Copyright 2015 Saffron Bryant
Published by Saffron Bryant at Smashwords
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To everyone who helped make this book a reality.
A nearby explosion rocked the ground, sending a wave of hot air searing between the broken buildings. Smoke curled up from burnt out vehicles, while falling bricks and the sound of gunfire filled the air. Another barrage of shots sounded, followed by an anguished scream.
Nova ran as fast as she could towards a section of the fallen tower. Broken pieces of civilisation surrounded her but she paid them no attention. To either side she could hear the shouts and running footsteps of her fellow Hunters. Her gaze remained focused on her target.
She came level with the hunk of broken concrete and dived behind its meagre cover. Enemy fire chipped pieces of rock off the top, raining it down onto her shoulders. The rough dirt was filled with sharp pieces of glass and rock that dug into her hands and left bleeding cuts. Other bounty hunters knelt in the dirt at her side.
“What the hell is that thing?” a young man with black hair yelled over the din.
Nova sat panting as she checked her gun and examined the cut on her palm. Blood dribbled down, making her hand slippery. Her breathing came fast and hard; she sounded like a bellows from the Resources District. Her chest ached with the pain of her mad dash for survival. It had all happened so quickly; she’d barely had time to think. Her heart beat out an irregular pattern, thrumming under her ribs like a tribal drum.
The sounds of gunshots drew closer. An explosion to their right erupted in a column of flame and debris. Pieces of broken buildings shot up into the air and came crashing down, shaking the ground like small earthquakes and sending out smaller showers of dirt. The percussion of the explosion washed over her ears and left them ringing.
She ducked her head under her arms while the chunks of building fell. She took a deep breath and shot to her feet, eyeing the enemy. A second later she knelt back behind the wall.
The massive creature looked human although it towered at least twice the height of any man she had ever seen. The man-creature wore heavy armour that repelled any kind of bullet fired at it and reflected the small fires burning across the broken city-scape. Dark clouds swirling overhead were mirrored in the metal shoulders and the sound of its footsteps echoed, making the ground shudder.
The thing had deadly accuracy. The large gun at its side fried anyone unlucky enough to be caught in the blast. Blue bolts of energy streamed through the air, shattering walls, windows, and bodies with equal ferocity. The air sizzled with the power of the shots as static electricity built up across the planet’s surface.
Nova tried to run through options but her head pounded with the sound of battle. Sweat dripped into her eyes and the cut in her hand ached. Her lungs wheezed for air as she recovered from her mad sprint. The worst thing was the screams. They echoed all around her, pained and anguished. She tried not to think about them too much; terrified that she would recognise one of them.
It was supposed to be a simple reconnaissance mission; Aart was sure the Confederacy had a base of operations running from the planet. Too bad for Nova and the Hunters, he’d been right. Nova winced as the events of the last hour replayed in her mind.
They’d landed without a problem, twelve trusted Hunters, and advanced on the city. Smoke swirled up from broken buildings and charred bodies littered the road.
“What the hell?” Gus said, alarmed.
“They’ve already made their move,” Aart whispered.
Deeper in the city they found a Confederacy cruiser; a burning hole cut through the central panels sending black smoke into the air. A trail of damage spread out from the vehicle into the rest of the city. Confederacy soldiers in charred uniforms lay alongside dead citizens.
“Someone got here before us,” said Orion.
“I don’t think so,” said Nova. “Look at the way the damage comes out of the cruiser and just keeps going. The Confederacy idiots brought it with them. Whatever it is.”
“But where is everyone?” said Orion.
Nova bit her lip. “I think they’re either dead or hiding. This place looks like a ghost planet.”
The Hunters stood in silence, surveying the damage. Nova’s hands twitched on her gun, ready in case the enemy leaped from cover. In the quiet a new noise came drifting on the air. It sounded like construction equipment, working at full throttle.
“This way!” Nova called, dashing towards the noise.
Looking back, they should have left the planet right then, but at the time she needed to know what had happened. She needed to find out what the Confederacy were up to, so that she’d be ready. She had no way to know what they’d discover.
“Crap,” said Orion.
Nova’s mouth dropped. In the centre of the city an armoured giant wreaked havoc on the surrounding buildings. Its arms swung and took out a skyscraper, sending the top half of the building toppling to the ground in a spray of concrete.
“The Confederacy is building super-soldiers,” Nova whispered.
“We’ve got to take it out,” said Aart, stepping out of cover.
“Aart, no!” Nova said, snatching the back of his shirt and yanking him back. “We have no idea what it’s capable of. Look at what it’s already done. We leave, and observe from off-planet.”
“No way,” Aart said, shrugging away Nova’s hand. “This is the Confederacy’s latest weapon. We’ve got to take it out while we still have a chance.”
He dashed off before Nova could grab hold of him, running at the creature. He took cover behind a crashed ship further up the street and aimed his gun at the giant. He fired once, hitting the soldier in the centre of its chest.
The soldier barely stumbled. It whipped around to face Aart and lifted a gun the size of a cannon.
Nova’s heart leaped into her throat. Without thinking, she sprinted forward, collecting Aart in her arms, and threw them both to the side of the road.
The searing blast of heat ripped past them, turning the crashed ship into a smoking pile of ash and singeing the back of Nova’s legs. She scrambled to her feet and tossed Aart back towards the rest of the Hunters.
“Run!” she screamed.
“I don’t think that’s an option anymore,” he said, his eyes glued to the creature.
Nova spun around. The super-soldier bore down on them like a four-tonne transporter, its feet crashing into the ground and leaving craters.
From there it had been a mad dash for survival. Three Hunters died in the first few minutes, while the rest scrambled to stay ahead of the super-soldier.
Nova clenched her injured hand and shook her head to get rid of the memories. If they were going to make it the rest of the way to their ships, she had to focus.
“Aart! Go round to the left. Jones, you go right. I’ll take centre. Aim for its head. That seems to be the only place that god-damned armour doesn’t cover.” Nova gripped her gun tight and clenched her jaw as she shouted commands.
She brushed sweat from her forehead and licked the sheen from her top lip. She turned her head to each side to check the others were ready.
“Fire!” she yelled.
The men to either side of her stood and fired, screaming in unison. The heat of battle overcame Nova and her voice joined theirs. Her shoulders vibrated with the power of her gun. It kicked back into her arms but she stood firm.
The three pronged attack slowed the approaching soldier for a few moments; enough time for the three bounty hunters to take aim. They fired and Nova’s heart fluttered as she watched their bullets fly at the creature’s head. She allowed herself to cheer as she watched the bolts slam into its face and begin to burn.
Aart and Jones cried with victory and raised their guns into the air. The large creature stopped in its tracks, the massive footsteps falling quiet for the moment. A burning hole covered half of its face, smoke streaming from the charred flesh. But the creature didn’t collapse.
Nova watched with horrified fascination as the torn muscle began to re-knit itself over the gaping wound. The layers came together and wound around each other, knotting and reattaching. The muscle layers repaired themselves, followed by the skin. The charred ruins transformed themselves into a whole and undamaged face.
The skin, which had been almost completely burnt away spread out from the uninjured areas. The layers reached across the reformed muscle and closed the gaping wound. The creature reached a hand up and tentatively touched the fresh skin. Finding the wound healed, the beast turned to stare at Nova.
Nova backpedalled away from the impossible being. Her head moved from side to side as her mind tried to deny what her eyes had seen. On either side of her, Aart and Jones were similarly falling back, mouths hanging open. Gaping confusion was the only thing they could manage in the face of such impossibility.
A small voice in Nova’s head screamed at her to run, but for now it was overpowered by shock, bolting her feet to the dirt.
“Run!” the voice told her.
“Run!” the voice was more insistent as the monster raised its gun level with Nova.
It wasn’t until a blue bolt careened through the air that Nova’s legs finally began to work. She pushed herself to the side and narrowly missed the oncoming fire. She leaped to her feet and sprinted through the fiery ruins.
“Get out of here!” she bellowed at the other Hunters. In her mind she reached out for Cal. “Cal! Get ready to go, we’re in trouble.”
“Confirmed,” Cal said.
Nova’s feet pounded on the ground. The only thought in her head was to get back to the ships. They’d gone too far in search of the Confederacy soldiers. Now her life depended on getting back to Crusader.
She could still hear Aart and Jones on either side of her, and more Hunters sprinted in front of her. A small part of her was relieved that they’d at least made it this far. The relief was quickly replaced by the sound of the pursuing footsteps beating into her consciousness. The buildings on either side shuddered with the force of the steps. Nova’s neck tingled as she imagined the creature levelling its gun at the back of her head.
“Down, Nova!” Gus’s voice bellowed from somewhere to Nova’s left.
She dived for the ground, her elbows scraping the pavement and leaving behind tatters of skin. Stinging pain shot up her arms as she tucked her head down, her forehead pressing against the rough dirt.
A blast of energy careened over her head. The heat rolled over her in a wave that burned her exposed flesh. The air became so hot that it stung to breathe, leaving her lungs scorched and a deep ache in her chest. Sharp tears came to her eyes as she coughed and spluttered, pushing herself back to her feet.
She hobbled forward, glancing back in time to see Gus firing at the super-soldier, drawing its focus. She turned back to her arms, they glowed red as if she’d been sunbaking for days. The skin pulled tight, as if it had shrunk in the last few seconds and each movement made it stretch, sending new shots of pain through her.
She gasped, but kept moving. The fear gave her a new burst of speed and she powered on past broken ruins and smoking rubble. The ancient city hadn’t been much when they’d got here; now there was nothing left. The historical structures were either burning or crumbled and there wasn’t any sign left of the incredible artistry which had gone into the civilisation. Which only left the question, what was the Confederacy doing on a planet like this?
In the distance, highlighted by a number of fires, was Crusader. The simple ship looked as if it almost belonged here amongst the rubble, but Nova had never been happier to see the beat-up craft. The dents, scrapes, and missing paint made her heart rise. She had a chance. She could make it.
In a group around Crusader were the other ships. A part of Nova knew that some of them would never leave the planet; she had seen her companion Hunters fall to the creature’s bullets. But for now she pushed the thoughts from her mind. For now all that mattered was getting to Crusader.
At first the ship was over one hundred metres away, an impossible distance to cover with the creature hot on her heels. Her breath burned in her lungs as her feet pounded on, wheeling in a frenzied sprint. She looked up again and the ship was fifty metres, ten metres, one metre… and then Nova was falling through Crusader’s sliding door. She hit the metal floor hard, choking on the smoke that had filled her over-worked lungs. Behind her, Crusader’s door slid closed and the noise of battle outside quietened somewhat.
“Provide cover fire!” she yelled through her coughs.
Crusader’s engines sprung to life beneath her prone body, sending the ship into the air. The caustic smoke and heat had burned away the lining of her throat and lungs and they seared with agony. She wheezed in a desperate attempt for more air as she coughed and spluttered.
She used the wall to drag her scorched body off the floor, before stumbling to the command pod. Just as she was about to turn the final corner, a buzzing sound caught her attention. She managed to step to one side just before the orb-like robot careened through the air she had vacated. The robot stopped and whirled around until it hovered level with Nova’s face.
“Systems indicate urgent medical attention is required. Please prepare for scanning,” the Class 4 Labourbot said in a mechanical voice.
“I’m fine Cal,” Nova said, waving her hand at him. It was the wrong gesture, in a single second Cal had grabbed hold of Nova’s wrist with a thin pincer and his single lens-like eye gazed intently at the cut. The robot’s inner workings could be heard ticking and whirring as they analysed Nova’s injury.
She groaned and rolled her eyes as Cal tisked with disapproval. A panel on Cal’s side lifted up and another spindly metal arm came out. This one held a white bandage that he held against Nova’s hand to wipe away the blood. The bandage was followed by anti-septic and Second-Skin and in no time at all the cut on Nova’s hand had almost entirely disappeared.
“Thank you,” Nova said, feeling the small cut with her other hand. She flexed the arm and the flashing pain was gone.
She collapsed into the command chair with a gasp of pain from her burnt skin and stared out of the front screen through blurry eyes.
On the ground, Gus and Orion were still fighting. The creature had them cornered against a building, away from the ships. They fired a stream of plasma blasts at the creature’s face, but it seemed not to notice.
“Get them out of there,” Nova gasped.
Crusader flew in close and the weapons systems came online. The ship shuddered as it shot balls of fiery energy at the creature’s back. The ships weapons were more powerful than the small handguns and sent the super-soldier stumbling forward.
It turned to the ship, lifting its weapon.
“Evasive action,” Nova said.
Crusader swerved left just as a blue bolt of energy careened at them.
“Go higher.” Nova watched as the small figures of Gus and Orion darted out from behind the creature and dashed towards their ships.
“There appears to be an anomaly,” Cal said.
“What?” Nova said, biting her lip as Crusader swerved around another blast.
“There is a hole in the creature’s head, not consistent with the rest of its physiology.” As Cal spoke a grainy picture filled part of the screen. Obscured by smoke, the top of the creature’s head loomed up from the rest of its body, and sure enough, a gaping hole opened up at the top.
“It’s weird, but I don’t think it’s really important now,” Nova said, gripping the armrest as a blast caught Crusader and made the ship drop through the air.
“Aim fire at the hole,” Cal said.
Crusader obeyed and the next shot blasted into the creature’s head.
“What the hell, Cal!” Nova said. “This is my ship.”
The soldier wavered on its feet, hands reaching for its head. It groaned as its knees collapsed and it fell to the ground, sending up a wave of dust.
“Target neutralised,” Cal said.
“What?” Nova’s mouth dropped and she turned to stare at the robot. “Cal, I love you.”
Cal hovered away from her. “I’m afraid humans aren’t my type,” he said, voice wavering.
Nova groaned. “Damn robot. Right Crusader, get us out of here!”
The planet disappeared below, the black surface glowing with intermittent fires.
Nova’s black hair reflected the red glow of the burning planet and her violet eyes took in the carnage. She sighed as she saw the Hunter ships that wouldn’t leave the planet’s surface; they had been good people, mostly.
“That was unexpected,” a new voice came over Crusader’s secure communication channel.
The front screen showed the blackness of space as her small ship careened through the openness. Usually the video display would have shown Aart’s face. She wasn’t surprised to see that he had turned it off in favour of a simple call-sign avatar. She didn’t much feel like being seen either.
“Hey Aart,” she said. Her stomach released some of its tension; at least Aart had survived.
“Nice save on Gus and Orion.”
“I seem to remember saving your arse too,” she said, running a hand through her matted hair.
“Yeah, but that just makes us even for me saving you from those slug things on Taive.”
Nova groaned. She couldn’t face another competition with Aart, not when every breath burned her lungs like fire.
“What was that thing?” she asked, changing the subject.
“No idea. One tough son of a bitch though.”
“Got that right,” another voice joined them on the intercom. Nova recognised Gus’s call sign. “I’ve heard rumours of new super-soldiers popping up. Guess we just met one.”
“But where did the Confederacy get it from?” Nova said, leaning forward in her chair and staring intently at the dark of space in front of her.
“Looked human enough,” said Aart.
“Yeah. I’m just glad we made it out. Dent and Harvey didn’t make it,” Gus said and a silence filled the intercom.
“What a trip, right?” said Aart after a few moments. His tone was upbeat, although he always did seem to be immune to tragedy.
“Yeah.” Nova rubbed her tired eyes and only then noticed the ache pervading her muscles.
Aart, also known as Artemis Goldson was the quintessential go-getter. His hand was always the first to go up for dangerous missions and his foolhardiness was beaten only by his bravery. Aart rarely talked about his past, before joining the Hunters, but Nova knew he’d had it tough; as much as he might try and hide it. He and Nova had a long history; they protected each other like siblings, but they fought like siblings too.
Their most recent disagreement regarded Aart’s sudden desire to take up a rebellion against the Confederacy. For the moment, the giant soldier had wiped the argument from both their minds.
“Woohoo! Live to see another day!” Aart cheered through the intercom.
Nova rolled her eyes and terminated the connection.
“Shall we return to The Jagged Maw?” Crusader asked. Like most ships, Crusader’s voice was soft, designed to instil calm into passengers. Nova had tried to modify it once before but it was more work than it was worth and Crusader’s voice had grown on her over the years.
“No, I don’t think I can face it there right now. Besides, we’ve got another job to go to.”
“To Drigoon then?”
“Set the course,” Nova said, standing up from the controls.
All she wanted at that moment was a warm shower. It felt as if every inch of her was covered with dirt and blood. Her thick trousers had held up against the rocky ground and her desperate sprint for survival, but the singlet she had on was ruined. She ignored her tattered clothing for the moment and stomped through her ship. Her thick boots made a loud clunk with each step.
As she washed, she tried not to think about her fallen comrades; a part of her was actually glad that they had fallen and not her friends. What if Aart had died, or Orion? She’d tried to save them all but the super-soldier was too much, they’d been out-gunned and taken by surprise.
Nova shook the thoughts from her head and focused instead on the upcoming job. She wouldn’t usually take security but this one had been too good to pass up.
Drigoon was a ‘tamed planet’. It had been hostile to human civilization but along came Terraform Incorporated and bam, a brand new planet to live on was born. Terraform Incorporated was the big name in terraforming, one of the biggest growing industries of the century. During her background reading, Nova had found that the head honcho of Terraform Inc. had styled himself as President of the tamed planet. She had to chuckle at the thought.
The next day was the big ‘planet-opening’ ceremony and everyone who was anyone in the terraforming business was going to be there. It was predicted to be an utterly dull affair but the new President had insisted on external security.
At first Nova had ignored the bounty ad but then she seemed to be seeing the President’s name everywhere. Geron Feders, President of Drigoon. He was definitely making a splash and if nothing else, his tamed planet, Drigoon, sounded like a blast. It had been populated hundreds of years ago with plant life, but was deathly toxic to animals, including humans. It was something to do with the atmosphere; too much carbon dioxide. She was looking forward to seeing it; a planet inhabited solely by plants was bound to be interesting.
She stepped out of the shower just as Crusader’s engines kicked into full gear and propelled them towards Drigoon.
Nova woke up to one of Cal’s thin metal arms poking her in the ribs.
“Oi!” she yelled, shoving his pincer away.
“We’re nearly at Drigoon,” Cal said without apology, floating out of Nova’s sleeping pod.
She sat for a few moments on her bed, cursing the robot under her breath. Eventually she managed to push herself up and hobble to the food generator. She stood for a few moments studying the front of the machine, still half asleep.
She shook herself and reached out a hand to rest on top of the appliance as she gathered her thoughts and decided what, exactly, she wanted for breakfast. The red cut on her hand stood out against the rest of her flesh; it must have been worse than she’d thought if it was still there even after a healthy application of Second-Skin.
“Muesli!” Nova said as if in triumph. “I want cold muesli.”
The food generator sprung to life and Nova’s mind relaxed now that the decision had been made. She took the bowl and carried it to her command chair.
“Let’s see it,” she said around a mouthful of food.
Crusader obliged and the blacked out front screen flickered into life. Taking up half the visual was a small green planet, with a few splashes of colour scattered across it. Swirling clouds dotted the landscape where storms pounded the planet’s surface. Carved into the centre of the green mass was a silver dome with long spindles spreading out from it.
The silver mass was President Geron’s creation; the base of operations for the terraforming project. The silver dome normally housed the workers and their families, but tonight it played host to far wealthier occupants. The terra-forming project was still in its early stages as the atmosphere had yet to be converted, and so on any other day the complex would be swarming with workers.
As Crusader got closer to the silver dome and its attached landing bay, the green mass resolved itself into trees and plants. The green leaves stretched out and the foliage was so thick it would be impossible for a person to walk through it without taking hours to hack away at the branches and vines.
“How did the original plant life come to be here?” Nova asked.
“Exact source is unknown,” Crusader responded. “Most likely source is debris from passing crafts.”
Nova nodded and continued to stare down at the planet. Coming from the desert planet of Tabryn she was amazed by the rampant plant life of Drigoon.
“Are you planning to sign up for security wearing your pyjamas?” Cal enquired from a few feet back.
Nova’s eyes narrowed as she turned to look at the hovering robot. She said nothing as she deliberately put her bowl down on the control unit and stomped to her sleeping quarters.
By the time Nova pulled on her long black trousers, simple singlet, and thick boots, Crusader had flown through the double doors and into the dome’s landing bay. She grabbed up her signature trench-coat and pulled her arms through the sleeves. She reached the outer door just as a sharp knock came from the other side. She glanced at the video display and saw two large men standing outside her ship.
“Drigoon security,” the bigger man barked through the intercom.
Nova rolled her eyes at their posturing and took the time to shove a large gun into the holster at her waist.
“Open her up,” she called out. Crusader obeyed.
The silver door slid open with a hiss. Nova stood in front and above the two men with her hands on her hips. They looked up at her with sour expressions.
“Planet’s closed to tourists,” the first man said.
“I should think so,” Nova said, jumping down from Crusader to the metal floor below. The two men had to step backwards to avoid her leap. She took her time to take in the air-tight landing bay and the other ships.
“Look, you and your trash heap of a ship are going to have to turn around and go back to whatever backwater planet you came from.”
The big man crossed his arms over his chest and stared down at Nova. He had a square jaw with black stubble shading his chin that matched his short black hair and dark eyes. The second man stood a head shorter and took his cues from his bigger companion.
“Nova. I’m here for security,” she said, rolling her eyes at the men and holding out her arm for scanning.
The larger man scowled at her and pulled a scanner from his belt. He held the device over Nova’s arm and it beeped once. The man lifted the device up to stare at the display and his scowl deepened.
“I don’t know why the President has called in you bloody lot. More likely to cause problems than stop them.”
“Either way I’m here. And you are?” Nova asked, her own tone becoming terse.
“Head of security. Bruce,” the man said through clenched teeth.
“Excellent. Now if you could tell me which way to go, I’ll be on my way,” she said, utterly tired of the two men.
“Down the corridor you’ll find the sign-in desk. One hint of trouble and you’ll be off this planet before you can blink,” Bruce said.
Nova brought her hand up and saluted Bruce as she walked away.
The landing bay already had a number of ships; most of them the high-end type. Nova took her time walking towards the corridor, admiring the ships as she went. Sure, Crusader was good but imagine having a ship that could leap twice the distance in warp? Or contained a space vacuum so it that it was bigger on the inside than the outside?
She left the landing bay down a metal corridor. It could hold three people walking side by side and the ceiling was out of Nova’s reach. The simple silver walls lacked decoration except for the occasional numbered door.
She ignored the side passages for now and came to a stop at a chest high counter behind which stood two young women. Their eyes glistened with inserted silver flakes (all the rage in some galaxies) and their wide smiles seemed almost pinned on.
“Hello there, how may we help you?”
Nova leant her elbows on the counter and measured the two before her. Deciding they were no threat, she held out her arm.
“I’m here for security detail,” she said.
“Well, isn’t that just wonderful?” one woman said. She was dressed from head to toe in a pink so bright it made Nova’s eyes water.
Nova said nothing and continued to hold out her arm. The woman behind the counter pulled out a scanner very much like Bruce’s and held it over Nova’s arm. With a quick nod the woman pressed a green button on the side of the scanner. There was a whirring noise and a moment later a simple plastic card slid out of the bottom of the device.
The woman pulled it out and looked from the card to Nova and back again. “That all seems to be in order.”
“You use hard-cards?” Nova asked with her eyebrows raised, she hadn’t seen one in years.
“Oh, yes. President Geron likes to remind people where we’ve come from.” The woman’s smile hadn’t moved throughout the whole conversation.
“Cool,” Nova said, although she didn’t really mean it.
“Now you just need one of these. Make sure that’s pinned where people can see it at all times or you may just find yourself shot,” said the woman, smiling.
Nova frowned but took hold of the plastic card and the simple clipping device. Nova’s photograph took up one side of the card, next to large letters that read ‘Security’.
“The event starts tomorrow, after sundown, but you may want to admire the dome first,” the woman finished with a smile so wide and so white that Nova had to look away.
Nova did as the woman had suggested. She walked down corridor after corridor and checked each unlocked door. The dome was filled with rooms, and seemed impossibly large on the inside. It would easily be able to hold ten thousand people, more than enough to start Drigoon off on its way to a fully-fledged planet.
Amongst the sleeping quarters sat a tasteful viewing platform with glass windows that looked out over Drigoon. Set into one side was a thick metal door that was covered in warning signs in a myriad of languages: “Do not open door without clearance and safety gear”.
Nova turned from the door to the green planet spread out before her. The sign’s intention became immediately clear. Directly outside the glass began the jungles of Drigoon, but these trees weren’t all harmless. As Nova watched, she saw green trunks moving across the ground.
Her eyes narrowed as she watched them, but it wasn’t an illusion. These plants crept across the planet’s surface on their roots; moving from one spot to another to find water or sunlight. The excess carbon dioxide had given these plants a level of intelligence that Nova had never seen in plant life before. A part of her wondered what would happen to them when the terraforming project started to convert the atmosphere.
One particular plant sidled right up to the glass and seemed to look through at Nova, although of course that would be impossible; the thing had no eyes. Still, it sent a tingle down her spine which was in no way helped when the thing opened its leaves to reveal a gaping hole surrounded by sticky teeth.
Nova was sure the display couldn’t get any stranger when the creature leant back and whipped forward, spitting a globule of green mucous from its mouth onto the glass. The blob dripped down the glass as the plant walked away, bored.
Nova strolled up to the glass and laid a hand on one side. The surface was warm from the green bile sliding down the other side. When the stuff hit the earth at the bottom of the glass it hissed and smoked as it burned a hole into the grass.
She shook her head at the sight. Who would choose to live in a place like this?
Only parts of the dome were open, and as well as the viewing platform and many sleeping quarters, Nova came across a gym, five restaurants and common rooms, and finally a very large bar. She walked inside and let her eyes run over the room. She was just taking in the fake wooden bar-top and surrounding tables when a large hand slapped down on her back.
She turned, her hand already reaching for her gun belt.
“Whoa, Nova; chill out.” A young man stood smiling at her and Nova’s guard dropped.
“I didn’t think this would be your sort of gig, running security for a tycoon?”
Nova shrugged as she looked at the patrons scattered throughout the room. “Just a bit of a change.”
“A big change, not many of your er- calibre here. I guess that puts you in charge of the Hunters.” Jack winked.
Nova groaned and rolled her eyes. She and Jack had run missions together when they were younger, before she joined The Jagged Maw and he moved to the Inner Galaxies to do personal security. He’d been a good friend and mentor when she was first finding her feet and there weren’t many people she’d rather work with, especially after her recent experience with the super-soldier.
“I heard about your recent run-in,” Jack’s voice dropped. “Poor Dent and Harvey.”
Nova nodded but refused to say more about the failed mission.
“Oh, heads up for the newbie,” Jack said, jutting his chin towards the figure just entering the bar.
The thin boy had a round, young face. Nova frowned at him, her eyes opening wide when she saw his name tag: Security.
“He’s a Hunter?” she asked. She watched the boy walk through the room with stiff steps and sit down in a rigid-backed chair.
“Just off the runaway train,” Jack said, referencing the many children who entered bounty hunting after running away from home.
“Look at him,” Nova said. The boy sat with hunched shoulders and wide eyes as he looked around. Many eyes looked back at him; mostly other Hunters.
“Obviously hasn’t made it into The Jagged Maw yet,” Jack said.
Nova nodded, and with the inexperienced way he looked around the room it would be some time before he was accepted into that particular club. It wasn’t the richest or the most glamourous of the bounty hunter guilds, but there was a tough entry bar. The Jagged Maw Hunters were known for their metal, their rock-hard spines and daring.
A part of Nova wanted to go over and point out the gaping blindside to his back right. Or how the way he sat impeded access to his gun. But of course, she wouldn’t say a thing; it was up to him to either make it as a Hunter or not.
“There are a few of us here,” Jack said.
Nova nodded. It was good pay for what would no doubt be a routine mission. She had already nodded her head to other Hunters she recognised from The Jagged Maw.
