pods; they would fetch a fair price in the shipyards. Luckily the Confederacy vehicles had also been packed with medical supplies because Cal had used everything they had and then some to patch her up.
"How's the fuel-cell coming, Crusader?"
"Whilst I have an interface with the labourbot, it would be faster for you to ask him directly," Crusader replied.
Nova's face flushed hot. How had she gotten the names confused?
"Does it matter who I ask?" she snapped. "Just tell me how long."
"Fifteen minutes until completion," Cal said.
She closed her eyes and leant against the cool wall. Her latest dose of Parapem was starting to wear off and pain was seeping back up from her hand and chest. She shook her head and focused on Cal reattaching a new fuel cell to take her mind off it.
She frowned as she thought about the last few days.
"Did I do the right thing?" she said.
"When?" Cal asked.
"I killed them all," she said. "Who's to say they deserved to die so human colonies could live?"
"That is a question for philosophers," Cal said.
"I don't think they'll ever know."
"Then it's a moot question," Cal said.
"There are still voices everywhere," she said.
"Temporal scans reveal abnormal readings around you," said Cal as he continued to work.
"So what? I'm at risk of falling through time for the rest of my life?"
"Perhaps," Cal said. "The Cloud has no mention of such technology and my processors cannot conceive of such a possibility."
"Great," she said.
"Based on what we've seen, it's exacerbated by your emotions. So stay calm," Cal said.
"Thanks." Her head drooped to stare at the floor.
"Is there any record of something like this happening before?" she asked.
"Some have claimed to be able to reach into time, but they've all been proved hoaxes. You're the only one."
"I don't think I can control it."
"Then one day it will probably kill you."
"Was that a joke?"
She felt sudden vertigo.
"You really should stay calm," Cal continued.
Nova grimaced. The robot was right.
"Just my luck I suppose," she said.
"There's no such thing as luck," Cal replied.
"No, I don't think there is," Nova said, and shivered.
She stared at the monsters at the edge of her vision. They leered back at her, their mouths open.
She took a deep breath and shook the shadows from her shoulders.
"That fuel cell ready?"
"And you set the charges?"
"Alright, let's get out of here."
She limped to the pilot's pod and prepared for ignition. She couldn't remember ever having been so happy to leave a planet, even when she left her childhood home of T… She still couldn't remember its damned name.
She sighed with relief as Crusader's thrusters engaged and they shot away from the planet, leaving the relics of the Ancients far behind.
When they were out of range, Cal initiated the charges and they detonated in a plume of flames. The carefully piled bodies, weapons and ships were engulfed in the extreme heat. By the time Crusader went out of sight, everything was gone. Every last remnant of the Ancients was incinerated and turned into ashes.
Nova grimaced. If her latest run-in with the Confederacy had taught her anything, it was that they couldn't be trusted. She needed to get free of their damned influence and there was only one way to do that. She had to get past the border. The invisible barrier incinerated everything that tried to cross it, everything except Confederacy approved vehicles.
She dreamed of breaking through that fence and making it into true outer space; where even the Confederacy couldn't reach her. There had to be a way to do it; some smugglers could get past. She had a long way to go before she would manage it. Luckily she was out of the Confederacy's radar; at least for now.
She shifted uncomfortably as the chair dug into her injured side.
"Cal, start digging up everything you can on the old colonization ships. They had a way to get past the Confederacy border and we have to find out how they did it. But before we hit soil again I'm going to learn to time travel."
In the wake of the destruction of the Ancients she thought about her new power. She was determined to take control of it because she knew that if she didn't, it would consume her.
Nova's Journey Continues…
After her encounter with the Ancients, Nova is more determined than ever to break free of the Confederacy.
When she arrives on a planet that's been silent for over one hundred and fifty years, she discovers that the planet is far from abandoned.
In order to survive, Nova and her companions must fight.
When a historical enemy emerges, there will be more than their lives at stake.
The Nova Chronicles continue with Book Two: Pilgrim.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Saffron Bryant was born on the 17th December 1990 in a small town in North Queensland. In 2010 she was diagnosed with a brain tumour. After extensive, life-saving surgery she returned to her home in Queensland to recover and finish The Fallen Star. She received a Bachelor of Biomedical Science in 2011.
Saffron has been interested in fantasy and science fiction writing from a very young age, writing her first story at the age of seven. She has always been fascinated by fantasy stories and has a passion for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Saffron currently lives in Sydney with her partner Michael Lee where she is completing her PhD in chemistry.
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EMAIL: [email protected]