“Want a drink?” Jack said.
Nova nodded again. There was nothing better to do now that she’d scoped out the rest of the dome. They shuffled through the crowded bar to the main bench where bright red stools were scattered around, some of them occupied. Nova headed straight for the empty end of the bar and slumped down into a red stool, gesturing to the barman.
Jack took a seat next to Nova and nodded at the bartender for a drink.
The bartender placed two cold glasses on the bar and nodded as Nova slid her credstick towards him.
“To rich guys who need protecting,” Nova said, clinking her glass against his.
“I’ve been listening to the radios. There’s a real blow up over that mission you were just on. I knew we lost a few but what’s this I’m hearing about monsters?” Jack asked. His brows drew together and he looked at Nova with a frown.
Nova sighed and scraped her fingernail along the wooden bar. The new bench had a smooth polish that reflected the lights overhead. The bar smelled like almost any other; alcohol, sweat, perfume, and a faint tinge of smoke. A mellow noise pervaded the air; this was a bar made more for conversation than raucous fights.
“I don’t know what it was,” Nova said, still not lifting her eyes from the spotless bar.
“What did it look like?” Jack asked. His tone was hushed and his eyes ran over the room.
“Human mostly. But it was massive. You have no idea. And it was rabid; unstoppable almost.”
“Could it have evolved on an outer planet like Zeaton?”
“No way. That place is pretty much a wasteland now, but even when it was populated, humans were the biggest predator. Plus, this thing was man-made; no doubt.”
“Someone put it there?”
“Confederacy. The trail of damage led straight out of their ship,” said Nova.
“What were the Confederacy doing there?” Jack asked. “And on the same point, what were you doing there?”
Nova gave him a stern look before gazing back down at her drink. “We weren’t there for a job.”
“Why the hell else would you go?” Jack asked, leaning in closer.
Nova looked up and stared around the room. Everyone was involved in their own private conversations.
“Aart’s got crazy ideas. He thought there might be evidence there.”
“Evidence of what?”
“Whatever the Confederacy is up to, and maybe how to stop them,” Nova whispered. She trusted Jack with her life but the rest of the people on Drigoon could be Confederacy spies for all she knew.
“What?” Jack hissed and sat back in his chair. His eyes whirled around the room and the colour drained from his face. “Nova, are you crazy? You could be dropped into a black hole just for thinking about saying that.”
“I know,” Nova said. “And I’ve told him that a hundred times but he won’t listen. And you know I can’t just let him wander in on his own.”
“He’s obviously lost his mind. You should definitely let him wander in on his own,” Jack said. He took a hearty swig of his drink. It seemed to calm his nerves somewhat.
“You don’t know the half of it,” Nova said, taking her own sip.
“Did you find anything?”
“No, that thing found us first. We had to run for our lives.”
“Do you think someone put it there to scare you off?”
“I don’t think it was intentional,” Nova said. “There were a lot of Confederacy bodies mixed in with the others.”
“Tell me about it,” Nova said, her voice dry.
“Then tell Aart to pull his head in,” Jack said. “The Confederacy has been especially on edge lately. They’ll sooner kill him then listen to what he’s got to say.”
“I’ve told him that a hundred times,” said Nova, with a sigh.
Jack took a long swallow. “You know there are a few of the big names here.”
“Yep. The one with the red suit is Goffredo. He runs all the trade in and out of the Inner Galaxy.”
“Wow. What’s he doing all the way out here? Surely he could retire to Haven whenever he wanted?”
“Yeah, I believe he’s here to support Geron. Word is they’ve become pretty close.”
“Good for Geron.”
“You bet. I can only imagine the type of house Goffredo lives in. The woman drinking the tall glass of neon blue is Zorka. She owns half of the Pleasure District and a few moons in the Inner Galaxy. The one over in the corner watching everyone is Tibor. He’s Chief Secretary of the Human Confederacy. He knows pretty much everything there is to know about the Confederacy.”
“If he’s a chief, what the hell is he doing out here on a backwater planet? Doesn’t he have minions for that?”
“Ah, but that’s how he got so much power. He just sits and listens, learns everybody’s secrets and then uses them to get what he wants. You can’t hire minions for that.”
Nova swallowed and burned the man’s image to her memory. A man holding secrets could often be more dangerous than a man with a gun.
“Yep, and there’s a heap more in here who are worth more than you and I ever will be. I guess the rich and famous want to get in on this booming terra-forming business.”
“And how do you, a lowly bounty hunter, come to know all these people?” Nova asked, finishing her drink and pushing it onto the bar.
“One of the benefits of being in personal security. Sure, you get to run around getting shot at in your job, but I get to meet people; get to know how things work,” Jack said.
“Lucky you,” said Nova. She nodded to the barman for a refill and took the time to study each of the people Jack had pointed out. If she was going to be any help to Aart and stop him from getting himself killed, she should probably know what they were up against.
“How’s that girl you’re always hanging out with?”
“Tanguin?” Nova asked.
“Yeah the Ex-Connected one.”
“I believe they prefer the term Un-Connected,” Nova said. “And she’s good. She usually stays in The Jagged Maw, helps the rest of us out with computer stuff from there.”
“Sweet gig,” said Jack.
“I think I’d go mad if I stayed there all the time,” said Nova.
“Ha! That’s because you don’t know how to settle down. Got too much going on in that head of yours,” Jack said, tapping his index finger against Nova’s temple.
“That’s the truth.”
“I saw you win the annual space-race. That was some fine flying,” Jack said, shaking his head. “The way you knocked Kero out; incredible.”
“He made it easy, with his head so far up his arse he couldn’t see where he was going.”
“Ha! Sounds like good old Kero,” Jack said. “But I say we let go of work for a few minutes. I bet I can still kick your arse in a game of pool.”
“They have a pool table here?” Nova asked. The ancient game seemed out of place on the newly terraformed planet, unlike Tabryn where the game fit in with the seedy underbelly just perfectly.
“Yep, it’s round the back.”
“Alright, ten credits says you lose,” Nova said.
“You’re on,” Jack replied. He turned to the closest occupied table. “Hey Gin and Lenny, if you want to watch Nova get smashed in a game of pool, please step this way.”
The Hunters grinned at Jack and dropped down from their stools to follow the pair into the backroom where a pool table stood. It was perfect; bereft of all the scratches, scrapes, and rings of moisture which characterised most pool tables.
Nova grinned and pulled a cue down from the wall. This one was in the bag.
“Zorka, isn’t it?” Nova said as she stepped up to the woman. She’d given Jack a good thrashing and was ready to jump back into work.
The gorgeous woman in front of her sported all the latest mods, including glowing gold hair and an extended neck. Her dress looked expensive; bright red with lines of gold running through it, cut just right to show off all of her shapely assets.
“Yes, and who are you?” Zorka asked.
She looked down her nose at Nova and the small badge pronouncing Security.
“My name is Nova. I just wanted to talk to you about the Pleasure District,” Nova said. Her heart raced. If someone from the Confederacy-controlled Inner Galaxies got wind of Aart’s intensions, then they would all be dropped into a black hole. She had to tread carefully.
“Oh. I suppose about fifty credits. Although it would be a very specific set of clientele, and you’d definitely need a few mods,” Zorka said, running her eyes over Nova.
“What?” Nova said. Her eyes opened wide as realisation struck and her cheeks glowed red. “No, that’s not what I meant. I don’t need a job.”
Zorka stared down her nose at Nova. “Hmm. We’ll see.”
“Anyway,” Nova said, clearing her throat. “I was just wondering if there were any plans to expand the Inner Galaxies to include the Pleasure District? I’m from Tabryn and there was a lot of military activity last time I was there.”
Zorka’s eyes narrowed as she looked back at Nova. At first she said nothing; her glowing eyes were disconcerting as they stared deep into Nova’s face.
“As far as I know there are no such plans. And I assure you, if there were you would be one of the last people I would tell about it,” Zorka said. She turned her back on Nova and strutted away, ending the conversation.
“Well, I tried,” Nova muttered to herself.
As it turned out, Zorka was the friendliest of the Confederacy officials she spoke to. Nova didn’t spend much time with people from the Inner Galaxies and she was beginning to see what Aart was talking about. There was a definite class system, at least in their eyes.
Nova returned to her chair and surveyed the room. It was getting late, most of the bar room had cleared out. Jack and his friends had staggered out an hour ago, shouting and yelling. Nova shook her head; hopefully they would have recovered by the next day. She took a seat which put her back to the wall where she could see everyone coming and going. It was also conveniently close to a nearby table where Goffredo was regaling some ladies with stories of the Inner Galaxies.
“What about the riots?” one girl asked.
“Yes, we heard about them. It sounded awful,” said another.
“It was a bloody mess,” Goffredo said. “The Confederacy had to send in a whole unit to subdue them.”
“What happened?” The first girl’s eyes widened.
“Well, and you have to keep this to yourself; we’re not supposed to talk about it in case the others get ideas.”
“Some of the outers got it into their heads that they were being mistreated. Decided to go on a killing spree. All of a sudden they up and started killing their supervisors.”
Nova had to stop herself from snorting. She’d travelled to the Resources District on a few occasions and the way the supervisors treated the workers was appalling. The supervisors were installed by the Human Confederacy, probably by Goffredo himself if he was in charge of trade, while the workers were born into the work.
The labour was backbreaking and punishment for not meeting quota was medieval. But, of course, the Confederacy didn’t do anything about it. As long as they kept getting their precious metals, there was no problem.
“It was bad,” said Goffredo. “We had to kill over a thousand rioters. They couldn’t be saved; too insane you see.”
“We couldn’t have them going off and hurting more people. Then we had to lock up another five thousand. They’ll be released back in the lower mines, once they’ve been reprogrammed of course.”
“I would have gotten rid of the thugs completely,” the girl said with a sniff.
“There’s no media there at the moment. The place is a wasteland. No food, all the water is contaminated, and the air is filled with smoke. Half of them probably won’t survive anyway. It’s their own faults, mind you. They’re the ones that set fire to the fields and the shipping bays. We’ve blocked all transport except for Confederacy vehicles, at least until the situation calms down.”
“It’s such a shame. They should just appreciate what they’re given, you know? I mean, we do,” the girl said, taking a long sip on a tall red glass filled with sweet liqueur.
“You have to punish them, you see, to keep them in line. Otherwise they get all these ideas and before you know it, you’ve got rebellion on your hands. Can you imagine if steel production suddenly stopped? There’d be chaos! So we have to rule with an iron fist,” Goffredo explained.
“Of course.” One of the girls giggled.
“Anyway, they like it. They would be nothing but savages without us. Just look at some of the other Outer Galaxies, the way they run around half naked throwing sticks at each other. It’s barbaric. And that’s exactly what would happen to the Resources District if we went soft. I mean it’s not their fault, they’re just born with less intelligence, so it’s our job to make sure they stay on track.”
Nova bit her tongue and tucked her hands deep into her pockets. There was only so much pompous crap she could listen to in one evening. She’d found no information for Aart but at least it was money for nothing. She shuffled out of the bar room and left the clinking glasses and loud voices far behind.
The next day was uneventful. Most people, Jack included, spent the morning sleeping off the revelries of the night before. The rest were busy with preparations for the big ceremony. The main conference room had been decorated for the occasion with a stage in the centre and the rest of the space cleared for guests.
Sometime before the ceremony Nova took up her place by the stage, wearing simple clothing and her security badge pinned to her chest. She was sure to get a position where she could keep one eye on the crowd and one on the President at all times. She had already checked and rechecked her gun, so now all that was left was to wait and watch.
The crowd gradually grew as the night went on. Mostly they seemed like bored dignitaries; not the type to shoot a president, Nova thought.
A hush fell over the crowd as a side door opened and a tall man with black hair, greying at the temples, emerged. He walked with long steps and smiled and waved at the cheering crowd as he went up the stairs two at a time to the wide stage.
Walking behind President Geron Feders, and out of the spotlight, was a woman. She was past middle-age with brown hair that bounced around her shoulders without a single sign of greying. Nova wasn’t surprised - almost all rich women had their hair replaced before any grey began to show. The woman wore makeup that glistened in the bright lights of the hall and her arms were weighed down with shiny jewellery.
Nova recognised the woman as Meaghan Feders, Geron’s wife. The woman walked with stiff formality and didn’t look at the crowd as she strode across the stage and took a seat next to Geron. Geron continued to smile and wave at the crowd.
The next figure to emerge from the side door was a younger man, the elusive Dustin Feders. Nova recognised him straight away as Geron’s son. They had the same jet black hair, although Dustin’s had no hint of grey. Dustin’s face was serious, with a slight sneer curling his lips. Unlike his father, Dustin did not sport a formal suit, but wore tattered jeans and shirt. The boy sauntered across the stage, ignoring the crowd. He took a seat on the other side of Geron, as far from Meaghan as he could. During Nova’s research for the mission it had become clear that Dustin was no fan of his step-mother and the feeling was mutual.
When the family was seated, Geron stood up and walked to the centre of the stage.
“Good evening friends and colleagues,” Geron’s voice projected across the room thanks to the tiny microphone attached to the back of his teeth.
There was a massive cheer from the crowd, clearly President Feders had many fans already on Drigoon. It was no surprise really; his terraforming project had made many of those gathered here today rich.
“I would like to welcome you all to the new and improved Drigoon.”
Another cheer went up.
“I’m sure you’ll all agree that life inside the dome is nothing but pleasant.”
A lot of clapping accompanied this statement and he had to wave his hand to quieten the crowd again.
“There are many people I need to thank for the success of the terraforming project.”
Geron’s voice continued to drone on but Nova paid it little attention, instead she gazed out at the crowd. Mostly they seemed fixated on his words and there were no suspicious movements amongst the ranks.
The sound of a thunderstorm outside the dome became louder, thunder rolling across the sky. Through a small window, Nova watched trees get torn from the ground and tossed through the air. Inside, the dome remained still. The howling could only just be made out over the crowd, but it was there, just at the edge of Nova’s hearing. She could picture the rain pelting down on the green mass which made up most of Drigoon. A part of her wondered what the bile-spitting plants did when the storms came.
Her gaze slid back to the President just as the lights flickered. They were off for barely a second but Nova was already poised, knees bent and hand resting on the gun at her waist.
She glared around the room. Everyone else seemed just as surprised. The small disturbance didn’t distract Geron. He continued with his speech.
“Never mind the storms; they come and go like a plague on this planet, but our generators will—”
An almighty crash of lighting sounded overhead and the room plunged into darkness.
In the extended darkness, panic erupted. Nova’s hand closed around her gun and she pulled it from the holster at her hip, pointing it down beside her leg she flicked a switch on the side. A pool of light spread out from the gun and lit a circle of floor at her feet.
She didn’t hesitate as she moved through the crowd. She felt people bumping into her in their rush to get past. She hurried to the stage and lifted herself up onto the raised platform, levelling her gun so that the light shone out in front of her. The stage was empty. Geron, his wife, and his son were nowhere to be seen.
Nova jumped down from the stage and made her way back through the crowd. Over the din of voices and yelling she could hear the hired Hunters trying to maintain control of the crowd. She spotted other pools of light where other Hunters were stationed. She nodded to herself as she felt the crowd begin to calm.
Moans of pain rose over the din as injured people who were trampled in the initial stampede called out for help. For the moment she ignored them; she was hired to protect the President, so that’s what she would do.
She weaved her way to the main exit as her mind raced over the few moments before the lights went out. Geron had been talking; his wife and son were seated behind him. Who else was there? There had been the large security guard, Bruce, and a thinner man who had glared down at the crowd.
Maybe the security guard had taken Geron and his family out to safety as soon as the lights went out? The more Nova considered the possibility, the more likely it seemed. There had been no cries of alarm or pain from the stage; the President had disappeared quietly and quickly.
“We’ve got a few injured but nothing too serious. No sign of the President,” a voice crackled over the communication device at Nova’s waist.
“Moving out into the corridor now,” Nova replied.
To the chip embedded in her brain, Nova sent other thoughts. “Cal! What’s going on with the power in here?”
The familiar voice kicked in. “Some kind of electrical activity. The circuits were fried but it looks like maintenance bots are fixing it now. They predict full power within five minutes.”
“Good,” Nova said, mostly to herself, and continued her sweep down the corridor.
Silence filled the dark passageway and the light from Nova’s gun didn’t seem to quite reach all of the corners. She turned from side to side, wary of every noise, but she encountered no one as she moved along.
She followed the path she had memorised; from the main hall to the President’s quarters. Surely if the security personnel had led the President to safety they would take him there.
Nova encountered no one as she walked down the unlit passageways, and in a way that was worse than the mad panic of the hall. She could almost feel eyes watching her as she moved down the corridor and goose-bumps ran down her arms. She shook the feelings off.
In a sudden flash of brilliance the overhead lights came on. She jumped at the sudden glow and held her hands over her eyes, temporarily blinded. She rested her hand against the wall and flicked off the light on her gun. It took a while for her eyes to adjust to the new brightness. After that, her passage was easy.
She moved at a fast pace, turning left, left again, and then right, on her way to the President’s quarters.
10 Minutes after Power-Out…
“Ah, Nova. We’ve got a problem,” Jack’s voice came over her communicator.
“Tell me about it,” Nova agreed.
“No one can find Geron,” Jack said. “And there’s blood on the floor. The medbot says it’s a match to the President.”
Nova stopped in her tracks. “Grishnak! What do you know?”
“No one has seen him. I’ve got his family here, but they haven’t seen him since he was giving the speech. There’s no sign of him in the living quarters either.”
“Dammit!” Nova said, slamming her fist against the nearest wall. This was the last thing she needed, a President going missing on her watch? It was enough to cause an intergalactic disaster.
“We need to put this place on shut down right now,” Nova said. “Send your two best men to hold the shipping bay. I don’t want anyone coming or going.”
“Already done,” Jack said.
“Good. I’ll meet you at the family quarters.”
Nova hurried down the corridor to the Presidential Suite. Jack stood outside next to a cordoned section of corridor where three drops of blood stood out against the metal floor. She grimaced at him before opening the door to find a group of people that couldn’t have looked more dissimilar. She recognised Meagan Feders from the ceremony; she’d already changed into a sleek black dress and mascara ran down her cheeks.
She rushed to her feet as Nova entered, her wide eyes swooping over Nova’s shoulder as if expecting to see Geron. “Have you found my husband?”
“No, I haven’t,” Nova said. Meagan wailed. “But, that’s no reason to panic. It’s a big place. He’s probably just having a drink or something.”
Meaghan sniffed and nodded, her eyes rimmed with red.
Dustin sprawled across an armchair playing on a hand-held computer. He looked to have barely heard the conversation as he mashed his thumb against the buttons.
“Thank you for all the help you and your Hunters haven’t done,” a gruff voice said from beside the door. “But I think we’ll take it over from here.”
Nova turned and came face to face with Bruce, Geron’s burly head of security. He crossed his arms over his chest as he sneered down at her.
Rage simmered in Nova’s stomach, but she was more than happy to hand the case to the authorities and get the hell off the planet.
“Actually,” a thin man in a tight suit stood up from a stool and pulled a projector from his pocket.
“What do you want, Leon?” Bruce growled.
Leon frowned at Bruce, his red eyes glaring. “I have Geron’s will.”
“His will!” Meagan trilled, alarmed. “He’s not dead! Why would you mention his will?”
Leon glared at Meagan and turned away so that he was speaking solely to Nova. “Because it clearly states that if he goes missing or is killed under suspicious circumstances, that he wants an external security team to take care of it.”
“Whoa, who are you?” Nova asked.
“Leon Statin, President Feders’ personal assistant,” the man said with a sniff.
“The Confederacy team is already on their way,” Bruce said.
“No.” Leon said, shaking his head. “It clearly states ‘not Confederacy’. I don’t think he trusted all of his people. Why else would he hire Hunters to run security?”
Nova bit her lip. Things were rolling out of control far faster than she would have liked.
“That’s ridiculous!” Bruce threw his arms wide. “I think we all know that if Geron’s not here it has something to do with that brute business partner of his; June, or whatever his name is.”
“Piero June,” Meaghan whispered.
“Yeah, they’ve been fighting for weeks. I’ll get my people to round him up now,” Bruce said, turning for the door.
Leon stomped his foot. “No! Geron’s will clearly states that he wants external people on it. That means it’s up to you,” he said, jutting his chin at Nova.
Nova held up her hands. “As much as the prospect thrills me, I’ve got better things to do than solve a murder case.”
“He included a reward in his will.”
Nova paused in her march for the door and turned back. “How much?”
“Typical Hunter,” Leon said. Bruce grunted.
“Hey, you get paid for your time; I want to be paid for mine.”
Nova pursed her lips to stop the sudden grin from spreading across her face.
“He set aside five thousand credits in case he got bumped off, but I can’t go to Haven Minor?” Dustin said, looking up from his computer for the first time since Nova entered the room. “Stingy bastard. Can that maid of his at least bring me a beer? What’s her name? Mary, or something?”
He pressed a red intercom button by the side of the couch. “Oi, can I get a beer?”
“Right away Mister Feders,” a quiet voice replied.
Meagan collapsed into the nearest chair and held her head in her hands, her body shaking. Everyone else ignored Dustin and stared at the walls.
A moment later a thin blonde woman scurried into the room carrying a cold beer balanced on a tray. She kept her head lowered as she hurried to Dustin and held out the tray. She sniffed as Dustin snatched the bottle and her red eyes flew to Nova before she darted back outside.
Nova frowned after the woman, making a mental note to find out who she was.
“Looks like I’m staying around,” Nova said. “You’d best get comfortable. No one is leaving until Geron’s found.”
She hurried out of the room. There was a lot of unhappiness clinging to the walls and she suspected that it hadn’t just started today. She found Jack waiting on the other side.
“I assume you heard all that.”
“Five thousand! I don’t suppose you’ll be sharing it around?”
“We’ll see,” Nova said, winking. “I’m sure there are other Hunters here who would like to get their hands on this job. I can’t just claim top spot.”
“Actually,” said Jack. “I think you can. You saw the other Hunters, they’re mostly rookies. And those of us that aren’t, are already in personal security. We couldn’t take a lead role even if we wanted to.”
Nova’s stomach clenched. Five thousand credits for solving a simple murder case was easy money, and if no one was going to contest her for it… She had to stop herself from jumping with joy in the middle of the corridor.
“You don’t think some of them will have a problem?”
“They might,” Jack said, shrugging. “But I doubt they’ll do anything about it. You have quite the rep. I think they’d be too scared.”
Nova rolled her eyes as Bruce shouldered out to join them in the hallway, his big footsteps smacking the metal flooring.
“There’s no evidence that the President has been kidnapped,” Bruce said as soon as the door closed behind him. “And even if there was, he was out of his mind to suggest that Hunters should take over an investigation. There is no way that a couple of rag-tag Hunters could do a better job than my trained security personnel.”
His nostrils flared at the end of each sentence and he spat the word ‘Hunters’ as if it pained him just to say the word. He rested a hand on the pistol at his waist.
“Nova is twice the fighter you could dream of,” Jack said, also laying a hand on his gun. “She could kick your arse without even trying.”
Nova stepped forward before Jack could say anything further. “Gentlemen, I’m sure we can come to some sort of arrangement. You’re right, at this stage there’s no evidence of a kidnapping. But I still need you to put the word out to your people. For now, I’m in charge.”
Bruce’s nostrils flared as he glared down at her.
“Geron’s decision, not mine,” Nova said, holding up her hands.
She snatched Jack’s arm and led him away.
20 Minutes after Power-Out…
“So I’m supposed to answer to Hunters now?” the security guard said, standing up from his chair in front of a bank of monitors. His name badge said Vinnie.
“At least for now,” Nova said.
“Bruce said there’s not even any evidence he’s been kidnapped.”
Nova’s hands clenched into fists but she kept a calm smile pinned to her face. “Bruce isn’t in charge any more. Now, whatever’s happened to Geron, isn’t it best that we work together to try to find him?”
Vinnie nodded, glancing at Jack, before stepping back to allow them a view of the screens. Images from various regions of the complex danced across the monitors. People gathered in small clumps talking amongst themselves and whispering. There didn’t seem to be any panic. Word of the President’s disappearance either hadn’t got out yet or people weren’t too worried about it.
“Our primary objective needs to be to keep everybody calm, but also to find the President. I recommend we put everyone on lock down, ask them to return to their rooms and then we’ll start a systematic search. Have any ships left since the power outage?”
“No, I shut down transport before the lights came back on,” Jack said. “And I’ve since put a block up on communications. Only cleared connections will work.”
“Good, so he has to be here somewhere.”
“We need to go over the security feeds. Whatever happened, there has to be video evidence.”
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” Vinnie said, looking down at his feet. “All the feeds are ruined.”
“What the hell do you mean, ruined?”
“I mean that someone must have tampered with them. There’s absolutely no footage from when the lights went out, to when they came back on again. Even the back-up files have been wiped.”
“Shit,” Nova said, leaning against the desk. “This is looking more like a kidnapping by the second. Why didn’t you report it?”
“I told Bruce, I assumed he passed it on.”
“From now on, you tell me directly.”
Vinnie nodded, rubbing his temple.
Nova sighed and gritted her teeth. “Vinnie, can you please make the announcement. Make it calm so they have nothing to worry about, although I’m sure we’ll have a few panic attacks.”
He sat back into his chair and reached for the intercom.
“Meanwhile I’ll get our people doing a sweep. We’ll start with the communal areas and if there’s still no sign we’ll start going through people’s rooms.”
Nova hustled Jack out of the room.
“I see what you did there,” Jack said once the door closed behind them. Nova winked at him and pulled him down the corridor.
“Just get your people into pairs and start searching. You and I will take the delta wing.”
“I’m on it, boss,” Jack said. He pulled up his own communicator while he and Nova made their way through the complex to the large hall where Geron had given his speech. It seemed like days ago but it was less than an hour since the lights went out.
“Attention. Attention. All non-security personnel are to return to their rooms. There are some residual power issues; this is for your own safety. All non-security personnel must return to their rooms immediately,” Vinnie’s voice came over the speakers and repeated the message three times.
Nova nodded; it was perfect. There would be limited panic and it would get people out of the way. There were still a few groups of people in the conference room but they dragged their feet away and towards their own quarters when they saw Nova and Jack enter.
Nova waited until they were out before nodding to Jack. They each took a side of the room and did a detailed sweep. Nova looked under every seat and behind every curtain. She even looked under the stage but all she found was some old rope and a pair of women’s underwear.
She and Jack reached the other end of the room at about the same time.
“Not a single sign,” said Jack.
“Room two then,” Jack said, gesturing for Nova to lead the way.
They moved from room to room, carefully examining every place a person could hide, or a body could be hidden. The metal complex was eerily quiet without people. Their footsteps echoed up and down the corridors and their whispered voices bounced back to them. The last room in their section was the bar.
“At least when we’re finished we can grab a drink,” said Jack.
“Only if we find Geron already there having one,” said Nova.
They walked into the bar only to find there were indeed people there. A small group gathered around the bar, helping themselves to drinks from behind the counter. They laughed and toasted each other as they gulped down a fortune’s worth of expensive liquor. Nova recognised one of them.
“Dustin,” she said.
The youth looked up from his drink and stared at Nova.
“Hello, Hunter. Have you come for a drink?” he said, lifting his glass to his grinning mouth.
“In case you gentlemen didn’t hear, all non-security personnel must go to their quarters and stay there,” she said.
“Ah yes, well, seeing as my dad owns all of this,” Dustin waved his drink around to indicate the complex. “Then all of it is my quarters, including this well-stocked bar.”
“Given the situation I would think you’d be more concerned,” Nova said through gritted teeth. Dustin’s companions grinned at her and whispered to each other.
“Oh you mean my father’s ‘disappearance’. Look lady, I’ll bet you a thousand credits this is a publicity stunt,” Dustin said, turning away from Nova to whisper something with his companions.
“Right,” Nova said. She reached through the group and grabbed hold of Dustin’s ear. She pulled it hard and twisted a little, dragging him through his crowd of friends so that he stood in front of her, his face screwed up in pain.
“Don’t you dare ‘lady’ me. I’ve asked you nicely, so now I’m going to ask you not nicely.”
Nova twisted his ear further and shoved him in the direction of the door. He stumbled, catching himself on the far wall. He whirled around and glared at Nova.
“You have no idea what you’ve just done, Hunter. I’ll make sure you never work again. You’ll be thrown into the deepest bits of Allum for this.”
“I really doubt it,” Nova said. “Now get back to your room or I will have some of my people lock you away. And I assure you, that the way they’ll lock up a rich kid like yourself will make Allum look like Haven.”
Dustin looked ready to pounce on Nova. He opened his mouth to say more, but before he could speak, Nova turned away from him towards his companions. “As for the rest of you; I would suggest you go straight to your own quarters right now. If I find any one of you still out and about, I’ll have you chained to the outside of my ship.”
The group glanced at one another, the grins now gone from their faces. They glanced at Nova’s gun and put their drinks on the bar. Nova stepped backwards and they all got up from their seats, hurrying for the door. They brushed past Dustin in their rush to leave, not saying a word to their former comrade.
“Last chance,” Nova said when Dustin was the last one still in the room.
He glanced between her and the door, moving from one foot to the other as he weighed up his options. In the end he stalked out the door, glaring at Nova as he went.
“You strike fear into the hearts of men,” Jack said.
“Hardly men,” Nova said with a smile. “Boys, maybe.”
“I’ll give you that,” said Jack. “My people have all reported. There’s no sign of him in their sections.”
Nova frowned. “We’ll give this room the once over and then we’re going to have to start going through people’s quarters. Imagine the outcry that’s going to cause!”
Nova and Jack moved about the bar. Empty glasses and small plates of food scattered across the tables and a chair was overturned. Aside from the general disarray of an uncleaned bar, there were no clues as to Geron’s whereabouts.
“I guess that settles it,” Nova said.
“Commander? I’ve got a problem in shipping; requesting back up,” a young voice crackled out of Jack’s communicator.
“Who was that?” Nova asked.
“Jimmy, the newbie I pointed out to you yesterday.” Jack turned to his communicator. “Nova and I are on the way. What’s the problem, Jimmy?”
“I’ve got some people here wanting to leave. I don’t think I’ll be able to stop them for long.”
“Stand firm, Jimmy. We’ll be there pronto.”
Jack and Nova ran out of the bar and through the complex. Without the crowds of people they made quick time to the shipping bay. People gathered near the ships, two Hunters blocking their way. Jimmy stood with his gun drawn, even from a distance Nova could see he was shaking.
As they got closer she recognised the people. They were the dignitaries from the Inner Galaxies.
“What’s going on?” she asked when they got level with the group. She placed herself between the dignitaries and Jimmy, also blocking their path to the ships.
“We’re leaving this damned planet, and this disgusting little Hunter is trying to stop us,” Zorka said, looking down her nose.
“And he’s right to,” Nova said. “There is a situation and until it’s resolved there will be no travel to or from Drigoon.”
“That might be alright for people like you,” Zorka said, taking a step forward. “But some of us have important places to be.”
“I assure you there are other places I would rather be too,” Nova said. “But, as I said, there will be no travel from Drigoon until the issues are resolved.”
“Look, you little rat.” Goffredo stepped forward. “We’re more powerful and more important than your tiny little mind can comprehend. Step aside or in the name of the Confederacy I will have to kill you.”
Large men, personal security, stood behind Zorka and Goffredo. They had their hands on their guns, ready in case things got ugly.
“I’d like to see you try,” said Nova. “In the meantime there is an intergalactic incident brewing and I will not have it spill over because of some pompous dignitaries.”
“What-” Goffredo spluttered, his eyes nearly popping out of his head.
“I think you heard me just fine. Arrest them,” Nova said.
Unseen by the dignitaries and their hired goons, the backup Hunters had arrived. They stepped up behind the security men and made quick work of stunning them. The large bodies crumpled to the floor and Zorka and Goffredo were left defenceless.
“How dare you!” Zorka said. “I will see you thrown into a black hole for this.”
“That’s the second time I’ve been told that today. Is it something to do with my face?” Nova said, turning to Jack with mock concern.
“Yes, it’s terrifying,” said Jack.
“My friends here will escort you back to your quarters. If I were you, I wouldn’t even think about leaving them again. I’ll spare you the dignity of chains this time, but next time I won’t be so forgiving,” Nova said.
The Hunters placed their hands on Zorka and Goffredo and led them out of the landing bay. The two dignitaries were pale with shock and indignation. They couldn’t manage to put a sentence together amidst their shock.
“Nice people,” said Jack. Nova snorted.
“Thanks,” said Jimmy. His shoulders relaxed and he put his gun back into its holster.
“You did good, boy,” said Jack.
Jimmy nodded and returned to his post at the door. His back slightly straighter than the day before.
“Hey Jack, I think we’ve got our first solid clue,” Nova called from where she kneeled near an exit door.
The outside of Drigoon was deadly to humans unless they were fully enclosed in an air suit and even that wouldn’t protect them from some of the more carnivorous plants. The suits hung by the exit door for use by maintenance crews in emergencies, but usually work was carried out by robots.
Nova stared down at the small puddle. It was tiny; barely a puddle at all, more like a few drops.
“What? That looks like water. I’d hardly call it a mystery solved,” said Jack.
“Where would it have come from?” Nova asked, waving her hand around the landing bay.
“It could have come from anywhere. Looks like water,” said Jack, kneeling next to Nova with a puzzled expression on his face.
“I think it came from outside,” she said.
She traced her finger along the floor towards the exit door. A little further along was another drop, and after that another. They led from the exit door towards the centre of the room, getting smaller as they went until they disappeared altogether.
“Outside?” Jack said. “But what would be coming from outside?”
His eyes widened as he turned to her. Nova could understand. The thought of a sentient plant finding its way into the complex through the airlock was terrifying. Her own heart pounded faster as she thought on the possibility. She remembered a story from old-Earth about plants that invaded and enslaved humanity. On a planet like Drigoon, that was more than possible.
“Look under the suits,” Jack said, pointing his finger.
Nova looked closer and frowned. Beneath one of the suits spread a bigger puddle of water that reflected the grey metal of the shipping bay. “Someone went outside. Recently; judging by the dripping water.”
“Why would anyone go out there?”
“To hide a body?” Nova said in a low voice.
Jack’s eyes went wide. “You don’t think?”
“Why else would anyone go out there? The footsteps come from outside and one of the suits is soaking wet. Someone definitely went out there.”
“Dammit,” Jack said.
“You know what this means?”
“We have to extend our investigation to outside,” Jack whispered. She nodded. “But that’s suicide! You know Drigoon is covered with all kinds of carnivorous and poisonous plants. None of the animals that were released here during the terraforming survived, and they could breathe the air! It’s just too deadly out there.”
“What other choice do we have? We’ll do a room search first but I think we both know that we won’t find anything.”
“What about a DNA scan of the suit? If someone wore it, their DNA will be all over it.”
Nova tapped her foot and pursed her lips. “Cal, I need a full DNA sweep on this suit.”
Cal hovered out of Crusader and came to a stop by her side. A small hose extended out from his panels and disappeared into the white folds of the suit.
“That won’t be possible.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s been flushed with bleach or something. There’s no viable material.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Can’t we just write it off? You know, the President is MIA assumed dead?” Jack said, glancing at the door to the outside and rubbing his neck.
“You can try, but after the scene with the dignitaries they’ll likely hang us up in front of a black hole. Not to mention there’s five thousand credits at stake,” Nova said.
“Right. You’re right.”
“Always am,” replied Nova with a grin. “Now you organise a room search, I’ll get ready to head out.”
“Okay, but don’t think you’re going out there alone. I’ll come with you.”
“If you insist. If you can handle it.”
She winked at him and got to her feet. There was a lot to do before heading out into the untameable wilds of Drigoon.
10 Hours after Power-Out…
Cal secured the final strap holding Nova’s suit together and hovered a few feet away. His camera eye moved in and out as he studied the outfit. It was fully sealed and equipped with an air-recycler. The suit was bright white, a poor colour choice for camouflaging in the deadly Drigoon wilderness.
Nova lifted her hand in front of her face and it felt twice as heavy as usual. The finger portions of the suit were streamlined so at least she’d be able to use a gun but the rest of her was covered in a bulky layer. The rounded helmet created a dome of reflective silver glass. She could see out of it but outside observers wouldn’t be able to see her face.
“Remember, it’s tough material but any tears will mean the air recycler has to work harder. Too many tears and it won’t be able to keep up. You’ll suffocate somewhere out there in the forest,” Cal said.
“Thank you for that bright reminder,” she said.
“Nova, you look almost as good as I do,” Jack’s voice came over the radio in Nova’s helmet. She looked up to see another figure in a bulky white suit approaching.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Nova said with a chuckle. “We look like old-Earth astronauts.”
“Let’s hope these are a bit more functional than that,” Jack said. “The last thing we want is a disaster like the Mars Colony in twenty-forty.”
“Too right,” said Nova. The prospect of going out into the wilderness did not appeal to her, but they’d found no sign of the President anywhere inside the dome, so that only left the outside.
“I’ve been going over the specs,” said Cal. “The suits have a combined hydration-nutrition store; it feeds you through a tube to the right of your face. Just lock your mouth over the end.”
“Delicious,” Nova said.
“Better than eating anything you find out there,” Cal said. “Pretty much everything you find on the surface of Drigoon is deadly. It will either actively try to kill you or it will poison you if you touch or eat it. So please, don’t touch anything and stay inside your suits.”
“Got it,” she said.
“Your other needs will be… taken care of,” he said, rushing on. “You both have your guns holstered. Remember that with the suits on they’re not where you’re used to. Perhaps you should practice grabbing them,” said Cal.
Nova and Jack took it in turns to whip their hands down to their belts and pull out their guns. On the first attempt Nova misjudged the distance and knocked her gun out of the holster. It clattered to the ground and skidded across the floor. Jack did the same thing only he managed to catch it with his other hand before it reached the floor.
It took many attempts before they could consistently grab their guns, drawing them and aiming without sending them flying. Nova was entirely sick of the game by the time she shoved her gun back into its holster and folded her arms across her chest.
“Damn suits,” she said. “Surely in all these years we would have found a better design.”
“Why would you?” said Cal. “When you could just send robots into the dangerous areas.”
“Hmm. You’re right,” said Nova. “Remind me again why you or some other bots aren’t doing the search?”
“Because there aren’t any robots of the appropriate make to navigate deep into Drigoon’s terrain that also have effective search and retrieve programming. Also, I’m too precious to lose to a carnivorous plant,” Cal responded.
“If it’s carnivorous it wouldn’t be eating robot,” Nova said in a flat voice. “That would have to be technovorous or something.”
“I’ll be sure to add technovorous to the Cloud Dictionary,” Cal said. “In the meantime I think you should get going.”
“You packed all the usual items in my bag?”
“Rope, tent, glowball, etcetera,” said Cal.
“Alright, let’s go find us a body,” said Jack, clapping his gloved hands together.
“And, Cal, make sure the Hunters stay in control here. I’ve informed Geron’s security guy, Bruce, but he didn’t seem very happy about the arrangement. Let me know if shit hits the fan.”
They walked to the inner airlock door and pressed the exit button. The door opened with a hiss and they stepped into the small chamber beyond. The door closed shut behind them. A small window looked through into the landing bay where Cal was hovering, watching them. A few moments later the door behind them opened to reveal the surface of Drigoon.
The plants pressed in close to the exit door as if trying to get inside. The thick foliage pressed so close it created an almost impenetrable wall. Nova imagined the scent of green leaves and earth that must lie over the planet. The forest was silent except for the occasional faint whisper of wind that would make the leaves rustle against one another.
“I guess we should get moving,” Nova whispered over the intercom.
“Is it too late to change my mind?” Jack said. His head swivelled from side to side as they stood at the very edge of the airlock chamber.
“Yep. I’m not going out there by myself.”
“Okay, but you’re going first,” he said.
Nova snorted. She took a deep breath and put her fears behind her. She slowed her racing heart and stepped out of the airlock onto the rich dirt. It was soft compared to the hard metal floor of the complex and she was bathed in bright sunlight. It shone down through the small gap between the complex and the forest canopy. Deeper into the trees the light became muted and dull, blocked by the many leaves and trees that packed so closely against one another.
She stepped forward with Jack right behind her. His breathing kept a steady rhythm over her intercom. It was comforting to hear another human in this alien environment. She scanned the ground for clues. The last thing she wanted to do was walk off in any direction and then wander aimlessly through the forests of Drigoon.
The dirt around the airlock was covered in footprints; evidence of maintenance crews, both human and robot, which had come out during the complex’s construction. Another, fresher, set led away from the complex into the trees. Beside the footprints ran a continuous line of disturbed dirt.
“I think we have our second clue,” said Nova.
Jack whistled. “It sure looks bad.”
“What do you mean?” Nova asked, stepping forward to more closely examine the footprint.
“I’m no expert but that looks suspiciously like someone dragging someone else along the ground.”
Nova’s eyes widened as she looked down; Jack was right. The way the footsteps dug deep into the ground, suggested they were pulling something and the long line of disturbed ground left little doubt.
“Why would anyone bring him out here?” she asked.
“Or who was he bringing out here?” Jack said.
“You’re right. These damn suits all look the same. It’s impossible to tell what sort of person was doing the walking.”
“All we can do is follow the trail.”
“Just keep your eyes peeled and your gun ready,” Nova said.
They set off down the trail left by the footprints. They made a clear path through the forest. Even in areas where thick leaves covered the ground, the drag marks made a clear track. Broken leaves and bushes gave even more proof that something heavy had been taken through.
Nova was grateful that the suit included environmental control because the thick trees blocked any rays of sunlight from filtering through. The wet and oppressive atmosphere would have had her shivering if it wasn’t for the suit.
She tried not to think about the other bodies that were probably lying amongst the trees. Even in its short history Drigoon was considered one of the most haunted planets. While most of the original construction was done by robots, there was a lot done by maintenance crews. Three separate people had gone missing from those crews without anyone seeing what had happened. The current theory was that they were dragged away by some massive creature living amongst the trees.
After the complex was finished and the maintenance crews stopped going out, there were others that had disappeared. While the planet was supposed to be closed until the grand opening, Geron had allowed certain visitors, mostly journalists, to look around. He’d probably been trying to create some pre-opening buzz. Two journalists went missing after going out into the wilderness. He definitely received a buzz, though probably not the kind he was looking for. The journalists had last been seen putting on suits, before they headed out to investigate the surface of Drigoon and solve the mystery of the missing mechanics. All they did was create more mystery when they never returned.
All of this went through Nova’s head as she crept deeper into the forest. There were so many foreign plants. While her heart raced, she couldn’t help but enjoy the coloured foliage and many flowers, shining blue and purple. Some of them glowed with bioluminescence. Others followed their progress through the trees; their flowers moving to face her as she walked past. Those were the worst. They sent a shiver down her spine as if she was being watched, which she supposed she kind of was.
“Damned creepy place,” Jack said.
“Yeah, although if we survive we could probably write a book about it and retire rich.”
“Ha! Yes I suppose that’s one option.”
They walked on in silence, scanning the ground and the trees for any sign of movement. As they got deeper into the forest and away from the complex, less sunlight filtered through the trees until they were left in a deep gloom. Mushrooms sprouted at the base of the trees and left powder scattered on the ground around them. The tiny spores lifted up into the air with the motion of their passing, floating away on the breeze to land some distance away and start a new collection of mushrooms.
“How monitored is the intercom?” Jack said suddenly.
Nova glanced back at him, not that she could make out any of his features behind the reflective helmet. “Not at all. Cal made some adjustments. They’re only linked to each other and then we’ve got our personal communicators to connect back with the ship.”
“Good,” Jack said. “I wanted to resume our conversation about Aart.”
“I know, I know, he’s a fool and I should shut him up,” Nova said, snapping a passing twig.
They’d come to a particularly thick region of forest. The tracks disappeared through a wall of foliage but no matter how hard Nova pushed against it she couldn’t make her way through. She pulled a long knife from her belt and hacked away at the vines and branches that blocked their path. She cursed whoever they were following because their tracks barely changed; it was as if they’d walked straight through the wall of trees.
“That’s not what I was going to say,” Jack said as he too pulled out his knife and worked away at the green wall. “I had to keep up appearances in there. You know the Confederacy has eyes and ears everywhere.”
“Oh,” Nova said, her eyebrows furrowing as she hacked and slashed with her knife.
“He’s right, Nova. Things in the Inner Galaxies are out of control. The Confederacy has gone mad with power. I see a lot more of it during my personal security jobs, but it’s all hushed up. They block communication; change stories; kill anyone who won’t follow their instructions. From what I’ve managed to put together, it’s a powder keg.”
“But why? Where’s the conflict coming from?” Nova asked.
“Well, firstly you’ve got people like Aart. They’re ordinary people from the Outer Galaxies and the Resources District and they want fair treatment. They’re sick of being bullied by the Confederacy’s lackeys. Normal peaceful methods haven’t worked so they’re rioting. There are more people like Aart than you would guess, each of them gathering their own little forces.”
“But it’s useless. Small divided armies would never make any difference to the Confederacy,” Nova said.
“I know that, but there’s more.” Jack lowered his voice as if that would stop anyone hearing their conversation. “Some of the higher ups in Quadrant Two? You know, the people who really run the Resources District? There are rumours that they’ve gone mad; insane.”
“That’s ridiculous. That would just be stories started by the rioters; people like Aart.” Nova shrugged as she sliced through the vines. Each Quadrant contained a small group of planets, all of which were managed by a small group of Confederacy leaders, and a horde of administration staff and soldiers. The Quadrants were similar to the countries of old-Earth.
“That’s what I thought at first too, but then I took a trip in.”
“You went to the Inner Galaxies?” Nova said. It was very rare for someone from the Outer Galaxies to be allowed past the strict border control of the inner region.
“Yeah, I’ve got this one client. She quite likes me if you know what I mean. Wanted me to accompany her in during a Confederacy meeting. Anyway, I got to spend some time with my ear to the ground, and things are weird.”
“Weird how?” Nova asked. She panted and rested against a nearby trunk, as sweat dribbled down her forehead. Her mind raced with what Jack had said, what could be so bad that he couldn’t talk about it in public?
“There are stories of cannibalism,” Jack whispered.
“What?” Nova slipped against the tree, spinning to face him.
Two faceless suits stared at each other, surrounded by trees and leaves. Her heart kicked into overdrive and a chill swept up her spine.
“Yep. Word is, some of the higher ups in Quadrant Two enjoy feasting on certain meat. It’s all supposed to be very hush hush but you hear about it. Criminals going missing, never making it to the black holes they were supposed to be dropped into. Packages of unlabelled meat arriving.”
“How does that even happen?” Nova asked, aghast.
There were some cannibalistic planets scattered in the Outer Galaxies, but they were barbaric civilisations with their occupants running around in loincloths. Cannibalism was not something she associated with the gold-trimmed superstructures of the Inner Galaxies.
“I don’t know, but I’m almost certain it’s true. These weren’t stories from some drunk at the back of a bar. I heard the same thing from multiple people and they were all scared, Nova; really scared.”
“But surely if people knew what was going on? All the Inner Galaxies would revolt against Quadrant Two and those few would be killed.”
“You don’t understand. These are the very top of their Quadrant. Their word is practically law in their districts. Anyone who has been heard even mentioning it has gone missing the next day. It’s like a deadly bubble of silence.”
“The one time when the Confederacy should be taking control! I suppose it’s a little bit of a relief that they’re only eating people that were sentenced to death anyway,” Nova said in a soft voice as she tried to reconcile the image she had of the refined Confederacy with a room full of blood-thirsty cannibals.
“But that’s just it. They’ve got plans,” Jack said.
They stood still, looking at each other through their reflective helmets. It was impossible to go on cutting through the forest when it seemed that everything Nova knew about the Confederacy was crashing down around her.
“They’re part of some kind of cult,” Jack said, “and they keep recruiting members. I heard stories of people whose best friend would suddenly stop talking to them and start associating with the high society of the Quadrant, including going to these mysterious feasts. I don’t know how they’re brainwashing people, but it’s working.”
“How many do you think they’ve got so far?” Nova asked.
“It’s almost impossible to say. That’s why you can’t talk about it in public because anyone could be a spy, listening in. I would say at least three hundred.”
“What are they going to do with all those people?” Nova asked. “Just keep eating people and bringing more to their cause?”
“That’s just it,” said Jack. “They’ve apparently got bigger plans. They want to expand. The way I heard it, it’s almost like they want to invade the Outer Galaxies and take everyone hostage, as a kind of feeding farm.”
“But that doesn’t make any sense. They need the Outer Galaxies to mine their precious metals.”
“I know. But it’s like they don’t care about that any more, the most precious resource of all has suddenly become human flesh.”
“But it’s a big galaxy. Surely hundreds of people would have to go missing a day for anyone to even notice?”
“Exactly,” Jack said, nodding. “It’s getting worse. We probably still wouldn’t know about it if it weren’t for people like Aart who are actually bothering to investigate. That and some of the Inner Galaxy people are scared. You don’t see that very often.”
“I can’t believe we haven’t heard about this before.”
“Like I said, they’re keeping a very tight lid on it. If we hadn’t come out here where no one could hear us, I wouldn’t have told you either.”
“So, what are we going to do about it?”
Jack shrugged. “Usually I’d ignore it, let the Inner Galaxies do whatever they want. But I think they’re serious. And if they keep recruiting people, they’ll have a bloodthirsty army to do with what they want. Imagine everyone in The Jagged Maw being dragged off to feed the Confederacy. At least at the moment it’s only Quadrant Two, but what happens if they take over the rest of the Confederacy?”
Nova saw it very clearly in her mind’s eye. She saw Aart and Tanguin lying on a wide table, tied down, while a man in a crisp suit carved into them with a serrated blade. Blood poured out onto the table and stained the white tablecloth crimson.
“Grishnak,” Nova said.
“What are you going to do?”
“Tell Aart when I get a chance.”
“Be careful,” Jack warned. “They’ve got spies everywhere. I bet even The Jagged Maw has been infiltrated.”
“No way,” Nova said, shaking her head.
Jack frowned. “Just be careful.”
“I will. I have to think about this, and just when we’ve got a dead president to search for. I don’t suppose he could have been eaten?”
“Zorka is here,” Jack said with a snort. “But somehow I don’t think she’s taken to cannibalism yet.”
“I don’t know. She looks like a man-eater to me,” Nova said with a chuckle.
She turned around and hacked at the forest with new vigour, her arms whipping back and forth. The branches and vines finally began to part before her in a flurry of falling leaves.
14 Hours after Power-Out…
Hours later, the complex was far behind them and the forest stretched in every direction, an endless expanse of green leaves. The silence lay over them like a blanket, making Nova feel stifled and suffocated inside the suit.
“I hope we find him soon because I do not want to spend the night out here,” said Jack as he stomped behind Nova.
“Just be grateful the days are thirty-six standard hours. Imagine if we were on a planet with a twenty hour cycle,” Nova said.
Jack grumbled something unintelligible.
“You know what I don’t get?” said Nova. “There are no footprints coming back.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look,” Nova pointed at the ground. “There are the footsteps leading away, and then the drag marks, but there aren’t any coming back.”
“Maybe they’re still out here?” said Jack.
“But we know they got back to the complex, remember the water dripping from the used suit?”
“Oh yeah,” said Jack. “And all the suits were accounted for, so no one is out here except us.”
“And they must have been quick. Look how long it’s taken us to get this far and they managed to get all the way out and back again in just a couple of hours.”
“Either way I’m charging them overtime,” said Jack.
“Who are you going to—”
Nova’s mouth snapped shut on her tongue as her feet were snatched from underneath her, ripping her backwards. Her body flew forwards and lifted into the air, so she dangled from her feet. She let out a cry that was echoed seconds later by Jack.
She pulled out her knife and twisted around to look at what was holding her. A massive vine wrapped around her ankles.
Blood rushed into Nova’s head, making it throb.
She pulled in her stomach muscles and lunged up with her knife, grabbing hold of the vine and slicing through it.
The vine was almost the size of her waist and made of a tough green covering. The waxy surface made it difficult to hold on to. The vine lifted her higher into the air until she hung twenty metres from the planet surface. From the corner of her eye she saw Jack similarly dangling. He too had his knife out, but he couldn’t reach up to attack.
She ignored her companion for the moment and put her full strength into cutting the vine. Inch by inch the plant gave way beneath her blade. The green flesh opened up and sap leaked out of the wound. She curled her body away from the white liquid as it bubbled out of the plant and dripped to the ground below.
The last stringy fibre of the plant broke and Nova’s body dropped. She curled up and landed on the ground with a solid thud, rolling as best she could. The severed vine slammed into the ground a few inches to her right while the rest of the green limb retreated and disappeared into the jungle undergrowth.
“Nova!” Jack cried, his voice strained.
She looked up to see him swinging back and forth, trying to reach his attacker with his small knife.
Nova ran to the base of the vine where it touched the ground and led off into the trees. She went to work with her dagger, sawing away at the tree-flesh. Just as before, white sap appeared in the wound and dripped over the sides. The liquid smoked before it hit the ground hissing, and burnt the dead leaves. She was doubly glad she hadn’t touched it.
She was halfway through the vine when Jack cried out a warning. She turned with her knife in hand but was too slow. From three different directions new vines shot out. They appeared from the surrounding trees and whipped through the air.
Nova’s stomach clenched as she cut one with her knife, but it left only a tiny graze. She fumbled for her gun but the bulky suit made her slow. The three vines wrapped themselves around different areas of her body, constraining every inch of her. It yanked her up, level with Jack.
“Good try,” Jack said, voice wavering.
“I really don’t think now is a good time to be kidding around,” said Nova through gritted teeth.
“It could be worse,” said Jack. “At least you still have your knife.”
As soon as Jack finished his sentence, it got worse. The forest erupted with rustling leaves and creaking branches. The origin of the vines revealed itself to be a large motile plant.
It stepped out of the jungle beneath Nova and Jack and was terrifying to behold. Multiple vines snaked out from its body like a flurry of tentacles, some of them holding Jack and Nova aloft. The body of the plant was dominated by a bright orange jug-like structure. It was like a large cup lumbering out of the trees. The orange portion was taller than Nova and at least four times as wide.
Motion sensors in the form of tiny hairs ran across the whole creature and it moved on millions of tiny sticks that waved back and forth, almost rowing the creature across the ground.
“Look at that thing!” said Jack.
“Shh,” said Nova.
“I’m pretty sure it already knows we’re here!”
Nova frowned, but said nothing more. She struggled against the vines pinning her arms to her sides, to no avail. Her knife floundered in her restrained hand, useless. She imagined unclipping her helmet to bite into the vine, but had a feeling that would result in a very painful death.
The vines around her body loosened and let go. She hurtled through the air towards the bright orange lid. She readied her dagger and her legs, prepared to roll and attack as soon as she landed. However, as she got closer, the top lifted to reveal a gaping hole.
She didn’t have time to react or change course and fell straight into the waiting jug. She landed in a cold liquid pooled in the base of the bowl, sending a splash up the sides of the plant. The lid immediately shut down, plunging her into gloomy darkness. Before she could get her bearings the lid snapped open again and Jack’s body plummeted down.
Nova dove to the side of their new prison, narrowly avoiding being crushed under Jack’s body. His landing sent a wave of liquid flying through the air. It drenched Nova’s helmet and left droplets running down in front of her eyes.
“Cal, are you getting this?” she asked.
“Yes.” His voice sounded unsure.
“What the hell is it?” she asked.
“According to the Cloud it’s a plant know as Orange Monster.”
“Original,” said Nova as she struggled to her feet. The liquid at her waist sloshed from side to side as the plant scurried forward.
“It’s only been sighted once before, and only on Drigoon, by the early maintenance crews.”
“So there’s no information on how to get out?” Nova said.
“I’m afraid not,” Cal replied. “Although you may want to know that your suits are registering damage.”
“What?” Nova said, looking down at her suit. Flakes of white plastic rose out of the pool and floated on the surface. Her heart raced and her eyebrows shot up to her hairline.
“I would guess that you are currently submerged in corrosive digestive juices,” Cal said.
“It’s digesting us?”
“What?” echoed Jack.
His large, helmeted head looked down at his own suit. He bounced from foot to foot as if trying to keep himself out of the pool.
“It looks that way. If I were you, I’d find a way to get out of there as quick as you can,” said Cal.
“Oh, really?” Nova asked, sarcastic.
She turned away from the sight of her disintegrating suit. If she took too long, it would be pieces of her flesh floating to the surface rather than pieces of plastic. If that wasn’t motivation to work fast, she didn’t know what was. She thrust her dagger into the orange side of their prison. The flesh was waxy and tough, like the vines, only worse.
“Start cutting!” she yelled at Jack.
He stepped over the deeper, centre region of the plant until he stood at her side and slammed his knife into the plant. The layer of waxy covering was so tough that both Nova and Jack had to put their shoulders and backs into every slice they made.
Nova’s knife kept sliding away from the waxy surface. She slipped and nearly stabbed Jack in the throat. That was something she’d never be allowed to live down.
“Something is burning my leg,” Jack said. His voice quiet voice trembled.
“It’s okay. Don’t think about it, just keep cutting,” Nova said. She didn’t want to admit that her legs were burning as well.
The suits weren’t made to withstand corrosive plant juice. How long could they really last?
“Screw this,” she said, whipping her gun out of its holster.
She shouldered Jack out of the way, squeezed her eyes shut, and turned away as she pulled the trigger. A flash of heat and light lit up the plant, followed by a wet crunch.
She turned back to find a small, smoking hole carved through the orange flesh.
Her legs felt as though fire licked at her from below, especially her knees. White flakes covered most of the surface of the pool.
Jack rushed for the small hole, pounding it with his knife and grunting heavily as he scrambled to break through.
“Nova, I don’t mean to alarm you, but the readings suggest less than ten per cent integrity left in your suit,” said Cal, his voice strained.
“If there’s a break in the lower half, will we still be able to breathe?” Nova asked.
“What good is that if your legs drop off?” Cal said, hysteric.
“Just answer the question. Will we still be able to breathe?”
“The helmet can be sealed off from the rest of the suit and the recycler is inside your helmet. Your air supply is safe so yes, theoretically you would still be able to breathe. But Nova—”
“Thank you, Cal.”
“Nova, you won’t be able to walk!” Cal said before Nova cut the intercom. The last thing she needed was distractions. They would still be able to breathe. That was all she needed to know.
The hole in the side of the plant had grown to the size of her arm. She plunged her clenched fist through, tearing the gap wider. Her arm protruded out the other side and waved in the air. She managed to thrust all the way to her shoulder, creating a sizable hole.
The plant stopped moving. Through the hole Nova could see vines waving back and forth through the air. The lid on top of the plant remained closed.
“Rip it,” Nova said.
She grabbed one side of the hole with both hands and pulled. The flesh clung to itself and she had to strain with all her might to create a tear, but once it started it was much easier. Jack grabbed hold of the other side and together they pulled the orange flesh apart. The small hole grew until it was below the level of the pool.
The corrosive liquid poured out of the gaping hole, exposing more of Nova’s suit to the air. She frowned at the paper thin layer that was left of the suit but didn’t dare comment.
“Nova, it frickin’ burns!” Jack howled, bending over double.
She looked at him, but couldn’t see his expression through the helmet. Without hesitating, she grabbed hold of his shoulder and pushed him towards the light. He stumbled in the liquid and flew head first through the opening. His pumping arms and legs sent acid flying through the air.
The pool drained to the level of Nova’s knees, but it was still too much. Her legs burned like she was covered in hot coals. Without checking to see if he was okay, she pushed after Jack, tears stinging her eyes.
She forced her way out from between the orange flaps, stumbling as her legs came free of the sticky pool. Her helmet smacked onto the ground and her face collided with the glass. Stars flashed in her vision as her head exploded with pain. She winced and pushed herself up.
Jack lay a few metres away, but he wasn’t moving. They lay in a shallow puddle which had collected around the base of the plant, acid still burning through their suits.
The plant sat still; even the tentacle vines had stopped waving, and lay around them like dead snakes.
Nova ran over to Jack and hooked her elbows under his shoulders. She stepped backwards, dragging his body away from the puddle. He didn’t struggle against her; didn’t make a single sound. She pulled him well away from the orange plant and looked around. There was nothing except leaves.
“Cal, we need to get this stuff off,” she said.
“Arial surveys reveal no water sources near your location,” Cal replied.
“Are any of these plants safe?” Nova asked.
“The ones with big heart-shaped leaves are safe, but be careful of the red leaves, they’re deadly. The plants with the really big leaves are also safe.”
She rushed towards the nearest plant with heart shaped leaves. She tugged one free, careful to avoid the red leaves, and furiously wiped the acid off of her suit. Where the material was worn too thin it tore under the pressure, leaving her skin exposed.
A single drop of acid fell from the torn edge of her suit and onto her shin. She wailed in agony. The tiny drip sizzled as it hit her and a black ring of burnt flesh formed. She rubbed at the drop with the leaf but it was too late. Pain pulsed through her leg, up her back and into her head before shooting down to her other leg.
“Cal, is it poisonous?” she said through clenched teeth.
“Not with that amount, but you’ll have a scar.”
She clenched her eyes shut. Tears of pain dropped out and traced down her cheeks. She took a deep breath and forced her eyes open. They fell onto Jack’s body. She had to get to him, had to get the acid off or it would eat through his suit too.
She pulled more leaves and limped over to her friend, her burnt leg ready to collapse. The pain was so great she considered cutting the limb off to save herself from the agony.
Jack didn’t move.
She knelt by his side and wiped his suit with the leaves. It came away in shreds with her lightest touch, peeling like the paint on an old boat. As she moved down from his helmet her stomach clenched. He’d said it was burning, and how right he had been. The legs of his suit hung in tattered threads, revealing blistered skin, leaking fluids. Pustules the size of marbles threatened to explode and in the worst areas, pieces of flesh dangled from deep, putrid, holes.
“Shit, shit, shit,” Nova swore.
Her mind raced as she tried to come up with a way to save Jack. She scrambled in a circle, searching for some kind of a miracle plant, but the forest pressed in on her, uncaring. She had a bandage in her bag but that wasn’t going to be much good. What Jack really needed was a skin graft and some antibiotics.
Nova scanned the trees. The plant had carried them away from the trail; she couldn’t be sure how far. Now she had the choice of either carrying Jack back to the complex or going on to look for the President and asking someone else to risk their life in order to save Jack. It wasn’t a choice really. She couldn’t leave him at the mercy of the jungle.
“Cal, have you got a lock on our location?”
“I’m coming back with Jack. I’ll need you to guide me back to the trail.”
“How’s Jack’s oxygen supply?”
“The helmet has sealed off from the rest of the suit. His air supply is unaffected.”
Nova nodded, at least that was one less thing for her to worry about.
The orange monstrosity that had attacked them lay motionless. It leaned to one side, its leaves drooping. The rest of the forest remained as dark and unrelenting as ever. Branches and leaves created walls on every side and roots made the ground treacherous.
She pushed herself to her feet and pushed into a nearby thicket. She grabbed hold of a massive leaf which was as wide as she was tall, holding on with both hands, she pulled as hard as she could.
It didn’t budge.
She ripped her knife out of her belt and cut away at the stem. Her knife tore through the green stalk until the leaf fell to the ground with a gentle whoosh. She moved to the next leaf and cut that one off as well. With one leaf in each hand she stomped back through the trees to where Jack’s prone body lay.
She laid one leaf next to her friend and with infinite care she rolled him over so that he lay on top of it. She tucked the edge of the leaf up over his body and then rolled him again until he was encased in the leafy shield with just his head and boots poking out either end. He looked like a human caterpillar asleep in a cocoon, and she hoped it would fool the plants into leaving him alone.
She pulled the cocoon onto the second leaf. She tied the two stems with a section of rope from her bag so that his head was raised off the ground and the rest of his body trailed out behind. She hoisted the open leaf higher on her shoulder and trudged slowly, but determined in the direction of the complex.
Jack weighed more than she did and his feet caught on every root and twig they passed. His head lolled from side to side with each step, accompanied by a soft moan of pain.
She ignored everything except the need to put one foot in front of the other. Her back felt ready to break; pain seared up her spine and pooled between her shoulders. Her arms shook with the effort of pulling him, rapping against her chest and against each other. Inside the confines of her suit she felt trapped and even with the temperature control, heat rose to her face. A layer of sweat coated her skin and her breath clouded the front of her helmet.
“How much longer, Cal?” she asked when she was sure the complex had to be behind the next row of trees.
“At your current speed it will be two more hours before you reach the complex,” Cal replied.
She stopped walking and lowered Jack’s stretcher to the ground, gasping for breath. Her head spun with the effort. “I’ve been walking for ages.”
“Unfortunately, you are still some distance from the complex,” Cal said.
She tried to catch her breath and in the end collapsed onto a nearby tree root. “What are the odds of me surviving the night if I sleep?”
“On your own, the chance of survival is five per cent. With the monitoring abilities of the suit, combined with my own monitoring for predatory species, fifty.”
“Fifty,” Nova echoed.
“What about Jack?”
“As long as you survive, the same as you.”
Nova took a deep breath. “And if I don’t?”
“One per cent.”
Nova squeezed her eyes shut and held her helmeted head in her hands. The silence of the forest was deafening, broken only by Jack’s tortured gasps and her own laboured breathing. She put aside her fear for a moment and turned to her analytical side. She started at her head, monitoring her health. Could she make it the rest of the way or should she save her energy to set up a defensive position for the night here?
Her head pounded from where it had smacked against the inside of her helmet, but it wasn’t so bad that she couldn’t go on. There was some Parapem painkiller in her bag that she could feed into her nutrition supply, but she didn’t want to use it all now in case Jack woke up.
Nova gritted her teeth, tapping a finger against the helmet. Her shoulders ached. Two more hours of dragging Jack and she could easily believe they’d drop straight off. The problem was the awkward angle of dragging her arms, and him, behind her. If she could adjust the stretcher so that her shoulders weren’t at such an angle then she might be able to make it.
Blisters covered her hands, despite her suit. She couldn’t see them, but she could feel the raised lumps brushing against the fabric. If they burst she would be in a world of pain. But again, if she could adjust the stretcher it might be okay.
Her legs burned and the hole from the drop of acid dribbled puss down her shin. The atmosphere of Drigoon was deadly to breathe, and by the looks of her skin, wasn’t that great to touch either. Her legs, where they were exposed through the holes in her suit, were red and flaking. She rubbed a gloved hand down her right shin and a layer of white skin peeled back, falling to the ground.
Her mouth dropped open as she stared at the white flake, the size of a leaf that had fallen from her flesh. The skin beneath glowed red and raw, stinging. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to ignore it. The new pain lay atop the other aches, like the burn in her calves and thighs. It would be so easy to lie down and sleep. At least then the pounding in her head and the ache in her legs would go away. It wouldn’t have to be long. She was sure that if she just napped for fifteen minutes then she’d be right as rain, ready to get going again.
“Nova!” Cal said.
His sudden voice startled Nova out of her daydream. She had slumped to one side against a tree branch. The forest had fallen eerily quiet.
“You can’t afford to be asleep unprotected out there,” Cal said.
“Yes I know. I just shut my eyes for a second.”
“Are you staying there or not?”
“No. I think I can make it the rest of the way.”
“Stay alert. You never know what else might be lurking out there.”
“Tell me about it.”
She took a deep breath and placed her hands on her knees. She winced at the sudden pain shooting out from her exposed skin. She pushed up to her feet and her legs cried out in agony.
Jack was still breathing. That was a good sign.
She knelt down by his leaf stretcher, and then went to work retying the rope around the stems. She worked quickly, ignoring her own aches and pains. It took ten minutes, but when she stood she had a workable harness. She passed her arms through the loops and pulled the straps tight.
She took a tentative step forward. The weight of Jack’s body pulled at the centre of her back, distributing evenly through her muscles. She nodded to herself. It would have to do.
Once again she started towards the complex. The harness didn’t pull down her shoulders like it had before and she could use her arms to move aside branches and leaves as opposed to letting them smack her in the face. She moved faster and once her legs got moving again it was easier to keep going.
One foot in front of the other.
She tried to ease Jack’s body over the bigger bumps, but mostly she was forced to let him drop from one root to another. Occasionally, he would cry out but he didn’t come back to consciousness.
“One more hour,” Cal said.
Nova nodded, but didn’t reply. The air grated at her throat, burning her lungs and her aching chest. She didn’t dare waste precious energy on speaking.
One more hour. She could do this for one more hour.
She glanced back to check that Jack’s body hadn’t somehow been left behind. His chest moved up and down, defying the wounds covering the lower half of his body. She couldn’t see his face, but she imagined it was deathly white, his features screwed up with pain. There may even be blood streaked down his cheeks.
She shook her head and forced the thoughts out. It was no good to think about such things until she was at the complex, when something could be done about it.
It was a gruelling walk. The trees contrived to block her passage. The roots tripped her and every twig caught on Jack’s body. By the time the complex came into view she was so exhausted she was sure she had slipped into delusion.
It wasn’t until she walked into the metal door that she accepted that she’d made it. She fumbled around for the entry button, but couldn’t find it. Her glazed eyes stared at the blank wall as her exhausted muscles convulsed.
Thankfully Cal was ready, and the door slid open in front of her.
Nova dragged Jack in behind her and the airlock sealed shut. The air exchangers blasted into action and the toxic gases from the outside were removed before the inner door opened. Cal waited at the entrance along with a group of bounty hunters.
Nova let them take Jack’s body from her.
She stumbled into the landing bay towards Crusader, gasping for breath. She had the inescapable feeling that her suit was strangling her and whipped her hands up to her neck to undo the clasps. Her fingers shook with exhaustion, stopping her from undoing the latches. She sobbed as she scrambled at her neck, lights flashing across her eyes.
Just as she felt her consciousness slipping away Cal appeared in front of her, his metal arms outstretched. He undid the clasps and the helmet clicked loose, falling into Nova’s hands.
She looked down at it with a mixture of relief and hatred before letting it fall to the ground. She scrambled with the rest of her suit, ripping the tattered remains over her shoulders and tossing it to the floor. The jeans she’d been wearing underneath hung in ragged shreds where the acid had eaten into them, but she barely noticed.
Her attention caught on the collection of Hunters gathered around Jack’s body. The two leaves lay unfurled beside him. They were already turning brown and shrivelling in the shipping bay air.
“Will he survive?” she whispered, stumbling towards them.
A Hunter looked up at her, concern on his face. “He will, but only just. If you’d taken even an hour longer to get back he’d be dead.”
Nova sighed and the darkness swirling at the edges of her vision closed in.
She collapsed to the metal floor.
3 Days after Power-Out…
Nova blinked. She was in her familiar bed inside Crusader. She tried to think back on the events of the day before. There was the President’s talk and then – the lights! She’d gone to find him… and… Jack! The last thing she remembered was crumbling beside Crusader.
“Glad to see you’re awake,” Cal said as he hovered into the room.
“How long?” she asked. Her voice rasped in her throat.
“Just over a day.”
She winced and sat up. “How’s Jack?”
“He’ll be okay. They’re keeping him unconscious until they finish the skin graft.”
She nodded. “The President?”
“Are you kidding? After the two of you came back like you did, no one is willing to go out there,” Cal said. “Also, you’ve almost got a riot on your hands with people who want to leave.”
“No one has though, have they?”
“No. You’ll be pleased to know that your little protégé, Jimmy, has stepped into his own. He’s managed to block the shipping bay doors. It’s just you, me, him, and a few Hunters in here.”
“You’re not actually thinking of going back out there are you?”
“I have to,” Nova said. “We have to solve this thing, and not just for the money. Can you imagine what the Confederacy would do if we let one of their own get murdered and didn’t do anything about it? They’d come to The Jagged Maw and kill me anyway.”
“The plants will get you first,” Cal said.
“Not this time. I’m taking extra weapons.”
“Who will you take with you?”
“No one. I’ll be damned if I have to drag another body back here.”
“You’ll have to drag the President back, if you find him,” Cal said.
Nova groaned and put her head into her hands. “You’re right.”
“You could always take an antigrav with you.”
Nova smacked her forehead with her palm and looked up at the labourbot. “That’ll make it a piece of cake.”
“So, you’ll take someone with you?” Cal asked.
“No. No-way. That’ll just slow me down. Plus, if people are starting to riot trying to get away, we need all hands on deck to defend this place and make sure no one leaves.”
“You know if you die I’ll be sold off for scrap metal?” Cal said.
“I’m not going to die,” Nova said, exasperated. “Besides, I’ve already told Tanguin that she has to look after you if I ever croak.”
“That’s very thoughtful,” said Cal. “Except that Tanguin is more likely to use me for spare parts for her super-computer.”
“She wouldn’t. She thinks you’re adorable.”
It took Nova longer than usual to get ready. Every muscle in her body ached and cried out with the slightest movement. Pulling on a shirt took more effort that she would have admitted and putting her pants on was almost impossible. In the end though, mostly through sheer force of will, she was dressed and ready to go.
The suits looked like a line of gallows when she walked up to them. Just the sight of the white prisons was enough to make her shiver and regret her decision, but she couldn’t turn back now. With great reluctance she let Cal help her into a new, undamaged suit. She slung a large gun over her back, and she had her usual pistol in her belt. Her equipment bag hung over her shoulder and she tossed the antigrav inside.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Jimmy asked when she headed for the outer door.
“I don’t have a choice, Jimmy. But you’ve done well. Don’t get yourself killed. If things get really ugly get out of here okay?”
“Got it boss, but I won’t let you down,” Jimmy replied. There was a line of sweat on his upper lip as he gazed at the barricaded door.
“Of course not,” Nova replied with a smile.
She walked to the exit door with a grim sense of déjà vu. She wanted to turn and run back to Crusader, but she wouldn’t. She forced herself to walk to the inner door and let herself into the airlock. It hissed and then the outer door opened. Once again she was faced with the green line of trees.
She didn’t waste any time finding the tracks. Now there were three sets of footprints leading through the trees. She followed the path she and Jack had taken the day before, moving as fast as her exhausted legs would allow. At first the way was clear thanks to her and Jack hacking their way through the last time, but as she got deeper she was faced with more dense foliage.
It got to a point where if it wasn’t for the footprints beneath her feet she would think the track had never been touched. It was as if the trees had grown back over to block her way with an impenetrable wall; the leaves and branches knotted together tighter than ever before.
“I’m not dealing with this again,” she said through clenched teeth.
She stepped back and reached around her helmet to the gun. It had a hefty weight which felt good in her hands. She pulled back the charger and the gun hummed to life. The gentle buzz was a welcome change from the silence of the jungle.
She waited until the gun clicked, letting her know that it was fully charged. She took aim at the wall of leaves and pulled the trigger. A blast of red energy shot out of the end and careened through the air. It hit the wall of foliage and kept going for another fifty metres.
The ball was half the height of Nova and twice as wide. It burst through rows of trees and left glowing pieces of branches and vines in its wake. The embers burnt along the foliage to create a hole just smaller than a door for Nova to walk through. She stepped into the tunnel created by the blast of energy and smiled.
The energy blast sizzled out and Nova strolled through the burnt remains of the green wall. She grinned at the burning vines and charred leaves. How’d the forest like her now? She made a mental note to thank Gus for the gun when she next saw him.
She kept her gun in hand, ready to blast away at the foliage once she reached the place where the last energy ball had run out. But when she got to the end of the burning tunnel she found that the leaves were suddenly less dense. The branches pulled away from her path, twisted almost, and the twigs and sticks stopped dragging at her clothes. She walked with relative ease, as if the forest were afraid of her.
She reached the place where they’d been attacked by the plant. Muddled footprints mixed with broken branches littered the ground. The orange plant was gone, but Nova kept her gun in hand just in case. She picked up the trail a few metres away, now just one set of footprints and drag marks.
Nova heard the threat before she saw it. A mighty crunching, snapping sound echoed between the trees, creating a stark contrast to the silence of the forest. She whipped around and held the large gun out in front. She didn’t have to look far.
Lumbering between the trees came seven orange plants with jug-like bodies. They scurried between the trees with ease, their tentacle vines waving through the air. They closed in on her like a pack of hunting wolves, any hint of caution cast aside.
She turned in a tight circle but there was no easy way out.
“Just remember, you attacked me,” she said, pulling the trigger.
The big gun in her arms pulsed with every blast of energy she fired. She aimed carefully and took her time with each shot. A gun of that power couldn’t fire many rounds at once and she wanted to conserve shots wherever possible. Her arms vibrated with the recoil but it didn’t throw off her aim.
The first red blast sliced through the trees and blasted into the centre of one orange creature. The jug exploded in a shower of charred plant material and orange chunks. The creature quivered and folded in on itself. The vines fell out of the air and lay about the ground in a tangled mess. The remaining plants closed ranks and blocked the newly-opened exit.
Nova turned to the second creature. She had a limited amount of time; the plants at her back would be closing in, and it would only be a matter of seconds before one of the damned vines wrapped itself around her ankles. She fired off a second shot.
The plant caught fire and the column of flames caught some of the surrounding trees. Thick smoke filled the air.
Nova squinted through her helmet but the green leaves created a thick haze which was almost impossible to see through.
The attacking plants didn’t require sight to find her. Their well evolved sensors detected her movements and they closed in on her. She strained her ears for their advance but noise echoed from all directions.
“A little help, Cal!”
“I can only see what you see!” he yelled back.
Nova clenched her teeth and fired blindly into the smoke.
The ball of energy shot off through the smoke, creating a hazy glow across the whole scene. For a brief moment it lit up the bodies of the plants as it streamed past. Then it blasted into a nearby tree which caught fire and added to the smoke screen.
“Grishnak,” Nova cursed. Another shot wasted and more smoke to contend with.
She turned in a blind circle, searching for the violent plants. The smoke blocked everything, including the trail of footprints, leaving her in a swirling noxious cloud.
She took a deep breath and gripped the gun tighter.
A vine shot out of the smoke, headed for her face. She dropped to her knees and the vine sailed over her head. A second vine lashed out, forcing her to roll to her left, the suit crinkling beneath her and collecting leaves.
The vines stopped, poised above her. Their tiny sensor hairs waved back and forth through the air, searching.
She fired into the smoke at the retreating vines. The red blast lit up the smoke and plummeted into the centre of an orange creature. The vines fell out of the air, collapsing to the ground with solid thuds all around her.
Nova rolled to her feet as vines shot out of the smoke and tried to hold her down. She narrowed her eyes at the smoke, after finding one thing to be grateful for: the plants didn’t change their attack, each using the same mindless method of thrusting out its vines and therefore giving away its position. She supposed there was only so much intelligence a single plant could possess.
She darted around a lashing vine, pulled the gun to her shoulder, and fired into the smoke. Without pausing, she dashed behind a thick tree trunk, avoiding another slashing vine.
A dull thud echoed through the trees as another one bit the dust.
She dashed between the smoke, taking cover behind trees and firing at receding vines, until orange bodies littered the ground and only one set of vines remained. The red glow of the fire lit the scene as it spread between the trees.
The vines shot out of the dark smoke and wacked Nova’s upper body. She tucked her head away and took the brunt of the blow on her shoulder. The impact sent a shot of pain through her arm, making her fingers clench. She stumbled out of the way of a second hit, wincing as her shoulder brushed against a nearby tree.
The vines slammed through other trees and branches without slowing. She winced as she imagined what it would feel like if one smacked her face.
Heat raced up her back from the wall of flames and sweat dripped down her face to pool against her suit. Her lungs pumped like a worn bellows, gasping for air as her exhausted muscles pushed her to dart around the trees and stay away from both the fire and the murderous final plant. She blinked the sweat out of her eyes and stared into the smoke.
Two dark silhouettes loomed out of the smog.
She dove to the left, avoiding a burning shrub, and the vines sailed overhead. She landed hard on top of the gun, the air knocked out of her. She groaned as she pulled the gun out from under her ribs and levelled the barrel where the vines disappeared out of sight. She took a steadying breath and pulled the trigger.
The spherical bolt of red energy sailed through the air, twisting and turning as tiny electric fields danced through it. The smoke lit up in a bright tunnel until the blast of energy exploded into the orange flesh of the last remaining plant. It exploded, sending bits of waxy orange flesh into the air. They thumped to the ground with wet slaps and the jungle returned to silence, except for the crackling hiss of the growing fire.
Nova pushed herself to her feet and stumbled away from the flames. There was nothing she could do; they had already grown too big to be put out with anything she had. The best she could do was hope that the green leaves proved too much of a challenge and the fire sizzled itself out.
“Cal, what kind of fire defence does the complex have?” Nova asked.
“Standard,” Cal replied. “The metal casing can withstand temperatures hotter than any forest fire is going to make.”
“Good. Probably best to put the external video feeds onto some kind of repeated relay though. The last thing we need is that powder keg of a situation exploding because someone thought they were going to burn alive.”
“Aye, aye, boss,” Cal replied.
“Thank you,” said Nova.
“And boss?” Cal asked.
Nova smiled and shook her head before taking up the beaten trail once again.
The footsteps went on and on. How one person could have travelled so far dragging a body and still make it back to the complex in time for Nova to notice the wet footprints baffled her.
“They could have antigravs,” she reasoned with herself. That would have made carrying the body easier. But still, it was a long way to walk so quickly, and without being eaten by some of the wild plants, not to mention they wouldn’t have left a trail in the dirt.
She shrugged. When she worked out who had taken the President then she could ask them how they did it. Of course that was assuming that at the end of the gruelling journey, she would find the President. Doubt gnawed at her insides, suggesting that the trek into the forest was nothing but a waste of time.
If she got back to the complex only to find that the President was performing some kind of publicity stunt like his son suggested, then she would certainly have something to say. Charging President Feders for her overtime was only the start of it.
“Then again…” Nova said, coming to a complete stop.
She reached a small clearing where the trees pulled back just enough to reveal a patch of ground. Spread out over that patch of ground was a body, or rather, half a body.
The President’s head was still recognisable but the rest of him was a mangled mess. His clothes, or what was left of them, lay in tattered rags, just strips of fabric across his exposed flesh. His left leg ended at the thigh with bloody pieces of torn tendon, while red welts covered his right leg. It looked as if a giant octopus had gotten hold of him, because the sores followed the shape of a tentacle.
She thought of the vine-tentacles that had so recently attacked her, and shivered.
A huge portion of his torso had been eaten away. Ribs poked out from beneath the flesh, bright white against the blood-stained darkness of the rest of the corpse. For a planet made entirely of plants, they certainly knew how to kill.
Nova knelt by the body and rested her helmeted head against her hand. Her stomach clenched tight as she wondered how much longer she would have had before there was nothing left of the President’s body. She’d already seen multiple creatures that could have swallowed him whole. The fact that he’d only been partially chewed was a blessing.
President Feders’s face was twisted in a grimace of pain, his mouth curled at the corner. Nova frowned. A tan line on his finger showed where a wedding ring should have been. She couldn’t make out much more than that from his mangled body.
She frowned at the missing jewellery. No one would be foolish enough to drag him all the way out into the forest just to take a few pieces of gold. It was either the worst cover-up attempt that she’d ever seen, or there was something else going on.
She stepped closer to initiate the antigravs.
The ground around her erupted.
Small vines, the width of her fingers shot out of a nearby shrub and wrapped themselves around Geron’s arms and remaining leg. The vines twirled around until they had him in a tight knot and dragged him across the dirt towards the shrub.
“Oh no, you don’t,” Nova said.
She pulled the gun back over her shoulder and took aim. Geron’s leg was already covered by the leaves. A few more moments and the rest of him would disappear.
The red blast set the shrub on fire and very nearly burnt the President’s body to a crisp. She darted in and grabbed hold of his arm. She pulled with full force, her teeth clenched as she heaved. His body came out from under the shrub as the vines recoiled from the flames and slunk back into the undergrowth.
“What the—” Nova said as she stepped over Geron’s ruined body.
Something glinted under the nearby shrubs. On a planet populated completely by plants, something glinting was something worth paying attention to.
She leaned in closer and with a cautious hand brushed aside the leaves; her white gloves shielding her from any poisonous barbs. She held her breath, afraid that she would find another body tucked beneath the leaves. What would that mean to the investigation?
When the foliage parted she did find another body. Rather than a human corpse, she was faced with the silver sheen of a robot.
“Cal, do you get any recognition on this one?” she asked.
“That is the only robot of that type registered in the dome; otherwise we would have sent them to find the President. It’s a manual labourbot patented to Terraform Incorporated.”
“Why the hell is it out here with the President’s body?”
“Unknown,” Cal replied.
Nova rolled her eyes and grabbed hold of the robot’s head. No lights came to life on the robot’s body, nor were there any noise from its processors. For whatever reason, it had powered down. She pulled it out of the trees so that it lay next to the President. The two of them looked almost at peace, or at least they would if half of the President’s body wasn’t missing and his face wasn’t twisted in agony.
She knelt down by the robot and pried open the front panel to reveal the circuitry beneath. The fuel gauge hovered at zero, practically impossible for a modern robot that could run on almost anything, including sunlight.
She turned the robot over and pulled off the back panel to the fuel storage cells. Where the solar panel should have been, lay a collection of broken wires. Someone had ripped the solar panel straight off.
Lower down where the liquid fuel was stored pooled a sticky mess. Something had punctured the fuel canister and created a hole through which all the fuel had drained. It was a wonder the robot had made it this far from the complex on the backup fuel supplies.
“Someone sabotaged it,” Nova said.
“It looks like the circuits have been fried too,” Cal said.
He was right. Some of the inner circuitry was burnt away.
“What would it do?” Nova asked. She could have sat there and analysed the inner workings of the robot herself but the last thing she wanted to do was spend extra time in the dark jungle surrounded by killer plants.
“It’s mostly the command circuitry. My guess is that whoever did it, made it so they could point the robot in a direction, tell it to walk, and it would keep going until it ran out of power. Its higher intelligence has been removed as well as its survival instincts. It’s basically been returned to the state of last century’s machines.”
“So they kill the President, give him to the robot, and send the robot on its way into the jungle?”
“Yes, it explains why the footprints were in the storage bay so quickly. The perpetrator would only have had to go outside for a few minutes to put the robot on its way. On the outside there are no return footprints to follow because the robot that made the prints is still out there.”
“Of course,” said Nova. “Our list of suspects is just as long as ever because we can’t assume they were missing for hours.”
“Exactly,” said Cal.
“Great.” Nova snatched the antigravs from her bag. “I think we’ve taken all we can from here. I’ll cart them both back and we’ll continue our investigations there. I want to get the hell out of this damned forest.”
She attached the antigravs to the robot and hauled Geron’s remains on top of its body. The metal lumps whirred into life, lifting the robot, and Geron, a few inches from the ground. She threw the rope around the robots arms and recreated her simple harness, slipping her arms through the loops. The soft tug of the bodies sent a new shot of pain through her injured shoulder, but she gritted her teeth and kept moving.
“You’re going to have to skirt around,” Cal said into her ear. “Thanks to the low oxygen levels, the fire you started is burning out, but you’ll have to go around it.”
“No problem,” said Nova.
She adjusted her course. It would mean she’d take longer to get back to the dome, but after all the strain of getting to the President, a part of her didn’t want to go back. It was all very well to trek through a plant-riddled jungle to find a body, but trying to solve a murder investigation with the likes of Zorka on board was another thing entirely. The last thing Nova felt like doing was hanging up her holster and talking to those closest to the President.
If only there was a way to solve the investigation using brute force. Of course, she was fairly certain she could get the truth out of most of the complex if she was left to her own devices, but no doubt the Confederacy would have some problems with her methods.
Thoughts of the Confederacy made her stomach clench. Jack’s words still haunted her mind, running in circles like a broken record. If what he said was true, and she didn’t doubt it, then she and Aart had a much bigger problem than they’d initially thought.
She glanced over her shoulder at the President. Had he participated in cannibalistic rituals? If he had, then he probably deserved his fate in the end. She tried to reconcile the polite and charismatic man she’d seen talking at the ceremony with a cannibalistic savage. It was impossible, and yet he wouldn’t be the first one. It was even harder to try and reconcile that image with the dead corpse dragging along behind her.
It took her the rest of the day to get Geron’s body within sight of the complex. By then the sun was setting and the trees cast long shadows. The jungle grew dark and if she had taken even half an hour longer, she was sure she’d have been plunged into total darkness. The trip back had been relatively uneventful. Either the plants had decided she wasn’t worth the effort and slunk back into the darkness of the trees, or they were avoiding the fire.
“Thank goodness,” said Jimmy when the airlock opened and Nova stepped in.
“Not quite,” she said, gesturing to the corpse dragging along behind her.
“Oh my –” Jimmy clapped a hand over his mouth, turning away from the body. He gagged and his body convulsed, colour dropping away from his face.
“Why don’t you take five?” Nova asked kindly.
Jimmy nodded, not daring to speak as he hurried away from the President’s remains.
“I guess that solves one question,” Cal said, hovering to Nova’s side.
“Yep. We need to get the medbot in here right away. Try to keep it on the quiet.”
“Affirmative. Also the fire choked out about an hour ago, it won’t reach anywhere near the complex,” said Cal.
“Good. That’s one less thing to worry about.”
Cal hovered over to the nearest complex-wide communication booth and spoke with the local medbot. He had only just backed away from the booth when the barricaded door burst open. The silent shipping bay was suddenly filled with shouting and stomping feet.
“Jimmy! Five minutes is up,” Nova hollered, pulling out her gun. She was still wearing most of her suit, except her helmet, which was lying on the ground by her side.
Jimmy jumped into action. With the help of the other Hunters he managed to shut the door and stop more people pouring in. The crowd outside yelled and cursed, but they couldn’t get past without the risk of being shot.
Nova surveyed the small group that had managed to gain entry. She let out a sigh of relief when she saw that Zorka wasn’t among them.
The group surged forward towards Geron’s body, pushing against each other. Some screamed when they saw him, while others fell to the ground.
Nova rushed to the front, holding out her hands and blocking the body. “Stay back! This is evidence in the investigation. Anyone who tampers with evidence will be arrested!”
The crowd shuffled to a halt, looking up at Nova through bloodshot eyes.
“Cal! How the hell did these people know that I’d brought him in?”
“We deserved to know!” wailed Geron’s wife, Meaghan. “At least the medbot had the decency to tell us.”
Nova’s jaw tensed. The medbot. So much for medical confidentiality.
Geron’s body lay on the floor of the landing bay. The suit that had been so crisp and cleanly pressed when they’d last seen him, was now ripped and tattered. Half of his body was missing, torn away or eaten, and scratches covered every exposed inch of his remaining skin, the red marks glowing in the harsh light.
Nova stood over Geron’s body and stared down at it. This was the last thing she’d expected for Drigoon’s opening ceremony. It was supposed to be a simple mission, but now things were complicated. It was only with the threat of the jungle behind her that she could really think about what his death would mean. Not just for the terraforming industry, but also for her. She’d agreed to solve the case and now she was obligated to see it through.
The security guard, Bruce, took in the scene with a single sweep of his gaze. “What have you done?” He took a giant step towards her.
“Back off, Bruce. I didn’t kill your President,” Nova said, her feet firmly planted.
“It sure as hell looks like it,” Bruce said, waving his hand at the corpse by her feet.
Nova rolled her eyes and folded her arms across her chest, staring at the brute standing before her. In a quiet tone she said, “In case you were asleep for the last two days, I’ve been out trekking through that pain-in-the-ass jungle trying to find your President’s body. I did not suddenly get caught red handed with him.”
Meaghan stepped forward from her place behind Bruce, her face deathly pale. Her heeled shoes clicked on the metal flooring as she pushed past the security guard. The noise stopped as Meaghan froze in place; her eyes locked with horror on Geron’s corpse. Her hand flew to her open mouth as she collapsed to her knees beside Geron’s body.
She reached for his face.
“Whoa!” Nova said, snatching Meaghan’s wrist and holding it away from the corpse. “No touching. It’s evidence.”
“He’s my husband!” Meaghan wailed.
Nova didn’t let go. “I’m sorry for your loss, but I can’t let you touch the body.”
Meaghan glared at Nova, her eyes flashing, as she whipped her wrist away and crawled on her knees a few feet away.
Dustin Feders stood just behind Meaghan, but unlike her, Geron’s son was much more restrained with his emotions. He stopped walking and stared at the body for a few moments. His face showed nothing, not even surprise.
Meaghan started weeping, her sobs echoing through the shipping bay. Dustin sauntered away from the commotion to stand in a far corner. He stared at the scene, but didn’t say a word and his facial expression didn’t change.
Perhaps most surprising of all was the response of Leon; Geron’s personal assistant. The thin man wore a bright yellow suit and his red beard was trimmed with precision. As soon as he entered the room a wail escaped his lips. He ran to Geron’s body and knelt on the opposite side to Meaghan. His hand hovered above the corpse before he blinked and stepped away from the body. He pulled a piece of cloth from his pocket and wept into it as he watched the scene unfold.
As each person came forward Nova took careful note of their reactions; the way they looked at the body and the rest of the room, whether they tried to touch him. What if someone close to the President had wanted him dead?
“Do you have an alibi?” Bruce said over the raucous of Meaghan’s wails and Leon’s sobbing.
“Of course not, I was wondering around the dark corridors just like everyone else when he went missing,” Nova said with her arms still folded across her chest. “But I would have to be mad to voluntarily walk out into that jungle, not just once, but twice.”
“You just happened to walk out there and find the body?” Bruce asked with a sneer.
“No, actually. It’s taken me two days and a lot of trouble to track it down. I realise you must be too thick to get that through your head. But if you really need an alibi for my trek through the jungle please feel free to talk to Jack. I believe he’s currently recovering from critical injuries sustained whilst we were out there.” Nova thrust her hand towards Jimmy. “Or you can talk to him, seeing as he’s been bravely guarding the door while I was gone.”
At Nova’s gesture everyone in the room turned to look at the young Hunter who stepped away from them until his back pressed against the shipping bay door. His eyes bounced from person to person as if looking for an escape route, but of course there wasn’t one.
“You saw her bring in the body?” Bruce asked, stepping towards the Hunter.
The young man nodded. A squeak escaped from between his lips.
“So she’s managed to scare you into vouching for her? Or did you kill him yourself, you little runt!” Bruce took another step forward and grabbed hold of Jimmy’s shirt.
At first Jimmy nodded, and then realizing his mistake, shook his head violently from side to side.
“Did you or didn’t you?” Bruce yelled.
“He was like this when- when she brought him in,” Jimmy whispered.
Bruce shoved the boy back against the wall. “He’s so scared he’d jump out into the plants if he had a chance. No way this pip-squeak did it. Which brings us back to you.”
“Look, Bruce,” Nova said. “We don’t have to answer to you. We’re external security, remember? We’ve established that I found the body outside. Now if you’d get out of my bloody way I’d like to start a real investigation, so I can get off of this damned planet.”
“You can do whatever the hell you want, but I find it very convenient that you walk out into the jungle and manage to find him. As far as I’m concerned, you’re suspect number one.”
Meaghan looked up at Nova with red eyes. “You- you did this?” she said, barely a whisper.
“No,” Nova said.
“Why would you kill poor Geron?” the woman asked, continuing as if Nova hadn’t spoken.
“I didn’t kill the President!” Nova yelled and the room fell silent. Even Leon’s sobs subsided.
“Bring in that blabber-mouth of a medbot to get the real cause of death. Unlike you people, I want to find the real killer,” Nova said, glaring at each of them in turn.
Right on cue a small red robot rolled into the room. It had a bright light on the top of its body that flashed as it moved along. The creature came up to Nova’s knees, but moved extremely fast.
The robot went to Geron’s side and a beam of light traced up and down what remained of the body. Beeps and whirs emanated from the robot as it carried out its diagnosis. The rest of the room remained silent; a kind of mutual agreement of respect for the recently departed.
After the lights the robot extended a small metal arm from its side. The end of the arm was tipped with a sharp scalpel that the robot used to scrape up a piece of Geron’s skin. The precious sample was taken back inside the robot where more noises accompanied its analysis.
“Medbot 337 of Drigoon reporting that Geron Feders, also known as President Feders, is dead as of this moment. The suspected cause of death is poison; specifically from a plant native to Drigoon. Further analysis will require additional time. The body will be taken for a complete autopsy.”
A stretcher shot out of the side of the medbot and with practiced ease it scooped Geron up and zoomed out the door, leaving the silent humans to digest its announcement.
“He’s gone. He’s really gone,” Meaghan whispered with a bent head and troubled eyes.
“Who had access to the planet’s surface?” Nova asked.
“All the security have access,” Meaghan said, voice shaking.
“And a lot of the serving staff and maintenance staff,” Leon spoke up from his position by the wall.
“The old fool probably walked straight out there himself,” Dustin’s dry voice cut through the room.
Nova’s eyes snapped up to stare at the younger man.
“Is that true?” she asked. “Would the President have had access to the surface?”
“Of course he does, he has top level clearance,” Bruce said, his tone terse.
“It could have been an accident?” Meaghan said.
“No,” Nova replied. “There was a robot with his body. It had been tampered with. This wasn’t some accident.” Her eyes moved back and forth as she thought over Geron’s disappearance. She looked around the room from face to face but only doubtful glances met her gaze.
“President Feders knew this dome better than anyone. He could have navigated it blind-folded. He wouldn’t walk out accidentally,” Bruce said.
“Maybe on purpose though,” again Dustin’s voice was like a hard rock banging against the metal walls of the room. It was so lacking in emotion that it made Nova’s skin crawl.
“You’re suggesting it was suicide?” she asked with her brows raised.
“Maybe,” Dustin shrugged. “Or maybe he thought he was immune to the poison. He’s always been a crazy bastard.”
“Dustin! How dare you speak of your father that way!” Meaghan glared at Dustin.
“Oh c’mon Meaghan, don’t tell me you haven’t thought the same thing a hundred times,” Dustin said, stomping away. He pushed past Jimmy and the barricade and left the shipping bay.
Nova watched him go with widened eyes.
“Alright,” Nova said, making a decision. “As per Geron’s will, and as the most senior member of the external team, I’m in charge of this investigation. As such—”
“No way. You’re suspect number one. Me and the other members of Geron’s security will take this.”
“Wrong. As his personal security you and your men are excluded from this investigation. Geron’s will is very clear, not to mention that under interplanetary law, suspicious deaths of heads of state are to be investigated by an external third party. That would be me.”
Nova stared hard at Bruce, daring him to question her authority. There was nothing the large man could say. She was right. If Geron’s personal security tried to wrest control from her they would be breaching interplanetary law, and the final wish of the planet’s President. Such a crime would mean instant death.
When silence met her statement, Nova allowed herself a sigh of relief. “Good. I want this entire dome to stay locked down - no one comes or goes. I want all exits manned by at least one of your people and one of mine at all times.” She looked pointedly at Bruce.
“As you command.” Bruce sneered and bowed towards Nova before pushing his way out of the room.
“I’m going to require statements from all of you, and probably from the other guests as well. I would suggest you go and get some rest and try to remember just where you were when Geron went missing.”
Nova’s tone was firm. The more she considered the situation the more she doubted it was some kind of freak accident.
The rest of the tired bodies shuffled out of the room one by one, each casting a glance first at the blood smeared across the floor and then to Nova. Meaghan was the last to leave. She stayed kneeling on the floor long after the others had gone.
“Mrs Feders, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to move along. This is now a crime scene and quite frankly you’ve contaminated it enough as it is,” Nova said.
Meaghan cast a spiteful glare up at Nova, but got to her feet all the same. The woman turned and stalked out of the room. For the moment her grief outweighed her indignation.
Nova clicked the comm-device at her waist. “I need three Hunters in the shipping bay straight away. We’ve got a crime scene to scour.”
Nova looked in on what was left of Geron’s body. Medbots whirred around it, slicing through his abdomen and removing his organs. She sighed and her breath fogged up the glass.
“Cal, I’m going to need your help. Meet me in room 720.”
Nova trudged away from the med-bay and its sterile white lights, back through the twisting corridors. She knew where she was going; it was almost as if she’d spent her whole life in the dome, rather than just the last few days.
She arrived at room 720 at almost the same time as Cal. The door slid open when she pressed the green button to reveal the simple room beyond. According to the maps, room 720 was an unused office and it certainly fit the description.
The empty room contained a single desk and chair that sat in the very centre. Three undecorated metal walls surrounded the desk, while the fourth wall was taken up almost entirely with a glass window that overlooked Drigoon.
The desk and chair faced out of the window, the back to the door.
Nova shook her head at the arrangement and marched to the chair, lifted it into the air, and hoisted it to the other side of the desk so that it faced the door. She scowled at the large window but there was nothing she could do about that now.
She tossed her satchel into the far corner of the room and took a seat at the desk. Closing her eyes, she rubbed her temples, reflecting on how it had come to this.
“Cal, get me Tanguin,” she said, her face serious.
In just a few seconds Cal projected a video display onto the wall beside the door. Tanguin’s face filled the display.
“What’s up?” Tanguin asked. “You’ve looked better.”
Nova rolled her eyes.
“So?” Tanguin asked.
Her straight black hair reflected the glow of her computer screen as she gazed out with her pale eyes. As usual, Tanguin wore a simple black singlet with dark trousers that contrasted her white, almost translucent, skin.
Unlike most first generation Un-Connected, who had succumbed to depression, she’d picked herself up from the sudden sting of reality and left Xenon. She’d travelled away from her crumbling home-world and fallen into life at The Jagged Maw. Her computer skills made her instantly valuable and she settled in like she’d always belonged.
“This place has been buzzing with what happened on that- um… artefact hunt,” Tanguin said, her eyes not blinking.
“Yeah, I know. Tanguin, I need you to run some searches for me. This is important,” Nova cut straight to the point, her hard eyes conveying exactly what they needed to.
“Are you in trouble?” Tanguin asked, sitting up straighter.
“No. Well… not yet. Not anymore. Not right now. But I might be if I don’t get to the bottom of this straight away.”
“Just tell me what to do,” Tanguin said, leaning closer to the screen.
“This is completely off the record. You never heard it and you won’t mention it to anyone.” Nova stared intently at the screen, watching Tanguin’s face.
“Cross my heart,” Tanguin replied.
“President Feders is dead,” Nova said with finality. “It looks like murder.”
Tanguin’s eyes widened. President Feders was well known in Hunter circles for his terraforming and planet exploration.
“Poison plant, but that’s all we know.”
“Bloody hell.” Tanguin shook her head and leant back in her chair.
“Yeah, tell me about it. But look, the security guy here has got it in his head that I did it. I’ve taken control for now but I better come up with another suspect soon.”
“You could just leave..?”
“I kind of, sort of, agreed to take the lead when I heard there was a monetary reward.”
“But that was before I knew how bloody complicated it was going to be.”
“Alright. What do you want me to do from here?”
“I want his complete history. Emails, bank accounts, Cloud history – everything.”
“Shouldn’t be too hard,” Tanguin said. “What will you do?”
“Do it the old fashioned way; interview the possible suspects.”
“Do you have any idea who it might be?” Tanguin’s face lit up with curiosity.
“Conveniently all the video feeds have been fried. I’ve got no record of what happened, hence the old-fashioned interview method. The son seems to have a chip off his shoulder. He certainly didn’t seem worried about his old man.”
“No way! You think the President’s own son killed him?”
“Anything’s possible, but I’ve got to get to work. Call me as soon as you have that history,” Nova said.
“Right on it.” Tanguin’s video feed went blank.
Nova sighed again; this was going to be a very long night.
“Cal, layout a projector sheet for me.”
Cal’s projector swivelled around to point at Nova’s desk and a white square covered the surface.
Nova looked at the blank space for a while. Her mind raced over the last two days, connecting dots and reviewing everything she’d seen and heard. She forced her mind to go back and recover every tiny insignificant detail of every moment since landing on Drigoon. She pointed to one corner of the page.
“President Feders is found murdered.”
An image of the President, smiling and very much alive, appeared on the white screen beneath her finger.
She tapped her finger again and beside the happy picture of the President an image of his body as it was first found popped up.
“The people close to him. There’s his wife and son obviously. His PA looked pretty upset too. Obviously the security guard had a lot to do with him.”
Nova tapped a different area of the desk as she said each name and an image of the person in question flickered into view.
“Then of course there’s any enemies he might have.” An empty black box with the word ‘enemies’ written across it lit the screen. “At least that’s limited to the people who are actually here in the dome. That should make the list a lot shorter.”
She leaned back in her chair and looked at the projected images. The President came into contact with so many people; her list contained only those who were closest to him and already there were far more names than she would have liked for any investigation.
“Time-point zero is when the President walked on stage.”
The time stamp 0:00 appeared at the top centre of the screen with the text ‘on-stage’.
“Ten minutes later the power went out.”
The screen responded to her words and put in a second time stamp at 0:10.
“There’s panic and confusion and then approximately seven minutes later I get the call on my comm-device that Jack’s rounded up the family. A few hours later we find the wet footprints and turn our investigation to the outside. I bring the body in to the shipping bay two hours ago.”
More time stamps appeared on the desk at Nova’s words.
“I guess we’d better get started,” she said, with resigned determination. “Keep the screen blanked out for now.”
The screen went dark. Nova pulled out her comm-device. “Send in the medbot.”
“Aye aye, captain,” Jack said, his tone mischievous as usual. He had mostly recovered from his injuries. He was still weak and would be useless in a fight, but he’d demanded to return to duty and help Nova with the investigation. She couldn’t fight it. The one thing she needed was people she could trust.
She rolled her eyes and waited. Two minutes later the medbot who had examined President Feders rolled into the room. Its small square structure was in complete opposition to Cal’s hovering sphere.
Nova studied the medbot. Of course she couldn’t read the robot’s expression but she performed the ritual none-the-less. She wasn’t naïve to robot progression; they’d come a long way and unlike their early predecessors robots had been known to lie, sometimes for understandable reasons, and sometimes for no reason at all. The ability lay in their core programming, indistinguishable from any of the other AI aspects.
Nova had no way to tell if the robot was lying to her, so she resolved to takes its words with caution.
“Medbot 337, were you the one to assess President Feders?” Nova asked. She knew well enough that this was the robot but the record had to be complete.
“Yes.” The robot’s tone was eerily human. The voice reminded Nova of a humble professional called to do their duty; just like a human doctor would sound in such a circumstance.
“What was your diagnosis for the cause of death?”
“My original diagnosis was poison, likely from the plant life of Drigoon. Further analysis has revealed that it was Cypris poisoning.”
Nova nodded, storing the name away to question Cal about later.
“Were there any other anomalies?”
“The President was covered with numerous scratches. It is likely these were caused by the Cypris plant. Parts of him were missing. They appeared to have been eaten or pulled off. This was likely a result of the other plant life of Drigoon.”
“What about before tonight? I want an entire medical history. I am authorised as per Geron’s final wishes to access any and all medical files available from the Cloud.”
The robot was silent for a few moments. Initially, Nova thought it was going to refuse her request but then the voice returned.
“Medical records indicate that the anti-psychotics found in the President’s system were prescription and he has been on them for the majority of his life.”
Nova held up her hand to stop the robot. “What anti-psychotics?”
“Were there any other substances found in the President’s body?”
“No, the Cypris poison, the feromelotane and a trace amount of alcohol.”
“Okay, go on,” Nova said. Inside, her mind raced. Anti-psychotics? So the President wasn’t so stable after all.
“The feromelotane was prescribed to prevent certain psychotic breaks. There have been many of these through the President’s life, usually involving fits of rage and erratic behaviour. On at least two occasions the President has disappeared for multiple days.”
“How many people know about this?” Nova asked.
“The medical records do not give such information. However one might infer that at least those closest to the President, and the referring physician, knew of his mental instability.”
“He could have flipped and walked outside on his own?” Nova said.
“Past medical history suggests that such erratic behaviour is possible.”
Nova let out the breath she was holding. If the President was so unstable it could have been an accident after all. Or maybe, someone close to him wanted it to look that way?
“Tell me about Cypris,” Nova requested.
“It is a plant, native to Drigoon, but also found on other planets.”
A projector extended from the medbot’s side and an image lit up the floor beside it. The projection showed a green plant-like bulb, about twenty centimetres tall, with an opening at the very top. Extending from the base of the bulb were six leg-like appendages.
Nova watched as the projected image scurried about the floor on its spindly insect-like legs. The projector shifted and a small mammalian rodent appeared on the ground near Nova’s foot, foraging. The Cypris plant ran for the rodent creature and when it was within a foot, the Cypris leant forward so that the top of its bulb pointed directly at the unwary creature.
In a movement almost too quick to follow something extended out from the top of the Cypris’s head and skewered the creature.
The medbot paused the image. Nova leant forward across her desk to get a better look at the frozen creatures. The Cypris leaned all the way forward. A barbed vine extended out from the top of its bulb to the rodent and had punctured through its skin and into the flesh below.
“The Cypris ejects its poison from these barbs when it enters the victim. The victim will die within a minute. Sooner if they are running or excited. The Cypris plant will consume as much of its prey as it can, and leave the rest for other predators.”
Nova shook her head at the deadly plant. It had almost looked cute when it was just scurrying around.
“The Cypris plant is an excellent hunter. It has the ability to detect vibrations on the ground and follow them to prey. It can run extremely quickly and is also capable of jumping large distances.”
“But this planet is covered entirely by plants; humans, and other animals can’t survive here,” Nova said, curious how such a plant could have evolved.
“True enough, although the Cypris is often known to prey on fellow plants. Additionally, there are many insect species that thrive here on Drigoon.”
Nova nodded and waited, but the medbot said no more.
“I’m afraid that is all the information I possess on Cypris and on the President.”
“Very well then. Please stand by in case I need you again. Let me know the instant you discover anything new with the President.”
“Acknowledged,” said the medbot, rolling out of the room.
“Scary plant,” Nova said.
“Indeed. During your conversation I scanned the Cloud for further information, but the medbot has told you all that is currently known,” said Cal.
“Thank you. Display the screen.”
Nova’s desk filled with the images of those closest to Geron. She placed her finger below Geron’s image. “Cypris poisoning.”
An image of a Cypris with its barbed vine fully extended appeared below Geron. Nova stared at the creature for a time.
“What if one of them broke into the dome?” she said. “What if Geron was just the first victim?”
“It’s possible although unlikely. The security shielding the dome from the rest of Drigoon is the best money can buy. Also, that would not explain the robot.”
Nova nodded, but reached for her comm-device all the same. “Jack, I want everyone to keep an eye out for a Cypris plant. I’m sending an image to your comm-devices now. I also want your people to start a sweep of the entire dome. I want every corner checked for this thing.”
“Got it,” Jack said.
Jack’s communicator clicked off, and Nova nodded to Cal to send out the image, just as they received a call from Tanguin.
“How’s the investigation?” she asked, although it had only been a little over an hour since they last spoke.
“Slowly,” Nova replied. “What have you got for me?”
“I’ve gotten hold of Geron’s emails. The rest of his data will take a bit more time to crack.”
“Excellent! Tanguin you’re a life-saver.”
“Hmm and don’t you forget it if there’s a payout for this investigation,” Tanguin said, her eyes laughing.
“Yeah, alright,” Nova said, with a grin.
Tanguin’s face disappeared.
“Anything worthwhile?” Nova turned to Cal.
“Mostly professional communications; about the planet opening ceremony,” Cal said as he scanned through the files Tanguin had sent. “There is one here which I think you should look at.”
The desk in front of Nova lit up with paragraphs of text. Her eyes ran over the words, her brows rising with each sentence.
“Did the President see this?”
“The record suggests the email was opened from his personal device, a few minutes before the President went on stage for the ceremony,” Cal replied.
Nova fell silent. The contents of the message could mean a lot for the investigation.
“President Geron hired a private investigator to look into his own wife,” Nova mused. “I wonder if he actually expected to find anything?”
“Past communication with the investigator isn’t on record. It’s possible they met in person,” Cal said.
Nova nodded, reading back over the message. Geron and Meaghan had married because she said she was pregnant. Later on, she lost the baby. According to the investigator however, Meaghan had never been pregnant; it was some kind of hoax to get her hands on Geron.
“What if he found out about the lie and it put him on edge? Then the power went out and he lost it? Had one of his episodes and walked outside where he was attacked?” Nova mused.
“It is possible that the realisation of this kind of betrayal could have led to the President having an episode, but that still wouldn’t explain the robot.”
“Maybe he took the robot with him?” Nova said. The theory sounded weak even to her ears.
“I think we must also look at another possibility. If Geron chose to leave Meaghan given the false circumstances of their marriage, any obligation he had to her would be void. She would be left with nothing. What if she would rather see him dead, than lose her fortune?” Cal said, with a surprising understanding of human emotion.
“You’re right,” Nova sighed. “It could have been his wife. The display over his body could very well have been an act. We’re going to have to interview them all.”
Meaghan came through the door of Nova’s temporary office. The woman’s eyes were red and swollen and she held a tissue to her face. Still, she walked upright with a kind of defiant dignity.
“Meaghan, thank you for coming,” Nova said, gesturing to the chair on the other side of her desk.
“I was under the impression I didn’t have a choice,” Meaghan replied, her tone stiff.
“Quite right,” Nova nodded. “My labourbot will be recording our session.”
Meaghan sniffed and gazed out the large window behind Nova where the green plant-life of Drigoon stretched out. “In civilised society we get legal representation.”
“As I’m sure you’re aware, we’re far from a civilised society out here. And this isn’t a formal Confederacy investigation; this is an external investigation on a planet that doesn’t yet have its own law enforcement personnel.”
Meaghan pursed her lips.
“Let’s get straight to it,” Nova said, changing the subject. “Where did you go when the power went out?”
Meaghan’s gaze returned to Nova. “I was ushered out by Bruce along with Geron and Dustin.”
“You were with Geron in the dark?”
“So how did he come to be outside the dome, poisoned, when you were safely ushered away by your security guard?”
Meaghan hesitated. “We got separated.”
“It was dark. There were lots of people. I could feel Bruce holding my arm, but when the lights came on Geron wasn’t there.”
“You don’t think that sounds a little convenient?”
Meaghan’s eyes flickered to Nova’s face, red flooding across her cheeks. “What are you suggesting?”
“Nothing. But at this stage, you, your security guard, and Dustin are the last people to have seen Geron alive.”
“It was dark! Bruce could only keep track of so much. Geron must have pulled away, and Dustin too. They were both gone when the lights came back.”
“Why would he do that?”
“I don’t know! Why do men do anything?”
Nova looked hard at Meaghan’s averted face. A thick layer of makeup covered most of her skin but it couldn’t hide the thin wrinkles spreading out from the corners of her mouth. A tremor wobbled her voice, and Nova was sure she wasn’t being entirely truthful, but there was only so much she could do with the information she had.
“And how would you describe your relationship with Geron?” Nova asked, changing tact.
“We have… had a very loving relationship,” Meaghan replied, glaring at Nova.
“Why did you fake a pregnancy when you were first dating Geron?” Nova asked without batting an eyelid.
Meaghan sprung to her feet and glared down at Nova, practically spitting with anger. “How dare you ask that? That you would even suggest I would—”
“We both know you did. What I want to know is why,” Nova said, holding her hand up and interrupting Meaghan’s tirade.
“This is absolutely ridiculous. You’re acting as if I’m a suspect! I loved my husband very much. Why would you want to hurt me even more? You monster!”
Nova stared at Meaghan without saying anything.
“I don’t know why you’re in charge of this investigation. Bruce should be handling this. He would be doing a much better job than you.”
“Why?” Nova asked when Meaghan ran out of breath.
Meaghan’s lips closed tight and she crossed her arms over her chest.
“Alright, let’s try something else. I want your full recount from that day, from the moment you woke up,” Nova said. She decided to leave Meaghan’s fake pregnancy alone for the moment. The truth about that would come to light soon enough.
For a few moments Meaghan continued to say nothing. The two women glared at each other across the desk.
In the end, Meaghan let out a frustrated sigh and began to talk.
“I got out of bed with Geron, just like every other morning. We packed for the trip here—”
“You stayed on your home planet the night before the ceremony?” Nova interrupted.
“Yes. Geron wanted to wait until the planet was officially opened before staying here.”
“Go on,” Nova said, waving her hand.
“It would be a lot easier if you’d stop interrupting,” Meaghan said through clenched teeth. Nova responded with silence.
“After we were packed I didn’t do much until lunch. I ate with some of my friends, the same as I do almost every week, and then I got on the transporter with Geron.”
Meaghan gazed out of the window, as if caught in a memory of her husband. “It was a short trip which we spent talking. Once we landed I went to my room to get ready for the ceremony.”
“Where was Geron at that time?” Nova asked.
Meaghan waved her hand through the air. “I don’t know where he was. Probably getting ready.”
“You had separate rooms?”
“Yes,” Meaghan glanced at Nova from behind lowered lids. “Because his business can keep him up late, we decided it would be best……”
Nova nodded and gestured for Meaghan to continue.
“After I finished unpacking I laid down for a nap. There wasn’t much else to do in this ridiculous dome. Two hours before the ceremony I woke up and got dressed. I had people doing my hair and makeup.” Meaghan patted her hair as she spoke. It was far from the immaculate state it had been in when she stood on stage.
“Geron joined me, and Dustin not long after that. We walked to the landing bay to receive some of Geron’s more valued guests before going up on stage for the ceremony.”
“You were with Geron for the whole evening?”
“Yes,” Meaghan said, thinking. “Oh, wait. No. He walked away for a little to take a call, right before his speech.”
“What about your son?” Nova asked.
“He’s not my son!” Meaghan’s voice filled with unexpected venom.
“I’m sorry. Geron’s son,” Nova said.
“That lazy brat just stood leaning against the landing bay wall until we went up on stage.”
“Where were you when the lights went out?” Nova asked, moving to the important questions.
Meaghan’s face reddened, but she refrained from an outburst. “I don’t remember that much.”
“It was only a few days ago. Do your best,” Nova replied, her tone firm.
“I was standing on stage watching Geron. He’s such a wonderful speaker… was such a wonderful speaker.” Meaghan’s voice faltered. “I was standing on stage and the lights flickered. Everything went dark, and right away someone, Bruce, was ushering me off the stage. There were people walking next to me, but I don’t know who they were. I couldn’t see a thing.”
“Was Geron with you?”
“Yes, I heard him and Dustin talking.”
“Go on,” Nova said.
“I remember tripping in the dark. I fell over, but Bruce helped me up. The other voices were gone and we didn’t make it very far before the lights came on again.”
“Did you know where to find your husband’s body?” Nova asked.
“Of course I didn’t know where to find his body! I couldn’t even believe that he was d-dead. When I heard you’d brought him inside, I ran straight to the shipping bay.” Meaghan collapsed into sobs. Nova couldn’t make out much except Geron’s name.
She tapped the desk as she waited for Meaghan’s crying to subside. When it receded to muted sniffles Nova resumed her questions.
“How did you fall?” Nova asked.
“I tripped. It was dark!” Meaghan said through gritted teeth.
“Did it hurt?” Nova asked.
“Can I see the bruises?”
Meaghan’s eyes whipped to Nova’s face and narrowed into a glare. She pulled her loose shawl closer about her shoulders.
“No you may not! It was dark and I tripped, that’s all there is to it.”
Nova’s expression was stern as she stared into Meaghan’s eyes.
“I don’t know why you’re even questioning me,” Meaghan said her voice rising higher with each word. “It’s that ingrate son of his you should be talking to.”
“Dustin?” Nova asked.
“Yes. Lazy, good for nothing.”
“You think Dustin killed his father?” Nova raised an eyebrow.
“All I know is that I didn’t do it,” Meaghan said with finality, leaning back in her chair. She folded her arms across her chest and refused to say another word.
Nova looked down at her desk, considering what the woman had told her. “Okay, you can go. Remember you’re confined to the dome, just like everyone else,” Nova said.
Meaghan stood with a huff and stalked out of the sliding metal door.
Nova sighed as Meaghan left. This was going to be a long couple of days. She took a few moments to run over the interview in her mind, and also to turn around and gaze out of the window at Drigoon.
She supposed some people might find the green planet attractive. To Nova it looked like an unruly mess. She thought she caught sight of an orange monstrosity walking through the trees, but it disappeared before she could get a proper look.
“What did you think?” Nova asked Cal when she turned back from the window.
The robot hovered to one side, unobtrusive but observant.
“Meaghan Feders seemed genuinely upset at her husband’s passing. Voice analysis revealed extreme vocal inconsistencies, but the cause of these is unknown. Systems suggest it may have been due to anger, sadness, frustration or lying.”
“Is there some way you can narrow that down?” Nova asked, staring at the robot even though there were no eyes to stare back at her.
“Having had limited interaction, I don’t have a standard register to gauge the voice patterns against. Probability suggests the inconsistencies were most likely due to her being upset.”
“What about the bruises?”
“Her reluctance to prove her bruises seems odd, but she is likely suffering some medical instability with the shock of her husband’s passing. No conclusions can be drawn from it. A brief medical scan revealed no major injuries, but then people don’t always suffer injury from falls.”
Cal’s analytical voice droned on, but the information was unhelpful. Nova rubbed her eyes. It was getting late. Her muscles still ached from her trek through the jungle and they were no closer to finding the real killer, if there even was one. How long would they let her keep the dome closed?
Nova sat back in her chair and watched as Dustin sauntered into the room, followed by two Hunters. The young man’s dark hair stood in unruly bunches, and he sneered at the guards as they marched out of the room.
“Dustin, please have a seat,” Nova said, gesturing to the chair.
Dustin sat down with a thump, the sneer remaining on his face. Nova took her time to study the boy. He was clearly the rebellious type, and just as clearly wasn’t upset by his father’s passing. She glanced at Dustin’s hands, noticing that they were smooth and unblemished; definitely the hands of a rich man’s son, not the hands of a worker.
“You know if you want to just stare at me I can give you a picture,” Dustin said as he watched Nova’s eyes move over him.
“Hmm. As much as I would love that,” Nova said. “I’m afraid we must get down to business.”
“Oh, okay let’s do it,” Dustin said, rolling his eyes. He rubbed his hands together and leaned forward in his chair.
Nova didn’t smile at his antics. He was clearly compensating or hiding something.
“How was your relationship with your father?” Nova said, cutting straight to the point.
Some of the humour in Dustin’s eyes disappeared and he pursed his lips.
“Really?” Nova asked, her gaze steady.
“We didn’t talk much,” Dustin said under his breath.
“What about your mother?”
“My mother is dead,” Dustin said, all hint of humour now gone from his voice.
“Crashed her ship into a mountain.” He glared down at the table as he spoke.
“What about your step-mother, Meaghan?”
“She’s not my mother!” Dustin’s voice cracked and for a moment the twenty-two year-old sounded much more like a seven year old.
“What is your relationship with her like?”
“The bitch hates me. What do you want me to say?” Dustin’s yelled.
“Let’s go back to the beginning. Tell me about your day, from the moment you woke up,” Nova said.
“I spent the day trapped here in this dome because of you,” Dustin said.
Nova’s gaze hardened. “Let me be more specific. Tell me about the day of the ceremony.”
“I woke up at about midday,” Dustin said with a sigh.
“On your home planet?” Nova asked.
“No, I spent the night on Tabryn.”
Nova’s stomach clenched at the mention of the desert planet. There were too many memories littering its sandy surface and she’d only recently managed to get away from it.
“And then?” Nova prompted.
“There were like a million messages from The President on my comm-device. ‘Don’t forget the ceremony’, ‘you’re expected to be at the ceremony’. Whatever. The only reason I’m even here is that the old man threatened to cut me off if I didn’t show.”
“Cut you off?” Nova asked.
“Yeah you know, no more credit for me.” Dustin rubbed his fingers together.
“He was going to stop giving you money unless you came to the ceremony?” Nova asked.
“Yep. This ceremony; that ceremony. So many blasted ceremonies!”
“So after you heard the messages what did you do?”
“Piero and I had a late breakfast and then we shuttled over here.”
“Piero June?” Nova asked. The name rang a bell in her memory, but she couldn’t put her finger on why.
“Yep. So me and Piero arrived on this lame planet. Piero went to do whatever and I headed straight to the bar.”
“What did you do there?” Nova asked.
“Drank, obviously,” Dustin said, rolling his eyes.
“Was anyone else there with you?”
“There were a couple of girls.”
“What are their names?” Nova asked.
“Like I care! I’m just hoping at least one of them is waiting in my room later.” Dustin rubbed his hands together and grinned.
Nova’s lips pressed together. “And after that?” she asked.
“The President’s chump security guys came and got me for the ceremony.”
“You went straight from the bar to the stage?”
“Yep, with the goons,” Dustin said.
“And what did you do then?”
“You were there.”
“Humour me,” Nova replied drily.
“I sat listening to dad’s lame speech and then the lights flickered.”
“What did you do when they went off?”
“I was ushered off stage with the rest of the Feders; one big happy family.”
“Do you know who was with you?”
“Judging by the size of the hand it had to be the big ugly one. Bruce.”
“And you stayed with your family until the lights came back on?”
“No way. As soon as beef cakes let go of me I split. I had a glow-ball on me.” Dustin paused to pull the small glowing ball from his pocket and held it up. “I headed straight back to the bar.”
“Weren’t you worried about the power?”
“In this trash heap? No.” Dustin sniggered at the thought. “Plus it was the perfect time to get a feel of those chicks while they couldn’t see me.”
Dustin grinned, but Nova’s expression didn’t change.
“So in the chaos and confusion you headed down for a drink?”
“And the chicks, don’t forget that in your report thing,” Dustin waved his hand towards Nova’s desk. “And then you came along and spoiled our fun.”
Nova glanced at him with one eyebrow raised. “If you mean enforcing the confinement in order to find your father, then yes.”
Dustin shrugged. “All I know is that I lost track of the girls and it’s your fault. Seems to me like you should make it up to me.”
Dustin leant closer to Nova and let his tongue slide along his lower lip. It left a trail of shiny spit. Nova ignored him, scrolling through a small screen that lit up the corner of her desk.
“I see you have a criminal history?” Nova said.
“So? Who doesn’t? I bet if you put your name in there all sorts of interesting things would come up,” Dustin countered. His eyes gleamed as he stared at her.
Nova continued to ignore him. He was right after all. “How did you come to be in the shipping bay when I brought your father’s body back?”
“I was sitting in the bar, and who do I see running past the doorway? The witch herself. I figured I’d follow her for a bit, you know have some fun, and she runs straight to the room with his corpse in it.”
“By ‘the witch’ do you mean Meaghan?” Nova asked, deliberately avoiding any mention of the word step-mother.
“Yep, that’s the one.”
“She led you to the body?”
Nova nodded and stored the information away, interesting.
“How do you feel about your father’s death?”
Dustin’s only response was a casual shrug.
“You’re not sad that your father is dead?” Nova probed.
“Why would I care? He never worried himself with me. Although I suppose it will mean more stupid ceremonies, you know, to honour him. On the bright side, now his money is free for the taking.”
Nova clenched her fist, horrified at Dustin’s tone. Then again, she had heard worse.
“I see you were recently on trial for manslaughter,” Nova said, returning to the screen in front of her.
“That is none of your business,” Dustin said, his eyes dark.
“I disagree. Surely someone who killed once is more willing to do it again?”
“I didn’t kill that guy. It was a bunch of gang stuff. I don’t want to talk about it.” Dustin turned away from Nova.
Looking at him, she decided not to push the boy any further, at least not today. He did seem pretty convinced of his own innocence, even if he wasn’t especially upset by his father’s passing.
“Alright. Don’t spend too much time in that bar, I may need to ask you more questions,” she said.
Dustin didn’t bother to reply as he slouched out of Nova’s office. His hands were deep in his pockets and his shoulders hunched. He walked with an arrogant swagger that made Nova want to grab hold of him and rip him back into the interrogation room.
“Ugh! This entire family deserves to be locked up!” she said, once the door slid shut behind Dustin.
“Unfortunately that is not an option,” Cal responded, as if she needed reminding.
“What does voice analysis say?”
“There’s obvious distress over the loss of his birth mother.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.” Nova rolled her eyes.
“And anger towards his father and step-mother. The past history of violent crimes and drug charges suggest he is not above breaking the law.”
“He definitely could have done it. I don’t think he’d be worried about the ethical implications,” Nova said.
“He has motive,” Cal replied.
“Yes, I suppose a multi-million dollar inheritance is a pretty big motive for someone like that. But why couldn’t he just wait until his father died naturally?”
“Perhaps he was concerned that the President was going to change his will; give all the money to Meaghan, for example.”
Nova’s stomach sank as she considered the possibility. What if Dustin had reason to think that Geron was going to cut him out of the will? A man like him would definitely consider murder over something like that.
But could he do it? Could Dustin really kill his own father? Who was she kidding, of course he could!
“What a frickin’ mess,” Nova said, slumping down at the bar next to Jack.
“The investigation is going well then?” Jack asked. He lifted his finger at the bartender to bring Nova a drink.
The bar was quiet. Most people were engaged in whispered conversation. It was probably some show of respect for the dead President. As much as Nova had tried to keep a lid on the situation, news travelled fast in the confined space of the complex. People were already flooding the President’s family with condolences.
Small groups of people leaned over their drinks and muttered to one another. Tension crackled through the air like electricity before a storm. People argued over who the murderer was and who they’d kill next. Nova tried to block the paranoid conversations from her mind but it was hard to stop the whispers filtering into her thoughts.
“How can they all be so crazy that any one of them could have done it?” she asked.
“It’s the curse of the rich and famous,” Jack said with a shrug and slid the drink to Nova. She seized it with a grateful nod and took a deep swallow.
“I wish they’d taken their curse somewhere else. All I wanted was a cheap, easy job; rack up a few credits and get out of here. Now I’m stuck with this cluster f--”
“Ha! If you wanted cheap and easy then you chose the wrong business,” Jack laughed.
“I’d be off this planet in the next minute if we weren’t obligated to fix this. Thanks for volunteering us, by the way.”
“All hail the Confederacy,” Jack said, lifting his glass an inch off the bar. Nova did the same and took another mouthful of her drink. The sweet drink left a pleasing burn down her throat. It was a welcome distraction from the day of interviews and sorting out lies from truth.
“Shouldn’t you be working?” Nova asked after a few moments. “I swear, whenever I see you you’re here.”
“Ah yes, but our job was to stop the worst from happening. The worst has already happened, so I figure I’m pretty much off the hook,” Jack said with a grin and another mouthful of his drink.
“Interesting logic,” Nova said, raising an eyebrow.
Jack shrugged. “It’s gotten me this far. Not to mention a certain someone dragged me into the forests of Drigoon where I was nearly eaten alive by a giant plant.”
“To clarify, we were both swallowed alive. Then I cut us out and saved your arse.”
“Not quite fast enough.” Jack swivelled away from the bar and gestured to his bandaged legs. The new skin would take a while to heal. A shadow of pain lurked in his eyes, but the alcohol was doing a good job of erasing it.
“Ah, so I see you’re well enough to start blaming me,” said Nova.
“You’re the one who went out a second time and found the body. All hail the hero Nova. I figure if I’m not going to get any credit then I might as well blame you for it.”
“Noble as always, Jack.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” he said. “At least here I get a good view.” He nodded towards the corner of the room where a young woman hugged a drink close to her bountiful chest. Her bright blonde hair glinted in the overhead lights, contrasting with her unnaturally coloured, pink eyes. There was something very sombre about the woman’s expression, but Nova dismissed it without a second glance.
“At least keep your ears open while you’re here,” Nova said, rolling her eyes and placing her empty cup on the bar before standing up. “If you hear anything let me know straight away.”
“Aye, aye, captain.”
“Do that again and I’ll have you thrown into solitary confinement for the rest of the investigation,” Nova said. He grinned at her, but didn’t dare test her word.
Nova nodded once and strode from the bar room towards Crusader and her welcoming sleeping pod.
The next morning, Nova woke with a groan. Her muscles ached from her hard slog through the jungle and her head ached with the stress of the investigation. There was so much she still didn’t know and she wouldn’t be able to leave the planet until the mystery was solved.
She rolled out of bed and made some cereal.
“Crusader, bring up the investigation board,” she said as she sat down in the pilot’s chair.
Crusader’s front screen flashed to reveal the investigation notes she had made the day before on her desk. Pictures of the President’s family looked back at her, only now she saw the mad selfishness in their eyes. Knowing what she did about his family it was much easier to believe that President Feders could have been involved in some cruel rituals in the Inner Galaxies.
“Add notes from the interviews,” Nova said.
Dot points appeared beneath Meaghan and Dustin’s photos. It wasn’t much, far from a smoking gun, or a ripe Cypris plant for that matter. Nova hoped that today would be more fruitful than the one before.
“Who is Piero June?” Nova asked once she and Cal were inside her make-shift office and the door shut behind them. Cal’s circuits whirred into action as he processed the request.
Sunrise spread over Drigoon’s landscape, and in the soft glow the plants looked far less threatening. Nova could almost imagine strolling through the trees on a relaxing walk. It only took a single glance at a moving plant to bring that daydream crashing down. She shivered and turned away from the window.
“Piero June is co-owner of Terraforming Incorporated. He and Geron have worked together for many years. They founded the company and have grown it from humble roots to the mega-corp it is today,” Cal said.
Nova looked over Piero’s file as it flashed onto her desk. “Okay, so Geron’s friend and Dustin are close. That doesn’t seem so bad.”
“Hmm, the message I have just received from Tanguin may not support that hypothesis,” Cal said. A written message appeared on the screen projected onto Nova’s desk.
She leant over the letters and let her eyes slide down the paragraph. It was short; Tanguin was always straight to the point.
“There’s been a change of structure at Geron’s company,” Nova read small pieces of the paragraph out loud.
“Geron removed Piero from a place of power. Piero would have lost everything. He owned half the company and now he’s got next to nothing.”
Her eyes widened. If Geron had somehow bumped Piero aside, then Piero would definitely feel the need for some revenge. Was this murder over money after all?
Nova re-read Tanguin’s short note twice more.
“Why is Dustin friendly with a man who no doubt hated his father?” Nova asked.
“It would appear that Dustin doesn’t much care for his father either,” Cal responded.
“I suppose that’s true.”
“There have been reports of threats to this particular terraforming project. There are many who feel this planet should have been left undisturbed.”
“You think this could have been a simple attack by activists?”
“It’s possible. There is a strong resentment towards the terraforming industry and this planet in particular was hotly contested.”
“Mostly the plant life. The activists argue that the life here is sentient and therefore shouldn’t be disturbed.”
“If it was a terrorist or activist it should be easy enough to find them. Go through the histories of every person in this dome and see if anyone has known connections with activist groups.”
“The request is being processed now.”
“What about other options? This doesn’t feel like a terrorist attack to me.”
“Meaghan seemed agitated.”
“She definitely did. She didn’t seem so much upset at her husband’s death as… annoyed?”
“There were indications of anger and frustration in her voice,” Cal agreed.
“But she has no motive. Why would she kill her husband?”
“Maybe she found him being unfaithful?”
“He was on stage giving a speech, she couldn’t have walked in on anything like that; there wasn’t time, unless it was planned well in advance.”
“Agreed. The timelines wouldn’t match.”
“Which brings us back to Dustin,” Nova said with a sigh.
“He did have motive and opportunity,” Cal said.
“But how would he have done it? He would have had to have a deadly--”
She was cut short by the door sliding open and a short, overweight man bursting into the small room. A large bald spot amongst his black hair dominated the top of his head. Faded tattoos, that looked decades old, peeked out from the arms of his shirt.
The man’s face glowed bright red and he tugged the neck of his shirt as if it sat uncomfortably on his shoulders.
Nova’s mouth hung open from the sentence she hadn’t finished and Cal’s eye swivelled around to look at the man.
“I refuse to be used as a scapegoat!” The man yelled at Nova as she sat at her desk.
Nova’s eyes flicked to Cal, the robot’s hatches were open and ready for defensive action.
“No one is being used as a scapegoat… Mr?” Nova let the question hang in the air.
The red-faced man glared at her.
“June, Piero June. And don’t pretend to me that that pathetic personal assistant didn’t come running in here to rat me out.”
“Piero, of course,” Nova said. She pondered the coincidence of him coming in just after her and Cal had been talking about him as a potential suspect.
“Whatever that man said I had nothing to do with it.”
“I assure you that Leon Statin,” Nova said, recalling the assistant’s name just in time, “has not been to see me.”
“I can’t believe that,” Piero said, a tremor of uncertainty ran through his voice.
“I haven’t spoken to him. Although rest assured I will in good time,” Nova said. “However, I would like to talk to you.”
“Oh here it is! I knew you would suspect me straight away. All because Geron ruined my name.”
“Piero, I’m going to have to ask you to calm down. I’ve been conducting interviews with everyone connected to Geron and that includes you. We can either do this calmly here or you will be subjected to a brain retrieval procedure.”
Piero bit his lip. The invasive procedure was used to sift through a person’s thoughts and memories.
“Fine,” Piero said. He thumped down into the chair opposite Nova.
“Why would people think you did it?” Nova asked, leaning forward on her desk.
“I’ve got every reason to kill that bastard and the whole world knows it. Of course, you’d suspect me first.”
“Why would you want to kill Geron Feders?”
“You know exactly why,” Piero said, his face flushing.
“I want to hear your point of view,” Nova said.
“I helped Geron build this blasted business from the ground up. When he didn’t want to get his hands dirty, guess who did the work for him? When he was getting trouble from certain people, who fixed the problem? But as soon as he was big enough he got rid of me. Just like that, cut me out of this blasted terraforming deal just before it went big. Hell, he even took away my position in the company!”
Piero’s face grew redder through his tirade. The muscles in his neck strained as he recounted his rocky past with Geron.
“But you’re still part of the terraforming company?” Nova asked.
“Yes, yes, he moved me to an honorary position, without any rights or any pay; it’s an insult plain as that.”
“Why? Why would he cut you out if you had been so loyal?”
“So he could keep the profits for himself? Damned if I know.” Piero swore under his breath. His large arms crossed over his chest.
Nova studied the man in silence. She’d read his file of course, as soon as Cal had mentioned there may be animosity between him and Geron. There wasn’t much on him, unlike Geron whose entire life was mapped out for the world to see. Piero had started life as a labourer but somehow had climbed his way up the ladder to co-owner of the terraforming business. The official report said Piero attacked Geron and had been evicted from the company.
“Why did you attack Geron some time ago?” Nova asked.
“Don’t you read the papers?” Piero asked. “I’m sure they gave plenty of reasons.”
“Yes, but I want your reason.”
“I found out he cheated me out of profits for a big deal, the bastard. He deserved to die, and don’t get me wrong, I’m happy as a sexbot that he’s dead, but I didn’t kill him!”
“If there were such bad feelings between you, why are you here?”
“If I didn’t show up to this ceremony it would be like admitting defeat,” Piero said. “Damned if I was going to let that happen. I deserved to be on that stage just as much as President Feders.”
“Was anyone else involved in Geron’s plan?”
“Damned if I know. I’ve spent months trying to find out. I bet that PA had something to do with it; it reeks of his filth.”
Nova filed the information away, she would speak to Leon soon enough.
“Tell me what you did the day of the ceremony; from when you woke up.”
“Fine, but I didn’t do it,” Piero said.
“Humour me,” Nova responded.
“I slept terribly, same as always. Started my day with a hard drink, same as always.” Piero stared at Nova as if daring her to comment on his habits. She remained silent.
“I had some business to attend to that morning, so off I went. That took most of the morning and then I swung by to pick up the ingrate, Dustin.”
“What do you think of Dustin?”
“Is that all?”
“Mostly, he’s a useless business person. The number of times I would have smacked him around the head if I didn’t need him……” Piero shook his head at the thought.
“Need him for what?” Nova asked.
Piero cocked his head to one side. His eyes stared at her as if measuring her worth, in the end he shrugged and replied.
“One day he’s going to inherit the company. When he does, I’ll be right there to take the reins, you’ll see.”
Nova nodded. “So Geron’s untimely death will help you with that?”
“Of course it would!” Piero yelled. “Which is why I was surprised you hadn’t knocked on my door with pitchforks already. I wanted the bastard dead, but damned if I was going to dirty my hands doing it.”
“Do you know anyone who might?”
“Anyone who knew him? He’s screwed over everyone who’s ever worked for him and he’s got more enemies than brain cells. That’s the truth.”
“Okay,” Nova said. “What happened after you picked up Dustin?”
“We came here. Dustin went straight to the bar of course. Mind you, I would have done the same, except that I couldn’t stand another second of the boys prattling!”
“What did you do instead?”
“I took a walk to my room, had a look around the facility. I’ve been here before of course, I still have an honorary role. Geron can’t take that away. I have to admit the team did a good job on this one. The perfect mix of original and terraforming. It kind of reminds me-”
“What did you do then?” Nova asked, cutting short Piero’s train of thought.
“It’s hard to say. I guess I wandered around to the different viewing pods. I was fuming you see, being here reminded me of that bastard’s treachery. It should have been me up on that stage. Damned if he’d scare me away from the ceremony.”
“And what about when you were at the ceremony?”
“I was standing right at the front. I wanted to be sure that that bastard, Geron, could see me plain and clear. I stared at his eyes through his entire speech and they didn’t flicker once! It’s like he didn’t even recognise me, or if he did, he didn’t care. I was hoping for a glare at least. It kind of made the whole trip not worth my while. I don’t know, maybe he did care, but was really good at hiding it.”
Nova held up her hand to stop Piero’s outpouring. “What about when the lights went out?”
“Yeah, so the lights started to flicker and then everything went dark. I can tell you it got pretty ugly down with the plebs. Although, I suppose you probably know that.” Piero chuckled, cracking his knuckles.
“There was lots of pushing, but let’s just say I know how to handle myself in a crowd.” Piero flexed his tattooed arm and winked at Nova. She ignored his gesture and waved her hand for him to continue. “I knew that the upper-class would be looked after, so I just followed Meaghan’s screaming.”
“That was easy in the dark and confusion? There was a lot of yelling.”
“Are you kidding? The woman was shrieking like a banshee. I could have followed her through a hurricane.”
Nova raised her eyebrows, but said nothing.
“So, I followed her. She carried on right until the lights came on. When the lights came back I was only one corner behind her and that brute of a security guard. He was trying to calm the hysterical woman down, and let me tell you, that took some time. Next thing I know they’re hurrying off, I followed them, just to see if I could learn anything about Geron; you know business never sleeps.”
“Did they seem to know where they were going?” Nova asked.
“You bet. They were moving so fast I lost track of them in the corridors. Then there was the announcement for everyone to return to their own rooms and so off I went.”
“You think Meaghan had something to do with Geron’s death?”
“I can see the bitch doing it. She always seems like she’s got a lot to prove. Mind you, she would have had to act pretty damn fast; I was right behind them for most of the time.”
“Did anyone see you behind Meaghan? Did Dustin notice you?” Nova asked.
“No one saw me. I don’t have an alibi if that’s what you want to know.”
“And after the announcement?”
“I went back to my room and stayed there, just like the announcement said.”
“Thank you for your time, Piero. Don’t go too far,” Nova cautioned.
“Yeah, right,” Piero said, rolling his eyes as he stood and walked from the room.
Nova watched him go.
“Well?” she asked Cal.
“Personality indicators suggest he is a blunt and straightforward man. It is likely that if he lied my systems would easily be able to detect it. However, Piero June has a strong motive for wanting Geron dead.”
“He sure does,” Nova said, rubbing her temple. “I don’t know if he did it though; it just doesn’t seem like his style.”
“What would you suggest is his style?”
“Bashed to death in a dark alley perhaps, or maybe locked in a basement in a building set for demolition. I don’t know. Something face to face; not poison.”
“Probability calculations suggest similar circumstances.”
“He definitely paints a different picture of Geron Feders to the man we’ve come to know and love,” Nova said, her tone dripping with sarcasm.
“Indeed,” Cal replied.
“If what Piero said is true, then Geron almost deserved what he got.”
“One would suggest caution with such statements, given your own suspicion in the murder,” Cal warned.
She waved her hand at him. She would get to the bottom of Geron’s death.
“I have also been in communication with the dome’s maintenance bots.”
“And?” Nova asked.
“The power outage was caused by a small explosion in the transformer room. Sabotage.”
“Probability indicators would suggest so.”
“And the Cypris plant?” Nova said, thinking of the deadly nature of the plant. It wasn’t something that someone could acquire easily.
“A deadly weapon, and painful.”
Nova threw up her hands in frustration. The more she learned of this investigation, the more it kept turning around in circles. Everyone seemed guilty, but there was no sure suspect. She clenched her jaw and stared down at the investigation notes scrawled across her desk. Piero was just one more suspect to add to the list.
Leon Statin walked into Nova’s makeshift office with his feet dragging. His puffy red eyes matched his ruffled shirt. It looked like he hadn’t slept for weeks. His tangled hair looked out of place and Nova suspected that it was usually immaculate, just like his perfectly smooth and modified skin.
The man collapsed into a chair without being asked and stared glumly at his hands where they lay folded in his lap.
“Leon, thank you for seeing me,” Nova said, not sure what to make of the man.
Leon nodded but didn’t look up.
“Leon, can you think of anyone who would want Geron dead?”
“Why would anyone want such an amazing man dead?” Leon’s voice burst from his throat.
“So you liked your boss. I don’t know why you’re this upset,” Nova said, gesturing at Leon’s tear-stained face.
“President Geron trusted me with everything. We were best friends. I knew him better than anyone, even his bitch of a wife.”
“You don’t like Meaghan?”
“She’s a lying, cheating, gold-digger. No, I don’t like her and I’ll never understand why Geron gave her so much attention. Poor, poor Geron.”
“You were Geron’s top servant? He spent most of his time with you?”
“I’m a Personal Assistant,” Leon said with emphasis. “And yes, I’m the one he trusted the most. Except for the harlot, he didn’t even speak to the other servants.”
“What harlot?” Nova asked. Beneath the table her hand gripped the armrest of her chair.
“Miss Rosemary Hines herself,” Leon said as he rolled his eyes. “Everyone knows she only got the job because she showed the interviewer her…… assets.”
Nova raised one eyebrow.
“It’s true, everyone knows. The way she prances around. She never does any work you know. But all she had to do was pout her lips and Geron did whatever she said.”
“Did Meaghan know?” Nova asked.
“That woman wouldn’t notice a brick hitting her forehead. No, I’m certain she had no idea. Of course it was up to me to make sure she never found out. As much as I hate that harlot, Meaghan’s just as bad you know. Women! If Geron had just stayed away from all of them, none of this would have happened and he’d still be here.”
Leon sobbed into a soggy piece of cloth he pulled from his pocket. His shoulders shook as he buried his face in the material and gasped for breath.
“If Meaghan found out, would it be reason enough for her to kill Geron?”
The question made Leon’s tears halt. “I suppose… if she were to ignore all the instructions I gave her, she could have walked in on them.” Leon’s eyes roved back and forth. “I bet she did! That witch! This whole mess stinks of Meaghan; she killed Geron!”
“Could she have found Geron and Rosemary together the day of the ceremony?”
“What do you mean?” Leon asked, his voice ringing with excitement and anger.
“Did they have a tryst that day?” Nova asked, leaning forward.
“My dear, they had trysts every day! Yes, right here in the dome while Meaghan was only a couple of rooms away. She could easily have walked around and found them. Oh, it all makes so much sense now!”
“Let’s not jump to conclusions.” Nova bit her lip, her stomach clenching. Infidelity was motive enough for murder. “Tell me about the day of the ceremony.”
“I woke up early as usual and brought Geron his breakfast. It was up to me to organise everything for the trip; transportation, food, staff, a nightmare really. When we got here I unpacked all of Geron’s things, hung his clothes in the closet and such. A little after that Geron came to me and asked me to arrange a meeting with Rosemary, then he walked off.”
“What time was that?” Nova asked.
“Around 3pm I’d say, a little after we landed.”
“What did you do?”
“The same thing I always do when he asks me to do something I don’t want to; I gave myself a pay rise.” A smug smile spread over Leon’s face.
“You stole from the President?”
“Oh no no no; the President trusts me completely. I'm in control of my own pay; he sees it as him not having to worry about it and of course he trusts me to pay myself fairly. In return I do, and when he asks me to go outside my job description I give myself a bonus, it's all above board.”
“Seems like you have a pretty good deal here.”
“Oh I did, I did, but now what will I do? I'll probably have to go and live in the slums of some Outer Galaxy planet!” Leon’s eyes grew large as saucers, as if the thought of his now defunct job had not yet occurred to him.
Nova very much doubted that Leon would be left stranded in the slums. No doubt he had already given himself a healthy nest egg. She kept her thoughts to herself, her face frozen in an expressionless mask.
“And after that?” she asked.
“Mostly, I just made sure everything was ready for the ceremony; food and drinks because the catering people are terrible, seating, everything. When it was time, I laid out Geron's suit and walked with him and his family to the stage. I stood just off to the side, in my rightful place.”
Nova nodded for Leon to continue, not daring to question his assumption that he deserved a place of honour in the planet-opening ceremony.
“I saw that rotten fool Piero glaring up at the President. He was staring at Geron with so much hate I thought the stage would catch on fire! I don’t know why that man has such resentment for the President. Mister Feders only ever did what he had to do, what was best for the company. Piero is just some low-life who had no right to run the company like he did.”
“Then the lights went out of course. I followed Geron's voice, but I lost it amongst the crowd. I knew where he'd head though; straight back to his second room where Rosemary was waiting.”
“She was waiting for him?”
“Mmhmmm, he was going to make up some excuse after his speech for a little bit of fun time, you know? Anyway, we all thought it was an attack, the power going out like that, so he ran straight to Rosemary. I guess to make sure she was okay, pathetic girl. Didn't quite make it though, the blood you found on the floor was right between Rosemary's room and his wife's!”
The hysteria returned to Leon’s voice.
“How do you know about the blood?” Nova said, her voice terse.
“I know everything that goes on around here,” Leon said. “The medbot answers to me so I only had to ask what was going on in the investigation.”
Nova frowned and made a note to be more careful about what she said and where.
“Meaghan and Rosemary had rooms next to each other?” Nova asked.
“Yep. Classic Geron. Especially after he found out what Meaghan had done.”
Leon’s tear-filled eyes lifted to glance at Nova.
“What’s that?” Nova said.
“I’m sure from your expression that you already know, but very well. The fake pregnancy of course.”
Nova nodded. “Did Geron confront Meaghan about the fake pregnancy before he died?”
“Who knows? He was with Rosemary for most of the time. Could see it happening though, confronting her in a rage, threatening to leave her with nothing and then, oops he’s dead.” Leon’s previous despair seemed to have been replaced with something else. There was a gleam to his eyes, a scheming.
“Do you have any more information for us?” Nova asked, sure that Leon had spilled all he was going to.
“Only that Geron should have seen this coming. I’m the only one he should have trusted. Everyone else was trying to get something; I only wanted to serve.”
Leon stood from his chair with a flourish and strode from the small metal room with his head held high.
“Well, that was… enlightening,” Nova said once Leon’s footsteps faded away and the door slid shut behind him.
Cal circled the room at a slow steady pace as his internal processers whirred into action.
“Voice analysis suggests Leon was telling the truth, although mixed emotional signals were detected,” Cal said as he passed Nova’s desk.
“I could have told you that. He’s obviously upset, but it also seemed as if he was smug, like he’d seen this coming all along.”
Cal hovered past her head on another lap of the office. “There seems to be a case of too many suspects, rather than not being able to find one.”
“Yes, and now I have someone else to talk to. Rosemary Hines,” Nova said.
“Meaghan didn’t seem to have any knowledge of the woman,” Cal said.
“Or if she did, she kept it very well hidden. Cal, I swear if you don’t stay still I’m going to strap you to the floor!”
Cal came to a halt in front of her desk. His red camera eye zoomed in on her face. “Detectors suggest you are in need of rest,” he said matter-of-factly.
Nova sighed and tapped the desk with her index finger. Cal was right. Her eyes felt covered in coarse sand and her thoughts kept chasing each other in circles. Frustration seeped into her skin. So far today she’d only managed two fruitless interviews. Maybe if she rested for a moment she’d come back and be able to crack the case.
“We’ll have a short break, but we have to get this solved before the whole dome cracks apart into riots.”
Nova was now well aware of the undercurrent of tensions that had surrounded Geron; the unhappy wife, the mistress, the unappreciated PA, the scorned business partner, and the ignored son. As she thought on it, it was almost a miracle that Geron hadn’t been killed before now.
Nova trudged out of her temporary office and locked the door. Cal trailed along behind her to the main eatery. Nova held her face down so as not to attract attention and took her small plate of food to a dark corner of the room.
She sat with her back to the wall. Many of Geron’s inner circle were here as well. Off to one side, Meaghan spoke in hushed whispers to Geron’s head of security, Bruce. Nova couldn’t make out what they were saying but it seemed important. At another table, almost as far from Meaghan as they could get were Dustin and Piero. Their heads were bent close together and Nova had no doubt they were already planning the take-over of Geron’s company, and probably Drigoon as well.
But the person who most caught Nova’s attention was a pale young woman who sat in a far corner. She was all alone and her eyes were red and swollen. The woman’s blonde hair reflected the yellow lights of the hall. She would have been pretty under normal circumstances. Now, she sat huddled under a cloud of depression. The woman’s eyes kept flicking up from her uneaten meal to the various members of Geron’s family.
“Is that?” Nova whispered to Cal.
“Rosemary Hines, according to face matching with the staff database,” Cal replied.
Nova nodded. As she stared she was taken aback to see that Rosemary’s eyes weren’t red so much from crying, but rather that the woman’s eyes were a startling pink colour. It was a common mod among younger people; to change their eye colour to something outlandish. The neon pink Rosemary wore certainly was alien-like.
With that observation, Nova surmised that the woman had other bodily-mods. Perhaps that was how she had attracted Geron’s attention?
Nova was so caught up with studying Rosemary that she didn’t notice when Bruce came up to her.
“Come to spy on us some more, hey?” the security guard asked.
“Not at all,” Nova replied. “Even I’ve got to eat.”
Bruce grunted. “Don’t get too comfortable, I’m sure an outer-planet investigation squad is on their way right now. See how well you do then.”
Nova put down her fork and turned her eyes up to gaze at the brutish man before her. “You know, Bruce, you seem so eager to blame me that if I didn’t know better I’d say you have something to hide.” Nova’s tone was pleasant but laced with an unspoken threat.
“What- No! I-” Bruce spluttered, before turning away and stalking back to Meaghan.
“I’ll see you in my office in twenty,” Nova called after his retreating back. He glared at her over his shoulder.
She turned her attention back to her food and the lone woman in the corner.
Rosemary had barely had a single bite. She was still pushing food around her plate when Nova swallowed her last mouthful.
“Stay here,” Nova said to Cal. “Monitor the conversation.”
“Acknowledged,” Cal said.
Nova walked directly to Rosemary’s table. She had already decided to use a different tact with this one. The woman was obviously fragile, no harsh words would be necessary here.
“Rosemary,” Nova said as she reached the table.
“Oh, h-hello,” Rosemary responded in a soft voice.
“May I?” Nova asked, gesturing to the seat beside Rosemary.
“Yes, of course,” Rosemary said. Her eyes darted about the room as if she might flee at any moment.
“Please don’t fear,” Nova said in the most soothing voice she could manage. “Do you know who I am?”
“You’re a bounty hunter, you’re investigating Ge- I mean, the President’s murder,” Rosemary replied, her voice shaking.
Nova nodded and smiled. “I know that you two were… close.”
Rosemary’s eyes opened wide. “Oh, please don’t tell anyone!” she begged. “If I lose my job here, I might never find work again. Poor Geron. He didn’t deserve to die; not like that.”
New tears welled in Rosemary’s eyes, making the neon pink even shinier.
“I don’t intend to tell anyone,” said Nova quietly. “I just need you to answer a few questions.”
“Of course. Anything to help find the- the monster who did this.”
Nova nodded, she would try to make it as painless as possible for the woman. It was clear she had cared for Geron very much.
“Where do you come from?” Nova asked, her sharp ears catching the foreign accent in Rosemary’s voice.
“Poilon,” Rosemary replied.
“I’ve not heard of that planet,” Nova said, nodding for Rosemary to continue.
“Oh, it’s a beautiful place!” Rosemary gushed. “It’s very similar to Drigoon actually, covered in plants. The air isn’t poisonous of course.”
Nova allowed the corners of her mouth to curve up; an encouraging smile.
“I left Poilon as a teenager, to explore. I was sick of working in my parent’s second-hand robotics shop. It turned out to be a lot harder than I expected.” Rosemary looked down at her hands and said no more.
“How did you meet Geron?” Nova asked, risking a tidal wave of tears from Rosemary, but the woman managed to hold herself together.
“The usual way. I needed work and at that point I was willing to do almost anything. So I got a job cleaning. Of course, he could have had robots do all of that but Ge- Mister Feders preferred the… personal touch.”
“How did you feel about him?” Nova asked.
“I loved him,” Rosemary said with a shrug. “At least, in my own way. He gave me everything I could want. He showered me with attention. He had his faults of course, but who doesn’t?”
“He was going to leave her, you know,” Rosemary said.
“H-his wife, he was going to leave her.”
“When?” Nova asked. Had Meaghan got wind of Geron’s impending break-up? Did that make her snap?
“About four months ago now. I guess he was just waiting for the right time.”
Rosemary stared down at her lap.
“Oh,” Nova said, understanding all too well that Geron probably never intended to break it off with his wife. Why would he if he could have the best of both worlds?
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Nova said, noticing Rosemary’s trembling lip.
Rosemary nodded. “Please don’t say anything.” The wide pink eyes pleaded with Nova as she rose from the table.
Nova nodded and walked to where Cal was waiting.
“Let’s go and meet beef-cakes,” Nova said.
Bruce stood in the corridor outside her office waiting, his big arms folded across his chest. He sneered as she came into view.
“Nice to see you again,” Nova said, unlocking the door and strolling in to sit at her desk.
Bruce sat in the other chair without being asked, arms still across his chest, his muscles bulging.
“Wasting more time as far as I can see,” he said.
Nova gritted her teeth and took a deep breath. She had almost as much as she could handle of Bruce and his accusations.
“Tell me what happened when the lights went out.”
Bruce picked between his teeth with his fingernail as he looked up at the ceiling. “Not much to say really. The lights went out. I grabbed the Feders’ and we got out of there; in case it was a terrorist attack, you know.”
“You don’t seem worried that your boss is dead. Considering you’re his head of security, I would think that would be more of a concern?”
Bruce shrugged. “Can only protect them for so long.”
“So you rush them out of the big hall. Then what?”
“I take them a little way along. The brat gives me the slip as soon as we’re out the door. Not that I care much what happens to him. I tried to keep a tighter hold on Geron but he seemed pretty determined to get away too. In fact I’m pretty certain he tripped Meaghan so that I’d let go of him.”
Nova’s eyes narrowed. “He tripped his wife in the dark, on purpose?”
Bruce grunted. “It’s not like he really cared about her.”
“But surely your job is to protect him? Meaghan would be a secondary consideration?”
Bruce’s face turned red and he leaned forward in his chair. “I’ll put Meaghan before Geron any day of the week. If that dumb pig wanted to go off on his own, then that’s his problem.”
“You seem to care a lot about Meaghan.”
Bruce’s eyes dropped to the floor and he folded his arms tighter across his chest.
“Enough maybe to get rid of her husband?”
Bruce’s eyes flew to Nova. “I told you he broke away from me! I have no idea where he went, but he wasn’t with us!”
“Right now, you and Mrs Feders are the last people to have seen Geron alive.”
“Doesn’t mean we killed him. He’s got plenty of enemies and he ran off on his own.”
Nova pursed her lips. As much as she disliked Bruce, he didn’t seem like the kind of man who could pull off an intricate murder and reprogram a robot. He seemed much more likely to have killed the President in a brawl than anything else.
“You’re free to go,” she said.
Bruce grunted and stomped out of the office without looking back.
They couldn’t leave the planet of course, they were subject to the same lock-down as everyone else but it felt good to be back in familiar territory. She had planned to go over Rosemary’s words with Cal, but as soon as Crusader’s door slid shut behind her, the full force of her exhaustion washed over her.
She managed to stumble to her sleeping pod and pull the bed down from the wall. She collapsed onto the hard mattress. No sooner had her head reached the pillow, than her eyes slid shut and she was asleep.
Cal had similarly gone straight for his charging pod, going into a semi-off sleep phase.
The next morning Nova woke stiff and tired, but there was an investigation to finish and a thought had occurred to her in the middle of the night; the solution felt within reach. By the time she got up, Cal was already fully charged and moving about Crusader’s small internal space.
She went straight to the food generator. “Muesli,” she said, her voice husky from sleep.
The machine whirred into action and in just a few seconds the door popped open to reveal a bowl of muesli, complete with enticing chunks of fruit.
Nova grabbed the bowl and sat down in her captain’s chair.
“We had a message from Tanguin last night,” Cal said.
“Apparently Geron recently changed his will. Meaghan’s not getting a cent.”
“Right before the ceremony. It looks like he had the papers ready to go, he was just waiting for proof I guess.”
“Wow. If that’s not motive…”
“What did you think of Rosemary?”
Cal floated up beside her. His red eye moved over Nova’s face as she shovelled a spoonful of cereal into her mouth.
“I have been running speech diagnostics since I reached full power.”
“The woman, Rosemary Hines, was distraught. More upset than her facial expressions revealed.”
“Of course she was upset, the man she loved has been murdered and she could very well be out of a job.”
“That could be true. However, monitoring systems suggest there may be more to her emotions.”
Nova nodded and gestured for Cal to continue.
“There were no anomalous heart rhythms to suggest she was lying. All analysers say that everything she said to you was the truth, or at least she believed it to be true.”
Once more Nova nodded, she couldn’t say anything with her mouth full of food, so instead she waved a thank you at Cal. She’d picked up the same thing from Rosemary; she was telling the truth.
Cal hovered away.
When Nova finished her muesli she set the bowl down on the command board and stood.
“Time for another day,” she said.
After showering and putting on clean clothes, Nova jumped down from Crusader feeling much refreshed. She had had quite enough of playing detective and was ready to solve this case once and for all.
She was halfway across the shipping bay floor when a heavy weight slammed into her side. She flew off her feet and landed with a crash on her side. Pain shot through her ribs. She winced as she pushed down with both hands and rolled out from under the body on top of her.
She looked at her attacker’s face and saw Jimmy, his eyes wide and lips trembling.
“Jimmy, what the hell—” Nova didn’t get to finish her sentence, because a blast of purple energy sailed over her head.
Jimmy pulled her down behind a pile of crates.
“I’ve been trying to reach you on your communicator. That woman, Zorka, has gathered a small army of disgruntled guests. They just broke a hole in the door. They’re coming in one way or another,” Jimmy said.
Nova frowned at him and took a second to look over the crates. Commotion surrounded the door where gun barrels poked through a blackened hole of sharp metal, firing shots at random. Black marks from wayward blasts dotted the landing bay walls. There was a sooty patch on the floor two metres from her, right where she’d been standing, before Jimmy slammed into her.
“You saved me,” Nova said. She felt her face colour as she looked at the skinny boy next to her. The little runt had saved her. What was the world coming to?
“It was nothing. But if we don’t do something now, they’ll be off of this planet before we know what’s happened.”
She pulled out her communicator; somehow the volume had been turned right down. That could have cost her her life. She cursed herself for being so careless that morning. It was the damned investigation. If she didn’t find the culprit soon, this planet was going to kill her.
She turned the volume up and lifted it to her face.
“Jack, I need all the men you’ve got down at the shipping bay now. Zorka’s gathered a private army and they’re coming in.”
“Damned Inner Galaxy sots,” Jack said as way of response.
“I know; just get your arse down here,” Nova said. She clicked off her communicator and looked at Jimmy. “We have to slow them down until the others get here. If they get in, they’ll go straight to the ships and we won’t be able to stop them.”
Jimmy nodded up at her. “What if we break their ships?”
“Their ships, if we break them they won’t be able to leave.”
Nova’s brow furrowed. It was a good plan, why hadn’t she thought of it? Lack of sleep and overworked mind, that’s why. Still, would it work? She was pretty sure it was an intergalactic offense to damage Confederacy ships but then again, they were breaching intergalactic law by trying to leave. The two would probably cancel each other out.
“You get the ships,” she said. “Their shields should be off seeing as they’re sitting in here. I’ll stop them coming in.”
Jimmy nodded and scurried to the nearest Confederacy ship. He grabbed a bigger gun from a nearby crate, his arms shaking under the weight, and aimed it at the main engine line. He fired and a blast of purple energy lit up the landing bay. The engine went up in a ball of flames followed by a loud boom.
Nova couldn’t stay and watch him destroy the rest. The attackers had blasted the hole in the door wider and it was nearly big enough to fit a person. She had no doubt the invaders would pour through as soon as they were able. She knelt behind a crate and levelled her gun at the door, careful to aim through the hole. The last thing she wanted to do was make it easier for them.
She squeezed her trigger and a red bolt of energy shot out and through the opening.
A single scream emanated from the other side of the door and the guns withdrew from the hole. There was commotion on the other side; raised voices argued back and forth.
Nova took the time to catch her breath. As if this damned planet hadn’t caused her enough trouble. She had the investigation to look forward to and now there were people shooting at her. If she’d wanted all this hassle she could have signed up for a better paid mission. There were tonnes of them out there if you were willing to take the risk, and walking out into the jungles of Drigoon would have topped them all.
She fired another shot through the doorway to keep the attackers on their toes. It seemed to work; no more guns appeared.
“Nova, I assume that’s you?” Zorka’s voice echoed through the broken door. Her sentence was highlighted by another boom as a second Confederacy engine exploded.
“You know it is, Zorka.”
“What are you doing to my ships?” Zorka said, her voice terse.
“Just an insurance plan. In case you got the crazy idea to leave.”
“Leave? Why would I leave?” Zorka asked.
“You tell me. You’re the one with a bunch of goons trying to break down the door.”
“I’m sure there’s been a misunderstanding.”
“I’m sure,” replied Nova. She didn’t lower her gun from the doorway. At the first sign of a new attack she’d be ready.
“I have places to be. The Pleasure District isn’t going to run itself you know.”
“I’m sure that’s true but for the moment you’re stuck here.”
“Look. I’ve been patient. But this sham of an investigation you’ve got going is a joke. It shouldn’t take this long. One simple memory retrieval and you’d have your answers.”
“I’m sure a member of the Confederacy wouldn’t suggest a forced retrieval process. Knowing how deadly it is, and how illegal.”
“Did I say retrieval?” Zorka purred. “Perhaps I should have said ‘let my people take over the investigation’. We’ll have it sorted in no time and we can all get off of this planet.”
“Thank you for the offer, but I don’t need any help.”
“Of course not. Well, it can’t be said I didn’t try. Go on.”
At her command the attack on the door resumed with twice the ferocity. Nova fired shots into the hole, but the attackers were cleverer than that. They stayed well out of the way of the hole and blasted new gaps in the thick metal. It buckled under the power of their weapons and threatened to collapse inwards at any moment.
Nova’s communicator buzzed.
“Sorry to interrupt the party, but I believe you should all be somewhere else,” Jack said. His voice echoed through the broken door from the corridor beyond, as well as through Nova’s communicator.
“Zorka. In the name of the late President Feders, I demand you and your people put down your weapons. Otherwise you will be charged with interrupting an intergalactic investigation and you will be held in contempt of the Confederacy. I’m sure you’ve sentenced enough people to know what that would mean,” Jack said, his voice quiet.
“You will all pay for this,” Zorka hissed.
“Maybe, but not today,” Jack said. “Take their weapons and escort them all back to their rooms. Take a note of their security numbers, in case there’s any more trouble.”
The sounds of guns being handed over and of dragging feet echoed from outside. Nova stood up and lowered her gun. She let out a sigh of relief. That was a close call. She glanced over her shoulder at Jimmy. He stood at attention next to a Confederacy vehicle.
“One left,” he said.
“Best leave it, maybe we can plead that it wasn’t us. The others spontaneously combusted, or were hit by their shots,” Nova said with a chuckle.
Jimmy grinned, his teeth poking out from behind his lips.
“Get some of the other Hunters to help you rebuild that door,” Nova said. “Or at least get a defendable blockade up. Then you’ve earned a night off.”
“Yes ma’am,” Jimmy said, saluting.
She smiled and headed for the door. She weaved her way through the corridors to her make-shift office with wary steps. She could easily imagine Zorka planting a trap for her. Without Nova, the investigation and the ban on travel would probably fall apart.
She stepped inside and sat down at her desk. Cal was already there.
“You missed the fireworks this morning, Cal,” Nova said.
“Crusader filled me in,” Cal said.
“I guess I could only use that as a distraction for so long,” Nova said, lifting her communicator. “Jack.”
“Yes, oh gracious commander?”
“Bring me Meaghan Feders. I want to have another chat with her.”
A few minutes later, Meaghan stormed into the room with her hands on her hips. She had obviously taken the time to groom herself since their last meeting. Her hair curled up in an immaculate bun and her makeup was precise. She wore a black dress. Nova wondered if she had been wearing it that morning or if she’d put it on especially for Nova’s sake.
“What am I doing back here?” she asked, her voice seething with anger.
“I just want to ask you a few more questions,” Nova said, gesturing towards the chair opposite her desk.
“I prefer to stand,” Meaghan replied in a terse voice.
“Suit yourself,” Nova shrugged, leaning back to regard Meaghan.
The woman looked refreshed compared to the haggard expression she’d worn at their last interview. Strength had returned to her demeanour and she stood with her feet firmly planted on the ground.
“Did Geron confront you about your faked pregnancy?” Nova asked.
Meaghan face flushed red. “We went through this before.”
“We did, but you avoided the question. At the time I let you have some space, but now I need an answer.”
Meaghan’s lower lip trembled. Nova suspected it was more from anger than sadness.
“Did Geron confront you?” Nova stared up at Meaghan, unblinking.
“Yes.” Meaghan’s reply ground out of her mouth like gravel.
“Did you worry that he was going to denounce you?”
Meaghan didn’t respond for some time. Her hard gaze remained fixed on Nova.
“The thought never occurred to me.”
“Never?” Nova raised an eyebrow and her tone made it clear exactly what she thought of Meaghan’s response.
“Maybe it should have. Did you know he cut you out of his will? You’ll get nothing,” Nova said.
“You heard me. You’ll get nothing now that he’s dead. You’re on your own. Maybe you found out about it and decided to take matters into your own hands?”
“How dare you try to pin this on me!” Meaghan’s calm exterior crumbled. “He was a lying, cheating, scumbag, but I didn’t kill him!”
“Who’d he cheat on you with?”
“What?” Meaghan’s tirade stopped short.
“You said he was a cheating scumbag.” Nova held out her hands as if it was obvious.
“It was just a- a figure of speech,” Meaghan replied. Her eyes flicked around the room.
Meaghan nodded, lips pursed.
“You know, a case as high profile as this… the truths will come out. All of them.” Nova gazed up at Meaghan with a meaningful look.
“I’ve got nothing to hide,” Meaghan said. She lifted her chin in defiance.
“Not even a security guard?” Nova asked, her voice soft.
“What exactly are you suggesting?” Meaghan replied, eyes flashing.
“I think it’s pretty clear what I’m suggesting.”
“How dare you!” Meaghan stepped toward Nova’s desk, arms outstretched.
Nova leapt to her feet. “Why did you say cheating?”
“Because of that- that commoner!” Meaghan replied.
She collapsed into the chair which was thankfully waiting just behind her.
“Commoner?” Nova asked with a softer tone, returning to her own seat.
“Rose, Rachael, whatever her name is. Can you believe he put her in the room just two doors away from mine?” Meaghan’s anger faded and she spoke in defeated tones. “Like I wouldn’t notice! He got everything he deserved--”
Meaghan’s eyes widened and her mouth snapped shut.
Nova nodded and smiled at Meaghan without saying a word. Meaghan sprung to her feet and ran from the small room as fast as she could.
“That solves that,” Nova said, shaking her head.
“What?” Cal asked, confusion in his robotic voice.
“Ah, I wouldn’t expect you to understand. Robotics haven’t quite come that far,” Nova replied with a sad smile on her face.
“You know the murderer?” Cal asked.
“Yes, but I need you to do something for me first.” Nova turned to Cal and leant close to his hovering robotic body.
Nova couldn’t do anything until Cal finished his mission, so she headed to the bar. She had hoped that Jack would be around, but instead she found Jimmy with his elbows up on the counter staring into a glass of beer. She sat down on the red stool next to him.
“How you going, hero?” she asked.
“Oh, hey,” Jimmy said, smiling at her before returning to his drink.
The corners of his mouth turned down and his usual fearful expression had been replaced with something else; sadness perhaps.
Nova waved to the barman and he brought her a glass of black liquid. It bubbled and fizzed in front of her. When she took a mouthful it burned its way down her throat. Delicious.
“What’s on your mind?” she asked.
Jimmy glanced at her out of the corner of his eye and then stared back at his glass. His shoulders slumped forward and he sighed.
“That good, huh?” Nova said. “If it helps, my time here hasn’t been that good either. You know, nearly getting eaten by a giant plant, nearly getting shot by Confederacy goons. Not my idea of an easy pay check.”
“Nah, it’s not that,” said Jimmy.
Nova didn’t say anything. She owed the kid one, but she wasn’t going to push him to release his gooey feelings. The last thing she wanted to do after playing the role of justice all day was to take on the role of councillor as well.
“Congratulations on the space-race,” Jimmy said.
“What? Oh, thank you.” She frowned and took another drink.
“You know you’re pretty much a legend. When I saw you were working this gig I nearly fell over with excitement.”
Nova snorted and nearly spit out her mouthful of drink. She managed to choke it down, her eyes burning with the fizz. “A legend? What are you talking about? You must have me confused with someone else.”
“Nova Tabryn. Born an orphan on Tabryn, lived in a small orphanage for the first decade of your life. Took up mech fighting and was the youngest person ever to win in The Pits of Tabryn. Left Tabryn at the age of eighteen; retrieved a Confederacy Decoder and was immediately accepted into The Jagged Maw; fastest promotion from runaway to Maw ever. You’ve defeated entire lecheon covens and won the latest space-race. I’m pretty sure I’ve got the right one,” Jimmy said with a grin.
Nova’s frown grew deeper. She placed her glass back onto the bar where it created a circle of condensation. “Where did you get all that?”
“The Cloud,” Jimmy said, waving his hand.
“What do you mean ‘the Cloud’?”
“I love the space-races. Always have. I always look up the winners; try to learn everything I can about them, but you were something else.”
“Look, kid, I’m really flattered that you stalked me but that stops now.”
“I didn’t stalk you, and I’m not a kid,” Jimmy said, glancing at her. “That stuff is written in your winner’s bio for the race.”
Jimmy shrugged. “I guess the guys at The Jagged Maw put it up. It’s not like I had to go digging for it.”
Nova smacked her palm to her forehead. “Why did they have to put all that up there? I don’t want everyone knowing my work.”
“It’s okay; I don’t think many people look at those bios.”
Nova took a long sip of her drink. Out of the corner of her eye she watched Jimmy. He was still bent over his glass with his shoulders hunched.
“So, what? You met your idol and I’m nothing like you imagined?”
“No.” Jimmy sighed again and shook his head. “I had just hoped to follow in your footsteps you know? I thought if I left Grod that I could do something great and join The Jagged Maw just like you.”
“You thought acting as security for a planet opening ceremony would get you into the Maw?” Nova asked, eyebrows raised.
“No,” Jimmy said. “I went to Ausrot before this job.”
“You did what?” Nova said, her mouth dropping open. Ausrot was one of the meanest planets in the Outer Galaxies. It was practically the gang headquarters for every major crime group. She’d never been there but she’d heard stories. Supposedly, if you landed there and didn’t have the right password they killed you on sight. There were supposed to be more than a million unmarked graves on Ausrot.
“Figured if I brought down one of the major bosses, then that would get me in. Or if I managed to convince them to take me on,” Jimmy said, shrugging again, not so much non-committal as utterly defeated.
“Stupid,” Nova said.
The corner of Jimmy’s mouth lifted. “And I suppose going into a lecheon coven with no backup was filled with intelligence?”
“That’s different,” Nova said. “I can look after myself.”
“It might surprise you to know that I can too.”
“Oh yeah? So how’d your trip to Ausrot go?”
“I managed to escape with my life because I gave the people who captured me my ship and every cent that I had,” Jimmy said.
“You were lucky they didn’t take your money and kill you. That’s their usual method.”
“I know. It was stupid. But that’s why I came to work this job. I need the money.”
“Welcome to the life of a bounty hunter,” Nova said. She swallowed the last mouthful of her drink and signalled the barman for a second.
“I’ve wanted to join The Jagged Maw for as long as I can remember.”
“Oh come on, I’m sure you lived in a very nice house up until the last couple of months,” Nova said. Jimmy didn’t strike her as having grown up on the streets.
Jimmy shrugged. “I’m not as easy to peg as you think. Let’s just say I’ve dreamed of The Jagged Maw for a long time. And now I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to qualify for entry. I just wish I could do something spectacular.”
Nova was quiet as she stared into the black bubbling depths of her new drink. Jimmy finished his glass and held his head in his hands.
“You don’t have to do something stupid to get into the Maw,” Nova said. “You just have to be good at something.”
“I’m not good at anything,” Jimmy said. “Except following instructions and I don’t think that will quite cut it.”
“Never underestimate the value of being able to follow,” Nova said with a small smile. “But there must be something else. You just have to find something you can do better than anybody else.”
Jimmy snorted. “It’s settled then, I’ll never make it into the Maw.”
“Nova, mission complete,” Cal said into her brain chip.
Nova sculled the rest of her drink and turned to Jimmy. “Thank you for saving my life today,” she said, clapping her hand down onto his shoulder. He nodded at her and turned to his drink with the same dejected expression.
Nova walked into the large meeting room with a solemn expression. She was pleased to see that everyone else was already there.
Meaghan sat as far away from everyone else as she could. Her eyes were wide and red and kept flicking from face to face. Her clothes which had been pristine only a few hours ago were rumpled and hung out of place.
In another corner, Dustin and Piero sat side by side. They watched the rest of the room with a kind of grim humour, as if they were enjoying the macabre show going on around them. Dustin wore the same clothes he had had on two days ago and the rings around his eyes suggested he hadn’t slept at all. Piero looked similarly exhausted, although at least he had had the forethought to put on a new shirt.
Leon sat cross-legged in a seat close to the door. His eyes were still red-rimmed and he clutched a silk handkerchief. He sniffled as Nova walked in.
She wasn’t surprised to see that Bruce had decided to stand at the back of the room, rather than take a seat among the others.
Finally her eyes passed over Rosemary, who sat alone. Her eyes were wide and almost as red as Meaghan’s. Her tiny frame sat hunched back in the chair. It was obvious she was trying to remain invisible even though everyone in the room had taken note of her and were asking themselves the same question. Who was she? All except Meaghan, who refused to even glance in Rosemary’s direction.
“Thank you all for coming,” Nova said as she stepped into the centre of the ring of chairs. “It is a sad event that brings us to this point, but we must live on.” Cal floated in behind her and hovered by the door.
“As an external point of security, I have carried out an investigation into the death of Geron Feders as an impartial third party.”
Bruce snorted at Nova’s last words.
Nova glared at him. He looked down at the dark purple carpet on which he stood.
“In my investigation I uncovered many skeletons, but there is only one guilty party. For this crime at least. Piero,” Nova said, swinging her body to face the man. At the sound of his name, all blood drained from his face and his eyes opened wide.
“Piero, you had every reason to kill Geron and to want him dead. He stole your business from you and made a mockery of your hard work. I also have the feeling that it would not be the first time you’ve killed a man.” Nova’s eyes gazed unwavering at Piero. “But you didn’t do it.”
Piero let out a sigh of relief. He wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt. His shoulders relaxed and he sat deeper into his chair.
“Dustin,” Nova turned so that she faced the dark haired youth. “You have a documented history of violence, gang affiliations and all other manner of unpleasantness.”
Nova’s eyes bored into Dustin, but unlike Piero, the boy didn’t flinch. In fact he barely batted an eyelid.
“Unfortunately, Dustin, cases like yours are just too common. You didn’t kill your father, but I can guarantee that unless you change your life and your friends, it won’t be long before you do kill someone.” Nova’s words seemed lost on Dustin whose only response was a bare shrug before he went back to studying his own fingernails.
“Leon,” Nova said. The thin man jumped at his name. His wide eyes gazed at Nova like an animal trapped unawares by bright lights.
“Y-yes,” he managed to stammer.
Everyone else stared at Geron’s personal assistant with mixtures of shock and disbelief.
“Geron never really appreciated you, did he?” Nova asked.
Leon’s eyes darted about the room before returning to Nova. “H-he was a great man.”
Leon’s evasive response made the onlooker’s eyes open wider.
“A secret part of you wanted him dead,” Nova said.
“What are you suggesting?!” Leon’s paralysis gave way to indignation and he rose to his feet.
“Hush.” Nova waved her hand. “You loved Geron too much to kill him, of course.”
Nova’s gaze roamed about the room, resting on each up-turned face in turn.
“But of course, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” Nova quoted the old-Earth saying as her eyes moved between Rosemary and Meaghan.
Rosemary wept into her hands, while Meaghan glared back at Nova, her chin jutted forward and her eyes defiant.
“I have no doubt, Meaghan, that you wanted Geron dead.” Nova stared at the bitter woman. “He cheated on you and had every reason to cut you out of his will.”
Nova allowed her words to sink in before she continued. "But… you were with Bruce the whole time. You didn’t have a chance to kill him. That leaves the other woman in his life.”
“You bitch!” Meaghan yelled, lunging across the room at Rosemary. Rosemary lifted her tear stained eyes and rested her cool gaze on Meaghan’s face.
Nova nodded to Bruce. For once he did as directed and grabbed hold of Meaghan before her claws could sink into Rosemary’s eyeballs.
“Rosemary. You waited outside of your room when the power went out, knowing that Geron would be there at any moment. You had the Cypris ready in hand; you’ve probably been growing it for some time now. You knew full well what it could do and how to handle it from your childhood on Pillion. When you saw him approaching in the dark you hurled the creature at him and then organised for his body to disappear.”
Everyone in the room stared at Rosemary with open mouths. Some of them had never even seen the woman before, let alone knew her significance to Geron.
“That’s all just assumption, but I found this in Rosemary’s room,” Nova said, holding up a small data disk. “All of the security feeds were destroyed, but it looks like she made a copy. Maybe you wanted to get caught? Why don’t we all watch it together?”
Rosemary’s eyes widened. She shook her head in silent horror.
Nova inserted the disk into Cal’s side. The labourbot projected a large screen onto one side of the room. The metal wall provided a nice backdrop for the images. The video flickered to life. It showed the view of a corridor from one of the many security cameras. It started out bright but after a few moments the lights flickered and then turned off. The corridor plunged into darkness and only the faintest of emergency lights lit the scene. After the lights went out a female figure entered the picture. Rosemary.
Rosemary crouched in a dark corner and the jar in her hands reflected the dim glow of the emergency lights. Her eyes glinted as they roved about the corridor. This part of the complex looked just like every other, silver corridors with metal doors leading off to either side. The audio feed was quiet except for the distant noise of running feet and voices.
Footsteps got closer. The steady beat thumped on the metal floor. Rosemary crouched lower into her corner. One hand loosened the lid of the jar. A new shadow moved into view of the camera, and strode to the door next to Rosemary.
She waited until the very last minute and then without warning she jumped out of the corner and tossed the jar towards the other shadow. She moved back as fast as she could.
The glass jar sailed through the air and shattered against Geron’s chest. It broke so easily that it had probably been pre-weakened. As soon as the glass fell apart the creature inside leapt out and clutched onto Geron’s shirt with its insectoid legs. It held tight and leaned backwards.
Nova tensed, she knew what was coming. The other people in the room were fixed on the screen as the horrific scene played out before them. They probably didn’t need to watch Geron die, it wasn’t vital to the investigation, but perhaps the shock of it would help snap them into reality as opposed to letting them continue to float around in their individual dreamlands.
The Cypris plant leaned backwards and then thrust forwards. The long vine extended out of its bulbous body and jabbed into Geron’s neck.
Geron grunted and clutched his throat. His knees collapsed and he fell to the ground in a heap. The Cypris plant remained attached to him throughout the fall. After that it retracted its deadly weapon and turned to the other person, Rosemary.
Through the scene, Rosemary’s face had gone from cool calm, to shock, to despair. She made choking noises in the back of her throat. There wasn’t much of her face visible, but her eyes shone with tears.
The Cypris plant took one look at her and scurried across the metal floor, its legs tapping. It got to within one metre of the woman and then stopped, leaned back, and prepared for another deadly attack.
Rosemary shook herself out of her daze and thrust her hand into a deep pocket. She withdrew her fist and tossed a handful of shiny specks. The specks floated through the air and landed on the Cypris plant.
At the first contact the plant stopped moving. It relaxed. The legs collapsed underneath it and it lay still. Even the bulb lowered to rest on the floor.
Rosemary withdrew a new jar and scooped the Cypris plant up inside it, before tucking the jar into her pocket. Using her sleeve she swept the broken glass into a bag, and returned her attention to Geron. She rushed to his side and clutched his still hand. She choked back sobs of grief and looked around the corridor. The sound of approaching voices filled the security feed.
She sucked in a deep breath and grabbed hold of Geron’s wrists. She backed away from the corner and dragged him up the corridor, disappearing out of sight of the camera and leaving behind just a few drops of blood.
“I’m sure if we had the other videos, we would see Rosemary in the shipping bay with Geron’s body,” Nova said. “Of course, your experience working in your parent’s robotics shop meant you knew what to do with the labourbot, so it would carry Geron deep into the forest. You probably know how to engineer an explosion to create a power-outage as well. Of course, you probably hoped that a plant would devour his body before anyone found him; then there’d be no evidence. You were nearly right too, there wouldn’t have been much left of him, if I’d left it another day to go out and look.”
Fresh tears poured down Rosemary’s face. She sobbed and buried her hands deep into the folds of her dress.
“The one thing I don’t know,” Nova said over the sudden uproar, “is why?”
Voices shouted across the room but most of all the room rang with the sounds of curses pouring out of Meaghan’s mouth. Nova suspected she wasn’t upset so much at Geron’s death, but at the loss of income which his death presented.
“Was it because he still hadn’t left his wife?” Nova asked. The whole situation puzzled her. Why would Rosemary, who seemed to love Geron so much, want to kill him? Was it simply out of jealousy?
“I-I- I thought it was you!” Rosemary yelled, springing to her feet and pointing a shaky finger at Meaghan.
The yelling in the room became even louder and a red rage descended over Meaghan’s expression. Nova watched as the woman’s face reddened. She wrenched herself free of Bruce’s grip and lunged across the room towards Rosemary. Just as her hands were about to close over the woman’s throat, Rosemary collapsed to the ground.
Nova rushed to her side and spread her arms wide to prevent anyone from approaching the still body. Sure enough, a few moments later a green plant squirmed its way out from under Rosemary’s corpse.
Nova lifted her foot and stomped down on the creature with her thick boots. There was an audible splat and when she lifted her foot the green leaves were smeared across the floor in a pool of sap.
“Don’t get any closer,” Nova warned as she wiped her boot on a section of carpet. “The sap is deadly.”
Silence descended over the room. It was clear from the squished plant that Rosemary had poisoned herself just as she had Geron.
Nova shook her head at the loss of life she’d witnessed in her time on Drigoon.
Those gathered resumed their muttering and cries of indignation, but Nova took a step back from Rosemary’s body and set her mouth in a firm line. If she never saw another plant it would be too soon. What a damned waste. Rosemary had seemed nice enough, just misguided in her affections. It was an ugly mess and Nova couldn’t wait to be free of it.
“There’s your mystery solved,” Nova said.
“That little bitch has ruined me!” Meaghan said. “What am I supposed to do now? Geron removed me from his will! I have nothing!”
“Rosemary had nothing to do with that,” Nova said. “Geron changed it after finding out about your little lie. You know the saddest part is, I think he really cared about you, in his own way.”
Dustin and Piero nodded to each other and walked out of the room.
“I’ve done my job. I’m not hanging around to do clean-up as well,” Nova said.
Without waiting for a reply she turned and strode from the room. Cal floated along right behind her.
“Jack, mystery solved. We can release the lock-down. I assume I can leave it to you to do an official hand-over to the Confederacy forces when they arrive? I really don’t want to see them right now.”
“No problem,” Jack said. “It’s been good to see you.”
“Yeah, you too. Stop by the Maw if you get sick of the cushy jobs.”
“I might just do that,” Jack said with a chuckle.
“Listen Tim, I know he’s green, but I’ve seen him in action. When it actually counts, he’s got it covered,” Nova said.
She sat on one of the long benches in The Jagged Maw. The cafeteria was empty for the moment. It was late at night and the Hunters had better things to do than sit around here. Nova had a picture of Jimmy on the table in front of her.
“But he’s got no experience. We don’t even know where he comes from,” said Tom.
“And we’ve got a reputation to keep,” said Tim. “If we started taking on every wandering newbie then we’d be the laughing stock of the Hunter guilds.”
“This one is different,” Nova said. “And besides, you took me on when I had no experience.”
“You were different,” said Tom. “You took on a Confederacy warship. If that doesn’t prove someone’s worthy then I don’t know what does.”
“I’ll vouch for him,” Nova said. She gazed at the two men with a serious expression. They looked so similar, they could have been brothers, if they weren’t lovers.
“You’d do that for this kid?” Tim asked, his eyebrow arched.
“I think he’s got what it takes,” Nova said with a shrug. It was true, there was almost no one she would put her arse on the line for, but she owed Jimmy. If she did this, then they would be even.
“You’ll take him under your wing, show him the ropes? And if he cracks you’ll take him out?”
“He won’t crack,” Nova said.
“And if he does something bad,” Tim said, ignoring Nova’s words. “You’ll cover for him? You know that could mean getting tossed out?”
“We’d be sad to see you go,” said Tom. “Especially after you brought in the space-race trophy for us.”
“Just look at this as you guys paying me back for winning the race,” Nova said. “He’s good. You’ll thank me in a few years.”
“I’ll tell you what. He does something good and we’ll let him in. We’re lowering the bar for him. This is a one-time thing, just for you.”
“Mediocre it is,” Nova said with a smile.
“Alright, you’ve got yourself a deal. But remember, it comes down on you.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ve got it.” Nova got to her feet. She grinned at the two men and sauntered out of the hall.
Now all she had to do was get Jimmy into order. She suspected it would still be some time before he made the cut, but at least this way he had a chance. It was a chance many other newbie Hunters would give their right arms for. He would be happy and she was glad to be free of the debt she felt she owed him. Giving a newbie like him a shot at The Jagged Maw was well worth saving her life.
She walked to her room and called Jimmy. He almost burst into tears. She explained it wasn’t a guarantee and that he still had a lot of work to do, but when he was ready they’d take him on.
“Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”
“Yeah, yeah, we’re even now,” said Nova, cancelling the connection.
No sooner had Jimmy’s face disappeared from the screen, than someone was knocking furiously at her door.
“Nova, it’s me,” Tanguin’s voice filtered through the thick door.
“Come in,” Nova called.
The door slid open and Tanguin almost fell through it.
“We’ve got a problem,” Tanguin said.
Nova groaned and fell back onto her bed. Her body and brain were crying out for rest. What now?
“Aart’s gone again,” Tanguin said.
“You can’t be serious.”
“Yep. At least this time he had the courtesy to tell me.”
“Where’s he gone this time?”
“Same as before; he’s off to find recruits.”
Nova’s eyes widened. She waved Tanguin into silence. She looked around her room for the spies she was sure lurked around every corner after speaking with Jack.
“It’s okay,” Tanguin said. “I swept both of our rooms. They’re clean now.”
“Now?” Nova asked.
Tanguin shrugged. “Who would have thought the Confederacy powers could reach all the way inside The Jagged Maw?”
“Grishnak,” Nova said.
“Yep. Anyway, he’s gone to Glod to hunt down some more support. I think he’s really serious. He’s planning a revolution.”
“He’s mad,” said Nova.
“That’s what I told him.”
“I needed to talk to him, tell him some things,” Nova said. She’d only just got back to The Jagged Maw, hadn’t even had a chance to see Aart and now he was off again. He needed to know what Jack had told her. “I have to go after him.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Tanguin asked. “If the Confederacy managed to bug our rooms here then they almost definitely know what Aart’s up to. He’ll be a target.”
“Even more reason for me to go after him. He has no idea what kind of trouble he’s in.”
“I’ll come with you.”
“I’ll come with you. We’ll make an outing of it. The Confederacy will be watching all of Aart’s friends. You’ll be a suspect and we don’t want to give them any more reason to haul you in. We’ll make a holiday of it, make a real show and then look for Aart and talk to him when we can.”
“You’re right,” said Nova.
“Good. Glod, here we come!” Tanguin said, with feigned excitement.
Nova’s Journey Continues…
Guns blaze and people die in a covert battle for survival when unknown assassins attack The Jagged Maw
Nova clings to life, drugged and alone on an outer planet, while the hidden enemy will stop at nothing. They strike like wolves in the dark, picking off bounty hunters until everything comes to a head in a chilling confrontation.
Her friends are dying and she doesn’t know why.
Find out in Book Six: Junkie
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Find all of Saffron's Books At:
The Lost Child Saga - An Epic Fantasy Series
The Nova Chronicles
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Saffron Bryant was born on the 17th December 1990 in a small town in North Queensland. In 2010 she was diagnosed with a brain tumour. After extensive, life-saving surgery she returned to her home in Queensland to recover and finish The Fallen Star. She received a Bachelor of Biomedical Science in 2011.
Saffron has been interested in fantasy and science fiction writing from a very young age, writing her first story at the age of seven. She has always been fascinated by fantasy stories and has a passion for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Saffron currently lives in Sydney with her partner Michael Lee where she is completing her PhD in chemistry.
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